Time traveler

Like the analog aircraft instrumentation, which inspired this watch’s design, functionality takes precedence over unnecessary embellishment—aside from the small AOPA logo on the face. Even the crown and dual pushers are slightly oversized to provide quick and easy access to the main functions, even when wearing gloves. The bidirectional bezel aligns perfectly and mirrors the full set of Arabic numerals around the face and provides five solid and satisfying clicks between each.

If you’ve ever recapped an empty water bottle, you understand the effects of altitude and pressure changes on sealed objects—which is why Jack Mason opted for an acrylic crystal rather than mineral glass. This material provides slight flexibility and keeps the watch face virtually shatterproof. To hold the watch securely on your wrist, it is fitted with a handsome brown Italian-leather band with hand-sewn details and satin black buckle matching the case. In person, the color combination is visually striking and seems to further this timepiece’s aviation DNA.

On the wrist, this watch is solid—you will not forget you’re wearing it (which I personally like). The 45-millimeter black steel case and black face combine the main movement with 12-hour, 30-minute, and 60-second subdials. The easy-to-read white-on-black markings utilize a combination of high-quality Swiss Super-LumiNova luminescent paint and harmless tritium isotope tubes, giving the markers a 25-year glow for those nighttime flights. Inside the case, a Ronda Caliber 5030.D keeps time. This Swiss-made chrono movement utilized by many luxury brands is well known for its accuracy and dependability. To assure that accuracy in the highly magnetic environment of an aircraft cockpit, Jack Mason has shrouded the movement in a soft iron cage to prevent interference.

“With a whole cadre of AOPA pilots giving their input, we helped create a watch that is actually made by and for pilots,” said Jiri Marousek, senior vice president of marketing for AOPA. “We also intentionally gathered suggestions from pilots who fly different airplanes and missions to help Jack Mason create a watch that can serve in any cockpit.”

Whether it’s mountain flying in the Idaho backcountry or dinner with friends at a downtown restaurant, the AOPA Watch by Jack Mason feels right at home. And while it has all the features you’d expect to find in a timepiece of this quality, the watch’s unpretentious and useful design makes it an instant classic you’ll be proud to own for years to come.

The AOPA Watch by Jack Mason costs $599.

— By AOPA Senior Photographer Chris Rose

Drone integration advances

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announced the end of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program and the start of a new effort in the same breath. Eight of the nine participants in the UAS IPP (all but the city of San Diego) were named as participants in the new initiative.

“The three years of information gathered under the drone Integration Pilot Program will be applied to a new initiative called BEYOND, which will further advance the safe integration of drones into our national air space,” Chao said.

Launched in 2017, the UAS IPP tested a range of applications and missions, including flights beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), widely viewed as essential to enabling package delivery, infrastructure inspection, emergency response, pest control, and other uses that will drive the utility and utilization of unmanned aircraft. To date, most such efforts have been limited in scope and experimental, approved by the FAA on a case-by-case basis.

“AOPA congratulates the FAA and the nine IPP participants for their work toward safely integrating unmanned aircraft into the national airspace system,” said AOPA Senior Director of Regulatory Affairs Christopher Cooper. “AOPA supports the FAA’s BEYOND program and we look forward to working with industry to support technology that not only provides scalable beyond line of sight operations, but will also ensure safety and collision avoidance without requiring additional equipment, services, and/or airspace restrictions to manned aircraft.”

Two days ahead of the FAA’s announcement that the UAS IPP is now going BEYOND, North Dakota announced that a $28 million state investment allocated in 2019 will soon result in the creation of a massive network of ground-based sensors, communications systems, and data processing infrastructure that will support safe operation of drones flown BVLOS and enable users to detect and avoid so-called “non-cooperative” aircraft, a description often used in engineering circles for aircraft flown at low altitude without equipment to broadcast the aircraft’s position.

On-board electronics that enable unmanned aircraft to detect other flying objects may still prove the most scalable answer, and at least one such system has shown promise: Iris Automation, a San Francisco tech startup, announced the Casia 360 system in April, the latest iteration of a system that matches cameras with computers running sophisticated motion detection algorithms and can automatically move the drone out of the path of any conflicting air traffic. Iris has worked with UAS IPP participants, and more recently, the Canadian government issued a special flight operations certificate to conduct power line inspections in Quebec using Casia-equipped unmanned aircraft. 

Active airspace surveillance by the drone is only one element of the larger system required to safely integrate unmanned with manned air traffic, and it remains to be seen if systems like Casia will be deployed at scale, when drones begin to darken the skies delivering packages of consumer goods, or defibrillators and critical medicines to medical emergency scenes.

