We're 45 minutes out of Daytona Beach bound for Key West on a summer evening. Viewed from our altitude, the sun has just begun its dip below the horizon, leaving us in muted daylight as darkness settles across the land below. We're flying a Beechcraft Duchess with one of my multi-engine students in the left seat. The two passengers in the back are both private pilot students who are experiencing their first airborne view of nightfall. They remind me of why the transition from day to night has always been my favorite time to take people for their first flight in a light airplane.
The two students in the backseat have been commenting on the beauty of the transformation taking place below us. They remark on how everything looks so different, but much is still recognizable and familiar. We watch as buildings, roads, farms and towns gradually fade from view to be replaced by lights that slowly grow in intensity among the shadows as the twilight fades. Randomly scattered lights are almost everywhere across the countryside, but many more gather to form the recognizable patterns of towns and highways. The harshness of the urban environment is slowly replaced by the beauty of its own lights. The street lights create small, warm, friendly pools of light; some are white, others have a slight yellow or blue tint, providing variety that can only be noticed from above. Signs add brighter dots of color clustered in the business districts. Even now, after 30 years of flying, I still enjoy the beauty I find in the night sky.
Southbound at 8,000 feet, we have a line of towering cumulus clouds paralleling our course to the west, but on our left and ahead to the south, the sky is clear. The billowing clouds range in color from cottony white at the top through descending shades of gray, blue and black at the lower levels. The low angle of the setting sun paints exposed portions of the clouds brilliant shades of pink, orange and red. Almost-constant lightning within the clouds make them appear to shimmer and sparkle.
We had hoped to make it to Key West in time to enjoy the evening ritual on Sunset Pier, but our departure was delayed by Florida's regularly scheduled afternoon thunderstorms. None of us are disappointed. We realize what we're witnessing is a sunset view available almost exclusively to light-plane pilots and their passengers. You're not likely to have this view from the cabin of an airliner cruising in the flight levels. We all agree the sunset we're watching is the most beautiful we've ever seen.
When we land at Key West International, it's just a quick cab ride down to Duval Street for a genuine "cheeseburger in paradise." Then we stroll around town, checking out the shops and street performers, thoroughly enjoying the carnival-like atmosphere. Part of the reason I learned to fly was for the promise of adventure in faraway exotic lands, and although Key West is "technically" part of the United States, it's still easy to imagine that the "Conch Republic" belongs in an alternate universe.
There are many wonderful experiences to be had in Key West, and it's not possible to cram them all into one evening. We only have time for a small taste of island paradise before returning to Daytona. After four hours on the island, we take off and turn north for a climb over the open waters separating the Keys from the mainland of Florida.
The weather for our return is good. The storms have mostly dissipated, but there's a solid overcast above with no moon or stars visible. Except for the lights of an occasional boat, the world outside is black until we reach the coast of the mainland. The ride remains fairly smooth as we fly in and out of the clouds all the way home, and as often happens at night, the first indication that we're flying in light rain comes when one of the passengers notices we have a hundred fireflies hovering around our wing tips, all blinking in unison. The multi student in the left seat is happy to log some actual instrument time, but will have to settle for a simulated approach because the weather at our destination is VFR.
Our conversation on the return flight revolves around how the flight itself brought as much pleasure as the destination. We feel fortunate to be counted among those who are able to enjoy the benefits of personal flying. We agree that a light plane isn't only a safe, time-saving means of transportation, but it also makes the journey part of the adventure. Our airplane not only made it possible for us to have dinner in Key West; it also showed us beauty we couldn't have experienced in any other way.
As a flight instructor, I learned a valuable lesson from this flight. Over the following weeks, I found myself with three highly motivated students eager to finish their rating so they could introduce their friends and family to the joys of flying. In today's flight-training environment, often too much emphasis is placed on pushing students through the course in the shortest possible time at the lowest possible cost. As a result, many students lose interest before finishing their rating. Successful students are always highly self motivated, but flights like this one are an effective tool an instructor can use to remind students of why they wanted to be pilots in the first place.