Kenn Ortmann has been a familiar face to many in the Lilac City for the better part of four decades, working in various positions within the city of Rochester and most recently as co-chairman of Rochester Listens. It was not until his retirement from public service that he got a chance to live out a lifelong dream, and help others at the same time.
“I was always very intrigued by flying airplanes,” he said. “A lot of kids will say that when they grow up they want to be a fireman or a police officer. I never really thought about flying as a profession, but I was definitely intrigued.”
Ortmann retired from his post as Rochester’s planning director in 2013. He went on to work for Community Action Partnership in Dover and retired — this time for good — last year.
For his 40th birthday, Ortmann’s wife bought him an introductory plane ride in the Lakes Region, and his dream of having a pilot’s license was rekindled. However, a very demanding job got in the way of that dream for a few more years.
Right around the time he hit another birthday milestone 10 years later, he recounted a story about how he finally decided to get his pilot’s license.
“My wife and I used to ride our bikes down Route 108 to this restaurant in Somersworth that we liked to go to on the weekends,” he said. “We passed the airport and I saw this ‘for sale’ sign on an airplane and I really began thinking. I had just turned 50, and I said I need to make a decision because you never know with life.”
He purchased the plane with a friend of his — who was also a certified flying instructor — and after getting enough experience and passing a test, he was soon flying on his own. He initially had a recreation license, meaning he could only fly in good visibility using landmarks for navigation. He eventually upgraded to a private license with instrument endorsement, which allowed him to fly in any weather using his electronics for navigation.
With more time on his hands and not having the burden of a work schedule, Ortmann began to volunteer his plane and services with Angel Flight and PALS (Patient Airlift Services). Both groups provide free flights for children and adults to get medical care. He also volunteers with Young Eagles, a group that exposes children to flying.
Ortmann explains that sometimes it’s easier and quicker for people to get treatment by being transported in a private plane. “It provides for folks to get from ‘point A’ to ‘point B’ in a way that’s more manageable given the fact that they’re fighting a disease,” he said.
Ortmann said that most of the people he transports go to Boston for cancer treatments, but some patients may have more complex needs that make his airplane the safest way to travel. “I had someone whose immune system was compromised and they couldn’t be in a public space,” he said. “Picking someone up in a private airplane keeps them out of that environment.”
Flying his tiny airplane into one of the country’s busiest airports — Boston’s Logan International — does come with some challenges. “The fastest my airplane can go is the slowest a commercial aircraft can go that go in there,” he said. Ortmann says the flight from Skyhaven Airport takes about an hour, and the air traffic controllers need to fit him in between all the commercial flights. “The controllers in Boston are great and they know what my flight is all about. They’ve always been really, really nice.”
Even though he’s officially retired from public service, he’s decided to keep his hand in helping the community by recently volunteering to co-chair the Rochester Listens discussion group. The group is a product of the University of New Hampshire and New Hampshire Listens, and is an alternative way to spark conversation on addressing the community’s needs, outside of the more formal City Council meetings.
“I was asked by (City Manager) Dan Fitzpatrick to be a co-chair,” he said. “I felt it was consistent with the way I participated with the community in the past.”
“You get involved with whatever your profession is, and the things I did were housing and planning,” Ortmann said. “You need a fairly intricate relationship with people in the community. Listening is the most important part.”