When I arrived at the Northampton Airport in the beginning of my summer, strewn over the table in the meeting room were old sectional maps, piles of textbooks, and boxes and boxes of balsa wood airplanes. My first thought was who could possibly use that many balsa wood airplanes. When I inquired about it, everyone told me it was all in preparation for summer camp.
The summer camp at the Northampton Airport, technically the summer aviation seminar, is a program that teaches twelve to sixteen year olds the basics of flying. In addition to traditional camp activities and classroom time, the kids have the opportunity to fly. The current flight camp began ten years ago and has run every summer since.
There are two weeklong camps: a beginner week and a more advanced week. The advanced week takes the topic to a deeper level, with more advanced flight planning and more flight time. The students usually attend the beginner camp for one year and then return to the advanced camp for as many years as they are able. “We’ve had students return year in and year out; we recognize the faces, especially of the older kids,” said Pat Dufraine, one of the instructors, as he explained how the instructors really get to know the kids. Ultimately, the camp is about giving the children an experience whether they fly professionally. Most children don’t know what they want to do as a career, but Dufraine argued, “I think any little thing that assists a student to find their direction, that gives them something to draw off of, helps.”
The other instructor Mike Byrnes, an ex-military helicopter pilot, has been with the camp since the beginning. He is a highlight of the classroom with his many seemingly absurd stories and jokes, capturing everyone’s attention. To get a taste of his sense of humor, he introduced himself as “The Fountain of Knowledge and Truth.” In conversation, he animatedly told me a story about how about a month ago he crashed into pole to avoid hitting a black bear, quickly making it into a lesson about situational awareness and dealing with unexpected situations.
One of the younger campers I talked to was Shivani Parmar. When I visited the classroom, she was quiet, but extremely focused, listening intently and taking notes. She heard about the camp through her grandfather, who has a plane at the Northampton Airport. This past year she began taking private lessons, and although she has four more years until she can actually get her private pilot’s license, she loves it. Flying is also a way she can bond with her grandfather. “He teaches me everything he can about the plane,” she said. When I asked about her experience flying she said, “It motivates you. It makes you feel like you are doing something important.” She was also pleasantly surprised when she came to camp. She expected it to be like school. “I didn’t expect it to be as fun. I thought it was going to be a camp where all you do is learn, but it’s not just that.”
During camp, many of their activates emphasized the experience the campers are having with each other. They do some icebreakers, play trust building games, and cooperative games. These have a goal of teaching situational awareness, multitasking, and teamwork, skills needed to pilot a plane. Dufraine said, “We want them to establish some friendships,” highlighting the benefit of learning in a group situation. Jasper Stedman, a returning camper, commented that he actually preferred the community environment when learning about flying. He said, “It’s more fun; you have a group of people. You’re doing group activities.”
In the classroom, they talked about the physics of flying, flight planning, navigational techniques, and different types of planes. Dufraine explained about the importance of learning the science behind how a plane flies: “It’s all about the physical world around them…You just get a better understanding,” he said. When I visited the beginner week, I watched the campers launch bottle rockets while learning about the forces of flight, which include lift, drag, gravity, and thrust. They gleefully shot their rockets into the sky, competing to have the highest rocket and videotaping their successes. “When we talk about the forces of flight, we talk about in terms of airplanes, but we also talk about how they would apply to space vehicles,” said Dufraine.“Rockets are just on a different plane and different direction, but the forces of flight still act on them.”
Stedman further explained the engineering challenges and give me the answer to the use for all those balsa wood airplanes: “We found a box of balsa wood airplanes in the back and we have gone crazy. It’s supposed to be just the basic – one fuselage and one set of wings, but we’ve been mixing them, making two, three fuselage planes, making giants ones, people have gone kind of crazy with them.” he said. “There’s been a lot of engineering with them this week.” Dufraine explained that it’s a way, “to just have fun and play around, but also find out to know what causes it to turn, what causes it to fly straight, what causes it to lift.”
The balsa wood airplanes are the epitome of the summer flight seminar; it’s about morphing something educational into something fun. It’s about engaging kids and letting them have fun, but also giving them an experience to take with them. “We emphasize having fun but they are really learning the art of flying,” Byrnes said.
My Experience in the Air
Describing his famous solo transatlantic flight, the first in history, Charles Lindbergh in The Spirit of St. Louis writes,“Now, my plane is all important, and life is vulnerable within it; now, neither it nor life is of any consequence of all, and the consciousness seems unbound to either one.” Two weeks ago, Igot to experience the feeling of flying in a single engine plane and make sense of Lindbergh’s words for myself.
