Bay State Challenge: The Quiet Island

Having knocked the most distant airport in the state off my Bay State Challenge list, I turned my attention to our other island: Martha's Vineyard. There are two airports on the Vineyard, but only one of them has the paved runways stipulated in Northampton's aircraft rental contract. My plan was to fly to KMVY in Vineyard Haven, and then take a bus or taxi to Edgartown's Katama Airpark (1B2).

Martha's Vineyard is generally considered the more laid-back cousin of Nantucket. Tourists - including some very famous ones - still flock there from all over the world every summer, but the place is less built up and more agricultural than its eastern neighbor. Because the tourist season had ended a month earlier, I was expecting it to be even quieter. Indeed, the theme of quiet would permeate the trip.

After doing the pre-flight checks on Piper Warrior N128PC, I settled into the cockpit and plugged in my brand-new headset. Nearly every serious pilot uses an active noise canceling headset these days, so I finally dug deep into my wallet and got one myself. I'd never tried this technology before, and given the steep price I had decided that if it didn't impress me thoroughly, I'd return the new headset and go back to my old, passive noise canceling one. Today was the test flight for this new toy.

The headset delayed my departure by a few minutes. I started the engine, then hit the switch to enable the noise canceling. Suddenly, the engine stopped. Wait, no it didn't. I just couldn't hear it anymore. There was a faint mechanical sound still going on, but it was like the purring engine of a luxury sedan, not the roar of a decades-old general aviation powerplant. I sat there on the ramp with the engine idling and my mouth agape, like a two-year-old who's just discovered how to operate a light switch. Noise off. Wow. Noise on. Noise off. Wow.

Once I managed to compose myself, I taxied quietly to the end of the runway and took off. At takeoff power I could sense the engine's speed, but I couldn't be sure whether I was hearing it or feeling it. Radio calls came through my ears with astonishing clarity.

A view from the cockpit of N128PC enroute to Martha's Vineyard.
Because Eight Papa Charlie doesn't have a GPS, I had planned to navigate with a couple of conveniently located VORs. The slow Morse code identifier of Putnam came in, and I centered the needle and headed southeast. After Putnam came Providence and the unmistakable landmarks of Narragansett Bay. Right about then, the navigation radio quit. The needle sat blindly centered, the "NAV" flag indicating no signal. This sort of thing sometimes happens with old avionics. Fortunately, I could see my destination ahead.

The landing at KMVY was sporty, with a gusty crosswind jostling me all the way down the final approach path. To my surprise, I managed a delicate, full-stall touch down right on the numbers, in view of the control tower. Grinning from ear to ear, I followed the ground controller's directions to the ramp.

The staff at KMVY was relaxed and jovial, with the same glad-to-have-our-home-back attitude I'd experienced at Nantucket a couple of weeks earlier. In the lobby, a display case held patches and photos commemorating the President's recent vacation to the island.

After getting my KMVY stamp, I went out to the bus and taxi stand. The bus wasn't due for another half hour. I approached a taxi driver who was lounging in his van, and he offered to take me out to Katama Airpark and back for a discounted price.

Down rural roads past farms and low-growing woods, the most remarkable aspect of this New England landscape was its flatness. Even along the shore of mainland Massachusetts, the land is distinctly lumpy. But here, we could have been on the Delmarva peninsula or in the coastal Carolinas.

We arrived at 1B2. It was deserted. The driver waited while I checked each of the buildings, but nobody answered any door. With the wind tousling my hair and gray clouds scudding overhead, I took a self-portrait to prove I'd been there.

The Mayhew memorial is just outside the entrance of the Martha's Vineyard airport.
On the way back, I had the driver drop me off at the "Place on the Wayside," where a historical marker memorializes the island's first missionary. I'm not a fan of missionaries generally, but Thomas Mayhew seemed like an interesting character. More importantly, there's a geocache nearby so I could participate in another nerdy location-based game.

I had thought about stopping at Hyannis on the way home, but the rising headwinds and lowering clouds urged me to go straight back. The mid-rise office buildings of Providence gave me a good landmark for my initial course, and allowed me to find a compass heading that corrected my track for the wind. From there, I used dead reckoning to continue in the general direction of western Massachusetts until some familiar mountains emerged from the haze below.

My landing at Northampton reminded me of my basic flight training, both in the gusty crosswinds that always seemed to plague my practice sessions then, and in my handling of them. It wasn't a dangerous landing, just bad enough to offset my earlier self-congratulations. Until someone develops active bounce-canceling technology, I'll need to work on that.