Champlain Valley Union High School grad Kate Songer took a solo flight in a Cessna 150 for her graduation challenge project last year. She flew alone for the first time March 16, 2015. A day she will never forget. “There are no words to describe what it’s like to solo,” she said. “I’ve heard old pilots talk about how they search for that feeling the rest of their lives. To look to your right and see no one there. It’s absolute freedom and beauty.”
Shelburne Airport Co-Manager and Chief Flight Instructor Paul Potter taught her how. Songer said she had absolute confidence in herself because of him. “He’s so patient and forgiving,” she said. “When I first soloed, the only thing I heard was Paul’s voice guiding me safely to the ground like he had hundreds of times before.”
Songer is now a full-time student at St. Lawrence University who is majoring in Biology or Neuroscience. She comes home every couple of weeks to recharge with a flight, she said. “My long-term goals would be to provide medical aid and supplies around the world, perhaps responding to natural disasters.”
The first lesson of flying is wind. Aircrafts fly with lift from the wind, Potter said. And they make their own wind with the thrust of the propeller. “That is called relative wind, and the ambient wind is the wind that is blowing outside,” he said. “It’s the combination needed to get up and go.”
One man with an extreme amount of get up and go is Charlie Robitaille, 90, of Shelburne. He’s got a 1975 Cessna 150 at the airport. He took his first solo flight at the age of 50. With 26 grand and great-grand-children his vintage ride is aptly named GrampAir.
Robitaille knows Potter well. “Paul is an excellent instructor and a real good guy,” he said.
Potter is co-manager of Shelburne Airport with owner Barbara McGee. It was established in 1984. McGee mows the 2,100 foot runway all summer and Potter is getting ready to plow it this winter. About eight private planes are housed on site. That’s down from 20 since the economic downturn. People can’t afford to own planes anymore, Potter said.
Shelburne Airport adds value to the town, Potter said. “There are a lot of people who come here to visit the Teddy Bear Factory and to visit friends. People come in and out of here all of the time.”
People of all ages want to learn to fly. Potter teaches about 16 clients annually to the tune of about $10,000 each. He’s been teaching since 1998.
Being a stay-at-home dad to his two children, William and Claire, wasn’t as exciting as Potter had anticipated while his wife, Sarah, built her career as a human resources director. So, he took to the skies … with the kids.
The kids are almost adults now but Potter has fond memories of raising them. “I would put their car seats in back of the plane and take them for trips to Martha’s Vineyard for lunch,” he said. “They loved it.”