By MIKE HALSTEAD
It was an unusually warm Sunday afternoon in April 2016. N7000L ate up a generous amount of runway leaving Troutdale, Oregon, as we departed for Florida on this trip of a lifetime.
I loaded the plane with two people that I love and one that I like, along with a huge pile of gear. I had weighed everything twice and, with only 8 gallons in each tip tank, I was right at 3,800 pounds.
After 15 seconds of takeoff roll, I was starting to think, “did I do the math correctly? Everything is in the envelope right? Just be patient.”
And we’re off
Ten seconds later, my plane began to free itself from the pavement. With a relieved sigh from the pilot, we were on our way! SUN ‘n FUN, here we come.
Of course, if we go that far, who would not want to zip over to the Bahamas?
I have had my first plane for just three years: A 1976 Cessna TU206, set up for Alaska and the Idaho backcountry. Tip tanks, 29-inch bush wheels, and as STOL as I could get the old bird. Not too fast, not to slow, but something that can carry four people, full fuel, and a pile of gear in the back. A true flying station wagon.
In the back seat was my daughter Brooke, and her husband of six months, Caleb. In the front seat sat Marco, a new friend from Germany, who is here attending a local flight school. Together we spent many hours going through all things necessary for the Bahamas segment of the trip.
Because of a snow forecast in Pocatello, Idaho, we made the decision to go the extra 100 miles across the divide to Wyoming. Our predicted 30-knot tailwind turned out to be only 10 knots. I really wanted to be there by dusk; now it would be close.
At the four-hour mark, Salt Lake took me up to 14,000. We skirted around the convection and 15 minutes later, we had crossed the divide and had the valley and airport in sight. I cancelled IFR and proceeded to land at the little town of Big Piney.
We woke to sunshine and 28°. I checked the weather and was quite pleased to see that it was snowing in Pocatello. We filled up the mains, went to town for breakfast, and off we flew.
The old Cessna leaped into the cold air, even with the added elevation. The disappointing 10 knot tailwind had now dropped to a disappointing 5 knot breeze that couldn’t seem to make up its mind.
What beautiful country this is. So much to see! I wondered, “why is everyone sleeping?”
Everyone managed to wake up for lunch at McCook, Nebraska. Then it was back in the plane for a four-hour ride to somewhere in Arkansas. I spent 30 minutes researching the info on my 796 to see who had good gas prices and a courtesy car. I settled on Heber Springs.
Day three we rise with the sun and quickly get in the air. After filling up at DeFuniak Springs (the best price in Florida), we tried one more time on the computer to find any new arrival instructions for Lakeland Linder Regional Airport (KLAL), home to SUN ‘n FUN.
One of the old timers there who had just helped deliver a B-17 to the airshow said we should just call on the approach frequency and they would tell us what we needed to know. Pleased with that answer, we departed.
After a short climb, we received our new code for flight following and pointed south for Central Florida. As we flew along, we kept observing scores of ponds and puddles, even standing water along the freeways — all of them with logs floating on the surface. After we saw some of the logs move, we figured out the mystery.
Welcome to SUN ‘n FUN
Then the fun began. We pull up the SUN ‘n FUN frequency and dropped into Lakeland. The controller told me to head down Highway 4, turn left at the golf course, and go past the white water tank. The fun just stopped!
I looked down and saw four different freeways and three golf courses, and not one white water tank in sight.
“Are you the white Cessna with the big tires?” the controller asked. “Affirmative,” I replied. “Turn and follow Highway 4.”
It got worse from there, but at least he could identify me and put me where I was supposed to be. I have since studied the area from satellite pictures and know exactly where both Highway 4 and the golf course are. I still could not see the white tank, but I am confident he was telling the truth.
I imagine this year I will hear: “White Cessna with the big tires…is that you again?”
SUN ‘n FUN was amazing and wonderful as always. The volunteers parked us for camping clear out by the VOR, all by ourselves. It was quite a hike to the exhibits from there. I was wondering if the controller had passed along the word and I was getting a “time out.”
Soon we had other planes rolling in and setting up camp next to us. Still a long hike to the exhibits, but now we had some company.
While at SUN ‘n FUN, I spoke with more than a few retired military pilots who had thousands of hours in the most sophisticated aircraft of their day. One who camped by us had traded his F-18 for the left seat with one of the majors. He was now partner in a Piper and flew whenever he could.
“You flew all the way from Oregon?” he said. “My dream is to fly to Alaska someday.”
Whether it is Mach 2 or 120 kts, I guess there will always be something about seeing the earth from above and venturing to places unknown!
Off to the Keys
Three days and 1,000 pictures later, we headed south to Marathon Island on the Florida Keys. We cruised east on Alligator Alley, staying in sight of the highway for an emergency landing. A plane could vanish easily in those hundreds of square miles of 20-foot mangroves and gator-infested water.
As we turned south, we entered by far the most scenic leg of the trip. Flying at 800 feet and just off the Keys made for a spectacular view.
After a night in Marathon, we were off to Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport (KFXE). Banyan Air is the main Bahama departure point in the area. After an hour filling out forms online, flight plans, aEPIS and raft rental, we depart for Freeport.
I thought flying over the open sea would be a little nerve wracking, but I knew the plane could mush down at 45 knots and the water looked warm.
Those in the back seat kept inserting sharks into the equation, but I figured that would just make a good story better.
Just 90 minutes later, we were on final at Grand Bahama International Airport (MYGF) in Freeport.
Freeport is beautiful. Just $130 secured a fabulous condo with a pool and private dock on the water.
However, driving on the left side of the road is a bit precarious. I did fine except for a few instances coming out of round-a-bouts. I would somehow find myself in the wrong lane facing down cars and, at one point, a tour bus!
With increasing intensity, Marco kept saying, “bleib links! bleib links!” That means “stay left! stay left!” I guess people panic in their native language.
From Freeport, it was island hopping, paying money at each airport, and then choosing the departure airport to go back to the states. At the last airport it would take another hour as we filled out online forms and flight plans.
Once we were back at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, we taxied straight to customs. They were in no hurry, but everything went fine. We emptied the plane clear down to a box of half-eaten donuts and carried it all into the building. There it went through screening and then back out to the plane.
Soon we were taxiing for the return trip to Oregon. Two hours north, we landed at Iverson, Florida, where we had to hitchhike to town for the night.
The next day it was straight west to Lake Charles, Louisiana, for lunch, where we parked next to 15 jet trainers. Million Air FBO wins the contest for the best courtesy car. We drove to the steakhouse in a green Jaguar! Of course, everyone wanted a turn at the wheel.
The next day and a half we faced a disappointing 30-plus knot head wind. A night in Brady, Texas, placed us only a seven-hour flight from the boneyard at Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson. You can never see too many old planes, I say.
Almost home now!
We knew it would be a long day if the wind did not cooperate. The first leg was to Boulder, Nevada, where we took on fuel and kept our distance from the helicopter tour route over Hoover Dam.
Skirting around MOAs and restricted areas, we made Reno Stead Airport (KRTS), home of the Reno Air Races, for lunch and gas. It was cloudy crossing the Cascades, but broken enough to stay VFR with flight following for the final three and a half hour run home.
We parked the plane and quickly unloaded. As I prepared to go and see my beautiful wife, I was thinking; “10 days and 51 hours of flight time. Now that should be enough for a while.”
As I walked to the car, I turned and saw the 206 tied down for the night. I smiled and thought to myself, “I better have it filled up, I think I might want to go someplace tomorrow.”