BANGOR — It’s a bitterly cold Sunday morning on the first weekend of winter break, a day when most University of Maine students have either headed home for the holidays or settled down for some much anticipated rest and relaxation.
One second-year student has arrived at the Bangor International Airport. But he’s not boarding a commercial flight to spend Christmas with the family.
Tucked into the corner of the airport’s winding runways, between an expansive hangar and fences separating tarmac from street, there awaits a glimmering Cessna 172, a small four-seat aircraft that will soon be piloted by John White, 19, a chemical engineering student at UMaine, at the cool, unassuming height of 3,600 feet.
White has never been in a Cessna 172, and he certainly has never flown a plane before. That’s not uncommon in the University Flying Club.
The club has been a fixture at the UMaine for more than 40 years. It offers students a shot at hands-on flight training and an opportunity to earn a pilot’s license.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been on a plane,” White said, bundled in a puffy parka jacket while waiting in the lobby of BIA’s General Aviation Terminal. “I’m nervous. Oh yeah, definitely.”
Before long, Rick Eason, an electrical and computer engineering professor at UMaine and the flight club’s faculty advisor, lumbered through the door with two mid-sized bags weighing him down.
Eason will be White’s instructor for the day, equipped with flight maps, manuals and other necessities required to provide White all he will need to know on his introductory flight.
A typical day with the flying club has begun.
Flying ‘ain’t cheap’
Eason has had his license for “around 30 years now” and is no stranger to the sky. He has recently undertaken an effort to increase the club’s profile and attract more members.
Not long ago, the club boasted around 45 members, according to Eason. But in recent years, the number has dwindled to 25, which Eason attributes to the recession, increased competition from other area flight clubs and even some former members who purchased their own aircrafts.
“We have two airplanes now,” Eason said. “We had only one for quite a while, but people were waiting on a list to get into the club. Our insurance only allows us up to 30 people on one plane. So we said, ‘Let’s get another plane.’
“The university doesn’t own [the plane], the club owns it,” he added. “We have to pay the costs – we have to cover the costs.
“Just the fuel itself, we get to burning around 35 or 40 bucks per hour in fuel,” Eason said. “Another big expense with airplanes is you put a new engine in them every once in a while. It’s extremely expensive to buy a new airplane, so people just keep the old airplanes in the sky.”
Eason estimated that overhauling an engine costs between $15,000 and $20,000. He also said there are routine maintenance and annual inspections that cost more than $1,000.
Currently, the club charges a $174 fee to join, which covers the first month’s dues, an owner’s manual, keys for the airplanes and other materials.
Additionally, members pay a $300 damage deposit, $25 in monthly dues and an hourly rate for every lesson, which varies depending on the aircraft a student flies.
“Again, it ain’t cheap,” Eason said.
In order to earn a pilot’s license through the flight club, the total cost is around $5,000, according to Eason. However, a student can take as long as he or she wants to obtain the license.
“It’s just like you own your own airplane. It’s not like a flight school. A flight club is managed a bit differently than a flight school,” Eason said. “Flight schools have a rigid curriculum. With a flight club, it’s up to the instructor to teach what needs to be taught. They can have their own curriculum and manage things how they want.”
This, according to Eason, affords a student a degree of flexibility in paying the necessary fees that lead to a pilot’s license. The club is also open to community members who do not attend UMaine.
Eason said all prospective students simply need to fill out an online application and then arrange to meet the club’s treasurer at the airport. After contacting an instructor, students receive their keys to plane and schedule a time slot online, then they’re ready to fly.
“In reality, you could be flying this afternoon, if the treasurer can meet you at the airport,” Eason said.
But before you take off, an hour-long ground school is mandatory.
Learning to fly
“Does the plane measure fuel in gallons or pounds?” White asked Eason in a makeshift classroom at BIA during his ground school. “How do you read the map with it stretched out in the cockpit while you’re trying to fly?”
“It can be tricky. You want to have everything in front of you and within reach,” Eason replied. “It’s gallons, they measure in gallons.”
Eason continued his tutorial by pulling a die-cast toy plane from his bags. He also used his hands to mimic the maneuvers White would be practicing on his first flight.
During the first day of ground school, a student gets an introduction to flight maps, cockpit controls and some of the trickier aspects of flying.
Eason explained the functions of an aircraft’s rudders, which help to keep the plane steady while other components work to steer: Ailerons are flaps on the wings that help the plane stay level and the yoke is used to steer.
After examining about six handouts, reading over portions of a textbook and a question and answer session, the duo made sure to hit the bathrooms and pack their belongings before heading to the aircraft for White’s first flight.
When they reached the plane, White and Eason circled the aircraft for a 15-minute pre-flight check.
“When you’re flying for the first time, you really want to double-check hinges, nuts and bolts — all those kinds of things,” Eason explained as he stood beneath the wing of the aircraft. “You should kinda know when things are wrong.”
White followed suit with a checklist in hand, playing the part of the enthralled student.
“Like look at this, it’s the baggage door,” Eason said. “Somebody didn’t lock it. Must have been the new guy.”
Finally, when the fuel truck pulled away after topping off the puddle jumper’s two gas tanks and after Eason discovered the plane needed two more quarts of oil, it was time to buckle up and strap on the headsets for a cold December flight.
The plane — 4261 Lima, as it is referred to by air traffic control — was ready for takeoff. Soon enough, White would have his chance to take the controls.
Once the engine was primed and White ensured the propeller was clear of any objects or people, Eason checked over the instrument panel. The propeller rumbled to a start, and the plane began moving.
White’s head was on a swivel, and the anticipation in the cockpit mounted. He was about to fly a plane for the first time.
The tower gave the go-ahead, and Eason taxied the plane to the end of the runway. Chatter overwhelmed their headsets.
Sun poured into the cockpit and the plane hurtled down the strip. Eason said he might let White take the controls during takeoff.
The plane reeled to get off the ground; the nose strained upward, and as Eason strained for more speed, the aircraft experienced a few jostling bumps.
Eason guided the plane to 3,600 feet – even Mount Katahdin, 75 miles away, stood clear on the horizon. Soon, instructor and student steered the plane toward the air space over Pushaw Lake, which serves as a practice area for pilots in training, free from the dangers of air traffic.
After Eason demonstrated a bank in flight, White took the controls and followed the instructor’s lead. Miraculously, the turn was a smooth one – and again and again White practiced climbing, descending, turning and banking.
All the while, White laughed and talked with Eason, their voices audible through the headsets.
“Have you done this before?” Eason asked White, jokingly. “I think he’s done this before.”
In all, the flight lasted about 25 minutes, and Eason and White worked together to land the aircraft.
“That was incredible,” White said once they returned to the ground.
“I think that was one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had — definitely worth it,” he added. “I’ve wanted to do that for so long.”
“Tell your family it’s what you want for Christmas,” Eason said.