The relaxed life as a charter pilot in the Bahamas

Nassau International Airport, Bahamas, Piper Navajo, PA-31/CR, 1982

The aircraft was pre-flighted with the left engine unchained – the heavy anti-theft chain and lock removed from around the propellers. The oil was checked. I gave a quick sniff to the engine compartments – something is wrong if there is a difference from the familiar odor of hot oil.

All fuel tanks visually checked, seven drains passing a visual check for water and the smell test for unwanted jet fuel. The cabin and cockpit windows were cleaned, the cabin spic and span and there was cold beer and soft drinks in the ice chest for our guests.

The flight plan was filed, we were ready to go. All we needed was our two passengers.

They were already 30 minutes late. We were on island time so it no longer bothered me. I was in sync with the easy-going island rhythm and the absence of a time culture. The close proximity to Florida made it an even more interesting time-culture contrast.

Bahamas island from air
The pace of life is slow, but the flying is unmatched.

The speed of life in Florida was like a battleship at flank speed; the speed of life in the Bahamas like a beautiful wooden Man-of-War Cay-built row boat anchored just off the beach, rocking slowly back and forth with the peaceful surf. If you like the la dolce vita like me, you will love the life and the flying in the Bahamas.

Their lateness made our new company lawyer nervous; he was a feisty, likeable Englishman, in suit and tie and all wound up like a terrier. His job was to close a real estate deal that day. He arrived in the Bahamas only a few months ago. I told him to relax; the weather was excellent and flight down to the property should be a smooth one. My job as the part-time Air Treasure Cay taxi charter pilot and mechanic was to get them down there, circle the island that was for sale and make the flight there and back as comfortable and enjoyable as possible.

This was my second job after retiring from the Air Force. It followed an aerospace consultant job with TRW in Iran teaching the Imperial Iranian Air Force fighter pilots how to fly and fight safely. It was another interesting contrast: we evacuated Shiraz, Iran, in the middle of the revolution and immediately got this new job in the Bahamas. Going from the Middle East revolution to a job more like a paid, extended, flying vacation – it was another nice contrast and a good life.

It really is “Better-In-the-Bahamas” and I tell those people I like, those who live in Florida and have not visited the Out Islands, not to visit would be like living one mile from the rim of the Grand Canyon and never looking in. I felt lucky living and flying in the islands, enjoying the many new island landfalls, enjoying the brilliant mosaic of colors from all the reefs I got to know.

I hardly ever used a map. I knew all the headings to and from the islands surrounding New Providence.  I knew where the best reefs were, those filled with schools of yellow tail and hordes of spiny lobsters.

I slowly became an “island pilot.” I learned where the most beautiful reefs were and the tricks of how to fly to the get the right sun angle for the best reef colors; and I got to know the many beautiful deserted beaches, those remote places where time stands still and you can easily dissolve into the tranquility of the silence, clean sea air, pure white beaches and the beautifully clear waters. It was easy to get lost in a wonderful state of tranquility, one melting into space and time.  The Out Islands is the place to be for those who want to experience pure tranquility and dolce far niente.

The weather for the flight was typically great, with the friendly easterly trade winds. Winds from the built-in Bermuda high pressure system helps keep the entire island nation breezy cool.

Our two passengers, a man and his daughter, finally showed up – hot, sweaty, and a little bedraggled.  He apologized, and explained how they had gotten lost and how difficult it was for them to find the airport. We greeted them with a big smile, words of welcome, firm handshakes and handed him an ice-cold bottle of beer and his daughter a cold drink. The refreshments immediately changed the mood. It came easy.

I saw myself as a self-appointed flying ambassador and air tour guide for the Bahamas, and enjoyed it in many ways. I had read the history of the island nation and had so many good things to say about all the sweet island people I had met and made friends with on my many islands stops.

It is still a special place for me; where I first heard Reggae and danced the night away fueled by rum and cola; then at dawn, walked a long way home along the surf’s edge in the silence of a full moon.

The lawyer was from England, traveling with his wife and a daughter who was about 12 years old. A pretty girl with blue eyes, blonde hair, and a voice that had a special quality, a clear sweet polished Alice-in-Wonderland British accent. Her mother must have stayed behind on the hotel beach, but had made sure she had on a pretty print dress and a bow in her hair.

Navajo cabin
A Piper Navajo is an efficient way to get around the islands.

She was very proper, no sloppy flip-flops, no short cut jeans. She was indeed an English treasure, a beauty that would remind anyone of Alice-in-Wonderland and was as close to being like her as anyone I have met, before or since.

I let them remain outside on the ramp, to cool down in the shade of the aircraft, while I went aboard for the passenger-safety briefing checklist and life vests. I gave them the safety flight briefing outside since it was too hot inside the aircraft. We departed Nassau International, leveling off where the outside air was cool and the air was not as bouncy.

I set cruise power, trimmed-up hands off, engaged the autopilot and the altitude hold. I could take time now to just lean back and enjoy the flight, listen to the purr of the engines and watch the horizon for the puffy clouds.

