Flying From
The Ground Up

Ray Magee, owner of the Shelburne Airport, provides beginning and accomplished pilots a place to learn in the air and on the ground.

by Amy Souza

Throughout the day, the main hangar at Shelburne Airport is filled with pilots taking part in their second favorite hobby: hangar flying. Relaxing on couches, coffee and donuts in hand, they sit around and talk. The topics range from politics to dogs to flying, of course.

Many tourists fly into the airport during summer and fall, says Magee, who bought the Shelburne Airport in 1977. "They stay in the village, go to the museum, spend money downtown. We're an asset to the community at no expense to the town; it's purely a private enterprise."

"Hangar flying is another source of learning," says Dave Carr, a flight instructor, 25-year veteran flier, and right-hand man of The Shelburne Airport owner Ray Magee. "You learn through other people's mistakes, other people's comments."

The walls around the hangar are lined with ripped and worn T-shirts, taken from the backs of first-time solo pilots. On them, in thick magic marker, are written names, the date soloed, and the type of plane flown. What looks like just ragged pieces of cotton are really a matter of pride.

The Shelburne Airport is on 23 acres tucked between Mt. Philo Road and U.S. 7. With a single grass runway, it's an airport of a dwindling breed. The attitude at the airport is casual and inviting, but that doesn't mean the pilots aren't skilled professionals. No one who works or teaches there is under 40 years old, and most have at least 20 years of flying experience.

Licensed pilots can rent two-seater, Cessna 150s, and a four-seater, Cessna 172, aircraft from Magee for $50 and $70 an hour, respectively, as long as they have liability insurance and experience in that type of plane. "If we don't know them, we take them up to check them out," Carr says.

Visitors are encouraged by signs all around the airport to "Be a Pilot," "Stop Dreaming, Start Flying" and "Learn to fly here!" Sprawled across the property are about 40 airplanes on patches of grass or in small, portable hangars. Magee charges $35 a month to keep a plane at the airport.

There are single-engine planes like Piper 140s, various Cessna models, experimental aircraft, and planes built for acrobatics. There's an amphibious float plane, a World War II replica, and an ultra-light plane that resembles a hang glider with an outboard motor.

"The aircraft, of course, is constantly changing," Magee says. "You have to study all the time to know what you're doing, because the stock moves so quickly."

Of the three arms of aviation, military and civil are the most widely known. All other types of aviation fall under the heading "general." Most general aviation enthusiasts are people who fly simply because they love to, like the local commercial airline pilot who keeps his private plane here.

"We all know where the fun is," Carr says. "It's out here with these little airplanes. Flying itself is an incurable dis
ease once you're infected, you're hooked for life."

Ray Magee and his wife, Barbara, bought The Shelburne Airport in 1977 when Ray was a police officer in South Burlington. Magee learned how to fly planes in the early '50s, and both were experienced pilots.

"It was always my goal to one day own my own airstrip," says Magee, an accomplished mechanic who makes his business sound at times more like a hobby than a living. "We had an airplane, and when the airport came up for sale, we thought it was a good chance to get out in the country. Little did we know they would bring the city right up to the front door.

Today, the airport is bordered by The Vermont Teddy Bear Co., as well as residential developments. Neighbors don't seem to mind planes flying over their houses and often escape to the field.

Aviation is not cheap. A plane's purchase price can run from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars; yearly inspections cost at least $500, assuming nothing needs fixing; continued maintenance is required and parts are expensive; and pilots must pay to renew their licenses every two years. Ed James, a retired instructor, works on the engine of a single-propeller airplane.

"It's a community thing," Carr says. "People come up to the airport and walk their dogs, and they like to see the airplanes."

Business owners also like the airport, Magee says, because tourists land there for free. "They stay in the village, go to the museum, spend money downtown. We're an asset to the community at no expense to the town; it's purely a private enterprise."

The people who keep their planes here range from commercial pilots to doctors to lawyers to a 20-year-old engineering student.

It's easy to see why you have to love flying to stick with it. "Aviation's not cheap," says Carr. A plane's purchase price can run from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars; yearly inspections cost at least $500, assuming nothing needs fixing; and pilots must pay to renew their licenses every two years.

