Stowe Soaring was not just a local business. It was not just a place people went for glider rides, or an exciting break on someone’s fall leaf-peeping tour.
Stowe Soaring was a haven for young kids with their heads in the clouds, and it was a life-changing course for those who allowed it to take hold.
I started working at Stowe Soaring when I was 14. Too young to drive myself to work, but old enough to fly gliders, my parents dutifully dropped me off at 0855 every weekend from April to October and, if I was lucky, at least three days a week when school was out. I was dedicated, willing to get up at 6 and ride to work with my father so he could run me down to the airport on his break. It was the only place I wanted to be.
I was part of a program that Dave Whitcomb, the airport manager, ran for young kids interested in aviation. We would drive people around on the golf cart, hook up gliders, run line, wash airplanes — basically anything they needed — and in turn we would earn flight lessons in a stable and forgiving Polish trainer called a Krosno. It was an incredible program that not only turned out pilots, but started so many on the paths to incredible careers in aviation. Airline pilots, corporate pilots, Air Force cadets, Army crew chiefs, instructors — so many got their start in that little yellow terminal building.
It wasn’t just flying we all learned there. As young kids, we learned how to provide customer service, we became experts on their questions, we learned how to make people feel comfortable and safe when they were out of their element. We learned how to drive in old Buicks used as tow rigs, we learned how to tie knots, how to be on time, how to work for something you wanted. We learned that family isn’t always related and that people form bonds over Tomlinson’s sandwiches and lessons on weather.
Stowe Soaring wasn’t a moneymaker. When I started working, Dave ran the entire fixed base operator at the field. That meant that every little piece of activity on the airport was important to the bottom line. The maintenance on the airplanes, the fuel sold, the flight instruction given, the glider rides; it all became a piece of how Dave made a living and it was the entire package that made it work.
So, the pilots made small wages and many volunteered for their weekend shifts, which meant when you were paired up with a flight instructor, they were there because they wanted to be; because they loved flying, they loved teaching and they wanted to share it with you. I have had the opportunity to work with many flight instructors all over the country, and I can tell you, it makes a difference when they love what they do.
Very quickly Stowe Soaring became my life, a life I shared with glider pilots, tow pilots, instructors and other line kids just itching for a chance to get into the sky — kids just like me. Winters were long, just staring at the sky, unable to spread our wings, and in the spring, when our resident tow-pilot, a former F-4 Vietnam fighter pilot, rolled into town from his winter of skiing, it would breathe life into us again.
“It’s summer!” I would tell everyone, despite sometimes still having a layer of snow on the ground. They would laugh, but they always felt it too, a new beginning, the spike of adrenaline knowing we were one day closer to soaring summer thermals or exploring ridgelines in a westerly breeze.
This spring I sent the same “It’s summer” text, letting my friends know of the arrival of our tow pilot, Bill, but the summer adventure never started. The gliders stayed still on their trailers, collecting dust in crowded hangars, the towplane sat silently, never cascading its deep rumbles that echo across the Stowe-Morrisville valley every summer. The gates never opened this season, and I, like so many others, was lost.
In the fall we lost our leader, and with him went the heart, the drive, and the confidence of Stowe Soaring. In 2004, when insurance issues caused Dave to need a new plan for Stowe Soaring, Don Post stepped in. I believe he knew that Stowe Soaring was never going to be a money maker, that most seasons he would struggle to break even, but that was not why he got involved. Don, like many of us who migrate to the airport, loved it.
He loved the early morning glides when the air was like glass and the fog still settled in the deepest of places. He loved the bumpy afternoons with booming thermals taking the glider up to cloud base. He loved fall afternoons when the wind was blowing hard across the valley, creating waves of updrafts to soar into.
Even when other passions drew him away from the airport, Don was always thinking about the sky. In one of our last conversations, he was texting me from a wedding to find out how busy we were with rides. I responded that we had just finished 16 rides for the day and were packing up. He was excited. Excited for those of us who were able to soar all day, and excited for the passengers who had the experience of a lifetime to take with them.
Don poured life into Stowe Soaring the way he did for so many local groups. He never let a frustrating circumstance get in the way of the perfect afternoon of soaring. He spent hours at his desk in the hangar, paying bills, solving problems and creating a place for all of us to let go of the rest of the world and just soak it all in.
When the airport began to see more turbine-powered traffic and charter operations, it was a struggle between old and new practices, but Don found middle ground, and fought for the general aviation side that is such an integral part of every airport. The jets come and go — they bring with them money, people who spend money in town, people who want to invest in the area’s magic.
But the small guys? They are there when the jets return to New York and Boston. They are purchasing the fuel during off-peak weekends, they are providing the aircraft to be worked on, they are contributing to the operations counts that decide how much funding the FAA will provide for improvements. Don understood how important a well rounded airport was, and how important keeping gliders going at Stowe was to the future of the Morrisville-Stowe State Airport.
If a day like that fateful day last August is one I never see again, that would be fine. We feel the loss every day, at the airport, and in the rest of our lives. That loss is nothing compared to what the Posts feel without their center, what the Moroz family feels after an impulsive stop at the airport changed their family’s lives forever. We lost family, friends, pillars of the community, people who can never and will never be replaced. For some of us, we also lost our home, our way of life, our core.
Flying hasn’t been an easy thing for me since last August. The grief comes in waves and is often more prominent with the feel of a stick in my hand and rudder pedals at my feet. But I know Don would want us to get back to the air. To share with people what he loved so much and what he poured his heart into year after year.
The airport is quiet now, and the faded lettering of the Stowe Soaring sign can be seen from the road. But one of these days, when the memory of Don’s smiles on a busy foliage weekend overpowers the grief, we will paint the sign again and ready it for the next era of flying at Morrisville. Stowe Soaring may have run its course, but it changed so many lives for the better in the process. There will be gliders flying again over this little valley in the Green Mountains. It may be in a different form, it may have different goals and be handled by different people; but that driving desire to share with the world this love for the sky is there, and there are still so many more lives to change.
Jennifer Davis of Morristown is a local pilot.