Despite having logged 21,000 hours over the years, for Emily Warner, her most recent flight was a special one. That’s because Warner, reportedly the first female commercial airline pilot hired by a U.S. scheduled airline, organized the flight to fulfill the last wish of a long-time friend and fellow aviator who has been suffering from dementia for the past several years.
Warner met Helene Dax many years ago at a cocktail party, where they were instantly drawn together by their love of aviation and their history in the field.
Dax, like Warner, got her start in aviation early in life. During World War II, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, she was called upon to replace a Japanese air traffic controller in her hometown of Chicago. Just a teenager at the time, she worked as the only female controller at the airport until the end of the war, guiding planes in to land using the old light gun system.
At the age of 26 she received her pilot’s license. She learned to fly in her husband’s Taylorcraft, often hand-propping the airplane herself. According to friends, that was the one part of flying that made her nervous.
“She was only frightened by that propeller,” said Peg Garvin, a close acquaintance of Dax.
Dax’s accomplishments in aviation were not the only characteristics that made her unique. As a professional model, world traveler and business owner, Dax’s life has been full of varied experiences. But of them all, friends say, her love of aviation is something she still holds on to.
According to Warner, for years the two of them reminisced about their early days in aviation, when they used railroad tracks and highways as checkpoints, and the only version of IFR they knew was “I follow railroads,” she joked.
With the onset of dementia a few years ago, Dax now resides at Brookdale Senior Living, an Alzheimer’s/dementia care community located in Denver, Colorado. As her memory faded, her friends and loved ones didn’t want her to miss out on her dream of getting in the air one last time.
“She always wanted to get back in an airplane,” said Warner.
So they submitted Dax’s wish for a final flight to Jeremy Bloom’s Wish of a Lifetime, an organization that helps fulfill the dreams of senior citizens. The organization approved sponsorship of the wish shortly afterward, and within no time, the flight was set for Tuesday, May 10.
Despite 30-knot wind on Monday and snow predictions for Wednesday, Tuesday’s weather was just right for the flight. Early that morning, Warner and Dax arrived at McAir Aviation, along with more than two-dozen fellow aviators who came out to show their support. Of those, more than half were fellow members of the Ninety-Nines. They doted on Dax while the Cessna 172 was prepared for the flight.
Finally, with Dax and a young flight instructor sitting up front, and Warner in the backseat, the 172 lifted off. The trio flew for about an hour, traveling along the front-range of the snow-capped Colorado Rockies and taking in the Flatirons of Boulder.
“It was just gorgeous,” said Warner, “It was picture perfect.”
Halfway through the flight, the instructor let Dax take the controls, who tried her best to kept the airplane straight and level. Warner watched from behind as Dax, her good friend and aviation enthusiast, took hold of the yolk for one last time.
“She really got with it after we got it going,” Warner said. “Isn’t that funny how flying comes back to you?”