Shortly after getting my pilot’s license in 1992, I took all of my family members up, one at a time, for an aerial tour of Jacksonville, Fla. Part of the flight included showing them something my instructor taught me to do on takeoff. Once the wheels are off the ground, level off until reaching the end of the runway and then pitch up like an F-16 on afterburner. Being a Cessna 152 on avgas, we petered out well short of the 15,000-feet mark (closer to 250 feet), but still the G forces were always great fun for me. My passengers, however, were unanimous in their displeasure, and I’ve long since written that move off as newbie stupidity. Over the ensuing 17 years, I’ve gone to great lengths to make up for this transgression and now make sure that my passengers are comfortable by keeping the greasy side face down and parallel with the ground. My mom, who never enjoyed flying in the first place, was one of those passengers and, for the next dozen years, constantly came up with excuses to avoid a second flight.
In 2003, she was 68 and getting ready for her 50th high-school reunion in Cleveland, Ohio. Due to failing health, she used a big oxygen machine. When out and about she had a small pony bottle similar to what we use when flying up in the high teens. Since 9/11, the airlines no longer allow passengers to bring their own oxygen tanks onboard and require you to rent theirs. This rental cost, in addition to the rental of an O2 machine at the other end, was going to be prohibitive, and she was devastated that she was going to miss her class reunion. Her best friend lived in Florida, as well, and had been planning to travel up with her.
By this time, I had upgraded from renting a 152 to owning a 1974 Cherokee Six, capable of hauling her, her friend, luggage, oxygen machine, spare bottles and still have room left over for coffee and donuts. In addition, she could be driven right up to my plane and picked up at the other end by her friends and avoid all the foot travel of a large airport. So I put forth my charter offer to fly her up in style and she accepted on two conditions. One, no “pop-ups” (moms never forget, do they?) and two, she didn’t want to fly over the ocean in a small plane.
The big day arrived: I got them tucked in the backseat and off we went, carefully avoiding crossing the shoreline on the way out of town. A quick fuel stop in Kentucky, and before they were done gossiping about who might be there, we were safe on the ground just outside Cleveland, where she was reunited with old friends who picked us up right off the ramp. She couldn’t say enough nice things about the flight, and as the weekend progressed, she managed to drop into every conversation that her son, the pilot, flew her up in his own plane. A couple times she even inadvertently referred to it as a jet. Who am I to correct my own mother?
As I watched her have fun with old friends, I knew that my little plane had made it possible. It was great payback for all the places she drove me to as a kid. I’d like to say we spent that year crisscrossing the countryside, but sadly the flight home was to be her last. Her health worsened, and she wasn’t able to travel again, but loved to tell the story of her big flight north. She passed away right before Mother’s Day the next spring.
And so that I don’t leave you on a sad note, there’s a postscript to the story of the flight home. As we approached the Ohio-Kentucky border, there was a front that extended all the way to eastern Virginia, and I had to head east until I could slip around it and start south again. As we were going through South Carolina, the Gamecock MOAs near Myrtle Beach became active, and with the weather to the west, my only choice was to go out over the ocean to avoid them. My passengers were asleep, but about five miles offshore, my mom awoke and asked where we were. Suddenly, I was that kid with his hand caught in the cookie jar. “Over the ocean,” I replied, cringing.
“Oh, it’s pretty out here.” After hours of flying over the previous week, she was suddenly the seasoned passenger. I laughed quietly. Of all the hundreds of flights I’ve taken, that one still reminds me, in part, as to why I became a pilot. To share the skies with those close to me is one of the greatest gifts I’ve been able to give over the years. Whether it’s with a loved one flying off somewhere romantic or just helping my mom be a teenager one more time, flying has allowed me to bring something special to those around me.