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Column: After 30 years, woman gives plane to new generation

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Nancy Warren is flanked by fellow pilots Eric DeBusk, left, and Thomas Kieffer in front of the plane she gave to the young men earlier this year.
Nancy Warren is flanked by fellow pilots Eric DeBusk, left, and Thomas Kieffer in front of the plane she gave to the young men earlier this year. SUBMITTED PHOTO

For something like 30 years, Nancy Warren’s second home has been the sky. There have been times, I imagine, when she considered it her first home.

Nancy has been a pilot since she got her first certificate in her 50s. She’s 84 now.

Flying to her has been an essential — sometimes routine — part of life. Most of us wake up in the morning needing to get from Point A to Point B and set out walking or driving. Many times, Nancy made the journey through the air.

For the past 25 years she has used her beloved Cessna 177 Cardinal airplane for the journeys. She’s treated it as an offspring, carefully monitoring and maintaining it and leaving nothing to chance.

When she turned 80, she and the Cardinal still were flying. She also became a member of a select group called the UFOs, the shortened version of United Flying Octogenarians.

“You have to be flying as pilot in command at age 80 or older to be eligible,” she said earlier this week. “When I joined there were only nine UFOs in Indiana. Today there are 25.”

Although she remained in good health, Nancy was preparing to face the inevitable — that day when she no longer could fly.

“I didn’t want to wait until I had gone past that time and incurred a bad experience — for me, the airplane or anyone else,” she said recently. “I also didn’t want to lose my license to fly or have it taken from me.”

She cut back on her time in the air, basing her flights on how she felt. “I never flew on days when I didn’t feel well and strong,” she said.

Both she and the Cardinal were judged as fit. This year she passed her flight physical easily. The Cardinal also passed its required annual inspection with flying colors.

Despite that, Nancy knew that the time had arrived to ground herself. She made the decision to quit flying over breakfast in a Florida restaurant. She also gave away her beloved Cardinal ... to the two college students, young enough to be her grandsons, sitting across from her in that restaurant.

It was two years ago that one of those young men — Thomas Kieffer — phoned Nancy after having read a book about her flying experiences. He also was a pilot, having qualified for his certificate at the Greenwood airport. He asked if they could meet and “talk about flying.”

That was the first of several meetings between the two. At one of them, Thomas brought along another pilot friend — Eric DeBusk. The two young men met when they were qualifying for their pilot’s licenses. Their mutual love of flying proved to be a natural bridge for Nancy to cross.

“Both of them so impressed me,” she said. “They are always courteous and respectful, but we have found so many ways to have fun with each other.”

Most of the fun involved flying. “I still recall climbing into the rear seat of their rented Cherokee 140 one time so that we could fly to lunch and do some shopping,” she recalled.

The three shared flying duties on several flights after that, many of them in Nancy’s Cardinal.

Earlier this year they mapped out their most challenging experience — an eight-hour excursion to Sarasota, Fla. It took them two days to get there. Along the way the trio encountered horrible weather and were forced to land at the nearest airports on a number of occasions.

“The boys took turns in the left seat as PIC (pilot in command), while I rode in the right seat,” Nancy recalled. “It gave me time to observe how well they flew individually, their teamwork and their judgment in dealing with the weather conditions. They did a great job.”

They reached their destination and met the next morning for breakfast. By then Nancy was clear on what she wanted to do.

“I said that I had something to tell them,” Nancy said. “They looked up, and I told them I was giving the Cardinal to them. Thomas looked stunned, and I think Eric had tears in his eyes.”

“We were shocked and amazed,” Eric recalled. “We didn’t know what to say.”

Thomas remembered that he and Eric simply looked at each other and kept laughing. “We felt like we were bouncing off the wall, we were so excited. It was something we couldn’t possibly have imagined.”

It took several weeks for the necessary paperwork to be completed. Nancy has returned to the air, but only as a passenger. Earlier this month they made another of their lunch/shopping trips — this one to Missouri.

Although the difference in their ages is significant, none of the three gave much thought to it.

“Age just doesn’t affect Nancy,” Eric said. “She’s always positive.”

Thomas thinks of it in terms of their mutual love — flying.

“When aviators get together, there is no age difference,” he said.

The plane is presently berthed in a hangar in North Vernon. Because of school demands — Thomas is a sophomore at Purdue University, and Eric is studying mechanical engineering at the Purdue College of Technology in Columbus — it has not seen much flight time recently, but that likely will change during the holiday break.

The three already are mapping out their next lunch, and it’s unlikely that it’ll be served in Indiana.

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