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Making a splash: Navy pilot brings seaplane service to South Florida

Transportation DisastersAir Transportation DisastersArmed ForcesDefenseAir Transportation Industry

ISLAMORADA, Fla. — During a chase scene in "Fool's Gold," Kate Hudson asked Matthew McConaughey how he knew what to do to fly the getaway seaplane. McConaughey replied: "PlayStation."

One of the bright yellow Cessna seaplanes used in that Hollywood adventure comedy — "the one that didn't crash," he says — was purchased by pilot Rob Ceravolo. He painted it white with blue waves and used it to found his dream company, Tropic Ocean Airways.

The Key West-based, eco-friendly seaplane outfit got off the ground earlier this year, zipping passengers around on sightseeing tours and adventure flings throughout mainland South Florida, the Florida Keys and now the Bahamas.

"I love the freedom of the seaplane," said Ceravolo, whose pilot credentials stem from a much better source than PlayStation.

The Fort Lauderdale native is a U.S. Navy fighter pilot who flew 41 missions and earned two Air Medals in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He flew the last F-14 flyby for the Fort Lauderdale Air and Sea Show, graduated from TOPGUN in 2009 and remains on active Navy duty in Tampa.

Flying has fascinated Ceravolo for as long as he can remember. His father, also a pilot, used to take him for rides on a four-seater Rallye plane. At age 6, Ceravolo sat on a cushion in the cockpit and got to take turns at the controls.

"My father used to love to tell the story that when I was flying over a freighter off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, I rolled the plane over in a dive, like I was bombing it," he said.

After graduating from the University of Florida and spending two years flying commuter planes, Ceravolo entered the Navy. In his nearly 10-year military career, he said, he has flown "just about every jet in the Navy's inventory."

But while he loves the rush of piloting a multimillion-dollar machine traveling 1.8 times the speed of sound and the power of catapulting off an aircraft carrier, Ceravolo said he always has been enamored with laid-back seaplanes and their ability to fly low and slow over the ocean.

In 2008, he began seriously thinking about starting his own seaplane business. The next year he went to the world acclaimed Jack Brown's Seaplane Base in Winter Haven to get his seaplane pilot rating.

His instructor was Nick Veltre, who was hit with the aviation bug while flying missions as a crew chief on CH-53E helicopters during his six years of service in the U.S. Marine Corps. Those missions included humanitarian relief efforts to East Timor in Indonesia.

Veltre, 33, said it was a "little intimidating" instructing a TOPGUN pilot.

Ceravolo chimed in: "Nick's the best. He still blows me away on the water."

Veltre taught Ceravolo the intricacies of reading water, wind, waves and tides like a sailor for water takeoffs and landings.

"We are flying around, and he's like, 'Yeah, take your shoes off and put them in the back of the plane,"' Ceravolo said. "So we're flying around barefoot with the door open from 500 feet, at about 65 mph, checking out the alligators around Central Florida.

"That just sold me right there."

In 2009, Ceravolo incorporated Tropic Ocean Airways. Veltre became a partner and vice president. The two navigated the time-consuming process of getting the Federal Aviation Administration's approval to operate a charter airline in the United States. In June, they got approval to operate in the Bahamas.

Tropic Ocean Airways became the third seaplane company to now operate out of the Southernmost City. Key West Seaplane Adventure, whose parent company operates in Alaska, has the only National Park Service seaplane permit to provide service to the Dry Tortugas, 70 miles west of Key West.

Key West Seaplanes, owned by two longtime Key West residents, provides charters around the state. But earlier this month, its Cessna amphibian crashed in Arcadia with five people aboard. All escaped without major injury.

On the mainland, Miami Seaplane Tours has filled some of the nostalgic void felt when Chalk's Ocean Airways, which in 1985 had an all-amphibian fleet of 13 planes, ceased operations in 2007 following a crash two years earlier in which all 20 aboard a flight to Bimini died.

Ceravolo and Veltre both say they spare no expense when it comes to safety.

So far, Veltre has been doing all the piloting while Ceravolo completes his 10 years of active Navy duty. On Dec. 1, Ceravolo goes into the reserves, serving out of Naval Air Station Key West.

They plan to add a nine-passenger Cessna Caravan to Tropic Ocean, which now includes only the 1976 four-passenger Cessna that Ceravolo flew cross country and through a snowstorm over the Grand Canyon.

"Nick and I have been putting blood, sweat and tears into this," Ceravolo said. "We've been working for no money to get this thing going. Slowly, we're becoming profitable."

The company offers adventure sight-seeing excursions, with trips to explore the reef or private islands in the Keys. The plane will land on the water to allow passengers to snorkel, dive or picnic.

The seaplane draws just 20 inches of water and can safely land in three feet of water. It turned heads recently when it landed near the Lorelei Restaurant and Cabana Bar in Islamorada and tied up to a mooring ball. Veltre said he makes sure to avoid landing in ecologically restricted areas and bird sanctuaries.

Veltre even has responded to a medical emergency. A man aboard a yacht that was anchored near the Abacos Islands in the northern Bahamas recently called requesting immediate transportation for his doctor in Miami.

Veltre arrived at the Miami Seaplane Base on Key Biscayne to pick up the doctor, a veterinarian. The patient: a 30-year-old parakeet who apparently had a stroke.

The bird "is doing fine and now enjoying his life in the Bahamas," Veltre said.

The plane was featured in August in an Eddie Bauer photo shoot near Pigeon Key. For upcoming Fantasy Fest in October, Ceravolo is working on a "Get off the Rock" special for Conchs who want to avoid the 10-day debauchery.

Ceravolo said he has turned down potential investors because he and Veltre don't want the bottom line to chart the company's course. They want to offer discounted or free trips to causes and people dear to their hearts, including wounded warriors and those doing conservation work, especially for sharks. They also want to be as eco-friendly as possible.

"We're 100 percent carbon neutral at no cost to our customers," Ceravolo said.

Tropic Ocean Airways purchases carbon offsets through TerraPass, a company that funds projects that reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Green lubricants and cleaners are used. The company also has invested in a high-tech engine monitor that eliminates unnecessary fuel burn.

"We're not looking to make millions off this and sell the company someday," Ceravolo said. "We really love what we do. We'd love to hand this off to our kids."

———

GO FOR A RIDE

Tropic Ocean Airways offers travel service between Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Key West, Bimini and beachside or dockside resorts. They have made several trips to swank places in the Keys, including Little Palm Island, Cheeca Lodge and Hawks Cay Resort.

Prices start as low as $99 for some legs between Miami and Key West. A half-day tour to a Keys island for lunch and snorkeling costs $249 per person.

For more information: http://www.flytropic.com, 800-767-0897

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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