Standing in a scruffy field tucked behind trees in Limerick, Walter "Billy" Lanoue pulls a blade of grass, tosses it into the sweet summer air, and watches as it wafts gently down. "That's my wind sock," he explains. Then he clambers into the tiny cockpit of his gray 1946 Ercoupe. He tugs on his headset, pulls up the bubble, and starts the engine, which emits a guttural if modest roar. He lurches and bounces down the runway, kicking up small puffs of dust. Hard by the trees, he slows. Circles. Revs.And, wings wobbling slightly, takes off. Soon, he is a small, glad buzz in the sky.
Lanoue has no radio or flight plan. The field in York County has no tarmac or control tower. Nor does it appear on any map. But its ragged 2,000 feet of gravel, grass, and dandelions has just enough reach, says Lanoue. "You can hop in and go."
Scattered across the state are perhaps 200 such private airstrips, glorified cow pastures where backwoods pilots celebrate flying the way it used to be - and, to their restive minds, should remain. At places with names such as Gadabout Gaddis, Rocky Ridge, Two Fools Fly-In, and Windsock Airport they happily honor the treetop-skimming spirit of barnstorming and what one calls its alluring but wholly impractical "lifestyle."
To wit: Most spend more time working on their planes, talking up their planes, and mowing grass on behalf of their planes than actually flying them. Most spend more money than they have. Having often started flying late in life, most have learned to be adept woodshed mechanics, able to fix anything, especially if there's duct tape handy. And to keep things interesting, most fly World War II-era taildraggers, small, scrappy, tail-heavy rigs built to take off fast and land, God and the crosswinds willing, anywhere.
Some gather at communal strips on weekend mornings, before the wind picks up, for "hangar flying": kibbitzing, tinkering, telling tales of miraculous landings, and debating which suitably distant place to go for breakfast or lunch, known as "the hundred-dollar hamburger." Others rely on their own strips that are essentially just extended backyards carved out of the woods by what Billy Pepper of Livermore Falls calls "foolish people who do way too much work just to be around flying." He knows. He spent ten years putting in his strip, he says blithely, "for no good reason on earth."
Billy Lanoue was ten years old when he took his first plane ride out of the Limerick field, then used for cropdusting local orchards. Now a fifty-six-year-old welder, he bought his Ercoupe as a $3,000 "basket case" and spent years restoring it. It's all worth it, he proclaims, the second he leaves the solid ground. "You're up and away from everything," he says. "You're free."
"Gravity never loses!" warns one of the renowned "Murphy's Laws for Civil Aviation" often posted in back-forty hangars or clubhouses. "The best you can hope for is a draw." Another counsels, "Learn from the mistakes of others — you won't live long enough to make all of them yourself."
Flyers for the most part are a wise-cracking, self-referential bunch, who keep to themselves and resist cataloguing. In its June 2004 register of Regional Active Airmen, the Federal Aviation Administration counts more than 3,000 Maine pilots, with about 1,500 listed as private pilots. Of those, the largest number, 316, is in Cumberland County. Washington and Piscataquis counties, with about thirty each, have the fewest. Most are men, though women have formed the Katahdin Wings, a Maine chapter of the Ninety-Nines, an international women pilots' group. They meet monthly to go get a hundred-dollar hamburger, says Lori Plourd of Bridgton, "though it's typically Thai food."
Maine's numbers engender fierce debate. Some pilots say the state is a paradise of cow-pasture flying; others complain that Maine, with its vast wooded and unlandable (and therefore unflyable) stretches, is what Calvin Reynolds calls "the bottom of the pile, the end of the world." Reynolds, 66, built his strip, Webster Field, at his son Steve's house in Buxton; between them they have five planes. He often flies to Florida and the Midwest, where, he says admiringly, there are flyers "everywhere."
Still, there are a half-dozen strips within a couple of miles of Reynolds, and you can tell a lot by the sheer number of such vest-pocket airports across the state. When you ask flyers about the preponderance of strips and pilots in Maine, by far the most common, if admittedly unscientific, response you get is, "They're everywhere."
John Enemark, who flies his own Piper Cub and everything from jets to seaplanes for the F.A.A.'s Flight Standards Division, says Maine has so much open space in which to tuck a small strip and plane that "you don't know they're there till you see 'em."
Maine's aeronautical charts show roughly 200 registered airstrips. (About sixty are public-use paved airports). The rest are grass strips. According to rustic etiquette, you call ahead or fly over, and if somebody comes out and waves, then come on down. Many more are nowhere on the charts, but come on down anyway.
Though few non-pilots know it, there are strips in the most congested parts of southern Maine: Yarmouth, Scarborough, Cape Elizabeth right next to Crescent Beach, Westbrook adjoining a housing development. There are strips in Fairfield, Dixfield, Wales, Greene, Carmel, Deblois, Jefferson, Blue Hill, Stonington, Vinalhaven. There are two in Minot and a half dozen near Newburgh. Most have no hangars or lights, but in online listings they offer runway details - "turf in good condition" - and helpful hints: "soft in spring," "frost heave midfield," "critters on the runway."
