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Floridian flights of fancy

PUBLISHED: 09:00 08 September 2015 | UPDATED: 10:11 08 September 2015

Words and Photos Jamie Murray

Words and Photos Jamie Murray

SINGLE USE PILOT MAG ONLY

The southern US state of Florida offers a great opportunity to chalk up fifty flying hours and do some top-flight sightseeing with the help of friendly people and a well-organised system

Cherokee 82332, NASA Tower. I see you’re clear of the Shuttle Landing Facility, glad we could do that for you. You can now contact Orlando Approach for Advisories.

“Good day, sir.”

I had fewer than three hours flying in the USA, had been in Florida for a little over two days and had already completed a FAA certification, check out, ground briefs, Class B Airspace Transit and a low pass of the gigantic Shuttle Landing Facility. Our holiday was off to a great start and I was already completely hooked on flying in Florida.

With only two weeks to try and achieve fifty hours flying I was keen to make the most of the days we had. I’d booked two weeks flying N82332 (or Millie as she’s known) which is one of the three aircraft that Pilots Paradise (www.pilots-paradise.com) has in its fleet. Millie and the other Warrior, Mikey, have recently been joined by an Archer they have nicknamed Harry. All three aircraft are impeccably presented and maintained, all with either a Garmin 430 or fully updated iPad mini with Foreflight software to assist in navigation. When booking your holiday it’s not just the variety of aircraft you notice, the company also has a range of accommodation options, from the single residential airpark apartment to a three-bedroom villa only 800 yards from Sebastian Municipal Airport.

N82332 (Millie) in the hangar at our Indian River home baseN82332 (Millie) in the hangar at our Indian River home base

I decided to be based at its open plan airfield apartment at Indian River, just outside of Vero Beach Municipal Airport. The motives for the trip were twofold−I’d wanted to go on a flying holiday from a fly-in community since first learning about the famous one at Spruce Creek as a youngster, and it was also a fantastic way to achieve a block of flying in a relatively short space of time.

Back at home I’m based at an large airport with two flying clubs on hand. I thought getting the fifty hours I needed to satisfy the experience requirements for starting a CPL(A) would be simple enough. However, after nearly two years of flying in Scotland, either the weather, work or general distractions of life had meant I’d managed fewer than twenty, and almost all of that was the indulgence of starting a seaplane rating!

Now as most will know, there are pages and pages of information available in various places on the pros and cons of heading to the States to hour-build. Some say its either a false economy, an unrealistic flying environment for UK aviators, or simply not challenging enough. I’m not about to suggest what others should do or try, or fight either corner, but I can honestly say that I came away from flying in Florida feeling it had been one of the best experiences I’ve been fortunate to have. And it certainly offers some distinct challenges, to boot.

First, the idea that Florida is simply blue skies and sunshine is not quite the case. While it does indeed enjoy a mostly stable, predictable and very pleasant climate, in the two weeks my wife and I were there we encountered everything from patchy rain to fog, haze, smoke and even the odd CB. Secondly, there is a staggering amount of traffic in Florida and I’m happy to admit that while I knew this before going, I was still surprised at just how busy Florida is, and how remarkably small a big piece of sky can become. I had my wife with me as a passenger but she was soon operating as a valuable extra pair of eyes and was a huge help with spotting other aircraft, particularly at some of the larger, uncontrolled airfields where you are liaising with other aircraft directly on the ‘unicom’ frequency. This is to ensure you join the airfield safely and in accordance with the established circuit pattern, and it was in this case that I found the lookout to be particularly important. On my return to the UK I noticed that my lookout was a lot more robust than before we left, which can only be an unexpected bonus to flying in Florida.

Domestic VFR flight planning made easy. When you call 1800-WX-BRIEF the operators will be expecting a fixed format, which makes filing flight plans a painless processDomestic VFR flight planning made easy. When you call 1800-WX-BRIEF the operators will be expecting a fixed format, which makes filing flight plans a painless process

With some hugely busy airfields in amongst some sometimes quite complex airspace, Florida somehow manages to maintain an incredibly helpful and pro-aviation attitude to everything from the lightest experimental to the newest Gulfstream. I’d gone with the intention of doing a number of long distance flights to eat up the hours, but ended up spending a lot of days bouncing from airfield to airfield just because it was fun to do so and the people were so welcoming.

