Fly the Caribbean! The many beautiful islands of the Caribbean lie at our doorstop off the southeast coast of the U.S. Imagine that the distance between the South Florida coast to the shores of South America is only 1,500 nautical miles. One third of that distance will take you from Florida to the Turks & Caicos, the second third will take you from the Turks & Caicos to east of Puerto Rico and on to Tortola, and the last third will take you from Tortola all the way to the coast of South America.
While I know this is not a major concern for Twin Commander owners, the longest distance over water will be about an 80-mile stretch between Florida and the Islands of the Bahamas.
The view of the Caribbean and its many islands from 8,000 feet all the way to FL 450 is absolutely amazing. The diversity of the destination, of the culture, of the language, and of the history really make it a very unique experience. And you can fly all the way down the Caribbean in a mere five to seven hours.
It’s pretty straightforward. The main thing to confirm is that your insurance covers you down south. A phone call will give you an answer quickly. Remember that you also need your pilot’s certificate, current medical, aircraft registration, airworthiness certificate, a U.S. Customs sticker, and a passport for each person traveling in the plane.
Over the years we have never been checked for any type of documentation related to the plane or insurance. However, upon re-entering the U.S., Customs and Border Protection typically will ask to see your pilot’s certificate, medical, and aircraft registration. It is a requirement for international flights that your aircraft have an F.C.C radiotelephone station license, and you have an F.C.C. radiotelephone operator’s license.
As for navigation charts, you should order the appropriate Jeppesen IFR en route and terminal approach charts from Jeppesen’s Central & South America, Caribbean collection, either through your Jeppesen chart subscription or as a Trip Kit (jeppdirect.jeppesen.com). Also, a Journey to the Caribbean should not be undertaken without the latest copy of the Bahamas and Caribbean Pilot Guide that has been published by John and Betty Obradovich since 1996.
Launching for the Caribbean
First thing to do, of course, is to file an international flight plan. I’m happy to report that flightplan.com does a beautiful job of selecting the route and giving you an updated winds aloft report tailor made for your aircraft performance. It also constructs your flight plans in the newest ICAO form; you should print these for every leg of your journey before you leave.
Keep in mind that flightplan.com will give you the route and the option of filing your flight plan from the U.S. to a foreign destination, but when you launch from a foreign destination back to the U.S. the system has no capability of filing the flight plan on your behalf. That means you will have to hand your flight plan to the local authority to file on your behalf.
In addition to an international flight plan, you’ll also have to file an outbound eAPIS when departing the U.S. Keep in mind that an eAPIS is good for the entire day of departure. You don’t have to submit a revised eAPIS If your filed departure time changes as long as the new time is on the same calendar day, and with the same departure and arrival airports and same passenger manifest.
Cheap Fuel, No Prist
The next thing to keep in mind is fuel. Jet fuel is readily available throughout the Caribbean, but not always with Prist. If your airplane requires Prist additive, make sure to carry enough with you for the entire trip.
In some places in the Caribbean fuel can be surprisingly inexpensive, such as in Puerto Rico. We use Borinquen airport (TJBQ) as a technical stop as well as airports in the Dominican Republic where the price is between $4 and $4.50 a gallon.
Fuel cards are accepted in most places, as is cash, of course. Credit cards are not always accepted. I would also highly recommend ordering fuel releases though one of the fuel companies or brokers before you venture down south.
On most of the Caribbean islands private flying was set up by the British when they had influence over pilots in the region. Most islands require you to submit gen decs, short for general declaration form, on arrival and departure. Usually no fewer than three and sometimes up to five or six copies must be submitted.
So the advice is to prepare a set of gen decs before you leave home (in many cases you can find the proper forms online) with your pilot information, tail number, passenger passport number, etc. Leave blank the date, the origin, and the destination, then fill in that information when known and sign the forms as required. Keep in mind that you might need 10 for every stop so if you have four stops in the Caribbean, you might end up needing 40 copies.
Handlers are not usually required in the islands because English is spoken everywhere, with the exception of Hispaniola and the French islands. I personally do not visit the French islands because they share all the bad habits of Europe, the most interesting one being the lunch break when no service will be provided between noon and 2:00 p.m. Also, landing fees and fuel are expensive.
As for air traffic control, you will see that Miami Center as well as San Juan Center cover a very large area with radar separation services. They do a pretty good job, too. All of this comes at a cost if you fly from one international destination to another. If you fly from the U.S. to a foreign destination or a foreign destination back to the U.S. you will not be charged, but if you use the services of Miami Center after taking off from Nassau en route to Tortola, for example, you will be charged 30 cents a mile for ATC service.
If your monthly charge is less than $200 you won’t be billed, but if you reach the $200 mark then you will receive an FAA bill. No, this is not new; charging for ATC services internationally has been in place since the mid-1990s. It has not been strictly enforced, but you are likely to see these fees collected more and more.
Because Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the U.S., you do not have to clear U.S. customs when flying nonstop from the U.S. to Puerto Rico, or when flying nonstop from Puerto Rico to the U.S. I mentioned that Borinquen on the northwest shore of Puerto Rico is an airport we use often because you can clear U.S. customs there if you are arriving from anywhere other than the United States, get cheap fuel, and then fly to any airport in the U.S. without having to clear with U.S. customs again.
Even though you don’t need to clear U.S. customs in Puerto Rico if you are arriving from or departing to mainland U.S., you do need to have a signed U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspection form before departing for the U.S. verifying that you are not carrying any foreign plants, animals, or garbage (I’m talking food-wise).
Keep in mind that Borinquen and some other airports in Puerto Rico do not operate on weekends, but they will arrange for weekend service on an overtime basis. Expect to pay about $300 for the USDA to perform their service, but at least the fuel is cheap and, depending on the range of your aircraft, it’s a clean shot anywhere you want to land in the U.S.
The Caribbean has many exciting hotels and resorts, from bed & breakfast and mom and pop operations to deluxe resorts and huge resort complexes. Every island has its own character, a destination in itself. Some islands are must-see, some are easy to fly to, all are enjoyable.
Weather information – satellite, radar, winds aloft, TAFs and METARs – is readily available with an internet connection. Keep in mind the weather website offered by Air Journey. We can give you all of these details in one website page. Feel free to call us anytime to organize a tailor-made program to your liking.
Looking forward to sharing with you exciting destinations in the Caribbean.
Tail Winds and Blue Skies!