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.