ST. PETERSBURG — For Ray Ford, life was a subset to flying — high above the earth, relying on his instruments and the certainty of physics.
A 27-year employee of Ozark Air Lines, Mr. Ford relished the freedom and control of flight.
"I think it was the machine, the flight, the speed," said his daughter Sharon Lakings. "He liked to take off and be in the air. I guess the freedom more than anything else is what he enjoyed."
Mr. Ford died on Saturday of lung failure. He was 88.
In the Navy during World War II, Mr. Ford flew reconnaissance missions in the Pacific Ocean. He was promoted to captain and reassigned to a Martin PBM Mariner, a bulky seaplane in which he searched for German submarines.
After the war and a stint selling insurance, Mr. Ford joined the fledgling Ozark Air Lines.
He retired in 1980, in keeping with a regulation that required pilots to retire by age 60. He moved to South Pasadena in 1986 with his wife, Phyllis, a Canadian nurse he'd met in Bermuda during the war.
Macular degeneration prevented him from pursuing a dream of working as a flight instructor in retirement.
"He said he had to hang it up, that it was a good career," said Russell Ford, an American Airlines pilot and Mr. Ford's son. But family members suspected Mr. Ford missed flying more than he let on.
So on a crisp winter day in 2005, his daughter talked him into going on a tourist flight from Albert Whitted Airport. As the red 1933 biplane cruised above Pass-a-Grille, the pilot pulled a pin and swiveled the controls over to Mr. Ford, who sat beside him.
"You've got it," he said.
Art Rigsby, Mr. Ford's son-in-law and a private pilot, had asked the pilot to relinquish the controls.
"Hold 360," the pilot said. Mr. Ford knew that meant he was to fly due north. The beaches slipped by. The sun danced on the water.
Mr. Ford banked into all his turns perfectly, despite not having flown in 25 years.
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The afternoon Mr. Ford died, Art and Linda Rigsby sat on their back porch, sipping wine. They remembered that day three years ago, when Mr. Ford got one last chance to fly. And how well he did.
Just then, the red Albert Whitted biplane pierced the clouds overhead. They hadn't seen it in months, but there it was, plodding unmistakably along.
"We were just talking about the biplane, and there it was," said Linda Rigsby, 64. She ran down her street, waving as the plane disappeared.
"Bye, dad," she said.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2431.