Our home base of Indian River was a wonderful little airfield nestled next to Interstate 95 about two hours south of Orlando by hire car. With a very residential feel, a lake and some beautiful wildlife, the place had a wonderfully relaxed ambiance to it. Pilots’ Paradise provides a spacious open plan apartment with TV, Wifi, planning materials, kitchen and large double bed, making the daily flight planning a breeze. The aircraft is located in the hangar approximately ten meters away making it the ideal set up for fuss-free flying.

Utilising The Aviators Guide to Flying in Florida as an atlas, our daily routine would be an 08:00 departure from Indian River to the local municipal airport near Lake Okeechobee for some fuel. Morning departures were by far my favourite. With the December sun not long up at that time in Florida, a departure has you climbing out of the treeline into some crisp air and feeling primed for an adventure. Short Field technique is covered in detail during the check out, and even though it was my first time operating fixed-wing from short sites I quickly felt at home operating there, as the Warrior has no trouble getting airborne and climbing out nicely from the strip. We’d climb up to a decent height for the twenty-minute transit to Okeechobee, primarily to be able to get a service from Miami Center.

One of the great things about flying in Florida is its VFR Flight Following Service, and it’s something that I’d say: if you can get it, always get it. You simply ask the controller for VFR Flight Following, they will issue a squawk, confirm level, heading and routing, and ask where you’d like Flight Following. They will offer traffic information with the required avoidance vectors if required, and even remind you if you are getting too close to active NOTAM or restricted areas. Even on the short hop to Okeechobee it was worth its weight in gold.

On the apron at Everglades Airport; a tight runway with water at both ends, but what better way to arrive for an airboat ride?On the apron at Everglades Airport; a tight runway with water at both ends, but what better way to arrive for an airboat ride?

Okeechobee is probably one of the cheapest self-serve fuel facilities in Florida and makes for a great launch pad to airfields further afield. With no Control Tower, a safe arrival in the circuit calls for good communication and a good lookout, particularly around lunchtime as it’s a very popular field with a great fly-in restaurant. This type of airfield can get very busy, particularly with training traffic, but the system works well and it’s refreshing to see both Gulfstreams and Piper Cubs being able to utilise the same airfield in complete harmony, not to mention their pilots enjoying breakfast in the same café!

Harmony is what flying in Florida is all about−there is a strong sense of the aviation community throughout the state and we got the same welcome wherever we went, be it St Petersburg for a quick visit to the Dali Museum, or Ft Lauderdale Executive’s business jet hub at Banyan Jet Center for a browse of one of the biggest pilot shops going. I paid barely more than $20 for a ramp fee anywhere, and that was only when I didn’t need fuel. If you’re filling up, taking oil or simply ordering a coffee at the restaurant, most places tend not to charge.

Towards the end of week one not only were we on great terms with the staff at Okeechobee as we were in most days for fuel, but we were also settling into general Floridian flow and felt ready for a bigger trip. We’d already ticked off St Petersburg, Venice, The Space Coast and a trip over the Everglades to Everglades City for an airboat ride, so we decided that a trip down the Florida Keys to visit Key West was in order.

We set out early and flew inland down the expansive Everglades. With little in the way of forced landing options we cruised high and kept the major highways in sight should anything untoward occur. Not that I expected it to, of course−to say I was impressed with the standard of the aircraft at Pilots Paradise is an understatement. I’m not one for knocking flying club aircraft but in the UK it’s inevitable that some, if not most, are tired and a bit frayed around the edges. With the better climate and cheaper maintenance in the States, Millie was in great condition. The windscreen was completely unmarked, which is something Pilots Paradise works hard to maintain, and with the traffic in Florida it’s a very good idea.

View from the cockpit whilst following the sliver of islands that make up the Florida Keys.View from the cockpit whilst following the sliver of islands that make up the Florida Keys.

The Garmin 430 proved a useful back up although with my helicopter IR and CPL Skills Test on the horizon I decided to use it sparingly. Turning on time with the clock, we coasted out at Key Largo to the South West of Miami and flew down the string of islands that make up the Keys. Communication is simple once established. It can take a minute to get a word in with stations such as Miami Center and Orlando Approach, so expect long standby times, but when two-way is established they are more than happy to offer VFR Flight Following and hand you over to the appropriate agency for the entirety of your flight, which makes the cockpit management a breeze.