North Dakota is taking a different approach, building a ground-based network of sensors including radar systems, as well as command and control radio relays, and an operations center that can manage the flow of safety critical data. The Northern Plains UAS Test Site, among the longest-running efforts to research and develop drone solutions in the country, will manage the statewide BVLOS network called Vantis, the first of its kind in the country, according to the October 28 announcement.

Vantis offers the tantalizing prospect that drones could be flown long distances through integrated airspace without significantly increasing the risk of midair collisions, and without requiring active participation in drone traffic management by current general aviation pilots.

Nicholas Flom, who holds an airline transport pilot certificate with more than 4,000 hours flown, is the executive director of the Northern Plains UAS Test Site. He told AOPA in a recent videoconference that Vantis will be analogous to the interstate highway system, a single infrastructure that benefits multiple users. That sets it apart from the surveillance and communications networks created on an ad-hoc basis by individual operators such as BNSF Railway, a pioneer in BVLOS infrastructure inspection.

“The postal service does not build their own roads, we build roads for all users. The airlines don’t land at their own airports and fly on their own navaids,” Flom said. “Right now, we don’t have a good structure in place for multiple users to fly on a single network, and we’re hoping that this really lays the foundation for others to follow.”

Flom’s team is working with the FAA, state transportation officials, and aviation industry stalwarts including L3 Harris Technologies, Raytheon subsidiary Collins Aerospace, and Thales USA, all contracted to build elements of Vantis. The surveillance, communications, and traffic management system will be built out in phases, starting with coverage of the Bakken Formation in the west.

“We’ll have a thousand square miles of surveillance coverage in western North Dakota, through kind of the heart of our oil and gas industry,” Flom said. “We’re going to learn a lot.”

Flom expects that additional investment beyond the $28 million allocated by the state in 2019 will be required to scale up to statewide coverage, and scalability is definitely part of the plan.

“We want this to be something that is not just North Dakota-centric,” Flom said.

North Dakota is not overlooking the potential benefit to a state economy that has taken a hit during the coronavirus pandemic, which has had many deleterious effects including a sharp drop in demand for petroleum products.

“From the Grand Sky research and development park to the nation’s first statewide BVLOS network in Vantis, North Dakota continues to invest in cutting-edge UAS technology and attract new companies and jobs to further diversify and strengthen our economy,” Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford, chairman of the Northern Plains UAS Authority, said in a news release

SkySkopes has adapted to the coronavirus pandemic, in part, by offering new services such as spraying disinfectant in U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, home of the Minnesota Vikings. Photo courtesy of SkySkopes.

North Dakota has long been a hotbed of drone technology research, development, and training. The University of North Dakota established one of the first UAS degree programs in the country and remains among Flom’s many collaborators. It is also the state where CEO Matt Dunlevy launched SkySkopes, a drone services provider headquartered in Minot, with offices in several other states as well. 

Dunlevy said his company has grown over the last six-plus years to employ dozens of remote pilots around the country. Market analyst Drone Industry Insights recently named SkySkopes the top drone service provider in the country, though the downturn in the state’s largest economic driver, oil and gas production, has forced the company to adapt. “A lot of these UAS missions (for oil and gas clients) have been kind of put on the back burner for now.”

SkySkopes has replaced some of that lost business with a renewed focus on power line inspections and other infrastructure projects, as well as disinfecting sports stadiums, and wildfire mitigation. Many of Dunlevy’s staff pilots are also certified under Part 61 of the federal aviation regulations, and the company fleet includes Robinson helicopters that carry lidar sensors for infrastructure inspection. That is not to say that Dunlevy expects to grow in that direction in the long run, and he had high praise for the state’s continued efforts to lead the way on UAS integration.

“The momentum, though, it’s palpable. I’m really excited about the UAS industry,” Dunlevy said. “Beyond visual line of sight, that’s the Holy Grail.”

Flom said that having an unmanned ecosystem that includes operators, educators, a GA community that is receptive to integration collaboration, and a state willing to invest in infrastructure is “an economic driver for the state.”

Flom also said that “having a commodity-based economy” that depends heavily on oil, gas, and agriculture “is challenging,” and developing UAS infrastructure is ultimately “a way to diversify the economy.”

North Dakota-based unmanned aircraft systems operator SkySkopes conducts infrastructure inspections for the oil and gas industry. Photo courtesy of SkySkopes.

Airports with nearby outdoor activities

AOPA members have been asking for places they can fly to enjoy socially distanced outdoor activities within walking or biking distance of an airport, or a short drive. We put the question out to AOPA’s staff pilots as well as members and have compiled the responses.

One that topped the list for pilots is an aviation-centric outing: Visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial at First Flight Airport (KFFA) in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina.

