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Pine paradisePine paradise

Blackwater Airfield, FloridaBlackwater Airfield, Florida

Florida isn’t all high rises, beaches, and Mickey Mouse—Blackwater Airfield is surrounded by over 200,000 acres of thick pine forest. Land at this beautiful grass airstrip, pitch a tent, and start exploring.

  • Blackwater Airfield is a wonderful resource for pilots. The swimming hole and lake provide fun days for the family, and there’s nothing like having the time to just relax at the strip or in the forest. More active folks can canoe, kayak, or float down the river, try a zip-line, take a hike, or count the birds. Photo by Steve Knouse.
  • A tall, dense forest of longleaf pines completely surrounds the airstrip, which may be difficult to spot if you’re too low. One of the most biologically rich areas in the U.S., this forest is part of a vital nature corridor that gently rolls from Conecuh National Forest along the Florida-Alabama state line to the Gulf of Mexico. Photo by Hal Peters.
  • On final, be prepared for any winds to decrease dramatically as you descend below the treetops. Photo by Hal Peters.
  • The turf is in good shape, as field drainage is excellent. After landing, taxi on either side of the runway and park at the south end of the field. Bring your own tiedowns. Photo by Hal Peters.
  • Looking down Runway 36. There’s plenty of room to park, even with large fly-ins. The Blackwater staff and the RAF have developed a cooperative relationship to make this access possible and to further improve the airstrip. Photo by Bobby Capozzi.
  • Most pilots simply camp beside their airplane, as here during a Florida Sport Aviation Antique and Classic Association fly-in. Photo by Bobby Capozzi.
  • Most pilots fly to Blackwater Airfield simply to “be there” rather than “do” things. Enjoy the sound of the wind in the tall pines, watch the deer along the runway early each morning, and revel in how easy it was to escape the hubbub and find yourself in a quiet forest. Still, there are plenty of activities to be enjoyed, if you’re so inclined. Photo by Steve Knouse.
  • Each year, the RAF schedules a fly-in to celebrate access to the airfield. A work party is sometimes held where volunteers spruce up the area and complete maintenance tasks from a list supplied by the FFS. A portalette on the airfield is typically arranged for when there are weekend group events, but the plumbed restrooms are always a short walk away. Camping, a barbeque, and fun times with fellow aviators characterize the RAF fly-in event each year. We have the RAF to thank for this opportunity; if you’re not already a member, consider signing up. Photo by Wayne P. Whitley.
  • Time to relax by the fire hub and upload photos! Photo by Leigh Nowling.
  • Take the very short trail that begins at the southeast corner of the airfield. You pass a century-old gristmill and then find yourself at the Kruhl Recreation Area, a 6.5-acre swimming lake that’s surrounded by two campgrounds. Photo by Wayne P. Whitley.
  • Swimmers enjoy the water at the Kruhl Recreation Area. The BRSF is one of the largest state forests in Florida and is part of the largest contiguous longleaf pine and wiregrass ecosystem in the world. Once this ecological community covered 60 million acres, but now less than three million acres remain as development has dramatically whittled down its size. “A forest like this is rarer than a tropical rainforest,” says Callie DeHaven, a Nature Conservancy public lands protection manager. Photo by Hal Peters.
  • From the Kuhl Recreation Area, the 1.3-mile Sweetwater Trail takes you east to Bear Lake, a 107-acre impoundment that offers canoeing, fishing, and has its own camping facilities, restrooms, and showers. No swimming, but leashed pets are allowed, and you can rent a canoe. Photo by Wayne P. Whitley.
  • The tannin-stained Blackwater River winds throughout the region. The white sandy beaches and sandbars contrast nicely against the dark waters. Adventures Unlimited Outdoor Center offers 1–3-day river trips. They also have zip lines, five or seven zip lines including a 900-foot line over Coldwater Creek. Their five-hour double-dip zip adventure includes 12 platforms and an exhilarating sky bridge. Photo courtesy Adventures Unlimited.
  • Adventures Unlimited has cabins for those who prefer not to camp. For an extra fee and with at least 24 hours’ notice, they can provide pick-up/delivery transportation between their facilities and the airfield. The secluded cabins have indoor kitchens and baths; most have linens as well. Styles and sizes vary from a two-story house to a tiny one-room cabin on stilts (the Lorax Loft, shown here) to a red caboose micro-cottage. Photo courtesy Adventures Unlimited.
  • The BRSF hosts over 300 species of birds, including red-cockaded woodpeckers, which live in cavities they carve out of living longleaf pines. Birders pack binoculars to look for the rare Bachman’s sparrow. More common sightings include Mississippi kites and eastern wild turkeys. Neotropical songbird migrants arrive and depart from Gulf Coast hotspots during spring and fall. In winter, species such as winter wren, horned lark, American black duck and dark-eyed junco are at the southernmost point of their winter range in the Panhandle. These pilots appear to be birdwatching from camp! Photo by Hal Peters.

