The Cedar Key Caper

Back in the day, I used to fly charters around Florida and the Caribbean. One of the trips that I made regularly was from West Palm Beach to the Cedar Key airport, on the Gulf Coast near the mouth of the Suwanee River. It’s a big deal artist colony, vacation resort and haven for bikers and environmental types (like me) now, but back then half the buildings in town were abandoned and it had fallen upon seriously hard times.

I had this drunken customer, whom I shall not name since I just libeled him, who was convinced that he was the man to get the island back on its feet. I made a number of trips to Cedar Key, hauling him and his associates. I was always of the opinion that they were developing the one or two bars in town as much as anything else, but it didn’t matter. The bucks and tips were OK, and I was trying to support a new family.

The Cedar Key airport is challenging to pilots flying anything larger than a small single-engine airplane. The runway is relatively short at 2300 feet, and there is a sharp drop-off at each end. Both approach and departure are over water — essentially beginning at the end of the hardtop — and there were no lights on the runway or anywhere else around, back in those days. (There may not be yet. A pilot just put an airplane into the Gulf while trying to land at CDK a couple of nights ago, which is what prompted this reminiscence.)

One does not land short nor over-long at CDK. I used to prefer flying in with a Piper Aztec: plenty of power and excellent short-field capability. I’m not much on twin engine aircraft regarding safety — the old pilot’s joke that they just double the chance of an engine failure is only funny up to a point — but I did like that 500 horsepower lifting off that short runway. I love to swim, but salt water is so hard on the radios….

One evening in February of about 1971 I got a call from the airport that the gentleman in question wanted to fly to Cedar Key with three friends. I wasn’t drinking that evening, due to flight students in the morning, so I told the boss I’d take the trip if he would cover the first student for me, since I’d be getting back pretty late.

I arrived at the airport to find the gentlemen well-lubricated, but I judged it would be OK to fly with them. My usual plan in such situations was to climb to about 8500 feet, where the decreased air pressure would usually put a drunk to sleep. The excellent heater in the Aztec would keep us all warm and toasty.

Passing through about 4000 feet I began to feel kind of chilly. I’d worn a light sport coat since it was cool, and it hadn’t been too bad on the ground. The temperature drops about 3.5° F. for every thousand feet of altitude, though, so it was beginning to verge on cold in the airplane, and there was no moving around to keep warm. I switched on the Piper’s heater — and nothing happened. Further attempts to start it were fruitless as well. We’d be chilly. I gave up on the idea of 8500 feet, leveled off at 4500, and forged on.

Even at 210 knots it takes a while to fly 300 miles, including a long climb, and there was a stiff headwind that night. By the time I had the airport at CDK in sight, I was hypothermic. By the time I started the final approach to the short, dangerous unlit runway, I knew the chances of making a safe landing were about 50-50, and dropping with every bout of shivering.

The wrong decision at times like that has killed many a pilot and passenger. On the one hand there was the issue of safety but, on the other, hubris comprised of youth, bulletproofness, macho pilot self-image and, in this case the presence of three older men who I perceived were judging me harshly. Then I thought of my wife and daughter, considered that regardless of what the passengers might think, I was the pilot and they were just — passengers — and we were off to the Gainesville airport 40 miles distant, as low as I could safely fly, and as fast.

By the time we got to Gainesville I wasn’t even able to think clearly. Having just made one good decision, I was tapped out in the judgment department. On downwind for the Gainesville runway, I couldn’t get an indication that the front landing gear had extended. I flew past the tower, where they inspected me as best they could with a searchlight and binoculars, reporting that the wheel appeared to be down.

At that point I had to decide whether to blow the gear down with the CO2 system, which would have involved purging the hydraulic system before I could return home, or land with the nose held off the ground as long as possible and hope for the best. Obviously, the right answer was blow the gear down and deal with the ramifications later. I chose to just land, as quickly as possible — and got away with it. The bulb in the gear indicator had blown, we found out later.

I’ve come close to being killed in airplanes on at least three other occasions, but they all involved overt stupidity on my part or someone else’s. The Cedar Key Caper was just a combination of circumstances, none of which were dangerous by themselves, but that added up to a potentially lethal combination.

I spent the night at a motel near the airport, and flew back in the morning with the warm sun streaming into the cockpit. Even after six hours in the warm motel room, it felt really, really good.

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