Spetember 28, 1999
By Donald P. Myers. STAFF WRITER
Despite the deaths of JFK Jr. and his wife and siter-in-law this summer,
licenses for private are soaring in popularity.
"Flying may not be all plain sailing, but the fun of it is worth the price."-
Amelia Earhart ADRIA DREW FLEW her Piper Archer single-engine
airplane north at 90 knots over New York Harbor, and as she smiled down on the Statue of Liberty 900 feet below, she made a cockpit confession: She's a recovering coward. "I used to be a complete chicken flier," she said, perched on a pillow in the pilot's seat. "I'd get nauseous. I'd turn green." Bummer.
Flying low over the Hudson River - below Manhattan's skyline - didn't seem like
the best place for a pilot to confess to a past with
the white-knuckle crowd. "When pilots solo for the first time, they usually get a nickname," said the 33-year-old mother from Greenlawn. "When I got my license, my flight instructor named me 'Thigh Crusher,' because every time we hit a bump, I'd grab this poor guy's knee." As her airplane's shadow raced past the rush-hour traffic on Riverside Drive below, the pilot known as Thigh Crusher veered left over the Hudson to distance her plane from a helicopter zipping by on the right. "In here," she said, "you really need to keep your eyes open for other aircraft." The knuckles that used to be white are baked brown now by the sun. Adria Drew got her pilot's license four years ago, and her hands are in control. She's one of the nation's 618,000 "general aviation" fliers, as private pilots are known.
After a 15-year slump, the $5 billion U.S. general- aviation industry is enjoying a resurgence, thanks in part to a strong economy and a millennium spirit of adventure. Faced with increasing highway congestion and air-traffic delays on commercial airlines, more Americans
are flying private airplanes - for fun and business - and more small planes are being built.
"Flying allows very busy people, for a short time, a respite from their normal
life, to get away from the stresses of everyday life and
see a different world up there," said Drew Steketee of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, a trade group that represents private
fliers. "Some pilots feel it's truly a heavenly experience." The popularity and safety of small airplanes - and the people who fly them -
have been under scrutiny since the high-profile crash off Martha's Vineyard July 16 that killed John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife, Carolyn, and
her sister, Lauren Bessette.
The Kennedy crash hasn't hampered Adria Drew, who was flying over the George Washington
Bridge and smiling down at the car-jam below.
"Most people seem to think that pilots are these crazy renegade lunatics," she said. "Actually, we're just the opposite. You don't just
hop in your plane and go. You have to check the nuts and bolts and make sure everything is working. You check the weather. You check the plane. You even check yourself. A daredevil pilot doesn't last long." The 2,719 general-aviation pilots in Suffolk, 1,500 in Nassau and 829 in Queens include all pilots except those who fly commercial airliners or military planes. Private pilots range from student fliers in rented planes, to
corporate pilots carrying clients or cargo, to Adria Drew in her Piper Archer.
Private pilots believe flying is safer than driving a car - without all the road
rage. The number of fatal accidents involving small private
airplanes has dropped 22 percent nationally, from 460 in 1988 to 361 in 1998, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Mistakes
by private pilots cause 75 percent of the accidents. By comparison, one American motorist is killed every 12 minutes in an automobile accident,
a total of 43,200 deaths in 1997, according to the National Safety Council.
If it's true that Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh and the other pioneer pilots
flew by the seat of their pants, then most of today's
pilots say they try to fly with reason. Henry Talmage, 35, a Riverhead farmer, tools around in a 53-year-old, 765-pound Aeronca Champ - and he takes his sons along, one at a time. The little two-seat plane gets inspected regularly, and the family flies only if the weather's right. The boys, 6-year-old Taylor and 4-year-old Clayton, fight over who flies first with Dad. "I've had people tell me I'm crazy for taking my kids flying - as if
it were some kind of child abuse," said Talmage, a grower who runs a greenhouse nursery business. "It's my butt and my kids' butts, so that
should tell you how careful I am." Adria Drew flies with her husband, Larry, and their 21-month-old son, Cole. The hazel-eyed boy was a
veteran flier even before he was born - he had about 50 hours in utero - and he's never been a chicken like his mom.
"Cole loves flying," the boy's mother said. "He goes right in the
back seat and falls asleep the minute we take off. Then when we land, he
wakes up, happy as a clam. I think he's pilot material." Some still believe small airplanes are risky, but the people who fly them say the
fun of it is worth the price.
Adria Drew flies with her son because they can get to Grandma's house in Virginia in a couple of hours. Haiti-born Jean-Claude Brizard, 35, principal of George Westinghouse High School in Brooklyn, flies because he can skip the traffic and hop up to Nantucket for lunch now and then. "We have our own HOV lane up there," he said.
