Jackie’s Last Flight

Lessons from a life sharing the air.

Few things are as rewarding for pilots as having a partner who shares our passion, sense of wonder and exhilaration. I had such a person in my life before I lost her to cancer two years ago. Often when I think of Jackie, I reflect back on memorable trips we had together. But it was our last flight that held special meaning for both of us.

I knew she was going to be right for me after my first flight with her. At the time, our relationship was just beginning and I was a certified glider pilot. I convinced Jackie to let me take her up in a two-place sailplane. I didn’t know it then, but she was a fearless flyer. I put her in the front seat and climbed in back. On that January morning in the coastal mountains of Northern California, the seasonal rains had turned the surrounding hills into their emerald-green winter colors. I secured both canopies, gave the thumbs-up to the wing runner, and then waggled the rudder pedals signaling the tow plane to begin the take off.

The gliderport in Lake County was located in a valley surrounded by rugged terrain, forested mountains, and massive rock outcroppings that are remnants of volcanic formations. It’s a place of unsurpassed beauty, not fully appreciated from the ground. As the sailplane climbed through a few hundred feet, the terrain rose into relief, and our perspective of the world was transformed. Jackie turned her head to the side, and I caught the expression on her face. It was a look of amazement, wonder and discovery. Her beautiful visage always did hold the light in a lovely way, but there was something very different about the look on her face at that moment, conveying both awe and serenity. “Yes,” I wanted to say to her, “this is what it is all about.” But I didn’t need to say it because I could tell she felt that same sense of magic. It was to become one of the many precious things we shared.

Three years later, I walked into the kitchen on a Sunday morning and said: “You know, babe, I’m in my early 50s, and if I’m ever going to get my power license, I really should start.” She was all for it, and I had my first lesson that afternoon.

When I came home from my check ride waving a private pilot ticket, her joy matched my own. A few months later, I bought a Cirrus SR22, which I flew for the next 10 years and 2,000 hours. Its tail number was N907DR, representing her birthday and my initials, showing it belonged to both of us. We had many adventures together in that airplane, traveling throughout the US, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. Our first three-day transcontinental flight to our summer home in Maine was a marvelous adventure, culminating in spectacular sights as we descended through the clouds near Portland, broke out into beautiful summer sunshine and flew up the Maine coast at 2,500 feet.

Jackie never had any interest in actually flying the airplane. She learned the radios, the basics of the autopilot and how to operate the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System. But her greatest satisfaction was pilotage, observing the world from above while sitting with a sectional chart on her lap and marking our progress against the passing cities, rivers and roads. Her other passion was photography, and she swung her camera into action regularly.

By the time Jackie was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer in early 2012, she was working on a portfolio called “America by Air.” The pictures included everything from the formations in Monument Valley in Arizona, wind machines in the mountains of West Virginia, Crater Lake in Oregon, and striking photos of coastal California, Florida and Maine. She never finished that book, but the journey for her was indeed its own reward.

In spring 2017, Jackie knew her life would soon end. She was already moving to palliative care and would shortly tell her doctors that she wanted no further treatments. Courageous and strong in spirit, she could not overcome the disease that was sapping her physical vigor. As I sought ways to make each day as good as it could be for her, I hit upon an idea that touched on one of her other great loves. “Hey, babe, why don’t we bop down to Arizona and catch a spring-training game for the Oakland A’s this Saturday?” Jackie was surprised and said, “We’ll never get a hotel; it’s the last weekend.” To which I replied: “We don’t need no stinkin’ hotel, my love. We have a jet aer-o-plane. We can go down and back in a single day.”

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Yes, by that point, we’d moved up to a Cessna Citation Mustang. She loved being in that airplane because it was fast, comfortable and pressurized. I told Jackie we could easily fly from the San Francisco Bay Area to Phoenix, grab a car and get to the A’s stadium a few miles away. She hesitated because of her weakened condition, but I said if she wasn’t chagrined about it, I’d rent a wheelchair and get seats in the section with those accommodations. She agreed and clearly brightened at the prospect. The wheelchair folded perfectly into the baggage compartment, and we set off.

To our good fortune, it was a crystal-clear day. We flew along the spine of the Sierra Nevada, across Las Vegas, spied the Grand Canyon in the distance, descended over the chocolate-colored mountains ringing the Valley of the Sun, and touched down at Falcon Field in Mesa. Everything went right as the FBO had its last rental car waiting for us. We arrived at the ballpark just before game time. I was wheeling her up the ramp to our seats when they began to play the national anthem. Jackie got up out of the chair and stood silently, but I could see tears running down her cheek. I said, “It’s not your last baseball game, sweetie,” but she looked at me, and we both knew it was.

She was so happy to be there, it didn’t matter who won or lost. We laughed about the young unknown players and leaned back in our seats to take in the blue sky, green grass and lovely weather. She devoured a hot dog and then a three-scoop ice-cream cone, and she felt strong and free.

After the game, we drove back to the airport, loaded up and launched for home. The sun was low, and the shadows were lengthening across the desert as we climbed out of the Phoenix area. But the best was yet to come. I’ll never forget those moments as we crossed over the Sierra just at sunset. An enormous snowcap covered the mountains, and the entire range was bathed in rose alpenglow. We were in smooth air at 36,000 feet, listening to our favorite Mark Knopfler songs through the headphones and holding hands. Awed by the view before us, we were filled with gratitude for what we’d had in life and what we had at that moment.

I learned something about flying that day. The sense of freedom and joy it conveys can be so powerful, it will push back against even the worst of circumstances. Because of all that final flight brought us, I like to say that was the day we beat cancer.

My logbook devotes a page to it and has a special notation: “Jackie’s Last Flight. Love you, babe. Thanks for being my copilot.”

This story appeared in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of Flying Magazine


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