Torqued: GA Road Trips in the Time of Coronavirus

 - October 1, 2020, 8:30 AM

It’s hard to believe that we’re entering the sixth month of a viral pandemic and there’s no real end in sight to what has become our new normal.

For me—as for many of you—my weekly flights for business or leisure have become Zoom meetings with colleagues or family. In the spring, my days of flying to New York to teach at Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology were replaced with live, virtual classrooms.

While I miss the personal interaction with students, faculty, and staff at the college, online live (so-called “synchronous”) teaching is not all bad. Some of the unexpected but welcome benefits were more commuter students showing up for class on time when the vagaries of public transportation were eliminated. The other significant positive was finding that shy or introverted students who were reticent to speak up in class participated in online discussions via the chat or text function of Zoom. It was great to have multiple ways for students to communicate and participate in class. In addition, a number of students who work full time and go to school full time—a daunting task at any time—found the extra time not spent getting to classes a definite benefit in terms of their personal schedules and stress levels.

In addition to my school travel being eliminated, air travel for business meetings or conferences completely ended for me mid-March, either cancelled entirely or replaced by telephone conferences or some kind of online meeting.  Even the annual Aerospace Maintenance Skills Competition that has run continuously in one form or another for 20 years had to be postponed and eventually cancelled. While we were hopeful in the spring that by the summer the worst of the pandemic would be over, that did not prove to be the case and holding a safe competition became impossible. But we are looking forward to a great competition in April 2021, once again in conjunction with the MRO Americas Conference in Orlando, Florida.

But for those of us who live and breathe aviation, it is hard to be away from airports and aircraft for so long. Rather than do without my regular aviation fix, I decided to use the downtime in airline travel to explore what is left of the type of aviation I grew to love in my youth. As I have written about before, long before I became a mechanic, my passion was flying. I started flying before I could drive and soloed at age 15 in a Piper J-3 Cub. I would wash aircraft in exchange for flying lessons and free flight time at a grass strip about 30 miles from my home in East Boston. Because I was too young to drive, if I couldn’t bum a ride from anyone, I would hitchhike there.

Those were the days when flying was truly fun and liberating. It was just me, the airplane, and the wide-open sky, flying over the beautiful New England countryside. No radios, no electronics, just basic aircraft instruments. I had to look out for other aircraft but there weren’t many in those days. I felt like it was just me and the infinite sky.

So, I set out on road trips this summer of Covid-19 to find some of those little turf airports that still exist in rural parts of the northeast. Partly a sentimental journey but also to see how some of these places are faring. One of the finest is located not far from where Massachusetts, Vermont, and New York meet. I spend a fair amount of time in western Massachusetts, so it seemed a good place to start my search.

Located in the little town of Cambridge, New York is Chapin Field, a privately owned, public-use airport. It’s operated by the Cambridge Valley Flying Club. Surrounded by acres of corn fields, it has two turf runways, the width of which vary depending on who is mowing. Several open hangars contained a dozen or so visible aircraft. I was immediately drawn to the two J-3s I could see in the hangars.   

As soon as I pulled up to the hangars with my pickup truck, I could see heads turning to see who the stranger was and what he was up to. Eventually, the owner of the J-3s came over to see who was idling by his aircraft. As soon as I told him that I had learned to fly in a J-3, he immediately relaxed and we chatted about old times and the present as aviation enthusiasts of a certain age frequently do. What was most heartening to me was not only the efforts the flying club took to engage youth and the community in aviation but word that the owner was taking steps to preserve the airport as a flying field.  I did not confirm this directly with him but I’m hoping that is the case. His airport is a gem that should not be lost.

Alas, not all my searches for the grass strips of yesteryear have gone as well. In one case, an Airport Road did not lead to an airport anymore. All that was left was a fraying windsock. A long-time resident told me the old airport disappeared with the death of the last owner. And, perhaps, most distressing to me was to learn that the airport where I had first learned to fly—Marlboro Airport in Malborough, Massachusetts—had been sold last year to a developer. I didn’t go out to the airport very frequently in recent years but I thought I had kept up with it through pilots who still based their aircraft there.  Somehow I had missed this sale. 

To me, losing these grass strips is more than just the loss of an airport; it’s the loss of a way of flying that was singularly part of the American flying experience.