What to do? What to do? Where should I fly to?

by Jim Hanson
Copyright 2020. All rights reserved!
Published in Midwest Flyer Magazine (online) – December 2020/January 2021 issue

As I write this article, I am manning my empty office at Albert Lea (MN) Municipal Airport (KAEL) on July 4, 2020, where we are partially out of the Covid-19 “lockdown,” but General Aviation is far from recovered. Airline load factors are recovering—corporate and charter operations are trending up—but General Aviation-based and transient traffic is still FAR BELOW normal —something I’ve verified with a number of airports in similar-size communities.

I can understand that flight schools are much-impacted—most of us don’t get too excited at the prospect of spending time in the closed environment of an aircraft cockpit within close proximity of someone we may not know well. On the other hand, airlines, charter, and corporate operators do spend time in cockpits—seemingly with little or no problems. As for General Aviation, I can’t think of a better way to “social distance” yourself than in your own aircraft. After all, it’s not much different than your own car—YOU control who rides with you—YOU control the safety protocol—YOU control where you land or visit. YOU ride with people in cars—why not in YOUR airplane, where YOU ARE IN CONTROL?

I don’t understand why pilots are reluctant to even come out to the airport, either. Other than large events like Oshkosh, airports are large enough that everyone can keep their own space. Pilots love airports—WHAT HAPPENED?

Perhaps it is the fact that people have become USED to “Lockdown”—prohibitions on where you can and can’t go. That would have been unthinkable a year ago, but I believe it is partially true today. That’s sad…pilots are normally independent and free-thinkers. They are normally people that LIKE to control their environment—people that are even mildly anti-authoritarian—people who are accepting of the calculated risk of flight itself. Yet, in the space of less than 4 1/2 months, they’ve changed—they no longer go places or do things just for fun.

One would think that after all these months of being told to “stay home,” that there would be a pent-up demand. That is true for business and commercial travelers, but not for “fun flyers.” Fortunately, there has been no rush to “sell the airplane!” Aircraft sales by dealers have actually been brisk for most of General Aviation—prices are firm—and good inventory hard to find. Just my feeling (but confirmed with speaking with other dealers), if there is a weakness in the aircraft sales market, it is for VFR airplanes under $35,000. (If you are in the market for these airplanes, now would be a good time to buy!) Unlike a newer airplane, there is no downside—the airplanes are worth almost as much as parts as they are as an airplane.

Flight schools are feeling the pinch. The schools were red-hot before the Covid Crisis, as people were training for careers as professional pilots. That has slowed considerably, but the reality is that for years, new commercial pilots were expected to be flight instructors and fly charter for 7 or 8 years while they built experience. In talking to my former employees that fly for the airlines today, yes—there are some layoffs—but many airlines offered incentives to pilots to take retirement—enough so that for at least one national airline, they not only did not lay anyone off, but anticipate hiring again within a year, and there’s the possibility of building seniority quickly. Airlines are downsizing their equipment—parking the wide bodies—and relying more on their regional jet partners. I believe that hiring will pick up in about a year, just in time for those who are just starting flight training now. Flight schools report that they are starting to field more inquiries. Yes, people are concerned about training in the cockpit, but the schools are prepared to deal with that issue.

My take on why people are not flying for fun—WE’VE FORGOTTEN HOW TO HAVE FUN! We’ve become so used to “following orders” on what we can and cannot do that we are waiting for the “all clear,” and government being what it is, that isn’t going to happen for a long time. Here are some suggestions of things you can do as a pilot…call them “everyday adventures!”

1) HAVE FUN. Typically, “fun flyers” like the social side of flying. They “hang out at the airport,” they give airplane rides, they attend flight breakfasts with fellow airmen. You can still do those things; just organize them in ways that you are comfortable in attending. If you are comfortable with friends or neighbors coming to your home, you probably will be comfortable with them in the airplane with you. Same thing with seeing your friends at the airport. There are few “flight breakfasts” to go to, but most of us know airports with a nearby cafe or takeout (there are six restaurants within walking distance of Albert Lea Municipal Airport). We still have people fly in for lunch or breakfast.

