74-year-old man hopes to soar to new heights
April 28, 2004
Brooke W. Stanley
Staff Writer

Brian Lewis/The Gazette

Pilot Allen Rothenberg sits inside his 1948 Ercoupe, which he will attempt to fly around 48 states.

Pilot to take vintage plane around

continental U.S.

Allen Rothenberg believes you have never really seen America until you have seen it from 5,000 feet above ground.

"It is just sensationally beautiful and stimulating," said the 74-year-old veteran recreational pilot.

Rothenberg, a Rockville resident, will get a chance to take an extended look at the country from above when he takes off May 15 from the Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg for a journey around the perimeter of the lower 48 states.

Though he has experience flying much more sophisticated airplanes, he has chosen to take his 1948 Ercoupe, a tiny two-seater with limited instruments, along for the ride.

Instead of relying on advanced technology, Rothenberg will use many visual references to guide his plane and will only fly when the visibility is good.

"What I'm talking about is taking off and seeing the horizon and seeing the clouds and seeing the trees," he said.

He describes a certain sense of fulfillment out of flying without having to focus so much on the instruments.

"This one is more rewarding in the sense that you're free of the earth," he said.

Among the pilot's several planned stops along the estimated 13,000-mile route are the southernmost, northernmost, easternmost and westernmost airports in the country. He will also take a trip inland to drop in on Smith Center, Kan., which is the geographical center of the lower 48 states.

Other destinations include the Imperial Beach Naval Air Station near San Diego and a visit to his grandchildren in Portland, Maine.

Other stops also will be necessary since the plane, which tops out at about 100 mph, can only fly about 300 to 400 miles at a time before needing fuel.

He plans to return on June 13 to celebrate his 75th birthday.

Rothenberg said he couldn't resist the challenge of the trip and so began mapping out his route in February.

"I just thought I really wanted to do something different," he said.

Rothenberg said he never considered becoming a commercial pilot because he figured he had gotten started too late. He was 40 and was working for the Peace Corps in the Philippines when he took his first flight lessons and got hooked.

"It gives you lots of freedom to do things that otherwise you wouldn't be able to do," he said.

In preparation for his trip, Rothenberg has been flying several times a week and has gathered an emergency survival kit to bring with him, complete with fish hooks, smoke signals and blankets.

He knows he will have to face the challenges of heavy winds over the Rocky Mountains and thermals, or large columns of rising hot air, over the desert areas. His plane cannot even fly high enough to get over some of the mountains, so he said he will have to follow highways through canyons.

He's not worried.

"I really don't get nervous," he said. "I think I have an appropriate level of respect for the airplane -- what it can do and what it can't do," he said.

Rothenberg said his daughter thinks he's crazy for doing it, especially in such an old plane.

"That airplane's probably had better care than I have," he joked, noting that he has a few decades up on the plane in age.

But Rothenberg said he has had some close calls, including one in which he lost all electricity in a plane he was flying over Detroit. He had to follow another plane into the airport because he could not see his instruments.

"I was scared," he said.

Rothenberg's fiancée, Joy Maglilong, said she has no doubts about his ability but does worry he may have trouble finding places to land his plane since it can only stay up for about four hours at a time.

"He's really very confident," she said.

She said he has always had an interest in adventure.

"He always wanted to explore," Maglilong said.

George Shadoan, a longtime friend of Rothenberg's who is also a pilot, said he is confident his friend is ready for the undertaking.

Learning about Rothenberg's ambitious plan, however, was a bit of a surprise for Shadoan.

"He's not, in my evaluation, a daredevil," he said.

But Shadoan said he knows Rothenberg will not take unnecessary risks.

"It's a real adventure and I can understand that he would want to do it," he said.

A former school teacher, guidance counselor and principal, Rothenberg now works at a piano store in Gaithersburg and has no plans to retire. Working, just like flying, keeps his body and his mind active.

"I'm not at all afraid of dying, but I don't like to get old," he said. "... I don't want to go out in a nursing home."