Friday, January 27, 2012

Friends make old Piper Cub soar for Clearwater owner who will never fly it

By Terri Bryce Reeves,Tampa Bay Times

CLEARWATER — This past Friday the 13th was a cool and blustery one. Not an ideal time to test a lightweight Piper Cub that hadn't been flown in decades.

But Gino DiNucci was on an important mission: that of friendship.

He completed the final inspection and certified the plane as airworthy. Then he hopped in the pilot's seat, cruised down the runway at the Clearwater Airpark and took the bright yellow bird up into the sky. It would be the first time since the 1950s that the plane was airborne.

It rocked back and forth gently with each gust of wind, then circled over the treetops near the neighborhood at the end of the runway.

Down below, Walter Crosby sat propped up next to his bedroom window — watching, for the very first time, his plane soar through the heavens.

Though he'd never be able to fly the Cub, or even ride in it, he was a proud papa bear that day.

For the past five decades he'd planned to fully restore the plane, all the while dreaming of the day he'd take to the sky and wave to his friends on the ground from the open cockpit.

But now, at 74, Walter is dying from colon cancer that has metastasized to his lungs and liver. Doctors say he has little time left.

At this stage, he fades in and out of consciousness and has a hard time speaking. This past week, however, he was able to summon up three words about watching that flight on Friday the 13th.

"Enjoyed it immensely," he said.

• • •

In the early 1960s, Geri and Walter Crosby entertained their two small children by taking them to the local airpark near Lakeville, Mass.

"We didn't have much money, so we'd go over there and watch the planes take off and land," said Geri, 74.

After the whole family went up for a $10 ride in a four-seater one day, Walter, who spent his career working in the trades and law enforcement, was bitten by the aviation bug.

In 1962, the Crosbys bought the Piper J-3 Cub, a classic yellow two-seater plane.

Pipers are cherished for their simplicity, affordability and their nostalgic role in teaching Americans — and most World War II pilots — to fly.

"They were the cheap get-in-and-go airplane," said John Shepard, a 64-year-old friend of Walter's.

Traditionally, these planes have a sporty black lightning bolt on the side. From the front, they look like cute cartoon insects with big bug eyes.

But this particular Cub was worn completely out. It hadn't been flown in years and needed a total restoration inside and out. The Crosbys paid $650 for it, disassembled it and loaded it into the back of their black Chevy pickup truck.

Through the years, work and family obligations gobbled up the time and money needed to restore the plane. In the meantime, it was stowed in the house.

"We had parts in the attic, propellers under the bed. The fuselage was in the dining room," said Geri. "I put up with a lot with that plane."

In the meantime, Walter got his pilot's license as well as an Airframe and Powerplant (mechanics) license. For the past few years, he's served on the Clearwater Airpark Advisory Board.

The couple moved into a home overlooking the runway at Clearwater Airpark in 1995. When a neighbor came over to greet them one day and ask them to help fight against the airpark, Walter told her, "Lady, we moved here because of the airpark," recalled DiNucci, 70, of Clearwater.

• • •

Seven years ago, Walter began refurbishing the components of the plane in earnest.

In 2006, he was diagnosed with cancer. "He fought valiantly, trying every kind of chemo there is," said Geri.

Around Christmastime, he took a turn for the worse.

Up until then, his friend Bob Henry, 67, of Clearwater and Ohio, had been working alongside Walter helping him with the plane. Now it was time to call in the reinforcements and make an intensive push to finish the plane before Walter died.

For the past few weeks, DiNucci, Shepard, Henry and Mike Canter, 54, of Clearwater and Ohio, toiled five or six days a week to get the plane flight-ready.

"He's our friend," said Shepard. "This is a very tight-knit community and when someone needs help, we are there."

On Tuesday, the flyboys got together once again to check on Walter and take Geri for her inaugural ride in the plane. In a sense, she took her husband along for the ride too, wearing his Piper Cub hat and name tag.

"Remember, no loops, no spins," she told pilot DiNucci before takeoff.

They circled around the house for what would be, perhaps, Walter's last look.

Finally they returned. As they glided to a stop, Geri flashed a smile and gave a thumbs-up.

"It was a beautiful ride, simply beautiful," she said.

When asked about Walter's beliefs about an afterlife, she thought for a moment and then replied: "He knows Jesus will be there to greet him. I think he figures that will be the ultimate flight."

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