Patty Wagstaff with students at Phoenix East Aviation in Daytona Beach, Fla.
For years, I had visited South Florida to see my wonderful grandmother and eventually to fly at Pompano Air Center—a leading spot for aerobatics in its time. Stretching from Key West, I think South Florida is exotic, and I love that the ocean stays warm all year, but while there's beauty in it, the land is flat and monotonous. For an aerobatic pilot, it's hard to find practice areas because of the density of the population, and the Everglades never looked like a great place to ditch.
I used to associate Florida with old people. It's a cheap laugh to stereotype the old guy in the Cadillac, signaling left and turning right on his way to a five-in-the-afternoon dinner at Furr's Cafeteria. There's nothing wrong with old people—we all get there if we're lucky—but over the years, I've found that there's a lot more to Florida than retirement communities. It has changed to reflect a more balanced and diverse demographic, partly due to opportunities in the aerospace and aviation industry.
When my father retired from the airlines, he and my stepmother moved from Alaska so he could fly all year. I then discovered Corrosion Corner out of Fort Lauderdale and Miami, where a few retired airline guys of my dad's generation flew venerable DC-6s and DC-7s for companies like Bellamy Lawson, off black oil-stained ramps at MIA and KFLL to Central America, the Caribbean and the Dominican Republic.
For a pilot, South Florida is just a stepping stone and a 60-mile hop across the water to the Caribbean. Taking off out of KFPR or KFLL, you wonder why you're going through all the hassle until you catch your first glimpse of the clearest turquoise water and whitest beaches in this hemisphere.
Coming from one great aviation state, Alaska, I discovered that Florida might just be the other one. Lincoln Beachey flew the first powered flight in Florida in 1910. In 1912, Glenn Curtiss founded the first Florida flight school on Miami Beach and expanded the school into other areas of Florida. In 1917, Florida was selected for military flight training, having the "second best weather" (after Arizona) for flying days in the U.S. Eddie Rickenbacker started an airline, Florida Airways, in 1926, the same year that Bessie Coleman, the first black American woman to hold a pilot's license, sadly died flying an air show in Jacksonville. Talton Higbee Embry and John Paul Riddle started operating a military training program in 1942, and in 1946, the U.S. Navy Blue Angels performed their first aerial demo at NAS Jacksonville. The legendary Betty Skelton was a lifelong Floridian and flew shows all over the southeast. The Florida Aviation Historical Society's website (www.floridaahs.org) has a lot of good information.
For years, Arizona, with its wide-open spaces and tolerance for noise, was the state for me to base my aerobatic operation. But after I discovered North Florida in the early '90s at the invitation of Jim Moser of Aero Sport in St. Augustine, who started operating the U.S. dealership for Extra Aircraft, I realized how much I craved the humidity and the ocean. North Florida also offered easier access to air shows across the East Coast, and summers were milder than those in the desert.
The topography changes from South to North Florida, and instead of large expanses of cane fields and the Everglades, one finds rolling hills, giant live oaks, long undeveloped stretches of beach (not so many now), and cooler temps in both summer and winter. I was intrigued. There are seasons in North Florida. It can get cold, but it usually doesn't last long. When I picked up an Extra from Aero Sport in 1993, it was colder there than it was at home in Alaska, and I saw snow flurries at the airport. I bundled up, but I heard it would be back to 70 degrees the next week!
Continuing north from St. Augustine and Jacksonville, I discovered another topography, one of great beauty—the truly desolate stretches of Georgia's primordial seashores, salt marshes and tidal creeks. There are short and narrow barrier islands separated by deep sounds and meandering, snaky rivers, and the entire picture is exotic and beautiful, especially in the changing light of late afternoon and sunset.
People come to Florida for flying, seasonally or permanently, and these days especially for flight training, which has exploded over the past few years. I have a good relationship with some of the flight schools, and when I visit Phoenix East Aviation in Daytona Beach, I find it's like a mini United Nations. I hear a lot of foreign flight students in the air, and while I can't always understand a word they say, I admire them. I don't know if I could go to China and learn to fly while speaking Mandarin, but then, I haven't tried.