When I heard I was going to have the opportunity to fly on a single engine flight again, I felt a mix of anticipation, curiosity and a little bit of fear. The only other time I had gone up in a single engine plane was more than six years ago, when my mother gifted my father an intro flight for his birthday. Flights make pretty amazing gifts, by the way. I went up with him as my mother was too scared, and I remember imagining myself as a speck of dust, a spectator in the universe, miniscule in the scope the vast landscape. I could see everything.
This time I’d got to experience the flight, not as an eager spectator along for the ride, but in the front seat with a little bit of agency of my own. I flew with Vinnie Melling, one of the flight instructors at the Northampton Airport and the man behind the curtain on all of the Northampton Airport’s social media. I had expected to get there, jump into the plane, and immediatelysoar into the sky. Instead, we began by checking the conditions of the sky and the plane. This included using a digital sectional map to view the weather, turbulence, and Temporary Flight Restrictions.
Afterward, Melling led me to the airplane, a Cessna 152. We still did not go inside the plane. Instead we examined every inch of the airplane, completing what is called pre-flight. We must have spent at least a half hour examining the fuel, arching our backs under the wings to look at the hinges above, and running our hands along the sides, cleaning out sensors.Although, the inspection felt a bit tedious, I soon realized that not only was it essential, but it also made me feel much safer as a passenger. Anyone with a fear a flying should do pre-flight; instead of blindly trusting the plane and the pilot, I saw with my own eyes that the airplane was not, in fact, going to fall apart in the middle of the sky.
Finally, we stepped into the plane. The inside of the plane was tight and felt a little dated in a nostalgic way. There were only two seats with two sets of matching controls, reminiscent of Driver’s Ed cars with their two sets of brakes. This way Melling could take over just in case anything went wrong. Once inside, Melling decoded all of the flight instruments. Having seen a cockpit before, I’ve always been intimidated by all the dials, numbers, and measuring tools on the dashboard. They were futuristic in an 80’s movie kind of way. They are not much more complicated than the speedometer in a car, but there are so many more of them. We finished the pre-flight checklist, turnedon the engine, put on our headsets and we were ready to begin. One of the weirdest experiences was trying to steer the plane to the runway with my feet. It felt uncomfortable in the same way writing with one’s non-dominant hand is uncomfortable; it feels unnatural, but easier with practice. Melling took off for us and we were in the air.
The feeling of being in the air is like nothing I’ve felt before. Melling said that on his first flight, “The sensation of leaving the ground and seeing my perspective of the world changing was almost too much for my 8 year old mind to grasp.” It’s a whole new way of seeing the world. I’ve flown on many commercial flights, but viewing the ground from a tiny dirty window in a mammoth of a machine makes the passenger feel distant from the surroundings. It’s like I know I’m flying, but it feels more like everything I see is happening on a TV screen. On the single engine plane, however, all I could see was the sky; I truly got the sense that I was flying. I could see the horizon and the houses below. Even with a headset on, I could hear the engine thrumming in the background. When the plane turned and dipped I could feel the movements in the inertia of my body. I knew if I pushed the yoke in front of me forward, I could make the plane plummet. All that was separating me from the air and the sky was a piece of plastic. There’s an exhilaratingdanger knowing how close you could be to falling. In the air, we followed the roads to my house, circling it. I felt like I was seeing a model of Northampton. Recognizing buildings I knew from the air was startling. I understood Lindbergh’s description that “the consciousness seems unbound.” I felt unbound from subjectivity and gravity. It was like I was omniscient, seeing the tiny buildings and lives continuing on below me. Unlike the first time, where a felt like a fly watching life below, this time I almost felt like a god.
Melling let me bank a couple of turns. While the turns were not very steep, it felt like I was on a carnival ride, except that I was in control. One thing I found challenging was the idea of keeping the plane from dropping and elevating. Melling mentioned in the beginning that it was hard for many people to get used to steering in three dimensions. Unlike any other form of transportation, in flying you are concerned with moving up or down, something that is particularly tricky because your only point of reference is the horizon line. When driving, lane lines can help with steering, but when flying, this type of infrastructure doesn’t exist. Instead the pilot has to pay attention to the changing altitude of the plane and get a sense of what the picture of the horizon looks like when the plane is rising or lowering, Often I thought I was going straight, but realized minutes later after looking at the altitude that I had been going up for quite some time. Overall, though, the controls of flying felt surprisingly intuitive.
