The flyboys of Yates County

Aug 5, 2011

This summer, Innovation Trail partner station WXXI has been traveling to the Finger Lakes to meet the people who live in the region’s resort towns year-round. The idea: get a “close-up look” at the places we often just pass right through.

But close-up wasn’t good enough for me. I wanted to see these towns from above.

Handmade

Marty Tones, 80, is a member of the Penn Yan Flying Club – like his father before him, and like everyone else he knew growing up. It’s just what you did.

“This flying club was quite a thing for all the residents around here,” he says. “We had doctors, lawyers, farmers … it was all built from hand scratch … The first two or three runways we had [were] made by the club members themselves.”

That handmade airport has evolved into the two-runway Penn Yan Municipal Airport, owned by Yates County, and operated by Seneca Flight Operations, the charter jet arm of a local food processing firm.

The airfield is literally just across the road from Keuka Lake – and it’s a good place to get a great view of the Finger Lakes.

“Never leave anything up in the air”

“The first time you get up and take a look at the Finger Lakes, you’ll understand why you live here,” says Bruce Tuxhill, with a knowing laugh.

Tuxhill has had some views in his day. He’s a retired major general and the former head of Maryland’s Army and Air National Guard. But most importantly (to me anyway), he’s the chair of the club’s flight safety committee. 

The club has invited me to go up and see the view from one of their tiny planes – and I’m a pretty nervous flyer.

It’s not that these men doesn’t inspire confidence – it’s just they’re having so much fun, it borders on too much fun. 

Here’s an example: Lance McFetridge, the club’s president “accidentally” lets slip that John Travolta may have been sighted at the airport a while back. I needle him about it, and he pleads, “I’m a pilot, I can’t tell you.”

But now I’m really curious, so I ask him if there’s some sort of pilot’s code that prevents him from gossiping about other flyers. He puts on a conspiratorial look:

“Certainly there’s a pilot’s code – ‘never leave anything up in the air’.”

Club treasurer Dave Bliek chimes in, confirming: “And we never have!”

Another example: Lance and his flight instructor Gordon “Gordie” Young tell me that the day before they’d flown up to Saranac Lake to have lunch. As a person who doesn’t get on a plane without updating my will, I’m confounded. I ask them if that’s pretty common – that they just decide they want a hamburger and jump in a plane?

Lance answers, no – he had a turkey sandwich.

The flight wasn’t just about the turkey sandwich though. It was actually a training flight on the club’s most sophisticated aircraft, a Cirrus SR-20. It’s the plane they want to take me up in, and I have to admit, it’s tricked out. It’s got GPS, real time weather and traffic displays, and my very favorite feature: a parachute.

Dave Bliek informs me that the SR-20 is the first airplane that’s been certified out of the box with a parachute. If we get into trouble, the pilot can pull a handle and release the shoot, allowing the plane to float to the ground at 1,500 feet per minute. 

I like this idea very much – until Lance jumps in to note that using the chute pretty much ruins the plane. Is that a risk the club would take on some reporter they just met?

Absolutely, Lance says, soberly. “It’s not an issue, we’re instructed to do that [in case of emergency].”

Bruce underlines that point – that even though these guys joke around a lot, safety is a top priority.

“The club overall [is] for kids … to learn how to fly,” he says. “But we want to make sure that they learn to do it the right way and that that culture – that professionalism and always trying to do the right thing – is pushed into those young men and women.”

Lance also assures me that there’s never been an accident at the airport with a club member.

And then Gordie chimes in with a story about the time he knocked out a runway light with the club’s most storied possession: a bright yellow Piper Cub they’ve owned since 1946 – on the plane’s 60th anniversary.

Turns out, Gordie will be my pilot today.

“We’re very fortunate”

Gordie runs through the various checklists that you have to clear in order to get the Cirrus off the ground.  There’s no tower at this airport, so as he calls into the radio that our plane – tail number Cirrus 8 Papa Yankee – is about to take off, we just have to hope that any other aircraft in the area are listening.

He pulls up the weather on the display and I can see an aerial map of where we are. There’s Keuka Lake, there’s the Canandaigua Airport, there’s the tiny little avatar for our plane – and there’s a clutch of thunder storms creeping north over the Pennsylvania border. Great.

The guys start up a stream of aviation chatter over our headsets – I assume it’s to make me less nervous.  Gordie gives an unnecessarily thorough explanation of how the runways are numbered, Lance tells me how a windsock works. I’m wiggling my toes furiously – it’s a trick Lance claims helps calm you down.

And then, before I even realize it, we’re off.

The plane lifts up gently – much more so than a passenger jet. The trees and hills quickly start to look like the scenery from a model train set.

Gordie points us to Watkins Glen, a southward climb toward Schuyler County. We hit a few bumps and he takes us up to 3,500 feet where it’s much smoother.

On the right side of the plane, I can see the race track; on the left, a town. Directly south of us: billowing thunderstorm clouds. The entire Finger Lakes region unfolds below us.

Lance keeps telling me I got the best assignment of any of the reporters working on this series, because “you get to see the Finger Lakes from where we see it all the time.”

Gordie concurs.

“[The view] gives you a whole different perspective on life,” he says. “That’s a fringe benefit. We’re very fortunate to be able to get to be able to do what we do.”

As Gordie flips on the autopilot for what’s called an “instrument approach,” the plane suddenly banks to the right and we veer north back toward the airport. When we get a little closer he pulls the nose of the plane up just a bit to slow us down, and the windshield is suddenly filled with blue sky, instead of a green horizon of hills and lakes. 

Later, when we’re back on the ground, the guys will tell the other club members that they “should have seen my face” at both of these moments. Apparently it was hilarious.

And then just as quickly as it started, we’re clearing the fence for the airport, and touching down. Gordie scoots us off the runway to make way for another plane that’s coming in from Quebec, and then starts running through the post-flight checklist.

The timer on my recorder tells me we were in the air for all of 21 minutes, but that feels wrong. It was more like time stopped, hanging in place somewhere over Schuyler County.

“Hangar flying”

As we head back to the club’s barn – basically a glorified rec room decorated with easy chairs and aviation knick knacks – I ask Lance what they do after they go up. He tells me they “hangar fly.”

“We’re gonna go downstairs and shoot the breeze,” he says grinning. “We go down there we tell lies and we create stories.”

“So it’s like fishing,” I say.

“It’s better than fishing,” he says. “It’s like fly fishing.”

You can see photos from this trip here, and hear the rest of the stories in WXXI’s “Lake Towns” series here.