Snowbirds on the Space Coast

“As I watched through binoculars as Crew Dragon sailed downrange at 70,000 feet, I felt something stir inside me that I haven’t felt in a long time, and a keen interest in spaceflight was rekindled after a long dormancy.” SpaceX/Unsplash

I have to confess that I have a very love-hate relationship with the state of Florida. On one hand, this upper-Midwestern country boy has come to crave white sand, salt water and warm winter sunshine, all of which Florida is blessed with in great abundance. On the other hand, I am decidedly not a fan of angrily snarled traffic, endless bleached-concrete sprawl, and the “Florida Man” drama that continually emanates from America’s third-most-populous state.

I’ve spent a lot of time here for work and pleasure over the years, and have come to appreciate Florida’s diverse flora and fauna, and understatedly beautiful wilderness in its yet-untouched spots (generally those too soggy to build another strip mall on). But most every mark that man has made upon the Sunshine State is brutally ugly.

A few thousand feet of altitude improves the state’s cosmetics considerably, and it is easy to see why general aviation thrives here despite the summer heat and humidity, fierce afternoon thunderstorms, periodic hurricanes, and occasionally frantic air traffic. There’s a lot to see and many interesting airports to visit, and if you ever tire of civilization’s dubious charms, the unspoiled paradise of the Bahamas is but a short hop away.

That said, my time exploring Florida by air with my Piper Pacer and with friends’ airplanes did little to tempt me into moving here, even after I was introduced to Spruce Creek Airpark. It wasn’t until sailing the state’s Atlantic coast in 2017 that Florida finally clicked for me. In a state with more coastline, islands and boats than any other in the Lower 48, Florida is, above all, a place to be experienced and enjoyed on the water. This was driven home even more when I did my seaplane rating at Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base.

When my airline assigned me a position as a New York City-based Boeing 737 captain last fall, Windbird was still in the southern Caribbean. Dawn and I decided to sail back north, taking advantage of New York’s coastal location to live in base for part of the year. Neither of us had any interest, however, in braving a northern winter aboard a sailboat set up for tropical cruising. Florida was the natural choice for a winter interlude: warm weather, lots of direct flights to New York (pre-COVID-19), and relatively easy access to our favorite anchorages in the Bahamas (also pre-COVID-19).

On our 2017 cruise, we had stopped at a town that would make an ideal base. Cocoa Village is a friendly, atmospheric town with a restored old-Florida downtown that occupies a pretty spot on the Indian River. It has lots of shops, restaurants and a world-class hardware store within easy walking distance of its cheap and cheerful marina. Importantly, it is about 35 minutes east of Orlando International Airport (KMCO). We reserved a slip and pointed Windbird’s bow north from Bonaire. Ten days and 1,300 nautical miles later, we arrived at our new winter home.

One of my top priorities for our stay was to get checked out in a local rental airplane, so shortly after arrival, I headed across the river to busy little Merritt Island Airport (KCOI). The first place I visited was a large Part 141 flight school with nice airplanes, a largely foreign clientele, and starch-collared instructors with shiny epaulets on their shoulders. The harried receptionist was rather confused as to why an ATP would want to fly a lowly Piper Warrior, but eventually quoted an eyebrow-raising rate and stipulated a minimum 10-hour (!) checkout.

Voyager Aviation, just across the airfield, was much more my speed, with a weathered but airworthy PA-28 at a reasonable rate, and a laid-back young instructor who conducted an efficient checkout and told me that my thousand hours of dual given in the type was still pretty apparent, lack of currency notwithstanding. Thus, Dawn and I gained access to a handy single-engine airplane with which to explore east Central Florida, the first significant GA flying we’ve done together since selling the Pacer four years ago. Dawn was pretty ecstatic to get back in the air.

On January 19, Dawn and I drove up to Titusville to watch our first rocket launch and a fairly noteworthy one at that: the SpaceX Crew Dragon’s in-flight abort test, the new design’s final unmanned flight before becoming the first post-shuttle American spacecraft to carry NASA astronauts. One of my few regrets in life is that I never got to see a shuttle launch before its 2011 retirement, and at first glance, SpaceX’s small rocket-borne capsule seems like a disappointing step back to the days of Gemini.

