By: Phil Lightstone, Richmond Hill, ON
Our pilot licences open a world of opportunity aka the Freedom to Fly. Obtaining my Private Pilot Licence (PPL) in 1994 and joining the Buttonville Flying Club (COPA Flight 44) opened a new world of destinations, people and experiences. With handheld GPS navigators just emerging, I invested in a Garmin GPS 92. Complete with a worldwide aviation database, this small handheld helped me navigate from Toronto (CYKZ) to the Bahamas and explore the islands.
Leaving Ontario in the early spring, with temperatures hovering around the freezing point in Toronto, the thought of lying on a beach surrounded with turquoise blue water was enticing. My first long cross country required roughly 2,370 nm to complete (there and back). Before the days of the Internet, the multi-leg cross country required a lot of preplanning, telephone calls and leveraging the experience of the local pilots from the Buttonville Flying Club (COPA Flight 44). Part of the experience was attending a few planning social meetings. Early in my aviation career, before Electronic Flight Bags (EFB) like ForeFlight and Garmin Pilot, paper charts, airport guides like Flight Guide by Airguide Publications, Bahamas and Caribbean Pilots Guide and Flying to the Bahamas information packet (Banyan Air Services at KFXE), were indispensable to getting to the Bahamas and discovering the islands. The various Bahamian government forms had to be completed in triplicate making carbon paper an indispensable tool.
Fast forward to 2024, flying to the Bahamas is even easier with access to on-line resources and in cockpit technologies like GPS, ForeFlight or Garmin Pilot. Do not be daunted by the distance, just consider the journey a series of shorter cross-country flights. As a VFR pilot, I was never in a hurry, after all, getting stuck in Nassau with IFR weather in Florida, was not a problem.
Accommodation, restaurants and fuel costs are much more than the US mainland. You can expect to pay as much as $9.00 USD (or more) for avgas. With the distances between the US mainland and the Bahamas being relatively short, you might consider departing Florida with full fuel. Fuel at Pompano Beach Airpark (KPMP) is $5.61 USD. Tony Davis, vacationed in Long Island at the Kahari resort in early January 2024, spending $700 USD per night for the room. Tony reports, “in January 2024, we landed at Exuma International Airport (MYEF) and stayed at Kahari (www.KahariResort.com) on Stocking Island, experiencing one of the best beaches in the Bahamas which we had all to ourselves.”
Departing Canada, flight planning begins selecting a US airport of entry to clear US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). There are two trains of thought: clear at the closest airport of entry to your Canadian departure airport; or clear deeper in the US enabling a longer first leg. My first Rockwell Commander was a 112TCA, equipped with 68 gals and using 10 gph. That gave me roughly 5 hours with reserves. Flight planning at 135 TAS, I could easily make Greensboro NC (KGSO) in 4 hours (depending on upper winds).
Fast forward to 2024, we have the added burden of the Electronic Advanced Passenger Information System (eAPIS) (www.eapis.cbp.dhs.gov/eapis/auth). A Notice of Arrival must be completed in the eAPIS system prior to calling the US Airport of Entry CBP folks to obtain landing rights. Critical to navigating CBP is to ensure that the data entered is correct. A member of our flying club had a typo in his eAPIS filing (F instead of G for his aircraft registration). A month after his trip, he received a notice of enforcement from CBP including a $3,000 USD fine. PRO TIP: Apps like FlashPass from LoboLabs (www.FlashPass.net) will create, modify and upload eAPIS Notices of Arrival and Departure to CBP.
Once you are in Florida, you need to select a jumping off point. I have used: Treasure Coast Int in Fort Pierce (KFPR); Lantana (KLNA); Fort Lauderdale Executive (KFXE); Miami-Opa Locka Executive (KOPF); and Key West Int (KEYW). From a Fixed Base Operator (FBO) perspective, my personal favorite is Banyan Air Service in KFXE (www.BanyanAir.com). Banyan was founded in 1979 by Don Campion (a Canadian) who continues to be engaged in the day-to-day activities of the FBO. Banyan has a complete Flying to the Bahamas kit packed with charts, information and Bahamian forms.
Flying to the Bahamas has a few simple requirements: file an eAPIS US Notice of Departure; file an international flight plan; present three copies of the C7A Bahamas Cruising Permit form to Bahamian Customs; present one Bahamas Immigration Card per person; proof of citizenship such as a passport; clearance from last port if not arriving from the US; and pay a Bahamian Customs processing fee of $50 USD per aircraft.
There is no VFR night flying in the Bahamas. So, plan your inbound and outbound flights accordingly. With the typical heat and humidity, flying early in the morning is a great way to be comfortable in the cockpit. There could be long distances flying over water. While you can island hop, the first leg from the continental US could exceed the gliding distance of a piston aircraft. Wearing life jackets and having an inflatable life raft is a must in single engine aircraft and certainly advisable in twin engine aircraft. Jackets and rafts can be rented from FBOs like Banyan, but I prefer to own my life jackets. Typical Mae West lifejackets are hot. Consider suspender style jackets from companies like Mustang, Revere and for technical standards orders (TSO’d) compliant vests checkout Switlik (TSO-c13F). You might also consider a Portable Location Device (PLD) like a Spot or Garmin enReach.