As we made our way over Marathon airfield, which is about as wide as the mid area of the Keys gets, we were passed to Key West Navy. During our visit, the Navy Base at Key West (the airspace of which you have to route through to arrive at Key West International) was very busy, with an F-18 suffering a bird strike. We were vectored around their class D airspace, pushing us some eight miles out to sea−I was glad I’d hired both life jackets and a life raft from Fort Pierce the day before!

Once we were cleared back in we descended over the beach for Key West International. We were told no delay on the runway and vacated to find a dispersal with a myriad of different aircraft types, all looking wonderful glinting in the sun. We were well versed with slick FBO arrivals by this point and by the time we had shut down and been driven the short distance to the FBO our cab was waiting. To say we had a great trip to Key West wouldn’t do it justice and the return leg didn’t disappoint either. After enjoying a whistle stop tour, some incredible snapper and some Key Lime Pie, we departed early the next day for home. We had a clearance low level, up Miami Beach, before a fuel stop at Fort Lauderdale Exec. It was two days of incredible sights and wonderful flying. We got back later that evening with the sun setting at Indian River. Descending at 65kt with full flap out over Interstate 95, I was becoming comfortable with my short field landings. Transferring the weight to the wheels swiftly on landing by getting the flaps up, positive braking and with the drag of the grass strip, you stop in a very comfortable distance. So much so, that a quick turn and short back track had us back on the apartment hard standing within about a minute, and the aircraft shut down and put to bed in the hangar within about five. I was definitely getting used to this relaxed lifestyle.

With only a week left, we were eating up the hours. The few things remaining on our to do list were a visit to the US Coastguard Base to see an old friend at Cecil Airport, Jacksonville, and a trip to Winter Haven to satisfy my seaplane fix. Getting up to Jacksonville from Indian River took us via a fuel stop at Grant-Valkaria (one of the many local uncontrolled airfields) up through Orlando’s airspace.

Walking out to fly home from St Augustine – Warrior or Citation, most FBOs will be just as welcoming.Walking out to fly home from St Augustine – Warrior or Citation, most FBOs will be just as welcoming.

Again, although the controllers are more than helpful at Orlando, it’s important to read back any clearances and make sure you are definitely cleared to route through their class B airspace. If you’re not, you had better steer clear!

To assume the positive attitude to general aviation in Florida means a slack approach to airspace awareness would be a mistake−level busts and airspace busts are taken just as seriously in Florida as anywhere else. Get it wrong and they won’t hesitate to give you a number to ring on landing and await prosecution! I don’t say that to panic anyone, but it does serve to highlight how strictly managed the airspace is out there and I hope to promote good situational awareness. Once through Orlando we were routed clear of DeLand− a very active parachuting airfield−and over the top of Daytona Beach International Airport, before being cleared to resume own navigation for Jacksonville. Further up the Coast from Jacksonville is St Augustine−the oldest city in the USA. It’s a quaint small town with a wonderful feel to it and lots to see. The airport is a little way out of town but a taxi is about $20 each way and it’s a great place to visit if you want that vintage town feel.

The return home was a reverse of the route we’d flown up to Jacksonville. Routing down the Space Coast we could see the Space X rocket out on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center−an area we’d come to know well. Having visited the centre three times in the last year, and seen it from above, I’m still amazed at the history, achievements and sheer vastness of the facility. It’s a must-see from the air, and Space Coast Regional Airport is more than happy to take you should you wish to catch a cab or take a crew car to the Space Center. Something I’d again highly recommend. If you don’t want to spend the time going to the Center, NASA tower is very willing to allow you to fly down the Shuttle Landing Facility provided, of course, the restricted airspace isn’t active and that you’ve liaised with ATC before calling them up. Our clearance was not below 400ft, and in a Warrior it felt like it went on forever. It was great fun to do, and to get to see it from that perspective is quite a privilege.

Before we knew it, we’d reached our last flying day−arriving in the fog two weeks ago was a distant memory. I drank my Dunkin’ Donuts coffee as I went over the plan for the day. With 4.4 hours to fly I decided to head up to Winter Haven to visit Jack Brown’s seaplane base, and return home via a few small airfields to a sunset recovery into Indian River.

