MISSOULA — When she was 8, Dorothy “Pat” McConnaha held an umbrella over her head and jumped off her roof, hoping to fly. She fell to the ground, breaking only her umbrella, which earned her a scolding from her mother. McConnaha loved to watch the planes that occasionally flew over her home in Anaconda, and wished she could pilot one.
Her umbrella jump marked her first attempt at flying.
As a young woman, McConnaha was told women couldn’t be pilots, and was discouraged from learning to fly. She studied aeronautics and always pointed to planes when she saw them in the sky. Now 88, McConnaha uses a wheelchair and has congestive heart failure. Last year, when she visited a friend in Arizona, she thought she had flown for the last time.
But in her seventh month of hospice care, McConnaha’s hospice volunteer Danielle Axe arranged a surprise flying lesson. On Thursday, McConnaha loaded into the front seat of a white-and-red striped 1979 Cessna 172XP, and took off.
McConnaha lives with her daughter, Donna Sheehy, who takes care of her with the help of hospice workers from Partners in Home Care. When Axe, a 26-year-old pursuing a degree in physical therapy, began volunteering with McConnaha once a week, the two connected over a shared love for Irish history and aeronautics.
Their time together inspired Axe to sign up for lesson. After learning more about the role of hospice care and McConnaha’s lifelong dream of flying, she suggested to Sheehy that they get McConnaha a flying lesson.
“I think a lot of people think of hospice as giving up, and it is absolutely not at all,” Axe said. “It’s making that time of your life the best that it can possibly be.”
McConnaha has had both knees and shoulders replaced, and her mobility is limited. With the help of her family, nurse and flying instructor, McConnaha slowly climbed out of her wheelchair and up a step-stool into the plane. She cracked jokes the whole time.
“Push, pinch, or pull me — whatever you have to do,” she said.
Situated behind a dashboard of levers and buttons, McConnaha smiled broadly and waved at her family. Some teared up at the sight, knowing how long she had waited to fly. McConnaha's great-granddaughter, Nevaeh Sheehy, jumped up and down, waving in her pink tutu.
Axe climbed into the backseat, along with McConnaha’s hospice nurse, who carried an oxygen tank. Because of her weak heart, McConnaha always has to be hooked up to oxygen.
“We’ll be doing loop-de-loops and barrel rolls,” said Trevor Stene, McConnaha’s flying instructor at Northstar Jet.
"I sure hope so," McConnaha replied to his joke.
McConnaha sat beside Stene, and with his instruction, she pushed the thrust lever forward, accelerating until the plane’s wheels lifted off the runway. She flew for thirty minutes, over mountains and under a stormy sky. But the scenery wasn’t what stunned her.
“I’ve seen the scenery before, but it was the flying itself, and pulling the different controls and watching it turn, and everything, the whole thing was just absolutely, from beginning to end, just a wonder,” McConnaha said.
Sheehy said the last lines of one of her mother’s favorite poems, called” High Flight,” by John Gillespie Magee Jr., captures McConnaha’s fascination with flying. She was a Sunday school teacher for more than 40 years, and has always felt that planes have a special, divine mystery.
“I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”
After her first lesson, McConnaha’s instructor gave her a log book with her name on the front, and wrote the date and time of her first flight.
“Now you just have 40 hours to go,” he told her.