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See the latest news and updates about COVID-19 and its impact on the Charlotte region, the Carolinas and beyond.

Pilots In Little Planes Leap At Chance To Fly CLT's Empty Skies

Courtesy of Erica Zangwill
Erica Zangwill took advantage of near-empty skies to land a Cessna 172 at Charlotte Douglas Airport.

Last month, Jared Yates and his wife flew a Bearhawk, a home-built, single-engine plane. He was cleared to land at Charlotte, and they commented on how strange everything was.  

“There are no other planes in the area, which is just terrible, right?” Yates said. “If it was a regular day there would be a line of planes like three or four miles apart. We call them (to land) and they would be like, uh, no, you can’t come here at all.”

Charlotte Douglas is – or was – the world’s seventh-busiest airport for takeoffs and landings. But the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the airline industry, and American Airlines has slashed its Charlotte flights by two-thirds.

And that’s given pilots like Yates, and Erica Zangwill, a chance to fly the empty skies.

Zangwill of Charlotte got her pilot’s license in February and has flown only a handful of times. Her most recent was a landing at CLT in a single-engine Cessna 172. A Boeing 737 weighs 50 times as much.

“It’s just so…so vast,” she said about landing at CLT. “The runway environment is just completely different. It’s much wider. You feel like this little tiny airplane among these huge jets. I really can’t explain it.”

Zangwill - who is getting her master’s degree in health administration - said she was thrilled to land on the same runway used by Boeings and Airbuses going across the Atlantic.

“That was one of the thoughts running through my head was - I’ve been in large commercial aircraft landing on these same runways. And here I am landing myself on a 172. It’s pretty surreal."

In theory, any plane can land at an airport that receives federal funds, like Charlotte Douglas, though pilots flying prop planes have rarely tried.

Credit Steve Harrison/WFAE
American Airlines has grounded hundreds of jets, including these parked at CLT.

But in the era of stay-at-home, we’ve seen cows on a French beach, coyotes on the streets of San Francisco and planes like Kelly Brady’s Cessna 150 landing at CLT.  

Brady remembers radioing the Charlotte tower and asking to land.

“What kind of got me excited was they were like, ‘Yeah feel free,’ he said. “Which runway do you want? And I’m like – I’ll take the one that no one's using.”

Brady said the Charlotte tower told him to take his pick.

“And she says, well, no one is really using anything right now. You have an hour and a half to play around, so pick one. So I picked 36L.”

Brady, a technology consultant, said he did eight or nine touch-and-gos – landing briefly, then increasing throttle quickly and taking off again.

“And then at one point she called me back and said, are you getting bored?,” Brady said. “And I said, no I’m having a great time. So she says, well why don’t you try the center – 36C. So I said, OK, great. So I did some more touch-and-gos.”

At one point, Brady said a Boeing 737 preparing to takeoff had to wait for him.

“Which is cool,” he said. “Because they are holding for this small C150 that’s flying at like 60 knots.” 

Pilots in other cities are doing this, too.

Jon Weiswasser, a member of an Eagles cover band, landed a home-built plane at  New York’s three biggest airports.

“When I was flying from Newark to LaGuardia there was nobody,” he said. “I mean nobody. No helicopters. There wasn’t even anyone else doing what I was doing. It was really eerie.”

Back in Charlotte, Yates landed his Bearhawk at CLT. His wife Tabitha found it immensely fun.

When their wheels touched down, Tabitha laughed and said, “This is what a stop-and-go landing looks like at Charlotte airport.”

Then they took off again. Both were laughing at the absurdity of landing their Bearhawk at one of the busiest airports in the world.

“We stopped at Charlotte airport!” she said.

The little guys’ days may be numbered. Stay-at-home orders are ending, and American Airlines has said bookings are on the upswing.

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