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Flying High

Connecticut’s newest aviators are earning their wings

Call it a tale of five student pilots. Not a cautionary tale, but a spirited one.

First, there’s Justin Shafner. Shafner, who grew up in Madison, is studying aerospace engineering at the University of Maryland, so on one hand it’s not unusual to hear that he took flight training at the New Haven Aviation Center and received his pilot certification in September. On the other, he had two intriguing motivations beyond simply getting from one place to another. The first was to observe the world from an exclusive perspective, the second to enjoy the sensation of manipulating natural forces.

“I would much rather spend my free time exploring new places and watching the sun set from above the earth,” says the new pilot. “And it’s an incredible feeling to make decisions that impact how your airplane moves through the sky.”

Then there’s Glenn Buonanducci. When Glenn was in third grade, he saw Tom Cruise sail through the atmosphere in “Top Gun.” A few years later, he took his first airplane flight and was absorbed with how the silver ship rose above the clouds with deceptive ease. When he was 13, he joined the Civil Air Patrol and flew in a KC-10 tanker aircraft that refueled F-16 fighter jets in flight. He was hooked. It’s no wonder that the 42-year-old law enforcement officer from East Windsor is one of Connecticut’s most active civilian aviators.

“When I turned 30, my wife gave me a gift certificate for a flight lesson,” Buonanducci recalls. “For one reason or another, it stayed in a drawer. When I turned 40, she asked me what I wanted for my birthday. Something compelled me to ask where I had hidden that certificate.” A few months later, he enrolled as a student pilot at the Premier Flight Center in Hartford.

Next is a 17-year-old high school student from Portland named Bryce Wiekrykas. For Wiekrykas, aviation has been a passion throughout his entire childhood, traced to the age of seven, when he received Microsoft’s Flight Simulator X as a Christmas gift and could hardly tear himself away from the console. The following year, when he was eight, he took it upon himself to dress up as an airline pilot for a family vacation flight to South Dakota. The crew, captivated and amused, took him to meet the pilot and quizzed him on the Airbus A319 (which they assumed he’d know all about).

“They were impressed,” Wiekrykas recalls proudly. “My passion led me to begin flight training at the Meriden Aviation Center. I plan to apply to military academies, as well as to private aviation companies, and hope to become a military or commercial pilot.”

Up next, 37-year-old West Hartford resident Eric Buhrendorf, who says he grew up listening to stories about his grandfather, a Navy pilot who, after World War II, flew his own Cessna all over New England to run his construction company. Buhrendorf’s father had also wanted to fly, though economic conditions prevented that from happening. But Buhrendorf, who founded a successful IT support company, was able to take lessons at the former American Flight Academy in Hartford and earn his certificate. “I haven’t looked back since,” he says. “I consider flying an awe-inspiring privilege.”

Finally, there’s dermatologic and Mohs surgeon Jim Whalen, who lives in Avon, works at the Cromwell practice he co-founded, and trains to be a pilot at Simsbury Airport. For him, it’s all about pragmatism. With vacation property in Delaware, the doctor realizes that being able to fly there in his own plane would have significant benefits over other methods of transportation.

“I like the practical nature of being able to go places,” he says, acknowledging that for him, flying is more a serious endeavor than an exuberant pastime. “As a pilot, you have to be entirely focused on all the things to do both in and out of the cockpit.”

Still, Dr. Whalen, who took his first private plane flight at Hartford-Brainard Airport in 2019, always thought flying would be an interesting hobby, and looks forward to achieving his pilot’s certificate.

It can be expensive, which may be one reason why, compared to the total population, there are relatively few certified pilots in the country (not much more than half a million). All told, it can cost between $6,500 and $12,000, depending on the school, the type of certificate sought, and the length of time spent training. And it can take between several months and several years to achieve certification, depending on a student’s schedule and financial resources.

“Students who plan two or three lessons per week can complete their training in a few months,” says Phillip Smith, owner of Learn 2 Fly CT of North Windham and Hartford. “Students who schedule one lesson per week, or every other week, can expect to complete their training in a year or more.”

All certified pilots have to abide by regulations and requirements set forth by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which are consistent throughout the country. But according to some flight instructors in the state, Connecticut happens to be one of the most worthwhile places to get involved in aviation.

“The basics are the same no matter where you learn, but we are in an especially good area with different kinds of topography and elevations, proximity to major waterways, islands off the coast, and busy airspace not far from JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark Liberty,” says Mark Poole of Meriden Aviation Center, which has a sister location in East Haven (New Haven Aviation Center). “Connecticut is a great place to learn, to take off from, and to return to.”

John Lampson, a trainer at Professional Instrument Courses (PIC) in Old Saybrook and a flight instructor at the Premier Flight Center in Hartford, is quick to add that weather often has the final say when it comes to training.