Steve D'Antonio, 48, a New York police lieutenant from Brooklyn, flies because
he has serious toys - on or off the job. At work, he flies
a Bell 206 jet helicopter on police patrol. On his own, he owns and flies a Rockwell Commander, a $290,000 muscle-plane with a view better
than a boat. "Are these great toys, or what?" he said. Luz Beattie, 37, of Oakdale, flies because she got hooked as a child on the old TV series starring Sally Field. "When I was 5 years old, I thought I was the Flying Nun," said Beattie, a native of Colombia who owns a 1976 Cessna 150. She bought the plane for $23,000, and uses it to run her own flight-instructor business, Long Island Flight. "I should write Sally Field and tell her how much she's meant to me." Hal Weisman, 64, of Montauk, flies because he can go low and slow and look around. The retired construction executive owns a 1958 Cessna 172, which he bought last year for $25,000 and keeps at East Hampton Airport. "It's my little baby," he says. "I feel total freedom up there." Jane and Tom Schrafel of Floral Park, both 37, both pilots, fly for the romance of it. They met outside Hangar 3 at Republic Airport in East Farmingdale, and got married last year. He: "When we go flying together, we're two pilots first, and husband and wife second." She: "Whoever's in the left seat is in command of the plane." They live under the Kennedy Airport glide path, so flying goes around the clock for them.
Morris Wiener, 85, of Medford, flies for the thrill of it. "You can see God's
green earth and you see the cities pulsating with life," he said. He first flew a Taylor E2 Cub in the old
days, and now he flies his 30-year-old Beechcraft Muscateer out of Brookhaven Calabro Airport with his pal, Gertrude
Box, 77, of Seaford. She's a pilot, a skydiver, a skindiver and a surfboarder. She bought herself a Harley-Davidson
for her birthday two years ago. "I've mastered the land, and I've mastered the sea, so the last thing to master
was the air," she said. "Morris and I just do what the birds do." A recovering coward like Adria
Drew learned to fly just to prove she could. On a New York-to-Los Angeles airline flight six years ago, she listened
on her cabin headset to the radio frequency used by the pilots. She may have been chicken-hearted, but instead
of getting nauseated, she got hooked on flying. When she got back to Long Island, however, she forgot about flying
- until her stepfather died suddenly of cancer. "After he died, I said to myself, 'If you're going to learn
how to fly, you'd better not wait around, because you never know how much time you have left.'" It took her
a year to get her private license at Nassau Flyers, a flight school at Republic Airport. She said learning to fly
takes time and patience - and between $5,000 and $7,000. That includes plane rental, flight instruction and learning
everything from flight safety to airplane mechanics, navigation, communications and the weather. These are boom
times for manufacturers of small airplanes, due in
large part to a 1994 law that prohibits producers from being sued for accidents on small planes they built decades ago. Production of new
planes has more than doubled in the past five years, and the Federal Aviation Administration forecasts a 25 percent increase in the number of
private pilots over the next 10 years.
"The future of general aviation is bright because flying is a great mode of
transportation for the 21st Century," said Ed Bowlen, president
of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, a trade group. "With a mile of runway, you can fly anywhere in the world." Although a fancy airplane can be an expensive toy, a used plane can cost less than a new luxury car. The cost of a small plane ranges from about $20,000 for an old puddle-jumper up into the millions for a fancy corporate jet. CURRENTLY, 195,000 private planes are certified nationwide to fly,
including 1,283 in Nassau and Suffolk. Most private pilots rent planes instead of owning them, with rental rates starting at about $55 an hour.
Owning a plane includes a lot more than the sticker price. Ed Libassi, an aviation mechanic who owns his own business at Brookhaven
Airport, said costs include $2,000 to $5,000 a year for maintenance, $60 to $100 a month to park the plane at an airport, plus about $2.35 a
gallon for fuel. "I don't know if a plane is a rich man's toy, but a lot of families have trouble raising all that money," Libassi said. "It costs you $1,000 a year just to tie it down, and you haven't even flown your toy yet." Adria Drew was flying her Piper Archer on a 75-minute sunset trip. She had taken off from Republic Airport and was sailing along smoothly in her little four-seater with dual controls. "You wanna fly the plane?" she said, suddenly. Bummer.
