Born in the “cradle of aviation” in the 1930s, it was hard for Tom O’Connell not to get hooked on flying. He grew up in Derby, Conn., close to the Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation and the Bridgeport Airport, where helicopters were being developed and vaunted Corsairs would fly overhead.

It was no wonder O’Connell fell in love with flight.

“They would constantly fly overhead, and I would marvel at them in the sky,” O’Connell said.

During his high school years, he worked several jobs. While most kids were saving their money to buy a car, he was using his money to take flying lessons. At 17, he took his first lesson and shortly thereafter, he got his private pilot’s license.  

When he married at 19, he convinced his wife to allow him to use the money they received from the wedding to purchase his first airplane — a 1939 Luscombe, which he flew for 135 hours until one of his friends crashed it into the roof of a house.

“Somehow he just walked away from it,” he said. “But he paid me, and I actually made money and logged all those hours.” 

At 23, O’Connell got his commercial license and began flying DC3s for Great Lakes Carbon Corporation, ferrying corporate executives to meetings and transporting speculators looking for precious metals around the country.  

In 1961, he began a 33-year career — 29 as a captain — with Mohawk Airlines, a regional carrier that was bought out and sold several times, eventually becoming US Airways. He flew everything from a DC-9 to a modern 767 jet airliner.

Just before he was aged out of being a commercial pilot for the airline, he decided to try his hand at farming, a far cry from the refined and structured life of a pilot.

“It was something I had always wanted to do,” he said.

He noticed an ad for a 500-acre dairy farm for sale in Wales and bought it soon after walking the land. He and his high school sweetheart made a go of the dairy business but, after 15 years, they sold off their cattle. He built a landing strip on the property — “the 19th green” — and refocused on flying.   

O’Connell chartered for Twin Cities Air out of the Auburn-Lewiston Municipal Airport, where he flew Olympia Snowe, governors and many local business executives all over the country. He also hooked up with Twitchell’s Airport and Seaplane Base, where he began giving lessons.

But he needed an additional challenge. He found it as a bush pilot in Alaska.  

For two years, he flew people and supplies in and out of coastal villages. For many, it was the only link to the outside world.  

“That was some of the hardest flying I ever did,” he said.

Today, he is back at Twitchell’s Airport and Seaplane Base, teaching young fliers.  

“There is such a demand for commercial pilots these days,” O’Connell said. “But it is hard to get a commercial license with the number of hours and training they have to put in to qualify. It is incredibly expensive. The money is not enticing to start, but after a few years, it can become a lucrative and rewarding career.  Pretty soon, I believe there is going to be a shortage of commercial pilots.”  

Recently, he was found sitting outside on a bench at Twitchell’s Airport with Whitney Fahy, a recent Bates College graduate from Carrabassett Valley.  

“I was an art and visual culture major and didn’t see many opportunities in the job market for my majors,” Fahy said. “So I did some research and discovered the potential in flying.”   

“She really went for it,” O’Connell said. “She started in November and had her first solo two weeks later. She is a natural. It takes dexterity, coordination and an ability to multitask, kinda like playing a piano. You either have it or not.”  

As they sat at the table, Fahy scrolling up-to-the-minute radar images on her iPad, and O’Connell using the well-worn Maine Atlas and Gazetteer, they mapped out a flight plan to a field up the coast where somebody wanted to have her drop a bag of candy during a party. A thunderstorm was coming through, but they figured it wouldn’t be a problem.  

His love for teaching and mentoring is what inspires him today. He took Fahy under his wing, like so many other young students he has in the past, teaching them the ropes and letting them fly his planes out of his private field to log the hours they need. He didn’t charge for instruction, but gave his students invaluable lessons, giving them confidence and guidance, combining new technology with tried-and-true methods.  

But most of all, he passed down his love of flight.

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