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Take Them Flying

7 minute read

Like many folks with grandkids at a distance, Michael Harbater, 55, had a hunger to know those little people better–and to have them know him. But for the retailer from New York City, it was hard. Eleven of his 16 grandchildren lived in Israel, and when he did see them, he laments, “they didn’t exactly jump into my lap.”

But Harbater had one great tool for bridging that divide: his airplane. Although he could not fly his six-seat Centurian across the Atlantic, he was able to fly his visiting 21/2-year-old granddaughter from Farmingdale, N.Y., to Toronto. Squirming on her mom’s lap, Liba stretched out her arms toward him, plaintively wailing “Gampa!” Harbater took her onto his lap, cradling her with one hand while piloting the plane. She snuggled against him, fascinated by the colored lights blinking on the instrument panel and the rain streaking back on the windshield. “It was like a dream come true,” he says. And perhaps most satisfying, a year later Liba still talks about “Gampa’s airpane.”

With today’s families scattered so widely, a growing number of grandparents have learned to close two gaps–geographic and emotional–with one airplane, either by flying the miles that separate them from their grandkids or by bonding with the young ones through a passion for flying. Often the grandparents do both. The average age of civilian pilots has risen to 55, up from about 48 a decade ago, as more grandparents have taken to the pilot’s seat, according to Drew Steketee, CEO of Be a Pilot, a nonprofit that promotes aviation. Around 10% of the would-be flyers who signed up in 2003 and ’04 for Be a Pilot’s promotional first lesson ($49) were over 50. Considering that many pilots over 80 are still active, boomers who start now could be flying for decades.

In the past, says Karen Fingerman, a Purdue University psychologist, grandparents’ typical roles were as family historians and keepers of rituals. “Today,” she says, “grandparents tend to be healthier, society is less formal, and the passions transmitted can include modern, hip pastimes like biking, running and even flying planes.”

Whichever comes first–the grandkids or the license–many grandparents view flying as a godsend for bonding with their children’s children. “Flying is my special thing that I can pass on to them,” says retired nurse Betty Vinson, 64, of Prince George, Va., who took up flying at 50. Vinson takes her three grandkids, ages 4 to 13, aloft regularly. From toddlerhood, they have loved it. “Years later,” Vinson says, “my granddaughter would talk about flying right through clouds and how they were not solid but soft like smoke.” The first time Gary Spoor, 48, took up Garrett, 4, the boy was transfixed. “Look, Grandpa,” he called, “there’s a train! Look–cows!” “It makes me feel 10 feet tall to bring that kind of joy to him,” says the power-line superintendent from Kansas City, Mo.

For many grandparents, flying helps them teach their grandkids about the world. The three granddaughters of Betty Foose, 66, a Sammamish, Wash., Realtor, get a geography lesson when she takes them up in her plane. Over the years, Cristina Greig, 15, has learned that California isn’t actually golden, and she knows she’s in Oregon when she crosses the Columbia River. When Cristina and her sister Alysha were little, they posed their own geography question. As the plane broke through the overcast gray into a brilliant blue sky dotted with white clouds, Alysha, 4, asked, “Grandma, is this heaven?” Foose’s response, after a pause, was, “No, not heaven but getting very close.”

History and politics are among the things that pilots Bill and Gayle James, both 65, of Canton, Ohio, have taught their grandkids at 7,000 feet. On one trip they flew over Cuba with their granddaughters, 12 and 13. “They’d only heard how bad it was,” says Bill, “but Cuba looked gorgeous, and the Cuban controllers were so friendly. They were full of questions about Cuba and why they couldn’t go there. Poppy and Nonny gave them a real history lesson.”

Grandparents generally have more relaxed time to spend with their grandkids than they had with their children. It’s a chance for grandparents to practice what they have learned about child rearing. Tom Corbett of Huntington Beach, Calif., for example, had never been patient before he went flying with his grandkids. “I forced it on myself so I don’t become anxious or annoyed,” says the computer-systems architect, 58. “I don’t want to associate anything bad with the thrill of flying.” Ron Vickrey, 69, a retired executive in Port Orange, Fla., believes his daughters were too young when he taught them to fly. By 16, when they were eligible to get a license, they had lost interest. With his granddaughters, he plans to wait and start them at 16. But he hasn’t told them yet. “I’m lying in the weeds on this one,” he says with a chuckle. “As a grandpa, you learn things, like when to push and when not to.”

For longtime pilots who were disappointed that their kids were uninspired by flying, the grandkids present a second chance. Corbett yearned to fly as a boy, but his parents couldn’t afford it. When he finally realized his dream at 32, his children, he says, “went along with Dad doing his thing but had no interest themselves.” He feels a deep satisfaction in being able to give his grandkids a cherished thing that his parents couldn’t give him.

Seniors say it’s easy to teach children to like flying. Many pilots routinely ferry their grandkids around from infancy, and in most cases the children are unafraid. But Corbett is taking no chances with his 10 grandkids. He does a three- to six-month prep with them, one by one, just before they reach age 3. First he takes them to the airport to accustom them to the roar of engines and the odor of fuel. When they’re ready, they venture out on the wing, then into the cockpit. Only after they ask to go up does Corbett take them. Afterward, he proudly awards each one a personalized first-flight certificate and photos of the occasion. “It’s their day,” he says. “They don’t have to share it.”

Retired businessman Jim Belew, 71, of Pittsburg, Kans., made his grandson Rudy, then 13, ask twice to learn to fly, even though Belew was bursting to teach the boy. “For my sons, flying was just a way to get somewhere,” Belew says. But with Rudy, a shy boy, it was different. “Flying brought him out more than anything I ever saw,” Belew says. Rudy is now 18 and a licensed pilot.

Sharing a passion for flying gives the two generations a chance to know each other more profoundly. “Grandkids learn to see their grandfather or grandmother not just as someone who reads stories,” says Westport, Conn., clinical psychologist Sara Moss Herz, “but as a person with their own activities and interests. It sparks a different way of connecting.” Cristina Greig says her grandma Betty Foose’s example taught her that girls can do anything they want. Foose treasures letters that Cristina and her sisters have written to her acknowledging her influence in their lives.

Passing on what they value to future generations touches grandparents at their core. Even though Michael Harbater may not see his Israeli grandkids often, he knows he has had an impact on them. “They will always associate Grandpa and planes,” he reflects, “even when they bring me my great-grandchildren in the old-age home.”

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