Plane and Simple
Attaining a pilot’s license involves a deep commitment — of time, money, and energy. But for those who persevere, the rewards are many, and include freedom, convenience, and sometimes a career. Meanwhile, there is the simple phenomenon of flight, which continues to captivate and stir the emotions. Said one woman who recently bought her own plane, “it’s almost like magic when that plane lifts off the ground.”
Angela Greco says she first started dreaming about learning to fly and one day owning her own plane when she was a freshman in high school.
Her family had a summer home in Laconia, N.H., she told BusinessWest, and she would become captivated watching the sea planes land and take off, allowing her imagination to take her to a time and place when she might be able to do those things herself.
The dream was put on hold for awhile — OK, a long while, as in more than 40 years. Her mother said ‘no’ when she first raised the prospect of taking flying lessons, and then, well, life got in the way, as it often does. But it has been realized — big time.
Indeed, Greco got her license three years ago, and just last month took possession of a 2005 Cessna 172 SP (price tag: $200,000). She is still in the process of breaking it in and becoming comfortable with its so-called glass cockpit — one that features electronic (digital) flight-instrument displays, rather than the traditional analog dials and gauges — but she’s just about ready to put it through its paces.
Specifically, she’s starting to assemble a list of attractive destinations, and is zeroing in on the state of Tennessee — she recently took in a show on the Smithsonian channel detailing many of its attractions and scenery from the air, and her interest was certainly piqued.
“I love to travel, that’s one of my passions,” she said, adding this pursuit was one of the reasons she pursued a pilot’s license. “There seemed to be a lot of interesting things in Tennessee, and it’s a state I haven’t been to yet.”
Thus, Greco has joined what appears to be a growing number of people making the sizable commitment — in terms of both time and money — it takes to learn how to fly and gain a license.
The numbers of new flyers are not exactly soaring, to use an industry term, noted Rich MacIsaac, manager of Northampton Airport and Northampton Aeronautics Inc., who has been a flight instructor for nearly 20 years. But they are climbing.
And, as has been the case historically, most of those taking to the air are in their 20s and early 30s — before the responsibilities of everyday life really start to pile up — or their 50s and 60s, after those responsibilities have at least started to ease up a bit.
Greco falls in that later category, obviously — she’s an owner and manager of several residential properties and is getting ready to sell them and officially retire — while Shannon O’Leary is among the former.
She’s a 22-year-old senior at Ithaca College in Upstate New York who told BusinessWest that, if all goes well, she might just be handed her diploma and her pilot’s license at roughly the same time.
She said she gained the urge to fly from her father, who flew years ago, put that hobby aside, and then picked it up again a few years ago, or just in time to start flying to Ithaca to hear his daughter, an accomplished French horn player and music teacher in the making, perform at a host of events.
Gaining a pilot’s license, as noted, is an expensive, somewhat time-consuming endeavor, said MacIsaac, noting that, when all is said and done, a license will usually set one back between $8,000 to $10,000, and most will spend 12 to 18 months earning their wings.
Thus, only about half of those who start down this path will reach their destination, he said.
For those who persevere, however, the rewards are considerable, in terms of everything from the convenience that flying provides — one can get from Northampton Airport to Martha’s Vineyard in maybe an hour, a fraction of the time it take to get there via car and the ferry — to the sensation of flying, which can lead those who have experienced it to summon a host of descriptive words and phrases.
“It’s almost like magic when that plane lifts off the ground,” said Greco. “That’s the only way I can describe it — magic. It’s exciting, and at the same time very peaceful.”
Added O’Leary, “taking off is probably my favorite part. It’s that moment when you really feel like you can do something so liberating as flying a plane; that feeling that you’re flying is just incredible.”
For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest talked with a number of people who can talk about that experience, what it takes to join those ranks, and why it’s all well worth it.
Working in the Cloud
It was bitterly cold the day Greco talked with BusinessWest, and the wind, while not as strong as the forecasters predicted, was significant, and gusting up to 15 to 20 miles per hour.
Not ideal flying conditions, certainly, and many of the people who were scheduled to head out of Northampton Airport that day or take lessons there decided to scrap those plans.
But not everyone, and eventually Greco decided that the weather was not bad enough to keep her on the ground. When asked what she had in mind for the afternoon, she paused for a moment as if to indicate she was still considering options, before saying she might head up to Keane, N.H. to have lunch and maybe do some shopping. After all, in her Cessna, she could probably do all that in just a few hours — and take a nice, relaxing ride while doing so.
“It is just this convenience and … let’s call it freedom that has always appealed to people with an interest in aviation,” said MacIsaac, adding quickly that, for most, there is much more involved than a desire to chop a commute time in half.
Indeed, the phenomenon of flight still resonates with many individuals, he noted, even at a time in history when being at the controls at cloud level certainly isn’t as, well, mind-blowing as it was a century ago, or even a few decades ago.
“Flying used to be a kind of technical thing, and it was something people could gravitate toward — these were technically advanced pieces of equipment,” he explained. “Now, if you’re interested in technology, there’s lots of other things you can be doing.”
Still, flying continues to capture the imagination, said MacIsaac, who speaks from personal experience. He moved into a house not far from a small airport outside Omaha, Neb. in his early 30s and, after years of watching planes fly over his yard, eventually decided he’d rather do than observe.
“I got to the point where financially I could do it and I had the time to do it,” he explained. “So I got my private pilot’s license and flew recreationally. Over time, I added ratings and became a flight instructor, and it slowly morphed into a career.”
