Leading Edge: Love in the Time of COVID-19

Pull up gear in case of emergency. Courtesy Ben Younger

I moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, this past winter to direct a TV series about Evel Knievel’s life. The script has some fun aviation moments in it. In the 1970s, Knievel had a pair of matching Learjets. We were re-creating his livery on the exteriors of two older—but still working—medevac Lears. We were going to shoot another scene inside a Beechcraft King Air. The plan was to pull it to-and-fro on the ramp at Atlantic Aviation at KABQ to simulate taxiing. As the director, I’m typically the guy who marshals the people who have all the answers. On this production, I really enjoyed being the one with all the answers to the crew’s multiple questions about regulations, such as who could legally remove a seat inside the King Air. Had we actually shot a frame, this would have been my first experience combining my love of aviation with my day job.

It wasn’t meant to be. Like my grandma used to say, “If you want to see God laugh, make plans.” It all went out the window with a virus. The production was indefinitely postponed on the afternoon of March 12. Instead of shooting a biopic, I am hunkered down in a house in the Nob Hill neighborhood of Albuquerque, stocking up on beans and pasta (but not toilet paper—my paranoia has limits). Now, my thoughts are more focused on food and safety: two things I took for granted prior to COVID-19. Making a TV show about someone who consciously taunted death feels ironic at best. The idea of making a TV show at all seems frivolous at this moment in time.

This moment is the afternoon of March 25. I mention this because I suspect the world will turn over once more by the time you read this. I imagine that all aviation—commercial, military and general aviation alike—will forcibly change right along with it. They say airplanes are, in large part, to blame for the virus’ global reach. It pains me to think of these machines I love so much as harbingers of this particular death. But then, I don’t blame deer for carrying ticks.

If you are a pilot, you understand that every event, small or large, is viewed through the prism of flight. Aviation plays an outsize role in my life. I live it as much as I dream it. Sometimes, airplane ownership strikes others as wholly luxurious. Other times, it can seem essential—but never more so than right now. Recent conversations with friends who are quarantined in New York City and Los Angeles now involve a joke about me coming to get them if the s—t hits the fan. I have a friend in LA who, along with her son, may need transport to Montana to tend to her ill mother. I agreed to do this for her if they no longer allow commercial flights. As I hung up, it occurred to me that if commercial flights are grounded, it is likely that GA would be as well. As of this writing, no one knows. What I do know is that the people close to me no longer see the airplane as a sightseeing luxury, its utility and value now made obvious.

My Bonanza is here with me in Albuquerque, fueled and ready, and only a 10-minute drive from my rental home. Yesterday, I went up and flew three instrument approaches in the area: one ILS and two RNAVs. Staying proficient seems more crucial than ever. My mind tends to wander to worst-case scenarios involving broken food-supply chains and even more broken healthcare systems. The pandemic reveals the fragility of what always felt like an unshakable society. People across the United States are reacting in strong and different ways: Some are lining up for toilet paper; some are lining up at gun stores. I’m fueling up my airplane and practicing for getting the hell out of Dodge. My airplane provides an escape to somewhere less affected (14,000 feet up in the air, to begin with). I can always get my thoughts together at the altitudes that require supplemental oxygen.

Read More from Ben Younger: Leading Edge

On the tech scout for the shoot, it took everything in me not to lead the entire crew of 100 to the hangar at Cutter Aviation to show them my plane. I didn’t want them to think I was bragging. I also didn’t want the executives from the studio to know I flew; I could see the lawyers descending and amending my contract, specifically requiring I remain on terra firma through completion of principal photography. So, I led them quietly past the large hangar door without saying a word. I did share my secret with a few people. Some commented on how dangerous it is that I fly a small airplane. Now, in the time of COVID-19, the same few are reaching out to ask if there’s room on board if we need to leave in a hurry. The safety GA airplanes offer seems like a comparatively safe bet at the moment.

Planning for the worst—what was once the province of daydreams—is my new reality. There are no known cases of COVID-19 in the Costa Rica town I live in part-time. Could I fly the plane there? What would the routing be? Fuel stops? Closed borders? Or what about Alaska? My friend Grady lives in Homer, and he says it’s quiet and largely unaffected. These are journeys I entertained on ForeFlight before bedtime, but now they have real weight behind them. I have never been more appreciative of my ability to fly an airplane.

I have always thought of myself as a solo navigator. But flying, I’m realizing, is social for me. In fact, I haven’t flown much at all, save for the currency flights. There’s no one to take up. Sitting that close to someone feels like a dice roll, and yet, I don’t want to fly alone. It’s the sharing that I love: showing someone their house from the air for the first time, pointing to the skid/slip ball illustrating what coordinated flight looks like, handing over the controls to a wide-eyed neophyte, the instant bond of trust that a flight engenders. Already, I miss those shared experiences.

I’m not a journalist. I write screenplays. My job is to create fictitious worlds that are exciting and authentic. Key word: create. Not document. That said, these days, I wake up and read the newspaper to see what the next chapter in an unimaginable reality looks like. Life imitating art, it seems.

Things change by the hour now. My idea to escape to Alaska is dead in the water: In the time it took to write this column, the governor decreed every visitor must practice 14 days of self-quarantine upon entering the state. But Costa Rica could still work—or as advised by nearly every government official—just staying home and, in my case, dreaming up backup plans on ForeFlight. Who knows what will change by the time you read this. One constant is that an airplane will get you out of just about any pinch. Never again will I let anyone call my Bonanza a luxury.

Follow Ben Younger on Instagram: @thisisbenyounger

This story appeared in the June/July 2020 issue of Flying Magazine

Ben Younger is a TV and film writer/director, avid motorcyclist and surfer—but it’s being a pilot that he treats as a second profession. Find him on Instagram @thisisbenyounger.

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