Most airports in the Bahamas, except for Nassau and Freeport, are uncontrolled, using the common traffic advisory frequency (CTAF) of 122.8 MHz, left hand circuits and a pattern altitude of 1,000 (ASL). Fuel can be an issue in the Bahamas, especially 100LL avgas, so call the airport before arriving. Once in the Bahamas, the distances between islands are relatively short. If you find that the airport does not have fuel or the accommodation is not to your liking, you can simply fly to another island.
Jim Parker of Caribbean Flying Adventures (www.caribbeanflyingadventures.com) reports, “there are over 25,000 GA flights annually to the Bahamas with over 55 airports of which 20 are airports of entry. There are a few, like the 2,150 ft limestone strip at Cape Santa Maria on Long Island, which only the old and bold pilots, like me, should ever consider and even then, only a small high wing aircraft with no wheel fairings.”
Flying around the Bahamas opens a panacea of destinations and activities. One of my favorites is Staniel Cay (MYES) and the Thunderball Grotto, where the underwater fight scene in the James Bond Thunderball movie was filmed. I was standing in the bar in the marina at Staniel Cay, having a cocktail, looked up and saw a photograph of Sean Connery standing at the same bar having a drink. Only in the Bahamas. The next day, our flying club rented a zodiac and boated to the Thunderball Grotto and Beach. Snorkeling into the Grotto required some underwater swimming as the entrance is below sea level. Once inside, I could easily stand on the bottom with my head out of the water. It was quite the adventure, especially reliving some of the Thunderball scenes.
Norman’s Cay (MYEN), in the Exumas, is another favorite spot with a 4,700’ x 80’ asphalt runway and a few hangars. The runway was built by Carlos Ledher, an infamous member of the Medellin Cartel. On the west side of the runway is a small resort consisting of cottages and a small open-air restaurant bar called McDuff’s (www.normanscay.com). McDuff’s is the original bed and breakfast and club, with a rustic atmosphere that makes every guest feel as if they have been visiting for years. In recent years, the island has been redeveloped with new dining and lodging. With electricity provided by a diesel generator, the proprietors use a chainsaw engine powered blender to make cocktails when the power is out. On the east side of the runway is a path which will take you to Carlos’s concrete home. On the north end of the island is a splashed Curtiss C46 aircraft sitting in shallow water, perfect to explore while snorkeling or scuba diving. Sitting on the resort’s beach, a CND registered Lake Buccaneer amphibian landed and beached itself. A couple of younger folks jumped out and told me that they had just dropped in for lunch. Norman’s Cay is renowned for their hamburgers. A few minutes later, a US Blackhawk helicopter dropped in, about 10 feet of the deck and 20 feet of the beach, looking at us. As we did not look like a threat or smugglers, the Blackhawk carried on with its patrol.
Returning home begins a little differently than crossing the border from Canada into the US. The US CBP, DEA and other law enforcement agencies are spring loaded looking for drug smugglers. This is one trip, where you absolutely want to do things right, beginning with leaving any contraband in the Islands.
Departing the Bahamas requires: one copy of The Bahamas Customs General Declaration Outward Form (C7); turn in The Bahamas Immigration card copy; file an international flight plan; submit an eAPIS Notice of Arrival; call and advise US Customs of your estimated time of arrival; receive an email from US Customs confirming landing rights; pay a departure tax for all persons six years and older of $29 USD. During your flight: contact Nassau Radio on 124.2 MHz once airborne to open your flight plan; contact Miami Center to get a squawk code; once entering the Air Defense Zone (ADZ) you may be provided with a new squawk code; request flight following with Centre (VFR flights); and you may be provided with the appropriate frequency hand offs as you approach your US destination airport. Once on the ground, you will be required to taxi to the CBP apron (a red box). Different CBP offices work differently, e.g. at KFXE, they will have you deplane and walk into their air-conditioned office, while at KSUA, they will meet you at your aircraft. Pro Tip: when you call CBP to arrange landing rights, ask the agent what the process and procedures are.
Telephone and Internet communications on the out islands could be challenging but not an issue in Nassau or Freeport. Some islands are connected using radio technology (as opposed to oceanic fiber cables). You might want to make your eAPIS and Customs arrangements for your return flight before you leave the US. A great way to acclimatize to the process is a day trip to Bimini (MYBS). My son and I did this a few times, launching out of Lantana to enjoy a Bahamian lunch and the beach in Bimini. A great resource site can be found at www.bahamas.com/getting-here/private-aviation/pilot-faqs which includes links to the Bahamian customs forms, VFR Flight Planning Guide, Pet Permit Application and others.
Most US and Canadian mobility providers will roam on the Bahamian network, but daily roaming fees can get expensive and you may experience slower-than-normal connections. The best option is to use an internet data plan with a smartphone through one of the two local providers (Bahamas Telecommunications Company or Aliv) or Wi-Fi at the resort or marina. Data speeds are 4G LTE, rivaling what will be found in the US. Their offices can be found in most of the major islands. If you have an unlocked international phone, you can purchase prepaid phone cards for local use.
The Freedom of Flight opens a panacea of experiences through exploring the Bahamas and the Caribbean. For the average Canadian pilot, most of the flights are over land with a small amount of the trip over open water. But the experiences, new friends and access to areas of the Bahamas where most tourists avoid, are well worth the risk of open water flight.