Flying on the Brightside

An aerial trip to the Firefly Festival

The Killers’ Mr. Brightside is the greatest song of all time. First, it is perfect for any person, on any occasion, in any mood. Feeling great? Brightside. In love? Brightside. Heartbroken? Brightside.

The firefly Music Festival

Photography by the author and Kevin Cortes Fireworks at Firefly. An artist performing at the festival. The annual Firefly Music Festival is set to return in September.

Second, it is in the perfect key to sing along to and fits any setting—road trip, shower singing, karaoke, or night in. Third, the riff, created by The Killers’ guitarist David Keuning, is unforgettable—can you hear it now? And fourth, like all great music, it is even better live.

Or so I’d heard multiple times from Kevin Cortes, Killers superfan and AOPA’s social media marketer. Cortes regularly told me how much I was missing out and wondered why, if they were allegedly my favorite band, I had never seen them in concert. And I had no excuse.

So, when Cortes sent me the lineup for the Firefly Music Festival in Dover, Delaware, with The Killers headlining on Friday, I knew I had to go. We bought our weekend passes seconds after they were released and started planning the trip. What better way to celebrate the return of live music than by attending a festival?

Dover isn’t far from Frederick, Maryland, via straight line distance, but all that water along the way turns it into a two-plus hour drive with tolls, and a three-plus hour drive without. With no airline service in Dover, and the nearest big hub, Philadelphia, more than an hour drive away without traffic, flying general aviation was the easy answer. The Woodlands of Dover International Speedway, the venue for the festival, is just four miles from Delaware Airpark (33N) and six miles from the Dover Air Force Base Airport (DOV), which has a civilian ramp. We figured the smaller airport would be more our speed and planned to fly to Delaware Airpark.

Next, we needed to figure out accommodation—tent camp, RV, or hotel? A handful of Cortes’ friends had also bought tickets for the festival and they kindly welcomed us to join their party. With seven of us in total, we decided we could afford an RV with room for all of us. Just like at EAA’s AirVenture, it is way more convenient to be on the grounds instead of driving in every day, even if you sacrifice minor creature comforts. While some of Team RV would drive down from New York with Big Bertha (literally the name, it had decals), and the others would fly in to Philadelphia, Cortes and I had by far the easiest journey planned. We wouldn’t have to pick up the RV, grocery shop, or deal with traffic. We knew we couldn’t show up empty handed and decided to plan for a stop at Cape May County Airport (WWD) on the New Jersey peninsula to visit the Cape May Brewing Company and pick up some to-go beverages.

Trip to the Firefly Music Festival

  • Trip to the Firefly Music Festival
    Kevin Cortes and the author en route to the festival.
  • Trip to the Firefly Music Festival
    N3206E parked at Cape May County Airport. The airport is also home to the NAS Wildwood Aviation Museum, seen in the background. Housed in one of the base’s original hangars, the museum showcases the airport’s World War II naval aviation heritage.
  • Trip to the Firefly Music Festival
    The author's temporary home on the festival grounds.
  • Trip to the Firefly Music Festival
    Entering the pattern for Cape May.
  • Trip to the Firefly Music Festival
    Overflying the area.
  • Trip to the Firefly Music Festival
    Since its opening in 2011, Cape May Brewing Company has earned numerous awards and accolades...
  • Trip to the Firefly Music Festival
    ...including Best Tasting Room and Best Use of New Jersey Themes and Ingredients.
  • Trip to the Firefly Music Festival
    From the brewery’s beer garden, patrons can see the ramp of Cape May County Airport and watch pilots take off and land.
  • Trip to the Firefly Music Festival
    With options for indoor and outdoor reveling, plus free tours, the brewery alone makes a great case for an overnight at Cape May
  • Trip to the Firefly Music Festival
    Take-out for consumption at home.
  • Trip to the Firefly Music Festival
    The author, Cortes, and Team RV.
  • Trip to the Firefly Music Festival
    In addition to The Killers, Firefly Music Festival featured Grammy-award winners Billie Eilish and Lizzo; pop-punk artist Machine Gun Kelly; and indie pop-rock band Glass Animals, whose song Heat Waves topped charts around the world following its 2020 release.

With the big boxes checked, Cortes and I moved on to flight planning in N3206E, a Cessna 172. Cortes has flown to Cape May County Airport many times, and briefed me on the route he normally takes, which would fly us around (or through if we could get the clearance) Baltimore’s Class B airspace, past restricted areas, then continue in a meandering route to Cape May to maintain gliding distance to land while overflying the Chesapeake Bay. After, we’d retrace our steps and head west to Dover. As the festival got closer, we both made sure our Washington, D.C., Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA) training was up to date and noted that Delaware Airpark had a seemingly minor notam for a closed taxiway and work on the ramp.

With the airplane booked, RV picked up by the New York side of Team RV, wristbands bought, dream band in the lineup, route planned, and bags packed, we were set up as well as we could be for what we could control. Of course, there’s always the weather. And as luck would have it, a slow-moving, newsworthy low-pressure system and band of heavy precipitation was crawling its way across the mid-Atlantic. It poured all day on Wednesday. Downtown Frederick flooded, and even though the forecast for Thursday looked promising, it didn’t matter—the rain was moving from west to east, and its next stop was Dover. We’d have to miss the first day.

On Thursday, Cortes and I waited on the ground, restless, following updates as performances were delayed then canceled because of the heavy precipitation that was now hanging out over the venue and creating a muddy mess. We began the discussion of what we’d do if the weather kept us grounded. Driving was not enticing, but if the weather was still grim on Friday, we’d miss The Killers, and where was the point in that?

