Travelling to this great annual fly-in event in style — and ending the vacation with a flying visit to NY. Words & Photos: Graham Robson

This story began over twenty years ago when I learned the difference between ‘what if…’ and ‘why not?’ While taking photographs on the ramp at Fort Lauderdale Airport, on vacation in 1992, a beautiful Grumman Mallard taxied in. In conversation with the pilot, he asked about my plans for Sun ’n Fun. The Mallard was owned by a friend, he was taking his Super DC-3, and he asked if I would like to come along too!

At the time, there seemed more reasons in my mind to decline than accept: rental car return, existing motel reservations, and a wife with other plans… you get the point. Reluctantly I turned down the kind offer. Later that week, having driven to the show, I met the pilot again, where he insisted I call him before making plans for the following year and be sure I joined them?no excuses.

That pilot was Charlie Clements and he and his Mallard-owning friend, Jack Bart from Connecticut, flew to Sun ’n Fun every year, meeting up with a bunch of like-minded flying enthusiasts and pilots. Following that chance meeting, I took Charlie’s advice to join them the following year, and since then the show has become a ‘must do’ in my calendar and I have become used to saying ‘why not’ more easily.

Nowadays, my Sun ’n Fun vacation starts with a rental aeroplane for some local touring around Florida, before heading up to the show. Last year my usual aircraft was not available so I was put in touch with a friend of a friend, Danny, with a nice 172SP he’d rent me. On learning I have a 1947 vintage Cessna 120; Danny mentioned that his father had operated a Cessna 120 in Guyana in the late 1960s.

This piqued my interest as my 120 was in Guyana in the ’60s, registered 8R-GBO. An immediate call to his father confirmed, amazingly, that his 120 was my 120, and was very much in his logbook over 45 years before. This immediate kinship, an invisible bond between pilots, sealed a friendship and Danny now makes his 172 available to me whenever I’m in Miami, which brings me to this year’s adventure.

An aeroplane ready for me at Tamiami airport and sublime weather are a recipe for stress-free living, and no flying vacation in Florida is complete without a trip to Key West, the city at the end of the string of sandbar islands that stretch south-west into the Gulf of Mexico.

A south-westerly VFR departure had me climbing towards Key Largo, where the mainland stops and the myriad of small islands begin, the cobalt-blue sea below scored with the swirling patterns of speedboat wakes. Marathon was an easy 45 minute flight; not really necessary but it’s a convenient place to break the journey. The airport gets very busy around springtime, hosting many visitors from the northern US states and Canada, where winter still hangs on.

Known locally as ‘snow birds’, they fly down in droves, in anything from small, single-engine GA up to expensive corporate jets, making this non-towered airport a place where you need to be on your game. The airport’s 1,526m runway is in the centre of Marathon itself, right alongside the US-1 highway and taking up almost half the length of the town.

Regular position calls during your approach to the field are a good idea, on the ‘common traffic advisory frequency’ (CTAF), as the mix of traffic can be anything from a Waco biplane to a Gulfstream 5. With no ATC, it is interesting to hear big jets making the same radio calls we make at a small GA field here on our lowly A/G frequencies; it is truly see and be seen.

Suitably refreshed, it was now a very short hop to Key West International. The forty-mile flight requires passing the US Navy base on Boca Chica Key and careful avoidance of restricted area R-2916, for which the annotation on the chart ‘unmarked balloon on cable to 14,000ft MSL’ says it all!

Key West Navy radar gave a very good and friendly service, requesting only that I remained south of the shoreline passing the base and reported abeam the Control Tower, at which point the international airport was clearly visible on the next Key, and a handoff to Key West Tower elicited clearance for a downwind right join to Runway 9, number two to a Canadair RJ on final.

Key West has a mandatory $15 parking charge?understandable as it’s a full passenger/port of entry airport. After shutting down at the FBO, the 172 was ‘spot-parked’, as parking space is tight; they then arranged a hotel for me and called a cab to get into town?it was a bit too far to walk comfortably in the heat. The vacation had begun.

America is blessed with the freedom to embrace flying with common sense, which opens up many interesting opportunities denied to us in the UK. I implore any pilot visiting south Florida to give it a try; it is truly flying at its best. My next flight after returning to the Miami area was a good example of this.

VFR traffic transiting north or south between Miami and the Fort Lauderdale area has a choice of radar service through each successive airport control zone, or flying VFR along the shoreline at or below 500ft?all strictly legal and most convenient for controllers and pilots alike. Having enjoyed lunch at the wonderful ramp-side Jet Runway Café at Fort Lauderdale Executive airport, I contacted Miami Approach on climb-out, giving my position and intention to route southbound down the beach, as per the approved procedure.

