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Operation Key Lime Pie

How far would you fly for a piece of pie?

"This does not make any sense." I say this as I taxi N775SP, a Cessna 172, onto Runway 7 at Orlando's Executive Airport for takeoff. As I turn to my right to check for traffic on final, I see on the face of Matt Dieter, my friend and neighbor, a smile that stretches from ear to ear.

Any Ideas?

This trip started off with the intention of getting just one piece of pie, but the people of Key West will strongly debate who makes the best pie. It was clear we were going to have to try more than one piece. When the trip was done, Matt and I each had an opinion as to the one that was our favorite. In the spirit of fostering further debate and adventure, we are not going to share that tidbit with you. Instead, go on an adventure of your own, and fly to the Keys and sample the pies, and come to your own conclusion.

And speaking of conclusions, this trip has been one of my favorites since I learned to fly. It generated a rush that lasted several days after we got home. It's going to be a tough trip to beat, so we are reaching out for ideas on places we can go that meet the spirit of the "Blue-Crab Caper" and "Operation Key Lime Pie." It doesn't have to be a flight for food. It can be an event, a special location, a person, it doesn't matter. It just can't make any real sense. Send your ideas to [email protected] for consideration. The winner, if there is one, will not be told until the story is printed! — CW

"This does not make any sense." I say this as I taxi N775SP, a Cessna 172, onto Runway 7 at Orlando's Executive Airport for takeoff. As I turn to my right to check for traffic on final, I see on the face of Matt Dieter, my friend and neighbor, a smile that stretches from ear to ear.

"I thought we had agreed that that's the point."

And so it is indeed.

After the huge success of the "Blue-Crab Caper" (see " Operation GA: The Blue-Crab Caper," May 2005 Pilot), in which success was defined by simply accomplishing a totally senseless task that we had set out to do, we decided that a sequel was not just ideal, but also was in fact, necessary. But how do you top an adventure of flying from Cincinnati to Maryland and back just to bring home a bushel of blue crabs? I mean, seriously, that was pretty cool. How do you top that? Well, I'm gonna tell you. This is no $100 hamburger. Not even close.

Party time

Like many of the great ideas in aviation, this one started off as kind of a joke. We were at a New Year's Eve party talking about what would complete the Caribbean atmosphere of the drinks we were having. Someone — I think it was Matt — commented that what we needed was some Key lime pie. I said, "that's fine," but what we really needed was Key lime pie from the source. From Key West, Florida. And before I could finish the thought, Matt and I both got that light-bulb look on our faces, and my wife, Lisa, just rolled her eyes and said, "You can't be serious about flying down to Key West for a piece of pie!" She's quick.

Yes, we were serious. Very much so. We would do it. We would fly to Key West for a piece of Key lime pie. After all, it's a long drive. Flying was the only way the trip made sense. Now, I should mention that both my mother and my wife make some of the best Key lime pie you'll ever have, bar none. But that, my friends, is not the point. The point is...well, the point is we now had a reason to embark on a trip, in a small airplane, to a cool place, to fly, to be...boys. For a reason, a mission, and to quite possibly conduct legitimate scientific research. Stop laughing.

The problem was deciding whether we would try to fly all the way from our homes in Kentucky to Key West, or if we would rent the airplane in Florida and then fly to Key West. It didn't take me long to stop asking others what they thought I should do, because everyone just looked at me like I was crazy and told me to make my own pie. So, at long last, we decided that we would airline our way to Orlando, where we could stay with friends, and I'd get checked out in an airplane and we'd fly to the Keys and back. It took quite a while to firm up our schedules, and before we knew it we were going to be almost a year in putting this trip together. We finally settled on December because the weather at that time of year is usually ideal for this kind of flight in the Florida Keys, and it would be a nice break from the cold at home.

Finding the airplane

We left the 12-degree Fahrenheit and snow-at-sunrise weather in Cincinnati and flew down to Orlando on a commercial flight on Thursday morning, December 7, and went to Air Orlando at Executive Airport for my checkout. Air Orlando is one of the most professional flight schools I've ever seen. It has a fleet of well-maintained Cirrus and Cessna aircraft, as well as helicopters and a Decathlon for tailwheel and aerobatic training. I settled on a 172S because the price was right and because I wanted to see how a 172 with an autopilot would be to fly (this was the research part of the equation). Besides, I love the 172, and it would be a great photo platform for Matt.

The checkout went fine, but the problem was going to be the weather. It was going to be windy, with gusts pushing 30 knots, and it was going to be in the 60-degrees range, not the 70s or 80s that I had been looking forward to. It also was going to be cloudy, with low ceilings and some rain, which was going to be a problem for taking pictures.

Matt and I met on Friday morning at 8, and it was only 57 degrees F. Although the sky was clear, the same couldn't be said for the Key West area. But so be it. We were on a mission. We were airborne by 9:30 a.m. on our IFR flight plan, and the autopilot and the GPS had us pointed in the right direction in no time. Air traffic control must have sensed our urgency, because it wasn't long before we were cleared direct to Key West at 6,000 feet. Just south of Fort Myers, we went into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), and we didn't break out until we had descended to 2,000 feet and were over the waters of the Florida gulf, 20 miles from the Conch Republic, the moniker Key West has adopted for itself. Two and a half hours after we took off and several years since either of us had last been here, we were at long last on the ramp in Key West.

The tastings begin

As soon as we got to the Holiday Inn, we spoke to Jack at the front desk and told him what we were trying to do. At last we had someone who thought that what we were doing made sense. Jack immediately whipped out a list of his 20 favorite eateries and told us which ones we should try. First on his list, since we had flown ourselves in, was Kelly's Caribbean. Owned in part by actress Kelly McGillis, Kelly's is a place of historical importance. The building was the original headquarters of Pan American Airways, which started off by flying from Key West to Havana, Cuba, on October 28, 1927.

