Tuesday 20th November 2007
There are three things that I always look to do when planning a trip through the US – take in a race, visit MLB ballparks and explore National Parks - and I soon realised that, as well as enjoying the sun that I was going for, I could do all three of these. I was sold and had soon booked my flights. I’ve never been a fan of flying – being cooped up in that metal tube for 10 hours whilst complete strangers share their germs (and the contents of their wine glasses) with you – but it is undoubtedly a necessary evil so you just shut up and get on with it.
There are three National Parks in Florida and I was off to see the first of the three today but it was not to be as simple as driving up to the front gate, waving my pass, and then exploring. Oh, no. The Dry Tortugas National Park lies 70 miles off the ‘Southernmost Point in the USA’ and, much like crossing the Atlantic from London, there was only one practical way to get there in short time – flying. But there was a problem with that; Dry Tortugas National Park comprises a series of tiny islands and, well, they just don’t let you build an airport in a National Park! So, until I inadvertently stumbled over a company called Seaplanes Of Key West, I was going to be stuck taking the daily ferry service.
I think it is fair to say that I had been looking forward to today ever since I found their website – somehow flying out and landing in the clear warm water surrounding Fort Jefferson – the largest brick building in the Western Hemisphere - seemed to be more attractive than flying American Airlines out of Heathrow. As it turned out; it really couldn’t have been any further removed from that grotty corner of West London if it had been built by Disney.
Not knowing what to expect, I arrived early for the flight and made my to the reception area in the corner of the tiny Key West Airport. I was introduced to the other three passengers – a middle aged couple from Wisconsin and a girl from New Jersey – before being handed a cooler box full of complimentary drinks (the dry in Dry Tortugas means there is no drinking water on the island) and ushered out onto the tarmac where Lou, our pilot for the day, was waiting for us. As we were all ready to go he suggested that we set off early. As we made our way towards the smallest plane that I have ever seen, let along flown on, I caught a glimpse of a beautiful old Biplane to my left – but more of that later!
We were soon in the air and thundering (for anyone used to the near silence of modern commercial air travel, just trust me when I say thunder is a very apt word) down the runway and up into the air. It was amazing to see from the air just how compact Key West actually was as I tried to shoot a few aerial photos. We headed out over an area known as ‘The Flats’ and somewhere about half way be flew over the two ferry boats slowly making their way out to the island.
We had soon arrived over the Dry Tortugas and, as we prepared to land, Lou circled around Loggerhead Key and Fort Jefferson which allowed us an opportunity to get some nice photos. Once we had survived the controlled crash into the ocean, we got our feet wet as we made our way from the plane, across the beach and onto the island. Jo and I decided to spend the morning exploring Fort Jefferson and chilling out on the beach but, before we knew it, Lou had returned and it was time for us to head back to Key West. The whole experience had been amazing but, next time, I would take the full day trip or maybe even explore the idea of camping overnight on the island.
Back at Key West I headed off to get a sense of the local area and my first port of call was for a photo next to the buoy at the Southernmost Point. I then abandoned the car in favour of a walk down the length of Duval Street, which really made me hungry, so I headed off along Front Street and into the marina area. After admiring the boats whilst I ate I made the long trek back to the car. By now, rather than the beautiful weather to be found back at Fort Jefferson, the weather had turned cooler and, as I found when I made my way to the end of White Street Pier, it had become extremely windy. This change in weather was concerning me because – remember the old biplane? – I had another appointment back at the airport.
Arriving back at the airport I wondered if the ‘once in a lifetime sunset biplane trip’ that I had signed up for would go ahead as planned. The wind was getting stronger and stronger which wasn’t a good sign but on arrival I was assured that it wouldn’t be a problem. We hopped into the plane – I was sat in the front seat with the pilot, Josh, behind me in the rear – and made our way to the runway to take off. What was kind of fun was that I had the full Biggles flying helmet/goggles combo to wear complete with intercom to the pilot.
I soon got the impression that Josh didn’t want to be there at all – he sounded thoroughly bored – and it began to grate that I was paying so much money for the attitude. But at least I had the glorious sunset to look forward to, right? Wrong, sadly. I sure saw a lot of cloud but a sunset? No, afraid not, we weren’t even facing the right direction at the time the sun went down. Shortly afterwards it was all over and we were back down on the ground – Josh making it very clear he wanted to be elsewhere and that he didn’t want to waste his time standing around chatting. It was a real shame that he had this attitude; the cloud I accepted as one of those things but I paid a lot of money for the experience of flying in the biplane and, whilst it wasn’t completely ruined by his attitude, It was certainly tarnished.
Ah, well, never mind; it’s only money, right? At least I can say I’ve been on a biplane AND a seaplane. In the same day! It was quite an experience and, despite Josh, I will remember that day for a long, long time.