Other suggestions included going to the beach, biking, boating, kayaking, camping, touring caverns, fishing, golfing, hiking, or walking. The list isn’t comprehensive, but here are pilots’ suggestions from Maine to Florida and Washington to California. Check out the airports in the AOPA Airports and Destinations Directory as well as the Recreational Aviation Foundation’s Airfield Guide before you go: Some are private-use and require prior permission, and they range from difficult backcountry strips to large international airports. And, if you don’t find an activity on this list that’s close to you, search the directories for things to do in your area.


Photo by Chris Rose.

Feel the sand between your toes and listen to waves crashing at these beaches along the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and the Gulf of Mexico—all near general aviation airports.

  • Jeremiah Denton Airport (4R9) Dauphin Island, Alabama.
  • Jack Edwards National Airport (KJKA) in Gulf Shores, Alabama.
  • Oceano County Airport (L52) in Oceano, California.
  • Destin Executive Airport (KDTS) in Destin, Florida.
  • Jekyll Island Airport (09J) in Jekyll Island, Georgia.
  • Katama Airpark (1B2) in Edgartown, Massachusetts.
  • Ocean City Municipal Airport (26N) in Ocean City, New Jersey.
  • Billy Mitchell Airport (KHSE) in Hatteras, North Carolina.
  • Ocracoke Island Airport (W95) in Ocracoke, North Carolina.
  • Pacific City State Airport (KPFC) in Pacific City, Oregon.
  • Block Island State Airport (KBID) in Block Island, Rhode Island.
  • Mustang Beach Airport (KRAS) in Port Aransas, Texas.
  • Copalis State Airport (S16) in Copalis, Washington.


Photo by Mike Fizer.

Get some exercise by biking around the area at these airports. Call ahead to find out if bikes are available at the airport or nearby, if they can be rented in town, or if you need to bring your own (folding bikes are great for paved trails or in town).

  • Bentonville Municipal/Louise M. Thaden Field (KVBT) in Bentonville, Arkansas.
  • Oceano County Airport (L52) in Oceano, California.
  • Everglades Airpark (X01) in Everglades, Florida.
  • Jekyll Island Airport (09J) in Jekyll Island, Georgia.
  • High Valley Airpark (GA87) in Suches, Georgia.
  • The Maine Aeronautics Association’s Bikes for Pilots program provides bikes at five Maine airports.
  • Chatham Municipal Airport (KCQX) in Chatham, Massachusetts.
  • Beaver Island Airport (KSJX) and Welke Airport (6Y8) on Beaver Island, Michigan.
  • Mackinac Island Airport (KMCD) on Mackinac Island, Michigan.
  • Put in Bay Airport (3W2) in Put-in-Bay, Ohio.
  • Sunriver Airport (S21) in Sunriver, Oregon.
  • Cornucopia Field (WI23) in Cornucopia, Wisconsin.
  • Washington Island Airport (2P2) in Washington Island, Wisconsin.

Boating and kayaking

Photo by David Tulis.

Spend some time in the air flying to a place where you can spend some time on the water boating or kayaking.


Photo by Mike Collins.

Pack your aircraft with your essential camping supplies, favorite foods, and drinks, and get away for a few days. At these airports, camping is available nearby or on the field with your aircraft. (If you don’t want to rough it, check out these glamping locations near airports.)


Photo courtesy of Luray Caverns.

What a better way to get to an under-Earth experience than by flying there over the Earth? Fly to these airports to explore caverns filled with stalactites and stalagmites. Call ahead: At some airports, staff will drive you; at others, you can borrow the courtesy car; and at others you can request pickup on the CTAF.


Photo by Chris Rose.

Fishing gear can fit in pretty much any aircraft. So, load up and head out for some relaxation, whether you enjoy a fishing hole to yourself or take a guided adventure.


Photo by Chris Rose.

Schedule a tee time and fly to these airports near golf courses.

Hiking and walking

Photo by Mike Fizer.

Enjoy nature and the fresh air as you stretch your legs on a hike. Hikes in the areas around these airports range from easy to strenuous.

BasicMed and How it Relates to Aviation Insurance

After decades of working on alternative medical legislation, the aviation alphabet groups were finally able to convince the FAA to reform the third-class medical system. On July 15, 2016, Congress passed the FAA Extension, Safety, Security Act of 2016 (FESSA), which included BasicMed, and FAR Part 68 – Requirements for Operating Certain Small Aircraft Without A Medical Certificate, was born. Bottom line is, BasicMed is an alternate way for pilots to fly without holding an FAA medical certificate, provided of course, that they meet the requirements.

