BENNINGTON -- Looking at the tiny plane, it was hard to imagine it in the air, let alone that it would soon be taking myself and photographer Holly Pelczynski into the skies above Bennington.
"This plane has logged around 300 hours since its last engine overhaul, and they typically go up to about 2,000 hours," said Darrin Lofton, manager of the William H. Morse Airport and owner of New England Airmotive, gesturing toward the aircraft, "This is as close to a new engine as you can get. I do want to give it a new paint job, the one it's got now is a little old school."
We arrived at the airport just after 6:30 a.m., and met Lofton and certified flight instructor Doug Thompsen, who would be flying the plane. Thompsen, a veteran pilot with over 15,000 hours logged over his career, lives in Bennington, but frequently flies all over the world.
"Aviation is an awesome career," said Lofton, "[Thompsen] lives in Bennington, and tomorrow he'll be in Grenada. Last week he called me from France, and brought me back a bottle of wine."
Thompsen currently teaches about seven students as part of New England Airmotive's new flight school, but is hoping, as the flight school gains more students, to transition to teaching full-time, said Lofton.
The aircraft was a two-seat Cessna 150, manufactured in the 1970s. Between 1958 and 1977, 23,949 of the small planes were produced, making it the fifth-most produced civilian plane of all time, behind the Cessna 172, the Ilyushin II-2, the Messerschmidt Bf 109, and the Piper Cherokee. Of those planes, the 150 is the only two-seat craft.
Holly agreed to go up first. Her two large cameras barely fit into the cramped cockpit with herself and Thompsen. The plane taxied down the 3,700 foot runway, and turned around. After a few moments the plane began to move forward, gathering speed, before it took off toward the mountains, leaving Lofton and me on the ground.
Lofton founded New England Airmotive in November, when he took over management of the airport. The company, which is based out of the airport, currently performs maintenance on planes, in addition to offering flight lessons, and is in the process of expanding to be able to work on aviatronics equipment and aircraft interiors as well. He currently employs Thompsen and mechanic Chris Gauthier, whose parents run Owl's Nest Upholstery and Antiques on Main Street in Bennington. However, Lofton, noting that his business had been in the black every month since opening, during what is typically the slowest season for aircraft services, said that as the business expands, he intends to hire several more people. "The more customers I bring in, the more people I can hire," he said. He is currently in negotiations with several business charter companies to increase the usage of the airport.
"Bennington has so much potential," he said.
After about 20 minutes, we caught sight of the plane, circling around the Bennington Monument and making its final descent toward the runway.
On Thompsen, she said, "I felt very safe having him as a pilot. He was very calm, cool, and collected. He knew about everything in the plane, and could explain it in layperson's terms."
"I didn't want to not have the experience," she said, "I think that you should always do the things that scare you, otherwise you aren't really living."
Suddenly, it was my turn. Clambering into the cockpit, I asked Thompsen to take me through what a beginner would learn in their first lesson. As we taxied to the end of the runway, he calmly and systematically explained the meanings of the switches and displays arrayed before us.
Thompsen, who said that his career in commercial aviation was winding to a close, has flown all manner of large aircraft. Slightly nervous as Thompsen was working through his pre-takeoff routine, I asked him how much experience he had with smaller planes, such as this one. "This?" he said, with a chuckle, "I learned to fly on these."
Cessna 150s are very popular with flight schools across the country, largely because of their weight and fuel efficiency. "The 150 is a fuel sipper," said Lofton, "That's the reason so many flight schools use them." The total cost of fuel for the three flights that morning was going to be about $20-25, he said.
We began to roll forward, and before I knew it, we were airborne. As the ground receded, having never flown in a non-commercial aircraft before, I was rendered speechless. For Thompsen, the takeoff was just another one of the thousands he'd performed. With Bennington far below us, Thompsen began to explain the basics of flying, such as how to keep the plane level and on course, and how to adjust speed.
Without warning, Thompsen said, "All right, now you take ahold of the controls." The plane was equipped with two sets of controls, one for the instructor and one for the trainee. Grasping the console anxiously, I awaited his instructions. Switching control of the plane over to me, he walked me through some basic maneuvers. Just as I had gotten comfortable tilting the nose of the plane up and down, he told me it was time to try a left turn.
Already resigned to my death, I began to ease the plane into the turn, following his every instruction to the letter. I realized at that point, as the plane's left wing tilted downward and we began to turn, something unexpected: I was having fun. The feeling of gliding through the air at 80 nauts, and being in complete control, was absolutely incredible.
After I leveled out the plane, Thompsen took back control and took us back to the airport in a lazy loop. The landing was every bit as smooth as Pelczynski had described it.
Currently, the flight school only operates two days a week, but Lofton is hopeful that as spring arrives and more people become interested in lessons, that they will be able to run every day. In about a month, Lofton said he would be adding a four-seat Cessna 172 to the training fleet. The winter has been so bad for flying, he said, that it didn't make sense to insure both planes.
Flight training will be available year-round, and is geared toward aviation enthusiasts, those seeking their private pilots license, and those looking for a career in the commercial airline industry. If you're not sure if flying is something you'd be interested in, you can contact New England Airmotive at 802-430-8130 to schedule a $75 40-minute introductory flight.
Holly's photos of the flight can be viewed at photos.benningtonbanner.com.
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB