With my gym closed (not that I spent a ton of time in it when it was open) due to the coronavirus pandemic, I have been walking least 10,000 steps a day, going around and around my neighborhood, which gets repetitive. So, I had been champing at the bit to get some variety. I also have been eager to fly again.
We have been unable to use AOPA’s airplanes since the coronavirus pandemic and associated restrictions hit in March. I had a hunch that would change at some point on May 29 when many of the restrictions in Maryland, where AOPA is headquartered, were lifted. I kept a tab of FlightSchedulePro open in my browser and watched my email inbox for the all-clear like a cat while its bowl is being filled. I was going to snipe up one of the Cessna Skyhawks for Saturday morning.
With a trusty peanut butter and jelly sandwich, banana, and zip-close bag of unsalted cashews, I headed toward Frederick Municipal Airport. It had been a long time since I had been at the airport. I had last flown on March 19. The sight of the windsock, wistful in the breeze, was like an orange beacon of hope. I’d soon gain my aerial freedom.
The day was bright and beautiful. The forecast was that it would stay that way.
After 15 minutes of disinfecting the cockpit per company policy, I had the airplane topped off, got one last briefing through ForeFlight, and prepared to go. I spent an additional 10 minutes just going through the avionics to make sure I was still fluent in their essential operations.
Shades of the jitters I felt last summer when I did my first solo flight returned. I felt far more confident in my skill than I did that first time alone, but it had still been two-and-a-half months since I had flown. Could I still do it? I’ve been studying for my instrument written, chair flying, and even doing pattern work with X-Plane 11 to remember the numbers for the Skyhawk. My head has been in the game. I was prepared, but still cautious.
The plan was to spend three trips around the pattern at Frederick before I departed. At the slightest bit of unease, lack of confidence, or significant lapse of skill I’d call it a day. As I turned onto the runway, I felt right at home. After my first trip around the pattern, I didn’t have a butter landing, but it was darn close. The next two were about the same, and I felt confident that I could, in fact, still fly the airplane.
I had planned to climb to 2,500 feet msl and have a low-and-slow adventure day. Turns out great minds think alike. I have never seen so many airplanes in the sky at once between Frederick and Carroll County Regional Airport/Jack B. Poage Field, 21 nautical miles away. Switching to Carroll County’s CTAF, I realized I wanted nothing to do with being low and crossing that aerodrome. There were just way too many people out. I had a feeling that, like me, it was their first flight in months. Hard nope!
Harford County Airport about 15 nm later. There was hardly any traffic up that high. Everyone was either way down where I had planned to be, or up in the flight levels. I had a nice chunk of smooth air all to myself.I climbed to 5,500 feet msl and went north around the mess, catching back up to my magenta line that was plotted from Carroll County to
Overnight storms had cleared the region. Visibility was virtually unlimited. From my Skyhawk perch a mile up, I could see Washington, D.C.; Baltimore; Philadelphia; and much of the Chesapeake Bay, its blue-gray water glinting back the sun in mid-Atlantic splendor. Scanning for traffic had never been more delightful than to also take in the beauty of the region that staying inside had denied me all spring.
I crossed the northern tip of the Chesapeake, and over my next waypoint, Summit Airport in Delaware. Here’s where things get a bit uncomfortable—the landscape is mostly salt marsh the rest of the way over the Delaware Bay with very few roads, fields, or other places to land in an emergency.
Millville Municipal Airport in New Jersey. I didn’t know if there would be good holes to get down and maintain VFR cloud clearance minimums, so I opted to descend below them, back to 2,500 feet msl. Turns out, I needed to be closer to 2,000 feet msl to stay under them and maintain clearance. That was going to put me into a whole gaggle of traffic operating out of Millville, so I opted to skirt about eight miles southeast of the airport to not be a factor for the many pilots there.A puffy marine layer started coming into view as I headed toward my next waypoint of
I got bounced around quite a bit in the midday sun. I was mindful that much of the coastal area was wildlife refuges, and pilots were requested to maintain 2,000 feet agl. I generally try to be a good citizen, but especially while flying an airplane with a 10-foot-wide AOPA logo on the bottom of each wing.
I’d spent some time on YouTube the night before, watching videos of people flying in to Ocean City, so the airport was easy to spot. I knew what to expect. I wasn’t able to receive the AWOS until I was very close to the airport, but the pilot of a twin departing the airport let me know to expect a near direct crosswind, blowing me out to sea. The 2,972-foot-by-60-foot runway did not seem as tiny as my mind had convinced myself it would be, but it is a bit toward the edge of my 120-hour, new private pilot comfort zone.
I don’t have a ton of crosswind experience but turns out I prefer to crab versus slip. That’s just what my reflex had me do. I touched left main slightly before right, but it was otherwise a nice landing and rollout. I taxied to the ramp and tied down.
Donning my Astronaut Snoopy “I need my space” cloth mask, I went inside the FBO to pay the modest $12 parking fee, the attendant wrote the gate code on my receipt, and my sack lunch and I were off to the beach!
It’s just 3,100 steps from the airport to the beach, a pleasant walk by old Victorian homes and beach cottages, and the Howard S. Stainton Wildlife Refuge, where you can take in 16 acres of protected freshwater wetlands. (Being on a barrier island, it is full of birds and other critters.)
I walked along the beach—staying socially distant—found a nice open spot of sand, and sat down for my picnic lunch. The waves crashing provided a nice respite. It was relaxing and invigorating at the same time. All was well.
I got in a few thousand more steps going down the beach and back up to where I had entered it. After about an hour, I headed for home, stopping at Millville for fuel.
Confession time: I’ve never pumped my own avgas. I’ve seen it done, and helped do it, but I’ve always used a fuel truck. I decided the irony of pumping my own fuel for the first time ever in New Jersey (a state in which drivers may not fuel their own cars) would be worth it. I taxied to the self-service pumps and shut down. The computer was offline! I flagged down an airport worker, who sent a fuel truck over from Big Sky Aviation, the FBO. He fueled me out of the truck but gave me the self-serve price. My fueling streak remains.
The rest of the flight home was pleasant. My last landing of the day was a greaser, right on centerline, right on the stall horn.
During my postflight cleanup of the airplane (both from bugs and from potential virus load) I crossed my goal of 10,000 steps for the day. What a good day it was! A socially distant flight, an additional 3.5 hours of cross-country pilot in command time toward my instrument rating requirements, a trip to the beach, and a $500 peanut butter sandwich on the sand.—By Paul Harrop
Paul Harrop is a producer/video journalist for AOPA Live. He is a new private pilot, currently working toward his instrument rating. He joined AOPA in 2012.