“You’ll never get this thing ready in time for Sun ’n Fun,” I mouthed silently to myself, same as in years past. No matter what airplane or group I was working with, it always seemed like some big project had Sun ’n Fun as a deadline. The instrument panel was gutted to install a Garmin GPS and an engine monitor. Wires hung loose all over, looking for all the world as if someone had lit a firecracker in a pot of spaghetti noodles and run away laughing. I sighed, gritted through the tennis elbow I had developed in the middle of this project and crawled back under the panel. After a few false starts, Sun ’n Fun 2020 went down as the greatest show that never was, but a vaccine record tucked into my travel documents fueled my itch to go somewhere in the Mooney. Sun ’n Fun 2021 was just around the corner as I wrapped the install on Friday, flew a test hop and fueled up for the big trip south the following week.
Monday dawned clear and bright, and after a slow start, I was airborne and Lakeland-bound. The engine monitor and GPS had me grinning with all sorts of information and accuracy that I had just sort of guessed at before. Then, as I neared central Florida, the VFR congestion accumulated. Tampa approach canceled my flight following about 20 minutes north of the field, and I bobbed and weaved through a scattered layer of cumulus as I neared Lake Parker. The arrival ATIS basically recites the entire procedure; I left it running at half volume on the second radio as I proceeded along the arrival. It was kind of like having a well-meaning relative mumbling directions from the back seat of your car, but it also kept me from missing the turn at the water tower.
The arrival hasn’t changed much since my first couple trips here. The NOTAM looked mighty familiar: Fly to the power plant on the north side of the lake, and if they’re not holding, turn inbound on I-4 until due north of the field. Modern technology enables a little self-help for both pilots and controllers. “Gray Mooney, turn west from the power plant and proceed along I-4,” sounds just like it has for decades, but then they used my tail number: “Mooney 5746Q, great job keeping spacing behind the Cirrus. Switch over to tower as you turn south between the tanks.” My ears perked up at that, because my tail number would be almost impossible to read through a pair of binoculars. Then I realized that despite squawking standby, they had my ADS-B data tagged on a screen down there.
That same ADS-B technology let me match speed with the plane ahead, once the separation was established. The Cirrus I was following cheated the 100-knot speed by a little; as long as I was no faster than him, I knew things would be fine.
Somewhere on the downwind, I lost track of the Cirrus, so when tower was calling for the white low-wing to turn base, I kept trucking. On the second call, I glanced on the screen and saw the Cirrus was on the ground or nearly there. Crap! I turned right, and tower just told me to aim for the orange dot, and land on the green dot. I entered ground effect past the orange dot, and dropped the mains onto asphalt squarely in the middle of the green dot. I didn’t impress anyone outside the plane, though—every one of the volunteers by the green dot were looking away. We all know it’s one of the biggest truths in the business: The gawkers only see the bad landings.
I kept a little power on and rolled to the end, where the marshallers squinted at my sign and shook their heads. I was the point man, first of 20-something coworkers from my day job flying in to camp together. I knew this would happen, so I just flashed a backup sign for vintage aircraft camping, which got me moving in the right direction.
I was surprisingly emotional after the landing and taxiing in. My first trip down here was at age 14—26 years later I finally arrived as an aircraft owner. In the years between, I’ve begged, borrowed and not-quite-stolen flights down here in a Skyhawk, a Navajo, a couple of Zlin Akrobats—and the Mooney, a decade before she became mine. Another Mooney pulled up and parked by mine, and for the first time in my fly-in career, I didn’t have to deflect and give credit where it was due. Instead, I got to smile and take the compliment. “Yeah, I’m kind of fond of her too. My friends and I have been taking care of her for a while.”
Fly-in season is back, friends. Lord willing and the COVID-19 caseload doesn’t rise—let’s hope it holds for the rest of the year. Go drop some coin with the vendors. If you catch grief, tell your partners I said it’s okay.