By Perry Wilson
For Ponoka News
After five decades of being out of the cockpit, it took her two seconds to accept the invitation from Jim Gray to go for a ride over the Ponoka area in his recently-purchased Cessna182. Jim uses it for patient transfers to and from his addiction treatment centres at Vernon B.C., plus Tees and Glendon in AB.
His company, iRecover Treatment Centres, is unique in using aircraft to quickly transport executives, staff and participants where needed. But on this beautiful autumn day the purpose was to re-connect Mrs. Carter with her aviation past.
“Remember I’m 95,” said Ilona as she looked at the big step up to the copilot seat.
A portable set of steps and a friendly arm proved to be all she needed, along with her inherent agility.
Jim started the engine, did his pre-flight checks and fire-walled the throttle. As the runway lights whizzed past, Ilona watched the runway fall away below.
“When Hec Labrie and others built the Ponoka Airport over 60 years ago, it was just a grass strip! Now look at it,” she commented.
Despite some vision decline in recent years, Ilona looked down at Ponoka and quickly spotted Rimoka Lodge, where she lives now.
I asked her where she and Mickey had their farm, and with her directions we found it and were soon overhead. This was one of those great harvesting days before October’s snow; perfect for getting crops off and doing fall work. And perfect for our sightseeing flight.
Ilona was delighted to see such progress in the fields we flew over. Next we had a bird’s eye view of the stampede grounds and Ag Events Centre, followed by a cruise over the beautiful Chain Lakes.
Jim has floats for his 182 so he couldn’t help but evaluate their lengths and shorelines for flying off the lakes, in case he removes the plane’s wheels and installs the floats next spring. Aviation enjoyed a surge of interest during the post-war period of the 1950s, and Ilona’s husband Mickey got his pilot’s licence then.
Later on he lost his pilot medical certificate as a result of suffering a serious power-pole electrical accident. His remarkable but incomplete recovery did not, however, allow him to get his pilot’s licence back. As his aircraft sat on the ground month after month, Mickey began to comment to Ilona on each beautiful day, that they should be up in the air.
He was relentless until Ilona replied one day “Mickey, you know you can’t get your licence back.” When he suggested she could get hers, Ilona said “I’ll go to the flying school in Edmonton and if I like it, I’ll go through the whole course. If I don’t like it, I don’t want to hear another word about it!”
She did like it, and completed all the requirements easily. Ilona did the flying and Mickey was her navigator for flights that spanned North America from the Arctic Ocean to southern Mexico and many places between.
Once when Ilona gave a ride to some relatives, including a five-year-old boy who had never been in an airplane, she finished the flight with her normal landing.
“That was a very good landing Auntie.” Thus spoke the instant expert. By 1970, the Carters weren’t using their Piper Commanche as often as previously, yet the costs of ownership kept escalating. So, they agreed to sell it (perhaps with the shedding of a few tears?).
But the memories of the places they had flown, and the people they had met, have lived on. Before our flight, Ilona refreshed those memories by paging through her pilot logbook. I should mention too, that Ilona took the controls when Jim suggested it. She flew smoothly and expertly.
“Some things you never forget,” she proclaimed.