A couple weeks ago, my employer informed me that he wanted to take a group to Nassau, The Bahamas. I thought, no big deal, this should be an easy trip. The more I started to read, though, the more I realized it wasn’t going to be just a “normal” trip.
If you aren’t a member of AOPA, I would highly recommend joining. AOPA’s website was where I started researching. They actually have a checklist to help you along the way.
The first step is getting the paperwork started. All souls on board are going to need a valid passport. In our case, a couple of passengers need to get theirs. Since it was a little shorter notice, we had to go through the expedited process. It’s fairly simple. A quick internet search gave me a couple of people that helped the process along.
Next was making sure the aircraft had all it’s paperwork. The airworthiness certificate was easy as it’s always in the plane (or should be).
The registration certificate was next to check. We recently upgraded to the King Air 350 so we had to make sure we had the original issuance registration certificate. The Bahamas supposedly doesn’t allow Temporary Certificates and I really didn’t want to test that policy. Thankfully after a couple of calls between owner and the FAA we got the original.
The aircraft and pilot are both also required to have an FCC Radio License. This is only for international flying, but not an everyday thing pilots think about.
After that was flight planning. I use FltPlan.com. The actual filing of the flight plan was very easy. I use the prescribed routes from the website. In the remarks section of the flight plan put ADCUS (Advise Customs). This advices ATC to let customs know of your arrival. It’s basically an added safety net in case you forget to call ahead or your flight times end up being way off.
The other item when dealing with flight planning is dealing with eApis. There are numerous companies who will provide this service for you. I elected not to use one of those. If you go to the CBP website, you can set up an account and do all of it yourself. Take your time and really plan the flight out well to make sure your arrival times are as close to real time as possible. If you’re way off, this will make any customs agent very frustrated and that is not something you want to be dealing with.
Approach charts and en route charts are another hurdle. Thankfully Foreflight has you covered. With my subscription, I already had en route charts. The approach charts were the real issue. In the Bahamas, the only places that have approved instrument approaches is Nassau and Freeport. Fortunately, we were going to Nassau. Foreflight does charge almost $400 for the Caribbean and Bahamas charts. Emailing the FBO is a good option as they can usually supply approach plates for international flights.
You’ll also need a CBP sticker. This goes on the outside of the aircraft showing customs you’re in the system. This can be found on the CBP website as well. It takes a little bit to get the
sticker in the mail. However, once you pay for the sticker, the receipt can be used in place of the sticker.
The final thing I focused on was picking an FBO. I chose Jet Aviation. They had CAA which gave us a Jet fuel discount. Their facility was excellent and staff was very friendly. The thing that put it over the top for me was how they handled customs. I emailed Jet Aviation all the information for myself and passengers and they pre-filled all the customs forms for me. When we arrived, customs took all of five minutes and then my passengers were out the door.
While in Nassau, I stayed at Breezes Resort. It’s all inclusive so that helps keep the costs down for your owners if you’re a corporate pilot. It’s next to some of the other bigger resorts so there were shuttles available to get to other amenities. The only complaint I might have was the power kept cycling on and off and the internet wasn’t reliable. This proved challenging when trying to plan for the return trip.
The return trip required a lot of the same preparation. Again it was nice to have a good FBO to help prepare the paperwork required to clear customs. Jet Aviation handled the General Declarations for me and my passengers. All I was required to do was file the flight plan and file eApis, which was actually challenging while my internet at the resort was on the fritz.
Don’t forget to call US Customs at your Port of Entry! As this was Ft. Lauderdale for us, I called them twenty four hours in advance as prescribed. The customs agent was friendly and helpful with any questions I had. I think the best advice I can give throughout this whole experience is call ahead and ask lots of questions! Did I say that already?
The morning of the return trip went off with no hitches. Again, Jet Aviation had set up a driver to pick me up and he was on time. Jet Aviation had all the General Declarations paperwork pre-filled out for myself and passengers. Again, I use FltPlan.com to file my flight plans. Their service performed flawlessly even though I had heard rumors of flight plans not going through. To curb my bet, I talked with the staff at Jet Aviation and they made a call to tower for me to verify that the flight plan had gone through; of course, it had.
The actual flight out of Nassau was pretty uneventful. The last real hurdle I had was dealing with customs in Ft. Lauderdale, and hurdle it was. When we landed at FLL, ground instructed me over to customs ramp. There was no one to tell us where to park on the ramp. This was extremely frustrating.
A Learjet taxied in prior to us and had taken up most of the ramp but, we found a spot and shutdown. Once we shut down, no one came out to our aircraft. I walked in to talk to someone and was greeted by a Boarder agent who was less than helpful. Since the Learjet had parked first, they got to go through first. Evidently, we were not allowed in the building until they were done. This didn’t make my owner too happy!
Be prepared, though, if another airplane is on the Customs ramp before you arrive. You are not supposed to get out of the airplane until a Customs agent comes and meets you, even to go to the bathroom. This can result in large fines.
Once we were allowed in, the process went smoothly. We had to put all of our bags through the x-ray machine. Beyond the x-ray machine, CPB didn’t require any other security measures. On other crossings I’ve done, CPB had opened up bags and sifted through clothes, so just doing the conveyor belt was a surprise. The rest of the trip was fairly commonplace. We stopped in Destin FL for dinner before making our final leg into Dallas. All in all, it was an excellent trip and I’m excited to do another one.
Ryne Bergren works for a Part 91 operation in Dallas flying a King Air 350. Being a Part 91 outfit, he doesn’t get to rely on a “dispatch” or “company” to help with any international flight planning. This was a learning experience for him. Hopefully this will be a help to anyone for future trips.