Just the Other Day: Donna

It’s a five-hundred-mile trip from our home on the Northshore of Lake Superior to the airport in Ottumwa, Iowa. It’s an airport I am very familiar with after flying in and out of there for decades; both as a child with my Dad and as a pilot myself in my adult years. This would be a bittersweet trip.


You see, my very dear friend, Steve Black, and his family, had operated Ottumwa Flying Service at the airport for over 32 years. As a private pilot, I kept my airplane there and I also flew commercially as a charter pilot for OFS. Steve had recently passed away and today we were gathering there to celebrate his life. Of course, there would be tears, but many more moments of joy would be shared in remembering some really good times and seeing old friends.


Melissa and I moved to the Northshore in 2014, but I always made it back to Ottumwa on the third Sunday of June. For over twenty years, it became a tradition that Ottumwa Flying Service would offer airplane rides to the public on Father’s Day – and we flew a lot of them! One year we took almost seven hundred people up for rides in one day!


I wondered if I was stealing Father’s Day from my kids by flying all day, but they insisted it was my day to do what I wanted to do. My last flight of the day each year was reserved for my girls. We took a flight together, catching the setting sun, then went out to dinner.


Flying on Father’s Day was special for me. Each year I met some new people, got to see some old friends, and most of all, enjoyed sharing the gift of flight with a lot of people.  There is a great thrill that comes with taking a person up in an airplane for their first time as well as some people who hadn’t flown for many years.


I particularly enjoyed taking up older pilots who no longer met the physical and health requirements to hold a pilot’s medical certificate but never lost their love of aviation. One gentleman would come out each year to fly with me. Shortly after takeoff, I would tell him to take the controls, “It’s your plane.” I would say.


“I can’t fly this. I don’t have a medical anymore.” He would say.


I would jest, “What makes you think I have one?” We always shared a good laugh about that. “Level off at two-thousand feet, then head over the town.” He would take the controls, adjust the throttle and set the trim.


“Can we go up to three-thousand?” He asked.


“It’s your plane.” I’d say, then mimic the air traffic controller, “Nine-six Charlie, climb and maintain three thousand.” He advanced the throttle and climbed, leveling off at exactly three thousand feet. It was like watching him fly for the first time again as he turned to the left then back to the right. The look on his face was priceless as the airplane responded gracefully to his gentle touch. I wanted to let him keep flying, but after a bit, I told him, “We need to head back to the airfield now.” He seemed a little sad when I said that, but nodded and turned the plane. I didn’t have to tell him which direction, he knew the way.


He entered the downwind leg parallel to the runway, lowered the landing gear and gave her ten degrees of flaps. He added more flaps on the base leg then turned onto final. I made the radio calls for him, “Cessna nine-eight-nine-six Charlie is turning final for three-one, Ottumwa.


He lined the aircraft up perfectly with the runway and descended to about eight hundred feet above the ground. “You probably better take it from here.” He said.


I put my hands back on the controls, “Okay, it’s my plane.” I said and brought the airplane in for the landing. I’ll never forget the wonderful feeling of flying with him every year and so very many others like him. But those days of Father’s Day airplane rides were long gone.


This Father’s Day weekend we were gathered to celebrate the life of our good friend, Steve Black, sharing memories and recalling stories. There would be only one airplane ride given this time.


Rich Wilkening, a longtime friend and pilot, would take Steve’s wife, Felicia, and his son, Schuyler, up for a ride over the Ottumwa airport. Steve passionately loved this airport, devoting over half his lifetime to Ottumwa Flying Service. They carried Steve’s cremains with them.  The crowd began migrating from inside the hangar to the ramp to observe the flight.


Steve’s mom is almost 87 years old. She worked in the office at the flying service for all 32 years that Steve was there. She fully knew and understood his passion and commitment. I walked up to her, seated in her wheelchair, “Donna, do you want to go outside to watch the flight?”  She said that she did. “Well, please allow me to give you a ride.” I felt honored to push her chair toward the walk door.


I had an idea. I leaned over, “Donna, would you like to go up in the plane with Schuyler and Felicia?”


“I don’t think they’ll have room.” She said, sounding sad. I assured her there was an open seat. “Tommy, I don’t think I can even get up into the airplane anymore.” She wasn’t sure about all of this but I could tell the thought of going along had her attention.