The building is on the National Register of Historic Places, and it pays a fine tribute to the old Pan Am Clipper line. The bar is built to resemble an airfoil, and on the ceiling the fans are made to look like propellers mounted on engines. There is also a display case with some fascinating pieces of Pan Am memorabilia, including a flight operations manual, remnants of crew uniforms, and a full set of china and silverware used to serve passengers in-flight meals. I've always had a soft spot for old lines like Pan Am for their historical significance, but in the case of Pan Am, it's also because I was a passenger on one of the last flights before the carrier shut down.

We immediately sat down for lunch and requested a visit with the manager, Jimmy Rodriguez, a tall, lanky, and energetic native of the island. We explained who we were and what we were doing, and he immediately jumped on the idea, offering us free pie, and also telling us that the trip was exactly what flying is all about — he, it turned out, was a 400-hour private pilot himself, and when we told him the purpose of the trip, he understood perfectly. He also took us upstairs to an area that is normally off limits to customers to show us more Pan Am material that is kept away from the hustle and bustle of the crowds. For an aviation buff, it's definitely a visit worth making.

And the pie at Kelly's? Phenomenal. It's made with the thick consistency of cheesecake, and instead of the traditional graham cracker crust, the crust is made of Oreo cookies. It also can be topped with a Key lime glaze that adds a bit of bite to the flavor. If you go there for nothing else, go for the pie.

Say it isn't so

A new establishment on the island since my last extended visit was the Blond Giraffe Key Lime Pie Factory, where Brazilian natives Tania Beguinati and Roberto Madeira have been making and selling award-winning pies for seven years. It was here that I found out that the Key lime is not actually from the Florida Keys, but is instead a native...of Asia.

Say it isn't so.

This, to me, was like finding out that Santa Claus isn't real. But it's apparently true. The story goes that the Asian lime was introduced to Spain around A.D. 100. In 1493, on Marco Polo's second voyage across the Atlantic, Christopher Columbus brought Asian lime seeds with him to the West Indies, where they flourished, and became known as West Indian limes.

The Asian lime, which is yellow and much smaller than the green lime we all think of, flourished in the Florida Keys, and thus was dubbed the Key lime. It is the yellow Asian lime that gives Key lime pie its distinctive color. Today, the majority of the world's Key limes are grown in Brazil and Mexico. Only a fraction of today's Key limes are grown in Florida.

Legend has it that before the railroad was extended to the Keys in 1912, fresh milk was a rare commodity in the Florida Keys, and the staple dairy was Gail Borden Jr.'s condensed milk. Supposedly, a sailor on a ship (using the limes to prevent scurvy) got to mixing his limes with eggs, cans of the condensed milk, and soda crackers. The acid in the limes curdled the milk and eggs, and the result was a food that needed neither cooking nor refrigeration, which was a huge breakthrough on a ship at sea, especially in the hot Florida climate. Back on shore, the new dessert was an overnight success. In time, the graham cracker became the basis of the crust, and the leftover egg whites were used to make the meringue. Today, we use whipped cream, and thus was born the Key lime pie. So, although the limes themselves are not native to the Keys, it appears that at least the pie is.

In any event, the Blond Giraffe pie, made from an old family recipe, is more like a meringue, and it is extremely tart, which is the way I happen to like it. It tastes like the lime is right there in your hand. The Blond Giraffe has been so successful that there are seven locations in South Florida and the Keys, making Tania and Roberto the picture of the American success story.

The next high point of the day was our dinner at the Conch Republic restaurant, where the steamed lobster tails were probably the best that either of us has ever had. The pie? Actually, the pie at the Conch Republic is made by an outside vendor, Kermit's Key West Key Lime Shoppe, and it has a more traditional, light, not-so-tangy flavor. It's more like what most people think of when they think of Key lime pie.

Weather woes

The downside to this whole trip, though, was the weather. It was extremely windy and overcast, and the temperatures were in the low- to mid-60s. Needless to say, it wasn't the weather we'd hoped for, and it was not going to be conducive to getting the great aerial pictures we'd hoped for, but it was a far sight better than the alternative back home. Our wives constantly reminded us that the temperature in Cincinnati was 50 degrees colder than what we were experiencing. Lisa, who is a Florida native and loves Key West, never stopped telling me how jealous she was. I tried to tell her that this was work, but I don't think she bought it.

When we woke up on Sunday, the winds were still gusting to 30, but they had shifted from the north to the east, so at least they were right down the runway. The flight back mirrored the flight down. It was IMC with a bit of rain until we reached the coast of the Florida mainland, and it cleared up rather nicely as we trekked north. By the time we started flying the MINEE arrival into Orlando, the skies were clear and the winds on the ground were considerably calmer than they had been. We got a great view of the Disney parks and the Citrus Bowl stadium on our arrival.

Our landing, unfortunately, signaled the end of one heck of a weekend. The $100 hamburger? You can do better than that. Go overboard. Get your $1,500 piece of pie. Get two of them.

Or, do like we did, and get seven. You're probably saying to yourself that buying plane tickets to Florida to rent an airplane to fly to Key West to get some food, just to turn around and fly back just so that you can say you did it, doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense. You might be right. But to Matt's and my mind, that is exactly why it is the right thing to do.

Looking back, I didn't think we'd be able to beat our trip to Maryland for blue crabs. While we were eating dinner in Key West, margaritas and lobsters and all, we realized that this is the trip that's going to be hard to beat.

But we're willing to try. Back on the Air Orlando ramp, as the prop on the Skyhawk wound down after I pulled the mixture, I turned to Matt and said, "Now, about next year...."

Chip Wright, of Hebron, Kentucky, is a regional airline captain.

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