In many ways, his story is typical of those who take the plunge and get their license, he said, adding that recreational flying is just part of the equation. Indeed, some are attracted by career opportunities, he went on, noting that, while many airline pilots don’t earn as much as one might think, that’s just one route one can take, and, overall, one can certainly earn a decent (and fun) living with a pilot’s license.
He’s proof of that.
After instructing for several years, he took aviation as a career to a much higher plane, becoming manager of Northampton Airport in 2004, the year it was acquired by local business owner Bob Bacon, who invested heavily in infrastructure and facilities, including several new hangars. He owns his own plane, a four-seat Sirrus SR22.
Today, MacIsaac oversees a multi-faceted business that operates under the name SevenBravoTwo Inc. It includes everything from the flight school to scenic flights; aircraft maintenance to leasing hangar and tie-down space (there are roughly 90 planes based there).
The flight-school operation generally has about 50 people working toward their pilot’s license at an given time, and that translates into roughly 4,000 flights a year, said MacIsaac, noting that 70% of these individuals are doing so for what would be considered personal or recreational flying, with the other 30% harboring aspirations to become a professional pilot of some sort.
One must be 17 to attain a license, he went on, adding that an individual can start the process earlier. He sees a few who choose to balance flying lessons with high-school classes, but most are older and fall in those two categories mentioned earlier — young professionals who still have the time and the means to pursue a license, and older individuals who have paid off the house and put the children through college.
One must have 40 hours of flight time and be able to successfully complete a wide array of maneuvers to get a private pilot’s license, MacIsaac noted, and most will take their time gaining that requisite experience, usually more than a year. And many won’t reach their intended destination, for one of many reasons.
“For many, it’s a financial issue; it becomes more expensive than they thought it was going to be,” he noted. “Or, over a period of time, something happens in their life that puts them in a situation where they can’t afford it anymore and they have to stop.”
As for those who persevere and gain their licenses, only a small percentage, maybe 5%, will actually buy their own plane, he told BusinessWest, adding that many others will join partnerships and clubs that jointly own planes.
And many will simply choose to rent one of the many aircraft the airport has available for such purposes, he went on, adding that they generally lease for about $120 per hour of flight time (that includes fuel).
Considering that one can fly to the Vineyard and back in two hours and skip a considerable amount of time and hassle that are part and parcel to driving to the island, renting a plane has become an attractive option for day trips to that destination and many others.
Dave Strassburg’s story is in many ways similar to MacIsaac’s. A pharmacist by trade, he attained his license more than 20 years ago, and continued to add ratings, moving from private to ‘instrument,’ to commercial.
Becoming an instructor was an objective he put on his bucket list some time ago, and he’s been doing it for 15 years now. While doing that at Northampton Airport on a very part-time basis, he also flies recreationally, and for business — he owns a medical-device-manufacturing company, Strassburg Medical Inc., based just outside Buffalo, N.Y., and takes his twin-engine Cessna there at least once a month.
Business takes him all over the country, and whenever possible, he’ll fly himself, he said, adding that doing so frees him from having to comply with the airlines’ schedules and a host of other inconveniences.
“Besides, if I was sitting in the back of a commercial airliner, I’d just be wishing I was up front anyway,” he said with a laugh.
Strassburg says flying is a passion, and he’s dedicated himself to encouraging others to take up that pursuit and persevere in their quest for a license. He’s convinced a good number, including his wife, who got her license about six months ago, and two Blackhawk helicopter instructor pilots based at Barnes Municipal Airport in Westfield.
“I’m a big proponent of aviation, and I love getting other people involved in it — I like giving people that little push they need,” he told BusinessWest. “There are so many people who think about it, but they never pursue it. I instruct people for the passion of flying and getting people involved in it and showing them that they can do it.”
That push he described comes in various forms, including Groupons used as incentives to get people who are on the fence to try to get over it.
And it was one of that Groupons that caught Greco’s eye.
“I said to myself, ‘that’s it, it’s sign, time to go do it,” she said, adding that she never actually lost that fascination for flying she acquired while summering in Laconia. She just had to wait till the time was right.
She said the lessons were not easy or inexpensive, but she stuck with it and gained her license in the spring of 2014. Soon thereafter, she rented planes and became a half-share partner in a another Cessna 172, taking trips to a host of destinations, including, Block Island, Niagara Falls, Cape Cod, Maine, and North Carolina.
“My plan now is to take my plane and just fly to destinations all over the United States,” she said, adding that she’ll likely start with Tennessee and move on from there.
O’Leary has some similar ambitions, and some others as well. She plans to teach music for a living, but intends to make flying an important part of her life.
“In an ideal world, I see myself getting a recreational license and being able to have a side gig where I might be able to take people on scenic flights,” she told BusinessWest. “That would be a second source of income for me during the summers, because I’m going to be an educator.
“It would be awesome to be able to fly and also service others,” she went on, adding that she intends to make this a life-long pursuit. “You start doing this because you love it, and when you don’t stop loving it, you get to open up all kinds of possibilities.”
And with that, she spoke for everyone who has had the privilege to enjoy life in what’s known in aviation as the ‘left seat.’
Summing up the pursuit of a pilot’s license and recreational flying in general, MacIsaac said it’s like golf or many other activities one might pursue during their lifetime.
“Some people are naturally going to be better at it than others, some people are going to enjoy it more and it’s going to become a big part of their life forever,” he explained. “And for some, it’s going to be something they tried, and maybe they enjoyed it, but for reason or another, they moved on to something else.”
Perhaps, but not too many of those activities can evoke the same kind of emotions — and the same kind of language used by those who have experienced flight.
As Greco said, “it’s like magic when that plane lifts off the ground.”
George O’Brien can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org