Leaving The U.S., But Not The FAA

The ferry leaving Hope Town harbor on Elbow Cay.

Stancie and I just flew back from our annual trip to Elbow Cay in the Bahamas. Great fun, as always, and a trip that makes me happier than ever to fly my own airplane. Getting to the “Out Islands” of the Bahamas on the airlines is possible, but no good way to start a vacation. And the Bahamas welcomes pilots with minimal customs paperwork and the acceptance of LSA and experimental airplanes, something that is far from universal in other countries.

There are, however, some unusual aspects of flying to the Bahamas, not the least of which is that for the most part you never leave the FAA air traffic control system, at least at normal cruise altitudes.

Miami en route center controls most of the airspace over the Bahamas. Miami controllers have pretty good radar coverage above 6,000 feet or so and the VHF communications work well, too. The airspace over the northern Bahamas gets busy with jet traffic descending into, or climbing out from, the southern Florida airports. The Atlantic routes take jet traffic pretty far off shore as far north as the Carolinas.

The Bahamas controls the airspace around Nassau and Freeport, typically up to 6,000 feet. Above that the airspace belongs to Miami. Except for those relatively small circles of space around Freeport and Nassau, I don’t think anybody controls the airspace below 7,000 feet.

So, flying to the Out Islands is really no different than flying over the U.S. You talk to Miami center in the normal way flying IFR, or to receive radar flight following flying VFR. Other than spotty radar coverage at low altitudes, everything is the same.

But that changes under IFR when you need to descend to land at an Out Island airport. Miami will give you a clearance to Marsh Harbor, for example, where we go, but Miami controllers really have no way to clearing you all the way to the airport. Miami simply can’t issue a clearance to descend all the way down under IFR.

So the deal is you cancel IFR in order to descend. That can be a surprise the first time a U.S. based pilot flies IFR to an Out Island. I know I was surprised the first time I did it many years ago. What happened was that Miami controllers pointed out a Dash 8 turboprop airliner as traffic and told me the airline crew had just canceled IFR and was descending. I was at 9,000 feet. Very strange to see an airline crew cancel IFR, especially at that altitude.

So I told Miami I would cancel IFR, too, and started down. There were clouds to dodge and some rain showers around but the ceilings and visibility are never low in the Bahamas except directly in a heavy rain shower.

Jack Pelton, recently retired from Cessna, and his wife Rose, were flying out to Marsh Harbor not long after we arrived and I remembered my surprise at how IFR flying worked out there. I emailed Jack and told him he wouldn’t ever get an approach clearance and to just cancel IFR whenever he wanted to descend below 7,000. With this advice Jack was still a little surprised when Miami center just left him up there as he closed on Marsh Harbor airport. Miami controllers apparently can’t “suggest” that you cancel IFR so you have to know at least a little about how it’s done. Jack canceled and cruised on in to the uncontrolled—but wonderful new runway—at Marsh Harbor.

So when you fly to the Bahamas it’s like flying in the States, but only down to 7,000 feet. And the part below 7,000 feet is where you want to be with the great beaches and crystal clear water. What a nice way to leave home by descending, and then return to it by simply climbing.

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10 Responses to Leaving The U.S., But Not The FAA

  1. Thomas Boyle says:

    Is it really that simple? Don’t you have to deal with procedures to avoid becoming a victim of the Wars on Drugs, Terror and Trade?

    It may be worth mentioning the customs and security requirements…

    :-)

  2. Mac says:

    Bahamas customs require three copies of a general declaration form that has tough questions like what’s your N-number, where did you come from and what’s your name. There is also a card to fill out for each person asking the usual stuff like passport number, address and so on. That’s it. No advance notification to the Bahamas is required.
    U.S. Customs requires that we file an eAPIS (electronic advance passenger information system) report online before leaving or returning to the country. The eAPIS site is not the best website in the world, but people of normal comuter savvy can figure it out. The eAPIS system has replaced virtually all paperwork for U.S. Customs so when you return to an airport of entry Customs has all of you and your passenger information so, other than to swipe your passport through the reader device, there’s nothing much else to do. Ft. Pierce Customs office where we usually clear has added an X-ray machine and they send your luggage through that, but that added maybe two minutes to the entire process. You do still need to notify the Customs office where you plan to clear in advance, usually at least an hour before arrival, but some offices require more advance notice. The info is available on the U.S. Customs website.
    Mac Mc

  3. Tony says:

    Dear Mac:

    Please note that VFR flight is not permitted between sunset and sunrise out there, and that few airports have fuel or tiedowns.

    The airspace status is duly charted – e.g. 6,000′ and below is class D from just East of the Bimini chain all the way to 76 degrees latitude, 12,000′ and below near Nassau. But you’re right, good luck even establishing communications with Nassau Approach if you’re that low and farther than about 60 miles from Nassau. Unless you arrange for a weather observer, forget about getting a clearance to fly an approach anywhere but MYNN/MYGF/MYEF.