The controller pointed out similar traffic, one mile ahead and also southbound, and advised me to remain offshore at or below 500ft. There followed twenty minutes flying alongside and sometimes below the level of beachfront skyscraper hotels and luxury apartment blocks, with kitesurfers below and passenger jets out of Fort Lauderdale and Miami International airports departing over me. The route is both north and southbound, uncontrolled and strictly VFR: every pilot is responsible for traffic sighting and avoidance, and it can be quite busy during the summer months with banner-towing and sightseeing as well as the regular GA transit traffic.

I joined the coastline southbound at Hallendale Beach, just south of Fort Lauderdale, eventually clearing Miami’s Class B airspace at the visual reporting point (VRP) of Government Cut, the very southern tip of Miami Beach, where the cruise liners depart and, until some years ago, Chalks Seaplanes operated. Turning back inland towards Tamiami airport, it was time to return Danny’s 172 and prepare for part two of my adventure.

1947 vintage beauty

Jack Bart keeps his beautiful 1947 vintage G-73 Mallard in Florida over the winter, for its annual maintenance check, before flying it home to Connecticut in the spring, via Sun ’n Fun of course?and I have the very great privilege of being one of the crew for this trip each year. As usual, we rendezvoused the evening before in Fort Lauderdale for dinner and a few beers, ready to head out early next morning to Fort Lauderdale Executive. This time, Jack kindly offered me the chance to fly right-seat for the trip to Lakeland, under his guidance as I don’t hold a twin rating.

Resplendent in period Grumman ‘house colours’, the Mallard looked out of place on a ramp crammed with the latest corporate jets, yet managed to outclass them all. There was no doubt it was the biggest attraction for the ramp handlers, looking incongruously stylish amongst the generic biz-jets lined up either side.

Jack talked me through the starting procedure, quite normal I expect for those who fly large radial engine types, but for a mere four-pot Continental flyer like me, I needed to listen up. The starboard engine is started first; switching on the boost pump and priming being the pilot’s job, the switches are located upper left on the overhead panel. Look outside, count nine blades, magnetos on and push the starter, remembering to turn off the boost pump when it fires into life.

Repeated for the port engine, this brought a satisfying rumble from the two Pratt & Whitney R-1340s mounted very close behind our heads. Releasing the brakes, some judicious left braking was required to get the nosewheel to turn as we pulled out from the corporate jets and ambled slowly towards the holding point. Engine run-ups are done at 1,700rpm, cycling the props three times, feather-check and then exercise the props once again, all controlled from the overhead panel, the throttle movements requiring a rather different movement to normal as, being positioned above us, the levers are ‘jockeyed’ against each other. Magneto switches are also in the centre of the overhead panel and, with these and the carb heat checks completed, we were ready to go.

As we pulled up to the holding point for Runway 9 we called the Tower “ready for departure” and, with clearance, moved forward into position. The boost pumps were switched on once again?with a reminder from Jack to turn them off at 1,000ft?engines run up to 30in manifold pressure, increasing to 35in for takeoff, and brakes released, bringing the Mallard’s characteristic rasp to a crescendo, and we were off.

Lift off came in a rather flat attitude, slightly alarming as we faced a line of high-rise condominiums ahead along the beach; although four miles away they seemed closer at that moment. Once a positive rate of climb was established, Jack retracted the gear, helping to reduce considerable drag from the decidedly un-aerodynamic airframe, and we throttled back to 30in mp, set 2,000rpm and began a slow climbing left turn onto a north-westerly heading, with the deafening rasp only slightly abated and reverberating, as the props were not yet synchronised. We were tracking towards the Pahokee VOR on the south-eastern corner of Lake Okeechobee. The lake is thirty miles end-to-end and one of the few easily recognised landmarks in the otherwise featureless central Florida.

The cockpit, roomy enough in flight, required some finesse when climbing in to avoid knocking anything or scalping myself, and gives a lookout somewhat less than I am used to in my Cessna, akin to peering through a letter box. This is very apparent in turns, when looking across to the other pilot’s side, as the shallow windshield is so far forward of the seating position.

Cruise is a sedate 130kt, with 24in mp at 1,800rpm. The din from the engines is only slightly diminished by the headsets and even those in the back wear them, with intercom available between the cockpit and the forward seats in the passenger cabin. Flying the lumbering Mallard is a textbook exercise in learning exactly what is meant by adverse yaw: rudder is a must when rolling in any aileron to avoid the slender nose wallowing around in front of you, acutely exaggerated by the hinges for the forward hatch ahead of you. Ignoring this will elicit complaints from those in the back trying to enjoy their coffee or rum and Coke!

