Clouds and sky. Gazing down at the checkerboard pattern of fields and the frothing white of the waves as they charge the shoreline. A sunset of Chagall colors. The hum of an engine and the lazy sweep of the horizon.
The work involved to get there, high above the rooftops in that peaceful blue sea, can be quite an undertaking.
Pilots earn their wings. Airplane mechanics, through the painstaking proof of performance, earn trust.
Peter Conner earned both, early on, and made sure everything he did complied with the Federal Aviation Administration, because, as everybody knows, there is almost no margin of error 7,000 feet above the ground.
You can’t pull over.
The FAA noticed, and agency honored Conner’s half century of flying and fixing airplanes Monday with not one, but two prestigious FAA awards – the Wright Brother’s Master Pilot award and the Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award. Conner is the owner, mechanic and pilot behind Yankee Aviation Services at Plymouth Municipal Airport, a labor of love since 1976. But he was fixing planes and flying long before that.
Conner began this journey in 1965.
FAA Eastern Region Flight Standards Division Manager Ron Curtis addressed a crowd of 100 gathered at Plymouth Municipal Airport Monday to deliver the awards, noting that he’d presented them individually, but never both of them to one airman. Conner is one of a few to have been awarded both, he said.
Curtis explained that the Wright Brothers Master Pilot award is the most prestigious award the FAA issues to pilots.
“This award is named after the Wright Brothers, the first U.S. pilots, to recognize individuals who exhibited professionalism, skill and aviation expertise for at least 50 years while piloting aircraft as Master Pilots,” Curtis added.
Curtis noted that the Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award is named for Charles Taylor, who was the first aviation mechanic in powered flight, and who served as the Wright brothers’ mechanic and is credited with designing and building the engine of the first successful aircraft.
“The award recognizes individuals who have demonstrated professionalism, skill and aviation expertise for at least 50 years in the aircraft maintenance profession as Master Mechanics,” Curtis said.
Curtis detailed Conner’s lengthy career in the skies, beginning in the summer of 1965, when he began taking flying lessons at the Plum Island Airport in Newbury. Conner had recently been hired as an A&P mechanic at Plum Island after graduating from East Coast Aero Tech in Bedford. He soloed for the first time Oct. 21, 1965, in a Piper PA22 Colt. Shortly thereafter, Conner joined the Navy, earned his private pilot’s license in 1968 and his commercial and certified flight instructor certificates during his time in the service. Once his Navy tenure was completed, Conner continued flying at Comerford Instrument Flight School at Hanscom Field, and earned his instrument and multi-engine ratings before returning to Plum Island Airport to work for several years as a flight instructor. Curtis also noted, for plane enthusiasts in the audience, that Conner gave scene rides in a 1929 Travelaire 4000.
“Since that time, he has been continually active as a pilot,” Curtis said. “Peter also continues to maintain an active flight instructor certificate. Peter and Gail owned more than 25 airplanes and gliders over the years, including a Piper Aerostar, in which Peter has logged over 1,000 flight hours. Mr. Conner, again on behalf of the Federal Aviation Administration, we would like to thank you for your 50 years of service to our industry and you dedication to aviation safety.”
Curtis noted that Conner graduated Lynn English High School in 1963 and immediately enrolled in East Coast Aero Tech, where he received his FAA Mechanic Certificate with both airframe and powerplant ratings. Conner attended a variety of aircraft schools as well during his Naval service, and, in 1968, he earned his inspection authorization rating from the Baltimore General Aviation District Office. During the early 1970s, Curtis said, Conner was appointed as an Accident Prevention counselor and continued in that role for years; he is currently an active participant in the FAA program that replaced this, called the FAA Safety Team, or FAAST. In 1986, Conner was appointed by the Boston Flight Standards District Office as a designated airworthiness representative for maintenance, becoming one of only two such designees in the Boston district and one of only a few hundred nationwide, Curtis said. In 1988, Conner was further appointed as a designated mechanic examiner, a role he continues to hold.
“Pete has assisted in many accident investigations over the years, and his company specializes in major insurance repair work,” Curtis added.
Plymouth Municipal Airport Manager Thomas Maher said he’s known Conner for 20 years as the guy to be trusted for telling it like it is. When Maher took the job, he said the then manager warned him.
“He said, ‘Peter will be your conscience,’” Maher told the crowd. “He will tell you when things are going right and when they’re not going right.”
Conner’s wife, Gail, and two children also addressed the crowd, sharing stories and little-known facts about him. His son Richard couldn’t make it to the event.
“If there’s a key to my dad’s heart, I’m pretty sure it’s made by Cessna,” his daughter Dawn Conner Hedgepeth said, who also acknowledged her father’s reputation for fairness, honesty and straightforwardness. While some get a little more nervous in smaller planes than in a jumbo jet, Conner Hedgepeth said she feels quite the reverse, because her father is so incredibly safety conscious and she has no way of knowing that the airline pilot shares his level of discernment, like checking the weather “600 times,” before flying.
Conner’s son David Conner said his dad has always been a superpower when it came to fixing things, and asked if he’d check out his car after the ceremony because it was making a funny noise.
“He’s the hardest working person I know,” he said.
Plymouth Airport Commission Chairman Kenneth Fosdick and Plymouth Airport Commissioner William Burke both praised Conner for his dedication as well.
But it was his sister-in-law Joyce Silva who seemed to sum it up for the crowd.
“He is a good son, he is a good brother, a good husband, a good grandfather, a good dad, good at teasing and fake tripping. I guess you’re a really good pilot; you’ve never left one up there,” she said, as the crowd exploded in laughter. “That’s a whole lot of good in one man.”
Alpha One Flight Services owner and President Christopher Hyldburg shared a story of how Conner raved about the speed of the Aerostar airplane, but an unfortunate take-off encounter with some starlings put the kibosh on his demonstration of that speed. Feathers in one of the engines choked off one of the fuel lines. Hyldburg joined the other speakers in applauding Conner for his mammoth contribution to the family of businesses and professionals at the airport.
Conner said he was delighted and a little shell-shocked to be receiving such recognition. He began his career with the hopes of being an airline pilot, he said, which required a mechanic’s license in those days. Once he had the pilot and mechanic’s licenses, the rules changed again and military service was required. Conner wound up working as a flight crewman in the Navy, stationed in Maryland during the Vietnam War. Still determined to become an airline pilot when he finished his tour of duty, Conner interviewed with an airline, but things didn’t go as expected.
“I thought I’d be a corporate pilot and then the guy interviewed me and said, ‘Well you’re the guy we want, but not if you’re getting married; I’ve already destroyed one young marriage,’” Conner said. It turned out he was getting married, much to Plymouth’s good fortune, and Conner walked away from the job and put an ad in a trade journal instead. The owners of a company called Yankee Aviation spied it and called Conner saying they needed a partner in the business. It wasn’t long before Conner and his wife Gail were the only partners in what is now Yankee Aviation Services, which has maintained and repaired small planes and jets since 1976.
Pilots from all over New England have their planes serviced at Yankee.
“What I love most is the fact that I do fly and most of these folks want me to take the airplane for a test flight after I’ve worked on it,” Conner said. “I love to fly all these airplanes. I like being my own boss; I call Gail the boss.”
In addition to his flying and mechanical expertise, Conner has been chairman of the Zoning Board of Appeals for years, is a drummer, volunteers at his church, is an avid NASCAR fan and is devoted to his family, Gail said.
“I haven’t gotten rich, but it’s a real experience having my own place and my own airplane,” Conner said. “If I weren’t the owner of this place, I’m not sure I would have an airplane. It’s been a great ride.”