FLORIDA KEYS AND THE DRY TORTUGAS BY AMPHIB
Even back when we started building our RANS S7, we talked about flying it down to the Keys. Several years back, Dave had flown his BUC XA to Key Largo with Roland Alexander and discovered that it was a wonderful place to explore with an amphib. Since then, Dave had talked about an extended trip all the way down to Key West. So when his friend Dennis Bodin suggested a flight to the Dry Tortugas, off the coast of Key West, David jumped at the chance.
Dennis Bodin owns a RANS S7 amphib configured exactly like ours. He and Dave have done quite a bit of flying together including a trip in 2002 to the Oshkosh Fly-In in Wisconsin.
So early one Friday morning in September, Dave and I took off in our RANS along with Dennis and his girlfriend Yvette and Buddy and Kristine Babcock, who had decided to join us in their Searey. We were finally bound for the Keys!
Our planned route took us down the center of the state to Everglades City at the Southern tip of the Florida Peninsula. To get there, we made a quick stop in La Belle for fuel. We ended up at a really neat airport in Everglades City by early afternoon. The airport has one runway with water on both ends and on one side. There is also a really nice little FBO on stilts. With the help of the FBO manager, we arranged for a ride to town for a seafood lunch and then got back to the planes, fueled up and took off over the water.
The final portion of our trip to Key West would be mostly over the beautiful blue water of the Keys. From Everglades City we headed South across the bay, past the 10,000 Islands to Marathon. Even though this takes you offshore a bit, it is a fairly easy run. The water is shallow most of the way, and you can see land the whole time.
A quick stop in Marathon and we headed down to Key West. We flew the South side of the Keys to avoid the restricted areas on the North side. This was the most beautiful part of the trip down - seeing the clear blue water along the coast and the Keys. Flying into Key West was interesting. This is a fairly large controlled airport with a lot of traffic ranging from commercial jets to small aircraft like ours. In addition, Key West NAS is situated just East of Key West International, making for some military traffic as well.
Upon arriving in Key West, we unloaded our gear and made some inquiries regarding our planned flight to the Dry Tortugas. Since the island is a National Park, we wanted to make sure that we understood the procedure for arriving and parking our planes there. We got a chance to talk with the seaplane pilots who fly the daily charters to the Tortugas in Cessna 206s and Caravans.
We spent Friday evening and the day on Saturday riding scooters around Key West - relaxing, shopping and seeing the sights.
Early Sunday morning we headed to the airport and loaded the planes for the trip to the Dry Tortugas. Since this flight would be over 70 miles of open water, we took some extra precautions before departure. We did a very thorough preflight, including removing the cowling and checking all of the fuel and electrical connections. We also carried life preservers, ropes and tie downs, an anchor, marine radio and extra water and snacks. We also brought our snorkel gear for some extra fun.
In order to fly to the Tortugas, you must cross the US ADIZ; thus a flight plan is required. We filed our flight plan, departed from Key West, and headed west over the water. What an exciting - yet eerie - feeling it was to look out in front of our plane and see nothing but water!
Midway between Key West and the Dry Tortugas are the Marquesas Keys. It wasn't long into our flight that we began to see these islands on the horizon. The GPS is a wonderful thing, and it makes navigation easy, but it is still nice to see landmarks that reinforce our location.
The water between Key West and Marquesas was clear blue and shallow and gave us a feeling of comfort. However, once we got past these islands, the shallow water was replaced with darker water of deep ocean. The seas also got rougher, making the possibility of an emergency landing a lot less attractive.
We didn't have long to think about all this though. Within minutes we were able to make out the profile of Fort Jefferson at the Dry Tortugas. We landed in the channel and taxied onto the beach and secured our planes for a fun day! Flight time from Key West was approximately 45 minutes.
The main island of the Dry Tortugas houses Fort Jefferson. The fort was built in 1846, but was never completed. The invention of the rifled cannon made it obsolete. As the military value of Fort Jefferson waned, its pristine reefs, abundant sea life and impressive numbers of birds grew in value and it was designated a National Monument and then a National Park. The fort houses a small handful of rangers who live on the island year round.
After our tie down, a park ranger approached us. He was glad we had arrived and was concerned we had a problem. Evidently, our flight plan had been handled incorrectly. As there is no way to contact flight service from the Dry Tortugas, flight plans are supposed to be filed round-trip and closed upon arrival back in Key West. Our flight plan had been filed one-way and had not yet been closed. The ranger was able to close this via a satellite phone, but another problem still existed. We had no way to open a flight plan for the flight back in. This trip involved crossing the ADIZ inbound and without a flight plan we would be unidentified. Luckily, one of the charter pilots was able to handle our inbound flight plan.
We spent the day exploring the fort and snorkeling all the way around the island (and YES, you CAN get seasick snorkeling in rough water). The best time of the day was after 3 p.m. Once the charter boats and planes left the island we had the entire place to ourselves (and a few rangers, of course). It was wonderful!
We left the Tortugas around 4:30 p.m. When we arrived back in Key West, we celebrated our day with a night on the town.
Monday morning we got up early and packed the planes for the trip back home. While we were preflighting in Key West, Buddy informed us that he had a potential propeller problem. His propeller was stuck with the pitch in, causing a potential for not being able to generate the RPM necessary for takeoff or safe cruise. However, Buddy wanted to give it a try.
Once we got in the air, we kept a close eye on the Searey. But as we passed Key West NAS, Buddy got on the radio and told us that he felt he would have to turn back. As he made the turn back to Key West, the problem got worse and he was forced to call NAS tower and declare an emergency. Buddy did a great job getting the plane on the ground safely at NAS, but the two RANS were not allowed to follow him in. We diverted back to the Key West and communicated via cell phone.
After an extensive security check, Buddy and Kristine were able to make some calls and arrange for the part they needed to be shipped overnight. They met several people at the base, including the C.O., who was very impressed and interested in the Searey. And of course, once they were cleared, they were welcomed. Buddy is a veteran and they were housed for the evening at the base villas on the beach.
Once Dennis and Dave knew that Buddy and Kristine were okay, we went ahead and departed from Key West.
Our flight home took us on approximately the same route as our flight down. We stopped again in Everglades City for fuel and then continued North. Dave and I made a quick lunch stop in Sebring and then headed back home to Bob White field.
The trip was terrific. It gave us a tremendous sense of accomplishment and we can say that we have done something that not too many pilots have done. Most of all it was lots of flying and lots of fun!
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