2) CONTINUE TO SOCIALIZE WITH YOUR FELLOW PILOTS. We have resumed evening airport dinners. In its strictest sense, get the grille out, and everyone brings whatever they would like to grille. Some places ask for a dish to pass. If you aren’t comfortable with that, bring your own. We have tables and chairs, and there is enough room in the hangar so that everyone can “keep their space”—whatever they are comfortable with.

3) CONTINUE YOUR PILOT EDUCATION. We have resumed AOPA “Rusty Pilot” seminars (the most recent one here was held in October). Again, they are held in the hangar, and there is more than enough room for “social distancing.” Have fun with your pilot friends, take advantage of FREE SCHOOLING from AOPA, and EARN FAA WINGS CREDIT. Completion gives you credit toward the oral portion of your biennial flight review (BFR), and participation in the Wings program usually earns you a discount on your aviation insurance.

4) WORK ON AN ADDITIONAL RATING. Getting ratings not only makes you a better pilot, but it offers more utility in flying, and opens options on aviation opportunities. Studying for a Commercial Pilot Certificate or Instrument Rating will not only make you a better pilot, but it will eliminate the “we will only go if the weather is good” limitation on the non-instrument-rated pilot. Being able to fly more complex aircraft gives you access to higher performance aircraft (those are always fun!) A Flight Instructor Pilot Certificate helps solve the persistent instructor shortage. I see many instructor candidates that say they “couldn’t find a flight instructor at their local airport, so decided WHY NOT ME?” A chance to help out other pilots, free flying, AND to make a little money as well!

5) TRY SOMETHING DIFFERENT. Why take the time and expense going through the motions of a Biennial Flight Review, when you can do something different and LEARN SOMETHING? Get a tailwheel endorsement, complex gear endorsement, or high-performance endorsement. Fly a Light Sport Aircraft – most are a delight to fly. Get a seaplane rating or take glider lessons. Obtaining a new rating or endorsement, updates your Biennial Flight Review—and it’s FUN!

6) CHECK OUT IN A NEW AIRCRAFT. Flying different aircraft gives you a new perspective. (Believe it or not, we’ve had people come through here that say “I can only fly low- wing/high-wing airplanes!). WARNING: Get a flight instructor to give you the dual instruction. Far too many accidents happen when a non-certified flight instructor pilot tries to “check someone out.” As an alternative, simply “trade rides” with other aircraft owners. See what it’s like to fly or fly in different aircraft. Most aircraft owners are proud to show you their airplane.

7) GO SOMEPLACE WITH A PURPOSE: Airplanes are meant for travel. Here are some examples of things you can do with your airplane.

a) GO TO AN AVIATION EVENT. Though flight breakfasts are not scheduled for this year, opportunities abound. Go with one airplane or organize a group. Go to an aviation museum. The Fagen Fighter Museum in Granite Falls, Minn. is a great one, as is the Fargo Air Museum in Fargo, N.D., Wings of the North at Flying Cloud Airport in Eden Prairie, Minn., and the EAA Museum in Oshkosh, Wis. The Commemorative Air Force at Fleming Field in South St. Paul is often staffed on weekends, as is the CAF Catalina flying boat in Superior, Wis. (call first to make sure it is open). The Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center nearby has been vastly upgraded to include many WWII exhibits in the past few years. Go to the Strategic Air Command Museum in Omaha, Neb. (yes, Omaha is only about 240 nautical miles from Minneapolis, or a little over 2 hours at 120 knots. To put it in perspective, that’s about the same distance to Warroad, Minnesota!)

