Taking Flight Lessons from Darby's Skiles Fielding Montague

Mesmerized by a blue plane atop a Darby roof, Michael Dolan set out to investigate. Little did he know the journey would take him to cloud nine.

Illustration by John Dykes
It sat there for years—one of those oddities that gives a place character and becomes the stuff of legend: the tiny powder-blue plane inexplicably perched on a roof in Darby.

Parked atop a historic Queen Anne-style home on Main Street, the plane has commanded attention and demanded explanation for decades. It remained a mystery to me throughout my youth. Pre-Blue Route, it was the highlight of any trip to the stadiums, the Walt Whitman Bridge or the airport.

More recently, I penned a short letter expressing wonder over the landmark. I addressed it simply to “The House with the Blue Plane on the Roof.”

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Two days later, a letter came from one Skiles Fielding Montague, flight simulator salesman. That blue plane, he said, was a GAT-1 single-engine simulator, and he’d placed it on his roof in 1977 to help advertise his business. The explanation was followed by an invitation: Would I like to fly one?

And so it was that I found myself on Montague’s doorstep. A giddy sense of fear overcame me. What if it’s all a farce?

When the door opened, I was greeted by a bearded guy who could’ve easily passed for Burl Ives. Montague ushered me into the backyard, pointing to a small building in the corner. “That’s where the flight simulator is,” he confided.

We opened the door, and there it was: a working model of the very plane over which I’d marveled. Montague opened the door of the tiny simulator. I climbed aboard, and he sat down next to me. The space inside was exceedingly tight, much like an enclosed rollercoaster or one of those fancy arcade games kids play.

All the windows—including the windshield—were spray-painted white. “Anyone can fly when they can see where they’re going,” said Montague. “The trick is to learn to fly by using the instrument panel. This, my friend, is what it’s like to fly through clouds.”

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For the next half-hour, Montague gave me my first flight lesson. Explaining the various gauges on the instrument panel, he taught me how to steer the plane using the foot-pedal rudder, while also keeping  an eye on the speedometer and altimeter. I proceeded to buck the simulator left and right, frontward and backward.

Had we been 5,000 feet above Darby in a real plane, we’d have crashed on someone’s roof within seconds. I was a truly terrible pilot, but Montague was patient and kind, reassuring me that the coordination necessary to fly takes time to develop.

Coordination or not, I was on cloud nine. I’d uncovered the mystery of the blue plane.

West Chester writer Michael T. Dolan is a frequent contributor to Main Line Today. Read more of his work at conversari.com.

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