I asked my good friend Steve Clegg, a designated pilot examiner who gives a lot of checkrides in the Central Florida area, about flight training in Florida, and he said, "The last numbers I heard was about 95% of all flight students in Florida are from overseas, and there are many central Florida schools that have NO domestic students. I also heard that 26% of all flight training in the world is conducted in Central Florida. In 2014, over 14,000 FAA practical tests were administered in the Orlando district." No wonder why, when I'm flying around the Daytona Beach area, my screen lights up like a Christmas tree with traffic! Steve goes on to say, "With extensive flight training here in Florida, my recommendation is always to perform clearing turns when maneuvering. The area has had a couple of mid-airs. Students rely heavily on the EFIS systems in the aircraft and aren't taught much about basic skills like looking out the window. Usually, the high-density training areas have an 'air-to-air' frequency that would probably be worth the time to find out what it is and monitor it when maneuvering or transitioning through it." Personally, I like to fly low down the coast to avoid flight school traffic (but then you have to watch for paragliders and other low-level cruisers like myself), or I try to fly higher than most flight school traffic in areas like Daytona Beach.
Of course, there's a lot more than flight training going on. Ag flying is bigger than one would think. Don't be surprised if you see a yellow Air Tractor flying a few feet off the ground in a field below you, spraying fertilizer or pesticide, or spraying for mosquitoes. When fire season comes around, some ag pilots turn into firefighters and adapt their sprayers into tankers that drop retardant or water.
Some people go north in the summer, and I like the quiet, lazy summers when heat and humidity keep the traffic down, but some move here permanently and choose to live at an airpark. There are easily 30 to 40 airparks in the state, ranging from the upscale Spruce Creek to smaller grass strips in central Florida. Conventions like NBAA, HAI, AOPA and WAI are drawn to Orlando and Tampa for obvious reasons. Everyone knows about Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) and the Florida Institute of Technology (FIT), but did you know about the Central Florida Aerospace Academy (CFAA) based at the Sun 'n Fun campus in Lakeland? CFAA is a four-year high school using the study of aerospace to accomplish the objectives of STEM skills and has a large scholarship program to help their students get flight training. St. Augustine High School has partnered with ERAU to create the St. Johns County Aerospace Academy. When the kids get out of high school and college, they look forward to careers with companies in Florida like Northrop Grumman, Embraer, AAR, Sierra Nevada and NASA.
It's just ridiculous how much Florida has to offer, like the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Fantasy of Flight in Polk City, Florida Air Museum in Lakeland and Valiant Air Command Warbird Museum in Titusville. And, as far as air shows, I hardly need to leave home to fill up a season. Florida air shows start off the season and end it with shows like Punta Gorda, New Smyrna Beach, Daytona Beach, Pensacola and NAS Jacksonville.
I do love flying out west and have thought of drifting back on a more permanent basis, but something keeps drawing me back here to the long coast line, warm weather, laid-back lifestyle, open skies and ease of flying. I look out the window of my office and see a blue sky, and an open invitation to jump in my airplane and head to the Bahamas or Cozumel for an air show. And, of course, it's the perfect location for the headquarters of Patty Wagstaff Aerobatic School (shameless plug: www.pattywagstaff.com/school.html)!
I apologize for sounding like the Chamber of Commerce, but I'm just sayin'—Florida is one great aviation state. I moved here for my own personal aviation reasons, and a few others are quietly discovering it. I've seen a lot of changes in Florida's economic and physical landscape over the past 20 years (like losing those long, desolate beaches to development), and it's crowded enough, so I'm not encouraging anyone to move here unless they're a pilot. Buy a nice airplane for $50 to $60K (less than a new Toyota Land Cruiser), get a partner to help share expenses and come down for a visit or stay awhile. Just leave your car at home.