Senior Stories

Winning My Wings After 50

In 1943, not many airplanes ventured across the skies of upstate New York. But when one did, I, a 4-year old, would dash out into our yard and watch, fascinated, as it passed overhead, several miles up in the atmosphere.

Fast forward to 1953. My Dad decided to learn to fly. And as he did not have any boys, and I was the older of two girls, I got to accompany him to the little grass strip with the grandiose name of “Oneonta Municipal Airport.” I was fascinated. The following summer, I stopped all dinner conversation one evening by announcing that I, too, wanted to learn to fly.

Avoiding my Mother’s killer glare, Dad took me right down to the field, located an instructor, and I took the first of what would be a dozen 1/2 hour lessons that summer. Alas, even 1/2 hour lessons were too expensive for Dad’s small-town lawyer earnings. So flying became “some day.”

“Some day” took 34 years. But on July 10, 1990, the FAA, in its infinite wisdom, bestowed upon me the appellation “private pilot.” This mid-life crisis present to myself was at last a reality – at age 51!

But lest you think it all happened magically, let me tell you that it wasn’t all blue skies and fair winds. And there were times when I was so discouraged that I began to actually listen to my friends who, unanimously, thought I had gone totally nuts.

These “down” times were outweighed, thankfully, by the times I drove home from the airport in such a state of euphoria that I would burst in, unannounced, on friends, shrieking – “Guess what I did today!”

Good or bad, all along the way to my precious license, and over the last decade of flying, there were people, events and adventures that I will treasure in my memory forever.

To begin with, my instructor – a wonderfully kind, gentle, and supportive man – can’t tell his left hand from his right. Now, this made for some verrrrry interesting “discussions” as to which end of the runway I was supposed to be landing on! Or, as we were taking off to the south, headed for an airport to the east, he would tell me I could “start my right turn now.”

I was not Al’s first female student. But I WAS the first to persevere and get her license. Both of us were quite proud of this. Interestingly, he told me that my age (49 at the time of my first lesson with him) was a factor in how he taught me. Seems the young ones have no fear at their age, and tend toward overconfidence and not paying proper attention to details.

I could well understand this. At age 15, I thought – “Land this plane? No problem!” And I would promptly set the little Cessna down so smoothly that the wing tips didn’t wiggle. Now, at age 50, it was – “Land this plane? That’s CONCRETE down there!” Heading straight for it was counterintuitive. Not to mention scary.

The day I took my flight test (called a “check ride”) was a hot, hazy, steamy July day. I was both excited and terrified. I showed up at the airport, spiffy in white slacks and a jungle print shirt, and proceeded to inspect (preflight) the plane, which was parked directly in front of the FAA tower. I got in, started up the engine and then noticed that I had only 1/2 tanks of gas. Since I had to fly to Manchester, NH (from Lawrence, MA) to take my test, I decided I wanted full tanks. I shut down the engine, opened the cockpit door and promptly missed the foothold. I slid out of the cockpit, banging my bum on the edge, and tumbled out, landing in the prayer position on the tarmac, with my head on the tire. I could just hear the controllers in the tower howling with laughter – “She thinks she can fly??!!”

Fortunately, only my pride was injured. I had the plane fueled, and proceeded to Manchester and my hard-earned prize – my license!

I have had many wonderful hours in the air, but none can compare with the time I joined two friends/neighbors (both in their 60s), to fly a 4-seat Cessna to California. We took the northern route – across the upper Midwest, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and then south into Oakland. Believe me, seeing this great country from 2,000 feet, instead of 30,000, is a breathtaking experience and one I will never, ever forget!

Second place goes to “flying the corridor” – about 15 of us in 6 planes, beginning at Poughkeepsie, New York, and flying down the Hudson River at 1,500 ft. Past West Point, past the Palisades, over the George Washington Bridge. At Manhattan, we were below the tops of the Empire State Building and the World Trade Center! And we were required to drop even further – down to 500 ft. as we passed over the Statue of Liberty! We were below the uprights of the Verrazzano Narrows Bridge as we passed over it. The return trip took us along the northern edge of Long Island all the way to Montauk Point, then north to our home airports in Massachusetts.

Recently, I had the privilege (and a lotta hard work!) of chairing the Hyannis, Mass. terminus of an all-women’s race. Many of you may remember it as the “Powder Puff Derby.” Well, it is now more politically correctly renamed the Air Race Classic. And this past June, it was raced from Tucson, Arizona to Hyannis. Many of the racers had been participating for not just years, but decades.

Although there were many young racers (3 teams were from colleges), many more were older. My guess is that more than half the nearly 100 racers were over 50. One – a feisty little lady about 4′ 10″ tall – admits to being 88. The head of the ARC Committee turned 90 in May! And one very competitive racer, when she’s not in her plane, is wheelchair-bound! Quite an incredible group of ladies.

There isn’t a day goes by, that a small plane doesn’t fly over my house, north of Boston. And when one does, I still look up and watch it, just as I did as a toddler. But now, I look up and say – “I can do that!”



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