GRAND ISLAND, N.Y. — Loved ones of John Lawton will gaze heavenward on his 90th birthday Monday.
Again and again and again.
Otherwise, they might miss his Cessna 172 as he attempts to make 90 flying passages across the U.S.-Canadian border.
"Somehow, I got a wild idea that I needed to do something different for my birthday," said Lawton, who has been a pilot for 56 years.
From the Ohio airport he bought following a career at the former Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory in Buffalo, Lawton set his sights on a watery stretch of the northern border in the Niagara River, north of Buffalo.
The spot gives him a good view of the border, he said. It's also near where Lawton had what he calls the closest call of his flying career, a disorienting, dark and snowy flight home from a December 1956 business meeting in Syracuse. It ended with an unannounced landing at Buffalo Niagara International Airport, which had been closed amid an 11-inch snowfall.
Lawton hopes for clear skies when he takes off from that same airport Monday and spends an estimated one to two hours at an altitude of around 3,500 feet, performing a series of tight, nearly aerobatic, figure-eight patterns in his four-seat airplane.
He has asked his nonpilot daughter, Brenda, along for the ride. Lawton's son, a pilot, will stay on the ground so no one can question who was really at the controls.
"I've been working on it and am trying to perfect the flying technique to do it," Lawton said by phone from his Westfield Township, Ohio, home. He has made practice runs over a roadway to get a feel for the turns and timing.
The Federal Aviation Administration's Buffalo approach control, which oversees the airspace at low altitudes, has signed off on the flight.
If all goes as planned, Lawton will add to a long list of highlights accumulated over more than 6,000 hours of flying in more than 40 models of aircraft. He was involved in developing Lacrosse guided missile systems, collecting snowflakes in flight during lake-effect snowstorms in Buffalo and initiating avalanches by dropping explosives in the Italian Alps. He led a 1968 research team that created the Skadi, an electronic rescue beacon. In 2007, he received the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award for 50 years of safe flights.