Gear Up: Short Winter Trips
It seems like a paradox for an airplane based in Florida, but my wife, Cathy, and I fly our Cheyenne less in the winter months than any other time of the year. Why? Well, because the winter weather is so consistently agreeable, there is little incentive to leave home base in Tampa. When we do stir ourselves, there is little inclination to go very far. These meteorological truths do mean that we habituate ourselves to some fearsomely great locales nearby — most notably in the Florida Keys.
Key West has been a favorite since we moved to Tampa 30 years ago. Back then I was the proud owner of a Cessna P210. I was a foreigner in Florida, my mouth agape at the weather, not to mention the fauna and flora. For a pilot so recently based at Chicago’s Midway Airport, flying to Key West seemed like going to the moon.
Early on I would even fly to Key West for lunch. This was a complete show-off maneuver, but I enjoyed proposing it to people who were used to driving eight or more hours to get to the southernmost key. In the 210, the trip was about 1 plus 25 each way. It just seemed so exotic that I could not resist its temptations. One day I colluded with a psychiatrist friend of mine to sneak away at noon. When we landed, a cab driver asked if we’d be interested in a topless restaurant. The psychiatrist wasn’t a psychiatrist for nothing; he quickly assented. (Remember, we were 30 years younger, OK?)
Titillated and expectant, we were ushered onto a deck overlooking the water. Indeed, we saw topless human forms, some with little rings through their areolae. They were all men. Welcome to Key West. I forget what I had for lunch.
Flying to Key West was a treat for a pilot discovering the use of his radar. While over the Gulf of Mexico, I could aim the radar down and “paint” the Keys — a scimitar of color on the otherwise blank screen. These wet legs, coasting out around Fort Myers, Florida, were the longest overwater routes I had undertaken up until then. They occasioned all sorts of concerns for this inexperienced pilot. I am surprised in retrospect that I didn’t fly the trip in a wetsuit.
One year, when my daughter came home from college for spring break, she brought some friends along. “Oh, Dad, can you take us to Key West?” she asked. “All my friends are so impressed we have an airplane.” OK, sure.
When I went to load the girls up, I confronted huge suitcases and skeptical passengers. The suitcases were all very, very heavy. “Textbooks,” I was told, “for studying on the beach.”
Unfortunately, the coeds had expected something more. It turned out that my daughter had a poster of a Boeing 767 in her dorm room, but hadn’t bothered to explain to her friends the difference between that and a 210.
Several years later my daughter allowed as to the heft of the suitcases; they were packed with Rolling Rock beer. The underage students did not plan to miss out on the Key West fun. I thought of poor US Airways; they had to cart that stuff all the way down the eastern seaboard.
Almost 20 years ago, my wife and I upgraded to a Cessna 340. This miraculous machine cut my overwater worries by more than half. Not only that, but I felt like a player on the ramp. The 340 is a pretty airplane, and I loved its “ramp presence.” The FBO was getting more upscale, though, and the price of fuel was going up. We were burning twice as much gas, but the trip was only 10 to 15 minutes shorter. The ramp fee for a twin was more. On these legs I was becoming aware of the relationship between cost and speed. For short trips, bigger and faster airplanes may look good on the ramp, but the cost goes up much more than the travel time comes down. Nonetheless, I loved the view as the Keys came into sight and we maneuvered to land.
Those landings are almost always on Runway 9 at KEYW. The Bermuda high and the topography make this the favored runway; there are very few tire marks on the landing end of 27 — they are all on 9. The winds are usually 10 to 15 knots and within 30 degrees of the runway at most, so the airport is a comfortable one for most airplanes. That said, it is only 4,800 feet long, and I note that Southwest is now flying Boeing 737s in there. When I asked my friend Rob Haynes about his first 737 trip to KEYW, he said it was a captain-only landing but felt comfortable. He sent me a photo of the airplane with air stairs pulled up to it with a laconic message: “Survived.”