An Empty Sky at Tampa

Even if it’s not from the air, we’re enjoying the evening sunsets from our back porch. Stephen Yeates

For 20 years, airplanes—big ones—have set a daily cadence. Early departures roar overhead crowing the daybreak as reliably as a rooster. The departure procedure from one runway involves a heading change to avoid flying low over homes, but some airplanes are moving so fast that they thunder over my sleeping neighbors before heading over the water.

The real estate agent who represented our house when we bought it said, “You should know that there is some airplane noise due to proximity to the airport.”

I thought to myself, “Good.” I like airplane noise. Aloud I said, “Oh, I’m sure this defect has been incorporated into the asking price.”

“Of course,” said the realtor. And so, for the past 20 years, I’ve enjoyed living just about a mile and a half south of Tampa International Airport (KTPA) in Florida.

When the airport is using runways 1L and 1R, the landing airplanes fly by my backyard observation post at altitudes as low as 540 feet. I know this because ZERUR, a step-down fix on the approach to 1L, is just that high above the water. In the evening, martini in hand, my wife and I could watch the steady parade of arrivals. The Boeing 777, British Airways from London, the Airbus 340, Lufthansa from Frankfurt, Germany, and the seasonal Norwegian Boeing 787s made for the big arrivals, but the steady stream of Southwest 737s and JetBlue Airbus 320s mixed with American and United flights of various types kept the sky full of big-plane traffic. Sometimes Air Force One would arrive on 1R. If we stood at the front door, it looked as if that 747 was going to hit us on the head.

In the summer, when thunderstorms abound, my wife and I would sit in an alcove sheltered from the storm and listen to Tampa Approach on a handheld radio. We could hear and watch the airliners on as they negotiated weather and fuel-remaining calculations.

Today, there are virtually no flights. Where we once averaged 581 operations per day, now we are now lucky to count 100. COVID-19. The sky is empty. For long stretches of time, all you can hear are small birds chirping or large birds squawking. Life has slowed along with the air traffic, and we’ve gone into shelter- in-place or self-isolation. There are fewer contrails over nearby fixes.

The biggest airplanes we see now are freighters. FedEx, Atlas, Prime Air and UPS make up a substantial proportion of flights. Spirit Airlines has dropped Tampa for the time being as best I can tell. Dominant Southwest Airlines is still coming and going, albeit less frequently. Somehow, the blue, red and orange colors on the doughty 737s make me smile. They are like the little engine that could.

My airline-pilot friends are idle. When they fly, they report strange pairings and empty airplanes. One flew a JFK-to-Cancun flight with just one passenger (the Cancun-to-Miami flight did better). Another friend had three legs to fly on go-home day—two were deadheads, and others had their entire trips canceled. All are worried. Commuting has become a challenge as airlines curtail flights. One of my friends took her airline’s offer to stay home and get paid for 55 hours a month for the next three months.

Read More from Dick Karl: Gear Up

I get a lot of internal airline memos forwarded to me. CEOs try to set expectations, warn of tough times and plead for an all-in-this-together vibe. Some union missives are harshly critical, while others sound more cooperative. I wonder which is the better tactic in these sparse times.

I go to the airport, but I don’t go anywhere. One day, my friend Hector and I did an engine wash on our Citation CJ1. It was the highlight of my week. The people at Signature Flight Support are idle too. They wear masks and have a hold-short area in front of the counter to keep eager pilots from getting too close.

On two occasions, I just couldn’t take it anymore. With my kids far away and in the hotspots of Boston and Delaware, I couldn’t go see them, so I found excuses to make two short trips in Florida: one to Vero Beach, the other to Melbourne. When departing from Runway 19L at KTPA, I was given the instruction to back-taxi down the 8,300-foot runway—unheard of. Usually, I’d have to wait for landing traffic and then make an immediate takeoff, with traffic on a 3-mile final. For the month of April, I flew a total of two hours. Each trip was scary quiet—like sitting in an empty church. I had never before been cleared anywhere direct while transiting Orlando airspace, but on all four legs, I was sent pretty much directly on my way.

The frequencies were quiet—an exercise in solitude. I found myself wanting to transmit, “You still there?” even though the flights were only 30 minutes long. At some towers, clearly the clearance-delivery controller was also the ground and tower controller, and probably also in charge of vacuuming the cab. Even the traffic on TCAS was sparse. I wondered if it was working. The internet is full of robust advice. It’s a time for reflection, a time to separate what’s important from what is habit, a time to take stock. I get that.

But what I really want to do is get back in the air. I want to take long trips to see my children and grandchildren. I want to push the throttles up and set takeoff power. I need to.

By the time you read this, things will be a little clearer but not as clear as we’d like. This is like an ILS where you have ground contact but can’t see the runway. The sky is empty, the silence eerie and the future sobering.

This story appeared in the August 2020 issue of Flying Magazine

Dick Karl
Dick KarlAuthor
Dick Karl is a cancer surgeon who appreciates the beauty and science involved in both surgery and flying. Dick’s monthly Gear Up celebrates the human side of flying. He writes about his enthusiasm for both the machines and the people who fly and maintain them.

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