Pilot Requirements

  • Possess a US driver’s license
  • Have held a FAA medical after July 14, 2006
  • Obtain physical exam with state-licensed physician using the Comprehensive Medical Examination Checklist
  • Complete a BasicMed medical education course

Aircraft Requirements

  • Any aircraft authorized under federal law to carry not more than six occupants
  • Has a maximum certificated takeoff weight of not more than 6,000 pounds

Operating Requirements

  • Carries not more than five passengers
  • Operates under VFR or IFR, within the United States, at less than 18,000 ft MSL, not exceeding 250 knots
  • Flight not operated for compensation or hire

So how does all this relate to an aviation insurance policy? Generally speaking, aviation insurance policies include a requirement for the pilot operating the insured aircraft to have a FAA medical. An example of such wording is as follows:

‘The pilot must have a current and valid (1) medical certificate, (2) flight review and (3) pilot certificate with necessary ratings, each as required by the FAA for each flight.’

The following example shows how one insurance company wrote BasicMed into the policy wording.

‘When in flight the aircraft will be piloted only by the following pilots, provided each has a valid pilot’s certificate including a current and valid medical certificate appropriate for the flight and aircraft insured. The term Medical Certificate is defined as any valid First-Class, Second-Class, Third-Class, or BasicMed compliance. All medical certificates must be appropriate for the intended flight and in compliance with the FAA’s Codes of Federal Regulations. Pilots operating under BasicMed must be able to provide documentation that demonstrates complete compliance.’

Policy wording varies from insurance company to insurance company. If you intend to operate under BasicMed, we encourage you to reach out to your aviation broker to discuss how BasicMed fits with your policy. Ideally that discussion happens prior to a loss rather than after a loss. As aviation insurance brokers, we have experience dealing with the finer points of the FAR’s and how they relate to insurance coverage. To learn more about the best way to protect yourself on the ground and in the air, visit ap-aerospace.com or contact our team of aerospace specialists, 800.622.2672.

What are the best flight simulator controls for pilots?

New flight simulator pilots

No matter how much experience you have in an airplane, if you are just getting started with home flight simulation, then your first flight controls should be cheap and plastic. If you are a student pilot, you should be spending the majority of your allotted aviation dollars at your flight school until you can prove the efficacy of your simulated flying at home. If you are a certificated pilot, you may want to splurge on realistic simulator controls, but the same logic applies: Start small until you know that you enjoy home flight simulation and until you determine that it helps your flying. While the advantages of flight simulation are evident, you may decide that you would prefer to allocate more of your flight simulation budget to time in the aviation training device at your flight school.

You can purchase a serviceable plastic yoke for under $100. However, since flight sim controls have been flying off the shelves this year, you may find some price gouging online. If you are not purchasing directly from the manufacturer or a trusted reseller, then plan to research more than usual to ensure that you receive a fair price.

Experienced general aviation pilots

If you have ample experience in the cockpit and with home flight simulators, then the quality and accuracy of the flight controls should take precedence over their price. Ultimately, the return on investment will be greater from flight simulator controls that are durable, realistic, and that enable a positive transfer of training to your aircraft.

To create the most realistic flight simulator experience at home, purchase metal flight controls. In addition to holding up better to years of training, metal simulator controls move more accurately than plastic ones. For example, many metal rudder pedals allow you to apply pressure to the rudder as opposed to only forcing rudder travel. You also will notice a stark difference with a metal yoke, which should allow you to achieve full control deflection without increasing spring tension.

Because these controls have a higher price tag—with three or even four digits—you may want to prioritize a configuration that can simulate a broad range of general aviation aircraft. A versatile single or twin-engine throttle quadrant and a high-quality general aviation yoke provide the most value for a variety of simulated aircraft.

Type-specific pilots

While a versatile flight control configuration is preferable for most experienced pilots, it may not make sense for you if you only fly one aircraft. For example, if you always fly with a sidestick, then a flight stick may feel more natural than a yoke system for your home flight simulator.

With any flight simulator control, there inevitably is a trade-off between accuracy and features. Whereas the most accurate simulator controls adhere to the look and feel of your aircraft controls, the most feature-rich simulator controls provide additional buttons and switches for the simulation environment. Presumably, you want buttons for push-to-talk, autopilot disconnect, and electric trim, but what about programmable buttons for panning around the virtual cockpit or switching to an exterior view of the aircraft? Many pilots value the added functionality for training with flight simulation software, while others prefer that their simulator controls mimic their aircraft controls to a tee. Before you invest in expensive flight simulator controls, research your options to find the right mix of accuracy and functionality for your training preferences.

Redbird Flight Simulations

Established in 2006 to make aviation more accessible, Redbird has delivered more than 2,000 innovative, high-quality simulators to flight schools, universities, K-12 schools, and individual pilots around the world. Redbird designed Guided Independent Flight Training (GIFT), a simulator-based, AI-powered, maneuvers training supplement to help pilots achieve their aviation goals faster and for less money. For more information about GIFT, please visit gift.redbirdflight.com.

