Flying Full Circle

A pilot for more than 50 years, John Chirtea continues living his dream near Milton

Story and Photography by Deny Howeth

John Chirtea is a collector. Airplanes happen to be just one of his passions, and more than one monoplane, Ercoupe, biplane, gyroplane, and even a Breezy have passed through his hangar doors at the Eagle Crest Aerodrome — a private grass strip located between Lewes and Milton. “It’s a real gem in this area,” Chirtea said. 

His wife, Cindy, is also an avid collector and has even purchased a gyroplane of her own. She makes sure their collection remains manageable and that John adheres to her one rule: “You need to recycle your assets, and you can’t buy another plane until you sell one,” she said. 

Current gems of the collection include a 2005 Fisher Celebrity biplane, complete with a radial engine named Little Stearman, built from a kit by a man in Milford, NY; a 1965 Alon A2 Ercoupe called Buttercup, which his daughter, Heather, used to learn to fly; and Cindy’s Daisy Belle, a 2017 Magni M24 gyroplane. 

All of John’s planes have a story behind them, and one of his favorites to tell is about a 1946 Aeronca Champ 7DC. While flying one day, he reminisced about the plane that he learned to fly in 1955 as a college student at Miami University in Ohio. He and a group of fellow students founded the Chautauqua Flying Club and later pooled money to buy the Champ. 

HANGAR OF HISTORY Eagle Crest Aerodrome owner John Chirtea points to one of two grass runways on his property, which also contains a hangar of collectibles near and dear to his heart, including the registration application for the plane he flew during his first solo flight in 1955.

With some quick detective work, he located its current owner, using Federal Aviation Administration records, and convinced him to sell. Within the year, John was once again the proud owner of the airplane in which he had taken his first solo flight. Included in the sale was the original application for registration, signed in 1958 by John himself, which proudly hangs on his jam-packed hangar walls.

Chirtea’s love of aviation began as a youngster, building balsa-wood airplane models. “My highlight as a model builder was entering and winning a competition, with my entry being none other than the original Wright Brothers glider,” he said. “A trophy for my winning entry was presented to me by Chuck Yeager, soon after he had broken the sound barrier.”

Recently, John received the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award, given by the FAA to expert pilots who’ve flown for at least 50 years. The United Flying Octogenarians invited him to join their organization in 2018, when he turned 80. He is the Delaware representative for the group. 

John flies whenever the weather permits and said that his goal in life is to share his love of flying with others. Through his donations of flights as raffle prizes to local nonprofit organizations, his lifelong dream comes true when he gets to take the next person up in the air.

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