Bimini, Bahamas by Mustang II
July, 1999Updated June 16, 2004
The inspiration to take the Mustang II to the Bahamas came from the two videos "Flying Down to the Bahamas" Vol. I and II, (1) that I'd received for Father's Day. They showed how easy, safe, scenic, and interesting flying to the Bahamas in your own airplane can be. I was encouraged by the high percentage of single engine aircraft that fly there. Another good source of information is the "Pilot's Bahamas and Caribbean Aviation Guide" (2), which includes an aeronautical chart and everything you would ever need to know about planning a flight there.
As experimental aircraft operators, we do have a few more details to concern ourselves with, such as the Experimental Aircraft Limitations that require us to "obtain written permission from another country's Civil Airworthiness Authority prior to operating on or above that country". An FCC Radio Station License is also required when operating outside the U.S.A. It was quite a shock to pay $105 for that piece of paper.
A very helpful source is AOPA’s members' website at: http://www.aopa.org/members/files/travel/bahamas/bah01.html. As of this date, the AOPA web page info is somewhat incorrect.
NOTE: The following section has been updated / corrected to reflect current procedures as of June, 2004.
We may now fly Experimental airplanes to the Bahamas without Special Permission. See the EAA page for Homebuilt flying to the Bahamas, which includes a link to the Blanket Permission Letter, officially called the Standardised Validation of a Special Airworthiness Certificate - Experimental, For The Purpose of Operating Canada or United States Registered Amateur Built Aircraft in Bahamian Airspace. [593 KB PDF file] I have also posted a copy here.
The current Aviation Specialist with the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism is Greg Rolle: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tel: 800 32 SPORT (800 327 7678)
Other information: Private Plane Flying in the Bahamas ; Bahamas Airport information
The old procedure [prior to Fall, 2003] used to be to:
Contact the: Flight Standards Inspectorate, Nassau International Airport, Nassau, Bahamas. Telephone: 242.377.7042, Fax: 242.377.6060. There is a list of 13 items, such as copies of your aircraft paperwork, insurance, etc. that they will need. I faxed it all and followed it up with a phone call to Ms. Newton.
NOTE: This is all Bahamian now, any reference to the "United Kingdom" as mentioned on the AOPA page is insulting to the Bahamians which is an independent country.
The permission then goes through a few more offices before the folks in the Civil Aviation Department (Administration) Tel. 242.326.0346. Ms. Rosetta Gibson was very helpful. Mr. Anthony Dean - acting Director of the Civil Aviation Department issued and faxed the formal permission and limitations. The limitations attached to the permission included: "day VFR only". I called him back requesting permission to file IFR - saying I felt it was safer - and he agreed "as long as the aircraft is so equipped". He was very pleasant to work with.
The request was to visit several islands that I'd been to before (in Standard Airworthiness aircraft), but because of time constraints, work schedules, and trying to link up with the other half of the family that had airline tickets to Key West, we were only able to spend one day in the Bahamas prior to taking the Mustang II to Key West. This abbreviated visit was an injustice to an exquisitely beautiful country, which extends for seven hundred miles.
On July 8, we left West Tennessee, flew two hours to Dothan, AL then three hours to Ft. Lauderdale Executive. We got our life jackets - no raft for this trip - applied our 12" temporary N numbers with vinyl electrical tape, and filed the ICAO flight plan. Since we were returning within 24 hours, I also filed a return flight plan. Almost as an after thought, I said to the briefer "I guess I need a weather briefing and a forecast too". It was the typical "clear and a million" in FXE and Bimini of course had no weather information, so the briefing for the 50-mile flight consisted what he saw on the satellite photo. It was the same as we had seen for the last 700 miles - scattered cumulus and light winds from the east. I called US Customs on the field and asked about the best way to advise them of my inbound. They said "Tell me now and you'll be considered as having advised us". I estimated 3 p.m., and he gave his name and said "Just don't arrive more than plus or minus one hour from that time". An "ADCUS" on a flight plan is really not reliable enough to advise US Customs. My recommendation is to invest in the long distance call from the islands - which can be difficult.
"N727RH you are cleared to Mike Yankee Bravo Sierra via fly heading 090 for radar vectors direct, climb and maintain 5,000". As we climbed out over Ft. Lauderdale beach I nudged my 17-year old son Tim on the elbow and said "Hey kid, have you ever been over the ocean in an airplane 'nailed together' in someone's backyard?" He half-smiled and said, "No, have YOU?" About mid-point it was an interesting sensation seeing beyond those wings we'd built together - only water as far as you could see in all directions. Shortly we saw some cumulus ahead, which frequently identifies an island… The multi-colored blue waters of the Bahamas are probably one of the most beautiful sights from the air you'll ever see. I called "landing assured" and cancelled my IFR with Miami Center when about 10 miles out. Calls to Unicom went unanswered. Straight in approach and landing on the excellent 5,300 foot Runway 9 was uneventful. Five hours and 44 minutes flying today – that same time driving from Memphis wouldn't even get us to Knoxville!
There were no tie-downs at the ramp, so I pushed the airplane off onto the grass/sand and hammered in my own. The Customs and Immigration procedures were very simple - they took one of my General Declarations I'd filled out, and we filled out tourist cards that they provided. When we left the next day we simply returned the tourist cards. There were no fees for parking, Customs, or anything. The August, 1999 AOPA Pilot magazine has an article about how the Bahamian Government recently implemented changes to vastly simplify the paperwork required for visiting and touring in light aircraft. These changes are very new, so most books and videotape references to the paperwork requirements in the Bahamas may be out of date.
