Private Aircraft Pilot Information
Travel to/from the Bahamas by private aircraft can be very safe and convenient. The over-water portion of your flight can be reduced to about 70 miles, and this with radar coverage, good communication, and lots of boat/ship traffic below. The Marsh Harbour airport has fuel priced comparably to the US, with good tie-downs, good security, and maintenance in an emergency.
The information presented here should serve as a guide, and is what the author has experienced during many trips to/from Marsh Harbour. Every pilot must accept the responsibility for verifying all information, not just for the flight, but also Bahamian and US customs requirements. Make sure your aircraft insurance covers the Bahamas. Many policies do not, but it's very easy to add, usually at no additional cost.
US Customs requires advanced departure and arrival notification through the eAPIS system. The AOPA Bahamas/Carribean http://www.aopa.org/index.html site has excellent current information.
These forms are in PDF format, readable and printable with Adobe Acrobat Reader. Viewable samples can be found several paragraphs below. Additional or different forms are required for island hopping in the Bahamas.
For a modest fee, Pilot Publishing offers a packet containing useful information and all necessary forms. You will not regret having these forms available to complete in advance.
From Southern Florida to Marsh Harbour
Departing the mainland at Palm Beach International (PBI) and heading to West End involves the least over-water flying. Many pilots avoid the congestion at PBI by landing/taking off from Vero Beach (VRB) or Ft. Pierce - St. Lucie County (FPR), which are much more general aviation friendly. The FBOs sometimes have life rafts and jackets available for rent, but call first if this is important to you. These are also good places to overnight, with reasonable accommodations nearby. One can depart these airports, climb over land while heading south, and head across the water at PBI. Most of the flight to Marsh Harbour is over or near Grand Bahama Island with excellent radar coverage all the way to Marsh Harbour above 8,000'. If possible, stay with Miami Center and avoid a handoff to Freeport.
From US East Coast to Marsh Harbour
Fly the coast: Flying the coast is the preference for most smaller aircraft, but does add time compared to a more direct route due to the westward curvature of the coastline. Don't count on going direct to Marsh Harbour from anywhere between North Carolina and Melbourne (MLB, south of Canaveral) below 24,000'. There are numerous offshore MOAs and restricted areas. Even direct IFR flights are seldom allowed. VFR direct is possible, but requires transiting numerous military practice areas that are routinely hot.
Atlantic Route 3 from Wilmington NC: This is a time saver for those with the appropriate aircraft for which this routing makes sense. Depart the southern coast of North Carolina at Carolina Beach (CLB). Follow AR3 to ANGLL intersection, then direct MYAM. From CLB to Marsh Harbour is 464 nm. Just south of Carpx intersection you will be about 185 n. miles equidistant from airports in mid-Florida and South Carolina. Below 18,000', about 1/3rd of the way will be without radar coverage. You may receive Center, but they may not hear you. You can relay with the assistance of higher flying aircraft. Center will give you the frequencies to use, and where to use them, before losing contact. This is not as intimidating as it sounds. For obvious reasons, this route isn't for everyone, but can reduce the flight time significantly from the coastline route. The author routinely flies a twin Cessna along this route. The weather is invariably better than flying the coast (less convective activity) and deviations are more readily approved. A satellite weather system is highly recommended. Nexrad radar may not show smaller cells that far off shore, but satellite imagery can help you assess clouds/precip.
Arriving at Marsh Harbour
Announce your position and altitude about 30 miles out and then every five miles thereafter on unicom (122.8). Listen for other traffic, especially if you are passing near the Treasure Cay airport about 20 miles northwest. Stay out of the cumulus buildups. The Marsh Harbour airport is uncontrolled and sometimes very busy.
Where to Park:
Cherokee Aviation caters to private aircraft as a full service FBO with their own customs/immigrations desks, pilot weather, lounge, restrooms, etc. They are located about mid-field, and operate pretty much like a stateside FBO. They are accustomed to assisting newcomers.
