Up and Away
Cape Cod Life / July 2013 / People & Businesses, Recreation & Activities
Writer: Sara Hoagland Hunter / Photographer: Dan Cutrona
A Cape Codder climbs into a biplane’s cockpit and rediscovers her home from a fresh vantage point.
I climb cautiously onto the vintage fabric wing, having been warned by my tan, weathered pilot Chris “Sid” Siderwicz, to step lightly. Futilely trying to appear calm, cool, and collected as Sid gives me a hand, I straddle the cockpit door and slide awkwardly into the deep front seats of the biplane before Sid hands me a set of Amelia-Earhart-looking head gear. From the seat behind me, Sid says that since it will be too difficult to hear each other in flight, simple “thumbs up” communication will do.
As the engine revs and the wooden blades of the propeller start to spin, I reflect on Sid’s assurances that even for nervous passengers, the chug chug chug of the engine is soporifically soothing—“like when you take a crying baby for a ride in the car to get it to nap,” he says. I find that hard to believe as we proceed down the grass runway, my heart in my throat.
But we rise quickly, effortlessly. And over the course of 25 minutes, spectacular views reveal a new Cape Cod—more beautiful than the one I’ve known my whole life.
Like visitors and year-rounders, I’ve discovered hidden gems of our magnificent Cape while biking, boating, and beaching. But until you experience Cape Cod from the open cockpit of a biplane, save your superlatives. No better view exists of our exquisite and fragile paradise than the one I was afforded during this season’s maiden voyage of Cape Cod’s beloved touring biplane. In a given summer, close to 1,300 happy passengers make the same trip out of the quaint, picturesque Cape Cod Airfield in Marstons Mills—one of just three public grass air fields left in the state.
The plane is owned and meticulously maintained by a father-son team who for 10 years has managed the airfield in a joint effort with the town of Barnstable to keep the field open. Sid and his son Chris Siderwicz took over operation of the historic 80-acre airfield, complete with vintage windmill, when Chris graduated from Bourne High School in 2003. In addition to their responsibility for a fleet of between 15 and 20 private planes, two hangars, and three runways to accommodate an on-site sky-diving operation, the partners run a busy aerial banner towing business. But rides in the bright red biplane are what have groups gathering by the fence of the scenic airfield, waiting for a 15-to-35-minute tour.
The wait is not a hardship. Vintage photos from the airport’s rich, 84-year history plaster the rustic office. Gazing across the vast expanse of daisy-filled meadow runways, it’s not hard to imagine the airfield’s opening on Independence Day, 1929, when an air circus complete with stunt flyers and parachutists graced the grassways. Since then, the airport has seen just a handful of owners, but many colorful comings and goings while serving private plane owners, Army pilot trainees, and glider and blimp pilots. “This is our passion,” explains 28-year-old Chris. “We wanted to keep it alive.”
For the elder Siderwicz, the replica of the barnstorming plane of the 1930s is not just a source of income to keep the airfield open: It’s an homage to a bygone era of grass fields, open-cockpit planes, and the camaraderie of pilots who flew before air travel meant big business. “I wanted a plane from the ‘all-grass’ era for this all-grass airfield,” Sid says. It’s not a leap to picture Sid as the 13-year-old who once biked every day to his hometown airport in Norwood, Massachusetts, to be around airplanes. Sid began a 30-year career as a commercial airline pilot at the age of 19, and years appear to melt from his sun-creased face when he speaks of the beauty of flying a biplane over Cape Cod.
Chris caught the same fever as a toddler riding in his dad’s restored, vintage planes. He made his first solo flight on his 16th birthday. In the years since, he has become an accomplished aerobatics pilot and earned a mechanic’s license. With more than 2,000 hours of flying experience, Chris echoes Sid’s sentimentality about the biplane. “Ask any pilot and they will tell you that a biplane is one of the most romantic planes to fly,” he says. “It takes more skill—you do a lot by feel. You are one with the airplane. Flying out over the grass . . . the way it used to be. Nothing could be better.”
