John & Anne Wiley

2013/04/01

Over Abaco

Here’s a brief pirep (pilot report) about our flight over Abaco Island that adjoins our Caribbean “home” of Grand Bahama Island where Tripp’s eager to fly at the Freeport airport while we’re cozy in nearby Lucaya. I’ll try to mix general interest words & pix with some details that might be helpful for other pilots flying to the Bahamas. For example, the crossing between islands was made safe and easy by following this chain of small Cays that stretch like a line of pearls between them.

0995 Cay Bridge

0995 Cay Bridge

I climbed to 3,000′ for the crossing, but it could probably be safely done at half that with most small planes. The smoke of many small fires across Florida and the islands, apparently set on purpose for brush control, detracts considerably from the sightseeing, so visitors might want to look for ways of finding out when there are fires and where the smoke is blowing. As I wrote after our arrival here, winds had been from the west so the smoke from Florida was thick out here. Saturday when we made this flight it was blowing back in from the open ocean to the east, adding to the smoke from Abaco over Grand Bahama Island. The effect was to make the horizon (thin line of very slightly lighter blue color along the top edge of photo #0995 above) almost invisible. The adjoining tip of Abaco has some small towns and settlements of a few homes clustered together, and somewhat scenic spots on the way to this first airport at Treasure Cay.

1059 Treasure Cay MYAT

1059 Treasure Cay MYAT

I was happy to see that the Miami Sectional chart in the free Avare app on my Android Nexus 7 covered our entire flight (and all but a tiny sliver of Abaco) on Saturday, so I never looked at the free WAC charts that cover the whole Caribbean. Both charts show some detail on place names, which is helpful. Photo #1059 above shows the Treasure Cay airport in relation to the town 7 nautical miles ($30 taxi each way) beyond. Due to that and probable landing/parking fees we decided not to stop and check out the differences between this and our island, but the town looks like a meeting place for pilots and mariners, expats and natives.

1076 Treasure Cay

1076 Treasure Cay

This part of Abaco is narrow enough that if you can find a trail it would be an easy walk from one side to the other. We’d initially hoped to camp on or near the airport and walk into town, but between talking with locals here at Freeport/Lucaya and investigating via phone and online we decided it’s not a viable option. Camping is discouraged on the islands, and some areas have mosquito infestations even this early in the season. We found that Lucaya offers most or all of the sorts of attractions found on other islands, plus the benefits of being near a small city, and prices that are generally much lower than the other islands. Hotel rates with senior, AAA or pilot discounts start at just over $100 per night and even less with advance booking. Another option for anyone with some confidence of arrival date (not us, flying VFR from CA), is to rent a home or condo such as Coral Beach here in Lucaya.

1102 Deep Hole

1102 Deep Hole

Like those infamous sinkholes in Florida, these islands are dotted with places where the limestone/coral “bedrock” has been eroded over eons producing a few holes like this one on land and many more we saw offshore of both islands. I’d hoped to explore one, but so far haven’t found any that are affordably close to an airport. This one is between Treasure and Marsh on Abaco, but there are probably some on Grand Bahama too.

1119 Marsh Harbor MYAM

1119 Marsh Harbor MYAM

Speaking of Marsh Harbor, here’s the airport (MYAM) with the town in the background. As you can see, it’s much closer so possibly walkable. Certainly an easy bike ride, and if we’d brought the “tweaky tandem” I made from an old mountain bike that we rode up Manhattan to Central Park a few years ago, we probably would’ve landed here to explore the area. Again though, we didn’t see anything from the air that encouraged us to spend a night or more here. I’m sure there are many unique attractions there, and a different feel to the people and places, but we’ve convinced ourselves that Lucaya offers a good taste of Bahamas life and sights. We very much welcome news to the contrary, to help encourage us to make a return visit!

