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Flying High

Last weekend, I flew to Dallas on a jet plane. It was the first of three flights in three days.


I went to Dallas to see family, sure, but we had a higher purpose (pun intended).


My brother and I took my Dad flying.


When we were very little, my father had his private pilot's license (now a certificate) and owned 1/5 of a Cessna 177 Cardinal. It was the early 70s, and such things were fairly affordable, before the oil crisis of 1980.


As a family, we didn't take road trips. We flew. Anywhere normal people took to the highways, we took to the skies. I remember being very little - maybe 3 or 4 - and sitting up front with my dad while my mom sat in the back with Brian, who was in a car seat. Daddy would let me "fly" the plane, which just meant me turning the yoke and making the plan bank right or left, and Daddy coming in behind me to get us back on track. I wore headsets and could hear all of the air traffic. I loved looking down at the ground and the tiny houses, farms, and highways. It was the best way to travel.


When Brian got old enough to figure out what was going on, we had to trade back and forth for the front seat, which was irritating but fair.


Eventually, Dad sold his share of the airplane, and we started driving everywhere. Not nearly as fun, but more economical.


He kept up his license though, and flew every chance he got. He worked in aviation engineering, designing and implementing radar and other fun stuff for all kinds of aircraft. He worked on airplanes for our government, for other governments, for private individuals (including the World's Richest Man). He built his career around planes, so it was fairly easy for him to borrow or lease one for flights here and there.


When I was in junior high, his company moved to a new, large hangar in Waco, and Daddy flew Brian and me down for an air show. That's the last time I remember flying with him at the stick. It was probably 1985.

Sometime in the last year, Brian decided to get his private pilot's certificate (as it's now known). He's done all the training, soloed, and sat for his final exam. When his examiner asked him why he wanted to get his certificate, he told her about Daddy.


Her reaction was a surprise. She insisted Brian take Dad flying. "You have to take him up."


When Brian told me this, I thought it was the worst idea in the history of ideas. And surely, I thought, his memory care facility would concur.


They did not.


They thought it was the Best Idea Ever, and were 100% on board, which meant that now Brian and I had to be 100% on board.


I was horrified that it was happening and sad that I would miss it because surely he would need a caregiver up there with him, and not me.


Nope.


They wanted me to go up. Just the three of us - Brian, Dad, and me.


Let me stop and say that while my father only weighs about 115 lbs now, and looks as frail as can be, and is in a wheelchair full time, he still has this weird super-human strength when he needs it. When he gets ahold of something - your hand, the tablecloth, someone else's wheelchair - you cannot get him to let go. He can also plant his feet while in his wheelchair to stop it from moving. They've learned to tip him up and wheel him backwards to get him to go somewhere that isn't on his itinerary.


Brian and I went through the scenarios and decided he could not sit up front. If he grabbed that throttle - or anything really - it would not only be his last flight, it would be the last flight for ALL of us.


So backseat it was, with me next to him. Worst case scenario, I thought, if he completely loses it, I could just sit on him.


When the wonderful people at The Auberge Plano brought Dad out, he was in his usual slump, looking anywhere but up at people. He was not responsive to me or my sister or brother.


However.


While we were sitting by the plane, waiting for my aunt to arrive, a plane took off from the nearby runway. Dad's head shot up, he immediately found it in the air, and followed it.


And grinned.


He knew where he was, and he knew what was about to happen.

The caregivers got him loaded in the back of that plane and strapped in to his seatbelt. I got in next to him, put on my headphones so I could talk to my brother, and then Brian got in the pilot's seat.


I thought I was going to throw up.


Not because I didn't trust my brother, the pilot, but because we were about to do something that would either be extremely wonderful, or extremely stupid, and neither one of us had a clue how it would go.


Brian yelled "Clear!" out the window before starting the propeller, and I was immediately taken back to my childhood. I can hear my father doing the same thing in my head, as crystal clear as it was back then. I looked at my Dad and said "Here we go!"


He looked at me and smiled.


Take off was perfect. Brian said he wanted it to be perfect because people were filming.


Yes, Brian, THAT'S why we want a great take-off. Not because we're all in the plane and want to get home safely and maybe not die today.


As he was getting Dad settled, Brian heard him say "Fly." Dad has been non-verbal for years. He chats a lot, but none of it makes sense, due to his Fronto-temporal dementia.


But he said, "Fly."


Brian installed a Go-Pro camera to capture my Dad's reactions, and I took some pictures and some video. Looking back at the Go-Pro, he said quite a few things.


"Rotate."


"Gear up."


We flew around North Dallas for about half an hour. Dad was as calm as could be. Brian took us out over Lake Lavon, where we went water skiing with Dad on weekends after he and Mom divorced. We flew over old neighborhoods, old houses, through old skies Dad used to fly regularly. It was peaceful.


Dad was holding my hand the whole time. I thought that was sweet, until at one point I realized he wasn't holding my hand to be sweet.


He was flying the plane with it.


He was taking my arm and moving it backwards and forwards, side to side, and what I thought were random movements were actually in sync with the movements of the plane. Brian increased our altitude, Dad pulled back on my arm. Brian banked left, my arm twisted to the left.


It was the most magical thing I've ever seen.


After we landed, I looked at him and said "Wasn't that a great landing? Aren't you proud of Brian?" and he just smiled.



I don't remember the last time I saw my father smile, a genuine smile. I am so thankful the Go-Pro captured this.


The landing was actually perfect, so shout out to my brother for his ace landing skills.


I am still processing the whole event. We will likely never have another experience like this again. Just the three of us, doing something we've always done, and making memories together. While we were flying, I was trying hard to remember every single second. Every moment. Every movement. I will remember this to my dying day (I hope). I know my brother will too. I am so proud of him for learning a new skill, and being confident enough to fly our Dad around one last time, and giving him the gift of flight again. It brought Dad back to us, if only briefly.


I hope my Dad dreamed of flying again that night.


I hope he keeps dreaming of flying for a long, long time.










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