Flying 1,500 feet through the haze over Long Island Sound didn't seem like the
best place for a pilot to trust another coward from the
white-knuckle crowd. "You're like my husband," the pilot said. "He won't touch the controls, either." Larry Drew doesn't trust himself in the cockpit, but he trusts his wife. He was her first passenger after she got her license. "She has the pilot mentality - she's detail-oriented, she's
bright, she's patient," he said. "Me, I can't even drive a car." Adria Drew, who sells shampoo and other products for her husband's
beauty-supply business, paid $23,000 for her half of the 1983 Piper Archer she shares with another pilot. Not everyone in her family is thrilled that she's a pilot. Her mother-in-law, Lee Drew of Albertson, says novenas for every flight: "I'm proud of her, but I say a lot of prayers. My son was one of those white-knuckle fliers - now he goes up with Adria and they take my grandson, and I say, 'Oh, dear God, there goes the whole family.'" Flying is not all smooth sailing, of course. The NTSB has ruled that the single-engine Piper Saratoga piloted by John F. Kennedy Jr. had been working properly when it crashed into the Atlantic, 71/2 miles offshore. The crash has focused attention on flight training and safety, and some aviation critics have called for stricter rules for private pilots. The Airline Owners and Pilots Association, the general-aviation
trade group, opposes stricter FAA regulations. The AOPA, which has been called "the NRA of the air" because of its political clout in Congress, has been successful over the years in promoting flier-friendly rules. Like most private pilots, Henry Talmage, the Riverhead farmer and flier, opposes tougher rules that could result from the Kennedy crash. "It worries me when any law is written to regulate against
stupidity," Talmage said. "I don't mean to sound harsh, but let's face it - it was a bad decision that got John Kennedy into trouble." Talmage
believes Kennedy flew into weather conditions he wasn't prepared for: "That doesn't mean that all pilots make bad decisions or that flying is
I feel safer in the air than I do driving on the LIE." Talmage is a member
of a pioneer Long Island farm family, so his bright-green Aeronca
Champ has a John Deere sticker on the side. He flies the plane off a grass airstrip on the family farm, and when he takes one of his sons
along, they go with his wife's blessing. "My husband is not a risk-taker," said Janine Talmage. "The boys love to fly with him. If there's something that's not right, the weather or anything else, he won't fly. The Kennedy crash doesn't scare me." Fun, not fear, is why pilots fly.
Steve D'Antonio, the New York police pilot, also owns and manages apartment buildings.
"I do well in my business," he said. That's how he
got a serious toy like his 4-year-old, 545-horsepower Rockwell Commander, which he flies out of Republic Airport. "Some people sit in a
bar for three hours. You'll never find me in a bar. You'll find me at the airport." Jean-Claude Brizard, the Haiti-born high school principal
from Brooklyn, uses flying as a teaching tool for some of his 1,500 students, most of whom are minorities. "I tell my students, 'I'm just like you. I come from where you come from. If I can learn to fly, so can you.' It's not cheap, but if you love flying, you find the money somewhere. I find it by teaching summer school - and from credit cards." Hal Weisman, the retired executive from Montauk who flies a little 40-year-old plane, says he's wanted to fly ever since he was a boy, back when monsters used to chase him through his dreams. Flying made the ghouls go away: "I had a dream that I got into this little airplane and escaped - then came back after them.
And here I am flying a little airplane in my old age." Jane Schrafel fell in love with flying when she was 9, on the long flight that brought her family from the Philippines, her native country. She also fell in love with her husband, Tom, at the airport three years ago. She's only 4-foot-9, but she stands taller than that: "Some people know they would never be brave enough to fly, and when they find out you're a pilot, it elevates you in their eyes." Morrie Wiener and Gertie Box flew off to Martha's Vineyard the other day. "We wanted to see where poor John Kennedy crashed," she said. "We wanted to see if we could make it there and back. We had a very nice time." Wiener can't pass the required medical exam anymore because his eyes aren't what they used to be. "So I fly with my lady friend," he said. "She keeps me in the air." LUZ BEATTIE, the former 5-year-old Flying Nun who's now a flight instructor, has students ranging in age from 8 to 78. Her youngest pupil is her son Sean, who may be a pilot someday. If so, he'll have to follow FAA regulations and wait until he's 16 to solo and 17 to get his private license. "Flying is not like buying a boat and then going out immediately," the boy's mother said.
"Flying isn't instant gratification. It takes time and patience and perseverance." Only 6 percent of American private pilots are women, but Luz Beattie, Jane Schrafel, Gertrude Box, Adria Drew and 36,000 other women persevere in an industry dominated by men. "Flying is hard," Drew said. "It's not an easy thing to do, so pilots have a mutual respect for each other. Never once have I been discriminated against." She was flying south past Northport now, heading toward home. As she dropped her Piper Archer to 900 feet and slowed to 80 knots, she asked the tower at Republic Airport for landing instructions. "You are cleared to land on runway one-niner," the tower told her on the radio.
The pilot lowered the little airplane to 500 feet at 75 knots, then to 300 feet at 60 knots, then down and down for touchdown at 45 knots. "That's it," she said, taxiing toward the hangar. "That's the New York City trip - you can't get that in Wichita." She's working on her commercial pilot's license, and someday may teach others to fly. Her youngest student could turn out to be her son, the sturdy veteran flier Cole. "He's very comfortable around airplanes," the boy's mother said. "I think that's because of all the time he spent flying before he was born. If he wants to be a pilot, I'd love it, but if he wants to be a ballerina, that's OK, too." Dancing, like flying, has its costs, but getting nauseated and turning green in an airplane somehow seems worse than having two left feet on the dance floor.
"I think I'm a good flier, but I don't know that anyone would tell me if I stunk," Adria Drew said in the cockpit. "I've probably canceled more flights than I've taken. You're either a chicken or you're not a chicken." On the ground at the airport - after the flight - seemed like the perfect place for the recovering coward to confess again. "It's very cool to fly, that's true," the Greenlawn mother said. "But I'm still a chicken. If I see a cloud, I don't go."