Bimini is a quaint, slightly exotic destination – especially considering it is only 50 miles east of Miami. After landing, for $5 you'll take a small bus or taxi the couple miles to the water taxi, which leaves periodically with local residents shuttling back and forth between South and North Bimini. About 300 yards away on North Bimini, is the town of Alice Town (pop. 1400) where Ernest Hemingway used to live. It was interesting to walk along the Kings Highway, actually an alley about 20 feet wide! Most vehicles were golf carts, although the cars got our attention with their two digit license plates. We'd called ahead to the Bimini Big Game Resort & Marina (3), which was listed in the Pilot's Guide, mentioned earlier. A nice resort, with pool, catering mostly to the sport-fishing yachtsmen that enjoy the superb fishing along the Bimini Islands. The restaurant was good and the folks were friendly (just don't be in a hurry...) and of course we enjoyed the local cuisine of conch [pronounced "konk"] for dinner. The only telephones are two in the lobby, but there was TV in the room. The deserted beach was relaxing and quiet. The ocean water clarity is simply amazing - standing in neck deep water you can clearly see the bottom.
Since I'd filed a flight plan and notified Customs a day before, that saved a long distance phone call. There is one pay phone at the airport if you need it. The Immigration officer accepted our tourist cards back, and to comply with the Bahamian Permission Limitation regarding "…a signed statement by a [mechanic] within the previous 7 days stating that the aircraft is 'fit for flight' ", I left a copy that I filled out with the officer. His expression told me that no one has ever done that before.
All attempts to pick up a clearance from Nassau radio failed. I decided to take off VFR and try to pick it up from Miami Center. The ADIZ is only 5 miles west of Bimini, so began to get concerned when nobody answered during the turning climb over the ocean just east of the ADIZ. Finally, Miami answered at 3500 feet and cleared us direct to FXE at 4000 feet. Briefly, I thought I'd have to go back and land, then call via telephone to get my clearance. Either a DVFR or IFR flight plan is required to penetrate the ADIZ, and I didn't care to do any formation flying with an F-16.
Clearing Customs at FXE went smoothly; you park right in front of the Customs building. They didn't even require us to unload the bags. The three inspectors peered out the window and asked, "What IS that?" Another said "You BUILT that, and then flew that over the water?! You must be awfully confident..." Other inspectors probably have, but they had never seen an Experimental come in from the Bahamas. He did say, "I'm glad to see you put on the temporary 12" N numbers". The $25 annual Customs decal I expected to purchase is no longer sold upon arrival. I was given a form to mail off with my check to get the decal after I returned home. Sort of an honor system? It arrived three weeks after we got home. We taxied over to the FBO to return our rented life jackets and peel off the amateur looking temporary N numbers.
TO KEY WEST
We'd decided to fly VFR down the coast for the flight to Key West. I was a bit surprised to hear the clearance through Ft. Lauderdale's area: "You're cleared down the beach, maintain at or below 500 feet". With all lights on and carefully dodging the banner towers (200-300 feet) and paragliders (100 feet) we enjoyed the view of Ft. Lauderdale and Miami beaches. We pulled up to 2000 feet to clear the Wildlife Refuge southeast of Key Biscayne but went back down to 500-1000 feet for the scenic but hot flight to Key West. We took a tour of Key West Tower while waiting for my wife and other son's delayed commuter airline arrival. The banner tow biplane picks up right along the taxiway flying toward the tower and the mix of sightseeing aircraft, DC-3 mosquito sprayers, seaplanes, military traffic, and the occasional visiting experimental seemed to keep the controllers busy but content.
Key West is a culture of its own, so I'll leave that to other writers.
KEY WEST - HOME
On departure, almost a week later, we flew IFR straight north out of Key West across Florida Bay and then up the west coast to St. Petersburg. Curiously, that leg (116 NM) was longer over water than the round trip to Bimini. I stopped to take a look at a current radar picture of large thunderstorms over north Florida that threatened to cut off the route home. The good news was that V-97 cutting the corner to Tallahassee over the water for another 182 NM would be west of the weather. In the few minutes we were on the ground at PIE, a "little rain shower" on the west edge of the airport blossomed into a thunderstorm with a funnel cloud sighted! I've lost two airplanes (that were tied down) to wind/tornado damage and I didn't want to lose my lifelong project. I quickly filed another IFR flight plan, ETD: "in 3-minutes!" and we were airborne within 10 minutes. Staying visually clear east of the funnel cloud build-up I took a turn to the west out over the Gulf about 15 miles north of PIE. We had enough fuel to go non-stop Key West to Memphis with a 30 minute VFR reserve, but have found stopping and stretching every 2 1/2 hours feels best. A stop at Bainbridge, GA was the Mustang's 13th state to land in, in it's first year of flying. While putting on some fuel at the self-service pumps, the cockpit filled with a million gnats - so an extended run-up was performed to try to eradicate most of them. Turbulence at and below 8000 feet has us climb to smoother air at 10,000 feet, but with a 20-knot headwind. Like I said, I like to stop every few hours for fuel…
After touching down in Memphis in the pouring rain (no I didn't have my blue suede shoes on) we'd flown 5 1/2 hours and 800 NM that day and amazingly felt pretty good. The whole trip was 13 hours and 1700 NM (1950 SM). Tim and I were slightly entertained to hear that my wife and younger son's 3-leg airline flight was so delayed by thunderstorms in Florida that they even missed the last flight out of Orlando. Unexpectedly, they spent the night and arrived the next day, 15 hours after we did by traveling in our dependable, practical Mustang II!
Rick@ExperimentalAirplane.comBimini and Key West Photos