As soon as I got back from Iraq in February (before I broke my leg), I had planned a Memorial weekend vacation for Pam and me.  A vacation where I rent an airplane and fly us there and back… to Key West… but that was before I broke my leg.  Technically, you need two good legs to be able to fly an airplane.  When I broke my leg in April, visions of a cancelled vacation to the Florida Keys flashed in my mind.  Well, why worry about it then?  Who knows what a month of healing may allow me to do?

After my surgery two weeks ago, I asked if I’d be able to fly an airplane… “no way” was the reply I got.  I got strict orders, even though I now had a removable boot for support, to stay off my leg and only put “leg weight” on it, not full body weight.  Alright – my hopes were dashed, but not extinguished.

Fortunately for me, I’m pretty good friends with the Army docs that I work with, some who even have a Flight Doctor certification (though it’s only a military certification, not a civilian Flight Doc endorsement).  I met up with one of them last Friday and asked him if he’d think I’d be able to make my Key West trip (because at this point, I still had the rental plane reserved under my name).  He looked at me and laughed, but proceeded to tell me that he wouldn’t recommend it but thought that I could do it safely based on my flying experience in the F-16.  Basically, I’ll paraphrased it as “professionally I would probably tell you no, but you know your experience and what you can do better than I do, so you can do it but I wouldn’t recommend it.”  So you’re telling me there’s a chance…

Some feelings began to stir within me that I haven’t felt since I was an adolescent living under my parents’ roof: “Mom, Dad, can I go and do this?”  “Well, we’d really prefer that you don’t do this…” Right, so since I didn’t hear “no,” I’m gonna do it anyway knowing that I’ll be in deep shit should something go wrong.  At that age, any statement with the phrase “I’d prefer you to not…” meant that I could proceed with caution.  So to re-translate what my Flight Doc buddy said: “I’d prefer you not go and fly” left a resounding “Cleared HOT!” in my mind.

So I did it.  And it was good.  And I’m back in Savannah to tell about it!

Pam’s sister, Laura, was looking to take a break as well, and came down to Savannah for a visit… just in time to bring her along.  So the four of us (Pam, Laura, young Brenden and I) packed up on Wednesday morning and loaded the Cessna 172: our ticket to Key West.  The weather was shit; on the Weather Channel, everywhere in the nation was clear-in-a-million except for Florida, where there were thunder storms galore.  If there’s one thing I learned from Cannon and the flying-hour program, it’s that weather predictions don’t hinder ops.  I’ve been launched in thunder storms and icing conditions and made it just fine – sometimes they were really there and I got stuck flying in them trying to get back, and other times it was a false alarm.

Now for the hard part: convincing the rental company that I was fit enough to take one of their planes. The good thing about my boot is that it acts as an exoskeleton, so I quickly found out that I can limp around without crutches (although it’s not fun, it is possible).  So when we arrived, I limped into the FBO on my own power, gave them a story about how I “twisted” my ankle (well, I did… it just broke too), and told them that my Army Flight Doc assessed that I was good to fly.  A minute later, the keys to the plane were in my hands.  We promptly loaded up and were off… into wind and rain that didn’t let up until we landed at our midway fuel point in Naples, Florida.  It’s a good thing the girls used a motion-sickness patch; no barf-bags were needed on the turbulent 4 hour trip to Naples.  On a side note, I got to test out the GPS I got for the airplane.  The real-time weather updates saved the trip, allowing us to thread the needle through the various thunderstorm cells.

Why Naples?  I had heard that there was an awesome barbeque joint near the airport for lunch (Michelbob’s).  The stop was relaxing with the top-notch food, and in a downpour we boarded the plane and departed for Key West.

Luckily, the weather cleared about 10 minutes into the second leg of the flight, giving great views of the Everglades swamp (there was absolutely nothing out there except one community in the middle of nowhere) and the Keys:

Ever so far away, the Keys entice us closer

We joined the Keys over Key Largo (one of the first islands closest to Florida), and took our time enjoying the view as we followed the chain up near Key West.  We circled to land, and Laura aided me in getting the plane stopped and parked (I have a leg problem preventing me from fully braking, remember?).

Landing at Key West

We truly “got there fast, and then took it slow.”  It was awesome.  The only shocker was for Pam: Key West contains no natural beaches (and very few man-made ones).  But she got her fill during the second day when we went to the Navy’s MWR beach (a little known secret) to relax… we were the only ones there, and it even had a full bar.  It was like our own private beach.

Enjoying one of the few beaches in Key West... by ourselves

We hit up the standard attractions as well: Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville, Hog’s Breath Saloon (a pilot and biker favorite), the Southernmost Point in the Continental US, and the Sunset Festival to include just a few. Brenden even got in the mood trying to find his lost shaker of salt (salt, where’s the damn salt?!).

Wasting away again in Margaritaville

Two to three days in Key West was about right.  It was nice to just wake up with no plan and walk around (or crutch around for me; Laura, being a doctor and all, insisted that I use crutches while I was down there) and just ebb and flow through the city taking in the spirit of the atmosphere.  Even better: it was sunny the whole time we were in Key West… before we left, the forecast called for rain everyday in Key West while Savannah would become sunny (which it rained and stormed the whole time we were gone!).

We packed up early Saturday morning, and with no lines for security or hassle of people, we loaded the plane and took off.  Before we left to head back to Savannah, I made a 360 of the island at 1,000 feet to check out all the places we went to.  Isn’t that what paradise is all about?  Colorful buildings and narrow streets that you come to expect from an island culture, a cruise ship in port, a sailboat lazily meandering, waverunners and speedboats darting about, and some of the bluest water I’ve seen.

Final farewell to Key West

You’ll find the rest of the show-quality pictures in the Photo Album under Vacations (or you can click here to fast-link to them).

For our return trip, not much had changed weather-wise.  By mid-Florida, we were socked in with rain and clouds the rest of the way back to Savannah.  For the finale, weather at Savannah was overcast and rainy at 800 feet with storms inbound.  We ended the trip with an instrument approach bringing us through the weather and were greeted by rain when we got on the ground.  Mission accomplished.

I think for me, my vacation was getting us to the Keys and back (with the girls along just for the ride).  Once there, the girls were unleashed for their vacation while I just enjoyed the ride.  Now that I’m back in Savannah, I guess it’s time to start staying off my leg again so it can heal… but I sure look forward to doing another type of trip like that soon.  Next time, with two good legs!

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