Access to a laptop computer allowed me to escape my home office for an hour to enjoy the view of Catoctin Mountain—a beautiful sight on this spring day, but I missed my real office view of Runway 12/30 at Maryland’s Frederick Municipal Airport.
Week Four of working remotely, thanks to COVID-19.
Silence soon chased away the din of the Harley. Few cars passing today because everyone is supposed to stay home. More likely it’s a feed or milk truck trundling by. In that silence I notice what’s missing—the sound of airliners and general aviation aircraft. We live under the airliners’ approach paths to Washington Dulles and Baltimore Washington airports. On any given afternoon a number of wide-body airliners will be descending overhead to Dulles from Europe and places beyond, their high-bypass engines creating that strange whistling noise in the descent.
Located just north of the Frederick Class D airspace, we often hear light airplanes exiting the area or doing a few maneuvers—steep turns or stalls. The busy helicopter flight school at Frederick means Robinson R22s are a common sight for us.
But not these days. All three flight schools at Frederick have closed.
I am reminded of another day when a crisp blue sky also was devoid of contrails and airplane noise—September 11, 2001. We lived a few miles closer to town then. Neighbors gathered in the cul de sac that evening to comfort one another and to try to make sense of the day’s events. As I stepped outside, I was struck by the silence. Any other beautiful fall evening, the sky would be filled with airliners up high and people in little airplanes poking around the region, enjoying their freedom to fly. But there were no freedoms that night. The skies had been drained earlier in the day as aviation came to a halt.
In this latest crisis, we’re trying to understand what freedoms we still have. The Harley rider was probably not on his way to the grocery store—a permitted reason to travel. More likely he was simply recreating, a permitted activity without a lot of definition. He was solo on the bike, so practicing appropriate social distancing. His face shield might qualify as a mask. He was probably enjoying himself—seems like a good definition of recreating.
One could draw comparisons to flying, an analogy that would be especially appropriate for those who live in airparks. Pull your airplane out of the garage and go fly around. Land back at home.
For those of us who must drive to the airport, there’s the question of whether that trip is acceptable in a state when we are told that nonessential travel is not permitted. Yet many people are still out and about, going to the gas station, and maybe even taking a drive for relaxation purposes.
Unlike the motorcycle rider, we pilots have federal regulations that require us to maintain a certain minimum level of proficiency—at least three takeoffs and landings every 90 days to carry passengers, flight reviews, instrument currency or proficiency checks—some of which can’t be done solo, so another pilot must be sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with you. For some of us, flying is a part of our job. We may not be paid to fly, but our pay comes in part because we can fly. For others, flying is simply a recreation—but one with federal oversight and requirements.
I’ve heard pilots argue all sides of this conundrum in person and on social media. Some hold that flying in this environment is irresponsible because if you have an accident, you will take first responders and other health care providers away from dealing with the virus. That unnecessary drive to the airport and airplanes out just for fun gives general aviation a black eye in the public perception, some say.
Others argue that an accident resulting from a pilot flying with rusty skills also gives GA a black eye. If you fly for fun—solo or with someone you live with—how is that different than the guy on the Harley, or the couple strolling hand-in-hand down the sidewalk, or taking that drive just to get out of the house?
And then there are the local variances. While Maryland has clamped down aggressively on local travel, some states have no restrictions at all—yet. Others have checkpoints at state borders stopping anyone coming in with out-of-state license plates and insisting on two-week quarantines.
As this is written in April, there’s a lot of gray out there. How about you? Where do you fall in the fly/don’t fly spectrum? Send me an email. I’ll be on the porch with the laptop.
Email [email protected]