Rachel puts the English winter to one side, and recalls the spectacular autumnal colours of New England, a breathtaking perspective best appreciated from a R44…
26 January 2023
It’s been a frustrating start to the flying year, with both my R44 bookings so far falling foul of freezing fog, strong wind or miserable drizzle. It is, of course, par for the course for a British winter, and if 15 years of being in the UK aviation world have taught me anything, it’s that the only way to be assured of reliable weather is to leave the country.
The weather is only part of the appeal when doing so. Booking some flying ‘in whatever country you happen to be exploring’ is a great way to combine a love of travel with a love of flying, as well as to broaden your aviation experience and see a new area from a different perspective. You’ll also find, usually, if you book an instructional flight, it’s a lot cheaper than the helicopter sightseeing tours marketed to tourists.
One such overseas flying jaunt, which I intend to repeat later this year, is a memory I often return to. I did it as part of a bucket list solo trip exploring the area around Boston during the famous New England fall (autumn) colours.
Massachusetts quickly became my favourite of the US states I’ve visited so far, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see it from the air.
I booked a flight with Boston Helicopters from Lawrence Municipal Airport, about 30min drive north from the Boston suburb in which I was staying. I booked an R44 for an hour, with an instructor, at a substantially lower rate than I’d have paid for the same in the UK – $435, which at the time worked out at around £350 (a good couple of hundred less than the UK equivalent).
The experience was refreshingly free of red tape, as I had come to expect from flying in the US. It had been the same five years previously, when I’d booked a lesson in a seaplane in Florida and flown from lake to alligator-infested lake, skimming the swamps at 200ft and swapping places with my travel companion by clambering, life jacketless, out onto the float mid-lake and hoping I didn’t fall in. Not one piece of paperwork was required to thus imperil my personal safety, and I loved it!
Within minutes of arriving at Boston Helicopters in blazing sunshine, with a similar absence of pre-flight form-filling, I was aboard a red Raven I.
My instructor, a young man, was happy to take care of the radio for me while I did everything else. This suited me just fine, as I struggled to make sense of the quick-fire radio patter, particularly once we switched from the local radio to Boston ATC.
As soon as we lifted and climbed out, I could see the Boston skyline, which is what we were aiming for – no navigation required! It was about 15 minutes’ flying time to get there, and along the way I could see that the trees were a patchwork of colour: red, orange, yellow and green.
Autumn is a lot more colourful in New England than the various hues of orange we have here in the UK. Even though I had arrived a little too early for peak fall colour in Boston (I found it later that week by driving further north, into Vermont), it was a breathtaking perspective you just wouldn’t be able to appreciate from the ground.
And speaking of breathtaking, all of a sudden we were right there in downtown Boston. In constant communication with Boston Logan International Airport – a stone’s throw away and a disconcerting presence – we were given permission to fly low, and astonishingly close to both the airport and the buildings.
We flew along the Charles River, through the Back Bay area, spotting some iconic Boston landmarks along the way. A particular highlight was the famous Custom House tower, and we were barely higher than its 496ft pointed roof.
From there we flew north along the coast, past the city of Salem, notorious for its 17th century witch trials and still a mecca for all things occult.
Before long, we reached the picturesque town of Manchester-by-the-Sea – a name you may recognise from the 2016 film set there. It looked every bit the New England idyll: boats bobbing in their scenic moorings, the gleaming white Neoclassical columns of the town hall resplendent at the top of a slipway, pretty timber-clad houses peeking out between colourful trees.
It was at Manchester that we turned inland and headed back towards Lawrence. I was conscious, as always, that even with the relatively low hourly rate, each passing minute was adding another few quid to my bill.
If my budget had stretched, we could have continued slightly further up the coast to Gloucester, noted for its fishing heritage and for being the setting of the events that inspired the film The Perfect Storm, starring George Clooney – a reminder that the weather in those parts wasn’t always as nice as it was that day.
Back in the circuit (or should I say ‘pattern’!), I briefly handed control back to the instructor so that I could snap a final perfect autumnal scene among the houses and swimming pools below.
As is so often the case where helicopters are involved, I was grinning from ear to ear as I shut down and hopped out for the obligatory photo.
It had been one of the loveliest flying hours I’d logged so far, with so many interesting things to see and a novel perspective on a part of the world I was just starting to discover.
Does flying get any better than that?