It only lasted three or four minutes, but it was the highlight of the summer for David Gatchell. It happened earlier this week when the Deering High School sophomore sat behind the controls of a Cessna airplane, with the pilot right next to him, and guided the plane a few thousand feet over Biddeford.

“I feel like I could do anything,” he said, recounting his flight. “I’m only 15, but I felt older when I was operating that plane.”

Gatchell is one of 18 teenagers (17 boys and one girl) participating this week at a summer camp focused on aviation. The camp, sponsored by the Portland International Jetport and the Federal Aviation Administration, is one of 2,000 aviation camps nationally.

The goal is to get young people excited about the large variety of careers available in aviation, said Paul Bradbury, director of Jetport, which contributed $5,000 to the camp.

“Airports are like mini-cities, and there are a lot of job opportunities,” he said.

Maine hosted its first Aviation Career Education camp in 1995 at the Brunswick Naval Air Station. Today, there are two camps, a day camp in Portland for 11- to 16-year-olds and an overnight camp in Bangor for 14- to 18-year-olds

The Maine ACE camp in Portland is taking place at the Boy Scouts’ conference facility, the Alton Cianchette Center, near the Jetport. Today, the last day of the week-long camp, campers will be flying in a float plane over Naples.

It’s been a busy week. Campers took a tour of the FAA tower and the Jetport, including areas closed off to the public, such as underneath the terminal, to see the new automated baggage handling system. They also sat in the cockpit of a Boeing KC-135, an aerial refueling military aircraft, at the Portsmouth International Airport, and toured the fire station there.

They piloted planes using an FAA flight simulator, learned about the history of aviation, and heard a talk about how to plan and build an airport from airport designers. They also built small gliders and model rockets.

One counselor, Tim LeSiege, the only aviation engineer working for the Maine Department of Transportation, said the highlight of the week was listening to James Sheppard, of South Portland, talk about his long career in aviation,

Sheppard during WWII was a chief mechanic with the Tuskegee Airmen, an all-black fighter group that was portrayed in the recent movie “Red Tails.” He later worked as an FAA-certified inspector until his retirement in 1987.

“The kids were a lot like I was,,” LeSiege said.

The counselors, like LeSiege, are now either working in aviation of studying aviation in college.

“This is what got me hooked,” said the Portland camp director, Megan Weymouth, 21, who is studying to be an air traffic control operator at Embry-Riddle Aaeronautical University. She attended the camp in Bangor when she was a freshman in high school.

Another counselor, Levi Swan, 19, a Black Hawk helicopter crew chief with the Army National Guard, said he decided he wanted to work on helicopters when he first flew in a Black Hawk helicopter while attending an ACE Academy camp in Bangor as a high school junior. That’s why he’s volunteering to be a counselor, he said.

“I want to give back what they gave me,” he said.

The campers seemed eager to soak everything up. Will Saunders, 14, of Saco, who showed off a remote-controlled model airplane he built himself from scratch, said the camp lived up to his sky-high expectations.

“This is the only camp in Maine where you can actually get in an airplane and fly,” he said.


Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at

[email protected]


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