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GA travel during a pandemic

For all the unprecedented stress of 2020, it was a good year to be a general aviation pilot. Flying in small private aircraft is one of the few ways to travel and still control whom we contact—and flying solo is the perfect socially distant activity.
Illustration by Neil Webb
Illustration by Neil Webb, photography by the author

Socially distancing

A persistent marine layer creeps into the Port of Los Angeles near Zamperini Field. Looking out of the Palm Springs Air Museum’s World War II hangar toward the San Jacinto mountains Parked for the night near the base of the Palm Springs tower. The author all masked up to enjoy the Palm Springs Air Museum

Late in the year, as coronavirus cases declined and the Golden State started reopening, I prepared to take a flying trip around Southern California for a short solo vacation and to sharpen up my cross-country skills on the way.

Best-laid plans

By the end of summer, I was more than ready to escape Los Angeles; I hadn’t flown out of the county since before the pandemic began. The original plan: fly from my home base of Zamperini Field in Torrance to San Luis Obispo, Santa Ynez, Big Bear, Palm Springs, and Borrego Valley. All I needed was a favorable forecast, and how hard could it be to find a series of sunny days in Southern California? With clear skies on call, I reserved a Cessna 172 from my local flight school for the following week.

The forecast changed. Persistent late-season marine layers—called “June Gloom” even outside of the title month—kept me grounded for the start of the week. Then, smoke from the Northern California fires pushed bizarre “sky clear” low IFR conditions on much of the state, grounding me again. A couple weeks later and with the northern fires mostly contained, the forecast looked perfect, if a little windy. I booked the airplane once more.

Pandemic GA Travel

Delicious fresh ceviche, which would have been perfect for sharing but tasted just fine socially distanced and solo. Flying over the wind farm just beyond the Banning Pass on a dead calm day. San Pedro's Vincent Thomas Bridge is almost perfectly lined up with final for runways 29L and 29R at Zamperini Field. The author saying Cheese! on the way home and feeling proud of the World Series champs.

Overnight, a fire started in the Angeles National Forest. The wind shifted and the state of California, blanketed in Blade Runner-orange haze, elevated itself to the regrettable position of having the worst air quality in the world. It rained flecks of gray ash, and there wasn’t an airport in Los Angeles without a fitting “FU” reported, which is of course the indicator for smoke on a METAR. I once again canceled the trip, obsessively checking the weather day after day while conditions did not improve.

I was desperate to get in the air, but the fires were still a factor. On top of my desire to escape, I felt needlessly guilty canceling with the flight school every other day. If I could help it, I didn’t want to cause lost revenue for them—but I couldn’t change the smoke or the weather. In a very on-brand move for 2020, the trip would just have to wait.

Escape from LA

Once the fires in LA calmed down, it was back to the flight plan drawing board. The airspace north of the LA Special Flight Rules Area was still smoky and unappealing. Relaxing on the dunes at Pismo Beach and sipping pinot in Santa Ynez were out. Unseasonably hot and windy weather eliminated the Big Bear stop because of high density altitude and potential for mountain turbulence. Palm Springs and Borrego Valley seemed doable, and after weeks of delays, the stars aligned. On a bright midweek morning, I started up my rental 172, cautiously optimistic that this might work out after all.

I expected the highest workload portion of the trip to fall under the first leg. You don’t need to go very high to get to Palm Springs from Torrance, but extra altitude creates more options, especially in a congested area where the nonairport forced landing sites are sardine-can eight-lane freeways. Since I wanted to climb to avoid a bevy of airspace transition requests, I needed to get flight following quickly and hope for a breezy Class Bravo clearance—LAX’s Bravo starts at 5,000 feet over Torrance, and I hoped to get cleared to 7,500 for cruise. Luckily, a quiet Zamperini Ground called SoCal for me, gave me my VFR clearance, and away we went. Soon after checking in with Departure, SoCal handed me off to a new controller.

The new frequency sounded routinely busy. Two aircraft with similar N numbers confused each other’s instructions, and SoCal had to repeat half a dozen calls to get them on the same page. Thrilled to finally be en route, I diligently waited for a lull to check in. I called, then paused in anticipation—no response. Chatter continued. It seemed that this sector was handling the early stage of approaches into John Wayne and LAX, and I wondered if the controller, perhaps thinly spread under pandemic conditions, was broadcasting on another frequency as well.

I waited another couple of minutes, cruising steadily closer to the Banning Pass, and tried again. I caught a glimpse of Disneyland, Angel Stadium, and Knott’s Berry Farm, their empty parking lots a strange sight. Still no call back—maybe this was one of those (totally understandable) times when the IFR demand was too high for ATC to deal with VFR traffic. I was out of the Bravo, away from any airways or approach paths, but there was one problem—I was now only a few miles west of Banning, which, surrounded by steep terrain, is a radar and VHF radio dead zone for aircraft at my altitude. I expected to lose SoCal within the next couple of minutes, and I hadn’t even checked in with this sector yet.

