When I plan a long flight like my trip from New Orleans to the Bahamas, a lot of people ask me what kind of preparation I have to do, so I thought I’d share it here as my first in a series of blog posts about my trip.
Before I begin, a note for those of you who are not on Facebook. You can still view my public page and see the pictures I posted along the way during my trip. Here’s the link: https://www.facebook.com/ErinSeidemann?ref=bookmarks
When people ask me what I have to do to prepare for a trip like this, I joke in reply that for a trip for which I have no set plans, no reservations at any hotels, and usually only a vague idea of a few places I want to see, it sure still has a TON of preparation! I guess the biggest difference between flying yourself somewhere internationally and hopping on a commercial jet is that I’m the one stuck with all the weather watching, fuel stop planning, and route planning whereas that’s all done behind the scenes and without so much as a thought from most of us who jump on commercial jets.
Add to that the fact that any flight over water comes with its own set of considerations, and there’s more to the planning process. Then there’s the whole international paperwork thing. All this leaves me wondering for at least a week as I get close to the flight if I’ve forgotten anything since it’s not like there’s a list I can follow of what I need to do or take care of. There are lists for private pilots who want to fly internationally, but that only covers a small part of the planning, and each destination has its own considerations. And flight planning has changed so drastically from the last time I flew to the Bahamas back in 2009 that even if I had made a list then, only a small amount of it would still apply.
So here goes. First, I go through my Bahamas pilot guidebook to see where I want to go (you can buy this from most online pilot shops if you are interested, and it’s a must for flying in the Bahamas). On my last trip there, I flew into Bimini, Andros, Eleuthera, Abaco, and Grand Bahama and often took a water taxi from those islands to stay on others. So I pretty much covered the upper half of the islands, purposefully skipping over the too-touristy-for-my-tastes island of Nassau. Hence, this time, I wanted to go to islands farther south than I had been before. The Exumas have always had a great reputation for being uncrowded and offering great scenery. And since I plan many trips or stops based solely on the catchy name of a place, of course I’d have to visit Rum Cay just so I could say with a straight face that I had flown to Rum Cay (even though I actually consumed no rum while on Rum Cay). Past that, I had no other plans. If I wound up with extra time after going to a few places in the Exumas and not having rum on Rum Cay, I’d look up what else looks good that’s close.
And because all of my flying relies more heavily on the weather than any other factor, there is no such thing as saying “I’ll be here this night and then there the night after.” My dad asked me if I could give him an itinerary. I told him I could give him a list of places I wanted to go and hotels I would stay in if there’s room. That’s truly the best I can do. Of course, I’d update my parents once I get somewhere and if the weather looks like it’ll cooperate for whenever I want to move on to the next island.
Getting out of the U.S. First, I needed a fuel stop between here and the eastern coast of Florida. And, no, I do not fly directly over the Gulf of Mexico in a single engine plane, so by following the coast, it lengthens the time it takes to get there rather than going direct. I could maybe possibly maybe make it to the eastern coast of Florida on one tank, but I’d be coasting in on fumes, something I try rather hard to avoid. Plus, I like to get out, stretch my legs, and pee more often than once every five and a half hours. So I planned a fuel stop somewhere in Florida that would be about four hours of flying. And I had one picked out just by name until I saw that there was a nearby airport where the fuel was way cheaper. Since going on these paradise vacations alone can get super expensive, I’ll take a savings on fuel when I can! And these handy, dandy new flight planning apps (I use ForeFlight and LOVE it!) can show you fuel prices on the map with the touch of a button (they’re not buttons anymore, so that term needs updating). From there, it was just picking out a place to stay on the coast that would put me at a good spot to launch for where I had planned to clear customs since the first place I wanted to stay does not have customs (another consideration as there are only a small number of “airports of entry” in the Bahamas where you have to clear customs before going on to another destination). I picked Pompano Beach since I hadn’t been there before, and that’s reason enough for me! It had lots of cheap hotels close to the airport. At first, I had thought of making the whole flight to the Bahamas in one day, but with sunset at 5:00 now in December, the flying day isn’t very long, and I didn’t want to have to feel rushed while filing my international flight plan, a requirement for crossing the ADIZ (air defense identification zone) when flying in or out of country. So I decided to stay the night in Florida to not be rushed, get some rest, and then clear customs in Andros and fly to Exuma in the morning, still leaving me plenty of time once in Exuma to load up my foldable bike, find my hotel, and hopefully beachcomb before sunset.
