Oct 2019 True Story #2/Fly-in/Cruise-in
In follow up to my blog post ‘True Story from LLT Fly-in‘, I figure one true story begs another. In fact, when it comes to everything I write about women pilots, it’s real people and their personal stories that matter. Think of the word “aviating” and interesting individuals jump to mind. Many times those intriguing figures are famous pilots, but often times they are the quiet ones, the least obvious among us. This is one unlikely woman’s remarkable story.
Reaction: From a distance I watched a young, male, pre-teen pet my airplane. His arms are in the air above his head and he rubs his hands back and forth across the ailerons. He moves to the fuselage and continues rubbing, stroking and massaging my bird. The horizontal stabilizer was curious to him so he continued to the rear, ever so slowly moving the elevator, touching the trim tab and, and, and….. I rushed to my Decathlon.
Musing: I’m happy I looked beyond this young boy to notice an older woman nearly 20′ away. It was obvious she was giving him space, allowing him to experience the airplane but ready to step in if necessary. I do not condone anyone touching my airplane, or anyone else’s without consent, but I recognized something out of the ordinary was happening.
The encounter: The event was Labor Day weekend, Ray Johnson’s Marion, Indiana Fly-in/Cruise-in at KMZZ. Ray’s hosted this very successful annual event for an unbelievable 29 years parlaying a Saturday morning Fly-in/Drive-in breakfast into a multi-day event for many. Pilots from near and far find their way to Marion annually and hundreds of local residents come out to be wowed by it all. This annual event features antique, classic, homebuilt, ultralight, rotorcraft and warbird aircraft as well as vintage cars, trucks, motorcycles, fire trucks, autocycles, military vehicles and tractors. Oh yah, and one very popular all-you-can-eat Pancake Breakfast too!
As I rapidly approached my airplane the boy continued to caress it. At that moment I was very concerned with what he was up to and not so much interested in the lady I’d noticed waiting in the flanks. As I approached I could see the boy had Down syndrome, was treating the Decathlon with affection and somehow, had made a connection to it. I stopped, stepped back a few feet and introduced myself to the woman watching from steps away. Within moments, I was only interested in her.
Her name was Bonnie LeMaster, a life-long resident of Marion, Indiana. She told me she never misses the fly-in and had gotten up very early so she could bring her grandson with her. As we talked, she explained her grandson has Down syndrome and inherited her love of flying vicariously through her. She told me her home was filled with artwork and pictures of airplanes and her grandson loved seeing them and hearing her talk about each of them. Airplanes had become a shared obsession between them. Then, to my surprise, she relayed her story.
She LOVES the Blue Angles! She’s not a pilot, never has been, may never be. But she has a connection to the Blue Angles that transcends decades. In the mid-1960’s shortly after she discovered the Blue Angles, she started a writing campaign with one goal – to get a ride with the Blue Angles. She wrote them directly many times but also wrote the governor, her congressmen, anyone she believed might help her get a ride with the Blue Angles. She received an occasional response and kept on writing – for over 3 years. Finally, after years, someone took note of her perseverance and contacted her with good news; she’d been approved to fly with the Blue Angles! She was invited to fly at one of two locations, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base or Forrest Sherman Field, Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida. Bonnie chose Pensacola, Florida.
She arrived at the Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Florida in July 1967 (yes, 1967!) for her Blue Angles flight and the experience was, as expected, spectacular. She was warmly welcomed, given a full base tour and finally introduced to the crew. She was briefed on her flight and given appropriate safety apparel. And then she was off! Bonnie’s flight wasn’t a quick few maneuvers, she flew a full aerobatic routine with the Blue Angles and loved every minute of it.
Incredibly, 52 years later, Bonnie still carries the card with her that certifies her July 12, 1967 flight; Pilot Lt. Dave Rottgering, USN, an honorary Member of the U. S. Navy’s Flight Demonstration Team!
Bonnie, I loved your story and your continued passion for the Blue Angles is an inspiration to us all.