Pirep details: Crossing from West Palm Beach we were only out of glide to land for probably five minutes. I climbed to 12,500 before leaving glide range so that the engine was stable in cruise setting and temperature. I’d expected to see many boats we could ditch near in event of a freak total power failure mid-crossing, but couldn’t see any from that high. Even though there were moderate surface winds, the seas only had occasional whitecaps due to the island “shadow” reducing the fetch. I’d decided to favor reduced power or glide toward Florida, assuming the facilities would be better on that side but of course winds aloft and at surface are a major factor. Within a few miles on either side of the crossing I did see many freighters and tankers, but of course the crew on those often pay little attention outside so my plan was to buzz one on the way in and touch down ahead and off to the left of a ship’s track. All of this is just a silly exercise in worry, given the statistics on SEL power loss and the very short time frame involved. But every pilot I’ve talked with about this trip has had similar ideas, so worry we do. 🙂

I was admonished by Nassau that they wanted contact sooner after I’d been handed off by Miami, but it may have been because the controller didn’t understand that I was descending to Freeport rather than landing at the private west end airport. Not an issue though, given the total lack of other GA traffic in my area. I was immediately handed off to Freeport tower, who granted my request for a descent along the shoreline to look at the city before turning back for right traffic in moderate gusty quartering tailwind into Freeport runway 6. I was very curious about that assignment (especially after taxi), but didn’t bother to ask.

ATC was mostly helpful, though some controllers sounded a bit peeved we were interrupting their hours of silence and expected us to be familiar with airports and procedures as the scheduled carriers are. On our first landing at Freeport despite landing short we were sent clear to the end of the long runway past several connecting taxiways, for the long taxi back to customs/parking. Other than that, no hassles.

Air traffic was quite light for Saturday’s entire 2:45 low/slow touring flight over Abaco, with no radio traffic most of the time even though this is a “busy” time with spring break/Easter. Everyone on CTAF was friendly and helpful, offering pireps on wind, smoke and whatever. Most airports have a single runway, so crosswind is probably common on many landings but nothing I found especially challenging. Be sure to fill out the customs paperwork that streamlines inter-island landings, unless you only plan one stop on the islands.

Once on the ground, everyone at the airport was especially friendly and helpful. Daron the line guy provided chocks for our first tiedown, but not the second. I didn’t ask for more, and noticed that the home made wooden set he used had someone’s name and tail number, hopefully left behind in the past. You might want to bring your own chocks, inexpensive and clearly marked, and remember them when you leave. The tie down ropes are pretty pathetic, so you might also consider bringing some lengths of stout rope. The tie down cables looked good and well-secured for anything short of tropical storm winds.

We discovered that taking the $1.25 bus (actually a fleet of privately owned vans) is cheap, fast and fun. They all look similar to this, but each is just a little different and the drivers are all very different.

0124 Bahama Bus

0124 Bahama Bus

From the airport, take a cab into Freeport and then bus stops seem to all be within a few blocks of any point. Many of the bus stops have colorful shelters like this, but in town especially where they’re a block or two apart some just have the blue sign.

1209 Bus "Terminal"

1209 Bus “Terminal”

Some drivers will stop anywhere if they have few or no passengers and you look uninterested in walking. Other drivers are very “by the book” and only use the marked stops. There’s one place in town where many buses congregate in a parking lot, and the drivers all know to take you there if you need to switch buses for a longer trip. Getting to Paradise Cove from Lucaya would take three changes, we were told, but we ended up not going.

From town, tell any driver you’re going to the airport, and they’ll either drop you half a block from the FBO (be sure to tell them it’s the building a block past the airline terminal) or suggest another driver who will. Cost for that ranges from $6-10 vs. $15-25 for a taxi to Freeport or Lucaya. We met many helpful and friendly locals, and also some tourists who like us enjoyed the bus.

During business hours I’d suggest having the airport taxi drop you at the excellent main Tourist office, where they were exceptionally helpful providing details on Out Islands. Pauline who helped us also made several calls that would’ve been expensive long distance for us, to get additional details that in the end helped us greatly by reinforcing our decision to remain based at Freeport. She even provided some welcome bottled water to take on our walk.

