Friday, May 24, 2013
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.
Jim Stenberg with the Bald Eagle Flying Club enjoys flying his club's Cessna 172 around Portland from the jetport.
John Patriquin/Staff Photographer
Jim Stenberg, above, and 16 other members of the Bald Eagle Flying Club, based at the Portland jetport, share use of a Cessna 172 to defray the costs of flying.
John Patriquin/Staff Photographer
"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."
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