April 2014- It seems the articles I’m reading in aviation periodicals these days are all harbingers of doom: armed guards when we land; UAVs crowding us out of the skies; rising taxes, fuel costs and user fees; airports closing. Holy cow, where’d the fun go? Here’s a story about why my wife and I fly, and why it’s still fun out there.
The morning after Thanksgiving—Black Friday—while everyone else was standing in line for a cut-rate television or other coveted items, my wife, my 78-year-old mother-in-law and I were packing my Cherokee Six to the headliner with Christmas presents for underprivileged kids in the Bahamas.
We left out of Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport (KFXE), our home base, for the 35-minute flight over to the city of Freeport on the island of Grand Bahama. My wife and I have been doing this holiday flight for several years now, obtaining recipients’ names from local organizations in the Bahamas.
Normally we fly over on Christmas morning, but this year was a little different. We decided to make the trip over Thanksgiving weekend instead, and to bring Beulah along with us. It would be her first trip to the Bahamas.
Although my mother-in-law has been in my plane a few times previously, this was her first time in the right seat. And no one sits up front without taking a turn at the yoke.
Now, you need to know that Beulah raised five kids in a West Virginia coal mining camp. She’d practically spent her whole life working at home and managing her family, and never had the chance during those years to do anything even remotely adventurous. The idea of flying a plane appeared to scare the bejeezums out of her.
Once I explained the unlikelihood of immediate death upon her taking the controls, and after a little guidance, Beulah had control of the plane. It was a picture-perfect day with just enough puffy clouds out there to give her something to steer by. I gave her visual cues of distant clouds to aim toward and before I knew it, she had the plane level and on course.
I thought she’d gladly give back the controls after a few minutes, but it seemed she had something to prove. By the time Beulah was ready for a break she had flown the whole way across the channel and the runway was in sight. In the photo, you can see the seriousness with which she took her duties.
When we landed I could see that Beulah had a gleam in her eye. Upon our arrival we were swarmed by kids and quickly dispensed our gift bags to the always-grateful recipients. Then we headed into town for lunch.
Being a bit of teetotaler as well as a bit of a homebody, Beulah wasn’t quite ready for an afternoon cocktail, but we did convince her to try Rum Runner’s famous piña colada in a fresh coconut shell (the virgin version).
Altogether, I think the frozen concoction, the adrenaline rush from the flight, the joy from the kids, and the taxi ride down the wrong side of the road into town had given Beulah the biggest case of the giggles. You would have thought the bartender had poured high-octane rum in her drink. She couldn’t stop smiling and talking about how much fun she was having.
After lunch we took Beulah to a deserted beach down island that was covered with seashells and pieces of washed-up coral, and before we knew it she had a pile of 42 sea biscuits as well as other assorted shells and flotsam and jetsam piled up for the trip home.
I started to ask her if she really needed that many shells in her apartment, but thought better of it when I realized that’s one of the great things about private aviation. If I wanted to fill my plane with shells for my favorite mother-in-law, I could. I just had to carry them all to the rental car.
We finished off the evening with a nice dinner and afterward, Bananas Foster made right in front of us at our table. (I may have fudged the truth a little when I told Beulah the flames were coming from the sugar, not the rum.) She even came into the casino with us and pulled a handle or two.
Maybe I should rename this article “The Demise of a Little Old Lady’s Innocence”? Either way, Beulah had a ball and so far has exhibited no permanent psychological damage.
The flight home the next day was equally fun. Beulah helped me pull the controls back on takeoff and turn us toward home. Once again at altitude she took over, flying us all the way back to Florida’s coastline before grudgingly giving me back command.
After putting my bird away and regrouping back at the house, I printed a couple photos, one of Beulah in the cockpit and one of her in the square hoisting her coconut shell.
Now this is a woman who asks for nothing and is appreciative of everything, so I almost split my pants laughing when after looking at the photos, she slyly said, “You know, I thought you took one of me in the cockpit in my red sweater, too.” (She is my mother-in-law, after all.) Back to the printer for one more 8x10.
My wife put the photos up on Facebook, where other family members with nothing else to do after a long turkey weekend immediately started chiming in on how brave and amazing she was to do that, and was it real or photoshopped? And why weren’t they invited? The glow she acquired from all the attention was bright enough to read by.
A few days later Beulah was heading home with a suitcase full of shells, photos and memories. She resides in a large retirement community in Clearwater, Fla. and by 10 the next morning she was the belle of the ball. I’m guessing she was the first one at the coffee shop with her dossier full of photos, ready to entertain the aged masses with her feats of derring-do.
We received a card from her shortly after our trip. She thanked us for the wonderful flight and she signed it, “Love, Beulah, the plane flyer.”
This is why I learned how to fly. Not just to fly myself, but to share my gift of flight with those around me.
There’s not enough money to buy the kind of happiness we gave Mom, and I’m proud to say she wasn’t the first one who realized an unimagined dream of flying my plane.
Sometimes we need to look past all the seriousness of flying and everything that’s hampering our efforts to stay aloft and focus a little more on the fun. Because that’s the only way flying makes sense—if we’re having fun doing it.
So grab someone, go to the airport, duck the guys with automatic weapons, buy some overpriced Avgas, and if your runway hasn’t been closed by city hall, go flying! Use that unique gift you earned and go have some fun.
Mark Riordan has unswervingly been a VFR Pilot since 1992, learning to fly in Sanford, Fla. He’s spent his flight time traveling the Eastern Seaboard and the Bahamas in search of the perfect piña colada. Amassing over 1,500 hours of clear weather flying, he currently hangars his Cherokee Six directly across from Piper Aircraft, Inc. at Vero Beach Municipal (KVRB) where she can see the spot she was born. Send questions or comments to editor [AT] piperflyer [DOT] com.