Exploring the Bahamas by Plane

The Bahamas are amazing and we recently spend 10 days flying our SR22T across the islands. It’s a great way to explore the archipelago as a private plane allows you to access many small islands that are otherwise difficult to reach. It was awesome, and below a write-up which I hope is helpful for anyone wanting to do the same. Photos of the trip are online here.

Chub Cay International Airport, Bahamas

The west coast of Florida is the usual jump-off point to get to the Bahamas. First step is flying the plane from California to Miami. Main criteria for route selection in winter is icing and the route I took was again along the Mexican border (see route here). It requires about two days and fuels stops in Arizona, Texas and Louisiana.

For flying over water, we took inflatable life vests as well as a life raft. They can either be bought or rented. You also need everything that is required for international flying (AOPA has a good guide here). Tie-down ropes and chocks are a must for the Bahamas as many airports don’t have tie-downs.

Getting to the Bahamas

If you are worried about flying over water with a single engine airplane, you will have preciously little time to do so as the entire flight from Miami to the first island of the Bahamas (Bimini) only takes 15 minutes. The Uber to Miami Executive Airport (KTMB) took longer. We flew to Nassau which is about an hour. We filed our IFR flight plan and eAPIS two days before and received both clearances almost immediately. Routing was simple and after a few handoffs from Miami Approach to Miami Radio to Nassau Approach we were cleared for the visual approach into Nassau (MYNN). Landing was with a 10-14 knot crosswind which sounds worse than it was.

At Nassay you can either use the GA terminal or one of the FBO’s. We opted for Odyssey which as always had amazing service. They also take care of all paperwork. Odyssey has their own customs/immigration which is incredibly friendly and efficient. Within 10 minutes after shutting down, we were in a Taxi to Nassau.

The Bahamas also still required a COVID health visa when we traveled. By the time you read this, that may have changed.

Nassau

Nassau is the capital of the Bahamas. It’s nice to stroll around a bit but really the smaller islands are so much nicer that there isn’t a good reason to spend much time here. The Graycliffe has very good food in a classic colonial atmosphere (with dress code). We stayed for a night and then moved on.

On the way to the Bahamas

To fly to other islands in the Bahamas you need a cruising permit. Odyssey took care of this for us. It gets checked and stamped at all airports that have a customs/immigration facility (see picture at the bottom of this post).

To leaver Nassau you need to be on a flight plan even if you are VFR. You can file this via Nassau Radio or via a paper flight plan form that is forwarded to the tower in Nassau. Filing electronically via ForeFlight doesn’t seem to work for domestic VFR in the Bahamas. You can pick then up your VFR clearance from Nassau Clearance. It took us half an hour and a call from Odyssey to the tower for them to process this clearance, so it’s recommended to do this before powering up. Odyssey has a radio in a small room tuned to Nassau Clearance just for this purpose. Our actual clearance consisted of only a squawk code and nothing else. So much effort for so little. Quote from the captain of a private jet at the FBO: “Damn hardest airport to get out of in all of in America”.

Once you have the clearance, contact ground for a (lengthy) taxi. Departure instructions from the tower were clear and simple (left turn, keep east of approach plus an altitude). We were handed off to departure which gave us a heading and “stand by for flight plan activation”. Shortly after we were handed off Nassau Radio where we opened the flight plan (which is straightforward, they walk you through the relevant fields such as souls on board, fuel etc.) and then back to Approach. The flight to Chub Cay is only about 10 minutes (and still inside Nassau’s class Delta), so at this point we reported airport in sight, canceled VFR flight following with Nassau Approach, squawked VFR, switched back to Nassau Radio to close the flight plan that we had opened two minutes before and prepared to land.

Chub Cay

Chub Cay is a tiny island with a landing strip, a marina a yacht club, a dive shop and a dive bar, so essentially anything you could ever ask for in a place like this.

As all small airports in the Bahamas, you use 122.8 as the common advisory frequency to coordinate with other aircraft. The landing strip is in good condition and landing was easy. There are no tie-downs, so bring chocks. The airport is private but other than a $20 landing fee you may not notice. It is an International Airport with friendly customs, immigration, airport ops and restrooms all in a small wooden building (see photo). In fact, this may be my favorite international airport that I have ever been to. We paid the landing fee, customs stamped our cruising permit and we took a golf cart to the yacht club where we had rooms reserved.

Chub Cay is a really nice island. Most people come here for fishing, but diving was good as well with shallow coral, plenty of fish and some sharks. The restaurant has good food, rooms were super nice and overall it has a great atmosphere. And they decorate their paths with Conch Shells.

Terminal Building of the Chub Cay International Airport

Unlike Nassau, departing Chub Cay is super easy. For domestic flights, the cruising permit doesn’t need to be stamped. You just start the plane and depart.

Freeport, Grand Bahamas

Freeport is one of the larger cities in the Bahama and we came here specifically for a specialty dive which in the end didn’t happen. Unless you have a good reason to go to Grand Bahama, you may want to skip Freeport. Lots of large developments, the beaches frankly aren’t great and a car/taxi is required to go to most places. It also still has a lot of damage from recent hurricanes.

Freeport Airport still hasn’t fully recovered from the Hurricanes

Flying into Freeport is relatively straightforward. They have a class Delta air space, but unlike Nassau you don’t need a flight plan. We contacted Freeport Approach and were asked to report at a certain distance. Once there, we were handed off to tower and cleared to land. It’s a large airport, but not very busy and very friendly. There are cables for tie downs, but you need to bring your own ropes. Customs signs the cruising permit, the fuel truck had 100LL for us and airport ops helped with a taxi to town.

Freeport still has a lot of visible damage from two hurricanes that hit the island. Hangars are missing walls, all airport functions are in containers and many resorts on the island are closed.