  4. Tim says:

    Mac,
    It is surprising the first time you cancel IFR at 7,000 feet, but as you pointed out, as you approach Marsh Harbour or Treasure Cay, Miami Center cannot allow you to descend so, as I learned the same as you, cancel IFR and pick my way through the clouds. However, what if there is a ceiling at, say, 3,500. What do you do then? I depart next Saturday for my third annual trip and the long range forecast looks iffy. Hopetown is my final destination, also. GREAT place!

  5. Mac says:

    Hi Tim,
    I can’t tell you to do this, but I can tell you what I have seen. Several years ago we were approaching Marsh Harbor on top of an overcast. Miami center pointed out a Dash 8 turboprop airliner and asked if I had it in sight. The controller said the Dash 8 was going to descend, and it did, into the overcast.
    So that’s how it’s done, at least by some crews. This was before GPS was up and working, but we had a good fix on the airport with our KLN 89 Loran box. As I said, the clouds are not low, and the visibility is good in the Bahamas, but occasionally there are “broken” clouds between 7,000 and the surface. All I can say is that Stancie and I landed at Marsh Harbor just like the Dash 8–and she was in charge of calling horizontal clearance from the clouds on the way down.
    Have fun in Hope Town. We always do.
    Mac Mc

    • Tim says:

      Thanks Mac. That is the same response I received when I asked a Citation driver when I was leaving Treasure Cay two years ago. I guess when in Rome…

  6. Eugene says:

    Hi Mac,
    In spite of, I’ll never have chance going your way to Bahamas , I printed out this page and comments on just from the pure interest to the variety of navigation and ATC issues around the world. I am an old Russian test-pilot,retired now, with FAA commercial and instrument ticket have being earned in far 1998 at Galvin’s, BFI. I have got some true friends pilots in US,most of them are elder me(around 80). Thanks to my old friend and flight instructor Joe Bennett, I was able to fly again the Puget Sound area in 2010, after 12 years break. He trusted me the left seat of his C-182 Garmin -1000 for our one hundred hamburger in Rocher Harbour,San Juan Island. The back seat occupied my host 97 y.old pilot Sir.Elwood Tresner(Tres). I highly recommend his Nas SMITH ISLAND, a Navy Mistery new novel . The flight from Skagit County Regional airport was smooth just because of I had learned the area before via Google Earth, and the Garmin-1000- via MS FSX. The unhappen to me was a tough change of longitudinal balance during flare on the steep final from the sea to the humped Rocher runway followed by the quick lowering of the speed. Later,in one of the Sport Aviation issues, I’ve read the article on this C-182 feature that was an issue to many pilots on the steep approach. I am pleased to say Mac that all your articles are of great interest for pilots and written in very profesionnal and simple manner. Many thanks to you.
    Tres is going to push his sentennial this September,27th, and invites me to visit him again. There is the cabin ready in La Conner near the beach where to stay for me and the old Mitsubishi 2200 pickup to drive together with Tres to local Fly-ins. If somebody was so kind to take me aboard for Oshkosh and back- instead of autopilot-,it would be of my dream fulfilment. If I’ll arrange the mess with visa,new foreign passport and booking rather expensieve tickets from Russia.

  7. Larry Morris says:

    Mac, I made my first trip to the Bahamas in 1977 while working on my Commercial Pilot Certificate, My first stop was Freeport and then on to Nassau. My wife and I spent one entire day trying to see how many “out island” airports we could visit. We were both hooked. I’ve been back many times since, and it has become a tradition for me to be in Hope Town, Elbow Cay for my birthday in February. I celebrate with “Cay Lime Pie” home made by Vernon Malone. Vernon runs a little grocery and bakery store on Elbow Cay and is also a “Marriage Officer”. Try it, you’ll love it!

  8. Mac says:

    Stancie and I know Vernon and his pies very well. For the past 15 years we have rented the same house two doors down from Vernon’s grocery and bakery. Hope Town is a special place. I never thought that I would live to see the new runway built at Marsh Harbor, but it’s there. Now a control tower is nearly complete. Soon–maybe a year or more as things go in the Out Islands–we will be able to fly instrument approaches at Marsh Harbor when necessary just like at Freeport and Nassau. I guess that’s a good thing. I hope it is.
    Mac Mc

    • Larry Morris says:

      Yes Mac, the new runway is beautiful, and the new Terminal building and Control Tower that are under construction will make Marsh Harbour a great facility. I also hope the addition of an Instrument Approach Procedure will be a good thing. That should allow us to keeep our IFR Clearance all the way to the ground if the Tower is in operation.

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