A Well Distanced View on the Country During the Pandemic

The idea to cross the country in a small airplane has been on our minds since we started flying. It is – after all – the ultimate fusion of discovery, adventure and the unknown. When COVID-19 hit and the world became precarious, we decided it was finally time. We also knew it was an opportunity to document the world from above in its remarkable new and changing state.

It took us 20 days and close to 90 flight hours, but we find it hard to only measure the experience with simple time. The adventures we found along the way were unparalleled, the people we met were incredible, brilliant, helpful, and kind, and the journey was like nothing we could have imagined. It was a boundless explosion of joy, challenges, brand new incredible vistas, and the bittersweet and unique opportunity to witness our country in the midst of a global pandemic.

Below is a photographic account of the country at the time of this unprecedented change. As the issues the country is facing are enormously more complex, we have tried to capture the essence of whatever was possible from such a unique distance.

If you wish to follow our “Flamping” adventure reported on a day-to-day basis, visit our blog at: http://www.flampamerica.com

Dormant JFK Airport

JFK airport during COVID-19 crisis (May 7, 2010)

Ranking as the busiest international gateway in North America, there was not a single operation noted during the 30 minutes flight over the area. The terminals were most likely used as short term aircraft storage at the time of this photograph, a bizarre, and terrifying view for a place that usually resembles a beehive.

As the global flight numbers were slowly climbing – the nation’s airports were experiencing close to 90% drop in passenger traffic as compared to May of 2019.

Jam-Packed in the Desert

Roswell International Air Center as intermediate airplane storage during COVID-19 (May 15, 2020)

Taking advantage of its dry climate and convenient location, airline companies stored their fleet during the pandemic period at this former military base in New Mexico. Commonly referred to as the “Airplane Graveyard”, Roswell International Air Center has long served as a final stop for aircraft going out of service. These days, it has also become a major location used for longer-term storage. Both United and American Airlines use this space at the moment, with as many as 30 additional daily arrivals, according to the line service on the ground.

In order to be “stored”, the airplanes must be appropriately prepared with their engines and all air inlets sealed, but also kept in continuous airworthy condition.

The supporting photograph pool also includes another location used for long term storage: Southern California Logistics (KVCV), near Victorville, CA.

The Tale of 2 Worlds, of 2 Cities

San Ysidro / Tijuana border crossing (May 20, 2020)

San Ysidro is the busiest land port of entry in the Western Hemisphere. It separates Tijuana and San Diego and is capable of processing 70,000 vehicles and 20,000 pedestrians per day. As the US/Mexico border remained closed to non-essential traffic, it was very surprising to see it as busy as it was, given the restrictions that were in place.

The crossing was working at around 30% of its normal capacity, mostly to provide helping hands in the essential services, food industry and healthcare. It is understood that this border exchange serves as a vital economic engine to the Tijuana/San Diego region, home to over 5 million people on both sides of the border.

This photograph was taken around noon, you can clearly see the disparity between the traffic entering the US (up and left side) and leaving the territory (right / lower part of the photo).

Trapped in the High Seas

Celebrity Eclipse arrives to Port San Diego to drop off crew (May 20, 2020)

Leisure cruises, seen as the sailing epicenters of the disease had been brought to a halt pretty much overnight. In response to the pandemic and the increased risk of spreading COVID-19 on cruise ships, the CDC published the first industry-wide No Sail Order on March 14 to prevent, among other things, new passengers from boarding cruise ships. This order continued to suspend all cruise ship operations in waters subjected to US jurisdiction. While all passengers disembarked at the time of arrival, the vast majority of the crew had remained on board, including some sickened by COVID-19.

At the time this photo was taken (May 20), cruise companies that had their ships docked in the Bay of San Diego were still scrambling to return some of their crew members – often of international origin – to their homes.

Oceanside Beaches Reopen

Beaches of Oceanside, CA (May 19, 2020)

After month-long closures, Oceanside public beaches were finally reopened for the public on April 27, 2020.

Strict regulations were put in place, prohibiting social gatherings, group exercises, games and, requiring social distancing and face coverings when the distance could not be maintained. Visitors were quite reluctant to return. In the middle of May 2020 people were not allowed to sit on the beach, however, fishing and swimming were permitted. Despite this, many actually broke those rules and faced penalties.

The Ultimate Social Distancing

Families enjoy Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats (May 21, 2020)

Could this be the perfect vacation photograph of the new era?

