Diving into flying, Part 2 — the Bahamas

In the last issue, I addressed how many pilots are also SCUBA enthusiasts, and how flying to dive destinations can satisfy both interests in one trip. I also mentioned that I would soon be returning to the Bahamas to try out a new destination, once I figured out where that would be. The excellent response I received from that column only enforced my belief of the flying-diving connection.

My wife and I decided that we would return to the Bahamas in April during Easter week. This would be our second trip over the water in our Cardinal RG, so we were by no means “experts” at this. However, our experiences from the first Bahamas trip last year combined with some modifications this time, made for another excellent trip.

Our first trip to the Bahamas by small plane last year was to Walkers Cay. The reason for that tiny island north of Freeport was specific. We had to go there and there wasn’t much point in researching any other destinations. But this time was different. We did have a choice and more research was in order.

I obtained a copy of the 2002 Bahamas & Caribbean Pilot’s Guide. This 6-by-9 inch, by one-inch thick book was delivered on time and is an excellent resource manual for flying anywhere in the Caribbean. John and Betty Obradovich are the publishers and through email correspondence when I was ordering the book, also provided me with some very helpful information regarding my pending trip. This book is packed with so much helpful stuff that I could write a whole story on just what’s in it. The bottom line is that if you’re serious about flying in the Caribbean or Bahamas … buy the book.

We decided to go to Green Turtle Cay, which is located just east of Treasure Cay, which is on Great Abaco Island. The Great Abacos are the next chain you come to after Grand Bahama Island if you are flying directly east. Understand that this was a series of decisions based on all the pieces coming together. A dive operator where I live suggested I try Abaco. Then I consulted the above-mentioned pilot’s guide to check out airports there and liked what I saw about Treasure Cay. Then I researched hotels and dive operators near the airport to see what was available. The book contained discount coupons, one of them being for 20% off at the Treasure Cay Hotel (plus a free drink for the pilot). However, we had decided to book another hotel right on Green Turtle Cay (who also gave us a discount for arriving by private plane), which was right next to the dive operator we selected.

Preparation for this trip was as extensive as last years. Yeah, I know that it’s the Bahamas and it’s not like I’m crossing over to Europe. But still, water is water and it’s still smart to have a risk management plan. What we did the same this time is how we prepared for the over water leg. FARs do not require any floatation gear if we’re not flying for hire or in a turbine aircraft. But Bahamas regulations (and common sense) do.

My wife and I decided last year that we would be doing enough over water flying over the next few years to justify buying our own life vests rather than renting them each trip. I also prepared my own small “ditch kit” that had items necessary for water survival such as signaling devices, water, first aid items, rope, VHF radio and spare floatation. It’s all in a small profile backpack that floats on it’s own and is easy to manage, important when trying to escape from a sinking airplane.

Our U.S. exit and entry point would again be Fort Pierce, Fla. The distance and flying time from our Salisbury, N.C. home base is just right for our plane’s endurance. Also the FBO there, Fort Pierce Air Center is well known for its customer service and it is well equipped for Bahamas travelers. It has all the gear you need for rent, as well as any publications required.

The flight planning was made extra easy through my using the Bahamas and Caribbean Pilot’s Guide. This book is loaded with actual photos of the runways and all the information you could ever want about each airport. Where it helped me was that even though Treasure Cay is served by multiple airlines and has it’s own customs right there, I was warned that there are no tiedowns for small aircraft, only anchors for your own ropes. Another point was that even though the Bahamas Airport Facilities directory indicated that avgas was available there, the Pilot’s Guide said no to avgas … and they were right. Fuel is a critical issue in the Bahamas and I had a two-fold plan. Plan A was that since my RG has enough endurance, even at 75% cruise power to go from Fort Pierce to Treasure Cay Airport and back and still have over two hours fuel remaining, I would just handle the trip that way.

Plan B was that the Marsh Harbour Airport was close enough that if I thought fuel was critical after landing in Treasure Cay, I’d fill out the proper documentation with customs so I could cruise down there for fuel. Freeport was also on my route back home and could be another option. If you’re planning on flying to the Bahamas, make extra sure you have your fuel plan figured out.

I filed IFR both ways, even though the weather was nice. And I also cruised high (for an RG); 11,000 feet going there and 10,000 feet coming back. I wanted the ATC handling of IFR and I wanted the extra glide time from altitude in case of an engine failure. I also prepared a ditching checklist and assigned certain tasks to my wife and myself. The tasks were in priority fashion, with the lower priority items to be done only if altitude and time permitted. I also routed our flight so as to go directly towards Freeport first, then to Treasure Cay, (and the same for the return) which shortened the length of our over water leg, but only added a few minutes to the total trip. I also suspected (and ultimately confirmed) that from the south Florida coast to Freeport is a pretty popular boat route and I don’t think there was one time we didn’t see a boat within gliding distance of our position. That’s probably why the engine never went into “automatic rough” once we were out of gliding distance from land.

Everything went exactly as planned. The Treasure Cay Airport was exactly as described in the guide, along with everything else. Customs officials in both the Bahamas and U.S. were very polite and accommodating. Overall our fly-dive trip was a complete success.

One final note, my wife and I met this nice couple and their son, who lived in Georgia and were on the same dive boat as we were in the Bahamas. During one of the many conversations, the gentleman revealed his long-term desire to learn to fly. I cranked up the encouragement to get started soon. Long story, short – he has now begun his flight training and I am his AOPA pilot mentor. No disputing that “fly-dive” connection.

gmaher@southern-aviator.com

Guy R. Maher is a regular columnist in The Southern Aviator. He has been actively involved in aircraft sales and type-specific training since 1972. With more than 12,000 hours in general aviation airplanes and helicopters, he currently flies an IFR EMS helicopter, is an FAA Aviation Safety Counselor, and provides consultation and testimony on operational and safety issues for legal proceedings.

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