As much as they might resemble average folks, private pilots are not like you and me. It’s not that they think themselves better than anyone. They just place themselves above us. Five thousand feet above, if you must know how far. They like to look down on people … and houses and farms and highways.
Who are these people, anyway?
Connecticut, it turns out, has 2,446 privately licensed pilots, according to the Federal Aviation Administration’s most recent statistics. Of those, 684, or 28 percent, live in Fairfield County. That’s the most in the state.
As we ventured out to find some representative pilots from our towns, we discovered certain traits common to them all. For these people, taking to the air is a sort of cure-all. It is an escape, both from the physical bonds of Earth and the psychological pressures of daily life. “If I feel ill or upset about anything, I just go for a flight and I’m all better,” says Morgan Kaolian, former manager of Sikorsky Memorial Airport in Stratford, who has been flying for sixty-three years. “It’s my best therapy.”
All pilots have war stories. Ask any of them about their first solo flight and you might notice some sweat forming on their brow. As they recall the event, the passage of years no longer matters. They are back in the cockpit, flying alone that first time, beating back fear, and accomplishing one of their greatest goals.
And though accidents do happen, safety is a priority. It is certainly emphasized enough in training, most of which is devoted to overcoming problems, from bad weather to mechanical failure. And when a pilot hears about a crash, he is immediately trying to figure out what went wrong and how he could avoid that situation himself.
Besides the technical challenges of actually flying a plane, most pilots also take pleasure in planning and plotting a journey. “There’s something about the adventure of making a trip that pilots enjoy, not unlike sailors,” says Tim Brady, one of the partners of Three Wing Flying Services, a fixed base operator at Sikorsky.
Meet some private pilots from our area. We found them on the ground, but their heads, no doubt, were in the clouds.
JEFFREY and ELLA LONG, Darien
Oh, to be able to eavesdrop on Jeff and Ella Long’s pillow talk. Sure, there’s probably the usual fare — work, kids, the neighbors — that you’d hear from any married couple in Darien. But the juiciest conversations in the Long household tend to involve their beloved Beechcraft Bonanza, a rare aerobatic version, that both husband and wife fly for pleasure and transportation.
If one spouse encounters a knotty problem while flying, you can bet that the other is fascinated to hear how they worked through it. And if someone mentions a mechanical glitch with the plane, have no doubt that the listener wants to know every detail.
For the Longs, flying is a mutual passion. “There’s always something to talk about or questions to ask or experiences to share,” says Ella. “But actually being able to do it together and to be able to help each other has been very cool. We don’t play golf together. We don’t play tennis or stuff like that. This is one really amazing thing that we share and like to do together or separately.”
Jeff, an asset manager, started flying back in the eighties, when the couple was living in Australia. (He is originally from Texas and grew up in New Orleans; Ella is from Monroe.) To keep things interesting, he also learned aerobatics.
After their return to the United States, Jeff came across a Bonanza for sale that had been one of only twenty-five built for stunt flying. Figuring it would be good for both touring and aerobatics, he bought it.
Ella, in turn, took a pinch-hitter course, so she would at least know how to land the four-seater in an emergency. She enjoyed it so much that she went on to get her private pilot’s license. (Both are also instrument-rated, which means they can fly by instruments alone, without having to actually see the ground or landmarks.)
Jeff’s days of performing loops and rolls are largely behind him. Ella, for her part, has never flown aerobatically. And though having three daughters (twins Erica and Kristin, sixteen, and Sophie, twelve) keeps them busy with activities on terra firma, both carve out time to fly, usually separately.
Ella takes short trips — to Block Island or Martha’s Vineyard, for example — when the girls are in school. “It’s almost like a meditation, the sheer beauty and the sheer freedom of it,” she says. “It’s my mini-vacation, where I kind of get my head straight.”
Jeff, meanwhile, goes up about once a month, usually on weekends. Come summer, when Ella and the kids are at their home in Maine, Jeff flies up on Friday night and comes back Sunday. “It’s a completely different view of the world when you get up to 5,000 or 6,000 feet and look down,” he says. “You kind of see a pattern, almost the pattern of civilization. The way the towns spread out. The way the roads are. The way we go around bodies of water and hills.”
All pilots have had their scary moments and the Longs are no exception. Early on, when Ella was learning to fly the Bonanza, she ran into low clouds that had unexpectedly oozed in just as she was taking off from the Danbury airport. Suddenly she found herself headed toward two mountains, in a complete whiteout. “After like two seconds of saying, ‘Oh my God, oh my God,’ I started flying the plane and just kept going up,” she recalls. “I tried to use what I’d been taught to come around in the pattern, then broke through and could see the airport and was able to land.”
Flying offers a camaraderie seldom found in everyday life. For the Longs, it’s been a fun activity to share with one another as well as Ella’s eighty-one-year-old father, George Masser, who also flies their Bonanza. Away from home, they meet friendly people almost everywhere they fly. “Airports tend to be very welcoming places,” says Jeff. “Everybody is interested in everybody else’s flying. There’s kind of a bond there right from the beginning.”
GUY BROSSY, New Canaan
Ask Guy Brossy why he likes to fly and he will give you an assortment of reasons: It’s fun, it’s challenging. And it’s good transportation. He co-owns a Piper Cherokee that, among other things, gets him, wife Meg, and their two youngsters down to Vero Beach, Florida, once or twice a year to visit relatives with a minimum of hassle, for less than he would pay for commercial airfare for four people.
