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Thursday, February 5, 2015

Soaring over New England foliage at 200 mph

A Maine aviation firm is giving leaf peeping, a clandestine-sounding activity, an illicit sort of twist.

Yes, Acadia Air Tours is offering leaf flashing where you eyeball the subject for an instant and then -- zzzzzip! -- you’re gone.

That’s what happens when you peek at leaves at 200 mph.

The 30-minute Bar Harbor-based flight includes barrel rolls, inverted loops and other belly-churning stunts hundreds of feet above the foliage. Passengers enjoy the splendor strapped into the cockpits of the two-seat World War II-vintage American Navy SNJ, the fighter that taught the pilots who won World War II how to fly.

The $475 flights are the brainchild of Steve Collins, a 65-year-old entrepreneur who earned a fortune in health care HMOs and is intent on spending it all on ex-wives and other things that take off.

“To be honest, I’m not sure anyone’s ever taken that flight and did it because they really like looking at leaves,” he admits. “But it’s a heck of a ride for adrenaline junkies and retired military guys who want to relive their past.”

Scott Jones of McMurray, Pennsylvania, said the leafy backdrop does elevate the whole altitudinal experience.

“To see the Arcadia upside down and pulling 3Gs is something I’ll never forget,” says Jones, who along with his wife Vicki spent two days at the Bar Harbor airport sampling all Arcadia’s varied aerial entertainments.

Collins recommends anyone truly interested in a spectacular way to see the leaves  take what in aviation terms is the plane that’s by comparison sort of pedestrian.

He’s talking about a biplane.

“You can fly a biplane over a gravel pit in the fog and your passengers will get out with big smiles on their faces.”

Yes, in an instant-message era where speed is key, he recommends traveling by the plane that can be outraced by Volkswagens. 

“There’s just something about being in an open cockpit traveling a few hundred feet above the countryside, just low and slow, at about 85 mph that’s impossible to beat,” he says. “I have two biplanes and they’re rarely on the ground. They’re very popular.

Acadia Aviation also offers glider planes and Cessa/biplane lighthouse tours.

Collins, who also owns Biplane Rides Over Atlanta, says he’s always had a heart for flying, but a body for football. At 6-foot-5, 250-pounds, his aspirations of serving his country in his chosen capacity were stymied when he exceeded Naval Flight School size considerations.

Too big to fly he may have been, but that hasn’t stopped him from soaring.

“My first ex-wive said, ‘You love those damn planes more than me,’” said the twice married aviator. “I didn’t really have an argument for that. I’m 65 and still dreaming of one day becoming a fighter pilot.”

“And all these people who keep showing up to fly tell me I’m not alone.”

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