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Young pilots build hours delivering Put-in-bay mail

2008-10-10

Ken Schirg didn’t give the cargo in the back of the plane a second thought as he steered toward Kelleys Island.

There were far too many switches in the cockpit pointing in his direction, and the sight of Ohio’s shoreline cutting across a sleepy horizon 1,000 feet in the air drew the rest of any attention he had to spare.

‘‘I never really had an office job,’’ he said.

‘‘But I can’t imagine it would have a view like this.’’

The 25-year-old from Sandusky has more than 2,000 flight hours, and is one of a number of young pilots at Griffing Flying Service, making the successful transition from aviation school graduate to professional pilot.

As the only company contracted by the U.S. Postal Service to collect and deliver mail to Put-in-Bay and other islands, Griffing is responsible for transporting the mail from Port Clinton to each island once a day.

Delivering mail is one of the first ways that pilots prove they have the aptitude to tackle the challenges that come with flight, and it is often the first rung on a professional pilot’s ladder.

Jack Cochrane, 25, of Amherst, charters clients around the country for Griffing, and he grabbed an occasional put in bay airmail route on his way to tallying more than 3,000 flight hours.

He said landing at the smaller-than-average Put-in-Bay island runway sharpens a pilot’s skills.

‘‘Even though (flying airmail) is where you start, those small runways are some of the most challenging aspects of flying,’’ he said.

On a map, the islands of Put-in-Bay, Middle Bass and the Isle St. George (often referred to as North Bass Island) look like they once broke off a piece of land skipped like a stone across Lake Erie.

Kelleys Island, the largest, is the closest to shore and lies 10 miles north of Sandusky and five miles southwest of Put-in-Bay.

While neither Schirg nor Cochrane have experienced a traumatic mid-air event, the 70-year-old retired truck driver leaning comfortably against the bags of mail in the back of the plane has.

Ernie Owen works part-time for Griffing, picking up Put-in-bay and other island mail from the post office in Port Clinton and transporting it to and from the planes.

He makes the flight to the larger islands to give an extra hand, but he admits that the view of Sandusky Bay’s murky waters deepening into a chalkboard green isn’t a bad perk.

‘‘After driving a truck for a long time, you need a job like this,’’ Owen said.

Owen was on board another airmail trip two years ago when a ‘‘one in a million’’ seagull crashed through the plane’s windshield.

The pilot was all right, but he needed Owen’s help to steady the controls as he landed the plane.

Owen said the event was ‘‘no big deal.’’

‘‘There was a lot of wind and glass coming in,’’ he said.

‘‘But once the pressure equalized, and the wind stopped, it was basically the same as a big hunk of concrete coming through a truck’s window, but with seagull guts.’’

Last month, as Schirg lowered the two-prop plane onto Kelley’s runway, the speed of travel became apparent with the blur of every passing tree.

The rear wheels touched down, followed by the front, and the brakes slowed the plane to a stop.

A minivan pulled up promptly, and Schirg and Owen quickly exchanged bags of letters and packages.

Within minutes, they were back onboard and preparing to takeoff for Put-In-Bay, where three times as much mail, befitting the island’s more than 400 residents, would be unloaded.

Back in Sandusky, Tom Buffington, 23, of Westlake, was taking off for Isle St. George, which lies just two miles south of the Canadian border.

As the youngest pilot in the group, Buffington has logged around 1,500 flight hours, and is steadily making his way up the ranks.

With fewer residents on Middle Bass and Isle St. George, a smaller plane is used to save on gas, company officials said.

There are no mailboxes affixed to homes on Isle of St. George, and there’s no ferry business willing to pick up one of the island’s 18 residents, but Herma Dopps wasn’t surprised when the plane delivers a case of navel oranges from Florida at her doorstep just in time for the New Year.

As island postmaster, Dopps is accustomed and grateful to hear the hum of an aircraft bringing mail to the one-room post office, which is located on the bottom floor of her home.

‘‘We depend on the mail here,’’ she said.

‘‘Sometimes, it’s the only way to stay connected with those on the mainland.’’

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