The Bay State Challenge: Beginning

As a recently licensed pilot with about 80 hours' experience, I'm right at the point of maximum attrition; by some estimates, half of the people who get a Private Pilot certificate never fly more than 100 hours. There are a bunch of reasons for this, but one of them is certainly that unless you plan to make a career of aviation, there isn't any clear objective once you pass the checkride.

The little taste of IFR training that was part of my basic flight curriculum fascinated me, but before continuing for a full IFR rating I need to accumulate more time in the cockpit. Specifically, I need more cross-country flying time, which the FAA defines as landing more than 50 nautical miles from the starting point. Occasional trips with my family add to this total, but what about those days when I go flying alone? Where should I go?

Fortunately, an answer came along just in time, in the form of the Bay State Challenge. Patterned on similar programs in other states (including Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina), the Challenge is sort of an aviation version of letterboxing. A participant starts by picking up a "passport," which has spaces for stamps from each of the state's 39 public-use airports, plus blanks for some additional endorsements. Getting a passport stamped at a certain number of airports, and attending fly-ins and safety seminars, qualifies the holder for various levels of prizes. The Massachusetts program hasn't disclosed what the prizes are yet, but other states give out everything from mugs and ball caps to high-end leather flight jackets, depending on how many airports one visits. In any case, the prize isn't the point. The point is to have a reason to fly.

Or drive. In order to make the program accessible and safe, Challenge participants can use whatever means they like to get to the airports. That's important for non-pilots, but also for pilots like me who rely on rental aircraft. The rental contract at my home base is actually pretty permissive, but still prohibits landing on grass runways or any strip less than 2,500 feet long. That puts eight Massachusetts fields out of reach for me by air. There's also the issue of landing fees, which for at least one little field would be more than the cost of the flight. If I decide to finish the whole Challenge, it will clearly be a mixed-mode transportation project.

For a pilot, visiting all the airports in a state is a multi-layered problem. Besides the restrictions in the aircraft rental contract, the weather, geography, some rather sophisticated mathematics, money, and FAA rules all complicate the game.

Because I'm not IFR rated yet, I'm forbidden from flying into clouds, and out here on the lumpy side of the state, the space between the hills and the overcast is often quite thin. Meanwhile, I'm paying for the airplane by the hour, so I want to choose the most efficient route through multiple destinations - an infamously hard problem in graph theory. As only flights over 50 nautical miles from my home base will count toward my cross-country hours, aerial trips to the 16 airports inside that radius won't be as useful to me as flights further afield. On the other hand, some of the "local" airports are hours away on twisty mountain roads, tilting the balance back in favor of flying.

It's pronounced "Orange"

After over-thinking the problem for awhile, I decided to start with a small, simple trip. And so, one overcast day that just barely met the definition of VMC, I picked up my Challenge passport at Northampton, got their stamp, and prepared to fly to some local airports in the cheapest bird on the field. The first destination was KORE: Orange, MA. Besides having a jet-capable runway in the middle of nowhere, Orange's main claim to fame is that it gives people from Athol an alternate place to say they come from.(1)

I'd landed at Orange several times during my primary flight training, but never stopped to look at the place. It's very easy to find from the air and has two long, wide runways, making it very beginner-friendly.

The weather on 19 June, however, was not beginner-friendly. From the weather reports, I knew I could stay the required 500 feet below the overcast deck while also remaining more than 500 feet above ground. From experience, I expected it to be an uncomfortable flight. It was. Even by general aviation standards, the Cessna 152 is small and light. Any kind of breeze tosses it around like a leaf, and when that breeze is flowing over the hills of New England, the ride gets bumpy.

After a few minutes' bouncing over the mountains, I found KORE right where I'd left it last, nestled into a broad, flat patch of land at the north end of the huge Quabbin reservoir. I made a standard pattern entry and announced my intentions on the appropriate radio frequency. Despite the turbulence, I chirped the wheels down in a full stall right on the numbers - the kind of landing that only happens when nobody is around to see it.

Sure enough, the place was silent. After taxiing to the ramp and shutting down, I walked into the pleasant little FBO office and found a sign saying the manager was out, with a number I could call if I needed anything. I left a voice-mail asking where I could find the airport's Bay State Challenge stamp. A few minutes later, a fellow called back and politely explained that it was sitting on the counter right in front of me.

With that stamp in the book, I went back out to the airplane and looked at the chart. The next airport to the east is KGDM, but I needed to be back home in time to record TWiV, and I was concerned that if the clouds got any lower I might be stuck on the wrong side of the hills.

It was another bumpy flight back to Northampton, and I was glad to get back to the flat farmland of the Connecticut River valley. While waiting to settle my bill in the office, I talked to a Commercial Pilot candidate who was thinking of doing his required long solo that day. His plan was to fly to KMLT in Millinocket, ME and back. After hearing my weather report, he decided to cancel.

I returned home with two stamps in my Challenge passport, nearly another hour in my logbook, and a renewed appreciation for the effects of wind and terrain on air masses. I can certainly think of worse ways to spend a morning.

(1) The signs that say "Entering Athol" are vandalized or stolen more often than any other town signs in the Commonwealth.