7 min read

We had been talking about this flight ever since I earned my Private pilot certificate at the end of 2021. A little over a year later, with my instrument rating and now close to 250 hours in my logbook, our calendars finally aligned! My Dad, my brother, Tim, and I arrived at Pompano Airport (KPMP) on a sunny March morning, looking forward to departing in one of my club’s Piper Archers for our long-awaited flight to Marathon (KMTH) in the Florida Keys.

pilots outside of airplane

My Dad, my brother, Tim, and I arrived at Pompano Airport (KPMP) on a sunny March morning, looking forward to departing in one of my club’s Piper Archers.

The last time we all flew together was almost forty years ago in a rented Piper Warrior from this same airport. Dad was the pilot on that December day in 1984, and with close to 3,000 hours logged along with a Commercial certificate with Instrument and Multiengine ratings, he was looking forward to logging a lot more hours. Unbeknownst to any of us, that flight would be the last time he would ever fly an airplane.

This morning the weather at Pompano was reporting scattered clouds at 3,500 feet, and the airports farther south were reporting clear skies or “few” clouds. It looked like a perfect VFR day and we took off, flying south along the shore following the published VFR transition route through the Fort Lauderdale and Miami airspace.

The flight south was smooth, and the scenery was stunning! The international airports in Fort Lauderdale and Miami are located close to the coast and the shoreline transition requires pilots to fly at altitudes between 500 and 1,000 feet, making for great sightseeing. This is one of my favorite routes to fly with passengers because the towering skylines of Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood, Miami, and Miami Beach are spectacular while the sight of the crystal blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean and Biscayne Bay washing up on white sugar sand beaches typically leaves passengers speechless.

cargo ship

The Fort Lauderdale and Miami transition requires pilots to fly at altitudes between 500 and 1,000 feet, making for great sightseeing – here is a cruise ship in the distance.

Once we were south of Miami, I began a climb to my planned cruise altitude of 3,000 feet. The cloud layer appeared to be more of a broken layer making it hard to maintain VFR, so I called Miami Center for a pop-up IFR clearance. Problem solved!

We flew south at 6,000 feet which kept us above the clouds, but there were enough breaks that Dad and Tim both got to see some stunning aerial views of the islands surrounded by the now turquoise waters of Florida Bay and the Atlantic. Dad took this time to keep us entertained with his tale of an epic flight that he took in the late 70s from Martha’s Vineyard all the way south to Key West and back. I can’t imagine making that flight without GPS and all of the navigational aids we have at our fingertips today!

As we approached Marathon, we were cleared for the visual approach, and we broke out just above 3,000 feet. I called “runway in sight” and, as we descended, we were set up perfectly to join the left downwind for runway 7. We flew a breathtaking approach over the western side of the island, marveling at the sight of luxury homes mixed among the deep green of the mangroves that lined the glassy clear water before landing in a stiff crosswind, and taxiing over to the FBO.

final approach

Approaching Marathon, we flew a breathtaking approach over the western side of the island.

We grabbed the last crew car and drove over to Fish Tales, the oldest locally owned and operated seafood restaurant in Marathon, for what would be an incredible meal. After downing some Johnny Rambler sandwiches, conch chowder, and key lime pie, we drove back to the Marathon airport ready to fly home.

After I reviewed the weather, I decided to fly home IFR and submitted my flight plan while sipping on a cup of coffee in the FBO.  There were no preferred routes listed and MNATE-V3-FLL-KPMP was the most recently approved one, so I plugged that into my flight plan and filed via Foreflight. I received notification that my route was approved as filed, so I finished my coffee and headed out to complete the preflight.

Marathon is a non-towered airport, so I planned to taxi and complete our run-up short of the runway, and then call Miami to get our IFR clearance and release. I entered my flight plan into the Garmin 430 while we were on the ramp and began our taxi. When we were about two-thirds of the way down to the end, a Challenger announced that they were also taxiing for takeoff. Wanting to be courteous and not delay their departure, I decided to just complete our run-up and take off VFR, picking up the clearance in the air. The route was approved, and the GPS was already programmed so we were good to go, or so I thought.

airplane over water

Wanting to be courteous and not delay the jet’s departure, I decided totake off VFR and get my clearance in the air.

We took off eastbound and I called Miami Center to pick up our clearance. Instead of reading back my already filed and programmed route, they instructed me to fly a heading of 340, which took me well west of my planned route. We were in the clouds almost as soon as I turned to that heading and began climbing to 5,000 feet as instructed. Of course, I was also hand flying.

I was then instructed to fly direct to WEVER intersection and join the DVALL 3 arrival. I was not expecting that!  At that moment, I realized that I should have called for clearance from the ramp, and then called back for release when we were number one for departure.  While I was startled for a moment, my training kicked in and I loaded the arrival procedure into the GPS, a somewhat challenging procedure to pull off while climbing since the 430 is not a touch screen unit. I also added the procedure to my flight plan in Foreflight on my iPad for added measure and we were good to go!

When we leveled off, on course, at 5,000 feet, the wannabe airline captain in me came to life, announcing that we had reached our cruising altitude and that the flight attendants would be starting beverage service soon. While the joke was a lot funnier inside my own head, the three of us had a good laugh.

At that moment, I realized I had just passed my first “test” as an instrument rated pilot. I was flying in actual IMC, with passengers, dealing with an unexpected increase in my workload during a critical phase of flight, and I hadn’t missed a beat! My CFI-I, Mike, had focused a lot of my IFR training on dealing with unexpected events that happen in real world flying, and those lessons certainly helped on this flight.

We’d continue in and out of the clouds for another twenty to thirty minutes, allowing me to log just under an hour of actual instrument time for the entire day. Instead of flying the full arrival procedure, we were vectored well west of the metro areas, and instructed to descend to 4,000 feet so that we’d stay clear of the arrivals into Miami and Fort Lauderdale.

About 15 miles west of Pompano, we were vectored for a very long, straight-in visual approach which took us right over my Dad’s house!  As we touched down in Pompano and turned onto the taxiway, I couldn’t resist making a “welcome to Pompano Airport” announcement, leading to another round of laughter. Although I wasn’t sure if they were laughing at me or laughing with me, it was a perfect finish to a memorable day.

Casey Ahlbum
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6 replies
    • Casey Ahlbum
      Casey Ahlbum says:

      He moved to another state and sold his airplane. Life and business took him on a path that did not leave room for him to fly. He always said he wanted to get back at it but the timing was never right.

      Reply
  1. MICHAEL A CROGNALE
    MICHAEL A CROGNALE says:

    Well written sir, Congrats on your baptism as a real instrument pilot. You alluded o the last flight of your father. May I ask what happened?
    Mike

    Reply
    • Casey Ahlbum
      Casey Ahlbum says:

      Thank you, Mike!

      My dad sold his plane when I was about 10. We flew on that last flight and none of us knew that life was going to take him down a different path that didn’t leave room for aviation. It’s such a blessing that my life and career has allowed me to fly, especially since I’m still able to share flights with him!

      Reply

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