Blackwater Airfield lies within the Blackwater River State Forest (BRSF) in the Florida panhandle—at N30°52.66'/W86°51.26' to be exact. Managed by the Florida Forest Service, the strip was closed to the public until 2012, when the Recreational Aviation Foundation (RAF) negotiated a “user permit” process to allow public access. Remember, future access depends on every visitor to Blackwater Airfield respecting the access they have been given.

Before flying to Blackwater, pilots must complete an RAF Safety Briefing. Print a copy and bring it with you in the aircraft. You’ll need to make a phone call to get your permit. Instructions are in the briefing, where you’ll also find runway information, frequencies, arrival procedures, and other tips. After landing, taxi on either side of the runway and park at the south end of the field. Bring your own tiedowns; Aviation Consumer rated these the best. The Blackwater staff and the RAF have developed a cooperative relationship to make this access possible and to further improve the airstrip. Please be a polite flyer and gracious guest by always adhering to the RAF Code of Conduct.

This aerial photo, taken looking north, demonstrates how close the airstrip is to the Krul Recreation Area “swimming hole,” restrooms, and campground. Runway 18/36 is at 200 feet elevation and has 2,500 x 50 feet usable, with generous overruns at both ends. Photo by Bobby Capozzi.

Each year, the RAF schedules a fly-in to celebrate access to the airfield. Formerly held in April, the fly-in has been moved to November, to be held in conjunction with the Florida Sport Aviation Antique and Classic Association. Volunteers and the Florida Forest Service have now built a substantial fire hub, there are nearby plumbed restrooms with hot and cold showers, and a fresh water supply is available at the south end of the airfield, as are picnic tables and a barbecue. A portalette on the airfield is typically arranged for when there are weekend group events, but the plumbed restrooms are always just a short walk away. Camping, a barbecue, and fun times with fellow aviators characterize the RAF fly-in event each year.

If you fly in on your own, a ranger will generally come out to ask if you need anything, but it’s a laid-back atmosphere. Cell phone coverage is iffy, but, if needed, a camp host is at the Krul Recreation Area, about 150 yards down the pathway exiting the southeast end of the field, and they can arrange emergency services. The firepit should have wood, but if not, you can ask the ranger or camp host. The 6.5-acre swimming hole is actually a pristine, sand-bottom, spring-fed lake that offers walkways and floating platforms for swimmers, with barbecue facilities and two campgrounds ashore, no pets allowed. Pay your fees here: Payment slips are outside both campground restrooms on the bulletin boards and should be deposited in the Iron Ranger (a slotted metal tube). Pilots aren’t assessed any extra fees for flying in, so you simply pay the same access and camping fees as anyone else, a day-use fee of $2 per person, primitive camping (as under your wing) $10 per night, campground with water access $15, campground with water and electric access $25.

As you overfly the airfield to check for obstructions, you’ll see that there is ample room to park on both sides, at the south end of the strip. Photo by Hal Peters.

From the Krul Recreation Area, the 1.3-mile Sweetwater Trail takes you east to Bear Lake, a 107-acre impoundment that offers canoeing, fishing, and has its own camping facilities, restrooms, and showers. No swimming, but leashed pets are allowed, canoe rentals $15. About 6 miles farther east, the Blackwater River is one of the purest sand-bottom rivers in the nation, making it popular for swimming, fishing, camping, and paddling. The river's gentle flow rate is 2 to 3 mph, with an average depth of 2.5 feet. You can rent a canoe or kayak and paddle the 31-mile-long Blackwater River Paddling Trail. Adventures Unlimited Outdoor Center offers pickup/dropoff service and organized tours—they even have zip lines and a resort with cabins for rent.

BRSF is part of the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail and hosts over 300 species of birds. You can also go fishing for largemouth bass, catfish, bream, and pickerel. Forgot your camping food and fishing rods? Hop in the airplane and fly 16 nautical miles southwest to Peter Prince Field Airport and Hungry Howie’s Pizza 850-626-8600 will deliver a pie to the fixed-base operation's office at Aircraft Management Services, 5600 N Airport Rd., 850-623-4704, for your quick return to Blackwater…Pine Paradise!

The RAF and BRSF have established a “user permit” process that allows public access to Blackwater Airfield. Anyone can contact the BRSF and will hear within 24 to 48 hours if access has been granted. So far, all the requests the RAF knows of have been granted because the airfield is only used occasionally for other FFS and local events, and because pilots are “earning” the privilege to visit. Remember, future access depends on every visitor to Blackwater Airfield respecting the access they have been given. Photo courtesy RAF.

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Crista Worthy

Crista V. Worthy

Crista V. Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. She has single-engine land and sea ratings. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association. To suggest future destination articles, send an email to aopadestinations@gmail.com.
Topics: US Travel

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