Two families enjoyed the vast area of the Bonneville Salt Flats, while maintaining enormous social distancing. The flats, stretching over 30,000 acres (and comprising approximately 90% of common table salt) are one of the most unique natural features in Utah. Unaffected by the National and State Park system closures, it had remained accessible to visitors passing by on the nearby I-80 interstate.

The following accompanying photographs may not be entirely COVID-related, but they have definitely been the highlight of our trip.

Navajo Nation's Struggle

Navajo Settlement in Nazlini, AZ (May 16, 2020 )

The Navajo Nation, which spans parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, has the highest infection rate in the country. At 4,002 cases (mid-May reports), the Native American territory has 2,304 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people. This number greatly surpasses New York (1,806) and New Jersey (1,668) for the highest per-capita coronavirus infection rate in the US.

This is more evidence of COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on America’s minority communities. There were 140 deaths for the entire Navajo Nation at the time of the report. Only five of 12 Indian Health Services facilities in the Navajo Nation were tracking recovered coronavirus cases, meaning the number of infected patients is probably higher than what was reported.

One of the main reasons for this disproportionate number of cases was that multiple generations live in one home. In addition, 30-40% of the residents do not have running water which prevents them from washing their hands as often as was recommended. Even though the Navajo Nation has implemented some of the country’s strictest stay-at-home orders, it was estimated that only 80% of the population were staying home, which aided in the proliferation of the virus.

The Grim Case of California's Most Affected Prison

Chuckawalla State Prison in Blythe, CA (May 18, 2020)

Chuckawalla Valley State Prison, a medium-security facility, had the worst outbreak of the coronavirus of any state-run correctional facility in California at the time. The spread inside the prison was quite rapid – the first 3 active cases were discovered on May 13, and by 25 May 25, the number was up to 125, and by May 29 it had spiked to 794, after mass testing began.

As of June 12 there were 991 active cases, which accounts for almost 30% of all prisoner infections in the entire state. This number had been going steadily down in the 2nd part ofJune. Two COVID-19 related deaths were reported.

Social distancing is practically impossible, and it is worth noting that for the state of California, a prisoner is 6.5x more likely to become infected than anyone out of the system. This number is even worse for the state of Tennessee – for which the infection is 35x more likely.

Statistical data after: The Marshall Project

Nation's Commerce at a Standstill

Empty parking lot near Sandusky, OH (May 28, 2020)

For a country with such a rich car culture, nothing could be more appropriate to illustrate the commercial situation than an empty parking lot, and there were plenty along our route…

Shopping malls, offices, cinemas, amusement parks, schools, once a destination with a constant stream of people, were on a permanent lockdown for at least a few weeks as the virus spread. On-line classes, shopping, and zoom conferences while working from home became the new ‘normal’.

Is the office passe? Is the shopping mall no longer desired? Are on-line schools and universities the new reality? Are all these places a thing of the past? Can we live in a new, digital world without the need of physical contact? What will remain of all the structures we have so purposely built, of the ‘necessities’ no longer needed, while all that we need can be obtained without leaving your comfortable chair?

While comfortably dangerous, will our home become our mental and physical prison?

Meanwhile...

Thousands of new cars await further delivery at Port of Los Angeles, as Covid-19 has caused a diminished interest

We might have found all the missing cars after all.

As the disruption continued, the demand for new cars also halted. As a testament to the scope of the economic pain the coronavirus is inflicting, the unsold cars fill the staging space at the Port of Los Angeles, while additional vehicles remain on the ships just off of the coast.

New auto sales for April 2020 were only at about 170k, compared to 1.3M for the same month a year ago. Since then, numbers have been going up. Yet, at just above 300k they are still way below normal. The disruption of the chain has been significant, as many the industries contribute to the production – from large factories to small suppliers.

While a Full Tank Is Always Great for Flying...

Oil Wells in Snyder, TX (May 14, 2020)

The US consumption of petroleum products has fallen to its lowest level in decades because of measures that limit travel and due to the general economic slowdown. The demand fell almost 30%, and the analysts predicted that the number can even be nearing 50%. This was reflected immediately by the falling gas prices – oil prices had declined to about half of its value since January. This meant great news for us – the price of AVGAS, of which Rusty consumes quite aplenty – was significantly lower at some of the airports en route.

