MIAMI - A. Jay Cristol took his first flying lesson at 15. He couldn't afford the $10 for a one-hour class, so he stayed up for only 15 minutes - enough time to get him hooked for life.
The chief judge emeritus of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Miami still logs in hours whenever he gets a chance. He recently toasted his 82nd birthday - and more than six decades in the air.
Unusual? Not really. Cristol is one of about 110 members of the Florida chapter of the United Flying Octogenerians.
The group's requirement for membership: You must have been the pilot in command of an aircraft after your 80th birthday. This is no small feat because a pilot must take a physical annually and a flight test every two years.
"It just charges my battery," Cristol said about his weekly flights out of Opa-locka Executive Airport in Miami.
Cristol is in good company. Fellow UFOer Rogelio Corvo Jr. joined the Cuban Air Force at 17, attended cadet training in Texas and joined the U.S. Air Force. He flew in the Korean and Vietnam wars. Honorably discharged with the rank of captain, he switched to commercial airliners. Now retired, he owns a Cessna 172.
A couple of times a week, he soars out of Kendall-Tamiami Executive Airport in Miami, sometimes for a quick hop to the Bahamas, occasionally as far as Missouri. He just turned 83.
"I'll fly as long as I'm healthy," he said. "This has always been what I wanted to do."
Charles Lopez, a retired Miami pharmaceutical executive, serves on the UFO board of directors. He acquired his wings in his mid-30s, when he lived in Puerto Rico. The delay was not for a lack of desire but a lack of funds.
His parents named him after Charles Lindbergh because he was born on the same day in June 1927 that the famous pilot arrived in New York after his flight to Paris. He grew up building planes from Popsicle sticks.
Now 84, Lopez takes his Cessna Cardinal II for a spin at least once a week. When he's airborne, he said, "You see things from a different perspective. You see the big picture, and you get a sense for being above it all."
UFO was started in 1982 by 25 aviators who wanted to bring together old pilots still flying. The organization now counts almost 1,000 members, most in the United States but also in Canada, Argentina, France and the United Kingdom.
Many are retired military and commercial pilots who still fly their private planes. The oldest member is 97. At one time, UFO boasted a 102-year-old member who voluntarily turned in his pilot's license after hitting the century mark - but still flew as a co-pilot.
In addition to a passion for flying, UFOers say they share a can-do attitude.
New UFO President Don Newman, a retired pharmacist and attorney from the Clearwater, Fla., area, quoted the late Norman Vincent Peale when talking about fliers: "The most important thing is not God, country, job and family. It is your attitude toward God, country, job and family."
Other pilots gathered around the tarmac on a hot September morning agreed.
"Some people get old and they get a complex," Corvo said. "They say, 'I'm too old for this. I'm too old for that.' Why?"
Displaying that can-do attitude, Newman, 88, flew his Beechcraft Bonanza V-tail from his central Florida hangar to Kendall-Tamiami for a newspaper interview. Why bother with a phone when you have wings?
He brought along a student, who listened with amazement to the older pilots' stories.
After decades in the cockpit these men have seen plenty. They remember when there was no radar; when pilots, not computers, plotted flights manually; and when six or seven briefcases of charts were necessary on longer flights.
"A lot is done for you now," Cristol said. "So I've done my best to keep up with technology."
These pilots' advanced age usually prompts a raised eyebrow or two.
"You get one of two reactions," Lopez said. "Some people tell you, 'Wow, that's great! How do you do it?' Then others say, 'Wow, that's dangerous! I don't want to be around anywhere this old goat is flying.' "
Age has changed UFOers' habits. They don't fly as often or as far. They don't go out in bad weather. They're more cautious, not only about their equipment, but also about their skills.
Cristol periodically submits to a voluntary flight check with a flight instructor. Lopez won't go up at night.
"You have old pilots and you have bold pilots," Lopez quipped. "But you don't have old, bold pilots."
For more information about the United Flying Octogenerians, go to unitedflyingoctogenarians.org.