Crooked Island, Bahamas

Story by Jim Opalka, May 18, 2016

Mike's Piper Comanche
Mike’s Piper Comanche

Packing for a trip to the Bahamas in a single engine general aviation aircraft? Where does one begin? Possibly some Bit O Honey candies, Tootsie Rolls, and that candy that is supposed to melt in your mouth and not on your hand?  One would think the sweets would help on the water legs of your Bahamas adventure.

And what to drink on the flight? Coffee for early morning? A Styrofoam six pack of iced down Pepsi for the hot afternoon and possibly a couple ham sandwiches? Don’t forget a plastic garbage bag. And what about the sticky hands after you munch? A pasty Vernier is no fun.

Maybe take some of those hand cleansers in little bags. You could just tuck them in one of your cargo pockets for easy access. No. Maybe all the munching and cleansing is distracting. Then again, maybe it’ll distract you from the potential instant rough and mysterious waters beneath your wings.

Admittedly, flying over jungles, oceans, and mountains does get one’s full attention. Those sorts of flights that tend to make one pucker remind me of an old TV commercial.

A distinguished, heavily accented and aristocratic English (UK type) voice delivered the TV message.  It was one of those car commercials where an American automobile approaches a cement barrier in slow motion, a test dummy in the driver’s seat.  The car hits the barrier and is partially squished by the impact.

That commercial ends and a British sports car appears.  The British Racing Green sports car approaches the same barrier in slow motion. Just before impact the driver turns right and goes around the cement barrier. No squishing whatsoever. The self-assured Brit announces in a confident voice, “We in England strive to miss the barrier.”

I.E. – maintain your aircraft, keep it safe, and you will avoid the unpleasantries of jungle, ocean, or granite mountains.

Now, getting to the aviation part of this brief article. Mike, a CFII and organizer of the Butler County Airport (BTP) chapter of the IMC Club has been kind to share some points about flying to the Bahamas.

Mike is a savvy, serious, sophisticated yet down to earth aviator whose expertise we are fortunate to have at Butler County. Did I say down to earth aviator? In addition he makes a great burger on those slow summer days in front of Tom’s hangar.

Let it be said that if I misquote or misinterpret any of Mike’s statements it is my fault, not his. More importantly, if you really want to learn about flying the Bahamas or for that matter charting your way through the Upper Yucatan Peninsula or a local sod landing strip – come to the meetings. They are spectacular. I kid you not.

For more info either text, call, or email Mike at: 724 766 6891 or msneuman@yahoo.com.

For the last 35 years or so Mike has made it a happy habit to fly to his favorite place on earth: Crooked Island, Bahamas. His first trip was in a Cherokee 140. His most recent ride is a PA 24-250 Comanche.

Crooked Island from Mike's Comanche
Crooked Island from Mike’s Comanche

I calculated and recalculated distances and times to get a feeling for the trip Mike agreed to discuss with me. I tried to imagine the trip over water from Fort Pierce, Florida (FPR) direct Freeport VOR (ZFP) then off to Marsh Harbour (MHH)then on to Crooked Island (CRI).

I figured you land at Marsh Harbour, an international airport in the Abaco Islands, and start your party there. Stay a few days then maybe a 20-minute flight to Crooked Island. I’m thinking a kind of Indiana Jones island with few people, tropical plants and weird fish that are big and delicious. Maybe do some snorkeling. And you get to luxuriate in a big 5 star hotel. I was correct on some of those assumptions. Not all.

On the particular day that I’m working on the Crooked Island article I look at ForeFlight. I poke in Mike’s 145kt speed he files at and come up with 192nm, 1hr 21min with a 3kt headwind. He has it made. He’s at Marsh Harbour.

I thought at that point you were almost home to your beloved Crooked Island and Colonel Hill Airport. I figured you had it in the bag at that point, you know, stop for a light lunch at MHH then saddle up for a 20 minute flight to CRI on Crooked Island.

