MIDDLEBURY — To say that Ian Worley developed an interest in flying at an early age would be an understatement.
“Before I had memory,” he said, when asked of the point at which he became obsessed with all things aviation.
The Cornwall resident has made plenty of memories since those childhood days of flying vicariously through balsa wood models and airplane magazines. Now 70, Worley over the past half-century has logged more than 5,100 hours in the air flying real airplanes recording Vermont’s environmental resources and teaching others how to get their own wings.
Worley’s many contributions to flying were recognized by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) earlier this month, when he received the agency’s prestigious “Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award,” which is granted to select pilots who have been flying safely 50 or more years. The award reads, “In recognition of your contributions to building and maintaining the safest aviation system in the world, through practicing and promoting safe aircraft flight operations for 50 consecutive years.”
There are only two other recipients of this award in Vermont, and only around 1,800 nationwide.
Worley said he appreciates the FAA plaque, but it won’t keep him grounded. Recently retired from a 40-year career as professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Vermont, Worley has more time now to pursue his interest in flying. He is part owner of a 1946 Aeronca “Champ” airplane stored at the Middlebury State Airport. His teaching has gone from the halls of the UVM campus to a far more expansive classroom in the sky.
“I will probably keep doing this as long as I am safe,” Worley said last week, while checking on his plane in Middlebury.
Worley harkened back to his first forays into flight. He recalled growing and selling strawberries to raise enough cash for his first flying lessons off a small, grass airstrip near his home in northeastern Ohio in 1957. Worley was a high school sophomore and it cost $3 per hour to rent the Piper J-3 airplane in which he took his lessons.
“I didn’t know anyone who had even gone to Lake Eerie,” he said of the horizons those first flights would open for him. “If you were growing up in Ohio in the 1950s, there was no ‘world.’”
He took his first solo flight on Nov. 3, 1957, and earned his private pilot certificate before his senior year in high school.
Worley found that flying was indeed as majestic as he had imagined it to be. But coming from a family of modest means, he couldn’t fly as often as he liked. So he got a free entrée into flying as a cadet with the U.S. Civil Air Patrol (CAP), an auxiliary organization of the U.S. Air Force. It is a volunteer organization that performs three Congressionally assigned missions — search and rescue, disaster relief and fight education.
“All of a sudden, I am wearing an Air Force uniform … doing all sorts of things at Air Force bases, traveling in military airplanes, being instructed at Wright Patterson Air Force Base,” Worley recalled.
“This was my explosion into another realm.”
That realm would span the globe. Worley participated in an international exchange program through CAP that took him to Switzerland and other countries. He served as squadron, group and wing commander, attaining the rank of colonel, highest rank possible for a cadet.
While in Switzerland, Worley learned how to fly a glider and how to operate a PA-18 Supercub on skis off glaciers in the Alps. His high school senior thesis was a history of CAP from its wartime origins through the post-war transition.
His love of flying stayed with him when he moved to Vermont in 1970. Worley, whose wife Mary is a native Vermonter, joined the UVM faculty, and during the 1980s began to combine his teaching and research of natural features, ecology and environmental topics with flying. As part of several courses, from geology and environmental studies, to English and anthropology, he took more than 500 students on interpretive and research aerial field trips throughout the Champlain Basin, Green Mountains and Adirondacks. He has done similar flights for high school programs.
He has also logged hundreds of hours in the air performing biological and environmental surveys of Vermont for state agencies and various non-governmental organizations.
“I’ve done survey and research flights over every gore and town in the state,” Worley said.
During the 1980s Worley began giving flying lessons, which he does from airfields from Rutland to Burlington.
He is proud to report that he has had no major mishaps during his more than 50 years of flying. And three of his former students have safely negotiated landings after experiencing in-flight troubles. Safety, he said, has been paramount whenever he has climbed into the cockpit of an airplane.
No matter how many more flights he makes, Worley will always find his way back to the Green Mountain State.
“Vermont is one of the gems of the world, in that you always feel at home because of its size, and you can never stop looking at its beauty and diversity,” he said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]