Now that that was all settled, I needed to not only look at the places I wanted to go but also figure out if I would have enough fuel to make it to many of the stops that do not have fuel. And what if I wanted to just fly around and sightsee one day instead of going from point to point? Would I have enough fuel for that plus getting to the next airport that did have fuel? While fuel stops in the United States are almost anywhere along your route of flight and therefore aren’t much of a consideration given their abundance, this is not so in the Bahamas, especially once you get into the less-traveled islands, i.e., the ones I like to go to. For example, of the six public airports in the Exumas (there are more for private use only), only one of them has fuel. And Rum Cay, even farther East, doesn’t. This most definitely increases the amount of planning since it’s not like when I fly around the U.S. and just pick a fuel stop right along my route. And since I didn’t know what the winds would be doing one or two weeks from now, I always assume a headwind when calculating fuel in places where it’s not available everywhere.
Once I figured out I’d have enough fuel to get from place to place including one day of flightseeing (my new term for aerial sightseeing) up and down Exuma to take pictures, now I could somewhat figure out how much time I could spend in each place. Though, admittedly, this may change as I go along. If I don’t feel comfortable somewhere (which happened once on my last trip to the Bahamas) or if I just can’t find enough to do, I may leave a place after a day when I had planned to stay for two or three days. This is why I may end up with extra time at the end. Or I may find a place where I want to move in and never leave.
And because it had been five years since my last trip, I had to refresh my memory on all the paperwork necessary for leaving and reentering U.S. airspace. Of course, that process had also changed from my last time. I already had my radiotelephone operator’s license from last time. And a couple of months ago, I remembered to pay for and order a U.S. Customs and Border Protection decal for the plane. I packed my passport early so I wouldn’t forget it. Once in the Bahamas, I’d need to get a transire form and have it stamped at each different island I flew to. Then I’d have to turn that back in to customs before leaving. Also upon leaving, I had to plan to clear customs in the U.S. at one of only eight airports in Florida where it’s allowed for general aviation flights.
Then came the packing and figuring out what I needed. Even though it’s often unpleasant to consider the worst case scenario, as pilots we must do so to be safe and prepared in case it does happen. I still had my over-water survival kit from my last trip there. I checked everything in it and even reminded myself of all the little things included in it, most of which are tied to the bag so you don’t drop them in the water: a strobe light, a signaling mirror, whistle, ink dye for easy location in water, two drinkable water packets, a multi-tool, a space blanket, flashlight, light stick, compass, sunscreen with insect repellant, lip balm, and small first aid kit. Mine was packed and assembled by Randy Boone of Aviation Survival Technologies (astoverwater.com), and I believe it’s a necessity to have this or something very similar for over water flights.
I wear the survival pack around my waist during the entire flight. I’ve read too many stories about ditching an airplane in the water somewhere, and they say something like “We had a survival pack, but it was in the back of the plane and we couldn’t get to it, so it sank with the plane.” That would not happen to me. I also attached my SPOT tracker to the survival pack to ensure that if I have to exit the plane, the SPOT tracker exits with me.
The SPOT tracker is a satellite GPS that has a button to press for check in. It will text and email anyone I saved in my account to say I’m okay and will give lat/longs of where I am with a link to a map. My mom found this feature to be very reassuring when I was out of cell service range and could not text to let them know I had landed safely, and there are many places in the Bahamas that I couldn’t text from. The SPOT also has a button for SOS emergency, which will notify the nearest emergency services with my location and notifies my saved contacts. I put new batteries in my SPOT tracker and tested it to make sure it was working.
