For John Chirtea, the passion for flying started more than a half century ago with model airplanes.
“I made models of every conceivable airplane I saw,” said Chirtea, sitting in his backyard hangar near Eagles Crest Airport outside Milton.
In the 1940s and '50s, he won a quite a few awards for his models. One of the Wright Brothers' plane put him face to face with one of his idols.
“The guy who presented the trophy to me was Chuck Yeager,” he said. “He shook my hand and presented me with the trophy. I'm sure he remembered me.”
Naturally, he was being facetious about Yeager – the first pilot to break the sound barrier – remembering him, but that's indicative of Chirtea's personality. The jokes fly out of his mouth just as often as a plane flies in the sky. He says he's just trying to have fun and likes sharing it with others. At the recent Horseshoe Crab and Shorebird Festival in Milton, Chirtea raffled off an hour flight in one of his three planes. All proceeds from the $5 tickets were donated to charity. He often offers his services for charities, and he'll even take a passerby up in the air for a small donation.
“If I'm going to go flying, I'd like to take somebody with me,” he said. “It's not that I'm even giving anything away. Just seeing the joy on people's faces; the kids when they get off a plane and they've never been flying before – it's just so incredible.”
Chirtea tries to get up in the air a few times each week, but it's all weather dependent.
“Nothing could be better for a pilot than waking up in the morning and being 500 feet away from your airplanes,” he said. “You can walk out, put the door up and go flying.”
Chirtea owns an Aeronca Champ, a Pietenpol Air Camper and his most recent acquisition, a Celebrity biplane with a radial engine – all considered light sport airplanes. In April, he and his wife, Cindy, hauled the Celebrity back 2,500 miles from Utah in a 20-foot box truck. The plane's engine is being serviced and Chirtea is planning to put it back together soon.
Then there is the story of Chirtea's Aeronca Champ. It is the actual plane in which he took his first flying lesson in December 1955.
“I had another plane, and I was looking in my log book one day and wondered what ever happened to NC83515, which was the number on the plane,” he said. He looked up the plane on the FAA website and found it in Alabama. “I called the guy up, and he recognized my name as the president of the Chiquaqua Flying Club back in the '50s.”
Not only was Chirtea able to find his beloved plane; he also found a registration certificate he signed in 1958. A flying license in the 50s cost no more than $500, he said. Today, he said, it will cost at least $7,000, which is why is part of the reason why interest in aviation has declined.
Chirtea was born and raised in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. He attended Miami University and earned a master's degree from Xavier University. While in college, he started a flying club with 15 other people. The crew offered flying lessons for $5 an hour. With all expenses carefully calculated, he said, it only cost $2.57 an hour to fly, so they were nearly doubling their money.
After college, Chirtea moved to Baltimore for a job as an economic consultant. After 10 years he moved into the real estate industry.
“Fortunately, I was able to escape the building business,” he said. “I walked away from the business reasonably healthy; I wouldn't say wealthy.”
Around 2000, Chirtea and his wife decided to make Delaware their home, buying a home in Primehook Beach, while renting the couple's current home in order to have access to the hangar. All the flooding problems at Primehook finally took its toll on the Chirteas and they decided to renovate and move permenantly to the Eagle's Crest home.
Chirtea's hangar is the ultimate man cave. The space is large enough to house all three of his planes, hundreds of collectibles he's accummulated through the years and a small woodworking shop. Chirtea admits, though, it's a little tame compared to his previous home in Montgomery County, Md.
“I had an 8,000-square-foot barn, and it was filled with stuff,” he said.
Before moving to the beach, a professional auctioneer sold 680 items. Chirtea said it was tough to see a lot of it go, but he knew he couldn't bring it all with him.
“There were like three items I got more than what I paid for,” he said. “You always dream about the ultimate collection, but there is no ultimate collection.”
Chirtea has started collecting items again, from model planes hanging from his ceiling to an ATM machine he acquired from Irish Eyes' Tom Jones following the second Lewes fire. He also has button-cutting machines, formerly a big industry in Milton, and old cutaway valves.
His passion for collecting even reaches up to his former 9-ton steam-powered traction tractor. He bought the unique piece from a man in England. He said he “played” with it for nine years before selling it to a man in Australia, who used it for a merry-go-round. But during that nine-year period, Chirtea's fondest memory was the day he spent with Willard Scott, the weatherman for The Today Show from 1980 to 1996. Scott was the station master for a ceremony celebrating the renovation of Union Station, and Chirtea spent an hour and a half with Scott as they steamed through Washington on Chirtea's tractor.
“We rode down Pennsylvania Avenue together telling dirty jokes,” he said. “If you ever saw him doing the weather in the morning, when he did that, it was just the same way he was in real life; a lot of fun. We had a blast.”
When considering something for his collection, Chirtea is always attracted to items that have a function. He said he's always been a hands-on person, which can be traced back to his childhood living on a farm in Ohio.
“We were always adding a new chicken coop, pig pen or barn,” he said. “I always worked with my hands as a kid, and that just developed over the years.”
His woodworking skills developed yet another hobby – birdhouses. Chirtea's birdhouses aren't the run-of-the-mill products. He spends 30 to 50 hours on each one, zeroing in on every intricate detail. Many birdhouses are replicas of historic homes in Montgomery County, Md., that he was contacted to build. In those cases, he often used architectual plans to construct a perfect scale replica of the home. When plans were not available, he said, he would take his tape measure to the home to get accurate dimensions. Locally, he built a birdhouse replica of the Milton Historical Society, which was bought, donated and is on display at the society's museum.
“Woodworking has been with me all my life,” he said. “I always had a saw and a lathe and hand tools, and in Maryland I had the perfect woodworking house. Then when we moved, I sold everything and I regretted it. Today, I need a wrench, and I don't have a damn wrench, so I have to go to the store and buy a new one.”
Chirtea has a filing cabinet full of the plans for every birdhouse he's built, from the U.S. Capitol Building to a castle. His work was featured in a few major shows, including the Mennello Folk Art Festival in Orlando, Fla., where Chirtea displayed 35 of his creations.
His workshop today is a little smaller than he'd like, but it will do.
“If I can make saw dust, I'm happy,” he said.
But whether it's building birdhouses, collecting or taking people on short flights over Delmarva, Chirtea said it's all about sharing his passions with others.
“My main joy is when I can take someone flying or just have somebody else enjoy what I've put together,” he said. “It's all a little out of control, but it's fun anyway.”