All pilots flying in to Sun ’n Fun are required to read the lengthy and ominous-looking arrivals procedure document. Regular GA traffic is required to position at Lake Parker, north-east of the field and follow a prescribed route to final. The alternative, for which we had permission, is the much simpler ‘warbird arrival’ that brings an arrival path from the south, approaching the field mid-point and turning downwind right for Runway 9.

Jack asked me to “just fly the aircraft”; he’d make any power adjustments and advise anything else I was required to do. The wind was brisk from the north-east, making its presence felt as we began our descent and positioned for arrival in the circuit. I must say, as a novice in such a large type, I flew a pretty accurate and precise pattern, now acutely aware of exactly why the Mallard has such large rudder pedals, its huge slab-sided fuselage and tall fin being very efficient at catching the wind.

Turns require massive rudder inputs and holding the centreline from two miles out had me almost standing up. The feeling was like being astride a huge horse, as the co-pilot’s pedals are much wider spaced, designed this way for access to the forward bow area, further assisted by the co-pilot’s yoke being articulated, to allow a modicum of ‘throw-over’ for easier access.

Landings at Sun ’n Fun are closely controlled to allow up to three on the same runway at the same time?line astern of course?aiming for different coloured spots on the runway, meaning pilots can often be instructed to land ‘very long’, as was the case with us.

I flew the aircraft low along the runway for almost two-thirds of its length, which, by then, was making my right leg ache; such was the force to hold it straight. (I’m sure any regular Mallard pilot would trim the rudder a little to assist, but as this was my first time the rudder trim was not a familiar thing and I felt it was easier all around just to grin and bear it!) Reaching our touchdown point, Jack pulled the power and I held the nose off until we slowed even further, producing a rather gentle touchdown, which, after all the exertion, was rather a non-event and we rolled out to the very end of Runway 9. Here we were again!

The week of Sun ’n Fun is a delight, combining the frenetic activity of an international airshow, with endless sales booths for anything and everything associated with our hobby, interlaced with a gentle and balmy holiday atmosphere.

Having tried what seems like every motel in the area over the years, we now do it in style in a rented five-bedroom house with pool, across the road from the show entrance, that becomes a ‘pilot cave’ for the week of the show. Our disparate bunch includes private, corporate, airline and aerobatic pilots and friends from New York and New Jersey, Connecticut, Louisiana and Texas, as well as Brazil, Hungary and us Brits.

The previous year, Hungarian pilot and Bonanza owner Ferenc, who flies his lovely V-tail from New Jersey each year, had invited me to do some flying with him in the New York area when I was next there and why not this year after the show? A great idea, however, there were no seats available to fly up with him in the Bonanza. Jack suggested I fly up to New York with him in the Mallard, allowing me to meet up with Ferenc before heading home to the UK. With some hasty rearrangement of homeward flights, this wonderful opportunity became a plan.

Sunday 10 April saw us carefully stowing our luggage and the week’s shopping bargains into the Mallard, as we prepared for the 900nm-plus journey north to Bridgeport, Connecticut. We were lightly loaded with only Jack, his long-time co-pilot and crew chief Al Furnari and me on board. The Mallard’s R-1340 Wasp engines are thirsty, consuming together up to 60 USG/hour (a whopping 230 litres/hour), so fuel planning is an important detail, not only for endurance but cost!

Our first stop was to be Palatka, a municipal field in the north-east of Florida, which enjoys one of the cheapest fuel prices in the area. Departure from the show is as carefully choreographed as arrival, with stream takeoffs from both runways to expedite the traffic flow. Taxying to the holding point requires no radio calls, following instructions from the motorbike outriders.

The first call is from the mobile Tower close to the threshold when you are next in turn for departure. Watching the aircraft ahead and alongside, we began our takeoff roll, following the prescribed departure procedure of straight ahead on runway heading for three miles before turning on course. Monitoring departure frequency to gain a mental picture of others ahead and behind us, we began our ponderous journey north.

After filling the tanks at Palatka our takeoff was anything but sprightly as morning temperatures were already close to 25°C, and we seemed to use every inch of the available 6,000ft runway. Our route took us offshore south of Jacksonville and we settled in for a thoroughly pleasant and scenic trip, gently following the coastline up past southern Georgia and on towards South Carolina.

Once established in the cruise, Jack had me swap places with him ‘up front’ and I enjoyed some left-seat time, feeling like a king on a throne. We were receiving ‘flight following’ radar service, similar to traffic service in the UK, from successive radar centres along our route, though radio chatter was minimal. Nearing Charleston, we saw a huge C-17 transport descending towards the Air Force base and, crossing overhead, clearly saw the vast Boeing production plant where the 787 Dreamliner comes together.

