Bay State Challenge: I Once Flew Myself to Nantucket

Call me Alan. Some days ago, never mind how long precisely - having some money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on the ground, I thought I would fly about a little and see the aerial part of the state. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation.

Don't worry, this story ends much better than that other one; everyone escapes unscathed to tell the tale. It does, however, entail a trip to 19th century New England. It was a time when a closely controlled theocracy dominated a globe-spanning but ultimately unsustainable energy industry, if you can imagine that. Instead of drilling oil from the ground to power vehicles and heat houses, this enterprise drilled oil out of marine mammals to light lamps and lubricate watches. It was astonishingly lucrative, and the island at the center of it - Nantucket - became tremendously wealthy.

I decided to dress up for the trip. Instead of one of the trainers, I rented the nicest aircraft in Northampton's fleet, N2157Y. Five Seven Yankee is a well-equipped Piper Cherokee Archer that 7B2 rents to fully-licensed pilots who want to take comfortable cross-country trips. On paper, it's very similar to the Cherokee Warriors used for training. Just add 20 horsepower, put on some wheel pants, shine up the paint a bit and install an autopilot. But those minor changes add up.

Climbing briskly off the runway, I turned and aimed through an opening in the scattered cloud layer still clinging stubbornly to the Holyoke Range, then called Bradley Approach to pick up flight following. I cruised at 5,500 feet, with the cloud layer below me. I'm not a big fan of VFR over the top, but in this case I could see the clear skies ahead and knew there were also plenty of openings behind, not to mention reliable radar coverage.

View from N2157Y enroute to KACK.
The stable air and absence of traffic at that altitude gave me a chance to practice using the autopilot while tracking a VOR. Autopilots, even simple one-axis types such as the one in Five Seven Yankee, can be finicky. This particular one seems to like keeping just a tad right of the selected VOR radial. Setting it for a fixed heading and adjusting it manually to track the proper course seemed to work better. Once I had the automation running properly, I reviewed my chart and the noise abatement and runway diagrams for KACK between scans for traffic.

After whaling collapsed, Nantucketers endured some lean years before discovering a new and even more profitable quarry: wealthy tourists. The island, and the geographically similar Martha's Vineyard immediately to the west, have become immensely popular summer destinations. Besides an abundance of long, sandy beaches, Nantucket's big draw is nostalgia. Thousands of people, the majority of whom no doubt find the modern practice of whaling abhorrent, flock to this island every summer to ogle a Disneyesque fantasy of the same activity. Smoothed and blurred by the passage of many decades, the historic butchery of endangered animals is somehow charming, in a way the reality certainly wasn't. Nantucket is a triumph of historical marketing.

In the summer, lodgings are booked weeks in advance, ferries run into the harbor from multiple mainland ports, and seven airlines offer daily service between major northeastern cities and KACK. Nantucket's population swells from 10,000 to 50,000 during those months. After Labor Day, traffic drops off precipitously. That's why I'd waited until October to visit.

The clouds below me cleared. Bradley handed me off to Providence, which handed me to Cape Approach as I worked my way along the airways. My route went directly over Martha's Vineyard. Not only was it more or less on the way, it also ensured that I was always within easy gliding distance of land if the engine quit, a thought that's never far from a pilot's mind. Nantucket Tower cleared me to land, and I taxied to a large and mostly empty parking area. A lineman greeted me and chocked the nose wheel after I'd shut down the engine.

Unpainted cedar siding adorns the terminal, FBO, and restaurant, while the public address system announces departing flights and signs point to the TSA screening checkpoint. KACK may be a major airline destination, but it also clings stubbornly to the local identity that makes it one.

Thar she blows!.
In the restaurant, I had a bowl of excellent clam chowder. Having come mainly for the journey and a stamp in my Challenge passport, I was clearly small fry to the island's big industry, but everyone treated me well. I walked back out past the great white business jets on the ramp, where Five Seven Yankee sat like a freshly waxed Buick among brand-new Lamborghinis.

The tower controller was as laid-back and accomodating on the way out as he had been on the way in. This time of year, when the deluge of summer traffic has subsided to a trickle, must be quite a relief. I climbed back above a scattering of clouds and settled into another comfortable cruise home.