Bay State Challenge: The Northeast Corner

On 14 August, I woke to clear skies, light winds, and an open schedule, another perfect day for visiting a few airports. This time, my focus was the northeast corner of Massachusetts, a small area of land covered in deep layers of American history and politics.

My ride was N94513, the resident Cessna 152 trainer at Northampton. The 152 and its nearly identical predecessor, the Cessna 150, are among the most popular training aircraft in the world, with good reason. They handle well, and the airframe is light, cheap, and relatively fuel-efficient. The 150/152 is the lowest common denominator of general aviation.

A student had just done her first solo in Five One Three that morning, so after refueling and a walk-around, the warm engine started right up. Taking off, I practiced my short-field technique, which I expected to need later in the day. It's also just a fun thing to do when flying solo in a 152. I was a hundred feet up by the time I got halfway down the runway.

Getting off the ground is about the only thing this aircraft does quickly. Once airborne, I started a long, slow climb to my cruising altitude of 7,500 feet, just above the summer haze. The sole electronic navigation instrument in Five One Three is a panel-mounted GPS, which showed my course as a magenta line. I followed a matching pencil line on my paper chart to pick out landmarks below. With a high altitude tailwind, my ground speed touched 100 knots.

The people's airplane

Eventually the Merrimack River came into view, and with it the poorest city in Massachusetts: Lawrence. Everyone knows the story of Lawrence. First came the mills, then the workers, then the strikes, then the prosperity, then the layoffs, and then the misery. The pattern worked out so well here, at least for the textile mill owners, that other industries copied it all across the American landscape. The rust belt starts here.

"Lawrence tower, Cessna Nine Four Five One Three, eight to the west, two thousand, inbound to land."

"Five One Three, enter right downwind for two-three, report midfield." I descended to the traffic pattern altitude and slowed - just slightly - to the 152's usual pattern speed of 70 knots.

After a few minutes, I heard "Five One Three, say type Cessna." That's a controller's way of asking "why are you so damned slow?" I told him. Controllers usually assume a "Cessna" is the more common model 172. That airplane, while nobody's idea of a speed demon, is about 20 knots faster than the trainer. He cleared a business jet to land and told another pilot to widen his pattern a bit, as my proletarian bird inched across the middle of the field.

My ride: N94513 at KLWM.
I landed without using the flaps, partly for practice but mostly to keep my airspeed up and avoid annoying the other traffic any more than necessary. The FAA takes the populist view that a rented Cessna 152 has as much right to be in this busy Boston area airspace as a corporate tycoon's Gulfstream. Common sense says that the Cessna pilot shouldn't press this point.

I eventually landed, and parked at the terminal building. Typical of airports this size, there was a keypad-locked gate between the airplanes and the unwashed masses. Following the instructions on the lock, I tapped in my pilot certificate number and the date, hit the "#" sign, and the gate unlocked. It swung itself shut and locked after I walked through. A woman and two small children were sitting on the grass outside the terminal. They didn't look dangerous to me, but I suppose one never knows.

A friendly lady with a German accent stamped my Challenge passport, and a few minutes later I'd successfully negotiated the gate again.

Zen and the art of runway maintenance

The next leg of the trip was a short jump to a very different kind of airport. The Plum Island Aerodrome, just outside the former fishing village of Newburyport, has a single paved runway 2,100 feet long. Regular readers may remember that the rental contract at Northampton requires another 400 feet for me to use a runway, but I'd gotten a special dispensation from the manager for this flight. He agreed that with its flat approaches, 2B2 wouldn't be a hard place to land the 152. The aircraft's replacement value being less than the price of a good used car probably figured into his leniency as well.

As I neared the coast, I mentally prepared for a genuine short-field landing and announced my intentions on the proper frequency. A gruff-sounding fellow replied, saying there was currently a disabled airplane with a flat tire on the runway. After some discussion on the radio, I circled the field. What looked like a Cessna 172 was stopped all the way at the far end of the runway, but technically still on the pavement. It's considered very bad form to use a runway when another aircraft is still on it, and the man on the radio had no idea when this might get resolved.

It was disappointing, but then I reminded myself that I was flying a small airplane alone on a gorgeous summer day, on an itinerary of my own choosing. Things could be a lot worse. For starters, I could've been the poor schmuck with the flat tire.

Which craft?

Turning to the south, I followed a Federal airway, part of a national system of invisible routes through the sky. Major intersections on these aerial highways have five-letter designations, and the people labeling them sometimes inject a bit of local humor. Over the Atlantic Ocean north of Gloucester, one finds the LBSTA intersection. The fix just south of Boston is CELTS. And right in front of me, as I headed toward the Beverly-Salem area, was WITCH.