Most of the planes landing there are 1940s taildraggers, often Piper Cubs or Aeronca Champs. Grass is more forgiving than asphalt, notes one flyer, and "taildraggers belong on grass." Modern planes have a so-called tricycle gear - one wheel under the nose and two under the wings - that makes them stand more or less level. Taildraggers have only two wheels set slightly forward of the wings with a tiny wheel under the tail; the tail-down position moves their center of gravity to the rear and makes them far trickier to land. Taildragger fans like to say that those who fly the three-wheeled trikes or "milk stools" are wimps, and that "only real men fly taildraggers."
For years, the strips hosted dauntless groups like the Butt Draggers and Pine Tree Trimmers. They'd show up on weekends or for events like Pancake Fly-Ins and Poker Runs, wherein pilots pick up five cards at five airports and see who lands with the best hand. More recently, several groups have dwindled or drifted off to private strips. Bowdoinham's Merrymeeting Airfield is closed and rumored to become the site of exclusive pilots' homes. Limerick is down to one or two diehards, as is Harrison's Maple Ridge. Some cite natural attrition: trees grow, flyers age, houses get built. Others blame a post 9/11 environment that has seen insurance costs soar and rules multiply. The FAA must sign off on any repair more complex than an oil change, and must declare every piece of every plane "airworthy" - a standard that one pilot says "means whatever they want it to mean - it's a big, broad picture."
In part, the gap has been filled by a flourishing electronic community. Web sites offer flying news, tips, debates ("Is the Wheel Landing Really Better in a Crosswind?") and data on airports. Guides to fly-in restaurants provide ratings in flying burgers (lobster sandwiches at the mini-mart across from Twitchell's in Turner: two burgers) and warnings: "Do not order the hungry man breakfast unless you are hungry!"
Still, the real thing endures. One of the smoother, more active strips is 2,600-foot Bowman Field in East Livermore Falls, home to about a dozen planes. They adorn the field and wait in dirt-floor hangars alongside tractors, snowblowers, couches, and work benches strewn with nuts and bolts. On the walls are flyers' pinups: pictures of planes.
Bowman's Flying Club, with thirty-five members, hosts a popular fly-in each August that helps pay for taxes, and a core group of about ten share mowing and other chores. One blue-sky day, they perch on beams to build a hangar for Joe Smith's rare '42 Stearman biplane. Crew boss Francis "Scotty" Scott, 66, offers proof that flying is not a young man's game: He started flying at forty-eight after his wife bought him lessons. (This is a surprisingly common tale; it remains unclear how many wives subsequently regret it.) His daughter had finished college, he explains, "and I had to spend my money someplace."
Flying is expensive: lessons can cost $100 an hour, paint can cost $250 a gallon, and taildraggers originally worth about $2,000 often cost $20,000 now. Hence, another Murphy's Law: "If God meant man to fly, he'd have given him more money."
Time, too. Says Kenny Lyman, "Time is the big deal - there are always 'some day' projects." Lyman's farmer grandfather, Royston "Stubby" Lyman, started the field with Winn Bowin, joining their names and turning a 4-H shed into the clubhouse.
Today's clubhouse showcases pictures of planes and more Murphy's Laws: "Never let an airplane take you somewhere your brain didn't get to five minutes earlier . . . Those who hoot with the owls by night should not soar with the eagles by day . . . The only time you have too much fuel is when you're on fire." On the sun-drenched deck, the guys eat burgers and pie and relish the kind of grass-strip moment that doesn't exist at the runways Smith calls "them concrete jobbies." Says Paul Bates, "The food, the air, the June bugs, the white knuckles - this is real."
Every backcountry pilot has his or her own abstruse reasons for flying. Jimmy Rogers, who built a strip in Windham for his two Cubs, celebrates a boundless sense of "the whole world ahead of you. Up there, whaddya got? You got no end."
For Albert Goodrich of Kennebunkport, flying is "all I've ever done." Now seventy-three, he remembers his first intoxicating plane ride as a kid and the countless model planes he built in tribute to it. Goodrich struggles to explain what he calls "the lure of flying, the freedom of doing what you want to be doing, the freedom of movement - you just do it." After flying in the military for more than twenty years, he retired and spent years whittling out his Back Acres Airport from what was thick woods: "My wife and I had a real experience." Ask when he built it, and he retorts, "Why is a much better question."
Less than a mile away, still in Kennebunkport, Dave Burnham put in his Goose Fair Airstrip around the same time. The two have a genial rivalry, or at least Goodrich does. Having bogged down in yet another of the thousand wet spots that have trapped his tractor, he observes, "I bet Uncle Dave doesn't have those."
Burnham started flying in his forties, having spent decades working as a chief engineer in the merchant marine. After all those dark hot engine rooms, he says, flying was "a completely new way to do things. You get up and away from the ground - it's a different world." Starting in 1983, he spent three years leveling several fields out back for his runway, then built a spacious hangar. Despite all the work, he says, "I wouldn't trade what I did for anything."
For Burnham, 72, a strip out back of the house is "what it's all about. You can land in your dooryard, taxi to the hangar, take out your bags, and you're home." Still, his Cessna 180 can sit for months in his spacious hangar without going anywhere. It often needs work: seat rails, panel mounts. He often has other things to do: lobstering, life. And anytime George Bush is in town, he's grounded.
Regardless, he willingly mows every week, plows every snowstorm, washes and waxes and tinkers on his plane. "It's all pleasure," he says. And every evening, all year long, he heads out back with his hound-dog Jake. Together, they walk the strip, happy in their play.