Zig Zag Aviation is primarily for local aircraft and has no facilities, but offers fuel and tie downs. These instructions are provided for those that, for whatever reasons, chose to avoid the other FBO. Park (temporarily) at the far edge of the asphalt in front of the commercial terminal (close to the runway). Usually you'll see a row of private planes tied down here. The commercial planes stop directly in front of the terminal, so don't park there. Call Zig Zag Aviation on unicom before shutting down, and ask if they can tow your plane to their tie downs. Give them fuel instructions too. They keep a close eye on planes in their area, and it's worth the nominal charge for the additional peace of mind. If Zig Zag doesn't answer, or you can't find them in their fuel truck on the ramp, taxi your plane to their tie down area after clearing customs. Their building is to the east, and their tie downs require taxiing over coral, so be sure to keep the power down to avoid prop dings. Better yet, leave your plane, if it's out of the way at the very edge of the ramp, and call them later. They are the ultimate in laid back, never ask for a name or number, and just tell you to enjoy yourself. Unload your bags onto the ramp. Several young men will observe you and bring a cart to assist in taking your bags to customs, and then to the taxi. (Sometimes you have to walk to the terminal and ask for assistance.) A good tip keeps them alert and eager to help. Follow the sign to customs or ask the baggage helpers. First stop... the bathrooms are just to the right inside the door, with customs desks just beyond. This author usually gives his passport and Bahamas Immigration Card to his wife, who checks him in with family and friends, and proceeds past the customs desks directly to the small windowed office in the right rear of the room to handle airplane paperwork. This speeds things up and it's rare when they want to clear you, the person, first. Of course, you have all your forms completed, which also speeds things along. (You'll appreciate this when one of the commuters unloads 50 passengers, and there is one officer.)
The pilot presents the airplane paperwork:
- 3 Aircraft General Declaration Forms (viewable sample) 1 they keep, 1 to immigration, 1 you keep
- 1 Arrival Report (viewable sample) and the landing fee ($10 for a light twin)
- Customs charges "overtime" for arrivals on Saturdays, Sundays, and Holidays, before 9:00 am, and after 5:00 pm.
- Each passenger completes an Immigration Card, given to the agent behind the desk, along with your passport. Keep each copy, it will be turned in on departure. Bring your own pen!
- The "public" ramp is to the west of the terminal and without tie downs. While vandalism is rare, there is a risk of wind damage and this is not a place to need major repair. Don't take the chance. You'll enjoy your vacation much more with your bird safe and secure at Zig Zag or Cherokee Air.
Leaving Marsh Harbour
Check the weather. Calypso has cable TV with Weather Channel and broadband internet access for pre-departure planning. You might want to call the FBO to confirm your plane was fueled.
Complete the eAPIS procedures required for customs for re-entry into the US.
Call flight service for an official weather briefing and to file an international flight plan with Miami FSS 305-233-2600.
Turn in forms and pay departure tax to customs. Two completed Bahamian Declaration Forms and a $15 per person departure tax need to be turned in. They will keep one form and give the other to the pilot stamped for departure. Also, put the immigration cards from all departing passengers in the correct box.
Notify US customs (Fort Pierce 561-461-1773, check for other destinations) of your arrival time and get a badge ID. Because Wilmington customs (910-772-5900) has a smaller volume of traffic, it's best to make a reservation in advance on a weekday, especially with an arrival over a weekend or US holiday. With a reservation, a phone call to Wilmington is not needed unless there is a schedule change.
Announce your position on unicom every five miles outbound for 20 miles, or until in radar contact with Miami Center, usually about 8,000'. Maintain VFR and look out for incoming aircraft that may be cloud busting!
Contact Miami Center on 134.2 or 134.8 to activate your flight plan. You may have to climb several thousand feet. They will ask for your departure time.
Arriving US Customs
At Ft. Pierce (other airports of entry may differ), taxi to customs, get a cart, unload all baggage, and go inside. Be polite and cooperative. They can make your day hell. The FBO will tow your plane into their ramp area for fuel while you get a burger, check weather on their computer, and file your flight plan home.
At Wilmington, stay in the airplane until you are given permission by the officer to deplane. If you hit your reservation time, they'll be there before you shut down. The officers in Wilmington, in general, are MUCH more pleasant than in Florida, and have even been known to display a sense of humor. Turnarounds of 10-15 minutes are not unusual.
- Passports for each passenger
- Aircraft registration
- Customs decal number
- Pilot's medical
- Pilot's license
- Completed Declaration Form (viewable sample) (1 per family)