Flights of Fancy
By Harold Miller
November Two Zero Two Four Whisky (N2024W), hangered at Skaneateles Airdrome, still plies the skies of North America, but it’s been many years since I’ve been at the helm.
This rare ‘V’ tailed Bonanza is called “the sports car of the air” due to its nimble handling and high speed. Its main mission 40 years ago was to shuttle my family back and forth to Florida, fly to football games when son Ron played football for Ohio State and son Chris played for Bucknell — as well as to serve our business offices in Upstate New York.
Flying this machine was a profound pleasure — and having the playgrounds of America at our beck and call was also wonderful. One of our favorite trips was flying to Martha’s Vineyard for lobster dinner at the Home Port Restaurant on the inlet of Chappaquiddick Harbor. We loved to sit on the outdoor deck on a beautiful summer evening watching ships plying in and out of the channel as we enjoyed the best lobster dinner anywhere. If we left Skaneateles Airport by 5 p.m. we could be home by midnight. Flying the return trip on a clear night with millions of lights below and billions of stars above is never to be forgotten.
Another memorable pleasure trip involved flying friends and neighbors to New York City for breakfast on a sunny Sunday morning. After flying over the George Washington Bridge I would descend to within a few hundred feet above the Hudson River and circle the Statue of liberty before landing. If this maneuver was ever attempted today our trip would be rudely interrupted by a couple of jets from nearby Stewart Air Force Base, followed by a rather thorough interrogation by the authorities.
Another of our sightseeing sorties was a hop, skip, and a jump from Skaneateles to Niagara Falls to circle high over one of the wonders of the world. It was necessary to get clearance from Buffalo Airport’s tower and maintain a fairly high altitude in order to be well clear of the sightseeing helicopters, which buzzed below like a bunch of dragon flies.
Certainly, though, the most thrilling and exciting trip we ever made occurred in the summer of 1981 when my three sons and I flew to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. This entirely unique and romantic encampment is located at Key Largo in Florida’s Keys and includes approximately 70 nautical square miles of adjacent Atlantic waters. It is the first and only underwater state park in the United States and remains a Mecca for scuba divers and snorkelers from near and far.
The first challenge of our trip was landing 2024W on the short and narrow strip of land adjacent to the park which was connected to land on only one side — it was much like landing on an aircraft carrier. The landing strip was only 1,800 feet long (minimum length for the Bonanza) one slip and we would be in the drink for the sharks to play with.
The diving boat that took us to the reef, which is located five miles offshore, anchored well clear of the magnificent reef that lay about 20 feet below the surface of the water. PenneKamp Reef, which is one of the few living reefs left off the American coastline, is awash with flowers of blue, purple and red wafting in the gentle underwater current. The main attraction is a solid bronze statue “Jesus Christ of the Abyss” adjacent to the reef and standing about 12 feet high with his outstretched hands beckoning. When sunbeams play off the gleaming statue it is indeed a sight to be seen. The park employs a team of scuba divers who periodically scrub the statue clean of any algae that forms thereby insuring that the brilliance is never dulled. Then, there was “Charlie,” the five-foot-long barracuda that that glides among the vegetation. Word has it that he is tame but most divers give him a wide berth. Along with Charlie, Pennekamp Reef is populated by almost every type of sea creature known to mankind.
Flying the N2024W was a profound pleasure — and having the playgrounds of America at our beck and call was also wonderful. One of our favorite trips was flying to Martha’s Vineyard for lobster dinner at the Home Port Restaurant on the inlet of Chappaquiddick Harbor.
The entire trip took about four hours, including two hours of snorkeling or scuba diving around the reef (no one is allowed to touch or set foot on the reef itself). Believe me, you will sleep well the night after this adventure.
The Miller family had many great flying adventures but the pilot has great responsibility. Learning to be a pilot was perhaps my greatest challenge. Weather is a major factor thus learning meteorology is imperative. You cannot depend on weather forecasts — the pilot has to be his own forecaster. Weather radar (which sees storms) is necessary, particularly in Upstate New York where lake effect snow can turn a bright and sunny day into zero-zero visibility in a matter of minutes. A small aircraft often cannot climb above the weather as commercial aircraft do. Many would-be pilots are not physically or physiologically capable of piloting an airplane. Flying in clouds, without ground reference can be confusing to the point where you don’t know whether you are flying straight and level — or spinning down to the ground.
With all this said, many of my fondest memories are wrapped up in flying and I would not have missed it for anything.