Plane owners who rent space from Magee, and usually have their aircraft maintained by mechanics who are subcontracted by the owner. The eight certified flight instructors are self-employed, and pay Magee for the upkeep of the classrooms and the runway "It's not much, but it helps," Magee admits. "They take care of their own personal expenses. They supply the airplane and insurance. It's quite expensive."

There's a frequent flow of students through the airport, Carr says. "Some are bitten by the bug," he adds, and those are the ones who earn their private pilot's license. "We can take people from recreation pilot right up to airline transport rating,"

There is no defined program, just a syllabus that students and teachers follow at the students' pace. There are also fi
nancing programs available for people who can't afford the $5,000 it takes to complete the program.

The airport is open year-round and the runway is plowed. Classes are not taught in the winter, however, and at least two of the principal players Magee and Carr head to Florida. One of the instructors usually takes over to make sure that everything is running smoothly until Magee gets back in town.

"Flying is limited to how many good days you have," Carr says. "You have to get out there and preheat the engines (in the winter). And you have to be young to be out in that weather."

One of the first things new pilots learn is how to read a sectional chart an aviation map that charts airspace. The airspace around Burlington International Airport extends to the Shelburne area, but small aircraft here operate "under the veil," which means they can fly under 1,500 feet without having to contact anyone by radio or to file a flight plan as long as their not taking the eight mile trip toward the Burlington airport.

Much of the reason people fly smaller planes is because of this freedom. After the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center, however, some of that freedom may be lost. For at least a week after the attacks, all planes, including small, private planes, were grounded. "We were up here drinking coffee and eating donuts by ourselves," Carr says.

Magee rents space to about 40 airplane owners, who usually have their aircraft maintained by mechanics subcontracted by the owner. The airport's eight certified flight instructors are self-employed. "We all know where the fun is," says Dave Carr (above), instructor and 25-year flying veteran. "It's out here with these little airplanes. Flying itself is an incurable disease once you're infected, you're hooked for life."

Rentals have increased since then, but they're still down from last year at this time. "We're hopeful things will pick up," Magee says

Aviation officials are considering a rule that would make small aircraft file flight plans at takeoff, but as private pilots are quick to point out, that would be like motorists having to file travel plans that detail the roads they will take.

Pilots are certain that any changes in aviation rules won't take away from their love of flying. Dave Nichols of Charlotte bought an ultralight four years ago. "I always wanted to fly since I was a kid. It didn't go away," he says. "It's a new perspective of everything I know on the ground."

He was drawn to The Shelburne Airport because of its welcoming atmosphere. "This is more my style," Nichols says. "It's more laid back."

"We're not a corporate entity," Carr adds. "We answer to two higher authorities: the Federal Aviation Authority and God."

Another difference is that after flying lessons students usually retire to the hangar, which they say is different than bigger, more formal environments.

"There's something to be gained from a place to sit and talk to other students," says John McNerney of Vergennes. "Sometimes in a bigger place, a new student doesn't feel comfortable to sit and chew the fat. Trading stories makes you feel better and gain self-confidence. A big part of flying is sharing your experiences."

McNerney uses his Cessna 172 Skyhawk he calls it the Subaru wagon of airplanes for commuting with his wife, who's also a pilot, and his dog. He's now studying with Carr to get his instructor's license. Carr and McNerney are trying to organize an Aviation Explorer Post to introduce youths to aviation.

"It's not just the flying," McNerney adds. "Here, they can watch mechanics, too."

Watching mechanics at The Shelburne Airport helped him learn more about his plane. "I've owned my own plane since 1997, and this is the first time I've seen it opened up," he says. "I learned a lot."

Carr says in years' past commercial airlines relied on the military to supply them with trained personnel. Over the past decade, however, less people are going into the Air Force, and the military has been holding onto pilots. General aviation now produces the bulk of pilots who fly for commercial entities, he says. And with today's world situation, military pilots most likely will not be leaving their posts any time soon. That's why Carr hopes to bring youths to The Shelburne Airport to see if they'll become infected with the flying bug.

"The sooner you start kids, the better," Carr says.

Originally published in November 2001 Business People-Vermont