We’re glad to have stayed one night at Castaways in Freeport, as a way to easily explore some of the town on foot. We got a taste of how the residents live and work, and many friendly encounters with locals offering pointers for things to see and do. For the archetypal island resort experience I suggest Lucaya, and online booking for the Grand Lucaya (their website is the same price and easier than others we used or looked at, and watch for the AAA discount) makes it comparable to or less than most U.S. cities for a very comfortable hotel with plenty of fun things within easy walking/bus distance. As mentioned previously, you can find home/condo rentals at even lower rates most times of the year if you can reliably plan your arrival and departure in advance within a day or two (IFR).

If I think of more details that might be helpful for pilots, I’ll edit this post. So aviators might want to Subscribe to this post and be notified of updates. You can also find some additional info in this earlier post and scattered amid all my blog posts for this trip.

Update 4/2: Today I was reminded why it’s a good idea to log in/out of EAPIS before leaving the U.S. The website is set to auto-expire your login after a certain period to ensure that the evil doers don’t. When that happens, your auto-login doesn’t work so you have to re-program or change your password. If you make a typo (yes, I did) it locks you out. If you then try to use the “Forgot password” feature it gets even more freaked out and locks you out even more with a warning that this transgression “will be reported” and all you can access is a “helpful” list of phone numbers to call. The first I tried didn’t answer after 15 rings. The second got me a voice mail so I left a message requesting a callback asap so I could take off at the time on the VFR flight plan I’d already done (that was 10 hours ago, and as you’ve guessed: no call). Then I clicked on “which number should I call” and of course got a list of numbers that totals Zero (translation: “Don’t call.”). About that time Kent brought his Good Luck over to say hi, and it let me try again. After ten minutes’ more frustration I had it completed and we headed for the airport.

The flight 20nm out to the ADIZ boundary is quick, so I had Miami Center dialed in (sorry, I forget the freq., but Freeport reminds you). They were a bit confused by my flight path, because I flew to the western tip of the island and then directly across toward West Palm Beach until within glide, then at last angled toward Ft. Lauderdale Executive direct.

It’s a very busy airport, but the CBP had only one plane there when we arrived about 3:55pm local. When I called about noon there were five on the ramp, but my impression is the waits are usually short because most of the planes & pilots are familiar with the process and the agents know them all. We sat on the ramp for five minutes, then I called and the agent was surprised I was sitting in the plane. “We don’t make you wait in the plane here, come on in and bring your luggage,” was his friendly invitation. Even with our lack of familiarity the process took about 15 minutes. As we rearranged the plane for 15 minutes to have Bahamas stuff in back and FL stuff up front, two more planes pulled in and one of them was already gone when we taxied next door to the FBO for fuel.

NOTE: The FBO next to CBP (Sabo Jet or something like that) is listed as $5.90/gal. in AirNav but charges $6. I ordered 8 per side before the 11nm to Boca for the night just to save hassle until I could shop for a fillup tomorrow, and then learned that once you park on their ramp for fuel there’s a hefty fee ($35 as I recall) that’s waived if you buy 20 gallon minimum. By now the ramp guy has fueled, so I told the clerk to have them go ahead and just put 4 more in the left because that wing sits slightly high and is usually light until crossfeed in flight. Moral: be prepared to buy 20 or arrive with enough fuel to reach one of the $4-something fields nearby.

Takeoff involved ten minutes in line as a steady stream of inbound traffic tied up the one runway they were using. The controllers seem overly cautious about spacing, and at SBA they would have had all four in the lineup out between arrivals. It was excruciating watching one 182 with full flaps at landing speed two miles out and mentally counting how many times I could’ve taken off (and pitying the jet behind him that had to go around). The moment the guy in front of me was cleared and began rolling toward the runway I called, “Ready for immediate.” Didn’t get it, but at least the controller knew I’m on his side and did let me out after the next slowpoke lumbered in. I figure they’re not only super busy and mixing jets with props, but they’re watching the busy surrounding airspace. Moral: be prepared to wait. My takeaway: I’d much rather wait in line watching an interesting parade of planes (including what looked like a 1930s twin) with the fan on, than confined to an airless airplane while CBP harasses those who arrived earlier.

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