Bird Rock Lighthouse near Crooked Island
Bird Rock Lighthouse near Crooked Island

But no way. There is another leg remaining. It’s the little matter of the hop skip and jump from (MHH) to your destination airport (CRI) on Crooked Island. That’s where you check into the Crooked Island Lodge, a quaint and comfortable accommodation with thatched roofs, outdoor bars and cooking areas with all manner of pleasantries awaiting you.  According to Mike, this trip and lodge is the ‘downtime’ of a lifetime.

But we still have some ocean to cross. We have (MHH) direct (CRI). ForeFlight does the work. We are looking at 277nm, 1hr 58min and a 2kt headwind.

But not to worry. You are rested up from your traditional brief lunch stop at Cat Island. This has become tradition for Mike and his wife. The lunch stop before the final leg.

Interestingly, Cat Island may well have been one of the first stops for Columbus. In addition, like many other lesser islands of the Bahamas, these little places were the stomping grounds for pirates for almost 2 centuries. Has got to be some treasure there somewhere.

Cat Island boasts a population of around 1,500. You are on an island named after the pirate, Arthur Catt. Can’t help wondering what self-respecting pirate would admit to the first name of Arthur. Sounds more like an accountant.

However, this pirate thing is debatable since other lore points to the name being given as a result of the one-time enormous population of feral cats on the island. Now it appears any remaining cats are friendly, civilized, and well fed with fish scraps.

To continue, check out your map and the enroute line from (MHH) direct (CRI). Not much land there. Get out the Bit O Honey can and it’s probably time for a cold drink.

There are some interesting and perennial problems that do make the flight challenging, according to Mike. And it’s really good to know these things before you head for the Bahamas.

They are difficult to fly. You can plan on having com problems, so picking up a clearance can be and usually is problematic.

You want to get to 5,000 feet or better and try to get the clearance off of Miami as opposed to Nassau. The higher you get, naturally you have a much better chance of getting Miami.

On a stormy day (see pic of Mike’s course) it is extremely difficult to get through to anyone. Obviously it is an unnerving thing to be entering cloud and struggling to get the clearance when you know you’re competing with loads of other pilots out there wanting to hear the controller’s voice: “Cleared direct.” Don’t you wish?

How to steer clear
How to steer clear

On this trip the storm scope painted serious black wx 30 mi ahead. So you steer away from the serious black and keep trying to get your clearance. Until you get cleared it is helpful to listen to aircraft ahead and behind you to get a steering sense of where to keep safe. Helpful also is the 122.8 CTAF for this flight.

It is also next to impossible to get approach plates for some of the airports along this route of flight. Can’t find them in Jeppesen, ForeFlight, or anywhere else. If anyone knows where they can be found Mike would appreciate a call or email.

What I’m thinking is an airport I used to fly out of in another state. There was no approach into the little airport. So, just for kicks, a custom made plate was put together by a civilian in case of a last ditch emergency. Would be nice to have one of those puppies. Know what I’m saying? Only in a last ditch emergency.

Another point is that one can easily fall in love with ADSB when you take this flight. Mike was able to pick up a signal about half way to his destination, making the weather avoidance much more palatable.

Unwinding is easy once you find Crooked Island. It sounded to me as though it is a civilized, yet pleasantly primitive and private paradise. And there is no passport needed when entering the islands north of the Grand Bahamas. The islands offer world-class snorkeling, scuba diving, sailing and fishing.

Looks like part of paradise.
Looks like part of paradise.

You’ll need a PADI certification to rent scuba equipment, or just as in aviation, you can saddle up with an instructor. Interestingly, Mike pointed out that if he dives with an amateur he makes it a point not to swim behind them. If panicked they tend to kick around a lot, which certainly cuts aquatic visibility to IMC, so to speak.

Mike Neuman on Caribbean
Mike Neuman on Caribbean

If you’re looking for somewhere to go to get warm next winter, pull up this issue of Plane and Pilot News and look up Mike’s contact info.

No worries. The feral cats are gone from Cat Island. The fish, scuba shops, and the civilized, primitive pleasures of a Bahamian Island can be yours for a brief water flight in your single engine GA aircraft.

Really though, if anyone knows how to get the plates, please call Mike. And you might want to take a metal detector. There are still undiscovered treasures on those islands.