“I can leave from my house about the same time my brother-in-law leaves from his house in Duxbury, Massachusetts,” says Guy, who owns a specialty publishing company. “We’ll fly out of Bridgeport privately and he’ll take the commercial airlines. I’ll take this little six-seater that goes 150 miles per hour, and I will typically be in Vero Beach at the same time or before him.”
Guy learned to fly twenty-eight years ago, when he was an undergraduate at Washington and Lee University in Virginia. A law student who had a plane and was also an instructor was giving lessons to make some extra money. Guy had always wanted to fly, so he signed up, got his license and has been at it ever since.
“There is a sense of freedom that goes with the exercise that is very rewarding,” he explains. “It’s the same freedom you feel if you sail or if you scuba dive. It’s you and nature. It’s you and the machine.
“And for people who are observant about geography and the world around us, it’s much more fun to fly over the savanna of South Carolina or Georgia, let’s say, at 3,000 feet than at 30,000 feet. What you can see is phenomenal.”
Besides Florida, the family periodically flies to Michigan, where Guy grew up. Before they had their second child, and had more room in the plane, the Brossys would load a couple bicycles in back and spend a day hopping from place to place sightseeing. A typical jaunt might be Nantucket in the morning, then off to East Hampton or Fishers Island, then on to Westerly, Rhode Island.
The Brossys have winged their way as far as Long Island, the Bahamas. Flying out of Vero Beach toward Freeport, the Cherokee was over water for a half hour. To lose sight of land was a strange sensation, Guy admits, but well worth it when they reached their destination. “Every island in the Bahamas that is bigger than just a spot in the water has an airstrip,” he says. “There are at least a couple dozen landing strips. It’s just a gas to be able to go out and explore.”
Guy co-owns the Cherokee with Rob VanKeuren, who grew up in Darien, which helps defray costs. It also keeps the plane in regular use, which is mechanically better for it than sitting idle. Unlike a sailboat or a second home, Guy says, few pilots have a great emotional attachment to their planes. Instead, it’s a means to an end, not unlike a rental car when it comes down to it. “I think of the plane I have as a flying Impala station wagon,” he says. “It’s a very large, comfortable touring machine.”
FABIO LOURENCANI, Rowayton
Fabio Lourencani’s best friend was his father. Growing up in Brazil, Fabio would go to the local airport with his dad to watch the planes take off and land. And though not a pilot himself, Osvaldo Lourencani was fascinated with flying and would often discuss it with his son, who soon shared his passion.
Years later, after Fabio had immigrated to the United States, his dad came for a visit, unexpectedly took sick and died. The loss was devastating for the Rowayton resident. He went for weeks like he was in a fog. “I didn’t know what to do,” says Fabio, who runs Rowayton Pizza. “My mind wasn’t thinking straight.”
Then one day, an airline pilot, dressed in uniform, walked into the restaurant. Fabio took the opportunity to ask some questions about flying, how the man got started, and what would Fabio have to do to learn. His interest wasn’t necessarily the big jets but the smaller, propeller planes that everyday people flew. The captain, in turn, referred him to Three Wing Flying Services, out at Sikorsky Memorial Airport, for lessons.
For Fabio, flying became a way to honor the memory of his father. “It made me think that this is something he would love to see me doing,” he says.
Fabio has come a long way in the six years since his first lesson. At times, the training seemed arduous, especially as he had only recently learned to speak English. His biggest problem, however, was nervousness, a common malady for beginners. “He was a good pilot,” says Alan Niemiec, one of his instructors and now a pilot for Continental Express. “He just didn’t have his confidence skills up to par. Once that was taken care of, he was off and running.”
Like every pilot, Fabio’s first solo flight remains etched in memory. On top of all the typical matters that a first-time pilot must remember, Fabio got word just as he was taking off that a corporate jet was in the vicinity. He would have to pay extra heed and give it a wide berth to avoid being battered by its turbulence. High anxiety aside, Fabio’s first flight by himself came off without incident. “After I got out, I felt a big relief,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Wow, I did it! I did it!’”
Since then he has logged around 200 hours of flying time. He goes up about twice a month in a rented Piper Cherokee.
Fabio maintains a healthy respect for the plane, the weather and his training. He also knows that no matter how well prepared one may be, conditions can quickly change. He tells of a time when his mother was visiting and he was flying with her to Boston to meet up with his sister. When he checked the weather, it was breezy with just a few clouds. Halfway through the flight, however, they hit turbulence that seemed to go on forever. “The plane was shaking like crazy, everything was bouncing all over the place, and my mother started praying,” he says.
For Fabio, flying takes him away from earthbound concerns. “When you’re out there you forget about everything else,” he says. “You concentrate on the next step.”
This avocation has allowed Fabio to meet new people and see new places. Block Island is a favorite destination and at night the Manhattan and Atlantic City skylines are awe inspiring.
He has flown as far as Bangor, Maine, but his dream is to take a considerably longer trip. Someday, when he owns his own plane, Fabio hopes to fly from Connecticut back to his hometown in Brazil, where he and his father long ago watched the planes and wondered what it would be like to soar.