When graduating high school senior and student pilot Davis O’Connor learned that actor/pilot Harrison Ford of Star Wars movie fame was to receive a Godfrey L. Cabot Award from the Aero Club of New England, he knew he wanted to attend the award luncheon in Boston to hear Ford speak.
There was just one galactic glitch in that plan: The event coincided with O’Connor’s graduation from Tahanto Regional High School in Boylston, Massachusetts.
What happened next leaves no doubt that The Force was with O’Connor as he sat in the audience of 400 people at the Seaport Hotel, surrounded by aviation luminaries and just a few feet from the movie star, aviation advocate, and past chairman of the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Young Eagles program.
As he listened, O’Connor was surprised to hear Joseph Passafiume, president of the 115-year-old Aero Club of New England and an AOPA member, summon him to the podium—where he was presented with his high school diploma by Ford.
“I was really shocked. I went on autopilot,” O’Connor said in a phone interview.
The Aero Club of New England, or ACONE, has bestowed the Godfrey L. Cabot award, named for an ACONE founder, since 1952 on those who “have made unique, significant, and unparalleled contributions to advance and foster aviation or space flight.”
Education and scholarships are major priorities for the organization that has awarded grants totaling $35,000 in the past year, and about $500,000 over the 20-year life of the scholarship program. ACONE has collaborated with the AOPA Air Safety Institute to present “Crash Course” safety seminars.
Attendance at events such as the June 4 award presentation by EAA Young Eagles participants, and science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) students is made possible by sponsorships from companies such as JetBlue Airways, and other organizations, Passafiume said.
Passafiume and Penny Bowman, treasurer of EAA chapter 106, learned in advance of the luncheon that O’Connor, who is active with the EAA chapter, faced a choice between the luncheon, where he was to be sponsored as a guest by JetBlue, and his graduation ceremony.
Passafiume had arranged Ford’s attendance at the luncheon to accept the Cabot award. Now he passed along a request that Ford present O’Connor with his diploma.
“He is an incredibly warm and gentle guy. I really thought he was just terrific,” said Passafiume, who was joined at the luncheon’s head table by Ford and AOPA President Mark Baker.
In remarks that focused on a theme of “Flying is an earned freedom,” Ford spoke of his long involvement in aviation including five years of service as chairman of the Young Eagles program, Passafiume said. He added, “It was just an incredibly wonderful experience.”
Dana O’Connor, the graduating senior’s mother, and a parent volunteer for her son’s EAA chapter, concurred.
She said she knew that aviation would win out, “as it always does,” when Davis had to decide how to fill out his social calendar for June 4.
As if sitting at the JetBlue table with the other sponsored students had not been enough of an honor, “shaking hands with the actor who played Han Solo and Indiana Jones was beyond his wildest flight dreams,” she said.
Without EAA and ACONE, “so many of these kids would never, ever get to fly,” she added.
Fortunately for O’Connor, he was able to recover sufficiently from the surprise diploma presentation to have Ford autograph the document before the event ended.
As with the Star Wars movies, several sequels are planned for O’Connor’s never-to-be-forgotten aviation experience at the ACONE luncheon.
He hopes to earn a private pilot certificate before the end of the summer, training in a Cessna 172 at the Southbridge (Mass.) Municipal Airport, while he also works a summer job at a financial planning company in Concord.
In midsummer he’ll take a short break to attend EAA AirVenture, compliments of EAA. (An item of special interest, he said, will be observing how air traffic control coordinates arrivals and departures at Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, using special methods such as having pilots rock their wings in response to instructions, and where multiple simultaneous landings on one runway may be employed to keep traffic flowing.)
In the fall, it will be off to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where O’Connor plans to study finance—how do the airlines pay for all those big jets, he wonders—and where he has already identified nearby Northampton Airport as a place where he can rent an airplane for getting around the planet.