Getting out of Freeport is also relatively easy. It wasn’t quite clear if a flight plan was required, but it was definitely encouraged. You can contact Radio from the ground and file with them. They walk you through all of the questions, it’s a simple procedure. Tower opens the flight plan automatically on departure (unlike like Nassau where you had to do it in the air). Freeport Approach asked if we wanted to close the flight plan as we climbed out of the delta, but as we had to transition Nassau Approach’s delta we kept it open and told them we would close with Nassau Approach instead. At 6,000 ft you transition to Miami Radio’s airspace and we requested and received flight following from them. Once we started descending for Andros, we entered Nassau’s class delta and Miami was able to hand us off to Approach. We stayed with Nassau Approach for the descent until 1,500 ft, then checked out and squawked VFR. And last but not least we called Nassau Radio to close our flight plan.

Andros

Andros is the largest island of the Bahamas, but also one of the emptiest. It has great diving, some bone fishing, very few people and a very, very laid back athmosphere.

You average day at the Small Hope Bay Lodge in Andros

After checking in on the standard common advisory frequency and circling to try and spot the wind sock, we landed at Andros. The landing strip is in ok condition but the ramp has some serious potholes. There are no tie downs.

The airport in Andros is a bit odd. They want to stamp your cruising permit when you land (which is normal) and when you depart domestically (which no other airport did). They also insisted on screening our luggage when we departed. Normally GA in the Bahamas (and the USA) has no luggage screening whatsoever. Andros had a history of drug smuggling 20 years ago, maybe that still shows. Everyone is friendly and security is quick and so in the end it’s still a very nice airport.

Diving in Andros is very good. We stayed at the Small Hope Bay Lodge which is simple, laid back and has amazing staff that joins for dinner to figure out where you’d like to dive the next day. Check out the photos for some great shots from our dives.

Staniel Cay

Staniel Cay is a bucket-list-quality destination. It has a landing strip, a yacht club, some houses packed on a small island. The yacht club in the evening is a happening place thanks to the 100+ boats that are anchored nearby. It also has excellent food. Frankly the hardest part is booking accommodation (which books out a year in advance). But most importantly, it’s in the middle of the Exumas chain which is maybe the most fun parts of the Bahamas.

Staniel Cay Airport in Sight

Flying into Staniel Cay is easy. No tower, no approach, just use CTAF 122.8. You tie down the plane, walk across the surprisingly busy ramp to the street and take a golf cart. Or just walk, you can walk most of the island in 10 minutes. No fuel, no tie downs, no customs or anything else.

Nurse Sharks at Compass Cay, Exumas, Bahamas

The Staniel Cay Yacht Club is exceptional in terms of both accommodation and food. But the best part are the many small islands along the Exumas chain. Thunderball Grotto can be crowded but is impressive, the swimming pigs are ok, snorkeling with nurse sharks at Compass Cay were much better than expected, you have tame iguanas on another island or you can snorkel a ditched drug smuggling plane (and there are lots more further north). Most amazing was one guy who was able to call sea turtles and feed them. He opened a Conch Shell and then hand fed them (and the Remoras attached to the Turtle). Worth a trip.

Flight back to Nassau and the US

A day before returning, we filed IFR via ForeFlight and submitted the eAPIS. We also called customs at Miami Executive (which you have to) to give them advance notice and to receive our confirmation code (the initials of the customs officer). Last but no least, we did a COVID test which was required for re-entry into the US.

Staniel Cay is not an airport of entry, so you have to stop somewhere on the way back. We picked Nassau mainly due to the friendly support at Odyssey. Departing Staniel Cay only requires talking on the CTAF. Once we had climbed to cruise altitude we contacted Nassau Radio and filed and activated a flight plan with them. This is apparently necessary to enter Nassau’s Delta. Nassau cleared us for the visual, we landed and taxied to Odyssey.

Customs/Immigration at Odyssey was quick. The return flight IFR plan we filed electronically via ForeFlight and picked up the clearance from Nassau Clearance (which again took a while, possibly because they need to get it from Miami). IFR departure from Nassau and flight to Miami Executive were straightforward. Handoff to Miami Radio, then Miami Approach, KTMB Tower and a visual approach.

Customs at Miami Executive was friendly and quick. The office however did insist that I actually attach my customs sticker to the plane which I never had to do before. They didn’t actually check our covid tests, which seems to be common.

Environmental Balance

Naively, I would have thought that a private plane consumes more fuel for a trip like this than taking a larger plane or boat. Surprisingly, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Comparing different modes of travel:

  • A Cirrus SR22T burns about 16 gph or 10 mpg. for 5 seats.
  • Larger planes that fly to the islands (e.g. a Cessna Caravan) burn 45-60 gph or 3 mpg. They can have up to 14 seats but likely more like they are configured to something like 10+pilot.
  • Small boats are not even close. About 2-3 mpg for a 270 Dauntless (which is probably on the small side for making the trip). And at 21 MPH it will take a long time to get you to your destination.
  • Even a large Ferry with 150 people is not much more fuel efficient. I am not sure about how good my estimates are but online sources suggest 100 gph for a Cat C32 at 24 kts or 0.25 mpg. If you have 150 people on board, that’s more efficient. But it won’t be anywhere colse to fully loaded when going to a small island with a few 100 (or even few 10) inhabitants.

So flying the Bahamas with a small plane is actually on par or better with other options.

Cruising Permit from the Bahamas Trip

3 Replies to “Exploring the Bahamas by Plane”

  1. Very cool, want to try this. Need to complete PPL. Come to Switzerland; only a few miles more via I guess Greenland / Iceland / Scotland? 😀

    1. Good to hear from you! The Canada<->Greenland hop is difficult in a single engine piston plane. Hope one day I’ll upgrade and then I’ll definitely show up.

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