As he watched the frail woman climb gingerly into the pilot's side of the Cessna 172, flight instructor Jason Duca thought he was just going to give Ruth Clifford Hubert a ride — a nice treat for the former World War II-era service pilot, in honor of her 91st birthday.
But then Hubert started preparing for takeoff, fingering the controls, mentally ticking off the items on the preflight checklist.
"She was doing everything," said Duca, 24. "You could almost hear her brain working."
A pilot since age 17, Hubert was back in her "absolute natural element," said daughter Linda Hubert, 58. After her WWII service as a Women's Airforce Service Pilot, Hubert had spent years doing acrobatic flying and cross-country races as part of a women's air show group called the Ninety-Niners.
Ultimately she settled in St. Petersburg with husband Peter Hubert, a pilot who helped establish National Airlines.
Her life quieted down some. And once she started losing some of her vision, she stopped flying. Indeed, before heading to Albert Whitted Airport on the St. Petersburg waterfront about one month ago, Hubert had not been at the controls of an airplane in more than 10 years.
Her days now are spent reading large-print books. Sundays are reserved for church.
Many of those who joined her in the pews at First Presbyterian Church in St. Petersburg every week had no idea that she had served her country in wartime testing repaired fighter planes among other missions.
Until that day when someone at church started talking about taking flying lessons, and Hubert's eyes lit up. "I used to fly," she said, and the stories began pouring out.
So her flight last month was a birthday gift from church friends. Duca, the pilot, donated his time. When the plane left the runway and got over water, he asked Hubert if there was anything she wanted to do.
"Stall," she said.
In a stall, a pilot purposely slows down enough to cause the wings to suddenly lose lift, causing the plane to drop several hundred feet. It is a necessary — but usually dreaded — part of flight instruction.
"Nobody likes to stall," Duca said after this flight.
But for Hubert, her daughter said, the stall Duca put the Cessna into "was like a little kid going to see the Mouse."
And the flight "was a wonderful gift for her friends to have given her," Linda Hubert added. "You couldn't have made anyone happier."
Sharon Ginn is a Tampa freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.