The COVID pandemic has affected every aspect of our lives, so it’s no surprise that flying is different now, too. We used to hop into the cockpits of our favorite gravity-defiers, eager to aim the pointy end at new horizons and burn some AVGAS. Now, we see those tiny flight decks as possible viral Petri dishes as we eye our flight partners suspiciously. Is flying, even in a small plane, safe anymore? What can we do to limit our exposure?
Staying Safe and Limiting Your Exposure
At the FBO
By now, you’ve likely heard the advice from the experts. Social distancing, face coverings, and frequent hand washing are the absolute best ways to stay safe during the pandemic. All of these apply to flying in one way or another.
Getting to the airport and prepping for a flight is no different than any other indoor activity. Respect people’s space, and maintain at least six feet away from other people when you can. Avoid unnecessary contact, such as shaking hands—friendly waves and elbow bumps are just as effective. Also, avoid crowded locations, and stay outside as much as possible. Many FBOs have limited capacity, so face-to-face meetings should be kept at a minimum. Opt instead for calls or online meetings.
At all times in the FBO, wear a mask that covers your mouth and nose. The CDC recommends that face coverings be made of two layers of washable fabric. The best masks are the ones that you can comfortably wear for long periods without touching. They should fit tightly on the sides of your face, and they shouldn’t slide down or come undone easily.
If you use shared items or spaces, like computers, desks, or offices, wipe down contact surfaces with disinfectant wipes before and after your visit. Finally, remember to wash your hands when you arrive at the airport, before you get in the plane, and again after you land. At all times, avoid touching your face.
In the Plane
The interior of an aircraft poses particular challenges. There’s no way you can socially distance in the cockpit of a Cessna. If your flight companion is from outside your regular household, take extra precautions. Sanitation and masks are your primary weapons.
Masks become an even more vital part of your prevention strategy onboard an aircraft. If you are going to spend several hours in close contact with someone from outside your regular bubble, make sure you have the best mask you can get. It’s worth investing in a medical-grade N95 mask if you’re going to be doing a lot of flying.
If there’s a shortage or if you’re unable to get an N95 mask, see if you can find or make a cloth mask that accepts paper filters. Bandanas, neck gaiters, or ill-fitting masks are not effective options. Perhaps just as importantly, you must demand the same behavior from the rest of the crew and passengers.
Planes need to be sanitized between each flight. Spray disinfectants or wipes can be used for all hard surfaces. Pay special attention to things that get touched, like the control yoke, throttle, trim wheel, and door handles. Even if you know the FBO cleans the planes, it’s not a bad idea to give it your own wipe down before and after you get in. Things do get missed, and you’ll be spending a lot of time in the cockpit.
Pay special attention to headsets. FBOs and sightseeing companies are now replacing the mic muff after each use. The best advice for pilots is not to share a headset and only use your own. Wipe it down thoroughly with cleaners, paying particular attention to the mic and ear pads. Remember how close you have to put the mic to your lips to get the intercom to work.
Pilots have always been taught not to fly when they’re sick, but the pandemic has highlighted an entirely new element to that rationale. Even if you’re reasonably sure that you don’t have COVID, that it’s just allergies/a cough/a cold, there’s no reason to risk it. Stay home until it passes or until you can get tested.
For regular flyers, getting testing whenever you can is important, too. The quicker you can be alert to a possible COVID infection, the quicker you can curtail your activities and limit its spread. A test is a brief snapshot in time, but it provides an important data point for your decision-making process.