Nantucket’s private pilots fly in the face of turbulent times for the aviation industry.
In the last thirty years, the number of FAA-certified private pilots has plummeted by 55 percent. This tracks with a turbulent trend in the commercial airline industry where the number of pilots is projected to descend by 800,000 in the next twenty years. While this dramatic decrease has grounded many small aviation companies even before the pandemic, it has also put pressure on private jet owners who now have to compete with commercial airlines to hire pilots to fly their planes. Yet on Nantucket, a much different trend has been emerging. In the last three years, the number of private pilots has literally taken off—and those behind the controls are not who you might expect.
“The aviation scene on Nantucket is blowing up,” said Steve Cheney, who owns a building company on Nantucket. “In the last year alone, I can think of seven people off the top of my head who are learning to fly.” When Cheney got his wings nearly a decade ago, he was the youngest pilot on Nantucket. In fact, he purchased his first plane, an Archer, before he even knew how to taxi it down the runway. With the help of a retired airline pilot, Cheney learned to navigate Nantucket’s fog, rain, wind and erratic weather conditions. “When you’re learning to fly, it’s like drinking from a fire hydrant,” he said. “There’s so many things coming at you, and none of them are familiar.” Now at the age of forty-six, Cheney is encouraged to see new private pilots entering the ranks, many of whom have Cheney to thank for first exposing them to the thrills of flying. “This is a great thing for Nantucket,” he concluded.
Flying your own plane is nothing new on Nantucket. Summer residents have been taking off and landing on the island for decades. In- deed, everyone from legendary anchorwoman Natalie Jacobson, to philanthropists Stephanie and Erwin Greenberg, to celebrity doctor Bob Arnot has owned and operated their own planes. One summer resident named Andrew McKenna even commutes to the island aboard a World War II-era P-51 bomber that he also uses to perform in airshows.
The striking difference today, however, is that those learning to fly on the island aren’t just high-powered CEOs, media personalities and other titans of industry. In the last three years, bartenders, real estate agents, fishermen, carpenters, videographers and other small business owners have been climbing into the cockpit. To earn their wings on Nantucket, this group of island aviation enthusiasts have had to overcome more than just financial hurdles.
“It’s difficult just to make flight instruction happen on Nantucket,” explained George Riethof, a commercial pilot who has been flying out of Nantucket Memorial Airport since the early nineties. “The economics of flight instruction are difficult and there’s problems with fog, distance and the seasonality of work. But a group nominally headed by Chad Gingras got together a couple years ago to attempt a flight instruction push and they have largely succeeded.”
Like many other new pilots on the island, builder Chad Gingras got his taste for flying thanks to Steve Cheney, who also happens to be his boss at Cheney Construction. When Gingras decided to pursue his own private pilot license five years ago, he was discouraged to find a dearth in local instructors with access to planes on the island. “There used to be a flight school on Nantucket called Ocean Wings, but that went defunct eight or nine years ago,” Gingras explained. “I reached out to the local instructors on the island, but no one had a plane to teach with.”
Taking matters into his own hands, Gingras cultivated a network of islanders who were interested in learning how to fly. With the buying power of nearly twenty aviation enthusiasts, Gingras convinced flight schools off-island to send pilots and planes over to Nantucket to teach them. The first instructors hailed from Alpha Aviation in Plymouth, before the group switched to Stick’n Rudder out of Chatham. Ground classes were held just down the street from the airport at the Salt Box Tavern on Macy’s Lane. “It’s an ad hoc group, but it’s very committed and loyal,” Gingras said. “It’s been a long hard road, but once we got the instructors, and the community started seeing the training flights going up, I had many people reaching out who always wanted to learn to fly but thought it was out of their reach financially.”
According to Gingras, becoming a private pilot on Nantucket can cost anywhere between $8,000 and $12,000. “But you can chew away at that; it’s not an up-front cost,” he explained. “The initial investment is around $300 for the study materials.” From there, an aspiring pilot can split the cost of the classes and getting the instructor pilots over from the Cape. This piecemeal approach has made flying more accessible to Nantucketers than ever before. “It’s a whole range of people learning to fly today,” Gingras said. “From people like me who work for a guy, to people who own second or third homes here.”
Last year, Gingras took the same divide and conquer mentality to buying his own plane. Joining ranks with architect Dave Knouf, builder Chris Carey and property manager and concierge Christy Kickham, Gingras split the cost of a Piper 180. Like a club membership, they each pay a monthly stipend for insurance, hangar fees and maintenance costs as well as an hourly fee for flight time. “It’s pay to play,” Gingras said. “We have a rotating weekly schedule for when guys want to do bigger trips, otherwise if it’s a nice day, whoever wakes up first and says he wants to fly gets the plane.”
Come summer, Nantucket Memorial Airport boasts one of the busiest runways in all of New England. During Fourth of July weekend, for instance, fifty planes take off and land every ten minutes. The tarmac transforms into a makeshift showroom, with some of the hottest private jets on the market lining the blacktop. While time will tell whether the national drop in pilots will have any impact on the island’s private jet owners, the renewed enthusiasm for flying among everyday islanders will help keep Nantucket’s aviation tradition soaring.