The Key West Experience

Last February, my training squadron went on a detachment down to Naval Air Station Key West. We did this for two reasons: to give us a break from flying around Pensacola ; and to get a lot of flights done, since February weather is generally very good down there and we are on vacation from our domestic personal lives. Since we all lived together (two to a room) in a dormitory-like setting, we were easily available to fly, but that also contributed to significantly collegiate atmosphere. Combine that with the social opportunities of Key West itself, and well, things got pretty exciting. It was a good trip.

Flying/training in Key West is an eye-opener. We worked with Air Traffic Control agencies that weren’t used to our missions or expectations, and we flew unfamiliar routes. The pilots and instructors from Pensacola flew in that area so long that they pretty much had all routes and airfields memorized. As a student, it is easy to rely on their obvious but unshared knowledge—you feel that if you get lost or get in trouble, your instructor or pilot will know what to do. This all came crashing down in Key West . For the first time, I found that my pilot and instructor were often as clueless as I was. Well, maybe not that clueless, but you get the idea. At first it was scary, especially since during my first event I almost had a mid-air collision and later actually hit a bird. On subsequent flights, however, I began to feel more like a contributing member of the aircrew, instead of simply a student being tested.

For all that, however, flying wasn’t the most “dangerous” part of Key West . The island is the self-proclaimed poster-child of American tropical hedonism. Filled with upscale shops jostling cheek-by-jowl with tawdry souvenir joints selling racy or off-color T-Shirts, and liberally sprinkled with bars and clubs, the actual town of Key West can be a lot of fun. It is quite small, too, so my friends and I ran into our instructors partying as often as we ran into our classmates, and pretty much everywhere. It was like a huge playground. Many stories and legends emerged from the two weeks we spent there—students spending upwards of $800 at bars in one night, students getting in fights and being picked up by (and tended by) shady middle-aged guys, students getting lost and spending the night on the beaches. Fortunately (or unfortunately) I was not involved in any stories, since I spent only four days there. But it sounded like good times.

In addition to the social scene, the island and city of Key West themselves are pretty amazing. US Highway 1 runs all the way down the keys, often on bridges that span more than seven miles of water. Flying approaches around the airfield yielded beautiful sights of white sand beaches and turquoise water and green-sprinkled islands bustling gently with small towns and buildings. It was all very relaxing, even while trying to land an aircraft. Like most young people, I joined the military to see exotic places, and I think Key West qualified.

Unfortunately, as my squadron took off to Key West for a flying “vacation,” my room-mate left to go to Iraq. Flight school is often an insular world (a “bubble”) due to the concentration requred in each flight, and when we have time off we usually spend it relaxing and not thinking about military issues. We don’t (at least, I don’t) spend much time thinking about what our military is doing and where I might be sent. So it is sobering to say goodbye to my room-mate. On one level, he trades in the luxury of America (and things like trips to Key West) for a more rigorous life within the American military effort in that country, but he also is going to do the job he signed up for. Many of my friends from TBS and college have been to Iraq or Afghanistan already, and are either there for the second time or preparing to go back. That’s where my job is. With them. And while I certainly believe that it sucks over there, and that it’s dangerous, I want to be there.

But I have at least another year of training before I am even able to go. Pensacola, meanwhile, continues to treat me well. I have been able to spend a lot of time at the beach, running, reading and studying. Even during chilly winter months, the beach provides solitude and beauty, especially during sunrise and sunset. The nights are beautiful and clear. Though I hear a lot of my peers complaining about Pensacola and its dumpy buildings, poorly designed roads, and lack of nightlife, I am very fond of it. I have grown to love Gulf Coast style seafood,the beach lifestyle, the friendly people, and the inexpensive living. There are few other places in the world where you can waterski in October and go swimming in the ocean in early March. I shall be sorry to leave.