Vacuum bags, bivy bags, baby wipes

More than a few general aviation pilots have learned the joy of camping under a wing and off the grid (“flamping,” if you’re hip to the new lingo), and most GA airplanes offer at least a modest amount of luggage space, depending on how many seats are occupied, and how much fuel is in the tank. A Cessna Skyhawk can support travel for two for weeks on end without much sacrifice in terms of toiletries, and even leave room for a towel.

Most general aviation airplanes offer at least a modest amount of luggage space. Photo by Mike Fizer.

Available space is hard to find in aerobatic airplanes, however. A Pitts S–1 is a fine competition airplane, but there’s not much room for your stuff. Should you wish to fly one of these to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, for a week of camping at EAA AirVenture or the U.S. National Aerobatic Championships (both of which we all hope will return for 2021), the first challenge you face will be making do without the suitcase.

Several members of the International Aerobatic Club’s Chapter 35, a cluster of competitive pilots from around New England, have made the trip to the weeklong contest more than once, spending weeks living with less. While one might reasonably survey the available space in an Extra 330 SC, calculate the volume of baggage typically required for such a duration, and conclude that spending any amount of time surrounded by such pilots on the contest line would be as malodorous an experience as a hobo convention in a junkyard, that is not, in fact, the case.

Pitts pilot and competitor Eric Anderson supplied a detailed briefing on his approach to attending five weekend competitions during the 2016 season.

“I was caught naked ‘showering’ under a garden hose in Vermont, harassed mercilessly by cows in Virginia and very nearly arrested at 1 a.m. in New Jersey,” Anderson recalled in an essay supplied by way of reply. “I can tell you that everything you’ll need for the weekend packs nicely in a single-hole Pitts.”

Anderson is a fan of the bivy (aka, a “bivvy” or “bivy sack” for a “bivouac sack”), essentially a bag made of nylon or other material that takes up far less space and weight than a tent. A compact, portable cocoon developed from military and mountaineering use, a bivy offers some degree of shelter from the elements, if not quite what some might call “comfort.”

“Reading is possible in a bivy, but little else is beyond sleep and star-gazing,” Anderson reports.

Bivies can be found in various configurations and price points. A detailed discussion of the pros and cons of each is available in this video.

Rob Dumovic, a veteran competitor, flight instructor, and IAC regional judge, makes the most of available space by compressing his clothes in Hefty vacuum bags. He advises against certain other brands that require an actual vacuum to compress their contents. A Hefty is among those that feature a one-way valve to let the air escape when the bag is squeezed by hand, but not return.

“I can get about six days’ worth of clothes in a backpack that will fit in the turtleback of an Extra,” Dumovic said in a phone chat between lessons.

Anderson’s packing list for under-wing camping includes a small bottle of concentrated body wash; personal hygiene can also be achieved, to a socially acceptable degree, when necessary, with baby wipes, prized in particular by disaster response specialists who deploy into primitive conditions where running water may not be available after a storm, just to throw that thought into the mix.

Marc Nathanson, pictured here at the Green Mountain Aerobatic Contest in July 2015, has flown his Pitts S-1T to aerobatic contests for years. This particular Pitts model is highly regarded for its power-to-weight ratio, but not so much for its luggage accommodations. Photo by Jim Moore.

Marc Nathanson, a CFI, designated pilot examiner, aerobatic competitor, and veteran of the U.S. Air Force and FedEx, both of which called on him to live far away from home for extended periods, offered his own endorsement for Febreze fabric freshener: “Not all hotels in the different countries had laundry services,” Nathanson explained, speculating that the company CEOs’ children may have gone to college on the profits he supplied over the years.

If your itinerary takes you away from restaurants, remember freeze-dried foods pack lots of nutrition, and MSR makes camp stoves that run on avgas. They’re perfect for noodles and coffee, and with a little ductwork and ingenuity, they can also preheat your airplane’s engine on a cold winter morning.

A Pitts S-2B has a little more interior space than some, but not much. Bill Gordon is seen here flying his at the 2015 Green Mountain Aerobatic Contest in Springfield, Vermont. Photo by Jim Moore.

Super jet meets super car

Dubbed the Duet Project, Embraer Vice President of Design Operations Jay Beever says this initiative “takes the altitude of innovation to a new level,” and is a project that will “disturb the force” in general aviation’s high-end market.

The project began in 2016 with the idea of providing customers with a unique experience that united flying and driving, sort of an ultimate union of a super jet with a super car. Both airplane and car will have matching, satin jet gray metallic paint schemes and other design touches. For example, the Porsche will have the same steering wheel silver accents as those of the Phenom 300E’s control yokes, special blue-accented badges on the car’s B pillar, and “speed blue” rings lasered on its wheels. The dashboard-mounted clock even has the Embraer bird logo on its second hand. Seats will match the textured leather seating of the Phenom 300E, with blue stitching and the Duet’s embossed and debossed logos. Open the doors and you’ll see door sill scuff plates featuring aviation-style “No Step” placards, while downwash lighting projects the Duet logo on the ground. Other cool items include an F8 (formerly Porsche Design) wristwatch and matching luggage and pilot briefcase.