I pushed her across the ramp toward the airplane. “I’ll tell you what, we’ll go over to the airplane. You can decide when we get there if you want to go. If not, I’ll bring you right back.” When we got to the airplane, Donna looked through the open door, inside the cabin. I could feel her yearning to go fly with her son one last time. “What do you think? Do you want to go?” She again said she couldn’t get up into the airplane. “If you want to go, I will get you in the airplane.” She was thinking about it – she was tempted.


“Do you really think you can lift me into that airplane alone?” She challenged, almost as if she didn’t want to impose, but I knew what this would mean to her.


“Rich is here, he’ll help me and if the two of us can’t get it done – have you seen the size of your grandson, Schuyler?” We shared a laugh about that.


Donna thought hard for a moment, then as determined as I’ve ever heard her say anything, she said, “By God, I’m going with them.”


My chest was swelling. I was grinning, “Can you give me a hand, Rich? Donna is going to ride with you.” His smile shot from one ear to the other.


The doorway of Cessna 170 isn’t very wide; certainly not three people wide, and because the airplane is a tail dragger, the cabin sits a little higher. With Rich on her left, and me on the right, we each put an arm under hers and a hand under each knee. We easily lifted her in a sitting position, setting her feet on the floor inside the plane then moved her through the passenger door. Schuyler was inside the airplane and helped her the rest of the way into the back seat.


Standing outside the plane, I buckled Donna in with the seat belt. Felicia got in on the other side. Donna is very at ease in an airplane. With a smile so big and genuine, her excitement was radiating. I choked up a bit. “Have a good flight.” I said, then Schuyler and Rich climbed in and closed the doors.


When Rich started the engine, the propeller blew a gusty wind our way. A full crowd looked on as he taxied away from us toward runway three-one.  Soon the little blue and white airplane was rolling down the runway. The tail raised and they picked up speed, now riding on the two main wheels. The wings lifted them gently off the ground. Rich held it about ten feet above the pavement. The crowd of people all waved with arms reaching into the air as they flew past us, straight down the runway before climbing out at an easy, steady pace.


The plane faded, becoming just a dot against the blue sky with bright white clouds behind them. People (non-pilots) pointed upward, “Is that them?”  “I think they’re over there.”  “That’s them right there, isn’t it?”


Soon the airplane appeared in the distance off the approach end of runway three-one. I pointed that direction, “Here they come.” All heads turned left. Rich brought the airplane down close to the ground for a low-level fly by in front of the crowd. Again, all arms waved in the air as they passed.


Rich came back around in the pattern, landed the airplane and taxied up to the ramp. Several of us greeted the airplane. He shut off the motor, coasted in then kicked the tail around before stopping. Schuyler opened the passenger door and hopped out. I slide the seat forward and looked at Donna in the back seat. “How was the flight, Donna?”


“It was wonderful, Tommy,” she said with tears welled up in her eyes, “absolutely wonderful.”


To keep from crying myself, I reached in the airplane, unfastened her seat belt and said, “Put your arms around my neck.” She did and I put my left arm around her waist and my right arm under legs, lifting her out of the plane. “Getting you in the airplane was free,” I said, “but getting you back out is $100.”


“Put it on my bill.” She said. We shared a good laugh about that, then I shed a tear or two of my own.


I couldn’t begin to count the number of times I landed my airplane and taxied into Ottumwa Flying Service. After the line guys fueled my airplane, they would come into the office where Donna and I were sitting, shooting the breeze. Donna would push a few buttons on the calculator then tell me how much I owed for the AV-gas. “Put it on my bill.” I would say.


Later that night, while driving back home, I had visions of Maverick buzzing the tower at Miramar, in San Diego. At an incredibly high rate of speed in his Navy F-18 Hornet, he caused Air Boss Johnson, to spill coffee on his uniform inside the tower. There’s a substantial difference between a military jet passing at close range doing nearly 350 miles per hour and a Cessna 170 plugging along ten feet over the runway a quarter mile away, doing about 80 miles per hour.


Although the fly-by may have been a little less dramatic, knowing Donna, Felicia and Schuyler were onboard taking one last airplane ride with their son, husband, father – and my very close friend, made this one of the most memorable fly-bys and Father’s Day flights of all time.


Until we fly together again, blue skies, Steve.


“To fly west, my friend, is a flight we all must take for a final check.” (Author unknown)