Being obsessed with flying ever since I could walk, I had my eyes set on becoming an airline pilot. Achieving my pilot's license in high school, and getting my instrument rating a year later, I was well on my way toward my life goal.
Still an obstacle was a commercial license and about 1,000 hours or so of flight time. I planned to build that time flight instructing. So dawned the idea of flying to Key West, a place where I'd frequently fly to on my flight simulator, and my ideal vacation of palm trees and Caribbean blue waters. A destination 1,100 nm from N.Y. would provide a hefty amount of flight time for my further licenses.
Not only was I working on building flight time for my commercial license, but I was also completing my 250 nm cross-country, along with my 150 nm day and 150 nm night cross-country requirements, all while flying in the right seat! Yes, that's right. On this trip, I was also working on getting my sport-pilot flight-instructor license (aka flight instructor with a sport-pilot rating, no commercial license required). So much to cover in one flight...but hey, in all fairness, we certainly had the time. With an average groundspeed of about 85 knots (we expected 110 knots but had headwinds), our journey would take approximately 13 hours one way to Key West.
Down to the Keys, we'd be flying the Remos GX, an all-carbon-fiber, light-sport aircraft powered by a Rotax 912 ULS engine with 95 hp. The aircraft was from the prestigious Mid Island Flight School (www.midislandair.com) fleet based out of Islip MacArthur Airport in New York.
The school owned two of these German-made aircraft, however, the one we took didn't have the luxury of two MFDs and auto-pilot that the other one had, but rather just one MFD and no autopilot. So, yes, we'd be hand flying this baby for the entire 25-hour flight. Onboard, we also had a Garmin 496 GPS, along with a Garmin 396 GPS, equipped with weather and TFRs.
The morning of, I made a run for the airport where I met Gold Seal CFI David Jensen for the journey. Friend and father of my early flight training, Dave had become my aeronautical mentor. Departing Brookhaven airport, we lined up for runway 24, and while gradually advancing the throttle to full power, we said, "Let's do it, here we go, next stop—Key West." So we lifted off into the blue, heading south from the frigid air of New York to the tropical paradise of Key West.
Fresh off solid ground, we expected our first fuel stop to be in Norfolk, Va., so we plugged it in on the GPS and followed the magical magenta line. Our first leg brought us down to Norfolk, where we made a pit stop for fuel and took off into the dusk.
The sun was setting as we were heading into the Carolinas. Cruising at about 6,500 feet and clear skies, we were able to watch, second by second, the sun slowly descending over the horizon. What a magnificent sight it was.
As darkness started to set in, we turned on all the lights the Remos had to offer. Thankfully, the plane was night certified. But, we noticed a strand of thunderstorms over the Appalachian Mountains moving eastward, and even though they were a few hours away, we figured we'd spend the night at our next fuel stop. That came to be Myrtle Beach, S.C. After six hours of flying, we were due for some shut-eye.
Waking up, I looked out the window, and my heart sank. I laid my eyes upon the dreary skyline of low clouds and rain. While eating our continental breakfast at the hotel, we whipped out our iPads and iPhones and brought up every piece of weather information our iDevices could muster.
Even though the airport was still IFR, we headed out to Myrtle Beach International. Miraculously, by the time we got there, the weather was clearing up, and the clouds were to burning off.
Escaping Myrtle Beach's gloomy weather, we were off once again. Fighting with our groundspeed, we were full throttle, going about 90 knots now. Cruising over the Atlantic coast, we broke out our Gleim workbooks, and Dave started to quiz me on the flight-instructor aeronautical questions. After an hour of quizzing, we slowly drifted off into a quiet calmness with the soothing hymn from the engine. Realizing we had a 67-knot groundspeed, I figured it would be prudent to try a lower altitude. So, we brought the aircraft down to about 1,000 feet over the shores of the Carolinas. It felt like I was at home again, flying over the beaches of the Hamptons.
Making a trade-off of speed for comfort, flying at this altitude increased our speed to about 95 knots, but at a discomforting price: turbulence. But, I could tolerate a few bumps, knowing that we were going 30 knots faster. Coming up to Jacksonville, Fla., we passed two submarines sailing by with an armada of naval vessels escorting them, one of our many intriguing views along the flight. Approaching our fuel limit, we set her down in St. Augustine, Fla., for another fuel pit stop.
After settling the bill with the FBO, we were off once again. This time it didn't feel right; I knew something was missing. I knew I left something behind…my Oakley sunglasses. How could I be flying in the sunshine state without sunglasses? But, the Remos has sunshades that I used thoroughly throughout the rest of the flight.
We were then on our way to Miami, where I planned to go to the infamous neon lights of South Beach. Making our way down the coast, we cruised at about 8,500 feet, dodging the puffy-cotton cumulus clouds all the way to Miami.
Approaching the Class Bravo airspace, we began our sequencing into Opa-Locka International Airport, a large general aviation/corporate jet airport a few miles north of Miami International. Upon taxiing to the FBO, we realized we were the smallest aircraft there. Getting out of our trusty light-sport aircraft, I looked around and felt like a high-roller parking next to a few Gulfstreams and Boeing Business Jets.
We got ourselves a rental car, and blindly headed to the nearest hotel that our iPhones told us to go to. We freshened up in our room and headed to the great South Beach of Miami. Between the people, music, palm trees and lights, the whole atmosphere down in Miami was incredible and mesmerizing.
One of the best nights ever...until we got back to the hotel room, where I found myself restlessly trying to sleep with my aviation headsets on to help win the battle against Dave's
We headed to the airport and casually began the hour-long journey down to our ultimate destination. From the night before, a Key West vacation frame of mind had already settled in. Taking off out of Miami, ATC had directed us east then south, to clear the Bravo airspace, bringing us over South Beach. What a view it was; flying over the beaches of Miami with the whole strip of hotels. What a change this was from the skyline of New York City and the beaches of Long Island.
Being an ocean lifeguard in Westhampton Beach, N.Y., I have a great passion and appreciation for the ocean. Seeing the gorgeous light- blue waters of Miami, I couldn't help but periodically exclaim, "Oh, my God!" This quickly stopped, after Dave panicked and thought there was an aircraft issue every time I said the phrase.
And so on we continued down south, following the Keys all the way. While flying, we couldn't help but notice how many times the water changed color, from light green to blue to murky beige. Once the water began to become beautiful turquoise and Caribbean clear, we knew we were close.
Out of the corner of my eye, an F-15 Eagle came shooting up from behind us at about 15,000 feet. All I thought was, "Welcome to Key West." From my flight-simulation days, I knew that there was a naval air station right next to Key West International Airport, the F-15's most likely destination. After transitioning through the Naval Class D airspace, we were soon enough joining the traffic pattern at Key West International Airport. Getting out of the plane, and looking around me taking in the scenery, I felt a great deal of self accomplishment. It felt surreal, and that I was dreaming still.
We spent two days in Key West, taking in the sun, jetskiing around the whole island, snorkeling on the coral reefs and kayaking around some isolated islands. Unfortunately, our responsibilities were waiting for us back in N.Y., along with a flight-instructor checkride I was due for now. So on our day of departure, we woke up at the crack of dawn, and we were at the airport and wheels up by 5 a.m.
We made our way back to Long Island, N.Y,. in one day, with fuel stops in Daytona Beach, Fla., Charleston, N.C., and Norfolk, Va. On the journey back, we lucked out with clear-blue skies the entire way, and there was even a slight tailwind. Arriving back home at Brookhaven airport at about 8 p.m. concluded our epic 25.1-hour adventure flight. And what a flight it had been. I had made my dreams into a reality.