Owner’s Handbook: Bahamas 101

A few months ago, my column addressed pilots as SCUBA enthusiasts, and the subject of combining flying with dive destinations. The excellent response I received from that column only enforced my belief in the flying-diving connection.

I mentioned that I would soon be returning to the Bahamas to try out a new destination, once my wife and I figured out where that would be. Our first trip to the Bahamas by small plane last year was to Walkers Cay, a tiny island north of Freeport.

This time, we nailed down the date first, deciding to go in April during Easter week. It would be our second trip over the water in our Cardinal RG, so we were by no means “experts” at this. But, we knew our experiences from the first Bahamas trip would help us make modifications to ensure an excellent trip.

To help in the search for a destination, I obtained a copy of the 2002 Bahamas & Caribbean Pilot’s Guide. ($49.95, Pilot Publishing, Inc., 800-521-2120, PilotPub.com) This 6-by-9-by-1-inch book was delivered on time and proved 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 helpful information regarding my pending trip. This book is packed with so much stuff I could write a whole column on just what’s in it. Anyway, the bottom line is that if you’re serious about flying in the Caribbean or Bahamas … buy the book.

Based on our research, 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 percent 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 year’s. Yes, 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 smart to have a risk management plan.

FAR’s do not require any floatation gear provided you are 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 in 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 its own and is easy to manage, which is 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. The shop has all the gear you need for rent, as well as any publications required.

Fight planning was made extra easy by using the Bahamas and Caribbean Pilot’s Guide, which is loaded with actual photos of the runways and all the information you could ever want about each airport.

For example, it pointed out that even though Treasure Cay is served by multiple airlines and has it’s own customs station, I was warned that there are no tiedowns for small aircraft, only anchors for ropes you bring along. Another case in point was that even though the Bahamas Airport Facilities directory indicated avgas was available, the Pilot’s Guide said it wasn’t … and the book was right.

Fuel is a critical issue in the Bahamas and I had a two-fold plan. Plan A was to rely on my RG’s endurance, which at 75 percent cruise power would take us from Fort Pierce to Treasure Cay Airport and back and still have over two hours fuel remaining.

Plan B was to use nearby Marsh Harbour Airport if I thought fuel was critical after landing in Treasure Cay. I’d filled 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.

I filed IFR flight plans both ways, even though the weather was nice. 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 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.

Guy R. Maher is a business owner and aircraft appraiser with more than 12,000 hours in general aviation airplanes and helicopters. He is an independent buyer’s agent and flight instructor for type specific initial and recurrent training. He can be contacted through the above e-mail address, or by calling 704-287-3475.

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