Sunday, February 16, 2014

Grandma Grace's Final Flight

We have a very important post today. I’m going to let Mike write it from his own viewpoint, so nothing gets lost in translation. Take it away, boss!

Slipping the Surly Bonds of Earth
February 14, 2014


Today I finally got to have my “Ultimate Barnstormer” experience in History Flight’s North American AT-6, a World War II-vintage two-seat trainer. Originally I’d hoped to go on January 30th, to mark the 50th anniversary of my 1964 carrier qualification, but bad weather forced a postponement. Somewhere early in the planning process, the mission grew into something more noteworthy and much more poignant: the scattering of my mother’s ashes over the Atlantic, just off of Canaveral National Seashore.

For nearly three years Jeannie and I had debated about where Mom’s ashes should be scattered. Our initial preference was for a whitewater river somewhere in the mountains of North Carolina or Georgia. But the logistics of a long drive kept getting in the way. That delay turned out to have been a good thing! Soon after “warbird flight” showed up on my bucket list, Jeannie suggested that I take Mom along, since she’d been a licensed pilot, and that burial at sea would be perfect since she was also a sailor. Clever Jeannie!

I met the History Flight pilot, John Makinson, at the DeLand Airport at 2:00 P.M. We were in the air shortly before 3:00. Unbeknownst to me, John had arranged a wonderful surprise: a two-plane “honor escort” consisting of a second AT-6 and a Beech T-34. This meant that Mom would get to enjoy not only some aerobatics before her final sendoff, but a little formation flying as well!

We began the hop with the two AT-6’s doing a section takeoff, while the T-34 followed close behind and joined us soon after.


Departing the pattern, we flew over Brandywine twice so Jeannie could see us. Then we headed for the coast just south of New Smyrna Beach.


As we went “feet wet” the escort planes broke off to return home. John and I took up a north-south pattern near the National Seashore, where he demonstrated an aileron roll and a loop. Then he let me do three loops by myself (what an awesome but strangely familiar feeling after more than 50 years!) and captured the last one on video!

When time came to let Mom go, John handled both the plane and the ash bag so I could get some pictures. As I told him afterwards, they’d have been even better if I’d turned my camera on. Luckily the plane has three videocameras: one in the tail, one in the front cockpit, and one on the right wingtip. The latter captured some great views of the event.


I got to fly us back to DeLand, except of course for the landing. We were on the ground around 4:00. Our total flight time was 1.2 hours. John endorsed my logbook for the full 1.2 and Mom’s for .6 hours. In Mom’s book we showed her points of departure and arrival as DeLand and the Atlantic Ocean, respectively, and before signing John noted, “Left up in the sky @ 1300’ soaring with the angels.”

As we dropped Mom off to let the Gulf Stream carry her north toward the “auld sod,” and then headed back home, I thought of the words of one of her favorite poems, “High Flight,” by John Gillespie Magee Jr., a young American aviator killed in England in 1941 while flying Spitfires for the Royal Canadian Air Force. It goes like this:

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds,—and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air. . .
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew—
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

(To see Magee’s original handwritten draft, which he sent to his parents just months before his death, follow this link.)

I hope you’ll have time to watch the entire video of Mom’s final flight. But if you need to “cut to the chase,” you can find my loop at about the 18-minute mark, with the ash-scattering immediately following, at around 20 minutes. Unlike the 1.2-hour flight, the video is a little over 44 minutes. You can watch it here on the blog or see the slightly larger format at YouTube.

PS - Updated 02-18-2014

Because it happens rather quickly, here are ten screen shots of the ash drop, taken from the video. The first three are of the ashes trailing out behind the airplane:

Numbers 4 through 6 are of the ash cloud hovering above our nose and canopy on the first fly-by:

And numbers 7 through 10 are from the second orbit:

By that point the ashes were dissipating quickly and hard to see, except in the sun's reflection. Mom was well on her way.


Bonnie said...

Aw, the part about updating her logbook got me kind of choked up. Grandma would have appreciated that!

TG and Crew said...

Well done, “M” !!! Thanks for sharing your fantastic flight experience, tribute and adventurous send-off for your Mom. What an exceptionally fine son you are.

AND we’re amazed and impressed that you can still pilot a “warbird” after all these years!

sherrijj said...

Thanks Mike for doing that and sharing it with us. I'm sure Grandma enjoyed that final flight, and it's so neat that you could document it for us all. And thanks to Jeannie for the great idea! I too got a little teary at the thought of updating Grandma's flight logbook. I love that!

Cindy said...

How powerful yet intimate! That was a very special and fitting farewell to you Mom. She sounds like she was an amazing women, and I wish I had known her. And how wonderful to see you at the controls Mike! That is an other part of your life I didn't know about...and I thought you were just an amazing professor.
Blessings to you at this time of closure and celebration of your Mom's life.

Mark Koopmans said...

Aloha Mike,

If only we all had sons who cared so much:)

Bravo Zulu for a mission accomplished and having been born in Ireland, I hope to also make it home to the "auld sod" one day :)

God bless!