Gone West

My father takes his final flight

December 1, 2012

last flight

Robert “Bob” Wright and the Cessna 150 he flew with his son, Chip.

“Well, it doesn’t look like I’m going to get any better.”

My father was telling me what my mother already had. He was dying. It wasn’t really a surprise, at least not to me. I don’t think it was to him. His voice was weaker. He was having trouble staying awake.

He’d had a stroke in 2011, but that hadn’t killed him. He’d had lung cancer that had been caught early and removed. He had made a remarkable recovery from the stroke, relearning how to walk, talk, write—even drive a bit. When he wound up back in the hospital in April with a seizure, we were told it was just a minor setback.

But this time his recovery never really took root. He suffered crushing headaches. He was tired. Medicines weren’t working. A shunt was intended to relieve pressure on his brain, but it didn’t work as the doctors had hoped. Dad sounded frustrated on the phone; he slept more; he fell asleep while I was on the phone with him. He was getting daily spinal taps as the doctors worked to find the problem.

Finally, they revealed a theory that they could now prove. A few of the cancer cells from his lung had found their way to his brain. It was essentially terminal. There was one drug they could try, but he was too weak. “It would just make a miserable man more miserable,” my mother told me. He would get one more day of treatment, then be brought home on the Saturday before Father’s Day.

I was conflicted. That same Father’s Day weekend, I was scheduled to take my youngest daughter, Sydney, to Space Camp for three days. It was a trip we had both looked forward to for months. I agonized over what to do, but deep down, I knew that Dad would be embarrassed to know that he had been the cause of such a disruption. Syd could still to go Space Camp with my wife, but it was supposed to be our trip. Dad would have insisted I go, that I be a dad myself. I did go, and while he was never out of my mind, we had a great time and I knew that I had made the right decision. He would have honored his commitment to me had the situation been reversed.

We finished on Sunday morning, and that afternoon, I did something unheard of for an airline pilot—I bought a ticket home.

It’s said that a father is his son’s first hero and his daughter’s first love. It’s true. I idolized my dad. There was nothing, it seemed, that he couldn’t do. He was funny, a quick wit with a dry sense of humor. He didn’t know a lick of math, but he was walking encyclopedia of history—a passion we share. He coached my T-ball and baseball teams. He taught me how to sail, golf, shoot a gun. He attended my swim meets, and my sister’s gymnastics and diving meets. He built me a tree fort, taught me to drive, how to change oil and tires. He taught me the value of a dollar and to hate the Dallas Cowboys. There was no advice he couldn’t give, no knowledge he couldn’t impart. He was always the smartest or the funniest person in the room, often both.

But he couldn’t teach me how to fly. Even though he’d served in the U.S. Air Force, his vision was color deficient. He knew an awful lot about airplanes and A-N navigation and how to spell V-O-R. He knew pull back, go up. He’d even parachuted out of an airplane.

I learned to fly in 1991, an idea that was my mother’s (I’m not sure it’s one she’d suggest again). She tolerated it, but Dad was as excited as I was. He reveled in my progress, quizzing me constantly. He would swipe my books and read them when I wasn’t. My tales of cross-country flying were a special thrill for him, especially while I was in college. I told him about flying near Cape Canaveral, and seeing the space shuttle on the pad. “Really?” he’d say, “You need to have some real stones to fly that thing.” He should know; he witnessed Challenger. As for flying in Florida, he said, “Only idiots get lost over a peninsula. Fly due east or due west, find water, and turn.”

For Christmas presents, he’d buy me books on flight, and I still have them. He read them all. He could never remember my birthday (“It’s sometime in the fall, before it gets too cold”), but my mother would send something, and he’d rush to call Sporty’s.

After college, I decided to pursue a flight instructor certificate, and slogged my way through instrument, commercial, and multiengine training. He joined me on weekend cross-country flights to Ocean City, Maryland; Martinsburg, West Virginia; and Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina.

Dad was my first passenger, on a hazy summer flight to Cape May, New Jersey. The visibility was three miles if you included what you could see straight down. When we got over the Delaware Bay, he told me later, “I realized that I had conceded total control of my life to this kid sitting next to me. I was scared to death!” I was on top of the world, teaching him how to use the VOR, and having him track our progress on a sectional. I could sense his pride. When we got home, he beamed.

The feds issued my CFI in 1994, and he was one of my first students. Our flying together was some of the most enjoyable time we shared. I took great pride in the fact that he was calling me to ask questions, and that he—my dad!—needed my advice. Like him, I got annoyed when he ignored it.

Through all of this, he continued to fly, earning first his instrument rating, then his commercial, and finally tackling his own CFI training. We’d fly whenever possible; lazy eights were a favorite maneuver. He used me to evaluate the quality of other training he received. With a little more than 500 hours in his logbook, he became an instructor in his own right. He’d still call to ask me about teaching issues that came up. He loved what he was doing, working part time as a lawyer, flying whenever he wanted. He flew Young Eagles and retirees on intro flights.

He was hired by a local Sport Pilot school, where his patience quickly made him a favorite instructor. He checked me out in the Sky Arrow (it’s in his logbook and mine). One day he called to tell me that he had been “in a crash” because a landing gear leg broke. The first thing he said when I picked up the phone was, “Well, now I’m only four flights short of being a German ace!”

In the last full week I got to spend with him, I pored through the loose-leaf binders he had filled with notes, cut-and-paste cloud clearance charts, airspace diagrams, and sample weight problems; personal observations and references to the FAR/AIM were everywhere. I found the page with the VFR pattern, which I used to teach as a one-hour ground lesson; he faithfully reproduced everything I had said along with a few of his own notes. He had a page of holding patterns. Ever the organized lawyer.

I found his logbooks, and I went over our lessons together. He had logged 1,000 hours as a CFI. His last flight was December 19, 2010. He told me, “You know you can’t fly when you see two runways and can’t figure out which one is real.

“Well, you can,” he allowed, “but it isn’t real bright.”

We had talked for years of flying across the United States, following Route 50 from the Atlantic to the Pacific and back, staying at 1,500 feet or so, VFR all the way, landing—wherever. Oh, how I wish we’d made that happen. In the last year, I wanted to be able to take him on one more flight. “Let me get a bit better,” he’d say. He didn’t want to need help getting in and out of the airplane. I should have insisted.

But I was lucky. Others aren’t. After his stroke, all I selfishly wanted (desperately needed) was to be able to have one more normal conversation with him. I got that, and so much more. I was able to tell him I loved him, that he was my hero, how much I would miss him, and to tell him, “Thanks for everything you’ve done for me.” He looked me right in the eye, and whispered, “You’re welcome.”

They were the last words he ever said to me. But he’s getting a new, permanent set of wings of his own—his last rating, you might say—taking one more flight, VFR, with a tailwind. He gave me my first taste of beer, I gave him his last. We watched one more baseball game together, my girls kissed him goodnight, and as he fell asleep and held my hand, I buried my sobs. A few days later, on June 23, with only my mother present, he slipped the surly bonds for the last time for his “final flight west.”

I taught my dad how to fly, but he taught me how to live. He still does.

Chip Wright is an airline captain and frequent contributor to AOPA publications.