PROVINCETOWN — “Sure, ‘cockpit’ might sound gay,” said Brian Samuelson, a founder of the National Gay Pilots Association (NGPA). But when he got into the field, he said, “aviation was so homophobic.” Samuelson was in the hangar of the Provincetown Municipal Airport, where 296 members of the LGBTQ aviation community lunched last Saturday as part of their annual Cape Cod Classic Weekend.
The crowd was a mix of commercial and weekend pilots, air traffic controllers, and aviation business professionals — along with a tiny security dog, Wilson, a miniature pinscher-chihuahua mix, owned by Brian Gambino, the NGPA’s president.
Pilots in attendance caught up with old friends, made new ones, helped each other with employment leads, and discussed the tricky task of touching down on Provincetown’s runway.
Blind Date to ‘Paper Tiger’
At a mile-a-minute pace, Samuelson rattled off a precis of his life: He went ROTC in college, where he kept his sexual orientation under wraps. The Air Force followed, until he “washed out” with 65 percent of his class, ending up an unemployed, 24-year-old second lieutenant, facing a bleak future. “And I was gay,” he reminded me.
He took to the early internet of the mid-’80s, hoping to find good company, and scored a blind date with Tim Sullivan, who, to Samuelson’s astonishment, also happened to be a gay pilot. A romance, it turned out, was not in the cards. “Glad we got that out of the way,” Samuelson said. But a robust friendship bloomed from the men’s shared passion for aviation.
“During a really homophobic time when it was fashionable to be anti-gay, I could be myself,” Samuelson recalled.
The two wanted others to enjoy meeting fellow gay pilots, and the NGPA was launched. For a while it seemed it might never grow beyond being a two-member organization. The problem, Samuelson said, was “we were trying to win the trust of people who were terrified. If you were outed, you could lose your job.”
Operating discreetly was essential. They started by running ads in a national gay magazine that arrived on doorsteps in a brown paper wrapper. Slowly, small donations trickled in to their P.O. box — but rarely under people’s real names. They received anonymous letters of appreciation, and, from time to time, people would share their stories. “Some wrote saying they had thought they were the only gay pilot in the country,” Samuelson said.
They also received death threats “from the ‘God and guns’ crowd,” Samuelson said, shaking his head. “We were a paper tiger, a national organization — but there were just two of us.”
One evening in 1991, around 30 NGPA members nervously filtered into the Crown & Anchor in Provincetown, donning aviation T-shirts and plane pins, while shedding, for a weekend, their anonymity — at least, partially. They identified themselves only by their first names. “We were all walking in like refugees, a little scared,” said Samuelson. “Some people thought it was a government trap!” But by the end of the weekend, fast friendships had been made.
Gaining momentum, “a small gaggle” of NGPA members assembled for the New York City Pride March, and, in 1993, they reconvened for the historic march on Washington.
“Then we set our sights on the L.A. and S.F. boys,” Samuelson said, and their annual Palm Springs Winter Warm-Up was born. They partnered with the Association of Black Aerospace Professionals and set up a job fair. Niche committees have branched out since, for female, transgender, and military-affiliated members of the LGBTQ aviation community.
On Saturday, David J. Williams, who has racked up 25 years of flying experience, walked down the foggy runway, where aircraft contenders, buffed and gleaming with fresh detailing, vied to be crowned “Queen of the Fleet.” Williams is a pilot with United Airlines whose four-day tours of duty usually start and end at New York’s LaGuardia Airport.
When it comes to passengers, Beyoncé, he said, is the cream of the crop. All the pilots who’ve flown with her say the same thing: “She’s wonderful,” Williams said. “She talks to pilots, socializes with them — everyone loves Beyoncé.” (Williams upheld pilots’ reputation for discretion by declining to say who he considered the rudest celebrity passenger.)
In the past, Williams was an accident inspector for the Federal Aviation Administration, tasked with circling wreckage sites, reviewing data, taking photos, and looking for clues. Bent propellers, debris fields, and witness interviews helped him patch together what went wrong.
Without seeing documentation, Williams did not want to comment on the Sept. 9 Cape Air accident in which a Cessna 402C went into the woods near the Provincetown Airport and ended up in flames.
But he said the weather conditions that might have played a role — a tailwind, moderate to heavy rain, wind speeds of 7 to 10 knots, and low-hanging clouds at 200 feet — were not unusual for the tip of the Cape.
“If we’re talking about visibility, those conditions aren’t too different from what we’re seeing today, minus the rain,” he told me. “Look, the trees are already going into the clouds.”
Provincetown presents a distinct set of aviation challenges because of its location. Rolling off the water, winds can whip up a sudden fog. When pilots approach an airport, they follow a navigation signal aligned with the runway, descending until they hit 200 feet, when they assess visibility. If they can see the runway through the clouds, they go ahead and land; if not, they discontinue the approach, pulling up into a “go-around” and trying again when conditions clear.
While he was having lunch in the hangar, Williams heard several go-arounds overhead from incoming planes. “Coming in, you can’t hear them because they’re at low power,” he said. “But they get to 200 feet and can’t land, and then vrmmm!”
“And because we’re on the tip of the Cape, there are so many weather phenomena, right here, that are so different,” said Jake Taylor, who flies into Provincetown on weekends, coasting over Route 6 congestion. He pulled out his phone and showed me a SkyNet map of the Cape. “Here’s a perfect example,” he said. “Right now, there are clouds over Provincetown, but the rest of the Cape? Blue skies.”
Sea breezes are also “tricky to work with,” Williams said, often responsible for reshuffling wind patterns as pilots near the runway. “When you come down to 400 feet, it’s a certain wind, but when you get real low,” he said, “the sea breeze comes in and messes things up, especially when you get to the dunes.”
Warm air rises over the hot sand, and when a breeze nudges this pocket out to the cooler sea, it sinks. Coupled with stormy weather, this generates a rolling turbulence that can unsettle pilots new to the airport.
Even more disconcerting are overcast or moonless nights, said Colin Stayton, a flight instructor and leader of the Philadelphia NGPA chapter. To land in Provincetown, pilots follow a set path: they first fly past the runway, out towards the water, then veer back to the airport. But on an overcast night, the reflection of moonlight from the water is snuffed out. “You pass the well-lit runway, and all of a sudden all you see is black,” Stayton said. “It’s like you’re in outer space, and it’s completely disorienting.”
The aviation community calls this the “black hole effect.” Under these conditions, pilots struggle to distinguish up from down. In 1999, this resulted in the death of John F. Kennedy Jr., when he was flying to Martha’s Vineyard and crashed in the Atlantic. Pilots landing in Chicago also face the black hole effect with neighboring Lake Michigan.
Taken together, these quirks make Provincetown daunting for pilots.
“On the other hand,” Williams said, “if you’re a Cape Air pilot and you’re flying in here every day, that Cessna 402C is like an extension of your body. Then, it’s like, ‘I know this is a lot of risk, but I know this airplane. I know the air. I know what’s going on, and I know I can do this.’
“Cape Air is a good carrier,” Williams added. “Statistically, it’s far safer to fly to Provincetown than to drive there.”