We got up early and headed to the airport to make the flight before any of the afternoon thunderstorms could start. The weather was a little hazy, but good to go! Kristi and Abby patiently waited and played in the car while I prefilighted and loaded the plane.
With the run-up complete, we took off into the still morning air headed south. The initial plan was to stop in Homestead (X51) for a fuel stop before continuing on to Key West. We made the climb to 7,500 feet and settled in to cruise flight. We picked up flight following, but there wasn't a lot of traffic along our route.
As we headed south, the clouds below us started to build. So far they did not have a lot of vertical development and we were easily remaining well above them.
Looking way ahead, this cloud looked like it might be a problem for us:
Still we cruised along and the clouds started to punch through reaching our altitude and above. They were very scattered so it was easy for us to remain clear of them and just admire their unique beauty.
Being new to flying in Florida and still just getting back into things, I decided the cloud "wall" ahead was impassable up here. I notified Miami Center I was turning around to descend VFR below the clouds in a nice hole I just passed over near the south end of Lake Okeechobee.
Safely below the clouds at 1800 feet where I could see everything, we continued south towards Homestead. We easily dodged the rain shaft from the large cloud we diverted from above. We picked up a few sprinkles which I thought was cool, but I found out later kind of freaked out my wife. Note to self, I need to talk a little better about what is going on and why it's OK.
So now we enjoyed the Florida Everglades passing by below. Engine don't quit on me now......there's gators down there!
After our little diversion, I started to reevaluate the need for our fuel stop. I was still getting used to our new plane's performance and always prefer to remain conservative regardless. I flight planned for 10 GPH fuel burn, but we had been averaging about 9 GPH. We took off with full fuel so we had 4 hours of flight capability time plus a nice 1 hour reserve. We were looking at 2 hours from home to Homestead (X51) and then another hour on to Key West (KEYW). OK, calculations complete, everyone is comfy....."Miami Approach, N7627D we are changing our plans and will continue on to KEYW. 27D, Miami Approach, roger. Maintain VFR." Shortly thereafter the Florida Keys were finally in our view!
From all my flight training I had it ingrained in me that altitude was my friend. In the event of an emergency, my altitude would help me dictate my options better and hopefully give me more time to resolve the issue. When planning for this trip, one recommendation kept coming up from everyone. Fly low! I was not about to do anything deemed unsafe, but given the great mechanical condition of the plane I had no reservations about taking that advice and enjoying the view. There really is no better way. To minimize our time over open water and to maximize our sight seeing, we picked up the Keys around Key Largo and proceed towards Key West at 1500 feet keeping US1 off our right wing all the way.
The main aviation hazard to be aware of around the Keys is this surveillance balloon tethered to the ground with a nice big, fat cable. It is 14 nm northeast of KEYW and is clearly marked on the charts. As you can see, Abby was excitedly taking it all in!
We were able to maintain flight following with Miami all the way down. Just before Key West, we were handed off to the Navy tower at NAS Boca Chica to transit their airspace in order to get to KEYW just on the other side.
We were handed of to Key West tower and directed to enter a right downwind for Runway 9. This gave us a perfect view of our hotel ( the yellow one next to the big pink one) and Smathers Beach. A few minutes later we were safely on the ground and taxing to the FBO, Island City Flying Services. Total time from engine start to shutdown was 3.5 hours! Very cool!
We unloaded the plane, got her secured, and caught the hotel shuttle. Yes....I weighed all that stuff and it all comfortably fit. The Arrow is an amazingly capable plane for us.
We stayed at the Sheraton Key West. It is located only 1.0 mile from the airport and is right across the street from Smathers Beach. A perfect location for us. They also provided free shuttle service to downtown. You can't beat that! We got a great rate on a room that had a king bed and a pull out couch. The room also had a sliding divider and two TVs so we were all spoiled! With our bags unpacked it was time to hit the pool!
On our first full day in Key West we decided to just hang out at the beach. All the beaches in Key West are man made. They import the sand from the Bahamas and other places in Florida. Unfortunately once you step into the water, the nice beach sand disappears and it then just feels like mud. No biggie. You can rent lounge chairs on the beach for about $10. It was definitely a worthwhile expense. Out on the street are a bunch of food vendors so you will have plenty of eating options.
I like this banner:
Kristi taking pictures of the "hot" dudes! Look closely....
The next day we headed downtown to see the sights. We enjoyed our ride on the Conch Tour Train which gave us a very good tour. We learned a lot about the area and saw all the "must see" places. We also enjoyed the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum.
Lunch was at Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville. Hey.....why not? I enjoyed my margarita and cheeseburger in paradise!
After lunch we went to The Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory. It was very cool. All Abby wanted was for a butterfly to land on her. You can see in the pictures she stood very still impatiently waiting for one to come. The butterflies were very beautiful and there were other creatures to see there too.
After a long day of sightseeing it was time to finish the day with a little time in the pool. "I'm not tired Dad."
So one huge benefit we learned with rearguards to having our own plane is, like a car, we can travel on our own itinerary. The forecast for the flight home showed no threats of thunderstorms for the day so we decided to just sleep in, and get ready to head home when we felt like it. Another benefit really hit home for Kristi when we went to the airport and saw all the people waiting in the baggage and security lines at the commercial terminal. Not us! We paid or bill, preflighted the plane, loaded up, and took off for home! Yes, the FBO at Key West is a bit expensive, but not so much as to deter us from visiting. Fuel prices are a lot higher and the tie-down fee was $15 per night. Overall it still is quite reasonable all things considered.
We opted not to take the scenic flight back and just made a VFR climb to get on top of the clouds and head home. Our return path was much the same. We flew towards Key Largo and then made the turn direct towards home with ATC flight following assistance. Even though there were no thunderstorms as forecasted, there were plenty of clouds over the inland portions of Florida and building. We remained in the clear flying along Florida's east coast towards home.
This trip also taught me that the afternoon sea breezes I deal with at work tend to keep the clouds and thunderstorms at bay a few miles inland from the coast. The coastline can be a safe haven when needed.
Our path home took us right by Cape Kennedy! This is the first time any of us have ever seen it.
On short, short final for Runway 23 at our home filed, Craig Airport (KCRG). Flight time home was 3.0 hours. Awesome!!
The first trip is complete and it was awesome! All Abby can say now is that she wants to go back to Key West. We do too!