OLD TOWN, Maine — Some of the 18 teenagers at Dewitt Field in Old Town on Wednesday haven’t completed driver’s education. Others can’t drive friends around or still need to have a parent in the passenger’s seat. But during the past week, they all flew.
The teens are cadets with the Civil Air Patrol, a nonprofit, volunteer auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force. They came from Kentucky, Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania and New England states for a week of intensive, all-day training in aspects of flight ranging from navigation to aircraft maintenance and flight.
Cadets flew at least twice each day, with an instructor at their side, in one of the 10 Civil Air Patrol Cessnas parked at the Old Town airport.
The nine Civil Air Patrol instructors at Dewitt Field for the week are volunteering their time, according to Wing Commander Col. Daniel Leclair.
“We’ve all come up here to teach the next generation of pilots,” Leclair said.
There are nine Civil Air Patrol squadrons in Maine. The Maine Forest Service, Maine State Police and other groups sometimes send CAP pilots into the air to assist in searches for missing people, fires or even drug fields.
One of the Civil Air Patrol planes at the Old Town airport this week has a unique story. The single-engine craft was the only plane allowed in the airspace over Ground Zero after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The plane, which at the time was based in New York, flew over the rubble of the World Trade Center and took photographs that helped responders organize their search and set up emergency response stations.
Several cadets said Wednesday that flying was a thrill for them, and the Civil Air Patrol provided an opportunity to do so while making a difference for their communities.
Before the cadets leave Maine, some may have the opportunity to fly solo.
Alex Bates, 16, of Pittsburgh, Penn., and Drew Grosof, 17, of Terryville, Conn., sat in a room late Wednesday morning with one of their flight instructors, Civil Air Patrol Lt. Col. Tony Vallillo, going over the answers to a test the cadets need to take in preparation for their first solo flights.
Grosof said he has had previous flight instruction. Bates, on the other hand, said his only flight experience before this week came from playing Microsoft Flight Simulator on his computer.
Vallillo ran the two cadets through several hypotheticals, including a scenario in which they took off from a runway and their engine cut out.
The answer: Don’t try to turn back to the airport if you’re below 1,000 feet — only highly experienced pilots could make that kind of a turn in a Cessna, according to Vallillo.
Instead, Vallillo said, the cadets should look ahead, adjust their flaps, and find the safest possible place to land. They shouldn’t worry about trying to prevent damage to the plane, the instructor said.
Ameen Thonge, 17, of New Jersey experienced a similar situation firsthand Tuesday. During one of his flights for the day, Thonge was preparing to land at Bangor International Airport when his engine quit.
Thonge said it was a scary experience, but he managed to guide the gliding, single-engine aircraft to a safe landing. He credited his week of training for teaching him what to do in such a situation.
Thonge and his flight partner, Kyle Hayes, 17, of Florida said Wednesday that learning to fly a plane is much more exciting than learning to drive, but also it’s more stressful because instructors use much more alarming warnings.
Hayes said it is unnerving for a young pilot to hear the person next to them shout “pull up, pull up” while out on one of their first flights.