For the first time in history the crude oil WTI benchmark went negative, which meant that producers were willing to pay traders to take oil off their hands. With so much supply at hand it meant that oil had been practically ‘free’, which then led to storage capacity issues. At the time of this writing most of the world’s oil storage capacity was already full. Oil tankers – a gigantic moving storage – had also been filled and are currently standing by the ports, waiting to unload.

Texas, with an attempt to resolve issues with storage, reversed a previous rule that prohibited the storage of hydrocarbons underground, outside of the usual salt caverns. Producers were now allowed, and able to store oil underground for five years. This has the potential  to lead to groundwater contamination and other environmental issues.

Impact on Agriculture

Cattle farm in Morrill, Nebraska (May 25, 2020)

The impact of the coronavirus on the food industry has been most visibly seen not in the fields, but in the processing factories. Being designated as essential and critical, the food processing industry had not stopped working, even after positive cases were reported in the facility. Initially, when slaughterhouses were being closed to stop the spread of the virus, meat companies lobbied the federal government to keep plants open.

As the plants are designed for maximum efficiency, the work environment was especially dangerous because of the lack of social distancing. Therefore, they had become hotspots of the virus – by May 1, a tally of meatpacking and processed food plants (including bakeries and dairy plants) counted over 99 facilities with confirmed cases of COVID-19 and over 6,800 workers had tested positive, with 25 deaths.

Tribute to the Frontline Workers

Blue Angels and Thunderbirds fly over NYC in a salute to Frontline Workers during the Coronavirus pandemic (April 28, 2020)

While this photograph was taken two weeks before our trip, it is important that we include it. We must recognize the hard work, commitment and determination of all those who pushed and continue to push themselves to the limits, often taking risks to keep us healthy and fed. A beautiful show of support has been occurring daily at 7pm, with people cheering from their windows and cars during a minute-long tribute.

On April 28, 2020, the US Navy’s Blue Angels and US Airforce’s Thunderbirds flew in unison over the New York area in its own beautiful tribute to the frontline workers. The planes from the two demonstration squadrons flew in formation over New York and Newark beginning at noon. The formation was set to fly over Trenton, New Jersey, and Philadelphia that day, and it continued its appreciation mission across the largest cities of the US.

But the Earth May Be Finally Catching a Breath...

Grand Canyon, North Rim, AZ (May 17, 2020)

The beautiful scenery of America’s National Parks from the air has stunned us. Without a single visitor the parks returned to its quiet state of millions of years ago.

With a full responsibility that this inclusion may be a bit of a stretch, we would like to present you with some of the stunning aerial images from The Grand Canyon, Bryce, Death Valley, Lake Powell and Canyonlands, for which we were the sole visitors, albeit from the skies.

Dormant LAX Airport

Los Angeles International Airport during COVID-19 (May 19, 2020)

As our goal was to fly from coast to coast, and back, we close this feature with another airport in recess. On May 19, 2020 the situation at LAX was very similar to that of JFK’s two weeks prior.

The disruption in the aviation industry has been severe, and the end seems nowhere in sight. As some countries make rapid recovery, the US seems to be lagging behind gravely. As long as there are still issues or areas unsolved, aviation will suffer.

And for us, who have invested so much time, money and effort into being appropriately rated to make commercial aviation a career, this is rather a significant blow.

Cover Story

Graphic Packaging International (Texarcana, TX): wastewater pools (May 12, 2020)

The cover photograph does not relate to any particular COVID-19 story. This rather fascinating abstract art depicts the fountains of wastewater that are generated during the production of food packaging.

Graphic Packaging International – with its large factory in Texarcana (Texas/Arkansas border) – is one of the major producers of cartons, containers, cups, trays (and anything that you will most likely discard after a single use). This factory is also a major air and water polluter in the area – the air above the pools was rather smelly.

The destructive impact of human activity on the planet can be easily related to the story of this pandemic, a disease that has affected us so heavily. One begs the question: who is really the destructive force – us, humans against the Earth, or is that Nature is simply fighting back?

Interested in More?

Who are ‘We’? Where did we go? How did we accomplish it? What else have we seen?

If you are interested in learning more about us, or look at our daily travel diary, check our Flamp Across America blog. See the trip through our eyes as it happened; there’s a lot more photography, lovely written stories (that’s Sarah!), and detailed maps of our journey.

Check it out!

Flamp Across America – Blog

Photographs © Filip Wolak. All are available for licensing for print and digital media use, as well in form of physical prints of various sizes. While we strongly encourage you to shared it on social media – in it’s entirety or part – this action must be properly credited and referenced. For more information, please contact the author

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