I packed an extra headset in case my primary headset malfunctioned, which it did multiple times on my last trip to the Bahamas while I was in the…cue the Twilight Zone music…Bermuda triangle (not joking). I made sure I had all the bells and whistles for my iPad flight planning app, ForeFlight, including my GPS receiver to place on the dash of my plane that connects via Bluetooth to my iPad to show a little airplane icon for where I am, and my yoke mount so it’s easy to see the moving map on my iPad. This was another thing that didn’t exist last time I went to the Bahamas – it was all paper flight planning all the time. ForeFlight, or any flight planning app, takes an enormous amount of time out of flight planning, and while I’m not one to always have the latest and greatest technology (actually, I’m usually the last and am currently very happy with and hope to never have to get rid of the “steam” gauges in my airplane), I must admit that ForeFlight is a godsend. Like when I had already planned a fuel stop based only on the catchy name of the airport but then saw (from the fuel prices listed on the map in ForeFlight) a much cheaper alternative very close by, all I had to do was replace that waypoint on my flight plan and it recalculated everything (distance, time enroute, fuel burn). Ain’t technology grand?
Then came the normal packing that goes with any trip no matter the mode of transportation. Clothes, money, toiletries, maybe some books. But I remembered a quote I had read a while ago that proved COMPLETELY true on my last trip to the Bahamas: “When you’re packing, take half the clothes and twice the money.” Last time I had way too many clothes even though I thought I had packed light and not nearly enough money (so thank god for credit cards). And if I weren’t a runner, I could get away with packing half of my already halved planned clothing. But I can’t run without my running clothes (especially a good supportive running bra, and my ladies know what I’m talking about!). You just can’t substitute anything for proper running clothes like you can for other activities. And that’s why I decided that I can use shorts and just a few shirts for everything else while I’m there and just wash them in the shower and hang them out to dry when I needed to. This, in my mind at least, made up for all the extra room that my running clothes took up. But last time I went, I did find myself lacking something cute to wear when I unexpectedly met a hot Italian restaurateur. But, hey, if I happen to meet a guy again, he’d have to like me in my shower-washed shorts and shirt (side note: I did meet a guy, so the joke was on me for not having anything cute to wear). If I packed for every possible contingency, I’d need a bigger plane.
One of the most limiting factors of general aviation flight is how to get where you’re going once you landed at your destination. In the U.S., many airports have either a courtesy car or car rentals available. But you can never count on that stuff unless you call ahead. And I knew this didn’t exist where I was going. My parents gave me a foldable bike after my last trip to the Bahamas when I complained about how hard it was to get around. So I figured I’d pack a small suitcase of clothes, and whenever I landed, I’d take out a few days of clothes (and running clothes), stuff them in my backpack, and I could strap that to my back along with my flight bag and still be totally bike-going.
But to counterbalance the inconvenience of not always being able to get around easily, one of the many joys of general aviation is that you can take whatever you damn well please (like except for drugs and stuff like that). This meant I could take a travel bottle of shampoo, some aerosol cans of OFF and sunscreen, my pepper spray in case I felt unsafe, and my Swiss Army knife that does everything short of making coffee. Every time I packed one of these items, I smiled thinking of all the TSA signs prohibiting such things. HA! My plane! I think I’ll take another knife just because I can. Oh and water bottles! I won’t go thirsty!
Having said all this, the question is: Is all that preparation worth it? The answer is a resounding YES! Think of it like this: you are in charge of your own trip. You go where you want, when you want. You like a place? Stay an extra night. Stay an extra three nights. There is no airline reservation waiting for you that puts the period at the end of your trip. The entire trip is a sea of possibilities.