Flyers go sky high for adventure

Eighteen hundred metres above the state of Georgia, Liz Thompson had a thought that made her stomach sink-and it had nothing to do with turbulence. Thompson was the sole passenger in a small plane piloted by her husband, Don Olson, and the Toronto couple was headed to Florida.

It dawned on Thompson that she didn’t have a clue about how to land the plane if, heaven forbid, Olson suffered a heart attack or lost consciousness. So when they returned home, she took lessons and earned her private pilot licence.

That Florida trip was 20 years ago and since then, Olson, 72, and Thompson, 65, have enjoyed many flying holidays together, sharing the piloting and navigating. They’ve travelled as far away as Florida and the Bahamas, stopping to visit dozens of towns and cities along the way.

“Getting there by air is half the fun,” says Thompson.

Don Olson first took flying lessons in the early 1940s but stopped because of the expense. In the late 1970s, he picked up where he’d left off: “It felt good to get back into it. I’d forgotten just about everything I ever knew. Even for people who have flown a lot, if you stop flying, you get rusty.”

In Canada, aut 7,000 people aged 55-plus have private licences or recreational or ultralight permits. An overwhelming majority holds a private licence.

Bruce Cox, 76, enjoys the thrills of high-altitude living from a different perspective. Hunkered down in the belly of a twin-engined plane, he eagerly awaits the adrenalin rush he gets from diving to the earth. As the plane soars to 1,350 metres, he’s not thinking about his heart condition or the recent stroke he suffered. What he is thinking is that this is what life is all about-doing what you love.

He turns to the others in the plane, shouts “See you at the bottom,” and then arches out into the cold sky: four one-thousand…five one-thousand… and the chute opens above him. The adrenalin courses through his body. Three minutes later he’s on the ground.

When other 70-year-olds are content with the challenges of a golf course or a bowling green, what is it that lures the Olsons and Bruce Cox to the world above the clouds? Adventure is certainly part of the lure, but staying active and continuing to do what gives you immense pleasure motivates these senior adults as well.

Risk taking
Cox, a British Second World War veteran who migrated to Canada in 1956, believes that risk-taking is what keeps him young at heart. Skydiving is his greatest passion and his greatest risk.

“As long as I can do it, I will,” he says, refusing to accept self-imposed limitations or waste his golden years in doubt and fear.

Although Cox still does the occasional recreational jump, he mainly focuses on his jumps with the Pathfinders, a group of Second World War veterans who re-enact jumps on battle anniversaries. As a paratrooper for the British Army, he remembers his first jump into battle as an event that changed his life forever.

“I was only 19. My training had not fully prepared me for this literal plunge into war. I was lying in the plane with the other solders, flying over Sicily and listening to the orchestration of the battle below when I realized I had better learn this music if I was to stay alive. You’re listening. You’re watching. You see flashes and know where the strikes are coming from. You look at the different strikes on the ground and you can tell where the guns are. When I finally jumped, yes, I was scared. Not of the jumping itself, but of what I was going into.”

Luckily, there had been no enemy fire on his descent. “Some people seize up,” he says, “but for me, the adrenalin works and that’s a blessing really, a gift.”

Measure of caution
Like skydivers, pilots thrive on the rush that comes with flying but temper it with a large measure of caution.

“There’s an old saying: There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots,” says Edmonton student pilot John Short, 66, who’s training for a recreational permit.

While flight instructors tend to agree the easiest age group to teach is people in their late teens or early 20s, the ability to learn depends more on personality and motivation than age. And, says Bill Farrell, a 75-year-old flight instructor at the Shearwater Flying Club in Nova Scotia, older students tend to be extremely motivated. Farrell was just a toddler when he became interested in planes.

Flying bug
“Once you’ve got the flying bug, you never lose it. It’s incurable.” A naval aviator in the Second World War, Farrell went on to work as a charter pilot, bush pilot, instructor and a spray pilot in a forest protection program.

He also flew the mail into Sable Island. When not aloft, he’s windsurfing, canoeing or playing tennis. Friends call him the world’s oldest living teenager. “If you keep the spirit young, the body seems to try to keep up with it.”

Farrell has crashed twice during his flying career but was lucky enough to walk away both times. The first crash happened 20 years ago when the converted torpedo bomber he was flying experienced engine failure about eight metres above the treetops.

“I had seven or eight seconds until I started to cut timber,” says Farrell, who crash-landed onto the treetops and walked away with only a few bruises. Then, a few years later, he crashed when his engine failed during a takeoff.

“I had enough runway left to get touch down to stop — the airplane was damaged.” That time, Farrell suffered whiplash.

No supermen
Engine failures are rare and pilots learn how to handle them as part of their training.

“Your training comes to the fore, your brain goes into high gear, and you’re absolutely cold and professional about going through the procedures you’re taught in such a situation,” says Farrell.

Neither close call scared him away from flying. “Many of us are looking for a challenge, he says. “A psychologist would probably use a different word!”

Cox agrees with the notion of challenges. “I think a person can find himself doing this,” he says. “You’re looking over the edge and it gives you a confidence in yourself because you’re doing it on your own. When you’ve done it, you’ve done something rare. You’ve overcome the fear of death. For those few seconds anyway.”

Cox believes everyone has the capability to live out his dreams. “Sure, you have to realize your limitations,” he says, “but you’ve also got to reach. I think Churchill said it best when he said something like “there are no supermen, only ordinary guys reaching.”