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The Joy of Flight: Florida-Bahamas getaway

The earth had given way to sea, with a crisp line of white sand, and I could still see the waves breaking two miles below! It was a perfect spring day in central Florida, and Federico, a flight school student from Italy, and I were flying to Grand Bahamas Island in the middle of the Devil’s Triangle in a Cessna 172SP.

After checking with flight service and opening a flight plan, we were ready to go. Once we were in the air, we were inside a presidential temporary flight restriction over Orlando and had only 15 minutes to exit the TFR. I called Orlando Approach and told them where I was going. Once talking to the ATC, I felt more comfortable, as they were vectoring me to the east and then south out of the TFR as the last four minutes ticked off. We were finally free to proceed to our destination.

Flying opens up a Florida that is not available to everybody. It has rich greens and browns and lots of water. There were tall clouds starting to build to 7,000 feet, so we chose to climb to 10,000 feet to clear the clouds and get as high as possible for our ocean crossing. Looking down from two miles high, the earth has a surreal quality. It was my first time over such a large stretch of water. Was I scared? Yes, I was scared—but like any aviator, I looked to my gauges for comfort. The left and right fuel gauges both had plenty; exhaust gas temp was right where I had left it after reaching 10,000 feet and leaning the mixture.

The earth was a big blue ball, and we were like a tiny tin insect the size of a mosquito. We talked about ditching the airplane in the event of an emergency. We would head into the wind at best glide, 70 mph, and make sure the doors were open before landing in the water. Then we would try to wrestle the raft out before the plane sunk. It sounded pretty implausible, so I took comfort in the fact that the plane was fairly new and running well.

It was windy, so I could still clearly see the six- to 10-foot swells. We were enjoying our blue view for a while when the Grand Bahamas Bank came into view. The color is a bright burst of aquamarine in a sea of deep blue. The banks are huge and stretch for miles. I could just picture the spiny lobster nestled in the shallow water. The snorkeling opportunities looked endless. At the southern end of the bank an eyebrow-shaped island came into view.

This is where we started our decent into the lower atmosphere. I put the mixture to full rich and took the rpm down to 1,600 and then tried to find that perfect slot between using gravity and the engine to get maximum speed and glide. We topped out at 140 knots and could feel the atmosphere thickening and moistening by the minute during descent. I was already talking to a laid-back controller in the Bahamas. I neared the airport at 1,000 feet and got kicked around by turbulence. I was on an extended left base, but the controller did not care to put me in a pattern—he just told me to look for traffic, a Cessna Citation X on right base, and that I was No. 2 for Runway 6. We spotted the sleek machine coming in for a perfect glideslope.

Here was my big chance to grease my first landing in the Bahamas. I brought it in a little high to avoid wake turbulence and hammered the left rudder almost the whole way over and dipped the wing to the right, flaring as the craft slowed down and finally touched down on the right wheel. I was not over the centerline—I had been pushed a few feet to the left—but it was a decent landing other than that.

Frederico and I were soon at Conky Joe’s ordering cracked conch and chips. It was crispy, tender, and delicious. We headed across the street to the casino, and I proceeded to win $100 at blackjack and then go shopping. It was a truly amazing day we were having.

On our return, we headed to Palm Beach Executive to clear customs. It was not that far, so we decided to fly at 5,000 feet and scud-run between some clouds. The sun was getting close to setting, and the rest of the airplanes decided to pile into the same airport. This time Federico was flying, and I was helping with the radios. The flying Italian showed me a trick of his to sit up a couple of inches in the seat before landing to help with perspective.

We were back in Winter Haven before 8 p.m., but my feet were not even touching the ground. General aviation gives me a perspective that is unparalleled and makes me the master of geography. Now I no longer have to wonder how far Freeport is from my house. I can almost smell the conch fritters from here!

Steven M Greenberg, AOPA 4618577, lives in Winter Haven, Fla., and rents a Cessna 172SP. He’s accumulated 140 hours during his five years of flying.

February 5, 2009

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