b) CONSIDER AIRPORT CAMPING. After all, you do it at Oshkosh! The Minnesota Airport Directory lists airports that welcome “underwing camping.” If it isn’t listed, call the airport and check…tell them that you’d like to stay overnight and will buy some fuel. We’ve never been turned down yet. Many airports have courtesy cars or can set you up with transportation. Ask what there is to do in town…it’s like having a friend that lives there! Yes, it may be hard to limit equipment that fits in an airplane, but my wife and I used to put an 8 X 10 ft. tent, cooler, food and drink, sleeping bags, etc. in the back of a 1967 Cessna 150! Note: I shouldn’t have to mention this, but DON’T start a fire in the tie-downs; we’ve had it happen here! Another note: It’s much more fun if you go with two or more airplanes. Also don’t forget, the Recreational Aviation Foundation has provided liability relief for owners of private airstrips, provided that no charge is made. It’s like allowing someone to use your land for hunting, snowmobiling, etc. Always ASK if you can land and camp there. This will usually give you access to non-public-use airports like Isle, Minn. (Prior permission is required, however.) Isle has a delightful airstrip close to town and Mille Lacs Lake, and the pilots that run the airport are the best!

c) CONSIDER VISITING ISLAND AIRPORTS. There is something about an island—Washington and Madeline Islands in Wisconsin, and Mackinac Island in Michigan – are three popular airports with islands on them, accommodations, and lots of things to do. While technically not an island, the airport at Sky Harbor in Duluth sits on the end of a spit of land, accessible only by air, or across the lift bridge from Duluth.

d) CONSIDER “THEMED” TRIPS. My parents started a family tradition of taking grandkids on “themed” auto and air trips, something that every grandchild remembers about their grandparents to this day. Many people have never visited the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota. It’s a remote place, and roads are few. A trip there by air will assure your passengers that there ARE wild and remote places yet in the U.S. How about viewing the iron mines from the air? Fly the coastline of the Great Lakes. Fly along the Mississippi River, starting at Lake Itasca and fly south as far as you would like (you can even make several trips further down the river to REALLY make it a journey)—viewing the locks, dams, and barge traffic along the way. Visit the “Driftless Area” – the rugged and scenic terrain of southern Minnesota and Wisconsin where the glaciers didn’t go. See the big lakes of northern Minnesota, including Lake of the Woods, the land of the fur traders, forts, massacres, and the Canadian border. Go to Mackinac Island, where you can experience seeing three Great Lakes at once—a fur trading post, a fort captured by the British in the War of 1812, and a place without electricity or powered vehicles (except for airplanes). Like all themed trips, it helps if you and your passengers have prior knowledge about the area you are about to survey. Check out the history and geology. You and your passengers will get more out of the trip.

The “themed trips” mentioned above look at the geography of the states, but you can put together other themed trips as well. Find something else that you or your friends and family like to do. Fishing trips are always fun, as are trips to sporting events, golfing, races, hobbies, history, etc. Go to the Black Hills. From the air, you can still see the wagon ruts of the trail taken by the Deadwood Stage—Fort Meade, Mount Rushmore, the Buffalo Ranch, the Stratobowl, and Devil’s Tower.

Make your trips “special.” From Albert Lea, it is not much more distance to Bull Shoals, Arkansas, as it is to Lake of the Woods. Fantastic for a fisherman! You can fish there every month of the year without venturing on the ice (much as I love ice fishing!) and without burning up vacation time. It is a fun and inexpensive way to shorten up the winter!

As a guideline, any place within the range of your aircraft fuel tanks makes for an easy weekend trip. If you can’t find anything to do with your airplane within a range of one tankful of fuel (about 500 miles for most four-place planes), perhaps you need a different hobby or interest (have you considered ant farming?)

And again, go with others. It’s always more fun when there is another airplane and people involved.

That’s it—no more excuses! There is no reason NOT to enjoy your ability to fly!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jim Hanson is the long-time fixed base operator in Albert Lea, Minnesota. In his 58th year of flying, he has landed in every state, province, and territory in North America, plus 83 countries around the world, but is willing to learn more. If you have a special place to visit by air, write it up for your fellow pilots and submit it to Midwest Flyer Magazine. Jim will likely want to join you there! You can contact Jim directly at his airport office at 507-373-0608 or jimhanson@deskmedia.com, but don’t be surprised if he is flying someplace!

DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this column is the expressed opinion of the author only and offered as suggestions only. Readers are urged to seek the advice and counsel of their personal flight instructor and others, and refer to the Federal Aviation Regulations, FAA Aeronautical Information Manual and instructional materials as appropriate before proceeding with anything discussed herein.

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