And get this: When you mash down the Turbo S’s accelerator and leave lesser cars in your wake, its rear wing automatically rises as you blow through 72 mph, revealing your airplane’s N-number on its underside. In lights. Talk about making a statement. This car shouts it!

Making the Duet even more distinctive is that only 10 such Phenom/Porsche pairs will be offered. So, they’ll be a rare value proposition from inception. The first Duet 911 Turbo S is at Embraer’s Melbourne, Florida, campus, and the first Duet-themed Phenom 300E will enter production on November 20.

Embraer’s order book is open, but at this writing no launch customer has been announced. Like the deal? Now’s your chance.

The Porsche 911 Turbo S seats will match the textured leather seating of the Phenom 300E, with blue stitching and the Duet’s embossed and debossed logos. Photo courtesy of Embraer.

Georgia MOA proposal raises safety concerns above Okefenokee Swamp

An environmental impact statement identified three possible outcomes and one “no action” alternative, some of which would lower the general aviation airspace ceiling to between 100 and 1,000 feet above an area Native Americans called “trembling earth” that contains a maze of brackish water in a prehistoric environment infested with alligators.

Though MOAs don’t prohibit nonmilitary aircraft from transiting the area, pilots flying in the Moody airspace must use see-and-avoid techniques to prevent potential flight path conflicts with Fairchild Republic A–10 Thunderbolt, Lockheed HC–130J Super Hercules, Sierra Nevada Corp./Embraer A–29 Super Tucano, and Sikorsky HH­60 Pave Hawk aircraft.

The environmental impact statement explains that training initiated 20 years ago in altitudes from 8,000 feet up to 23,000 feet hasn’t kept up with military defense objectives that have transitioned from “support of high-altitude tactical fighter/bomber training missions to support of various low-altitude” close-air support, low-altitude engagement and attack, and personnel recovery/combat search-and-rescue missions.

The proposed airspace action is needed “to provide access for training missions operating at low altitudes from Moody AFB and to optimize the Moody Airspace Complex to enable effective training to achieve real-world combat readiness and survivability,” according to an informational website established for the initiative.

Pilots familiar with the area typically fly several thousand feet above the ground to afford safe glides to any of the 12 nearby GA airports in case of an emergency. Pop-up thunderstorms are common in the area during the summer months and avoiding convective activity could be complicated by the additional MOA from Southwest Georgia Regional Airport in Albany through Homerville; and from Crisp County-Cordele Airport to Valdosta Regional Airport. The area encompasses almost 9,000 square miles.

The proposed lowering of the training area’s floor from the current 8,000 feet down to a proposed 100 to 1,000 feet agl could also negatively affect the dozen GA airports that together generate about $175 million through 1,584 jobs, according to the Georgia Department of Transportation. Together, all of the airfields account for about 176,000 annual operations and 326 based aircraft. The top three airports affected would be Southwest Georgia Regional Airport, Crisp County-Cordele Airport, and Valdosta Regional Airport—each with about 22,000 annual aircraft operations.

The proposed revision of the Moody Airspace Complex adjacent to Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta, Georgia, was first brought to AOPA members’ attention in December during an initial comment period. AOPA urges members to review the draft environmental impact statement proposal and submit comments as provided on the project website.

Please also share your comments with AOPA.

Wyoming airpark residents donate to local community

Coordinated by Steven Funk, an early developer at the airport, the fund will be distributed among the local fire department, emergency medical services, new Alpine hospital, library, and a new skating rink. The donation was provided by The Alpine Airpark/Draper Family Community Support Fund, which was named in honor of Rex Draper—a longtime friend of the airport and well-known mechanic whose wife, Julie, recently died.

To celebrate the fundraising, residents, the Star Valley community, and public officials attended a Halloween-themed event and check presentation ceremony at Funk’s residential development at the airpark, The Refuge Air Ranch, on October 31. The event included static displays of aircraft and firetrucks, and locals were invited to tour The Refuge Air Ranch while mingling with local representatives.

Alpine community members gathered at the Alpine Airpark on October 31 for a Halloween event and perused aircraft on display. The residential airpark raised more than $200,000 for the local fire department, emergency medical services, new Alpine hospital, library, and a new skating rink. Photo by Jenna Bradford.

Mayor Kennis Lutz and state Sen. Dan Dockstader were also on hand to deliver remarks. Dockstader said, “When communities help communities, we all benefit. We are pleased that our local aviators have brought so much to the region, adding their very special form of fun to Wyoming’s vast array of recreation options. In times when our state is anticipating cuts that may affect our local government funding, this support is crucial to helping our communities maintain important emergency services and community facilities such as the Alpine Library and the new Alpine hospital. This support contributes so very much to the families in this community.”

