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0B5, aka Turners Falls Municipal Airport in Turners Falls, Mass. This is the airport where my AvGeek obsession first took flight, and I finally got to land and take off there this month. – Photo: Katie Bailey

This is a continuation of my multi-part series on learning to fly. You can read the whole Fly With Francis series here.

My obsession with airplanes is directly attributable to a very loving grandmother’s attempts to settle down two very rambunctious young brothers. She’d drive us to nearby Turners Falls Municipal Airport to get ice cream and watch planes carrying parachutists from the local skydiving club while sitting on the hood of her beige 1969 VW Beetle. The high school I attended is located adjacent to the airport as well.

So, this spring, nearly 50 years later, with my relatively new pilot certificate in hand, I traveled back home and rented a Cessna 172SP from Monadnock Aviation in Keene, NH. Standard rental restrictions, such as a requirement for multiple checkout flights and having a dedicated rental insurance policy, made it easier to simply ask the folks at Monadnock to assign me a flight instructor to fly along on the trip to negate the need for the checkouts.

I’d planned out the route in advance, so I was well prepared for the flight. We’d start and end at Keene airport (KEEN), fly south over the Quabbin Reservoir in central Massachusetts, land at Orange Municipal Airport (KORE), fly northwest to my collegiate alma mater (University of Massachusetts Amherst), land at Turners Falls Municipal (0B5), and fly back to KEEN.

It was a pleasant day, with a very high overcast, light winds, and smooth air. I’d never flown over this area in a small plane, although I’d seen it from 20,000+ feet out the windows of commercial jetliners plenty of times flying home for visits. Trust me when I tell you the views from 3,500 feet are much better.

The New England landscape is gorgeous, much lower in elevation than what I am used to in western Washington state and remarkably green this time of the year. The airspace is also much, much quieter – we didn’t encounter a single bit of air traffic the entire flight. Contrast that with flying out of Boeing Field, where there are dozens of aircraft aloft at any given time.

By way of a nerdy statistic, 0B5 had 17,100 aircraft operations in 2011 (the most recent year for which statistics are available), or an average of 47 a day, while my home airport, KBFI, had more than 180,000 in the same period, or an average of 493 a day. According to the FAA, Boeing Field has the third-busiest airspace in the United States (New York City and Teterboro, NJ are numbers one and two, respectively). Western Massachusetts was a much more chill environment in which to fly.

It was my first pilot-in-command flight outside of metro Seattle, and I was pleased to discover that my flight planning matched up with the reality I saw outside the window. Seeing vistas that I’d previously only seen in postcards as a kid was an unforgettable experience. Having a very experienced local CFI beside me also made dealing with the unfamiliar airspace quite easy, although I only had to ask him for advice once, as it was all really pleasant and straightforward flying.

On final for KORE. Katie Bailey photo

On final for KORE. Katie Bailey photo

The airports were all easy to find, and the sightseeing was fantastic. One thing I noticed was that, if there had been some sort of in-flight emergency and I had to do a forced landing, there were not a lot of fields available; the whole region is very heavily forested save for the Connecticut River Valley’s famously productive farmland.

Suffice it to say we had a great time. It was a bit surreal landing for the first time at the small airport I grew up next to, seeing my home area from a very new perspective, and I still managed to grease the landing. I’m planning to make this a regular part of hometown visits going forward.

Right now is an awful time to fly. But with many of us grounded and stuck at home, it’s been an OK time for daydreaming about flights we want to take once things get back to normal. I wanted to share my list, and then (more importantly) hear from you about what your post-COVID AvGeek priorities are.

  • Flying a 747-8. I’ve flown my fair share of 747-400s. And my time riding seat 1A of a United 747 is still one of my favorite AvGeek memories. But as beautiful as the Queen looks from the outside, most 747-400s are old and have uninspiring interiors. That’s why I’m so excited to try a Dash-8. I think it’s even more gorgeous than the -400. And I’m hoping the younger age means a better onboard experience.

The first ever Boeing 747-8i to visit Prague arrives on a hot summers day Photo: Jacob Pfleger | AirlineReporter

Laguardia International Airport (LGA) - Photo: Timothy Vogel | FlickrCC

LaGuardia International Airport (LGA) – Photo: Timothy Vogel | FlickrCC

Two things unite all of us on the AirlineReporter team: (1) we all LOVE flying, and (2) we all have other day jobs. I started writing for this website a few years ago as a medical student in California. And once I graduated I moved to New York City to start residency … just in time for COVID to hit. Yikes.

The reality in COVID-hit cities has been covered plenty in the news so I don’t need to describe it here. Except to confirm from firsthand experience that — despite hospitals’/doctors’/nurses’ best efforts — it was as horrific and chaotic as you heard. A lot of people got really sick. A lot of people died. And a lot of people who got better have complications that will affect them for the rest of their lives.

It’s hard for anyone to set a passion or hobby aside. Even with everything I’ve seen, I still miss flying like crazy. I’m guessing it’s the same way for many of you. And even during peak pandemic there may be rare reasons when you absolutely have to fly. If you do, please do so safely.

But for those of you who are able to pause plans for avoidable travel, know that you’re making a huge difference. Air travel can help pandemics leapfrog around the world. And despite airlines’ admirable efforts to keep things clean, the inside of a compact fuselage is an extremely high-risk space to catch a virus like COVID-19.

I live under the approach to runway 13 at LaGuardia and it’s sad to see fewer planes in the sky than I used to. But I also see far fewer COVID cases in the hospital than a few months ago. And while social distancing and masks are responsible for the lion’s share of that change, people reducing their avoidable air travel helped.

So here’s a quick but heartfelt thank you for doing what you can to keep yourselves, your loved ones, and your communities safe. As a nation we’ll need to help the aviation industry stay afloat during this tough time. But take it from me: right now, staying on the ground whenever you can — even as an AvGeek — is 100% the right call.

The KLM 747-400 City of Nairobi sitting at the gate in Toronto. A sight that, not long after my flight, was no more - Photo: Matthew Chasmar

The KLM 747-400 City of Nairobi sitting at the gate in Toronto. A sight that, not long after my flight, was no more – Photo: Matthew Chasmar

How does one get to Rwanda, anyways? This is probably not a question many North Americans have asked themselves. But it is one I heard a lot recently, when I had an unprecedented opportunity to travel to the East African country of Rwanda. This was an incredibly unique experience in many ways, and the flights involved were no exception. For this trip, I flew from Toronto to Kigali (Rwanda’s capital city), via Amsterdam on KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. This is one of only a handful of options for that particular trip, the others being Brussels and Turkish Airlines. So, this February, I found myself at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, ready to embark on one of the longest series of flights I’ve ever taken.

That's no plane! The first leg of my journey was a train ride into Toronto - Photo: Matthew Chasmar

That’s no plane! The first leg of my journey was a train ride into Toronto – Photo: Matthew Chasmar