Island Hopping in the Keys


I had been mentally planning this trip for almost a year. Since last December to be precise. So when the opportunity arose to visit Florida I went prepared: logbook, medical and pilot’s license in hand.The checkout at the local flight school was a breeze. An hour in the air and I was licensed (again) to fly in Florida.

It was a little closer to 10 o’clock the next day, when my friends and I set off. I had reviewed the route with my instructor the previous day. My instructor had indicated the previous day that the coastline clearance to transit Fort Lauderdale International Airport (KFLL) was usually at 500 ft. As expected, we departed straight out on runway eight out of Fort Lauderdale Executive (KFXE) and headed straight for the coast. I leveled off below a 1000ft. Once at the coast and cleared to transit the KFLL Class Charlie airspace we headed southwest at 500 ft.

The Class Bravo airspace of Miami airspace adjoins the Class Charlie airspace of Fort Lauderdale. With scattered clouds hovering above 2000 ft, flying around 1000 feet fortunately kept us out of the Class Bravo airspace and provided enough clearance from the clouds. We traced the coastline all the way to Homestead Air Force Base then followed highway 1 past North Key Largo, Key Largo, Isla Morada, Indian Key, Duck Key and Marathon Key. Tracing the highway all the way to Key West was the safest route for a single engine airplane.

First stop was at Marathon (KMTH). A quick pit stop to refuel and stretch our legs. Except  for the threatening cloud layer and an occasional slight drizzle from a rain cloud, the flight had been uneventful. The vibrant hues of the Atlantic Ocean and the Intra Coastal waters sometimes turquoise at times deep blue provided dramatic scenes of the Florida coastline. The Everglades to the right stood in silent splendor. Not an emergency site in sight! Our best bet was the highway 🙂

Marathon is a quaint tropical city located in the middle of the island chain. Marathon airport (KMTH) provides easy access to the heart of the keys and all the fun activities: diving, fishing, sailing, and snorkeling. There are several restaurants within easy walking distance for that $500 hamburger. Most importantly, fuel prices are cheaper at Marathon than at Key West.

A short hop away from Marathon is Key West. Prior to entering the Class Delta Airspace of Key West, a clearance is required from the Naval Air Station Key West Tower to transition that airspace.  Landing fee at Key West (as well as Marathon) airport is waived if purchasing fuel. Access to downtown Key West is easily achieved with a rental car or public ground transportation. Duvall Street is the central attraction in downtown Key West, lined with shops and restaurants.

Try some delicious buckwheat crepes at La Creperie on Petronia Street: Red Velvet, Mediterranean or a host of other choices. The most popular restaurant on the island is Blue Heaven, but be prepared for a long wait time. After lunch,  stroll down Petronia Street for some incredible dessert at Better than Sex (Yes! That is the name of the restaurant :-)).

There is plenty of action on Duvall Street.  Head south on Duvall Street to the Southernmost Point of the US or north to Murphy Square. Take a tour of homes owned by famous people such as  Hemingway, Harry Truman and James Audubon. There is plenty to do in Key West: diving, snorkeling, deep sea water fishing, kayaking, sailing, sunset cruises, seaplane rides and more. While there are only two public use airports in the keys, all the islands can be covered by driving. Winter time is the best time to head out to this tropical paradise. Check out Island Hopping in the Keys: The 100 mile drive across the Florida Keys.

With evening approaching and the forecast calling for potential storm cells hovering close to Fort Lauderdale, after a fun filled day of flying, good food, good company and ambiance we headed homeward, retracing the path we took on our way southwest. I was a little apprehensive of an encounter with storm cells. But the route back was pristine and clear all the way back to Homestead. It was close to home that the unfriendly gray skies beckoned.

“Climb to 2500 ft and contact Ft Lauderdale Tower,” directed Miami Approach.
My response was succinct, “Unable,” as I lowered the nose a little below 1000ft.
“How high can you go?” queried Miami Approach.
“Not much above 1000ft,” replied I.
“Stay out of Class Charlie Airspace and contact Ft Lauderdale Tower,” with that Miami Approach bid adieu.
We headed out further out to the ocean away from the intra-coastal waters to stay out of FLL airspace and contacted FLL Tower.

“Cleared through the coastal route, descend and maintain 500 ft” was music to our years.

The clouds continued to darken  around us and we could feel the occasional drizzle on the wind shield.  Off in the distance, a partial rainbow gleamed in the eastern sky, patches of blue still visible in the evening sky.  While a little south of FXE, the dark rain bearing clouds looked ominously threatening hovering just a shade away from the airport edge. We landed in the nick of time, just as the storm started to pass over the airport. Tying down the aircraft in a drizzle, it felt good to be back and out of the storms way.

Plenty of first time experiences and certainly one of those unforgettable memories indelibly logged in the master logbook of the mind!

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Photographs courtesy Pavani and Donn Smith

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