In 2007, after a lengthy search online and through aviation publications, Sid was delighted to find the Waco YMF-5 biplane in turnkey condition in Nevada. Sid has built and restored dozens of planes in his 40-year love affair with flying, and he had always admired Waco’s classic design of this reproduction of a 1930s open cockpit sports plane. Built in 1988 and used as a sightseeing plane in South Africa, the plane had been completely refitted for use by a wealthy private owner who was ready to sell.
In the weeklong adventure of a lifetime, the father-son team flew the plane from Carson City to Cape Cod. Both admit the trip was grueling and at times scary—especially going over the mountains at the beginning of the journey, in a plane that generally, Chris says, “doesn’t fly that high.”
“When we finally smelled the salt water over New Jersey, we looked at each other and smiled,” Chris says. “We knew we were getting close to home.”
From an altitude of just 1,000 feet, my own home couldn’t look more different. The green expanse of Sandwich’s Great Marsh gives way to the bright blue of Cape Cod Bay and the white sands of Sandy Neck, where the idyllic, dune cottages entice with their quaint remoteness. As we whiz up the coast at 80 miles per hour, I am surprised by the warmth of the engine and how comfortably the windshield and high sides protect us from the wind.
I give my first thumbs-up as the three beautiful and distinct bridges spanning the canal come into view. No longer glimpsed through slats as my car speeds within narrow lanes, the canal suddenly appears as the man-made wonder it is. I click so many pictures from both sides of the plane my battery is almost dead in no time at all. But I know I must save some juice for the late afternoon light on the white cliffs of Plymouth I’ve been promised.
As we approach the dramatic sand cliffs with their sheer drop to the bay, I marvel once again that I could have sped by the entrance to this spectacle of nature thousands of times, never venturing from my Route 3 routine. My second thumbs-up as the White Cliffs Country Club comes into view is returned by the pilot with a boyish grin. The plateau of the 18th hole and its dramatic drop to the bay is a spot I will have to rediscover on foot.
As Sid salutes the family waving below on the beach with a jolly wing dip, I am sad we are banking in a U-turn towards home. Next time, I will book the longer ride up the canal, over the bridges, to the Elizabeth Islands, the beaches of Falmouth, the bays of Cotuit, and the seaside mansions of Osterville.
For now, I am content to spot sights once unseen: the huge, geometric outlines of the Massachusetts Military Reservation along with the surprising array of woods, lakes, and ponds I had no idea existed on our supposedly overdeveloped Cape Cod.
By the time we reach home, the chug chug chug of the engine has worked its magic. I am pleasantly drowsy as the gentlest of bumps in a soft, green meadow signifies our landing. I don’t want this ride to come to an end. I am back to reality, but a changed one, with a deeper appreciation of what we have in Cape Cod. I renew my life’s promise to savor and save what is here, with the newfound knowledge that with a little lift in attitude and altitude from a grass airfield, I can visit it again.
For more information, visit capecodairfield.com or call 508-428-8732.
Centerville resident Sara Hoagland Hunter, is a frequent contributor to Cape Cod LIFE and the author of nine books for children, including her most recent, The Lighthouse Santa.
Love In The Air
When chris isn’t ferrying passengers, he is busy towing banners behind the signature red biplane or one of two new Piper Cubs, either for advertisers or personalized message banners. In fact, the younger Siderwicz’s “Will You Marry Me?” banner is a much in-demand means of proposing. “I have the timing down perfectly,” says Chris. “I get there early, then wait about a minute away, then fly over just at the right moment.”
Glassblower Bryan Randa of Cataumet attests to Chris’s split-second timing, even under duress. Randa thought it would be the perfect way to surprise his girlfriend, Jess, at their favorite beach in Falmouth. He and Chris set up the flight based on weather reports, texting constantly on the day of the proposal. As the engagement ring burned a hole in his pocket, Randa pretended to relax on the beach while he waited to hear the buzz of the biplane—until Jess said she wanted to go for a swim.
“I had to think of ways to stall because I was afraid I’d lose the ring in the water,” Randa says. “I kept saying, ‘wait, wait a second,’ texting Chris to hurry up.”
Jess was just about to go in the water without him when the trusty red biplane appeared over the beach with the banner rippling behind it. While Jess looked up, Bryan knelt and pulled out the ring. Chris says he saw Bryan bend down on his knee while Jess looked up at the banner. “She cried a little bit,” says Bryan. She also said “yes.”