Flying sends his spirit soaring
Ken Maggart took his first airplane ride 40 years ago, igniting a passion for aviation that is still going strong.
By CHUIN-WEI YAP
Published March 18, 2007
WESLEY CHAPEL - The affair began 40 years and three generations ago, not long after Ken Maggart got married.
He was 22 then, just starting to make his way in the world.
He worked in sheet metal at the time, a job not so different from the metal contracting he does today.
A retired Air Force pilot named Paul Linder would show up at Maggart's Tampa shop from time to time.
Linder had his own plane and would often need help with metalwork.
Linder's hobby intrigued Maggart.
Take me up there, he would ask Linder, again and again.
One day, in 1967, Linder did.
He flew Maggart from Tampa to the Sebring car race on a converted runway.
"That was my first airplane ride," said Maggart, now 62.
The affair had begun.
* * *
When the sun sets, light pours into the open doors of the boxy building next to Maggart's home in Wesley Chapel's King's Landing community.
To anyone speeding by, it looks like nothing more than an exceptionally big garage.
But, inside the 4,000-square-foot space, four light planes sit in a tight squeeze.
There's a 1946 Taylorcraft.
A 1946 Aeronca Champion.
A 1963 Mooney.
And then there's Miss Katie.
Something about Maggart softens when he regards the red-white-and-blue 1946 Cessna 140 sitting front and center in the garage that's really a hangar.
"That's the other female in my life," he says.
Miss Katie didn't always look like you could eat off her clean and shiny hull. She was a battered, broken girl - a basket case, Maggart said - when he met her in 1985.
He took a year to rebuild her engine, replace her tires, repaint her body.
What's a year to someone in love?
After all, this was a man who had waited 11 years, from the day Linder gave him his first taste of flying, just to get his license.
"He tried to get me lessons in Clearwater," Maggart recalled. "But if you can't afford it, you just can't afford it."
Those lessons cost $15 an hour then, a tall order for a man with two daughters on an income of $100 a week.
So from 1967 to 1978, Maggart saved and hoped.
When his daughters finished high school, he asked if they wanted to go to college. They said no. He said he'd buy them a car each if they found a job, and he kept his promise when they did.
In less than two years, he finished the required 40 hours of flight training and 16 hours of ground school.
The first time he flew solo was the day he knew freedom.
"It's a feeling you cannot experience anywhere on this earth," he said.
"Only in the air. When you're up there, nothing else matters."
* * *
He built his first plane.
Crashed it, but didn't get hurt.
Then in 1985, he saw the Cessna for sale at the Vandenburg Airport in Thonotosassa. He brought it home, $5,000 lighter.
He took it to Cape Canaveral one night to see the space shuttle launch, with his flying buddy, Len Janicki.
What a night - thousand of flashing green and red lights against the pitch black sky.
"Like mosquitoes," Maggart said.
They weren't mosquitoes. They were other light planes, converging from all over the region to watch what was then - even now - a momentous event.
As the shuttle took off, Maggart recalled, its huge plume of fiery exhaust turned night into day, suddenly revealing all the small planes circling in a 5-mile radius around the space machine - something you could never do today because of increased security.
Without even realizing it, he was driving the plane upward, unconsciously tailing the shuttle in its majestic lift off.
"It was hyp-no-sis," he said, emphasizing every syllable.
When he came to his senses, he found a landing with only minutes to spare.
And then there was the time Janicki got married, in 1995.
Janicki's 72 now. On and off, he and Maggart have flown together for 32 years. The pair had planned to fly to Michigan before Janicki proposed to his wife.
She laughs about it now but was none too happy when the two men took off just three days after the wedding.
* * *
As for Maggart's own marriage to Judy, he said she greets his hobby with a sense of fond resignation.
"She says, 'At least I know you're not running around,' " he said.
Her name used to be on the Cessna, on the passenger side.
His name used to be on the pilot's side.
Then something happened.
Last year, as he was working on the plane, his great-granddaughter ambled into the hangar-garage.
"Papa, Papa," she said. "Can I have my name on the plane?"
She was 5 at the time, the first of his three great-grandkids, the girl whose very mention lights up his face like a space shuttle launch.
He said, "You sure can, Katie."
And that was how Miss Katie became Miss Katie, sitting pretty in Maggart's hangar, the centerpiece of a 40-year love affair that hasn't ended yet.
Chuin-Wei Yap covers growth and development in Pasco County. He can be reached at 813 909-4613 or firstname.lastname@example.org.