At the end, Melling landed the plane for us, and we once again used our feet to bring us back to the place we began. We did some final inspections, tied up the plane, and left. It had been exhilarating, but there was a tiny part of me that was glad to be on the ground again. Later, I got a call from an excited family member letting me know they were sure they had seen me in the sky. I’m not sure if it was actually my plane they saw, but I like imagining the idea of my family being one of the many lives I was watching over that day and them staring and waving back.
Flight Day at the Northampton Airport!
The other day I had the chance to witness students from Chestnut Academy in Springfield, MA participate in Flight Day, essentially their graduation from the Wright Flight Program at the Northampton Airport. Luckily, it was a perfect afternoon, with clear skies and warm weather. The Wright Flight Program encourages students from around the area to engage in STEM fields through aviation. It is a twelve-week program where students learn about the history and science of aviation through a traditional class setting and hands on experience. They learn about basic aerodynamics, basic flight controls, the history of aviation, technology, and navigation. They also have the opportunity to take a trip to the New England Air Museum, tour specialty machine shop Advance Manufacturing as well as Gulfstream, both in Westfield. The classes culminate with Flight Day, where they have the opportunity to fly a plane under the supervision of an instructor.
Chestnut Academy is a middle school in a low-income area of Springfield. Most of the kids told me they had never been in a plane before. I asked if they were nervous about flying, and they responded with a chorus of “yes,” “terrified,” and one sassy girl added, “I’m not excited to go to heaven…” Alex Seid, the teacher chaperone and 7th grade science teacher at Chestnut Academy explained why this opportunity is so important: it provides exposure the kids would not otherwise get. “There is only one school in the area, Westfield Vocational,that has an aviation program… These kids are the only ones in the city who have access to something like this,” he said. “They love it. Right now you can see the anxiety coming out, but this is the day they have all been looking forward to.”
The kids in this program all seem to be very motivated. Many told me they were on honorroll or recommended to the program by their teachers. Don Gallagher, the Director of Student Life and Dean of Student Culture at Chestnut Academy, explained that they try to choose kids who are genuinely interested to participate. Last year, the Wright Flight program in Northampton paid for 120 kids form Chestnut Academy in Springfield to go to the New England Air Museum. Out of these kids, anyone who was really interested, who wanted to be a pilot or an airplane mechanic, was asked to write an essay to receive admission to the program. Chestnut Academy has only participated in Wright Flight for the past two years, but Gallagher hopes this program will continue to grow at his school. “Bringing in resources like these guys makes the kids, not just want to come to school, but it really puts life experience into their education,” he said. DonSiegel, classroom instructor for Wright Flight and Northampton Airport community member added,” it’s engaging kids in something they are interested in. If they really want to pursue it, that requires them to learn those things which they maybe were not interested in at school,” explaining how this program gives students tangible motivation for learning.
While I was there I watched the instructors talking to the students on what they had learned, whether it was quizzing the group of them about who the first licensed female pilot was as the students shouted their guesses (its Harriet Quimby, by the way, not Amelia Earhart), or reviewing one-on-one with Seid how exactly the plane worked. An antique pamphlet about the first major Air Meet in the east coast, the Harvard-Boston Aero Meet, was being passed around as the students handled it carefully in awe. Some excitedly took photos with the planes and teased each other about their fear of heights; others rushed for the pizza. It felt like a celebration.
After his flight, I spoke to Jareem Garvin, a 7th grader at Chestnut Academy. Garvin wants to be an engineer. “I’m really interested in STEM, so Mr. Gallagher introduced me to the program,” he said. He seemed especially excited about getting to be part of this, explaining that the program “introduced me to things that will help further me when I’m older.” He told me how he learned the basic parts of the airplane and how the curved shape of the wings allows for flight through Bernoulli’s principle. After having skimmed the textbook used, I was impressed by how much of it he picked up and the genuine interest he seemed to have. Garvin brought his mother along for the ride; it was her first flight as well. “She was scared. I had to keep checking on her. I thought she was going to pass out,” he said. When asked, his mother played it pretty cool, claiming that she wasn’t scared because she trusts her son. She said, “He pays attention, not only to what he learned in the past couple of weeks, but to life, period.” Furthermore, she believes the experience had a really positive impact on her son; “This will give him a push and a drive for what he decides to do later,” she said.
Ultimately, Flight Day was a community event and a celebration. Many people from within the Northampton Airport community chip into this event and this program, whether it is teaching classes or coordinating the logistics, and the students and the instructors seem to love it. It’s a program run by the people of Northampton Airport, who are reaching out and touching the local area. Dan Bergeron, the coordinator of the program, explained that he loves this program because, “You can’t change the world, but you can change the world for that one kid. You get enough people doing this stuff, and it spreads.”
