Aaron Tweeten Flies Island Skies Aboard Cape Air


As Vineyard Haven came into view thousands of feet below in the early afternoon on a warm and clear September Tuesday, Cape Air Flight 309 veered west toward Chilmark, crossed woodsy West Tisbury, and banked back towards Edgartown, before landing gently at Martha's Vineyard Airport. The passengers politely applauded the pilot of the 10-seater Cessna 402.

As they dispersed to the beach or to work, to Oak Bluffs and to Aquinnah, their pilot, Aaron Tweeten, took off for Boston, his fifth flight of the day.

It's just a day at work for Mr. Tweeten, who flies between eight and 10 trips per day, four days a week, shuttling tourists and locals back and forth along the 35-minute route between Martha's Vineyard and Boston.

Mr. Tweeten, 27, is one of two Vineyard-based pilots who fly for Cape Air, a not-so-small airline with very small planes. Founded in 1989, Cape Air now flies to Boston, Hyannis, Nantucket, New Bedford and Providence, in addition to servicing short routes in the Caribbean, south Florida, and Micronesia.

During peak season, Cape Air operates around 850 flights per day. The airline carries 560,000 passengers annually, according to its Web site.

A pilot's day begins early - especially for Mr. Tweeten, whose first flight lifts off from Vineyard at 7 a.m. - with coffee, breakfast and an on-line weather check before filing the daily flight plan.

At the airport, he'll do a routine walkaround of the plane before the travelers arrive. And as the sun rises, off they go.

Generally, a Cape Air pilot will do a handful of flights back to back, before taking a break for a couple of hours.

On this day, Mr. Tweeten flies three trips in a row, followed by a layover at Logan International Airport in Boston. In the airport, he drinks Dunkin' Donuts coffee, although before the recent liquid bans he used to buy Starbucks, since their cups fit well in the plane.

As a quirky consequence of Cape Air's tiny plane capacity, a passenger often occupies the co-pilot's seat next to the pilot. Riders in the front seat sacrifice the seatback pocket Cape Air pamphlets, but are treated to an extraordinary panoramic view, which is especially striking as the airplane descends to land.

The co-pilot's seat also comes equipped with a steering wheel - actually, more of a handlebar than a wheel - which, according to Mr. Tweeten, passengers usually resist grabbing.

"I've never had a problem with anyone being a little too excited," he said. "They keep their hands to themselves. For the most part, the people who sit up there are pretty excited that they get to do that."

Mr. Tweeten said he likes the intimacy of his job.

"I think you find out more," he said. "Like this person is running late for a flight, or this person has something fragile in their bag - the little things. You find out a lot more than you would elsewhere, and hopefully we can personalize the service for them a little bit more."

Nevertheless, while content for now, he acknowledges the allure of the bigger jets. "I'd like to do some international stuff, like Europe," he said.

His most famous passengers include Vineyard regulars Bill Murray and Jim Belushi, in addition to U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and LeVar Burton of Star Trek and Reading Rainbow fame.

Travelers often applaud after smooth landings, a testament either to the skill of Cape Air's pilots or the pervasive apprehension about flying and subsequent relief after landing. (After joining Cape Air in February 2004, Mr. Tweeten flew in Florida for a two-and-a-half-week stint, where he said "they applaud all the time.") Mr. Tweeten notes that nervous passengers are not uncommon on these short commutes, but that the beautiful views usually placate the jittery.

Even flying a route as scenic as Vineyard-Boston, one can imagine the trip becoming monotonous. But Mr. Tweeten doesn't see it that way: "To me, once you're in the air, you're doing the same thing no matter where you're going. You can always look outside and see stuff, and if it's a cloudy day it doesn't matter where I'm going. I could be going to Paris or Rome and I'd be seeing the same thing."

Mr. Tweeten grew up in Denver and attended LeTourneau University in Longview, Texas, where he learned to fly. After getting his license, he became a flight instructor in August 2001. Three weeks later came the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, followed by a dramatic overhaul in airline travel.

"I didn't reconsider [my career], but it definitely changed my plans," said Mr. Tweeten. "Once 9/11 happened, the airlines weren't hiring, so I stayed a flight instructor longer. Having to rethink what I wanted to do - that wasn't a bad thing."

Where others might have been scared off from a future in aviation, Mr. Tweeten took the fear and uncertainty in stride.

"If you're going to get worried about all that stuff, you should find a new job," he said.

Mr. Tweeten is a kind, straightforward, easy-going guy. He likes reading David McCullough and Tom Clancy, going to the beach, watching Netflix movies, and eating at Linda Jean's with his wife of two years, when the waiting line is reasonable. He speaks at a normal speed, but his voice has a steady, smooth quality that makes it sound slower, not so much sedating as honest.

Happy now on the Vineyard, Mr. Tweeten is uncertain about his future on the Island, given the expensive real estate market.

"If you're going to pay half a million dollars for a house, you might as well buy a big house," he said.

In addition, Mr. Tweeten has little reason to feel isolated on the Vineyard, since he travels to Boston 20 times per week. On longer layovers, he takes the T into the city and walks around.

As for advice for aspiring pilots, Mr. Tweeten has three suggestions: "Find a good flight school. Stick with it. Make sure you enjoy it and make sure you enjoy the things you do along the way."

Mr. Tweeten, one senses, is enjoying it.