Bahamas or Bust! Hans Sheline, 2015.

Bahamas or Bust: Flying an LSA to International Islands.

By Hans Sheline, 2015.

I started flying gliders & power planes when I was 14. After flying and researching planes for 40 years, and owning 1/5th of an older Cessna 172 for a few years, I finally bought my first brand new plane, a Pipistrel Virus, in December 2012. While I looked for a first rate, efficient, cost effective, safe, fun, carbon fiber plane made in the USA, Europe was the place I found it. Like many aspiring plane owners, I had my spreadsheets with over a dozen plane options, and two dozen variables focused on overall net cost and performance. The key items on my spreadsheet included: Safety (landing speed, parachute, construction, safety record), fun, operating costs, initial cost, resale value, speed, performance, etc. I came to the same conclusion that NASA did a few years ago: Virus is the winner. Of course there is always room for improvement (EG: fuel gauges, landing light, and ordering process), but Virus still wins. While it was tempting to consider a 4 seater, after some soul searching I realized that, like 90% of cars on the road, most small planes also fly with only one or two folks on board. The Virus 13 meter cost me ~$130k, and some significant work ordering and importing it. Options included: a top of the line ($3k) energy compensated variometer for soaring, glass panel (Dynon Skyview+ Stratus/foreflight), Garmin radio, nose wheel, + a few regular instruments, and a ballistic “whole plane” parachute for safety. I decided to register my new 13m Virus as a VFR S-LSA glider, for several reasons including resale value and fewer restrictions.
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(click thumbnails for larger images)

Then, after various local & domestic flying trips to Florida & Louisiana with family & friends, I decided with a friend to try our first overseas venture. Initially, the thought of going over water was intimidating, but because the 13 meter Virus has a Glide ratio of 24 to 1, even at 7500 ft elevation, we could easily glide to land, not only for the main crossing, but between islands as well. The international paperwork seemed intimidating, but after researching and doing it, international was not bad at all! The best references I found were:
http://www.bahamas.com/private-flying , http://www.aopa.org/Flight-Planning/Bahamas.aspx , and  www.pilotpub.com

My friend Matt and I planned a departure of January 19th 2015, over a month in advance, and surprisingly the weather cooperated beautifully. We left Houston at 11am, with ~ 12 knot tail wind component, stopped briefly in Panama City for a bathroom and fuel; and after only 7.5 hours total flight time, we arrived in Ft. Myers in time to have an 8pm dinner with my father, brother and sister in law. Landing was easy, but the weak landing light did make it challenging to taxi. The next day we flew direct to Marsh Harbor, Abaco Island, Bahamas, in 2.5 hours. A friend invited us to stay at their beautiful house on Elbow Cay for 3 days, during which we went scuba diving 2 of those days (see photo) and took a flight over the northern part of the Exumas.
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On day 5 we flew to N. Eleuthera Airport and stayed in a rental house for 2 days, which gave us a day to fly down to Cat Island and over to Staniel Cay Airport in the Exumas. Then on Day 6 we flew back to Ft Pierce for customs, which was quick and easy. Note: the Customs agent said our plane needed 12” N letters to fly internationally. On the way back we encountered colossal 65mph headwinds. So much so, that we hovered the plane at zero groundspeed and later decided to stop early in New Orleans. After enjoying Bourbon Street and the WW II National Museum the morning of day 7, we flew back to Houston in time for dinner. See Flight map.

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The total flight time including all side trips was 27.4 hours. The total fuel burned was 119.2 gallons. So, even keeping the RPM at the top of the green arc (5400rpm), we burned only 4.35 gph. This is with two 6’4” guys, 4 duffel bags, emergency equipment, & almost full fuel, so we were at our maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) for most departures. The most impressive thing is that we were quite comfortable, even flying 4 hours at a time. We did need to shift our weight every hour or so, but that is still amazing, considering how small the Virus appears on the outside.
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When we were out on the Islands looking at the charts, it was tempting to “just keep going”: to the Turks and Caicos, to the Dominican Republic, to Puerto Rico, and beyond. Now I’m looking at other possible adventures including: All around the US, Alaska, Canada, a full Caribbean loop, and Central & South American loops. Also, we are planning to buy another Virus. This time the experimental 100 hp short (10 meter) wing Virus “SW” glider, with IFR capability. It turns out that ordering the right equipment for an experimental glider is not clear cut or easy, but the price of the Euro has declined significantly, which will reduce the cost. It can cruise at ~145 kts, versus my current 13 meter Virus that cruises at ~115 kts. Although the SW “only” has a glide ratio of ~15-17 to 1, that is still double most other planes and as I found out over the past couple years, the soaring conditions in SE Texas are not as good as they are further west.
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So, the next time your mind wanders across national boundaries, don’t let the LSA or “experimental” label stop you from following your dreams!

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