A Southern Maine Aviation aircraft takes off from Sanford Seacoast Regional Airport on Friday morning, Jan. 28, 2022. In terms of takeoffs and landings, the airport is the busiest in the state. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

SANFORD, Maine —  Aircraft mechanic T.J. Barrett walked into the Southern Maine Aviation hangar to a round of applause and hoots from his coworkers after his first solo flight on Friday morning.

Barrett was all smiles.

“I’ve wanted to do that since I was 15,” he said.

Then, his flight instructor, Chad Rasmussen, cut the back of Barrett’s T-shirt to shreds with a pair of scissors. It’s an old aviation tradition, dating back to the days of open-cockpit planes when instructors tugged on student’s shirt tails to give them directions.

With eight aircraft and 14 flight instructors on staff, Barrett is just one of hundreds of students taking lessons with Southern Maine Aviation every year. Those students, along with a fleet of private planes, a handful of charter companies, an emergency helicopter service — plus its proximity to nearby summer homes on the water – make Sanford Seacoast Regional Airport the busiest airstrip in the state.

Clockwise from left: Southern Maine Aviation flight instructor Chad Rasmussen hands T.J. Barrett his own shirt tail after his first solo flight at Sanford Seacoast Regional Airport on Friday morning, Jan. 28, 2022. Shirt tail cutting is an old aviation tradition from the days of open cockpit aircraft, when instructors would tug on them, giving their students directions; Daniel Kezar of Southern Maine Aviation fuels an aircraft; Southern Maine Aviation flight instructor Richard Peterson rubs his hands together in anticipation before a flight. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Last year, Sanford saw nearly 40,000 takeoffs and landings, exceeding much larger airports in both Portland and Bangor.

“There, you have a few big planes with a lot of people,” said Sanford Airport Manager Allison Navia. “Here, we’ve got a lot of smaller planes with just a few people.”

In addition to Southern Maine Aviation, which runs most of the airport’s facilities, Pine Tree Helicopters and LifeFlight of Maine call Sanford home. There’s no regular passenger service but jet charters including Air New England and Plane Sense often fly the wealthy to and from their seaside summer homes around nearby Kennebunkport.

When the Bush family  — and their entourages — visit their Walker’s Point retreat, they often come through Sanford airport.

According to the Maine Department of Transportation, which tracks takeoffs and landings, Sanford clocked in at around 39,000, followed by Portland with 32,000, Bangor with 30,000, Bar Harbor with 25,000 and Augusta with 23,000.

The numbers are not precise because they’re tracked via a computer algorithm based on recorded radio communications from pilots announcing their arrivals and departures.

“However, some pilots are talkative,” said Maine DOT aviation engineer Tim LeSiege, who keeps track of the numbers. “There’s no system that’s 100 percent accurate.”

LeSiege estimates the system is 90 to 93 percent accurate.

Called the Invisible Intelligence system, it was first developed after a deadly 2012 crash at the Knox County Regional Airport in Owls Head. The system cannot prevent a crash but the voice recordings can aid investigators in finding out what went wrong, helping prevent future incidents.

A contributing factor in the system’s imprecise numbers is the fact that some antique aircraft do not have radios to record.

Student pilot John Suntken of Portland checks the fuel in an aircraft before a flight at Sanford Seacoast Regional Airport on Friday morning, Jan. 28, 2022. Suntken is a student at Southern Maine Aviation, which operates the airport. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

“It’s not an FAA requirement,” LeSiege said.

LeSiege said the Maine DOT tracks takeoffs and landings via Invisible Intelligence at all 33 of the state’s airports receiving Federal Aviation Administration funding.

There are about 60 more publicly-owned airports in Maine, not receiving federal funding, which are not tracked. Also not tracked are the state’s approximately 37 privately owned facilities open to the public, plus numerous private airstrips dotting the landscape.

All told, LeSiege said, including hospital heliports and seaplane ports, there are about 217 places to land and takeoff in Maine. But, unless there is a hidden beehive of aircraft activity he doesn’t know about, Sanford is definitely the busiest.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Tim LeSiege’s name.

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Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.