The clouds are typically the first sign of landfall. On this flight, the first landfall is the north end of the Exumas archipelago. The islands are like sparking gems in a sea of dark blue. A paradise for the “gunkholers,” sailors who anchored for weeks at a time in the many isolated coves (who like to go nude most days).

We continued south to Crooked Island, where we circled and made our air tour of the island property, then climbed and turned back for Nassau. I looked back into the cabin to see if everyone was comfortable with the cabin temperature.

The two lawyers were busy talking business.

Alice seemed bored, so I waved to her to come forward and pointed to the co-pilot’s seat – then pointed to her father. She asked and he nodded to her and gave me a thumbs-up in approval. I moved the seat forward and placed a few pillows on the co-pilot’s seat so she could get a good look outside.

She could not reach the rudder pedals, but could easily reach the control wheel. Now strapped in and with a headset on, I suggested we do some fun flying and asked her to point to a cloud up ahead and told her I would dip a wing tip into that cloud.

We were on an instrument flight plan and I could have flown into all the clouds, but they were a little bumpy and it would be more fun for her to fly, to weave our plane around those towering canyons of clouds.

We dipped the wings into a few of those, and then I asked her to point to a cloud to fly to and then go above or below it. I was teaching her cloud dancing; only thing missing was the music.

The aircraft was my partner in the turns, climbs and descents, making them as slow and graceful as I could.

I told Alice that it was her turn to dance with the aircraft. I would point to a cloud and with a hand signal, ask her to dip the tip, or go over or under each of the smaller clouds that were building as we headed north. It was a wonderful surprise; she was as smooth and graceful with the aircraft as I was. And she did it as if she had done it for years – a wonderful learning experience for me to see how easily young people learn. She had no fear of failure and that makes learning easy and fun.

I then told her to pick the cloud and tell me what she planned to do. I looked into the cabin catching her father’s attention. I held both my hands up as Alice wove the aircraft through the halls of clouds.

Cloud dancing
Dancing with the clouds never gets old.

I gave him thumbs up with a smile. He nodded, responding with a big smile understanding that she was flying the aircraft and doing a beautiful job of it. As pilots say – she had “the hands.”

We had run out of island clouds and were back over the wide span of water south of New Providence Island. I showed her how to trim the aircraft hands off and asked if she knew how to get back to their hotel on Paradise Island.

She shook her head no.

I explained: go out of the airport to the main road, go right at the Red Rooster roundabout, go straight ahead past the Pigeon roundabout until you come to the Lobster roundabout; then go left over the bridge and you are home. She asked me to repeat it. She said, “That’s easy: right at the Rooster, past the Pigeon, left at the Lobster, over the bridge and we are back home.”

We both smiled at each other then went back to flying the aircraft.

I learned a lot from Alice that day, mostly how easilyy children learn to fly compared with the adults I taught to fly over the years. The big difference I observed is that they have little fear of making mistakes. With adults that fear of even a small mistake seems to block their learning and enjoyment.  We should all learn like children.

I asked her if she remembered the directions back to their hotel one more time before taking back control of the aircraft and contacting the control tower for landing. She repeated the directions to me; saying it like Alice would in a short poem, in that wonderful clear little girl English accent, ending with a big smile.

We shut down, I let down the passenger door with the built in steps and was first out, offering a hand to “Alice” and her father. He thanked me for the flight and for letting his daughter fly the aircraft.

I then asked him if he would have any trouble finding his way back into Nassau and his hotel on Paradise Island; and if he did, that his daughter could help.

She smiled and said to her father, “Daddy, it is really easy, we go out the airport road, go right at the Rooster, past the Pigeon and left at the Lobster over the bridge and we are home.”

She said it as perfect as could be. I could see the love and admiration he had for his charming and smart daughter, who had laid-it-on a bit.

I waited a moment not the break the spell she cast and thanked her for helping me fly and wished them a safe trip to England. I encouraged them to come back soon since there are many more islands to see and enjoy. With that, they nodded and walked off as her father beamed; it was the perfect ending to another beautiful day of flying in the Bahamas.

I hope wherever that once-young lady is that she might read this story someday, and enjoy it as much as I enjoyed meeting her and sharing this story.

5 Comments

  • Very nice story. I visited MYNN in our Navajo 5 years ago. I agree, the PA 31 is a great sightseeing machine with its giant windows. Unfortunately when the day came to leave IFR, Nassau Radio lost our flight plan – twice. We spent 1 hour on the hot tarmac of MYNN in an un-airconditioned plane waiting for a squawk code to get to KPBI. Once airborne, the departure controller was frantically busy handling every IFR flight in and out of Nassau and Freeport, as well as VFR pop-ups. You got the impression that a few people just decided to not show up for work that day. It’s Better in the Bahamas…..but adjust your expectations accordingly.

  • Great memories of Treasure Cay in it’s hey-day. Didn’t know about “Air Treasure Cay” then, but used Mackey and flew ourselves in a Seneca. The Out Islands are indeed a “Treasure”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *