Pilots of the Caribbean

In February 2014 my pilot friend, Jerry, suggested I meet him in Florida for a flight to the Bahamas to do some volunteer work with Bahamas Habitat to help restore local housing damaged by Category 3 Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Bahamas Habitat organizes several of these flights each year to aid housing restorations. Hurricanes are becoming more frequent in the Bahamas, due to climate change.*

Dubbed the “Pilots of the Caribbean” (got that Johnny Depp?), many of us flew to Eleuthera for this four-day project. Getting there was a long, tight turn-around day. I caught a morning

Southwest flight out of Rochester, NY (KROC), with a stop in Charlotte, NC. From there it was on to Orlando International (KMCO) where I took a 45-minute taxi ride to Orlando Executive Airport (KOEA). I was late but caught the tail-end of lunch. There, I met everyone where we received a flight briefing before going to our planes. Jerry had pre-flighted our plane, a state-of-the-art Cessna 182 with a 230 HP engine, a Garmin 1000 glass panel, and air conditioning! The afternoon was wearing on and we had to be at Eleuthera before 5 PM to meet Customs (and to arrive before dark as Eleuthera’s airport is not lighted).

This would be the most challenging flight I had ever flown (I flew the right seat). Fuel planning was critical since we were going well out to sea with few alternative airports. I wouldn’t have agreed to do this if it were not for the fact that Jerry had extensive experience flying in the Bahamas and elsewhere in the Caribbean (even airline captains are not allowed to command a scheduled flight to an airport they haven’t previously flown to).

You can see our approximate route, shown on the map. Departing KOEA, we flew down the coast toward Ft. Lauderdale, before turning east. From there we stayed as close as possible to the

The return trip was via Ft. Lauderdale, due to customs.

Bahamian atoll in case of engine problems. Still, we were beyond gliding distance from land for much of the three-hour flight (I could never imagine Lindbergh flying nearly 3,000 miles across the Atlantic with a then less reliable engine). It was after 5:00 PM when we landed. Customs said we would have to pay an extra $50 (which we thought was not official but they had us over a barrel).

Having cleared Customs we got on Habitat’s bus and they drove us to our accommodations (with a plethora of noseeums biting our exposed legs) where we had dinner and later turned in for the night. The next day we were taken to our respective assignments after breakfast to work with our supervisors. Unfortunately, we got very little done the first day, since there was little coordination with some homeowners. In one case we learned that the owner was still sleeping and not likely to be up until noon. The next three days went much smoother.

We had great lunch breaks on the beaches, particularly on the last day. Unbeknownst to us, the Bahamas are awash in plastics from tourism and ocean currents. You can see the efforts underway to address this problem in the Bahamas, here. You can also see and hear Marvin Gaye’s music video, Mercy, Mercy, Me (sung 50 years ago) about the growing problem of environmental degradation from pollution.

At the end of our tour of

duty, they drove us back to the airport to pre-flight our planes for the return to the mainland. Since we did not have enough fuel for the return trip (there was no fuel facility at Eleuthera) Jerry had planned we fly to the Leonard Thompson International Airport on Great Abaco Island to refuel, returning to Florida the next day. This island was

Hope Town, Bahamas

a tourist destination with wonderful accommodations and attractions. We took a limo from the airport to catch a ferry to our hotel on Hope Town. The driver gave us  his calling card for the return trip. After checking into our hotel we walked about the area before going to a restaurant for dinner. You can see an evening view of the harbor  from our restaurant table in the left-hand photo.

Back at the airport the next morning we each tried to file our flight plan electronically, to no avail. So we tried it the old-fashioned way with the telephone. Bahamas Flight Service (BFSS) said that they could not accept our flight plan for reasons that I didn’t understand and can no longer remember. We could still depart under visual flight rules but we could not approach the U.S. mainland because of the air defense identification zone (ADIZ) and expected instrument conditions.

Jerry took this all more calmly than I did, saying that the BFSS seems to operate a bit differently than its U.S. counterpart. Okay, as a sociologist I embrace social and cultural differences; however, as a pilot (neither of us had planned a longer stay) I like things being done according to established flight regulations. Although many of us complain about the FAA, without the bureaucratic regulations (which don’t always make sense under current circumstances), safety would suffer. Without that clearance, we could not fly back to the U.S., even with clear weather, lest we be met by military interceptors and forced to land where we would be met by law enforcement, which would be less than desirable.

With all this in mind, Jerry said we should depart and attempt our clearance in the air. Then, if we could not file our clearance with BFSS, we could likely get a “pop-up” clearance via Miami Approach. Failing this, our out would be to return to Great Abaco Island and sleep in the pilots’ lounge, if necessary.

Once airborne we contacted BFSS who instructed us to contact Miami Approach. The Miami frequency was busy so we had to wait several minutes for a break in the calls before making our request (not good circumstances for requesting a pop-up clearance). Meanwhile, we could see the cloud bank about thirty miles ahead, not to mention the beginning of the ADIZ on our GPS. We finally got through to Miami and requested an instrument clearance to Ft. Lauderdale (where we would go through Customs). Miami told us to standby (most instrument clearances have to be entered into the national flow-control system, sometimes coming back amended). The clearance didn’t come a moment too soon, as we were approaching the clouds.

After landing at Ft. Lauderdale and clearing customs we went back to the plane and headed north to KOEA where we got a taxi to our hotel at KMCO. Did I mention that our legs were bitten by noseeums and that we were experiencing severe itching? We asked our driver to stop at a pharmacy along the way where we asked the pharmacist to give us the strongest OTC meds possible for bug bites. We got pills, cream, and spray—they helped!

The next day I was on a Southwest flight back to KROC, my friend staying at his rental for the time being. All in all, it was a pretty good trip—doing a little good and having a wonderful time, overall.


*— 1932: The Great Abaco Hurricane, Category 5, struck the Bahamas at peak intensity. More than a dozen people were reportedly killed and hundreds injured.

— 1965: Hurricane Betsy, Category 4, caused an estimated $14 million in damage across the Bahamas, primarily to crops.

— 1992: Hurricane Andrew, Category 5, made landfall on Eleuthera at that strength but weakened to Category 4 while traversing the archipelago. It destroyed hundreds of houses in the Bahamas and reportedly left four dead.

— 1999: Hurricane Floyd peaked at Category 4 and caused extensive material damages.

— 2004: Hurricane Frances, Category 4, knocked out power, damaged homes in the Bahamas.

— 2005: Hurricane Katrina later became a Category 5 storm but earlier traversed the Bahamas as a tropical storm causing minimal damage

— 2005: Hurricane Wilma, Category 5, passed by the Bahamas, producing hurricane-force winds and a powerful storm surge, leading authorities to order evacuations.

— 2011: Hurricane Irene, Category 3, made four landfalls in the Bahamas, causing widespread material damages but no reports of fatalities.

— 2012: Hurricane Sandy, which peaked at Category 3, passed over the Bahamas before reaching the United States.

— 2015: Hurricane Joaquin, Category 4, meandered over the southern Bahamas, battering its islands for over two days. Joaquin caused extensive devastation and its storm surge trapped hundreds in their homes. Offshore, the American cargo ship El Faro and her 33 members were lost to the hurricane.

— 2016: Hurricane Matthews, Category 5, caused massive destruction in Haiti and damaged several islands in the Bahamas.

— 2017: Hurricane Irma, Category 5, passed over Inagua and South Acklins islands where it downed power lines, knocked out communications and damaged homes.

— 2019: Hurricane Dorian, Category 5, damaged 13,000 homes and caused 20 deaths.

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