Read More from Sam Weigel: Taking Wing

But the more you learn about the shuttle program, you realize that it was an extraordinarily complex, ungainly design with quite a few compromises required to fulfill one specific, now-obsolete mission: to haul a lot of big, heavy equipment to orbit along with the humans required to assemble and operate it, and to reenter the atmosphere and land like an airplane. The shuttle had a number of failure modes that were not survivable, and in retrospect, it’s not terribly surprising that two vehicles and crews were lost in 135 missions. The SpaceX approach (like NASA’s pre-shuttle designs) is intrinsically safer: Put the people in a sturdy capsule on the pointy end of a liquid-fueled rocket with lots of engines for maximum reliability, and give the capsule its own rocket engines to get away quickly if things go drastically wrong.

It was Crew Dragon’s launch escape system that Dawn and I went to Titusville to see in action. After a delay for weather, the Falcon 9 rocket launched from Kennedy Space Center’s Pad 39A at exactly 11:30 a.m., flickering and crackling viciously as it accelerated through a cloud layer and reappeared above. At T plus 85 seconds, while the rocket was experiencing maximum aerodynamic pressure (max Q), the flame abruptly disappeared as the nine Merlin 1D engines were intentionally shut down.

Several things happened in quick succession: The Crew Dragon capsule automatically separated from the rocket, the LES’ eight SuperDraco thruster engines fired and accelerated the capsule up and away at 11.8 m/s2, and the unpowered Falcon rocket wobbled, tumbled and exploded in a massive fireball eerily reminiscent of Challenger, right down to the debris field that continued on a ballistic trajectory marked by vapor trails. The crowd gasped, then cheered as Crew Dragon shot clear of the fireball and arced eastward en route to a successful water landing seven minutes later.

As I watched through binoculars as Crew Dragon sailed downrange at 70,000 feet, I felt something stir inside me that I haven’t felt in a long time, and a keen interest in spaceflight was rekindled after a long dormancy. From that point, our winter was arranged around Kennedy Space Center’s launch schedule. We got to see quite a few more Falcon 9 and Atlas V launches, including several at night, both from Titusville and the surprisingly good viewing from Windbird’s aft deck (though the COVID-19 lockdown kept us from watching a launch at Playalinda Beach or KSC itself).

My Kindle library quickly bulged with space-related volumes, and I spent hours on YouTube watching videos from Apollo missions, the shuttles and the International Space Station. Every time Dawn and I flew the Warrior, we’d inevitably make a pass down the 15,000-foot Runway 15 at the Shuttle Landing Facility (KTTS), enjoying close-up views of the Vehicle Assembly Building, Pad 39A and the shuttle mock-up parked halfway down the strip. A total of 78 shuttle missions touched down here, and though you can only land with prior permission, GA pilots can legally do a flyby when the restricted area R-2934 is cold. It’s a neat experience.

Dawn and I sailed north to New York in late April, and so we watched online when SpaceX’s historic Demo-2 mission blasted off on May 30 and delivered NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the ISS some 19 hours later. The two-month test was a complete success, and Crew Dragon is expected to be human-rated shortly. About the time you’re reading this, Dawn and I will be making our fall migration from New York back down the Eastern Seaboard to Florida, hopefully arriving in time to watch the launch of Crew-1, Crew Dragon’s first operational mission to the ISS.

This winter, we plan to do a lot more exploring with the Warrior, and will hopefully duck over to the Bahamas with Windbird for a month or two. I’ve found a lot of things to like about Florida, and while I’m still not tempted by the prospect of a permanent move, I’m definitely looking forward to another warm winter interlude spent in the Sunshine State.

This story appeared in the November 2020, Buyers Guide issue of Flying Magazine

Sam Weigel has been an airplane nut since an early age, and when he's not flying the Boeing 737 for work, he enjoys going low and slow in vintage taildraggers. He and his wife live west of Seattle, where they are building an aviation homestead on a private 2,400-foot grass airstrip.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Get the latest FLYING stories delivered directly to your inbox

Subscribe to our newsletter