Florida in Flight

By: Amy Laboda

From flight museums, to flight simulators, to actual airborne flight, Florida celebrates all things winged.

I admit it - I'm easily bored. As a near-native Floridian, I was there when Disney opened. Then my daughter came along and I went back to the theme parks until it was clear that she, too, knew all the famous songs by heart. This time, when I started thinking "vacation" I wanted something different.

My 11-year-old daughter thinks like I do, and we began to salivate when we saw the simulators at the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Tampa. Those who really like to rock and roll should try the MaxFlight Simulator, a two-seater FS2000 Jet Fighter Simulator, part of an all new squadron of indoor Virtual Reality fighter-jet rides. Get ready for sharp banks, sky loops and screaming dives of pulse-pounding aerial combat that you can control.

Having visited science museums in big cities such as London, England and Washington, D.C., we were impressed to discover a world-class gem like MOSI so close to home.

Still thinking "museums," we drove east on I-4 to Plant City for a little history to go with our newfound understanding of the mechanics of flight. There we found Kermit Weeks' Fantasy of Flight, no ordinary airplane museum.

You enter through a dark tunnel into a room that is cooled by a constant breeze. You are drawn to an oversized view screen streaming cloud video, mirrored so that you feel as if you are falling, then soaring through the clouds. The music is inviting. You relax, and suddenly you know what it must be like to fly in an old, open cockpit airplane, weaving through the puffy, white cumulous clouds that punctuate Florida's morning skies.

I won't give the whole experience away (though I will say there is a full-sized B-17 bomber among the more than 40 vintage aircraft on display), but as you progress from room to room you move forward in time. Emerging into bright daylight, we discovered an expansive hangar full of unique, historic and flyable aircraft. We strolled the aisles of one of the first airliners and marveled at a flying replica of Charlie Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis.

Fantasy of Flight whetted our appetites. Just down the road is the Lakeland Linder Regional Airport in Lakeland, home of the Florida Air Museum at Sun 'n Fun. The museum displays more "one-of-a-kinds" and unique, hand-built aircraft than anywhere else in Florida.

What a day. We'd never left the ground and yet we'd felt the wind on our faces and imagined ourselves in the cockpit with some of the finest stunt pilots and military aviators alive. Our dreams were full of visions of clouds and earth swirling and looping, and blasting off to the stars. We simply had to find a way to get into the air next.

Though we felt ready to fly, we started slow, with the Kissimmee SkyCoaster. Not to say that this ride is for sissies. To play you have to suit up, hitch yourself to a steel cable, get pulled up 300 feet and take a big breath while you free-fall 120 feet, accelerating to speeds of 80 m.p.h. (or more, depending on your weight and the weather).

I realized now that there is no substitute for the real thrill of flight. So, the next morning we headed to the Kissimmee Gateway Airport, where Kissimmee Air Museum lets you watch as the restoration process takes place. We'd heard that Warbird Adventures was selling flights in North American T-6 Texan advance fighter trainers that are just like the cockpit trainers we played in at Fantasy of Flight. In a few short moments, we'd arranged a flight with company president Graham Meise as our flight instructor.

I was strapped in tight to a four-point harness (and to an actual parachute under that!). Graham moved the power lever forward and we began a slow, zigzag roll toward the runway. Once there, Graham showed me how he pushed the stick forward to lift the tail off the runway, then nudged the stick slightly back to let the wings catch the air at the correct angle - and we were flying. The earth fell away and Graham let me have the stick.

Push the stick right - go right. Push the stick left - go left. Ditto for up and down. With the canopy opened one notch, a cool breeze rippled the stray hair that escaped from my vintage flight helmet. As we slid into position a few feet from the other airplane, I suddenly understood flight. It was floating, it was freedom and it was fun!

We flew formation flight with another T-6, and then split up for a couple of barrel rolls and loops. It was over too soon. We circled the airport in a 360-degree overhead military approach to a smooth touchdown. Once the engine stopped, we climbed out on the wing for pictures. There was videotape, too, taken by tiny cameras mounted on the wings, tail and in the cockpit.

It was hard to believe the time - not even noon! We contemplated our options. It didn't take long to decide - we'd head toward the Space Coast. My daughter noticed a blurb about lunch with the astronauts at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

I'm not sure what I was expecting when we pushed through the turnstiles. I was amazed at the variety of activities and the vastness of the displays, as well as their interactivity. My daughter, however, had only one thought on her mind, and marched me across the rocket garden to the dining room.

We were seated immediately and during the meal, a video of astronauts frolicking in space filled the screen, showing the fun side of astronaut life. Then, there were M&M catching contests, experiments with toys and goofy antics. We were all laughing by the time retired astronaut John M. Fabian stood up to speak. Fabian, a veteran pilot of STS-7 and STS-51G missions, handled the most challenging questions with ease. He even answered the "how do you go to the bathroom in zero gravity" question (that turns out to be one of the highly technical answers). We munched on milk chocolate space shuttles floating on white clouds of whipped cream and berries while my daughter asked question after question. Finally Fabian offered to pose for pictures - a real souvenir.

It was hard to believe that in the course of two days we'd traveled across the state and through aviation and aerospace history at the same time. Before this trip, I had no idea that Florida housed some of the most dynamic aviation and aerospace museums in the country. More than that, Florida is a great place to play out your fantasies. Our sunshine-filled days are perfect for tasting the sweet, delirious freedom that is human flight.

And who knows? You may discover that flying is a sport you could learn to love. If so, there are plenty of airports with facilities ready to teach you more. The freedom to fly is exhilarating. And there's certainly nothing as beautiful as Florida, seen from above.

Sponsored listings by VISIT FLORIDA Partners


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