The end of the year may be a magical time for personal reflection, but my latest trip down memory lane was caused by something much more prosaic: filling out my annual insurance renewal form. This sent me digging through my (now digital) logbook, which meant totaling up numbers but also reliving some unique flights from 2020 and remembering the wild days of March and April. I was also interested to compare my flying experience to the aviation industry as a whole, so I reviewed some year-to-date statistics from multiple sources.
Besides a feeling of gratitude for the hours I logged this year—and a burning desire to reschedule some canceled trips in 2021—I came away with a few lessons learned. None of these are exactly revolutionary, but at least a few were surprising to me. First the big picture stories, then my own personal takeaways.
General aviation is resilient. This is not surprising news to anyone who has been around GA for a while, but it sure is a welcome reminder. As flying ground to a halt in late March, many pilots wondered if personal flying would ever bounce back. The short answer is yes; general aviation activity came back much faster than the airlines. As the FlightAware charts below show, business aviation flights are now down about 10-20% compared to 2019, whereas airline flights are still down nearly 50%. This is skewed towards turbine airplanes; in the piston world, the news is even better. As I found on a few trips this summer and fall, many pilots decided flying was one of the few things that offered relief from a world overrun by COVID-19.
Training is in the middle of a multi-year boom, pandemic or not. Part of the strength in piston flying comes from flight schools. Contrary to almost every prediction I read this spring, flight training is booming. As the General Aviation Manufacturers Association noted recently, piston airplane shipments (mostly trainers) through the first nine months of 2020 were up 1.4%, while turboprops and business jet were both down 27%. Used prices are strong, too—buying a 20-year old Cessna 172 will cost you $200,000 right now, a staggering number compared to a few years ago. Even checkride volume is back up above 2019 levels after a soft spring. While a few flight schools that focus exclusively on international students are understandably struggling, most others seem to be as busy as ever.
Air Traffic Control is incredibly flexible. COVID-19 presented challenges for all kinds of jobs, from grocery store workers to nurses, but the list includes air traffic controllers too. Through late spring and early summer, multiple facilities went to “ATC zero,” closing for cleaning and employee testing (including ultra-busy New York Center). As if that weren’t enough, wildfires and a presidential election meant countless pop-up TFRs. Throughout it all, I found ATC to be as helpful and responsive as ever. Backup plans mostly worked, individual controllers invented new routines on the fly, and the system never broke down.
Summer isn’t the same without Oshkosh. EAA’s giant AirVenture show is the highlight of the year for many pilots, part airshow and part family reunion. But for the aviation industry it’s also an essential part of getting business done, whether you’re an airplane manufacturer or a type club. I missed catching up with colleagues from around the world and based on my unscientific survey, so did a lot of others. Oshkosh is a key marker on the calendar that companies plan around for new product introductions and customer promotions. Without it, the normal cadence of business seemed to change. Of course, I also missed my annual brat and root beer float lunch.
Personal flying lessons
Even simple flights offer big rewards. Overall in 2020 my flying hours were down, but not nearly as much as I thought they would be in March. I hit pause for about a month, then got back at it—although with a very different mix of destinations and passengers. I’m incredibly lucky to be in that camp, but I also changed my focus from well planned out trips to simply staying current and trying to fly every week. I didn’t always succeed, but I found it surprisingly easy to create meaning in even the simplest flights. Maybe I couldn’t fly to Oshkosh, but I could perfect my slow flight and soft field landings. Those types of flights were much more fun than I expected; in a year when so many other things were canceled, I found flying of any type to be a tremendously rewarding experience.
With weather, what you see is what you get. This is a lesson I’ve learned countless times in 25 years of flying, but it was driven home on three different flights this summer. The most vivid example was on a flight to Saint Simons Island, on the coast of Georgia. There were thunderstorms everywhere, but instead of throwing up my hands after reading the TAF, I looked at the actual conditions in detail. There appeared to be plenty of gaps and we had good equipment, so we gave it a shot. The datalink map showed the big picture, so we always had an out in mind; the onboard radar showed the real-time picture, so we knew where the worst weather was. But the best strategy was right out of instrument flying 101: we stayed in visual conditions and avoided all the ugly clouds. While our course was far from direct and the NEXRAD map looked really ugly, the view out the window was routine and we never had so much as a bump. We simply took the path that Mother Nature offered.
Rust builds up in unexpected ways. Many of us were worried about that first “post-lockdown flight,” whenever it came. My first flight after weeks off wasn’t as bad as I expected, but it turns out I wasn’t out of the woods yet. It was my first cross country, which was long after my return to flying, that exposed my weakest skills. I wasn’t really rusty on crosswind landings, but my flight plan filing habits were terrible. I went poking around ForeFlight for the better part of an hour before I remembered my flow and got everything organized. Likewise, my basic instrument proficiency remained at a high level, but since I visited so few busy airports in the spring, I was not nearly as proficient at loading STARs and crossing restrictions. Recent experience is what really counts.
Friends and food make flying so much more fun. The most rewarding type of flying for me is IFR cross-country travel: get in an airplane, battle the weather, and three hours later get out in a totally new place. But while those flights are rewarding, they aren’t the ones I missed most this year. I missed the pure joy: giving a Young Eagle their first flight, or showing a friend their house from the air. I missed $100 hamburgers at quiet airports and sunrise flights to find the best pancakes. Sure, I got to do a few of these flights in 2020, but not many and none with the same carefree spirit and spontaneous schedule of years past. That’s the type of freedom that really makes flying fun, and I can’t wait to get back to it.
Here’s to a 2021 filled with safe flying—and lots of it!