We stayed in the traditional part of Key West, opposite author Ernest Hemingway’s house where wandering chickens and poets for hire are a plentyWe stayed in the traditional part of Key West, opposite author Ernest Hemingway’s house where wandering chickens and poets for hire are a plenty

There was a lot to pack in on the last day, and both daylight and fuel would need thinking about, but the planning was made simple yet again by the system. Pilots Paradise provides you with a pay-as-you-go mobile in order to file VFR flight plans for any flight over 50nm. It’s a single phone number to ring and with the set format proves a quick and easy method of ensuring Search and Rescue Action is activated if you are overdue. So I defaulted to filing VFR for all my flights.

With a flight plan filed, we set off again towards Orlando and Winter Haven. On arrival it can be a tricky spot – it’s on the side of one of many lakes in the area and with the sun glinting off the watery surfaces it can be easy to mis-identify which lake you are going for! Once you are safely down at the airfield, you find Jack Brown’s seaplane base tucked away in one corner.

I’ve long had a love of seaplanes−it’s a form of flying that encapsulates the romance of it all so perfectly for me, and being able to combine the beauty of the air and the water is just fabulous. I’d managed to swing arriving at my wedding in a Maule Amphibian and after that I was hooked−I went on to start the seaplane rating with Scotia Seaplanes in Prestwick, so I was very keen to visit the home of seaplane flying in Florida!

Jack Brown’s has an altogether different feel to the mountains of Scotland but it’s a wonderful set up and has a distinctly nostalgic atmosphere about it. The base operates Piper Cubs on floats and a Maule, and I was sad not to be able to go flying with them. Nestled in the sheltered corner of the lake, the school rises up out of the water with decking all around. Just arriving there has a very personal feel to it. With a gate to their dispersal and a line of private aircraft, it feels like you are pulling into a car parking space−you really get the sense of aviation as a much-loved form of practical transport that is prolific in Florida and it’s something I’d already grown very fond of. I made up for not being able to fly by an obligatory spend in their small shop before heading off to continue the day.

Key West is an intriguing place with lots of historic buildings and classic streetlamps to give it a wonderful southern United States atmospherelKey West is an intriguing place with lots of historic buildings and classic streetlamps to give it a wonderful southern United States atmospherel

Eager to get in a 300nm leg, our next stop was an out-of-the-way strip called Wauchula Municipal Airport. On arrival we quickly realised there was nothing but a hangar and a fuel pump, so we made it into a touch and go−despite the nature of some of these airfields their runways can be surprisingly long. From there we flew south to Arcadia Municipal Airport and another community airfield with not a lot going on. I needed to amend my flight plan so I decided to taxi in and shut down while my wife went in search of some water. Arcadia had a wonderful local feel to it, with a small clubhouse flying a big American flag, but there isn’t much there in the way of things to see, other than some amazing people. We got chatting to a gentleman who had flown F14s for the US Navy, and it wasn’t long before we’d spent thirty minutes just listening to his stories. I was sad to cut the conversation short but we needed to dash.

With daylight running out I was keen to start making progress back towards home base. One more stop for fuel at LaBelle Airport was the plan, until we found the pump was broken, which forced us to head back to our old haunt at Okeechobee. After topping up we left for Indian River, and with the sun setting behind us it was hard to believe that on the last landing on the last day we had clocked through the fifty hours.

I’d thought it might be difficult, I’d thought it might become tiring, but it had quite literally flown by. Given the choice I’d have flown fifty hours more. We’d had an incredible stay, flown a wonderfully equipped aircraft in some of the friendliest and most accommodating skies I’ve ever had the pleasure to fly in. We’d visited some great places, met wonderful people and seen some unforgettable sights. There’s no doubt about it that flying in Florida will be a valuable experience whatever your background. I learned a lot and got back in touch with what it was about flying that got me hooked all those years ago. I arrived home eager to get back to work, and eager to learn. It gave me a fresh outlook on flying and it’s something I’m very grateful to the team at Pilots Paradise for making available. With much more still to do, I’ll definitely be back.

Whilst you’re in the Everglades, an airboat ride is a must. Thirty five miles per hour never felt so fast!Whilst you’re in the Everglades, an airboat ride is a must. Thirty five miles per hour never felt so fast!

Enjoying some down time on the back porch, with neighbours flying home as the sun setsEnjoying some down time on the back porch, with neighbours flying home as the sun sets

Read more about our flying adventures here:

New York - The Skyline Route

Microlighting in Africa

To Norway by Volkswagen

Tecnam P2008 Ferry Flight

Adventures with the Flying Eye Hospital

The ‘Ted Tour’

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