What better way to celebrate the return of live music than by attending a festival?Thankfully, the weather cleared out, leaving us with crystal clear skies and surprisingly smooth air all the way to the coast. After departing Frederick, Cortes easily picked up flight following with Potomac and a clearance into the Baltimore Bravo. We flew right over the approach path to Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI), Camden Yards (home to the Orioles), and M&T Bank Stadium (where the Ravens play). We threaded our way around restricted areas, relying on ForeFlight, the onboard glass, and visual markers out the window to keep us clear. Everything was going according to plan—just a day later than we hoped.

We wandered up and down the bay, hugging the coast and explaining to approach why we were taking such a path when they gently reminded us that we were not, in fact, flying direct to Cape May County Airport as we had been cleared. As we approached the coast, we could see the tail end of the storm moving east over the Atlantic. While Cortes set us up for the pattern at Cape May, I saw a banner tow airplane flying low and near a bay-side coastal home. I smiled and remembered the summer I towed—that banner, since it’s at a house, is probably for a special occasion, I thought, it’s probably a surprise, and it probably just made someone’s day. I also remembered the time we got a despondent call the night before a proposal to cancel a “Will you marry me?” banner tow—my boss didn’t charge him the nonrefundable deposit.

Despite working together for almost three years, Cortes and I had never flown together until this day. The flight had gone well so far but as any pilot knows, it’s the landing on which you will be judged, and while the wind at Cape May was light, it was a direct crosswind. Cortes brought us in for the landing and we touched down nice and smooth and with the correct wheel first—he’d flown well.

After shutting down and getting a golf cart ride from the folks at the FBO, we sat down at the Flight Deck Diner. This is my favorite kind of airport restaurant—aviation-themed with delicious food. In the group text we received a desperate plea from Team RV who had arrived at the campsite the day before—could we please pick up some syrup on our way to Dover? The diner won even more points when they sold us a small container of syrup from their massive vat.

Syrup in hand, we walked a few short blocks to the Cape May Brewing Company. Established in 2011, the inviting local brewery produces award-winning beers, hard seltzers, and cool merch (sold at the “Brewtique”). Cortes, who’d been many times before, chose some of his freshly canned favorites, I picked a few more that looked tasty, and we hit the road.

With our cargo safely tucked away, we headed back toward Dover. Before we landed, we hoped to grab some aerial shots of the festival. Firefly doesn’t meet the size threshold for a temporary flight restriction, but the venue and adjacent camping area (the Monster Mile racetrack) underlies Dover Air Force Base’s Class D airspace.

We were cleared to circle in their airspace for photos for as long as we needed. After a couple circles, we gave Team RV a wing-wave, departed the airspace, and headed to nearby Delaware Airpark. The airports are only five or so miles apart, but we widened out our route to give ourselves more time to understand the flow of traffic before we entered the pattern. We landed behind a Beechcraft Bonanza, the only other traffic on frequency.

After a perfectly smooth trip thus far, our fate changed slightly after landing. The notam for closed taxiways had originally been a minor footnote in our flight planning, but the reality was far more inconvenient than expected. Not only were taxiways closed, the whole of the FBO ramp was torn up. Moving about the field required a back taxi on the single runway surface, and our confusion over the severity of the taxiway closure, plus the fact that four student pilots and airplanes had just launched from a flight school on the field, turned what we thought would be a simple taxi into a 20-minute clown show. I could just hear the circus music in my head—you know the one—and felt like a right fool. This was such a rookie mistake, but it was the gentlest reminder possible from the aviation gods that complacency would not be tolerated. Lesson (re)learned.

After finally finding the temporary transient parking (with the help of the FBO manager and the power of Bluetooth headsets), we secured the airplane, took an Uber to the festival shuttle pickup area, and grinned that we actually made it.

We arrived at Big Bertha during the golden hour, and it seemed that the changing light transformed the world from time-bound mortality into something magical. The festival was like crossing into a fantasyland of towering trees and multicolored lights. The Killers played every hit, hit every note, and even after an hour and a half, left the crowd wanting more. It was perfect.

Over the following days and nights, we wandered the grounds, lounged in RV land, ate pancakes with syrup, tested the quality control of Cape May’s brewery, tried to track down a tethered hot air balloon that we could see but never find, and listened to band after band. By Sunday I felt like I could fall asleep standing up, and did at one point fall asleep mid conversation with the RV lights on. We skipped Sunday’s headliners in favor of sleep for Monday’s journey.

The next morning, we cleaned up our RV site and departed. Any bad luck we suffered from missing a day of the festival was repaid to us on the return trip. This time, we were well prepared for the on-field construction and departed easily. After we picked up flight following, each approach frequency was almost eerily quiet. We were cleared on our route as we wanted and were even cleared to land straight-in at Frederick Municipal Airport miles out. Ah, that final “cleared to land” call always feels so good at the end of a trip.

And even with a headwind, we finished our trip before our friends were back in New York and with far less hassle. It felt so good to use GA to make our lives more convenient and far more fun. Next, I’m hoping to see The Killers in their hometown—Las Vegas—and fly in for that, too. So, find that band you’ve always wanted to see, get the tickets, and make the trip even more special by flying in yourself. And don’t forget to check (and understand) the notams!

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Alyssa J. Miller

Alicia Herron

Publications Content Producer
Publications Content Producer Alicia Herron joined AOPA in 2018. She is a multiengine-rated commercial pilot with advanced ground and instrument flight instructor certificates. She is based in Los Angeles and enjoys tailwheel flying best.

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