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Column: Young pilots make best of gift by paying it forward

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I think that Nancy Warren’s unusual investment is paying dividends.

Near the end of 2012, the then-83-year-old Columbus woman made what might have seemed a painful decision. She quit piloting airplanes.

For many with the love she had for aviation, the decision likely would have been a painful one. Actually, I’d describe her emotions along the lines of joyous.

The joy had to do with the disposition of the beloved Cardinal 177 plane she had been piloting for almost a quarter of a century. Done with flying, most retired pilots would have sold their planes. Nancy followed another road. She gave it away to two young men who were barely out of their teens, Thomas Kiefer and Eric DeBusk.

The three formed an unlikely combination agewise, but they had one thing very much in common — a love of flying. It had brought them together at Columbus Municipal Airport, where Nancy had been quartering her plane and Thomas and Eric had been trying to rent as much air time on other planes as they could afford.

Over time they came to fly together, taking day trips to points throughout the Midwest with Nancy often turning over the controls to one of the younger fliers. Their love of flying, maturity and caring for their mentor made Nancy’s decision easy.

As she put it at the time, “This is one of the most beautiful things that has ever happened to me.”

The manner in which Thomas and Eric have adapted to their lives as plane owners has only added to that sense of beauty.

One of their first actions was to move the plane to the North Vernon Airport, where Eric worked part time to defray storage costs. More recently the plane has been moved to a farm owned by Eric and Linda Scheidt southeast of Columbus. The young plane owners got more than storage space out of this arrangement. Eric DeBusk has been heavily involved in construction of a small landing strip on the farm.

Throughout this, the two young men followed their other enterprises. Eric graduated from Purdue College of Technology at Columbus and is working at Cybermetrix in Columbus.

Thomas is completing his studies at Purdue University in West Lafayette, where he has already qualified as an aviation student instructor. It was in that role that he found a way to pay it forward with Nancy’s gift.

Earlier this year he became aware of a program that was offered at Purdue only a few years ago, Able Flight, a unique opportunity for people with disabilities to pilot airplanes.

Many of the participants in the program are wounded warriors, service members who suffered wartime injuries that severely limited their movements. It is also offered to non-service members who have similar disabilities.

Thomas volunteered for the program and was selected as one of six instructors who were each assigned an individual who had been awarded an Able Flight scholarship. His student was Tim Klemm, a 29-year-old Illinois man who had suffered crippling injuries in an auto crash 11 years ago. The accident resulted in his being confined to a wheelchair and walker. It also affected the use of his hands.

In his youth he had become fascinated with mechanical work, which eventually transitioned into a fascination with flying. His injuries obviously imposed limitations, but over the past few years he became acquainted with the Able Flight program and this past year applied for one of several scholarships that would provide pilot training as well as room and board at Purdue University.

The school had received three modified light sport airplanes for the course. The planes had been specially adapted with hand controls for the students who would not have been able to work with the foot pedal controls normal on most aircraft.

The modifications made flight possible for the students but not necessarily easy. Tim, for instance, had difficulty with his hand’s grip, sometimes finding it extremely difficult to even turn a key.

“I found that I had to be pretty creative in working with Tim’s situation,” Thomas recalled. “It required a lot of patience on the part of both of us and a willingness to be adaptive.”

The gripping issue was resolved by devising a means for the student pilot to pull on the instrument rather than try to turn it.

“The thing about Thomas is that he was able to work with me through my issues,” Tim said. “I learned so much, so fast, because of the way that Thomas explained the procedures to me.”

The training, spread out over five to six weeks, was intensive. The student pilots were airborne at least twice a day in good weather and participated in daily briefings.

Tim made his solo flight on June 20, and it was a day both student and instructor remember well.

“When Tim landed and I ran to his plane,” Thomas said, “I had to help him get out of the cockpit, but the only thing I could see was his smile. He was grinning ear to ear.”

For Tim the experience bordered on the heavenly. “When I got off the ground, it was like I was freed from all constraints,” he said.

For Thomas, “It was the coolest thing I can imagine.”

Nancy Warren wasn’t there, but I’m sure she can relate to Thomas’ feelings.

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