Landing on runway nine in Key West is a beautiful thing. Despite knowing that the duration of your stay will be less than an hour, an hour that will be truncated by an eager ground crew pushing for an early departure, you feel relaxed, relieved, even flush with content to be on the ground in Key West. Anticipating the warmth outside you laugh inside, for you left the cold air of the upper states mere hours ago. Revel in the jet age friend, revel.
Your eyes glide across the palm trees, hands fumble across the flaps, the lights, and miscellaneous switches, you mumble something to the tower, you’ve already checked out. There she is, a majestic beauty, the muse of your daydreams. What was it like? What a rugged, classy looking bird. A reflection of slower times.
The service of this Cubana Antonov An-24RV came to an end on March 31, 2003 flying unscheduled from Nueva Gerona to Key West with a fuel stop in Havana. A man armed with two grenades forced this plane to Key West. At an airport ripe with business and regional jets the Antonov looks more natural in front of the Art Deco exterior of the Conch Republic Airport.
The An-24 was a product of the 1960s and was built through the late 1970s but its sturdiness has that older feel, maybe it’s the Russian design. I can’t help but wonder what it was like to fly this airplane. What was it like to ride in? I can picture myself with a straw hat and a wool suit. Cooling off with some Havana Club Rum on ice inflight. Oh, that ice had to be precious in Cuba during the summer. Now I think maybe a linen suit or seersucker perhaps. Yes, something cooler.
This plane has been here over four years but she showed her age before she arrived with balding tires and faded paint. Now she shows rust. As the rear cabin door cracks open the smell of mildew billows out with the humid warm air. The Antonov is becoming a victim of the sub-tropical climate.
I wasn’t ready for the velvety blue seats as I am accustom to the grey tone interiors of today’s airline fleet. No over head bins. Just a rack for my hat, my coat, and the leather brief case that I carry – containing only a pen and my flask. The case was a gift but it looks good with my suit. Daydreaming again.
Riding is fine but I am a Pilot. I make my way through the cabin and the forward cargo compartment to the cockpit. The harsh Florida Sun shines through holes in the decomposing shades that cover the windscreens. So many gauges. Switches. All function, no form. The systems are all labeled in the cyrillic letters of the Motherland. Emergency placards stenciled on in Spanish.
The well worn pilots chairs are covered in a green toned tropical leaf print fabric. A station for an engineer or navigator behind the co-pilot with a tiny desk and a large round window and no fixed chair. An observer seat behind the captain. Full oxygen masks and goggles at each station.
The cockpit is intimidating. A pilot IS the computer in this plane, recieving, interpreting, and responding to the data. Look at all of these gauges. Switches! So many switches. I want to fly it. I want to hear what the engines sound like. I want to come through the mountain pass and land on the steaming, rain soaked, runway in Cuba after a summer thunder storm passes. Can you imagine that?
Rampers wait beside our plane, they are antsy, they want the ontime departure, the early departure. The passengers have been boarded and the bags loaded while we ogled the Antonov – dreaming of slower times.