High-altitude hobby

Group of local pilots enjoy flying small planes around Southeast

Posted: Sunday, February 16, 2003

Most guys get together to watch football, play poker, go fishing or hunt - activities that keep them relatively close to the ground. Such terrestrial hobbies just don't appeal to other guys, though. They get together to fly.

"I used to have three boats, and now I enjoy looking where the boats used to be," said Ron Swanson, who now owns three planes. He's one of a number of local pilots who enjoy flying small planes around Southeast Alaska.

"It puts you above everyone else that's not a pilot, you know?" said Charlie Gerbi, another pilot. Gerbi and Swanson are two of nine Juneau residents who own their own personal hangar they built five years ago on land they lease from the Juneau Airport.

Though the group is not an official club, it closely resembles one. Dues are an individual's share of the building cost, lease and utilities. Membership requirements are an airplane, preferably two or three. Meetings are frequent, though informal.

The nine men are mostly retired, and they own a total of 14 or 15 planes, said Swanson. Some are mechanics, some are retired commercial pilots, and others just like to fly. They give each other advice, loan each other tools, play darts and tell jokes. In the summer, they have barbecues.

"This is partly a hangout, you know," said Swanson. "It beats painting the bathroom."

Aside from just hanging out, though, these men are serious about their planes.

Ken Montoure, a former mechanic who earned his airplane mechanic certification after he retired so he could better work on his hobby, has spent three years rebuilding a derelict Pietenpol Air Camper (pronounced pete-n-paul) that he bought in Arkansas.

"I started with a sow's ear and ended with a silk purse," he said.

The Pietenpol originally was powered by a Model A car engine, but Montoure is using a Continental airplane engine given to him by Swanson. The plane has fabric-covered wings, a body made out of wood and no electrical wiring.

"I tell you, she feels pretty good," Montoure said earlier this week as he climbed into the cockpit, in the rear seat of the plane. Though he's never flown a Pietenpol, he looks forward to the experience.

"Airline captains have these planes," Montoure said. "They get out of the 747s and get into one of these and have a ball. It's just plain, grass-roots flying, you know what I mean?"

After all, flying is what it's all about. The social aspect is peripheral to the experience of defying gravity.

"It affords a guy the ability to go and see things that you never could," said Gerbi. He and his wife Mary Lou, who also is a pilot, although not a mechanic, fly to Atlin, or use their plane to give visitors a tour of Southeast Alaska's natural wonders. They own a Supercub and a Cessna 180.

"One of my favorite trips is to take off and fly over the icefield, head north, fly over the Gilkey Glacier, drop into Berners Bay, loop up through Berners Bay and back down to town over the coast," he said. "It's really representative of Southeast."

Until 2000, Swanson, a former helicopter pilot for Ward Air and with the Army and National Guard, used his 1943 Stearman airplane to tow banners for businesses, political candidates and event promoters.

He sold the plane, which had no covered cockpit, because "it just wasn't a Juneau airplane," he said. Now he flies his other planes: a 1982 Nan Chang, a Chinese replica of a Yak, a 1946 Cub, and a Cessna 182.

The Cub is "just fun to fly," the Cessna is "the family Buick," and the Yak is "truly a toy," Swanson said.

Swanson flew the Cessna with his wife and dogs to upstate New York last year.

"I'm the world's best passenger," said Jackie Lorensen, Swanson's wife.

Ten years ago, he flew his daughter to Maine in the Cub. The plane flew an average of 80 mph, and the trip took eight weeks.

"You meet some really neat people," Swanson said of the trips. "There's neat stuff to do, and you go to places you would never ever go to."

In May he will fly the Nan Chang to California to participate in an air show specifically for planes from communist countries.

Flying isn't all about the travel, though. It's also a way to get to good hunting and fishing spots.

Swanson and the other pilots often take their fishing poles with them on flights, and keep an eye out for moose or deer or bear, he said. Once he and a friend caught a 330-pound halibut off of his Cub's float in Berners Bay.

"We had to have another plane come help haul it out," he said.

Along with being good hobbies, the planes are also good investments.

"The thing about airplanes, especially old airplanes, is they appreciate 10 percent a year," he said. "... Of course, only if you don't wreck it. That's the proviso."

The planes' best advantage, though, may be in the friends they make for their owners.

"This thing is a chick magnet," Montoure said as his wife laughed in the hangar behind him.

Christine Schmid can be reached at cschmid@juneauempire.com.

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