This time of year, many pilots are dreaming of warmer weather and perhaps a flying getaway to the islands of the Bahamas or another Caribbean destination. Flying the islands is one of the most enjoyable and rewarding things any pilot can do in a small airplane – we’ve been doing it for decades at Sporty’s and we keep going back every year.
Today you can confidently navigate the islands with everything you need right on your iPad, including geo-referenced VFR and IFR en route charts, airport and airspace databases, synthetic vision and even ADS-B weather in certain spots.
Here we’re going to take a closer look at ForeFlight Mobile and Garmin Pilot, since they offer the most comprehensive resources for Caribbean-bound pilots.
Navigation and Charts
From a VFR pilot’s perspective, the most useful navigation charts are the two FAA Caribbean VFR Aeronautical Charts (CAC). These pick up where the Florida sectionals leave off, with CAC-1 covering the Bahamas and Cuba, while CAC-2 covers Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
These charts provide just about everything you’re used to seeing on VFR sectionals including airport data, airspace, VORs and NDBs, and ATC communication frequencies. The nice thing when viewing them on your iPad is that each aviation app seamlessly stitches them together, so all you need to do is load the map layer (US VFR Sectional in ForeFlight, VFR US in Garmin Pilot) and go flying. Best of all, they’re geo-referenced in the apps so you’ll see your airplane’s position on the chart.
If your travels take you beyond the Bahamas and down to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, you’ll find the FAA Puerto Rico TAC to be a helpful resource when flying in this region. It contains a greater level of detail compared to the CAC and shows additional airspace information. Just continue zooming in to see the enhanced detail.
Both apps offer an airport directory for the Caribbean airports and you can search them the same way as you would for a U.S. airport – just make sure to use the proper country code. For example, airports in the Bahamas and Dominican Republic start with M (MYNN for Nassau), and airports extending from Puerto Rico down through the West Indies begin with T (TNCM for Princess Juliana in St. Maarten).
Here you’ll find all the essential information about each airport including runway info, FBO details (sometimes), and communication frequencies. ForeFlight’s 3D Airport View also works throughout the Caribbean, although the quality of the aerial images can vary.
One important tip here: when you start planning your trip, verify that the regions you’re planning to visit are selected from the Downloads section of the app. Select Puerto Rico/Virgin Islands from the United States region to save the VFR CAC-1 and CAC-2 charts, and then Caribbean/Mexico/Central America to save the IFR low and high altitude en route charts (L-3, L-5, L-6, H-1 and H-2).
ForeFlight and Garmin Pilot also include data-driven map layers that are pretty good replacements for actual FAA charts. Turn on the Aeronautical layer in ForeFlight or the VFR layer under Maps in Garmin Pilot.
There are 2 additional considerations for the Caribbean iPad pilot when flying in the IFR system: en route charts and approach procedures. The en route chart requirement is an easy one since the FAA publishes both high and low altitude en route charts for the Caribbean and Mexico. These charts include most of Florida too, so you won’t have to switch between the U.S. En Route charts when heading out over the Atlantic Ocean.
The IFR high charts go a little further south into South America.
You’ll notice that most of the airways are either ATS/Oceanic routes (based on VORs), or RNAV routes (based on GPS). You can enter these airways in all 3 apps just like you would a traditional victor airway and they’ll take care of populating all of the intersections and waypoints in your flight plan. In our Caribbean flying experience, the airways are more a formality to get you on your way, and then Miami or San Juan Center will ultimately clear you direct to a waypoint near your destination.
There are also some oceanic planning charts in ForeFlight. With the Carib/Mexico low and high charts, these aren’t of much use, but they do offer a slightly different presentation.
Unless a major storm system is affecting the Caribbean (e.g. hurricane), the weather is almost always VFR in the islands. But if you’re flying IFR, you’ll still need approach charts for your destination and alternate. Unfortunately, the FAA does not publish terminal procedures for Caribbean airports, so your only option is to use Jeppesen’s Caribbean approach charts.
Jeppesen sells their international charts by region in ForeFlight, so you can purchase just the Latin & South America region, which includes Mexico, Bermuda, Central America and the Caribbean Islands. After adding this to your account, you’ll see the Jepp charts available for download in the main Downloads section of the app.
One other helpful feature of the Jepp plates is that they show transition altitude (where you switch to 29.92 on the altimeter and report flight levels instead of altitudes). While 18,000 feet is the standard in the US, in some parts of the Caribbean it’s much lower.
If you do add a Jeppesen subscription, you can also select the company’s data-driven IFR or VFR map layers. These are slightly different from ForeFlight’s presentation, and provide some additional information in an easy-to-read format.
Filing an IFR flight plan to a Caribbean destination is pretty seamless since all apps support the ICAO flight plan format. When it comes time to head back to the US, it’s a good idea to check with the local tower controller to make sure they can access an electronically filed ICAO flight plan. Several of the smaller airports we’ve visited over the years still require the ICAO flight plan form to be hand-delivered to the controller in advance.
