Flying Into Sun 'n Fun

A stowaway cat leads to an interesting flight.

man standing in front of small plane
The author after a silent arrival at Lakeland.Courtesy Les Abend

After moving full time to northern Florida, attending Sun ’n Fun in Lakeland was an easy proposition. My Connecticut friends were making the traditional trek from the Northeast, which made the event even more desirable. They are a motley crew with diverse experience levels from aerobatics to corporate jets, with me being the only airline pilot. The camaraderie includes standard verbal abuse, our primary method to ­indicate genuine affection for each other.

As my departure date drew nearer, I debated the options of a two-hour drive versus a 50-minute flight. Having my own car allowed for more flexibility, but the fact I had never checked the box of experiencing a Sun ’n Fun arrival added more weight to the decision. Almost exactly 40 years ago, I was based in Lakeland as a Beech 99 copilot with Chautauqua Airlines in the days regional airlines were called “commuters.”

The airline was my first real, professional pilot employment after graduating from Purdue University only a couple of months prior. At our bread-and-butter stop in Orlando, copilots were assigned the task of leading passengers out to the airplane from the gate area because the ramp was oftentimes a labyrinth of jets and whirling propellers. We were also responsible for loading carry-on bags in the belly pod, calculating weight and balance data, and sometimes flying the airplane. For whatever reason, the memory of a particular blunder with the commuter airline always seems to surface.

Before departing on the last leg of the evening from Orlando to Lakeland, a deplaning passenger had taken me aside, asking for reassurance that her cat occupying a pet carrier in the rear baggage compartment of the Beech 99 would be available for pickup via the baggage carousel. I told her that I would personally inform the ground crew. After pointing out the cat carrier in the aft cargo compartment to the baggage loader, I strode into the terminal to retrieve our Lakeland passengers. Not untypical, we had none.

I walked back out to the airplane, checked that the belly-pod latches were secured, climbed aboard and yanked the entry door closed. Our empty flight home was ­uneventful. Completing the shutdown ­parking checklist, we removed our David Clarks. It took only a moment before the captain and I exchanged ­puzzled looks. Yup, we were hearing the cry of a feline in distress. The poor ­animal had never been offloaded in Orlando. Great.

Our lone Lakeland ticket agent was more interested in her drive home than reuniting the owner of an upset cat. Reluctantly, she did locate the owner/passenger. Apparently, because of a mechanical delay earlier in the day, the woman had missed her connection and was remaining in Orlando at a motel until her rebooked flight departed the following morning.

But I had a solution. Rather than hiring a taxi service, I offered to deliver the furry stowaway via my own car for half the price. My motivation involved a little guilt for not having rechecked the aft baggage compartment. Extra beer money for a poor, starving commuter copilot wouldn’t hurt either—my monthly salary was $750. For ­whatever ­reason, it became an uphill battle over the course of a month for the $50 requested as ­reimbursement from the airline, but eventually, I ­prevailed. More important, I was gratified to have reunited cat and passenger despite the high-pitched complaints emanating from within the pet carrier on the drive to Orlando. Memories.

Once the weather indicated it was a go for an airplane launch to Sun ’n Fun, I began the process of reviewing the rules of the road for a Lakeland arrival and departure. The concept of having to maintain 100 knots—because that was the ­appropriate speed category for the Arrow—seemed slightly foreign to my psyche. But I needed to get over my retired 777 airline self.

Beyond the big picture were the ­various turning points. It seemed ­simple enough. Smoke stacks over Lake Parker. Interstate 4. Golf course. Cake tower—whatever the heck that was. V-shaped building. ­Blue-roofed airport terminal. Runway/­taxiway. Green dot. Orange dot. And all of this was to be accomplished with radio silence. Simple. What could ­possibly go wrong?

The “expect heavy traffic” phrase was probably an understatement, so I was pleased to have installed ADS-B via a Garmin GTX 345 transponder two years ago. Aware that my retention rate is not what it used to be, I downloaded the entire notam onto the Books app of the iPad.


Read More from Les Abend: Jumpseat


Feeling relatively prepared, I pointed myself and the magenta line toward the VPKR waypoint, initially contacting Daytona Beach Approach for flight following. Orlando Class B clearance was a nonissue, the controller accommodating my altitude request without hesitation.

With the arrival ATIS offering only static, and the departure ATIS offering only a litany of departure instructions, the only source for weather was EFIS. And the only arrival ­instructions were being announced periodically by a controller on the approach frequency. The instructions were slightly nonstandard, alerting aircraft to report one mile east of the Lake Parker smoke stacks.

My dilemma was that “report” meant to audibly announce, but no one was breaking with radio silence, so I wasn’t going to be the first admonishment. Approaching the smoke stacks, I anxiously awaited my turn to rock my wings. Apparently, my rocking was premature; the controller must have identified two other airplanes before me, which I found disconcerting in that I hadn’t visually acquired the targets floating around my GNS 430.

After receiving a compliment to my superior wing-rocking skills, the controller instructed me to fly directly to the cake tower and then to the runway, once again an alteration of the published notam. But no worries, I adjusted without issues.

Once tuned to the final approach controller’s frequency, I heard, “Low wing over the cake tower, lower your gear.” Initially patting myself on the back for actually identifying what really appeared to be a giant cake, I deflated slightly. The landing gear should have been lowered earlier as per the notam, eliminating an element of risk for the event. That being said, my airline-pilot brain has difficulty dragging the wheels in the slipstream and burning extra fuel. My bad.

Entering a brief downwind, I was soon instructed to turn directly to the orange dot on the taxiway that was substituting as a runway for the event. The last instruction was to land “on or after” said dot. The controller was pleased enough with my 27,000 hours of turning airmanship to offer an accolade.

With the eyes of every attendee at Sun ’n Fun watching (yes, I’m delusional), I managed to accomplish an almost praise-worthy touchdown. Whew. Despite the 33 volunteers with reflective vests and orange wands, taxiing went slightly awry when a guide’s errant signal pointed me elsewhere. Eventually, I arrived at the preordained general aviation tiedown spot without scars.

I shut down the airplane, ­thinking: “An arrival without uttering one ­syllable? Cool. Why couldn’t the sounds of silence have been possible during my career?”