As we tracked west over the Straits of Florida’s calm teal- and azure-swirled waters, flying at an altitude of 1,500 feet and just south of the Overseas Highway that links the chain of islands leading to the southernmost tip of the United States, I couldn’t help but marvel at the 127.5 miles of roadway and bridges that passed below us off to our right. The highway — built atop the Overseas Railroad after the railroad became heavily damaged in the Labor Day hurricane of 1935 — serves as an excellent VFR navigational aid for those flying to Key West (and as a clear boundary to assure avoidance of R-2916 and the up-to-14,000-foot unmarked tethered aerostat balloon near Cudjoe Key). I’m always quick to tell visitors to my home state who want to make the journey to Key West that, though the drive is long, it’s a scenic and colorful one, giving travelers the true flavor of the Florida Keys. But, I must confess that on this visit to the Keys, my second, I was enjoying the view this way much, much more.
It was mid-August and I was part of a group of Florida pilots on another First Landings Aviation adventure flight weekend (see April’s column on our North Carolina trip). I had signed up as PIC in First Landing’s Remos GX, with CFI Chris Esposito taking the right seat so we could knock out the cross-country dual requirement for the private. The haze that glazed the morning sky en route didn’t diminish the beauty that unfolded below us as we crossed Florida Bay nor as we leisurely made our way (at a steady 100 knots) along the string of keys for the last leg of the trip.
We were well past Marathon Key when Chris nudged me back from my sightseeing reverie (he had taken the controls for a bit so I could snap some photos) with the announcement that we soon would be nearing the Class D airspace for Key West Naval Air Station at Boca Chica Field (KNQX). We would need to contact Key West Approach at Boca Chica before radioing the tower at Key West International (KEYW). Despite having an endorsement to fly in Class D airspace, I had spent most of my flying time as a sport pilot in uncontrolled airspace, with only a few flights into sleepy Class D airports and never near an active military airport, so I flew the airplane and listened closely while Chris made the radio call. Though the added task of squawking was a little intimidating, what struck me the most during the transmission was how little information needed to be exchanged.
It wasn’t the first time I realized that less is truly best in controlled airspace transmissions. And it happened to be something with which I had been struggling. Operating in uncontrolled airspace requires more detailed — and frequent — announcements. What had become virtually automatic for me, such as reporting each leg of the pattern, was proving a hard habit for me to break when operating in the pattern at controlled airports.
Listening to Chris, I found myself regretting that I hadn’t pushed myself as a sport pilot by flying in controlled airspace more than I had (and made a mental note to do just that). Then I would have been comfortable in contacting Key West Approach myself.
I was very comfortable with landing the Remos, however. By the time Key West Approach handed us off to KEYW, Runway 27 was in sight — and so too was the end of the road. Tower approved us for a straight in, and I met the direct gusting crosswind from the north with a right forward slip and touched down in the Conch Republic with the right main first, just in time to beat the thunderstorm brewing offshore. The flight might have ended, but our weekend had only just begun — and what a cool way to arrive.