Both apps deliver METARs and TAFs, where reported, throughout the Caribbean. This makes the airport Flight Category overlay on the map a good resource to use to display the equivalent of a weather depiction chart, showing areas of VFR/MVFR/IFR weather. The only difference you may notice in the METAR is that many of the airports report the altimeter setting as QNH (e.g. Q1016), which means it’s measured in millibars instead of inches of mercury (1013.2 mb = 29.92 inHg).
Radar coverage is pretty scarce in the Caribbean, but this isn’t much of a limitation provided there are no large-scale adverse weather systems in the region. Visibility is typically great, making it easy to see and avoid localized areas of precipitation. Garmin Pilot does a good job of drawing the edges of radar coverage – basically south Florida and around Puerto Rico.
From a planning perspective, you’ll find the Satellite map overlay to be a more useful tool for flight planning. ForeFlight colorizes the satellite data, making it easy to identify developed storm systems with high levels of moisture. The Graphical Forecast for Aviation is another good planning resource to check out as well, with model-based forecasts of cloud coverage, ceilings and visibility.
Also remember that some forecast products are global, including the Icing and Turbulence layers in ForeFlight. Make sure you select the Icing (Global) or Turbulence (Global) and not the US product.
For pilots flying with an ADS-B weather receiver like Sentry, you’ll be glad to know that it still provides some usefulness when flying outside the borders of the continental U.S. There are 3 ADS-B ground towers located across Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands (2 on PR, and 1 on St. Thomas). You’ll be able to start receiving data from these when within a few hundred miles of this area. You’ll get all the standard weather products, including radar imagery and METARs for the U.S territories.
When flying back to the continental U.S., you’ll start picking up data from the Florida ADS-B ground towers about 200 miles off the coast. The radar coverage extends about 75 to 100 NM off the coast, so this is helpful to start making routing decisions if it’s a stormy day in Florida.
There are 2 other benefits you’ll get when flying with an ADS-B receivers in the Caribbean: traffic and attitude-based synthetic vision. First, you’ll be able to see other airplanes equipped with ADS-B out transponders in your app, which is a nice benefit when out of ATC radar coverage. While this won’t be a “complete” traffic picture (since all GA airplanes aren’t ADS-B out), you’ll still find it useful to identify the airliners flying high above you.
Secondly, the AHRS built into today’s ADS-B receivers power the attitude-based synthetic vision feature in ForeFlight and Garmin Pilot. This provides a great view of the surrounding area on your iPad (including 3D terrain info for the volcanic islands) as you travel around.
Finally, SiriusXM is another option for weather in the islands. With a receiver like the Garmin GDL 52, you’ll get satellite coverage into the Bahamas, but the signal fades by the time you get down to the Turks and Caicos islands. The same limitation applies to the ground-based radar coverage area, so you’ll see Florida radar but nothing in the Out Islands or over Hispaniola.
Caribbean Pilot’s Guide
AOPA offers the latest version of the popular Bahamas and Caribbean Pilot’s Guide books, produced for over 3 decades, and are the go-to resources for detailed airport information based on the contributors’ years of island flying experience. These comprehensive books offers a unique mix of public data, personally verified airport information and helpful aerial pictures of airstrips throughout the Bahamas, Turks & Caicos, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands and more. It gives pilots an added measure of confidence that a 12-month old chart just can’t match.
This information is also available as an iPhone/iPad app, so you can replace the large (and fairly heavy) book. The app is basically a digital edition of the print book, with a helpful tab-style navigation menu on the right side of the screen. Each area of the Caribbean has its own tab, which are further divided by island and airport. In addition to data about runway length, frequencies and customs, there are some valuable editorial additions – including real world pilot reports of runway conditions, up-to-date airport pictures, and even reviews of hotels and restaurants. This is invaluable when planning a visit to a new island, and we’ve found the comments to be pretty accurate over the years.
The app is free to download and you can purchase an annual subscription to the Bahamas area, the Caribbean area, or both. Individual coverage areas cost $39.99.
The United States Customs and Border Protection requires that you electronically submit a passenger manifest a minimum of 1 hour prior to departure when flying a private aircraft from the U.S. to a foreign destination, and again when returning to the U.S. from a foreign location.
This can be done at the US Customs’ eAPIS website, but a more convenient alternative is to use the FlashPass eAPIS filing app. The Customs eAPIS website is a bit clumsy, and this app eliminates the complications present there by allowing you to complete and submit a manifest in a matter of seconds right from your iPad or iPhone. It allows you to store all your aircraft and passenger data, saving time on future manifests. Flash Pass is cloud-based, so you can use the service’s web interface when that option is more convenient.
Convenience comes with a price – the annual subscription plan is $78 – but if you fly a lot of international trips, this is well worth it.
It’s worth pointing out here too that Garmin/FltPlan.com also offers an eAPIS filing service for $269 annually that integrates seamlessly with their other flight planning services, including Garmin Pilot. For an additional $220 per year, Garmin can also comply with the advanced notice requirements of the CARICOM system (Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, St. Kitts and Nevis , St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Trinidad and Tobago). This is alternatively accomplished by submitting a manifest through the CARICOM eAPIS website.