Gear Up: Short Winter Trips

The keys to happiness.

Gear Up Short Winter Trips

Gear Up Short Winter Trips

** Maneuvering for landing at Key West's
Runway 9 on a beautiful day.**

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.”

Thirteen years ago, we bought a Cheyenne, and that changed our Key West flying even more. Not only did we have two engines; now they were turbines. By then I was even daring to fly from Tampa to New Orleans over the Gulf of Mexico, so the jaunt to Key West was nothing.

When we got the airplane, I hired an instructor to do initial training in the actual airplane. This was a good plan for initiation. You can practice important emergency events in the simulator, but the feel of the airplane and the practical aspects of its operation are good to learn in the real thing. After some eight hours of ground school and some local flying, we set out in early January to fly around Florida.

The first trip involved flying to Vero Beach, Florida, and on to Key West. Surprisingly, the winds were 360 at 16, gusting to 20. Key West was landing to the west! As we rocked down the approach path, I lowered the right wing and wham; we landed and were almost devoid of any forward motion. Jeez, I had just bought this thing and now I had driven the mains up through the wings, or so it felt. We taxied up to the FBO, where the instructor pointed to the right engine. The oil door was flapping in the breeze. I had not secured it properly. I was chagrined at having treated this magnificent turboprop with such inattention and lack of finesse, but it turned out that no harm was done.

The Cheyenne has proved to be a perfect airplane for us in many ways, not the least of which is the style with which it takes us to the Keys. Recently, we were invited to a new destination, the Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo, Florida. This is a very high-end establishment, and the airport, 07FA, is private. To land there, you must register in advance and sign a four-page document. It covers noise abatement procedures (no short approaches — final must be at least two miles, no use of APU longer than 15 minutes, etc.); operation policies (noise level above 83.1 dBA prohibited, Garrett TPE331-powered aircraft prohibited, no touch-and-go, etc.); fuel policies (only jet-A available, aircraft owners/operators must be present during entire fueling "evolution," etc.); parking policies (by categories I-V, by weight; the Cheyenne was category III — over 8,000 pounds); and a release, indemnify and hold-harmless document. Also, a certificate of insurance with an endorsement naming the Ocean Reef Club Inc. as additional insured must be attached to the packet.

All this sounds onerous but wasn’t. We were all set within an hour and departed Tampa for the 58-minute trip via the Cypress VOR. Our friends Rob and Kathy Haynes were waiting at the airport and videoed our arrival. From the cockpit, it looked like this: The airport was a little hard to spot, as it sits right next to a golf course. For a moment I thought I was looking at a golf-cart path lined with azaleas, but it was actually a runway lined by bougainvilleas. I don’t know about you, but most fields I have landed at are not bordered by blossoms of any kind.

Seventy feet wide and 4,456 feet long, the runway looked diminutive. I waited until the GPS read at least two miles before turning final. Trees and lush foliage encircled the approach end of Runway 4. I thought I was low, but on speed. The approach is four, not three, degrees. I found the whites and the reds to be in the right place. As soon as I flared, we touched down. It wasn’t a rough landing; there just wasn’t that moment or two of float followed by caress that is so pleasing. I was happy with it, though, as the runway looked shorter than it was.

On the ground, Rob and Kathy were shooting video of the entire mess. When prompted to narrate, Rob intoned, “Perfect four-degree glidepath. Landing Ocean Reef. No pressure, just everybody’s watching. Gusty crosswinds. Unfamiliar airport. Piece of chocolate cake.” At this point, the speck on the video that was us roared by and the camera panned quickly down the runway. At this juncture, Rob intoned, “Now, if he can just get her stopped …” You can hear Kathy laughing.

We had, needless to say, a spectacular stay. The entire club is beautifully manicured and the grounds are gorgeous. The next morning, we went to pay the parking fee for nonmembers of $252.63. I asked with trepidation about the fuel price, even though we had enough gas to get to Tampa with plenty of reserve. To my amazement, the price was low — $2 less than home base — so we filled her up. Just another great trip to the Keys.