America's Airports: In the Conch Republic

Key West International Airport (EYW), Key West, Florida

February 1, 2008

The week leading up to Christmas is a quiet time in Key West, Florida. “The calm before the storm,” Joshua Pavia calls it. The “storm” makes landfall on December 26, when visitors arrive en masse to party through the New Year.

Pavia is in his one-room office at Key West International Airport (EYW) on a warm and clear morning a few days before Christmas, waiting for customers who want to take sightseeing rides around the island in his 1940 Waco UPF-7. To drum up a little business Pavia decides to “go make some noise”—launch in the Waco for a 10-minute, low-level circuit of the beaches and downtown Key West. The agreeable sight of the pumpkin-colored biplane and guttural call of its 450-horsepower Pratt & Whitney radial usually do the Pied Piper trick. It’s simple but effective marketing—if you fly it, they will come.

Pavia owns Island Aeroplane Tours. He was flying T-6s for an air combat outfit in St. Augustine, Florida, when he met Fred Cabanas, who founded Island Aeroplane Tours 20 years ago. Pavia moved to Key West to fly for Cabanas, and ended up buying the company.

In fact, there’s Cabanas now, pulling his bright yellow Pitts S-2C out of the hangar. Cabanas owns Cabanas Aerobatics Unlimited, and he’s preparing to take Jim Sponsler up for his first-ever aerobatic flight. Sponsler and his wife, Brenda, are recent Key West transplants, and Brenda has given Jim the flight as a Christmas gift. The gorgeous weather prompted Jim to redeem the gift early.

A compact guy with close-cropped gray hair and a mischievous smile, Cabanas has been a fixture at the airport since graduating from Key West High School and, at his mother’s insistence, going off to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University to earn A&P and pilot certificates. He returned to EYW credentials in hand, and he’s been there ever since.

Every field has a go-to guy who can and will fly anything that shows up, and Cabanas is that guy at Key West. He does a shift in amphibious Cessna 206s and a Cessna Caravan for Seaplanes of Key West, taking visitors on day trips to the Dry Tortugas National Park and Fort Jefferson about 60 nautical miles west. He campaigned Key West resident Todd Stuart’s P-51 Mustang, Luscious Lisa, in the September 2007 Reno Air Races. He delivers airplanes internationally. He is a professional air show performer in his Pitts. And he’s the ranking officer in the Conch Republic Air Force, whose sole mission apparently is to “bomb” a U.S. Coast Guard vessel with stale Cuban bread every April during Key West’s annual Conch Republic Independence Celebration.

While Cabanas takes Sponsler on a stomach-flopping thrill ride, we visit with Sandy and Joyce Quillen, who have just arrived from St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport (PIE) in their attractive vintage Cessna 172. Last year the couple began a holiday tradition of flying to Key West for a little getaway vacation. The surroundings are great, but the Quillens agree that, “the best part of the trip is flying here.”

A retired Naval officer, Quillen can stay and dine at the Naval Air Station Key West visiting officers’ quarters if space is available, which it is during this off-week. The Naval Air Station, founded in 1823 to quell piracy in the area, now encompasses four separate sites in the Key West area, including an active reliever field on Boca Chica four miles east of EYW.

After unloading the Cessna, the Quillens check in at the Island City office. Its tiny size belies its importance as the only FBO at a busy destination airport. Co-owner Paul dePoo says he is regularly courted by major FBO chains interested in adding Island City to their portfolios, but he and partner Peter Sellers are not interested in selling.

Like Cabanas, dePoo is a Key West native who paid his dues at the hometown airport. He started as a lineman at Island City in 1982, became a flight instructor and charter pilot, and now co-owns the business. dePoo also owned, and sold, Seaplanes of Key West.

In his years at the airport, dePoo has seen a gradual shift in the type of transient traffic, from mostly owner-flown piston singles and twins to business jets, in particular fractional providers such as NetJets. He’s also seen the effects of weather on the airport. In October 2005 Hurricane Wilma flooded the field with four feet of salt water, destroying about 20 based aircraft.

High above the ramp, in the air traffic control tower cab, Philip Zelechoski enjoys a commanding view of the airport, as well as the Atlantic Ocean to the south, downtown to the west, and off in the distance to the east, the Naval Air Station. A retired career FAA controller, Zelechoski is the new tower chief at EYW, which FAA contractor Robinson Aviation (RVA), operates.

At the moment, however, Zelechoski is not exactly enjoying having to instruct the pilot of an inbound Piper Archer to telephone Key West Approach Control after he lands. The pilot had penetrated Restricted Area R-2916, about 17 miles to the northeast, where a tethered aerostat (reconnaissance balloon) floats as high as 14,000 feet msl to monitor over-the-horizon air traffic that might have less-than-legal intentions. The airspace incursion wasn’t the pilot’s only problem—he almost collided with the cable leading to the aerostat.

Bill Bunn arrives to take over the late-afternoon shift. Bunn, also a career FAA controller, retired eight years ago to return to the place where he went to high school and work in the contract control tower a few hours a week. Zelechoski and Bunn work wearing Key West-appropriate uniforms—shorts for the barefoot Zelechoski, and Croc clogs, jeans, and a “Life’s A Beach” t-shirt for Bunn.

It’s mid-afternoon by the time Nikali “Nick” Pontecorvo makes his way to the airport. He got in late the previous night after delivering a Navion from Key West to Seattle. Pontecorvo is what the locals call a “fresh-water conch,” which means he has lived in Key West for at least seven years. (An unmodified “conch” is a true native whose ancestors emigrated to the Keys from the Bahamas). In 1991 he was working in Piscataway, New Jersey, as a corporate tax accountant when he took a vacation to Key West, and stayed.

He was not a pilot then, but while bartending at Sloppy Joe’s, “a pretty girl came in” who turned out to be a flight instructor. “I didn’t get the girl,” he says, “but I did get the ratings.” He became “addicted” to flying, and found ways to feed that addiction by hauling skydivers; working for Seaplanes of Key West; instructing; taking charters and sightseeing flights; and delivering airplanes.

Pontecorvo introduces Julie Floyd, who is busy preflighting a Cessna 172. Floyd is an instrument-rated pilot, and on this lovely winter day she’s asked Pontecorvo to accompany her while she flies some practice approaches. Given her VIP status—she is the local aviation medical examiner, and Pontecorvo’s girlfriend—he’s happy to put in the pro bono time.

At the end of the day, Pavia makes one last trip in the Waco. He flies alone and trolls for tomorrow’s bread by circling the sundown worshippers crowding Mallory Square on the town’s west-facing waterfront, pulling a banner that reads “2 FLY FOR $60.”

Mark R. Twombly is a charter pilot in southwest Florida.