"57 Yankee, are you going to stay up high across the Bay?"
"Roger, 57 Yankee will stay at 7,500 and start descending when I'm within gliding distance of the field."
Pilots are always paranoid about engine failures, but doubly so when they're flying single-engine airplanes across wide expanses of cold water. The previous evening, I'd spent an inordinate amount of time checking and re-checking the Piper Archer's glide performance graph against the charted distance across Cape Cod Bay, and calculating how high I should fly and when I should start coming down.
Now the coast of Massachusetts had just passed beneath me. Ahead lay the slender arm of Cape Cod, a final strip of glacial tailings extending into the ocean at the end of a continent. Beyond that was an uninterrupted blue horizon. At the very tip of the Cape, nestled among sand dunes, I could barely see the Provincetown airport: last runway before Portugal. At my predetermined descent point, I eased the throttle back, applied carburetor heat, and started down. I reached pattern altitude immediately before entering the downwind leg.
Switching from Boston Approach to the Provincetown advisory frequency, I announced my position and proceeded through the traffic pattern. There was nobody else around on this gorgeous May morning; the high season was still almost a month away. An onshore breeze provided good crosswind landing practice. I taxied past dune grass to a large, mostly empty parking area posted with signs directing the nonexistent traffic. This airport expects a crowd.
After signing the log at the empty FBO office, I followed a well-marked path to the Cape Air terminal, where a friendly woman stamped the final spot on my Bay State Challenge passport. I paid my landing fee, and in return received the code that would allow me to get back through the gate to the airplane later.
People often describe the Cape Cod National Seashore as an unspoiled place, but it would be more accurate to call it well-renovated. The Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower made their first landfall just around the point at Provincetown's harbor. After exploring the area a bit, they continued to the mainland and built their primary settlement at Plymouth, but Provincetown remained an important outpost. The industrious new arrivals found the Cape a good source for timber as well as fish. They eventually clear-cut the forests and decimated the near-shore cod populations. Desert-like dunes took over the land while the once-teeming waters lay empty. This was America's first industrial disaster zone.
Walking past several empty parking lots, I crested the dunes and followed a path down toward the water. Sand fences on both sides of the trail carried signs warning me not to stray into the seabird nesting areas, or trample the fragile dune grass. On the beach, a fly fisherman was casting into the surf, and a few small groups of people walked along the point toward the distant lighthouse.
I set up my camping chair and ate the lunch I'd packed, surrounded by the sounds of wind and waves. The water was a bit chilly for swimming, but sunshine from a cloudless sky kept the air temperature comfortable. Though the Cape may never return to the way it was before the Pilgrims landed, the way it is is pretty amazing.
After lunch I walked back to the airport. Taking off, I turned south and followed the hook of the Cape at 3,000 feet, staying within a mile or so of shore. This less direct route eliminated the need to climb to several thousand feet before crossing the Bay. Coincidentally, it meant that I flew directly over Plymouth on the way home. I recalled the friendly fellow who'd stamped my Challenge passport there, in the charming cedar-sided FBO.
Similar memories accompanied me the rest of the way home: over jetport Worcester, passing recently renovated Southbridge, imagining the ultralight pilots gearing up for another season at Tanner-Hiller. These separate communities dot the land, each with its own customs and personalities, all unified by strips of pavement or turf that connect them to each other, through a global network across the sky.
It reminded me of a little epiphany I had early in my flight training. After directing me through a few maneuvers in our second or third lesson, my instructor gave me a brief orientation to the area around the Northampton airport. There's the University of Massachusetts underneath us, and that mountain on the nose is Monadnock. The sawtooth one over there to the left is Greylock, and as you finish this turn you'll see the Holyoke range.
My landmarks - my immediate vicinity - encompassed hundreds of square miles across three states, even at the relatively low altitudes where we practiced. Mount Monadnock, a geological formation so distinctive its name is now applied to all similar mountains around the world, was suddenly just a street sign at the end of the block. Mighty Greylock, highest point in the Commonwealth, was a handy reference for practicing turns.
The power of flight is mind-altering. I'd flown in airplanes since childhood, but without any obligation to navigate, this fundamental aspect of flying had never occurred to me. Airline travel, with its tiny sidelong views and infantilizing constraints, doesn't prepare you for this. Riding in small aircraft with the pilots in my family hadn't quite gotten the point across, either; until I took the controls, I had been strictly a passenger. Now, the airplane is no longer just a way to get somewhere. It's a destination of its own, a place to view the world in a new way. I'm glad I finally got there.