Flying in their footsteps: Wiscasset airport pilot on family, fun and his Snoopy plane

Wed, 07/17/2019 - 8:15am

Inside his Wiscasset Municipal Airport hangar Sunday, pilot Nick Knobil recalled his childhood self following great aunt Nancy Love around, "pumping" her for information on her pioneering piloting of military aircraft in the World War II era. She wasn't one to go on about it.

He said she led a volunteer service of women pilots who ferried planes to the next place they were needed. Love was the first woman approved to pilot the B-17 bomber and 11 other aircraft; she made the National Aviation Hall of Fame, but didn't get veteran status and was not happy when she wasn’t allowed to fly into a combat zone, he added.

“Talk about a feminist before feminism.”

Knobil also had a Naval aviator-great uncle, Lincoln “Bill” Denton. A wall of the hangar has a front page New York Times story on the 1935 plane crash that killed Denton while he served the country. He’s buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Knobil said.

The family history helped interest Knobil in aviation. But he flies for the same reason he rides motorcycles: It’s fun. Both passions make him feel free. If he had to give one up, it would be motorcycles. “But I’d be sad.”

Knobil, 58, got his pilot’s license 23 years ago, but feels like he’s just getting done being a student pilot, because he’s always learning.

Any close calls? Yes, he’s done stupid things; but experience builds good judgment, Knobil said. 

Knobil flies his RV-8, “The yellow peril,” once a nickname for trainer planes; the yellow helped people find them, he explained. Unlike Great Aunt Nancy and Great Uncle Bill, he has never served in the military. Nor has he been a commercial pilot. It has all been pleasure flying. Sunday, he gave a ride to an Australian visiting the airport. And he still takes up his mother, former physiology professor at University of Texas Medical School at Houston, Texas, Julie Knobil, 85.

In 2012, he got to go about 500 mph piloting an F-16 Viper at the Air Force Thunderbirds' Brunswick visit. When a Thunderbird was at the controls, the plane reached the speed of sound.

“Exhilaration. The speed, the climb, and you’re with the best pilots in the world,” he said. He also considered it special that, at 16, before she was piloting the World War II planes, Great Aunt Nancy soloed in a World World I era Thomas Morse biplane, and nearly a century later, he got to pilot a supersonic jet.

Knobil likes any chance to interest young people in flying. The Australian he took up Sunday afternoon was a friend’s granddaughter. And he has given kids rides though the Young Eagles and ACE Camp programs. “If I can help create a pilot, that’s very gratifying.” 

Knobil moved to Maine from the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1988. He works in concrete. “It’s the opposite of aviation. You make big, heavy square things.” He's the corporate controller of American Concrete Industries in Veazie and Auburn businesses Superior Concrete and Aeration Systems.

In March, the Bowdoinham man started building a plane he’d always wanted, like everyone did when they were a kid, he said: the kind Peanuts’ Snoopy piloted atop his doghouse in dreams of being a World War I flying ace: a Sopwith Camel. It will take years to finish. Knobil has help from friends including his Bowdoinham neighbor, retired pilot Bill Saindon.

The same hangar wall with Knobil’s family history has a broken propeller from Saindon’s plane and a photo of how it broke five years ago: Landing at his home airstrip, Saindon struck a fawn. Deer-plane accidents happen more than people realize, Saindon, 80, said. He sold the plane last fall and is enjoying getting to help Knobil build the Sopwith Camel in Wiscasset. “Means a lot,” he said. On Sunday while the Wiscasset Newspaper was there, Saindon finished the ribs that will help form the wings.

The plane will be a modern take, with a metal fuselage instead of wood, and a radial instead of rotary engine, Knobil said.

The Wiscasset airport has been a great place to meet people and have unique experiences, Knobil observed. When Wings Over Wiscasset got rain one night, he invited war reenactors to bring their vintage motorcycles into the hangar. They declined to drink from plastic cups, staying in period mode with their tin cups. Then along came a man dressed in white, and looking at the RV-8.

The man with a German accent said a woman in France with a red RV-8 turned down his marriage proposal. Knobil knew a woman outside Paris who’d built a red one. He told the man her name; it was the same woman.