I reminded myself that it was a perfect VFR day, I was on a perfectly acceptable VFR route, that I’d be on the ground in less than half an hour, and that this was not a safety-of-flight problem. Aviate first. If I couldn’t get in touch, I’d call approach from the ground and make sure they knew I was fine. I tried for the last time: “SoCal, Skyhawk Six-Six-Zero-Sierra-Papa would like to cancel flight following.” The immediacy of the controller’s response earned a wry smile. “November Six-Six-Zero-Sierra-Papa squawk VFR, frequency change approved.” No harm, no foul; coordinating approaches was understandably more important than calling me back.

I welcomed the radio silence through the pass while waiting for enough line-of-sight to pick up Palm Springs’ ATIS. The often-gusty transition from basin to the valley was dead calm, the hundreds of wind turbines statue-still and the air improbably stable for a hot morning. I forgot about the pandemic, the election, the fires, the national unrest; it was a privilege to escape the earthbound world, listen only to the comforting hum of the engine, and see only sky and desert sand. Too soon, information Juliet came through on com 2, with instructions to contact approach on a new frequency for arriving aircraft—part of the old Terminal Radar Service Area (TRSA) procedures that are still in place for the now officially Class D airport.

On the descent into the “at least it’s a dry heat” Coachella Valley, I could feel the temperature rise nearly 20 degrees Fahrenheit in the space of a few miles. The pressure was different, too, and the updated altimeter setting from the ATIS changed my displayed altitude almost 100 feet. After an uneventful approach I taxied with tower to the FBO, where I picked up a rental car and booked a hotel—happy to finally, finally be out of LA.

Palm Springs

With a couple hours before check in, I headed across the field to the Palm Springs Air Museum. The four-hangar museum has enough space to maintain distance from other visitors, and when not admiring its collection of airworthy warbirds and learning from helpful docents, patrons can sit on shaded bleacher stands and watch Palm Springs’ air traffic. The museum’s B–17 and still-flying P–51D are highlights, and any avgeek could easily spend half a day or more checking out the collection and plane spotting.

Heading into town felt prepandemic normal, and Palm Springs’ fair weather made dining outside for a late lunch feel like a choice rather than a mandate. I wandered down the closed-to-cars main street, bought some postcards and stamps (I was really on a trip, I had to tell people!), and took my time getting to the boho-chic, eminently Instagrammable Les Cactus for the night. Falling asleep in a new zip code was a luxury.

To the stars

Weather was no factor the next morning on the flight south to Borrego Valley. To the east, desaturated space race blues and tans stretched as far as the eye could see; it was easy to picture past shuttles landing in the nearby Mojave. I followed the edge of the Salton Sea before turning west toward Borrego, checking the novelty box of flying over land with an elevation lower than 0 feet msl—Jackie Cochran Regional Airport (TRM) is listed at minus 114 feet. The peace of a simple flight was welcome, and I wished the field was just a touch farther away so I could stay up in the air longer. Startup to touchdown took a mere 0.7 hours, and I’d arranged for that night’s accommodation, La Casa del Zorro Desert Resort, to pick me up from the airport at noon.

With rare good timing and luck, I arrived right on schedule, tied the airplane down for the night, and doubled the chart for a sunshield—there still isn’t an app for that. The Spanish-style resort has five pools to choose from, and for most of the afternoon I had one to myself. The expansive grounds are lined with matcha green Palo Verde trees, cozy outdoor seating, and firepits. It’s the perfect place to unwind with no pressure to go off the resort grounds—I could see myself coming back for a week with a silenced cellphone and a stack of to-be-read books.

The Anza-Borrego area is a known dark sky zone. With clear skies in the forecast and after a couple hours poolside, I eagerly anticipated nightfall. I followed the map I’d received at check-in to the star gazing amphitheater. It welcomed visitors with a sign—sic itur ad astra—“thus one journeys to the stars.” Night-vision-friendly red bulbs illuminated the path, and a tall wooden fence kept the few resort lights out. I used my jacket as a pillow and laid out, wondering about the desert wildlife I could be disturbing. While the hotel was by no means empty, I still felt it was more likely I’d run into a coyote than another guest. Satellites, shooting stars, and the discernible edge of our spiral galaxy are rare sights for city dwellers, and I stayed out there until my imagination ran away with visions of scorpions crawling over to say hello.

Back home

One peaceful night’s sleep later and it was time to wrap up the trip. I was grateful for a noon checkout while I waited for an impish marine layer to lift at Torrance. Before I set out on this short adventure, I didn’t know how I’d feel about travel in the age of a pandemic. Turned out it was by far the most normal thing I’ve done since shutdowns started and N95s became a household term. I encountered far fewer people on a three-day, hotel-visiting, restaurant-dining trip than I do on a single visit to the grocery store. While almost every aspect of daily life has shifted in unanticipated ways, flying GA hasn’t changed. Like the rest of the aviation world, I can’t wait for us to get back to fly-ins and big events, but until then, at least we pilots have the option to go places as few others do, and we are mobile in our distance.

Email [email protected]

Alyssa J. Miller

Alicia Herron

ASI Aviation Writer
Aviation writer Alicia Herron joined the AOPA Air Safety Institute in 2018. She is a multiengine-rated commercial pilot with advanced ground and instrument flight instructor certificates. Alicia is based in Los Angeles and enjoys tailwheel flying best.

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