Friday, August 1, 2014

Dan Wilson: Earning His Wings Under the Hood

Before Dan Wilson arrived, airport didn't have an on-Island mechanic. 
 Mark Lovewell 
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Dan Wilson’s weeks are almost always split in two. For three days, he works in a World War II-era hangar at Katama Airfield. For another three days, he works out of a more modern hangar at the Martha’s Vineyard Airport. Sundays, he takes off, so to speak. A mechanic by trade but a pilot by passion, Mr. Wilson can be found roaming the skies when he’s not busy taking a wrench to a faulty airplane engine or completing annual inspections.

“There are beaches all over the place,” said Mr. Wilson. “It’s beautiful flying out here.”

Indeed, the scenic views are part of what brought Mr. Wilson to the Island years ago. For 15 years, he had spent summers here with his wife Jeanne DelGiudice. During those summers, Mr. Wilson spent time taking care of Waco UPF-7s and biplanes for classic aviators at Katama Airfield. But in a matter of time, what started as annual vacations to a treasured spot of Ms. DelGiudice’s young adulthood — she has been coming to the Vineyard since the 1970s, when her uncle, David Crohan, opened David’s Island House — grew into a year-round living situation.

Last May, Mr. Wilson and Ms. DelGiudice left their home in Warwick, R.I., and moved to the Island permanently. Together, husband and wife started a business, Wilson Aviation Services. He does the mechanical work on aircraft. She runs the business end of it, he said.

“The business is geared around general aviation,” said Mr. Wilson. “And just to support the public, so that if anybody has any problems here, they can be dealt with properly, so airplanes aren’t leaving with the problems, which was an issue before.”

Following a plane crash in Brewster in January 2012 that resulted in the deaths of two local pilots, Oulton Hues, a flight instructor and part-time resident of the Vineyard, and Robert Walker of East Falmouth, the Island’s lack of mechanical support for aircraft came to light. Paul Adler of West Tisbury wrote a letter to the Gazette on the issue.

“For at least 28 years, our airport has not supported a mechanical repair facility. As a result, many aircraft, both private and commercial, have departed our airport in need of repair, seeking another airport where there is a repair facility. Pilots cannot afford to bring in aviation mechanics, so sometimes safety is sacrificed due to these budgetary concerns. This is both alarming and dangerous,” Mr. Adler wrote.

Mr. Wilson and Ms. DelGiudice, who were already contemplating moving to the Vineyard at the time, took note of Mr. Adler’s concern. After Evergreen Helicopters sold their Providence, R.I., facility, where Mr. Wilson was employed, he was looking for a place to work.

“That gave us more motivation [to move],” said Ms. DelGiudice. “It propelled him.

“There was nobody out here doing anything, so it was obvious for us to move here,” she added. “In Katama, there were four or five planes landing and needing help. The signs pointed.”

Today Mr. Wilson is one of two licensed airplane mechanics working on the Island. His experience spans 35 years. After graduating high school, he entered East Coast Aero Technical School in Lexington. There, he received his Airframe and Powerplant and Inspection Authorization licenses from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Mr. Wilson’s first job was as an engineer for a freight airline, where he maintained Convair cargo planes and seven Beech 18 aircraft in Providence and Quonset Point, R.I. The planes he worked on transported items from gold and silver bricks to horses and even a sedated dolphin that woke up mid-flight.

During his lifetime, Mr. Wilson has repaired submarines, cars, trucks, buses, electric boats and helicopters. But, he said, “I just love to work on the airplanes. I always came back to this.”

Aside from the general aircraft maintenance work he does on small planes — changing alternators, doing avionics work, making electrical modifications, doing oil changes, and, his favorite, repairing engines — Mr. Wilson also does inspections. The Federal Aviation Administration mandates that general aviation aircraft must be inspected annually and that any aircraft “that carry any person (other than a crew member) for hire or that are provided by any person giving flight instruction for hire” must be inspected after every 100 hours of flight. Mr. Wilson can inspect planes on the Island so that potentially faulty aircraft do not have to fly out for inspection, and pilots do not have to spend extra time and money to fly inspectors to the Island.

Mr. Wilson also is on call for Jet Blue and US Airways at the Martha’s Vineyard Airport.

“If an airline like Jet Blue comes in, which is frequent, and he’s got an issue that has to be signed off or deferred, if I wasn’t here they would have to bring somebody in from Boston or New York, which takes a lot of time,” Mr. Wilson explained. “It’s good for me to be here,

on the Island, for them. Because once those people are stuck — if they miss their connections on some of those flights — they’re really stuck.”

One of his specialties is working on vintage aircraft and radial engines.

“[Radial engines] are unique. There are not too many people working on those in this part of the country,” he said. “It’s an old, lost art.”

In his hangar right now is a Piper Cub from the 1930s, an early vintage airplane built for the general public and once used by the military for observation work. It’s up for inspection, but soon it will fly.

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