MERIDEN — You feel a pang in your gut the moment the wheels of the 1979 Piper Archer aircraft leave the runway and the nose of the plane tilts upward toward a cloudy sky in steady ascent. Pressure starts to build in your ears, cushioned beneath a large headset.
“Unlike an airliner, this is not pressurized,” Pilot Keith Hall says with a smile as he navigates the airspace far above Meriden. “You can only go about 14,000 feet maximum.”
Hall is a member of the Silver City Flying Club, which celebrated their 70th anniversary Saturday with a humble gathering at their Meriden-Markham Airport hanger. He was happy to take a spin in one of the club’s two aircrafts to mark the occasion.
Founded in 1946, 40-member club is one of the oldest flying clubs in Connecticut, according to President Paul Merola.
“A lot of these guys were World War II pilots and they came back from the war and had flying in their blood so they formed a club,” Merola said.
The nonprofit club is equity based, meaning each member owns a portion of the club’s assets, including its two airplanes, the 1979 Piper Archer and 1981 Cessna. Aviation is an expensive hobby, but the club allows members to fly for much less than renting or owning their own plane would cost, Merola said.
Flying conditions Saturday afternoon were optimal, with minimal wind and no rain. Hall, who is also flies Civil Air Patrol for the Air Force Auxiliary, goes through an exhaustive checklist, inspecting the planes wing flaps, propeller and engine fuel.
Soon it’s time to buckle seat belts inside the cockpit. The small plane’s interior is even tinnier than it appears from the outside and has barely enough room to stretch an elbow. Every inch of the dashboard is covered with an array of controls and displays indicating altitude, navigation and radio frequency. Hall announces our takeoff over the radio and the plane turns a corner out of the hanger.
He revs the engine briefly to ensure the spark plug is firing and then begins to head down the runway, steadily increasing speed. The wheels gently lift from the runway and with seemingly no resistance we’re climbing hundreds of feet in seconds.
“The biggest difference between a jetliner and something like this is the speed,” Hall said. “The aerodynamics of an airplane are the same no matter if the plane is small or large.”
Castle Craig looks like a thimble from 2,500 feet up and the highways merely gray threads peaking out from a dense tree canopy. Spring is in full bloom, and despite the clouds, its easy to see New Haven harbor and Long Island Sound in the distance.
We glide briefly over Southington whose suburbs are reminiscent of small twisted spider web dotted with houses before turning back toward Meriden.
“Meriden traffic, Piper N325AV, we’re about 5 miles north, heading into the airport,” Hall says over the radio, though it’s hard to hear anything over the sound of the chopping propeller. Soon the runway is in sight and we’re descending quickly toward it.
“I’m going to tell you now, landing is the hardest part,” Hall says.
As the pavement draws closer you can feel the plane buckle slightly against the wind. There’s a bump as the wheels touch the runway, but not overall it’s a pretty smooth landing.
Back at the hanger, Silver City members were eager to chime in on the benefits of being in the club.
“I like the camaraderie of the pilots,” said member Doug Loose, of Southington. “You meet a lot of people with similar interests.”
The cost savings is what draws many to the club as owning or renting an airplane is expensive.
“We’re not wealthy people and it makes flying affordable,” said Meriden resident Andy Roberts. “You share the burden of taking care of an airplane.”
Marilyn Stone enjoys going on flights to Block Island with her husband Norm, soaring over the traffic and the ferry for a weekend get-away. The Southington couple has been in the club since 1976.
“I feel safe in a small plane because you have control ... It’s like three-dimensional sailing,” Stone said. “You can drift and glide like in a boat.”