For Jay Crosby, it’s the feeling of freedom. It’s floating high above the buildings, the trees and the mountains. It’s the catch-your-breath views, incomparable to anything on the ground.

“There’s an old line about slipping the surly bonds of earth,” Crosby said. “I’m not sure where it’s from. But that sums it up pretty well.”

Crosby, 54, of Gorham, is among the hundreds of Mainers who fly non-commercial small planes, as a way to travel or just for the thrill. That includes many of the float planes based on Maine’s many lakes at this time of year.

It’s a shrinking group. Ten years ago, more than 1,500 Mainers were certified as private pilots by the Federal Aviation Administration. Now that number is 1,078. Nationally, more than 250,000 private pilots had licenses in 2003; in 2012, that number is just above 200,000.

Brittney Miculka is the manager of prospective pilot and youth outreach for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the best-known national group for general aviation enthusiasts. She said her organization has been concerned about the decline for many years.

“It’s something we work on every day,” she said in a telephone interview from her office in Maryland. “A lot of youth don’t look toward aviation, either as a career or a hobby. For us, retention is just as important as recruitment.”

Experts attribute the precipitous drop mostly to the economy. Flying lessons and plane time have taken a back seat to paying bills. Fuel alone can cost more than $50 for every hour in the air.

Two fatal crashes last month involving small planes in Maine serve as tragic reminders of the potential danger of flight, another factor in the decreasing number of pilots.

Still, those in the industry known as general aviation see themselves as a family.

“After you go to a few fly-ins and safety seminars, you get to know other pilots pretty quickly,” said Lisa Reece, president of the Maine Aeronautics Association. “There is no other group like us.”

MAINE FLYOVERS ‘AMAZING’

For Reece, 51, of Wiscasset, it was love at first flight.

She started flying when she was in her 30s. A guy she was dating, Steve Williams, was an avid pilot and introduced her to small planes.

“I wasn’t content just to be flown around,” she said. “I wanted to do it, I wanted to have that control.”

She fell in love with Williams and with flying around the same time. They are now married.

Williams also leads an aviation group, the Seaplane Pilots Association, and the couple are well known in Maine’s flying community.

Their home is in Georgetown and they fly out of Wiscasset, in a Cessna 185 — an “SUV with wings,” as Reece calls it — or a 1946 Piper Cub, their “just-for-fun” plane.

They have flown all over — to Canada, to the Bahamas last year — but Reece said her favorite flight path is still her backyard.

“I wouldn’t want to take anything away from all those other places, but Maine is an amazing place to fly over,” she said.

FLIGHT SCHOOL IN SANFORD

John Gary, 54, of Kennebunk, the chief pilot and instructor at Southern Maine Aviation, has been flying for 30 years. His wife is a pilot, too. Together they own a pair of planes that they fly regularly, a Beechcraft Bonanza and a Piper Super Cub.

Gary agreed with Reece that Maine is the perfect place for airplane enthusiasts.

“We’re kind of in heaven here,” he said. “We’ve got the White Mountains close by, we have the coastline and Acadia National Park. We’re so fortunate to be close to all this natural beauty. And, by airplane, it’s all just 15 minutes away.”

Southern Maine Aviation acts as the fixed-base operator for Sanford Regional Airport and is a full-service flight school. Gary has been there for 15 years.

He said he’s lucky that the trend at the airport has not mirrored the state and national decline.

“I can’t say that it’s been growing, but we’ve been satisfied to the degree we can maintain a foothold,” he said. “Our goal is to keep people interested and ensure we have the facilities and the instructors for when they are.”

The drop in the number of certified pilots cannot be traced to a decline in instructors. Nationally, the number of instructors has increased from 75,464 in 2002 to more than 95,000 now, according to FAA statistics. In Maine, it has held steady at about 380 over the past decade.

Which brings the issue back to cost. Planes aren’t like cars. They’re more like second homes.

“When it comes to prioritizing in our lives, learning to fly doesn’t match up to paying bills,” Gary said. “Sometimes life gets in the way.”

“There is no denying that money has an impact,” said Miculka, with the national aviation group. “Gas alone is as much as $7 a gallon, and if a plane burns 8 gallons an hour, that’s easy math.”

For Reece, it was time, not money, that first stood in her way.

“But people find a way to do it,” she said.

PUTTING OFF THE DREAM

Crosby, the Gorham pilot, was one of those aspiring aviators who found a way to get up in the air. He always wanted to learn, but kept putting it off.

“When I was in my 20s, I graduated from tech school. I didn’t have the money because I needed a car,” he said. “Then I was going to do it after I got married; then after I bought a house, and then after I had kids.”

About a decade ago, after his kids were mostly grown, Crosby’s wife gave him flying lessons. He was hooked.

He flies several times a year out of Portland in a Cessna 172, one of the most common types of small planes. His favorite spot is usually just off the coast. “Once you get out over the water, everything smooths out,” he said.

Crosby owns one-17th of the airplane. He and 16 others are members of the Bald Eagle Flying Club, based at the Portland International Jetport. It’s a collaborative of people who yearn to fly but are grounded by economic reality.

For a little more than $700 a year, plus fuel costs, Crosby and others have access to an aircraft without the financial burden. That’s about the cost of a seasonal golf membership.

CRASHES AN INHERENT RISK

Danger comes in, after cost, as the main deterrent to would-be flyers. A devil-may-care feeling has always been associated with flying.

Safety is a constant mantra for pilots, and they and the public are often reminded of the dangers. Two tragic reminders came on June 24.

Louis Hansen, a 60-year-old doctor from Durham, died after his four-seat 1946 Stinson aircraft crashed into Casco Bay near Fort Williams in Cape Elizabeth.

William Gaddis, 75, of North Yarmouth, died after crashing his ultralight aircraft into trees near his home and falling 40 feet to the ground. Gaddis survived the crash but died after he tried to climb down from the tree.

Planes like the one Gaddis was flying, single-seat aircraft that weigh less than 254 pounds and fly no faster than 64 mph, don’t have to be registered, and their pilots don’t have to be licensed.

Gary, who has been a pilot for more than three decades, said plane crashes are no different from car crashes: they can have fatal consequences.

But, he said, people don’t stop driving if they see a rash of fatal car crashes.

DIFFERENT REASONS, REWARDS

Part of the romance of flying is being a member of an exclusive group.

That’s something Miculka talks about often when she does outreach for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. “If we can capitalize on that, we will,” she said.

Reece, one in a small contingent of female pilots in Maine, likes the link to history. It’s something she feels every time she flies her Piper Cub, which was built just after World War II as a military training aircraft.

Gary likes working with new pilots to help them discover the joy and magic of soaring high about the ground.

Crosby still appreciates the skill and precision it takes.

“It requires discipline,” he said. “For me, I needed a long time to get my landings down … and you always have to be on your toes.”

Crosby flew to Potsdam, N.Y., regularly when his son attended college there. A trip that took seven hours by road took only about 2½ hours by air. These days, he flies mostly for fun.

He said he’ll continue flying even as the number of those like him declines.

Staff Writer Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: [email protected]

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell