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Flying high
For newly licensed Fitzwilliam teen pilot, the sky's the limit

Last Sunday, Hunter Daris, 17, was awarded her private pilot license. It’s a significant accomplishment, not only because of her age, but because only 7 percent of the nation’s pilots are women, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

“It’s my passion,” said the teenager, who lives with her parents in Fitzwilliam.

Hunter got her start in aviation earlier than most — at age 6. Her father, Jim Daris, who is employed as a manufacturing engineer in Keene, is a certified flight instructor, who owns a small plane. He often took her along when he flew. At 14, she accompanied him to an air show in Westfield, Mass., where they watched a performance by the Thunderbirds, the United States Air Force demonstration squadron. But later, while waiting in line for an autograph, she was shocked to discover there were no female pilots in the group. (Currently there is only one female Thunderbird, Major Michelle Curran.)

That encounter fanned Hunter’s resolve to pursue her own private pilot license. Initially her dad was her instructor.

“She’s definitely a natural. She has a gift,” he said.

Now in her senior year of high school, Hunter attends Emma Willard School, an independent day and boarding school in Troy, N.Y., not far from Albany. It’s an all-girls school, recognized not only for its educational curriculum but for its Gothic architecture and abundant gargoyles, highly reminiscent of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts.

But in March, she returned to Fitzwilliam due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At home, she continues her classes remotely. She also trained for her pilot license at Monadnock Choppers, a small aviation business owned and operated by military veterans at Keene’s Dillant-Hopkins Airport in North Swanzey. They provide flight instruction in small planes and helicopters, as well as sales of both.

Hunter trained in a Piper Warrior, a small airplane. Her instructor was Stefan Naumburger, who found her to be a very capable student, both in ground instruction — assessing weather conditions, taxiing and the like — and in the air.

“The first time, she was nervous,” he said. “The next time, she was confident. I was so impressed by how much she knew ... She knows how to handle aircraft and what to do in different situations. She was almost to a commercial level. She handled simulated failures like a pro. She didn’t get flustered.”

In all, it took Hunter about three years from that memorable day at the Thunderbirds show to earn her private pilot license (PPL). Along the way, she logged more than 200 hours of instruction time. She repeatedly practiced dozens of take-offs and landings, and perfected other maneuvers.

At age 16, she flew her first solo venture. Her mother, JoAnne Daris, was nervous. “I did not go to the airport,” she said.

Her father admits to being anxious, too. “That’s an understatement,” he said. “My heart was in my throat.”

But Hunter excelled. In short time, she completed more than the required 10 solo flight hours, and multiple solo trips of more than 50 miles each. To meet her goal, she also undertook a 150-mile trip to Claremont and on to Sanford, Maine, and back to Keene, as well as trips to Saratoga, N.Y., and other destinations.

Beyond that, she spent the summer months studying online for the comprehensive written test, which contains about 60 questions.

“It was challenging,” she said of her training. “It’s definitely a lot of hard work. I grew a lot in the course of three years.”

Naumburger is thrilled for his prized student’s achievement.

“I am super proud of her for doing it. It’s a huge accomplishment,” he said.

Hunter’s private pilot license, which is valid internationally, can now open new doors in aviation for her. Ironically, she doesn’t have her driver’s license yet, so will still need a ride to the airport to explore them.

Like other licensed private pilots, she could become a ground instructor or pursue advanced training in instrument rating, flying in clouds or other skills. Or she could train in acrobatics, such as performing spins, loops and flying upside down. Other opportunities include but aren’t limited to selling aircraft, or volunteering as a pilot with nonprofit organizations. And there are more. She can fly as high and as far as she wants.

Her mother, a paralegal and real estate agent who also sits on the Monadnock Regional School District Budget Committee, says Hunter happily pursued a calling.

“She has such a passion for flying. Even when she just talks about it, her face just lights up”, JoAnne Daris said. “We have always tried to teach her that she can do anything she puts her mind to.”

Besides joining the small, elite number of female pilots, Hunter reached yet another major goal during her time at home. She also just earned her 2021 Girl Scout Gold Award, the highest achievement a Girl Scout can attain. Only about 6 percent of Girl Scouts earn the prestigious award. Requirements include an intensive 80-hour sustainable community service project.

She spent 100 hours from May through September growing an organic garden at home and at a designated space at Tracie’s Community Farm in Fitzwilliam. She donated the produce to Helping Hand Center in nearby Troy.

In January, she will return to school in New York. Besides her studies, she plans to choose colleges to apply to, and envision her future — maybe even a career in aviation. Right now, she’s considering a couple of engineering schools and exploring the U.S. Air Force Academy and U.S. Naval Academy.

“There are so many opportunities,” she said.

top story
Plifka sells Winchester market after nearly five decades at helm

WINCHESTER — Kulick’s Market, the grocery store owned for three generations by the Plifka family, has been sold by longtime proprietor Stanley “Butch” Plifka Jr.

Plifka retired this week following the sale, having run the market and adjacent gas station at 30 Warwick Road for 48 years. County records show the Somersworth company Mahavir LLC purchased Kulick’s on Monday for $3.4 million.

Gopal “Paul” Patel of Somersworth said Friday the new ownership group includes himself and two other members. The group owns several other stores in New Hampshire, including Arthur’s Market in Rochester, Abbott and Staples General Store in Center Ossipee and Kevin’s Discount in West Ossipee, according to Patel.

He called Kulick’s a “good neighborhood store” and said its new proprietors plan to expand its selection of groceries and other items, given the lack of similar vendors nearby.

“It’s literally only one [grocery] store in Winchester, so we want to keep what people need,” he said.

The Mahavir group would also like to establish an Aroma Joe’s, the regional coffee shop chain, at the gas station and is exploring plans to turn the adjacent car wash, which it also purchased, into a Taco Bell franchise, according to Patel.

The Plifka family had owned Kulick’s for its entire 111-year existence, having founded the market in 1909, until its sale Monday.

Stanley Plifka Sr. operated the store for five decades, according to his 2006 obituary in the Brattleboro Reformer. He and Butch ran Kulick’s together for multiple decades before the younger Plifka took the reins completely 25 years ago, he said Friday.

A Winchester native, Butch Plifka explained that as owner, he tried to follow his father’s example of treating customers fairly and being an active and generous community member.

“I’d like people to remember me as somebody who was kind to people that were less fortunate than us,” he said.

Plifka said he plans to spend more time with his family in retirement, in addition to skiing and golfing. He and his wife, Lori, hope to build a new house on Forest Lake this spring, where Plifka said he anticipates spending plenty of leisure time.

“I’m kind of looking forward to retirement,” he said. “I’m sleeping a little bit longer.”

In recent years, Plifka was involved in a contentious legal battle to block the proposed development of a Dunkin’ nearby, at the intersection of Routes 10, 78 and 119 in Winchester.

In cases that reached the N.H. Supreme Court, Kulick’s representatives argued the project — which includes a drive-thru of the well-known coffee and doughnut shop, as well as a gas station and convenience store — would create unsafe traffic flow in the area and environmental problems while also challenging it on procedural grounds.

The high court rejected the market’s contentions in 2016 and again in January 2020.

“I’m still concerned about our water, concerned that it’s a dangerous intersection and concerned about competition to other businesses in the area,” Plifka said after the court upheld the proposed development in 2016, according to a report in The Sentinel.

The Winchester Dunkin’ is under construction and will likely open in January, according to Christine Salema, the managing member at the project’s developer, S.S. Baker’s Realty. The Keene-based company owns the property at half a dozen other Dunkin’ locations in the Monadnock Region, she said.

Plifka said his decision to sell Kulick’s was not connected to recent progress on the Dunkin’ development, however, explaining that he has been planning his retirement for three years. He added that he hopes the franchise does well and said his opposition to the project was based on safety and environmental concerns — not hostility toward a potential rival.

“I was never against the Dunkin’ Donuts,” he said. “… I knew that was going to come in at some point. You can’t hold that off forever.”

breaking top story
NH update
Cheshire County hits another record with 28 new COVID cases
  • Updated

Cheshire County set another unsettling record Friday, as the state announced that another 28 county residents have tested positive for COVID-19.

The total was a big jump from the county’s previous high of 17, set just four days earlier.

New Hampshire has added an average of 400 new cases per day over the past week, a rate three times faster than at the start of the month, according to data from the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services.

On Friday, the department announced 527 new cases statewide, the second straight day above 500.

State officials say they’re seeing an across-the-board rise in the metrics they use to track the coronavirus’ spread. More people are testing positive. A higher share of tests is coming back positive. The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients has doubled in two weeks. Deaths are creeping up.

Taken together, the statistics point to a virus that is spreading substantially in communities around the state.

“Obviously, it is never anyone’s intention to asymptomatically spread COVID,” Gov. Chris Sununu said Thursday as he announced a statewide mask mandate. “But it’s happening. And it’s happening at an incredibly alarming rate.”

Unlike in the spring, when infections seemed to concentrate in the state’s more urbanized southeast, the current wave has washed across the state, affecting rural counties from Cheshire to Coos. Sununu said more than 75 percent of New Hampshire’s cities and towns had active cases as of Thursday.

“This is now really a statewide issue more than ever before,” he said.

Sununu called on residents to abide by the new mask requirement and take other protective steps, like social distancing. He said the effect of those measures may not immediately show up in the data, but can help prevent the surge from getting to a point that it overwhelms the health care system.

As of Friday, New Hampshire hospitals housed 108 COVID patients, up from fewer than 20 a month ago and nearing the springtime peak of 126 hospitalizations on May 13.

“Three or four weeks down the road, when this hospitalization number can really potentially start putting a lot of pressure within our hospital system, we don’t want to have to close hospitals,” Sununu said. “We don’t want to have to go back to the restrictions that were in place.”

More than 70 percent of hospitals and long-term care facilities have some degree of staffing shortage right now, part of a national problem, he said.

Also on Friday, the state announced the 507th death attributable to COVID-19 — a woman from Hillsborough County who was 60 or older.

More than 4,000 people are now considered to be actively infected in New Hampshire, 140 of them in Cheshire County. Every community in the county except Alstead, Harrisville, Marlow, Roxbury and Surry now has at least one active case, led by Keene with 40, Rindge with 32, Jaffrey with 12 and Chesterfield with 11.

Elsewhere in the Monadnock Region, New Ipswich had 17 cases, Peterborough had 15 and Charlestown had 12, Hillsboro had 9, Antrim had 7 and Bennington and Hancock each had fewer than five.

The community of residence of 225 active cases was still being determined.