CLEARWATER — After her husband, Walter, died in January, Geri Crosby figured her days of Piper Cubs and air shows were over.
That all changed last week after Piper Aircraft asked her to bring her late husband's restored Piper J-3 Cub to the Sun 'n Fun Fly-In, an annual air show that attracts tens of thousands to the Lakeland Linder Regional Airport. Piper Aircraft wanted to display the pristine plane, built in 1946, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of both the Piper Cub and Piper Aircraft.
So Geri, a Clearwater resident, went to the air show and told the story of how Walter's friends had finished restoring the plane for him as he was dying from cancer and how he watched it fly just days before he died in January.
At the air show, the plane drew much praise while stirring up lots of memories and emotions for onlookers.
"People talked about how they took their first plane ride or flying lessons in a Piper," said Geri. "And those who knew Walter said he would be so pleased to know his plane was featured in the air show."
Not only that, it was entered into judging at the air show and was named the best restoration for classic aircraft with engines under 100 horsepower.
Geri and Walter were 15-year volunteers for the Sun 'n Fun Fly-In, which ended this year's six-day run on Sunday with a performance by the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds. This was the first time Geri had been there without her husband.
"It could have been very difficult, but it turned out to be wonderful," she said.
Jacqueline Carlon, director of marketing for Piper Aircraft, said the company had been on the hunt for a special Piper Cub to celebrate the 75th anniversary when they heard about the Crosbys and their special story.
"Even though we don't build the plane anymore, we wanted to pay homage to the Cub because it is such a symbol of our heritage," Carlon said. "William T. Piper's intent was to make flying accessible to everyone. He wanted it to be just like owning a car."
The plane, typically yellow and embellished with a black lightning bolt on the side, has become the icon of personal flight for many Americans. Cubs were simple, lightweight and affordable, making them an ideal aircraft for training civilian and World War II pilots to fly.
About 20,000 Piper Cubs were manufactured between 1937 and 1947, Carlon said.
In January, a Tampa Bay Times story detailed how the couple bought the classic two-seater plane for $650 in 1962. Over the years, Walter's plans to restore the dilapidated plane were stymied by family, work and other obligations. For decades, its wings, fuselage and propellers were stowed in the attic, under beds, in the dining room.
When he retired, Walter finally began a seven-year restoration effort and also earned a pilot's license. Six years ago, he was diagnosed with colon cancer and began battling the disease.
But late last year, when it became apparent that Walter didn't have much longer to live, his aviation buddies worked day and night to complete the restoration and get the plane airborne.
Though Walter would never fly it or ride in it, he did see it take off twice from his bedroom window overlooking Clearwater Airpark — 50 years after the plane was rescued from a scrap yard.
Piper isn't the only one with a 75th anniversary to celebrate. Geri will turn 75 this year. Walter would have as well.
"I'm sorry I don't have him around to tell this great story to," Geri said. "I hope though — I believe — he already knows."