A grand dame

Death is a natural process. While hard for some to accept, it is the inevitability that every living thing must face. Death can take many forms. Quick and sudden or long and lingering, for some it is a tragic force to be denied and cursed. For others, it is a blessed, quiet journey into that good night. Whether tragic or blessed, for one to face death, one must first experience life. It is the paradox of all living things.

As I write this, tragedy has cast its shadow on my aviation community. N22L, a Cessna C-195, crashed off the coast of Jacksonville, Fla., with four souls on board. Two were rescued, Anna Kipp and Rachel Hostetler, both 16, although only Rachel survived. The pilot, Gary Tillman, and his daughter Hanna, also 16, are lost at sea with little hope of rescue at press time. All four were residents of Rome, Ga., and Gary was a well-known and respected aviation businessman.

As a fellow human being, wife and mother, the loss of life is staggering. As a pilot, the loss of one of the brotherhood carries its own heartache, and it also brings the nagging fear that the media will find yet another stake to drive into the heart of general aviation. The cause of this accident will probably remain unknown for months, if not years. Families and friends will grieve and try to accept the unacceptable. The aviation community will try to learn from the event, and I will face my own paradox.

You see, N22L was a dear friend. While I am stunned at the human tragedy, my pilot’s soul is deeply saddened at the loss of that glorious and dear pile of aluminum. She was a grand old lady, and I have many fond memories of her. We all do here at JZP. Where to begin?

I remember flying to Franklin, N.C., to be part of the flying escort when our friend Paul brought her home to Pickens County airport. He was so nervous. I wrote about this splendid event in an article I called “”The New Arrival”” that was printed in The Southern Aviator in August 1997.

“”Paul considered himself to be a man of logical thought, a man of reason, a practical man, but now, he had done something that he probably had not done since he proposed to his wife. He had followed his heart, and his heart led him like a lovesick pup to a big, old, red and white taildragger with a beautiful round radial engine capped by a big shiny spinner. Apparently his mind was also involved in the deed for his brain was quick to remind him that he had purchased the C-195 at a good price. He couldn’t lose, but after he saw all the oil spewing from the engine the day before, he wondered if he shouldn’t rush out and buy stock in Aero Shell. No, what he really wondered was if he’d lost his mind. Completely. He couldn’t even fly the damned thing. Not one tail wheel hour was logged in his logbook.””

He did learn to fly her and she became a fixture at JZP. Obviously, the Old Man and I clamored for rides on a regular basis, as did most of the Front Porch Gang. The most memorable was the evening we scattered Otto, a rather enthusiastic citizen of Jasper whose joy in retirement was to harass those who had been elected to public office. I remember writing, “”In a final and lasting gouge in the collective sides of officialdom, Otto requested that he be cremated and his ashes be scattered above city hall and the entire city of Jasper where his presence would be everlasting.””

In 1999, April’s Short Final, “”The Deliverance of Otto,”” revealed the only dignity afforded poor Otto was that he was scattered from a magnificent airplane in an act that would probably get us all jailed today.

“”The big Jake smoked and sputtered when it was time, then 22L rolled down the runway with the grace and dignity of a grand dame. In moments we were airborne: Paul, Old Man, Otto and me. The runway fell away below us as the sky beckoned above, and 22L turned east toward the city of Jasper.

“”Late one winter’s afternoon, a big red and white Cessna 195 was seen flying low over Jasper, its classic lines silhouetted by the mountains, its radial engine making sweet music. For a time, a thin gray smoke flowed in its slipstream as it circled the city. It quickly scattered and dispersed in the cool dry air. Over the courthouse the big bird flew, past the post office, down Main Street and up to city hall.””

I can’t help but smile when I recall that time and others that I shared with Paul in his classic lady. But the Old Man and I were not the only ones to enjoy her. Dozens experienced their first airplane rides in her, and one was even inspired to take up the challenge of flying and find wings of his own. Walt shared his thoughts after learning that she was now gone.

“”It’s been a tough thing for us to deal with today. 22Lima and her previous owner were key to my earning a pilot’s license and June flying with me. June loved the wide back seat and the airliner ride. She felt just like a big 1970s General Motors station wagon in the air. I logged 15 hours of right front seat time in 22Lima on flights into the North Carolina mountains, to lunch at a local airport, on a trip up to Chattanooga, Tenn., and down into middle Florida. It was while flying in 22Lima that I decided I had better learn how to land an airplane. One flying lesson led to another and then to a pilot’s license and adventures in the air, which could last me a lifetime. But, never again will I be able to touch the controls of 22Lima and feel that gentle beast in the air.””

When Paul sold 22L a couple of years ago, the sadness of watching an old friend fly away was tempered by the knowledge that she wasn’t going far and that she was going to a good home. I saw her on occasion. Her striking red and white paint scheme still attracted attention and her radial engine was still capped by that big shiny spinner. I know that she brought enriched life experiences to those who flew her, yet I, and others here at JZP, have to deal with the knowledge that her last graceful sweep into that angry sky ended in death. A paradox.

Mayhap, I’m too fanciful, but I like to believe if an airplane can have a soul or spirit, this one surely did. If so, I hope that her noble service and some little piece of her that may survive will be remembered with fondness. I know in my heart, she will be.

Though we share this humble path, alone
How fragile is the heart
Oh give these clay feet wings to fly
To touch the face of the stars.

Cast your eyes on the ocean
Cast your soul to the sea
When the dark night seems endless
Please remember me…

— Loreena McKennitt “”Dante’s Prayer””

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