Three and a half hours after takeoff we prepared for landing at Wayne Executive airport, South Carolina, another bargain fuel price pit-stop, so I vacated the captain’s seat and swapped back to passenger mode. The approach to the north-easterly runway brought us close to Seymour-Johnson Air Force base and the ramps full of F-15 fighter jets could be seen to our right as we droned down the final approach.

Refuelling completed in short order, after refreshments and ablutions we were soon on our way again, commencing our slow climb back up to 5,500ft with me, once again, invited to take a seat up front. The weather played into our hands the entire flight, with exceptional visibility affording superb views of America’s eastern seaboard, the shiny, glazed skyscrapers of Atlantic City being visible from thirty miles away.

Towards the end of this final 420nm leg of the journey, we chose to head more easterly, out to sea to avoid New York Class B airspace. Keeping clear of this giant inverted layer-cake of airspace, through which New York’s inbound and outbound traffic is filtered, reduced our workload from the controllers, as we plied our way north to Long Island. Even from this distance, the distinctive Manhattan skyline was still clearly evident in the dusky late afternoon skies to our west, a view that would be even clearer to me the following day.

As journey’s end approached, I relinquished the best seat in the house for the final time as we prepared for our descent into Bridgeport, Connecticut. The strong westerly wind at the Igor I Sikorsky Memorial Airport had us on final approach into the bright setting sun, making hard work for Jack right to touchdown. Unloading and securing the Mallard was a necessary evil as we battled the severe windchill, quite a contrast from Florida that morning. After more than 900nm in one day it took some time to lose my ‘sea legs’ from the rhythmic motion of more than eight hours of ponderous flying.

A classic 1960s model

Following the theme of this trip, I was keen to take up Ferenc’s invitation to fly in the New York area and agreed to meet at his hangar on Monday morning after breakfast. My hour’s drive from Connecticut took me through the Bronx, across northern Manhattan and Hackensack to Lincoln Park airport in rural New Jersey where Ferenc keeps his Bonanza.

His is a classic 1960 M-35 model V-tail with a single ‘throw-over’ yoke, which, after takeoff, he duly threw over to me with the comment “today you will fly the Hudson River VFR corridor. I will give you directions but you will do all the flying and make all the radio calls”. What a fantastic opportunity! Again I remembered the difference between ‘what if’ and ‘why not’.

Needless to say I was unprepared, but in reality it was so simple and straightforward, with Ferenc being very familiar with the procedures. Climbing out of Lincoln Park, the weather was rather dull and grey but we could still see the Manhattan skyline in the distance.

Heading eastbound towards the Hudson, we would be entering the New York Class B, Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA) route at the reporting point of Alpine Tower, a prominent radio mast on the west bank of the river, south of Palisades Park. The route required flight over the Hudson River at all times, west bank for southbound and east bank northbound. The requirements to fly this unique and awesome route are simple but very precise: monitor the dedicated radio frequency, remain below 1,300ft and make position and height reports at all the mandatory VRPs.

I reached the river and turned south, having already descended to 900ft, making the call “Blue Bonanza, Alpine Tower, 900 feet, southbound”. From then on it was a simple process of listening for other traffic giving their own position and height reports to know what to look out for, look to find them, and be ready for our next position and height reports, which followed in this order:

‘GWB’ (the George Washington Bridge), ‘Intrepid’ (the retired aircraft carrier USS Intrepid?now a floating museum), ‘Clock’ (the huge Colgate clockface on the waterfront before Ellis Island), ‘Statue of Liberty’ and, finally, ‘VZ’ (The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the last bridge before the Hudson River opens into Lower Bay, New York). It is difficult to describe accurately the level of sensory overload one experiences flying this route, with airliners from La Guardia and Newark passing overhead and the vast Manhattan skyline at eye level.

As a special request, Ferenc broadcast to the numerous helicopters in the area that we would circle the Statue of Liberty clockwise, opposite to normal, in order that I got a better view from the right seat?helicopters circle the other way for exactly the same reason, giving their left front seat passenger the good view.

In accordance with procedures, we descended to 500ft to circle the Statue, afterwards heading to Coney Island. Turning abeam the rollercoaster at this iconic oceanfront funfair park, I began the return northbound at 900ft and resumed the task of reporting position, height and direction. It was this part of the journey that made the biggest impression: we were heading north on the eastern river shore and, sitting just off my wingtip on the right was the entirety of downtown Manhattan, an awesome sight.

My riverfront excursion continued, as we snaked our way further upriver until reaching the United States Military Academy of Westpoint, where we turned west and headed back to Lincoln Park. I could not believe, in the years after the 9/11 tragedy, that such things are still allowed; all praise to the thoroughly enlightened FAA.

As we put the Bonanza away, I reflected on a fantastic week of flying and thought back to where it all began, with a chance conversation more than twenty years ago.

Image(s) provided by: