Once again, everything is changing. Gone are the athletic afternoon skies filled with muscled storms flexing raw power in the form of searing blasts of lightning and solid shafts of soaking rain. No longer am I forced to fly circuitous routes around the hostile weather or stay put until calm is restored. Once again, an over-the-top Southwest Florida summer is subsiding, displaced by a pillow-soft winter. Soon the weeks will roll by with the Earth covered by a blue, benign dome during the day and a planetarium display at night. The weather will be voluptuously perfect, the flying ridiculously easy, the view magazine-spread gorgeous, and the passengers happy thanks to the conditions.
But, as I write, idyllic flying days and nights are still a few weeks in the future. Right now we’re in the transition phase, when the atmosphere’s mood can veer from sullen to silky.Today, for example, it’s raining. A sustained, soaking rain, fed by southwesterly winds sopping up an endless supply of moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. It’s lousy flying weather today, just the opposite of yesterday.
I arrived at the airport early yesterday morning, just as the eastern sky was beginning to show tentative signs of life. The forecast was for good weather, but it included a chance of six miles visibility in mist early in the morning. I looked up and saw pinpoints of starlight between scattered carpet remnants of high, icy cirrus cloud. The “chance of…” remained just that.
By the time we taxied away from the ramp, however, shards of low clouds were sliding across the airport. Three miles and mist had arrived. A few minutes later the tower controller cleared us for takeoff, maintain runway heading, climb to 1,500 feet. We quickly popped through the top of the rapidly gathering fog and checked in with departure control. Our first waypoint was on a GPS course of 131 degrees, but the controller kept us low and headed northeast on runway heading until heavy jet traffic departing the nearby airline airport had climbed to sufficient separation altitude. That freed the controller to clear us direct to the waypoint, climb to our cruising altitude of 7,000 feet msl.
Once I had the airplane configured for the cruise climb, I exhaled and shifted my focus outside. It was a beautiful morning. The eastern sky was striped with bands of mid-level stratus that reflected light from the sun still crouching below the horizon. The Atlantic Ocean was about 80 miles distant, but the shimmering water was clearly visible to us. And there, silhouetted against the golden sea, was the staccato Miami skyline with its towering downtown waterfront condominiums.
The waters of the Gulf of Mexico were at our six o’clock position, our three o’clock, our one o’clock—a dark, sweeping margin bordering the flat landscape. This was one of those rare times when, even at low altitudes, the sky was sufficiently devoid of moisture, dust, and lower clouds to allow a commanding view of the entire southern Florida peninsula and the waters that define it—the Gulf of Mexico to the west and southwest, Florida Bay to the south, and the Atlantic to the east.
This was quickly shaping up to be a memorable flight, and it wasn’t just the gorgeous view. It was also the air, which was completely devoid of any of the usual flaws and imperfections. There were no bumps, no bounces, no nervous shuddering of the airplane slicing through sharp temperature changes and sudden vertical or horizontal wind shifts. Nothing but sleepy, unperturbed, still air. This is the kind of air that brings out the best in an airplane. I can dial in the desired pitch trim for climb or cruise and be confident that the nose will not wander. It’s the kind of air in which it is possible to stabilize in level flight, carefully lean the mixture, and watch indicated airspeed slowly rise, hesitate, then decline as the mixture goes to and then beyond best power. Rare air, indeed.
The view, the air, encouraged small talk in the cockpit. We sat in awe of the spectacle of the rising sun, commenting on it as we hurtled toward it. Even the controller toiling away in a windowless radar room somehow seemed to be affected. “Cleared direct to the airport,” he said. “Descend pilot’s discretion to two thousand.” Wow! This is our milk run, a route we fly once or twice a week, every week, and we’re almost always ordered to fly a multi-waypoint arrival route and descend far too early to keep us below airline traffic landing to the east at Miami International. Getting a direct-to-destination clearance and giving us the choice of when to descend was a rare treat.
I spent the day at the FBO while my passenger did his business. He returned about an hour after sunset, and we took off for home. The return flight was as smooth and spectacular as the early morning flight. The carpet of lights below us suddenly disappeared as we crossed over the eastern boundary of the Everglades and, farther west, the Big Cypress Preserve. The impenetrable blackness was pieced by a thin strand of red light and, immediately adjacent to the north, a strand of white light—that stretch of Interstate 75 known as Alligator Alley.
We landed and taxied to the ramp fully aware that we had enjoyed a transforming day. The meteorologists said that rain was coming, but so what. We’d just experienced early morning and evening flights in rare, nearly perfect conditions, and just beyond the coming rain was the promise of another soft South Florida winter. Once again, everything was changing.
Mark Twombly flies a Piper Aztec for a small company in Southwest Florida. E-mail the author.