“All areas of the country have changeable and sometimes treacherous weather,” he says. “But we have Mark Twain’s old saying to contend with: If you don’t like the weather in New England, wait a minute! Temperature extremes can affect flight performance, as can icing and turbulence. There are many cancelled training days in Connecticut due to weather. But there’s a big benefit, too,” he notes. “Our students become more sensitive and conscious of weather and its impact on flying, and the value of that cannot be underestimated.”

Pilot certificates fall into three categories: sport, recreational, and private. (The phrase ‘pilot’s license’ is commonly used, but what pilots receive after training and testing is a certificate, not an actual license.)

The private pilot certificate seems to be the most sought after, though the sport pilot certificate is extremely attractive because it is the least expensive to obtain, though limited to light-sport aircraft (LSA) and a single passenger. Private pilot trainees must also receive a medical certificate from the FAA.

There are several additional rules and regulations – some age-related, others that concern nighttime versus daytime flying – all of which are explained during training. Student pilots must complete a multiple-choice exam on the FAA’s website, which requires a separate charge (currently $150) and has to be taken at an FAA-authorized testing center. One of the final steps is a test commonly known as a checkride, which consists of both an oral exam and a test flight. This, too has a separate fee (generally about $400) which varies from school to school.

Pilot certificates do not expire, though pilots must maintain what’s called flight currency if they intend to fly with passengers. Here, too, different rules apply for different situations.

Sound a bit complex? It certainly can be. But on the other hand, those who have the compulsion to learn to fly never let complexity get in the way. And that includes the technical elements involved. Anyone who has ever seen a cockpit or a movie about pilots and air traffic controllers knows there are many mechanical factors with which pilots must be familiar.

“I am not an expert in math and science,” says Phillip Smith. “At Learn 2 Fly, we can go deep into the intricacies of aeronautics, but most students don’t require that much detail, particularly since we have some easily-understood formulas that enable anyone to learn to fly safely and with complete confidence.”

Mark Poole of Meriden Aviation Center and John Lampson of PIC agree.

“Yes, there are a number of computations you need to make as a pilot,” Poole says. “But if you have the passion, you’ll figure it out. If you love to fly but don’t cherish arithmetic, you’ll learn that knowing how to do calculations can be a lifesaver.”

“At our school,” says Lampson, “we have some pretty cool charts and graphs that make the math and science much easier to understand than many people may think.”

“Getting my certificate was one of the more challenging things I’ve done in my life,” affirms Buonanducci. “It’s not something you get ‘half’ into. Between the instruction and the physical flying, you must be completely focused.”

Connecticut pilots are part of a rich history of aviation in the state. “Plan to License Airships and Men” was the headline in the Washington Herald in February 1911. It concerned the nation’s first law governing pilots. In fact, that Connecticut statute, signed by Governor Simeon Baldwin, was also the world’s first aviation law, and it quickly became the model for similar directives in other states. Twenty-six years later, Connecticut became the first state in the country to institute a separate department to handle all aviation matters.

There are more than a dozen flight schools in Connecticut, which makes it easy for anyone who is interested to find a place to learn. Experts caution, however, that students should make an effort to decide which school is right  for them.

“First impressions are key,” says Wiekrykas. “For me, the first thing I looked for was a professional-looking website, because the image a flight school cultivates is indicative not only of how well they maintain their aircraft, but also how seriously they approach their training.”

“Aircraft availability was at the top of my list,” offers Buonanducci. “Students should also determine if the available equipment is in excellent condition. Not good condition – excellent condition.”

It may also be worth checking out whether or not a school offers full or partial scholarships. Some do.

It’s rare for new pilots to have their own airplanes. Depending on a craft’s age, size and condition, prices can range between $18,000 and $275,000 – and that’s before storage fees, fuel, and other expenses.

“Sure, I’d like to own my own one day, but the decision comes down to cost,” admits Justin Shafner, who quickly adds a caveat: “In my opinion, however, the freedom associated with having your own airplane is enough to outweigh the cost differential between private and commercial air travel.”

Dr. Whalen made some ownership-related moves even while still training. His flight school was leasing a 2002 plane from a person who decided to sell it. Dr. Whalen and two associates co-purchased the craft and loaned it to the school to keep it in the fleet! “Owning one of my very own one day is still part of my long-range planning,” he says.

“It’s true that it’s an expensive hobby,” says Buonanducci. He acknowledges that he will most likely seek out a flying club that has a pool of aircraft. “Still, it would be worth every penny, because the feeling of freedom is priceless.”

In his work as an author and journalist, Joel Samberg has written about many human endeavors and has profiled professionals in such fields as psychology, music, theater, higher education, and neuroscience.