Salem, of course, is best known for its astonishing municipal over-reaction to a child's tantrum four hundred years ago, leading to the execution of twenty innocent people and the addition of a new metaphor to the English language. This is not a place where one wants to cause trouble.

After crossing WITCH, I called the Beverly tower. The controller directed me to runway 27, and a few minutes later I got the dreaded "say type Cessna" request. Traffic was light, but I still skipped the flaps in case anyone faster - perhaps riding a broom - showed up. While taxiing to the office, my left leg suddenly cramped. This is a somewhat serious problem in the 152, which requires a bit of tap-dancing to steer on the ground and has no legroom for stretching. Fortunately, the cramp went away with a drink of water and a brief massage after I parked, so nobody needed to be hanged.

That's no hangar, it's an office. And a hangar.
The building closest to KBVY's control tower looked like an airport office from the outside, but inside I found a room filled by a large, mysterious apparatus with a reel-to-reel tape on the front, clattering and whirring for some unknown purpose. I leaned in past an open door that said "Authorized Personnel Only."


A middle-aged woman came out of another side room wearing a lab coat and a look of surprise. I asked her where the airport office was. She said she didn't know.

I walked back out to the airplane, turned on the radio, and called the tower. The controller explained that the nondescript building that looked like a hangar at the bottom of the ramp was actually the office. I didn't mention the woman with the arcane artifacts in the other building, lest things get out of hand.

A man and woman who looked like someone's grandparents greeted me at the office. They stamped my Challenge passport with their regular business stamp, and we chatted about the program for awhile.

The one percent solution

Back at the airplane, I got ready to visit Hanscom Field in Bedford. This required serious preparation, as KBED is notoriously unfriendly to small aircraft. While the FAA demands that everyone receive equal treatment at public airports, class warfare persists. The simplest way to repel flying riff-raff is to levy hefty surcharges. Fees that aren't even rounding errors for the jet crowd can be prohibitive to someone like me. Inflating the price of aviation gasoline works too, as only piston engines use it; jets burn kerosene. Hanscom embraces both strategies enthusiastically.

My solution was to call East Coast Aero Club, the flight school at Bedford that holds the Challenge stamp. Rich, their manager, explained that I could simply pull up in front of their office, and someone would run out and stamp my passport, saving me the steep fees I'd incur if I stopped at one of the field's jet-oriented FBOs.

Once I'd checked the fuel and gotten everything organized in the cockpit, I got out of Beverly and headed west, keeping low enough to stay under the Class B airspace for Logan airport: heavy airliners above, passive-aggressive disdain ahead.

Predictably, Bedford's tower asked me to "say type Cessna" again, and requested that I keep my speed up as much as possible. After I touched down it was "no delay exiting runway, traffic behind you on short final." Ground control directed me to the East Coast Aero hangars, which turned out to be in a completely different section of the airport from their office. I called Rich rather than pester the controllers again, and he kindly drove out in a golf cart to give me my stamp.

A few minutes later I was cleared to depart, and Bedford handed me off to Boston Center for flight following. Nobody at Hanscom had been rude or openly hostile, and Rich had been downright friendly, but the message that I didn't belong there had come through loud and clear. It's ironic, because wealthy jet owners are quick to promote the image of Everyman in a tiny Cessna when people criticize private aviation. Apparently I'm better in the abstract than on the concrete.

Future's so bright

With 19 stamps in my Challenge passport, I decided to add one more stop on the way home, at another mill town. Southbridge, MA followed the same pattern as its eastern neighbors, but after the textile mills came an optics factory. That operation went dark in 1984.

The town that used to build critical components of the Norden bombsight isn't easy to identify from above, but I managed to find its airport. After interacting with three control towers and a traffic center all morning, it was refreshing to slip into the quiet, uncontrolled pattern at 3B0.

The airport manager came to greet me as I got out of the airplane. He was enthusiastic about the Challenge program and happy to give out another stamp, and we talked about the airport's recent renovations. The place was largely destroyed by a tornado in 2011, but a freshly paved runway bodes well for its future. A building adjacent to the ramp is supposed to reopen as a restaurant within the next few months. It's certainly a turnaround for a facility the town pondered selling to developers just a couple of years ago.

I flew the final leg home at 2,000 feet, tolerating afternoon turbulence for the greater sense of speed that comes from being closer to the landscape. Cresting the hill south of 7B2 and descending to pattern altitude over the flat farmland, I soaked up the joy of simple flying in a simple aircraft. It's a privilege I wish everyone could experience.