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Age can't ground this couple

Don't expect to find Gilbert "Gil" Fortune, 85, or his wife Mary Fortune, 75, content playing bingo or catching the early bird special.

Instead, they can be found soaring 4,000 feet over Tampa Bay during their free time. Gil, a licensed pilot, typically flies Mary to Fort Lauderdale to visit family or to Savannah, Ga., for recreation. When they're not in the air, they're cruising around Tampa Bay in their sailboat or vacationing around the Southeast.

Gil founded the TradeWinds and Sandpiper resorts on St. Pete Beach with his former wife of 57 years, Isabel Fortune, who died in 2000 from heart disease. Mary's former spouse died in 1995. Since Mary and Gil were introduced through mutual friends and married in 2005, it has been nothing but new adventures.

"I love to fly with Gil. It's always an exciting voyage with him wherever we go," she said. "But after a while I didn't want to just watch. I wanted to learn for myself." And that's exactly what she did. She's training at Albert Whitted Airport to earn a pilot's license of her own.

"For me, it's just the challenge of the whole thing," she said. "At my age, it's great to be able to be challenged. All these new adventures keep me energized and keep my mind sharp."

Mary has already passed the written exam required to earn a private pilot's license, scoring 98 out of 100. She also has logged about 25 hours of practice flight toward the minimum 40 hours also required.

On Thursday, she practiced "touch-and-go" landings, a complicated maneuver where the pilot takes off and climbs, turns to enter the airport's traffic pattern, circles back to the front of the runway, briefly touches the landing strip and immediately takes off again. Her flight instructor, Misa Franklin, said Mary could earn her license sometime early next year.

Having her own license will help Mary split flying time with her husband and also allow her to visit her five adult children more often.

Before flying real aircraft, she practiced for about six months using Microsoft Flight Simulator, a PC-based aviation software program.

Gil, on the other hand, first started piloting World War II-era Ryan S-Cs, a training aircraft for the U.S. Army Air Forces, during the early 1940s. While he was not able to become a fighter pilot due to his relatively poor eyesight, he has never given up his passion for flight as he's grown older and started various businesses. Former wife Isabel was also drawn to aviation through his encouragement. In 1986, Gil and Isabel were part of the Voyager mission control team. Voyager was the first plane to fly around the world without refueling. Now he says he can't wait for Mary to become a pilot as well.

Gil's in the air several times a month, and Mary said his age hasn't slowed him down at all. He's now learning how to operate "glass-cockpit" style aircraft — newer planes with entirely digital control panels unlike the dial-based aircraft he learned to fly during the 1940s.

"We never stop trying to do new things, and that's why we're much younger than we are in chronological age," Gil asserted. "The age number is really irrelevant, it's how young you are at heart that counts. We've had very fulfilling lives so far and that's what's important."

As his wife practiced in a Cessna Skyhawk training aircraft, Gil rode around the tarmac in a golf cart observing her take off and land.

Toward the middle of the practice flight, Mary's daughter, Ann Reitman, 38, and her infant granddaughter, Charlotte, arrived at the airport and joined Gil to watch.

"She and Gil continue to go on these amazing adventures," said Reitman, who was witnessing her mother flying a plane for the first time. "I can't believe she's going to be a pilot now … they live such an exciting life."

Age can't ground this couple 11/18/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 18, 2008 5:09pm]

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