September 1, 2008
By Dave Hirschman
My soon-to-be final passenger studied the olive drab, L–5 Stinson “Sentinel” with a mix of excitement and skepticism.
Dave Peat, a 47-year-old engineer and volunteer commentator at the Shuttleworth Aviation Museum in his native England, had been looking forward to riding in the World War II-era air ambulance since we’d discussed it during his last visit to America more than a year before.
But here on the ramp at Atlanta’s DeKalb-Peachtree Airport (PDK), he scrutinized the fabric-covered aircraft, and particularly its fold-down rear door, and wondered aloud how he could get through the cave-like threshold.
Peat has been confined to a wheelchair since multiple sclerosis stole the use of his legs seven years ago. He and wife Yvonne travel extensively and visit family in America at least once a year. But seemingly small matters like getting up, dressing, climbing in and out of cars—and now boarding a former military airplane designed for pliant 20-year-olds—require enormous effort and preplanning. The Stinson’s door was a formidable, but not insurmountable, barrier.
“The legs should go in first—then the body,” Peat concluded in his crisp, Cambridge accent. “Lift under both arms and behind the knees.”
Peat’s directions were clear and dispassionate, as if he were directing the loading of a pallet of bricks. He sent Yvonne and me to the sides of his wheelchair and offered us each an arm so that we could hoist him into the low-slung aircraft. My wife, Martha, guided Peat’s legs into the rear cockpit, kept his knees clear of some sharp-edged metal, and positioned his feet behind the rudder pedals.
Peat’s a big guy and stood about six feet tall in his able-bodied days. So I was surprised at how easy he was to lift. It didn’t occur to me until that moment that the cruel disease that withered Peat’s legs had also lightened his frame.
Yvonne bundled her husband against a flag-snapping winter wind. She put wool mittens on his hands and zipped his jacket to his chin. The independent-minded Peat chafed at the motherly assistance. And I felt a twinge of self-consciousness, even guilt, as I bounded into the airplane’s front seat and started the engine.
“It’s not a Merlin,” I told Peat apologetically as the six-cylinder, 185-horsepower Lycoming O-435 sprang to life. “But it’ll get us where we need to go.”
Peat said little as we taxied to Runway 34 for departure.
A cold front had recently passed through the Southeast, and a brisk north wind gave notice that we were in for a bumpy ride. I gave Peat the option of heading northeast toward relatively smooth air at higher altitude, or taking a scenic but rough ride over downtown Atlanta. He opted for the skyline.
“I don’t mind a little breeze,” he said with classic English understatement. “I’d like this experience to be as different as possible from the triple seven I’ll be riding back to the U.K.”
A few moments later, we were airborne and headed southwest over the prestige real estate of Buckhead, the governor’s mansion, Georgia Tech, and Olympic Park. The Stinson’s 100-knot cruise speed and tremendous downward visibility gave us a good look at the airplane-inspired Santa Claus display in Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue’s front yard (Perdue is a Bellanca Viking pilot) as well as the brightly lit Georgia Aquarium, Coca-Cola headquarters, and Turner Field.
I’ve flown this route countless times as a weekend pilot for Biplane Rides Over Atlanta, a company that sells scenic flights from DeKalb-Peachtree. The job turned out to be a godsend. But at the time it was offered five years ago, I didn’t see it that way. In fact, I remember telling Steve Collins, the business owner, that I had no interest in giving aerial tours. I agreed to check out his new pilots in his business’s Stearman, Waco, and North American A/T-6. I regarded instructing as prestigious and dynamic, and looked down on hopping rides as boring and repetitive.
But Collins had a long list of riders that summer and few qualified pilots. I told him I’d fill in temporarily as a personal favor. But it turned out he was the one doing me the kindness. The people who came out to fly in the historic airplanes were adventurous and enthusiastic, and their sense of joy and wonderment was contagious. I flew with World War II veterans; former crop dusters; soldiers going to, or coming home, from Iraq and Afghanistan; scores of children; and four couples who became engaged in the Waco’s two-passenger front seat. I kept flying the exotic airplanes for many hundreds of hours, and I would have gladly continued except for a rare opportunity to join the AOPA staff and relocate to Frederick, Maryland. Peat was one of my last passengers—but he made sure he wasn’t the very last.
As we approached PDK for landing, Peat asked if I’d take his wife Yvonne for a quick trip around Stone Mountain. I wondered aloud if the wind and turbulence would frighten her, but Peat assured me she was “a gamer.”
It stood to reason that anyone with the fortitude to meet the “in sickness and in health” part of her wedding vows despite such a severe test was unlikely to be intimidated by choppy air. As soon as Peat and I were back on the ground, I extended an invitation to Yvonne, and she quickly accepted.
We orbited the massive granite dome/Confederate monument about 10 miles east of PDK and returned to the airport’s familiar environs. Peat was waiting in the grassy observation area near the base of the control tower, and his 11-year-old niece was playing in the nearby park with a pack of other kids that included my daughter, Kara. It was about as perfect a moment as aviation can provide.
Yvonne and Dave had been invited guests—but they offered to pay for fuel.
“I know petrol’s dear,” Yvonne said. True. But other things are dearer.
We sometimes talk about pilots having the “right stuff.” But Peat’s stoic determination to bear up despite life’s hardships, and Yvonne’s steadfastness and devotion, display an especially noble sort of courage. And it’s appropriate that the rugged old Stinson, an airplane meant to relieve the suffering of wounded soldiers, had come through in the twenty-first century by, once again, lifting the spirit of another afflicted body.
E-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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