CLEARWATER — Returning to the place where she learned to love flying, Clearwater astronaut Nicole Passonno Stott fought back tears Saturday as she stood before an adoring crowd at Clearwater Airpark.
"If there was one place I was going to come back to, this was certainly going to be it," she said. And if there was one place that's going to make me cry, this is it."
Stott made her first public appearance in the Tampa Bay area since spending three months aboard the International Space Station last year, as officials named her an ambassador of the airpark.
It was an emotional ceremony for the 47-year-old Clearwater High School graduate because the little airpark on Hercules Avenue was home to her and her family as she grew up.
"My dad spent a lot of time out here building airplanes and flying airplanes, which I'm very thankful for because he shared that with us," Stott said.
Her father, Fred Passonno, mother Joan and Stott and her two sisters often came to the airport while dad tinkered with airplanes and the girls made a hangar their playground.
"My first memory here is my baby blanket blowing away down the runway and my dad's friend chasing after it," said Stott's sister, Shelly Rocktoff. "It was a dirt runway back then."
Those days were "the start of all of this for me," Stott said, referring to her life as a pilot and astronaut. The airpark gives her "great memories of my family, my father and what he shared with us."
Her father, still remembered as an expert pilot and aircraft builder, died in 1979 when an experimental aircraft he was flying crashed into a canal on the west side of Lake Tarpon. Stott was in high school at the time.
His memorial plaque sits at the base of the airpark's flagpole.
Arnold Allen, a 95-year-old family friend who still builds airplanes, said he wasn't surprised Stott chose to continue with airplanes in spite of the tragedy. "She was too interested in flying," he said.
The memory of Fred Passonno and his love of flying are still strong in the family.
Stott's sister, Noelle Krol, showed a tattoo on her ankle with a sun emblem she remembers from the tail of one of her father's planes.
Asked if the day was at all bittersweet because her father couldn't be there to enjoy it, Rocktoff said no.
Rocktoff, 46, who has a Tarpon Springs hair salon, said she has good memories of trekking to the airpark with mom and dad. Now it's come full circle, with Rocktoff making more visits to the airpark to be with her sister.
"It always brings me joy to come to this airpark," Rocktoff said. Her 5-year-old son, Chase, got into the spirit of the day, wearing an orange astronaut "commander suit" and saying he would like to fly into space also.
Stott, who is married and has a son, graduated from St. Petersburg Junior College, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University and the University of Central Florida, and launched aboard the space shuttle Discovery in August. She stayed on the International Space Station for three months, and returned to Earth on the shuttle Atlantis in November. She will deliver the St. Petersburg College commencement address this week.
Stott is scheduled to return to space on another shuttle mission that could launch in September. It may be the last launch of the space shuttle program.
During her first mission, Stott said, "It was huge to me to see the excitement coming from this local area while I was on orbit."
Stott presented the airpark with a few mementos, including a photo montage expressing thanks for supporting the International Space Station.
"Thanks for your excitement about the mission," she said to the crowd, "and for always inviting me back to visit."
Curtis Krueger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8232.