NEW PORT RICHEY
At 12:23 p.m. Saturday, 10 days short of her 105th birthday, Helen Thomson left this earth. But precisely 20 minutes later, she returned — a happy passenger after a ride on a Cessna 310 that made the centenarian's birthday wish come true.
Three weeks ago, the staff at the Heron House, a Largo assisted living center owned by First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks where Thomson lives, asked her how she wanted to celebrate the big 105.
"I told them that I think it would be exciting to see this area up in the air, see how it has changed,'' she said.
"When she told me she wanted to take a plane ride," said Kay Bonacci, activities director at the Heron House, "I thought to myself, boy, how cool is she?''
Bonacci put the word out, and it didn't take long before church members Kim and Alan Kussy volunteered.
The couple, both licensed pilots who live in St. Petersburg, have been flying together for more than 20 years. They keep their plane at the private airstrip at Hidden Lake Estates in New Port Richey.
"We love to do this kind of thing for people," Kim Kussy said. "We like to call ourselves the dynamic duo.''
For the flight, Thomson, with the aid of her walker, scooted to the plane and was placed inside the cabin by Alan Kussy.
The Cessna 310 took off, and with pristine weather, she cruised at 180 mph. The pilots flew south, hugging the coast.
Thomson, who grew up on a farm outside Galesburg, Ill., and was educated in a one-room schoolhouse, looked down and saw Clearwater Harbor and the Sand Key Bridge. Then the Don CeSar Beach Resort and Spa.
She also saw the Treasure Island neighborhood where she and her husband, Willard Thomson, a hardware business owner who died in 1974, spent their retirement years.
On Nov. 30, before finalizing plans for the flight, Bonacci took Thomson, who does not wear glasses or use a hearing aid, to a doctor for a preflight physical. Her blood pressure was 118/60 and her pulse was 64.
"Pretty darn good I'd say,'' Bonacci said.
Thomson was accompanied to the airstrip by her daughter, Margaret Eaton of Largo, and 12 Heron House residents. They sat under a pavilion and watched the takeoff and landing.
When the flight ended, Kyle Eaton of Pinellas Park, one of Thomson's eight grandchildren, lifted her off the plane with a big bear hug.
"Of course, I was worried because of her age, but when Grandma is happy, I'm happy,'' said Eaton, 54.
On Tuesday, her official birthday, Thomson will celebrate with her daughters, Eaton and Ruth Walker, who lives in Illinois.
At that gathering, there likely will be talk of family — she also has a son, Will Thomson of Galva, Ill., 17 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren — past and present. Another son, Thomas Thomson, is deceased.
Chances are she'll be recounting her flight.
"Flying over the Gulf of Mexico again was quite exciting,'' she said.
She also might recall another exciting ride at age 10 or so.
"I got an American Flyer sled for Christmas that December, and it was the first time you could steer a sled, making it go left or right, and I'd love to go fast down the hill," she said. "You could really fly on one of those.''
Piper Castillo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4163.