AOPA President Mark Baker commended the actions of residents in Alpine, saying, “This is a great example of a general aviation community spreading goodwill. Alpine Airpark is a huge asset for its local community, and I hope other communities take notice of how their local airports contribute to the well-being for all.”

The Alpine Airpark community and its 5,800-foot runway continues to drive the region’s overall growth and development. Nestled in the Star Valley, just 35 miles from world-renowned Jackson Hole, this pilot’s paradise has grown into a premier fly-in residential spot. With more than 62 hangar homes and 18 stand-alone hangars, Alpine is fully self-sufficient, takes no tax dollars or Airport Improvement Program grants from the FAA, and has an FBO and user-friendly fuel farm.

Airpark and community residents attended a Halloween-themed event and ceremony for the airport to present the donation check. This little mermaid might just trade her tail for some helicopter lessons. Photo by Jenna Bradford.

Long, local flights spent shooting stars, moon

There can also be a bit of a delay in gratification when the telescope in the back of NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a Boeing 747SP that carries a 106-inch diameter telescope where passengers once sat, probes the universe. Analyzing the images takes time, often a matter of months or years.

“We don’t often get that ah-ha moment,” said Elizabeth Ruth, one of 14 NASA pilots who fly SOFIA, in a videoconference with Chief Pilot Andrew Barry and AOPA, a few days after the discovery of water on the sunlit side of the moon was announced, a little more than two years after the August 2018 flight. “We didn’t know about the effects of this until Monday as well, when we heard the announcement, and since then I’ve heard from friends around the world.”

Confirming that significant amounts of water await future lunar explorers is significant, even if the quantity is relatively small. Measuring reflected light, scientists calculated that roughly 12 ounces of water are trapped in a cubic meter of lunar soil in the Clavius Crater. It remains to be seen if there’s enough water waiting on the moon to support NASA’s plan to return there in 2024, but it may well help. The results and analysis of the 2018 telescope run were published October 26 in Nature Astronomy, and propelled the flying telescope back into the news, though it was hardly the only significant discovery SOFIA has made. Barry and Ruth have flown many missions, no two of them exactly alike.

SOFIA Chief Pilot Andrew Barry was on the flight deck when the telescope team spotted water on the moon. Photo by Carla Thomas, courtesy of NASA.

“It’s quite an adventure every night,” Barry said.

SOFIA climbs quickly and nearly to its altitude limit on a typical mission to offer a clear view of the sky, then traces precise, arcing tracks above 99 percent of the Earth’s atmospheric water vapor to capture the infrared light from distant galaxies, and more recently the not-so-distant moon. While SOFIA has logged many important discoveries, rarely has there been an ear-splitting “whoop” of celebration from the team of scientists sequestered downstairs from the flight deck.

Barry, who manages SOFIA’s flight operations at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Palmdale, California, said the crews take turns flying the huge telescope, and random chance explains why he was on the flight deck that night in August 2018: “That was just the luck of the draw for Liz and I. Now, it’s history, apparently.”

Turning a Boeing 747 into a flying observatory was a team effort that began in 1997, when the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) acquired a retired airplane from United Airlines that had a storied history even before it became the largest flying observatory ever built. According to USRA, the aircraft that became SOFIA was christened Pan Am’s Clipper Lindbergh by Anne Morrow Lindbergh and placed in service on May 6, 1977, the fiftieth anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s most famous flight.

United purchased the well-traveled Boeing 747SP (“SP” stands for “special performance,” a short-body variant of the Boeing 747 Classics, as the -100, -200, and -300 series models are known) in 1986 and kept it in service until 1995.

NASA, which acquired the aircraft from and collaborated with USRA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), had previous experience mounting telescopes in aircraft, the better to see through haze with, though none nearly as large. (The first iteration of the airborne observatory was a Learjet with a 12-inch telescope.) NASA worked with engineers from L-3 Communications Integrated Systems, the prime contractor for the telescope modifications, and sought out expertise from United alumni.

“We kind of arose from the dust of United’s unloading of their classic-74 line in the late nineties as this project was getting traction as an idea,” Barry said. “We literally bought their sim from them.”

Along with buying the equipment, NASA hired many former United pilots, technical writers, and other staff familiar with the fine points of running this particular airplane. Then, they set about making a very typical airliner quite extraordinary, installing a door in the aft fuselage that is 18 feet tall and nearly 14 feet wide, designed to roll open in flight to reveal the 106-inch (2.5-meter) business end of the most powerful flying telescope on the planet. SOFIA’s first observation from that telescope was made in May 2010. Many notable astronomical discoveries have followed, if none quite so high-profile as the lunar exploration news delivered October 26 that pushed discussion of future visits to the moon and Mars back into the public awareness.

