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Navy and ex-Marine pilots launch Keys seaplane outfit

ISLAMORADA — 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 Navy fighter pilot who flew 41 missions and earned two Air Medals in Iraq. 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.

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."

In 2008, he began seriously thinking about starting his own seaplane business. The next year he went to the 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 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. 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.

Tropic Ocean Airways became the third seaplane company to now operate out of the Southernmost City.

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 has only a 1976 four-passenger Cessna.

"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 3 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.

Ceravolo said he has turned down potential investors because he and Veltre don't want the bottom line to chart the company's course. "We really love what we do. We'd love to hand this off to our kids," Ceravolo said.

Navy and ex-Marine pilots launch Keys seaplane outfit 09/03/11 [Last modified: Saturday, September 3, 2011 9:35pm]
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