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Portland-based aviation camp turns kids into fliers

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Portland-based aviation camp turns kids into fliers

PORTLAND — When Tim Lesiege took over two years ago as director of Portland's Maine ACE Camp, a week-long summer session for aspiring aviators, he was excited about the opportunity to teach kids about all aspects of the aeronautics industry.

Lesiege, who every summer takes a week away from his job as an aviation engineer for the Maine Department of Transportation to volunteer at the camp, said he enjoys teaching students about opportunities for careers as mechanics, flight attendants, fixed-base operator administrators and more.

Mostly, though, the kids just want to fly.

Another year of Maine ACE Camp (the name stands for aviation career education) kicked off Monday, and over the course of five days, campers will tour an air traffic control tower, go behind the scenes at an airport baggage claim, attend classroom lectures on spatial disorientation, and yes, fly in airplanes.

The camp is based at the Alton E. "Chuck" Cianchette Scout Center in Portland, but students spend most of the week at airports across southern Maine, from the Portland International Jetport, to Brunswick Executive Airport, to the Wiscasset Airport, to the Mast Cove Seaplane Base in Naples.

"I've wanted to fly since I can remember," said Parker Montano, 17, who attended the camp for two years before becoming a counselor. "My parents found this camp, and since then, it's like a switch flipped. I have to go flying now."

A rising senior at Cheverus High School, Montano has applied to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona. He said he hopes to someday work as a rescue helicopter pilot. 

"It's like an addiction. I love it," Montano said of flying. "The community I identify most with is the aviation community."

On Monday, the program's dozen or so campers – middle- and high-schoolers, mostly shy, entirely male – bused to Brunswick Executive Airport. They toured the facility's newly refurbished terminal and heard a presentation from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, engineering firm Hoyle, Tanner & Associates.

And each student got to fly in a Van's RV-9A, a two-seat, single-engine airplane.

"He let me drive the plane a little bit," 12-year-old Joe Eremita, of Wells, said a little cavalierly. "After we got up in the air, it wasn't that scary. I had fun."

Russell Keith, a member of the Experimental Aircraft Association, built and piloted the plane. He was one of two pilots donating his time to give joyrides to teenagers on a blue-skied Monday afternoon.

"I'm here to promote aviation interest in kids and give them an idea of what they can do," Russell said.

It's not easy to get a job as a pilot. It's competitive and can be expensive, said Lesiege, the camp director. That's why he encourages his campers to consider all the other careers that support aeronautics, from design to engineering to ground support.

"A lot of people think in order to get into aviation, you have to be a pilot, and make your living as a pilot," Lesiege said. "But pilot is just one of 1,000 different jobs you can do that involve aviation. That's what we want them to understand."

That said, Lesiege isn't discouraging anyone from learning to fly. Even if you don't earn a living flying planes every day, piloting is one heck of a hobby.

"No matter what career you enter, whether it's engineering or chemistry or physics or maintenance," Lesiege said, "you can still be a pilot."

Brendan Twist can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or btwist@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @brendantwist.