Lise Lemeland: Behind the Art at the Northampton Airport
Lise Lemeland: Behind the Art at the Northampton Airport
One of the first things a visitor to the Northampton Airport notices is the painting hanging to the left of the entrance in the lobby. It depicts a plane performing aerobatics over a blue world of lace and part of a sectional chart of Martha’s Vineyard. Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to the artist behind the painting, Lise Lemeland, aerobatic pilot and painter. Hearing her story gives a whole new perspective to the work.
The day I met Lemeland, she walked into the airport wearing airplane-shaped earrings and necklace. Her passion for flying was immediately evident, not just in her accessories, but in the passionate way she talked about flying. This, however, has not always been the case; in fact, she began flying because she was terrified of it. Ten years ago, Lemeland and her sister signed up for a flight in a biplane from World War II, a 1941 Waco UPF-7. When her sister was unable to make it, Lemeland was left to fly by herself. The pilot asked her what she wanted to do and she said something along the lines of, “I don’t know. I’m terrified. Just do anything.” The pilot then proceeded to take her on tight banks, loops and a barrel roll. Lemeland described, “I looked up; it was an open cockpit, and I saw the ocean above. I had never seen anything like this in my life and with the G-forces and the adrenaline…I was hooked!” Immediately, she began training to get her pilot’s license and fly aerobatics. Since then, she has been flying competitively around the Northeast.
When she first started flying, creating art was difficult. “I didn’t want to be painting; I just wanted to be flying,” she said. Soon after, however, she began incorporating her love for flying into her art. “I always create art based on my interests, so it made sense to create art about flying,” she said. In a 2013 MassLive interview, she explained, “When I don’t fly, I don’t feel inspired in my studio.” Patterns and textures have always been a central component of Lemeland’s work. This interest and focus on patterns create her signature style and for her, “flight really lends itself to those tendencies.” In many of her aviation inspired pieces, for example, she includes lace. The texture and transparency of lace reminds her of the experience of looking through the clouds. Her art also often includes sectional charts of the places she has flown, as seen in the painting at the Northampton Airport.
My personal favorite aspect of the piece at the Northampton Airport was how she used color and framing to capture an aerobatic move. For example, the planes depicted in various shades of gray are from a diagram in a book about aerobatics. Bits of text from the same book swirl around these planes in corresponding colors. Additionally if you look closely, the warm toned shape representing the earth is at the top of the painting, putting the viewers in the perspective of the pilot, giving them the chance to experience the exhilaration of an aerobatic flight. Her “claim to fame,” as she laughingly called it, was in 2013 when the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum included her piece in an aviation inspired exhibit. She excitedly added that the piece will soon be there on permanent display.
There is one tragic aspect of Lemeland’s story. When she first began flying, she “fell totally in love” with her flying instructor, Pat Jessup. Shortly after they married, Jessup died in a plane crash in 2010. For many, this would likely mean never flying again. For Lise, it is a way of staying connected to her husband. Although, flying after the death of her husband was initially “very hard and scary,” she realized that because he loved flying, he would want her to continue. “I learned so much from him; when I fly I can still hear him reminding me of things,” she said. Lemeland is a self-proclaimed risk taker, a roller coaster lover, and a bit of an adrenaline junkie. She, however, considers herself a very careful pilot, driven in part because of what happened to her husband. Aerobatics, she explains, actually make her a safer flyer. “In aerobatics you train to do spins and handle all those things safely, so I think it makes you a better pilot because you learn the capacity of your plane and what stick and rudder flying feels like,” she said. A memorial piece for her husband hangs in their airport in Howell, NY.
Currently, Lemeland’s flying career is going through drastic changes. Firstly, she will not be competing anymore. “I was really into competition for quite a while until this year, when I basically changed careers, became a nurse, and realized I won’t have weekends free to go to competitions.” Secondly, she decided she needed a new challenge, so she is selling her Super Decathlon, which she has had for about eight years and revisiting the Waco. The Waco is a challenge because, not only is it underpowered and heavy compared to the Super Decathlon, the pilot also basically has to learn to land blind. Although she will not be able to compete in the biplane, she admired how beautiful it is: “It’s like stepping back in time to fly it.” Knowing how her art reflects her interests and experiences, I look forward to seeing how these changes influence her art and possibly seeing a Waco in her upcoming pieces.