Sunbeams dance and sparkle off the fuselage as Mary Creason guides her Tiger aircraft on final approach to the Grand Haven Municipal Airport.
Her trained eyes mirror her surroundings as she gently nudges the yoke forward, gracefully grounding the airplane and rolling to a stop.
While many 91-year-olds navigate nursing home hallways, Creason navigates flight patterns. She’s eyeing altimeter numbers, not bingo numbers.
She’s at home here in the sky.
But, after more than 70 years of flying, the heart that so passionately piloted aircraft through miles of open skies, failed her.
“Occasionally, I would be light-headed and feel as if I might pass out,” Creason said.
Grounded, for a while
Passing out and piloting clearly do not mix in any imaginable flight plan.
She grounded herself and sought treatment.
Spectrum Health Medical Group cardiologist Ellen Jansyn, MD, said Creason had a fast resting heart rate for many years. It didn’t appear to be an abnormal rhythm, just a fast one that could be controlled with medication.
“But as a person gets older, there can be some degeneration in the electrical system of the heart where our heart rates can start slowing down,” Dr. Jansyn explained. “The tissue becomes more sensitive to medication.”
Over time, it was as if the flaps came down. The medication that kept her heart in check for so many years slowed it to dangerous levels, causing her to feel dizzy and light-headed.
Dr. Jansyn installed a pacemaker as a safety net and adjusted Creason’s medications so they could still be used to combat the fast heart rate. If Creason’s heartbeat dips too low, the pacemaker will kick in.
But such medical treatment of pilots requires Federal Aviation Administration involvement.
The woman who called the sky home for the past seven decades suddenly was grounded, her propeller spun to a halt, her altimeter stuck at ground level.
“The FAA requested I turn in my certification,” Creason said. “Once a pilot has a pacemaker, he or she must prove fitness. Dr. Jansyn took over and ordered the necessary tests and examinations and carefully completed the required paperwork, which I then submitted to the FAA.”
Last February, she successfully completed her medical tests and got her wings back.
Soaring, once again
Back in the pilot’s seat again, she’s soaring to new heights, with the goal of landing in all 48 states in the continental United States.
After the heart scare, when she thought she may never pilot again, Creason realized that she had some unfinished business, something she wanted to prove to herself. The yearning for the wild blue yonder wouldn’t subside.
She stepped out on a wing and ran an idea by her family.
“I said, ‘I need your permission to go on a trip that I think I want to take—I want to land in every state in the lower 48,’” she recalled. “Everyone said, ‘Go for it, Mom.’”
Starting in June, she and son Kennard landed in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Creason, who also spent much of her life as a certified flight instructor, had taught her children and grandchildren to fly.
On Sept. 6, she rolled her Tiger out of hangar F-10 at the Grand Haven airport and headed northeast with longtime friend and co-pilot Betty Young, 86.
In the ensuing days, they checked off New York, Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Ohio, taking their time and seeing sites along the way.
If they were too tired to fly on a particular day, they simply didn’t.
“I haven’t taken excessive cross-country trips for some years,” Creason said earlier this fall during a layover in Providence, Rhode Island, where she and Young waited out turbulent conditions.
In the spring, when the days are longer, Creason plans to resume the 48-state quest. There’s no hurry these days, just a sense of peace, and contentment, in doing what she loves, when her body feels well enough to do it.
Age, like the sky, has no bounds
Dr. Jansyn said she’s inspired, and impressed, by Creason.
“What you have to love about Mary is her passion for flying,” she said. “Since the age of 80 she has always had a licensed pilot in the plane with her in case she has trouble. She just instituted that on her own. She said, ‘OK, at this age, the right thing to do is have someone else in the plane who would be able to land it.’”
The 59-year-old cardiologist told Creason she wants to be just like her when she grows up.
“I think what she’s doing is fantastic,” Dr. Jansyn said. “I think it’s wonderful and inspirational that she still does it. She’s tried to recruit me and said I should learn to fly.”
She’s especially impressed with Creason’s 48-state goal.
“I’m glad she still has a vigor for life that includes long-term goals and adventures,” Dr. Jansyn said. “I think that’s how we should all live life—always have something to look forward to and strive for. Mary is inspirational in showing us that as we get older, it doesn’t mean that we have to stop living. Go for it, Mary!”
Flying at airspeeds of more than 100 mph, it’s as if Creason has outrun the effects of age, her mind precise and detailed like aeronautical charts, her reflexes quick and responsive like the yoke she gently holds in her hand.
Although she’s been involved in many aircraft races, this journey is not a race. It’s about treasuring the moments.
And although she says her body needs more rest than it has on previous cross-country flights, she’s still able to slide under the Tiger’s wing to check the fuel quality and still able to nimbly enter the pilot’s seat by climbing up on the wing, sliding back the canopy and stepping in.
She’s grateful. Ever thankful, still, that she’s able to pursue her passions and stoke her ever-present sense of adventure in a sport that is so often reserved for the young because of its demanding physical and mental nature.
She has nothing much to prove in this aviation world. Creason has earned state and national awards, numerous certifications and a firm place in history as a pioneer female pilot.
“I have overflown all the lower 48 states and Canada, Mexico and Hawaii—I simply thought it would be a fun thing to do,” Creason said of her latest mission to land in all 48.
“Another trip I really would like to take is to get in the Tiger, take off into the wind and reverse course—let the tailwind take me to my destination, wherever that might be. Wouldn’t that be fun?”