NASA pilot Elizabeth Ruth joined the SOFIA flight operations team in 2016, the first woman tapped to fly the telescope. Photo by Lauren Hughes, courtesy of NASA.

Ruth said the modifications, including the Raytheon-designed door that can be opened once the aircraft reaches 35,000 feet (much of the telescope is outside of the aircraft’s modified pressure vessel), have not noticeably affected SOFIA’s handling characteristics.

“With that big hole in the side of the airplane when we open the door once we’re above 35,000 feet, you would think that would cause some problems, but it was so well-designed that we cannot tell if the door is open or closed, we can’t even tell if it’s in transit,” Ruth said. “We had to put a light up in the cockpit just so that we know that the door is open, because we don’t want to go below 35,000 feet with that door open.”

The massive opening is framed by curved borders that create laminar flow over the opening when the telescope is in use. “It was an amazing piece of engineering.”

Climb performance is prized by SOFIA crews, because while the missions last for hours, every second the telescope spends on target is precious. Once they reach their initial observation altitude, typically 41,000 feet when the fuel tanks are still nearly full, climbing to 43,000 about halfway through the flight, much of the mission is spent making tiny turns, one degree at a time, to create long arcs through the sky that allow the telescope to steadily track distant objects.

“The mission director gives us exact, precise headings,” Ruth explained. “Once we get on a leg, they will tell us when they want us to change heading, by 1-degree increments. They’ll say, ‘one left,’ or ‘one right.’ So that’s pretty much what we’re listening to all night, is ‘one left, one right, OK you can do your turn now.’”

While the autopilot maintains the selected heading, the engines require attention. Telescope observation missions require precise timing to account for the distant object’s transit across the sky as the Earth rotates, and flights are planned with waypoints that must be crossed within two minutes of the prescribed time, sometimes much less. For some missions, waypoint passage precision is measured in seconds, Barry said.

“We have no autothrottles, so managing .85 Mach … which the plane really wasn’t exactly designed, that’s not its real happy place all the time, so it’s really very engaging,” Barry said. “That’s one way to stay awake all night is manipulating the throttles continuously to keep that speed exactly where we need it to be.”

The telescope built to study objects across mind-boggling distances had to be used in a new way to spot water on Earth’s nearest celestial neighbor. The object of the science team’s attention is usually tracked with a guide camera that helps operators keep the telescope locked on that distant target by tracking multiple stars. (Lindbergh managed a few star sightings to navigate across the Atlantic Ocean, in another little historical twist.) Celestial navigation of aircraft or telescopes is not particularly feasible when the moon fills the guide camera’s entire field of view, so they were not sure it would work, and the lunar observation was tacked onto the end of an unrelated mission that had taken SOFIA west off the coast of Southern California, crossing thousands of miles of empty Pacific Ocean before turning east toward home.

“They timed the last leg… to wrap up on the flight home over Nevada and California looking at the full moon that was available that night,” Barry said.

SOFIA takes off from Hamburg, Germany, following a heavy maintenance visit at Lufthansa Technik. Photo by Alexander Golz, courtesy of NASA.

Both Barry and Ruth have built long and distinguished careers as aviators in military and civilian service. Barry is also NASA’s chief Gulfstream pilot and a U.S. Naval Academy graduate who held several military posts, and later flew for JetBlue. Ruth, who was the first woman hired to fly SOFIA, previously served in the U.S. Air Force flying various aircraft including the T–43, a Boeing 737-200 configured for airborne navigation training. She later flew for United Airlines. Both pilots chuckled when an interviewer pointed out that their SOFIA mission flights, which can cover 4,000 nautical miles or more, are technically considered local flights under FAR 61.1, since they begin and end at the same airport, though such flights would count as cross-country time toward experience required for the airline transport pilot certificates they already hold.

“A little cross-country time, but you never actually land and get a burger,” Barry said with a smile.

Ruth takes pride in every SOFIA mission she flies. “We’re contributing to understanding of the universe.”

Both pilots noted that it requires a large team of people to not only get the telescope in the air, but harvest knowledge from the images it captures.

“We’re one part of that bigger machine, providing a bigger picture to these lunar scientists,” Barry said. “They are trying to determine what we can do to aid in that broader human exploration side of this… hopefully, this is a good start in that direction. Water is life. If we can reduce that cargo load, whatever it might be to not have to carry water along with you to the moon… we’re part of the machine and helping to produce this.”

Barry noted that it’s an additional and gratifying perk to fly “such a classic aircraft with a storied history.” This pilot prefers the classics, and the Boeing 747 is certainly such a specimen. “I’ve never flown anything new, I can say that.”

This illustration highlights the moon’s Clavius Crater with an illustration depicting water trapped in the lunar soil there, along with an image of NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) that found sunlit lunar water. Graphic by NASA.