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Surprise birthday flight leaves 90-year-old’s heart soaring

Instructor Eric Olson said Lola Christensen picked up the controls of his Cessna right where she left off more than 30 years ago. Photo courtesy Shery Gwinn -
Instructor Eric Olson said Lola Christensen picked up the controls of his Cessna right where she left off more than 30 years ago. Photo courtesy Shery Gwinn
— image credit:

By Brenda Sexton

The Courier-Herald

“I don’t think I can remember how,” Lola Turcott Christensen said as she sat behind the instrument panel of the Cessna 172 at the Pierce County Airport.

SpanaFlight instructor Eric Olson calmly let his pupil know her piloting would all come back.

“I haven’t flown for about 30 some years,” the 90-year-old Bonney Lake resident explained.

Thirty-six years to be exact. Her last flight with her late husband Clyde was in early May 1972. Shortly after, Clyde suffered a major heart attack and would not pilot a private airplane again.

This trip was a surprise birthday present for her 90th birthday from her daughter and son-in-law Shery and Robert Gwinn.

“It was such a gift for her to fly again that when she speaks about it even now, you can hear the emotional tears in her voice,” Gwinn said.

“That was the nicest present I ever had,” Christensen said. “It was a thrill.”

“She did great,” Olson said. “When I handed over the controls to her, she flew it with authority, which is good. I could tell she’d flown before. Often when people take over a plane, young or old, they’re usually hesitant. She didn’t have any hesitation.”

Olson said he could tell she’d been around aircraft.

Christensen earned her pilot’s license in mid-1960 in the couple’s Tri-Pacer, not a common feat for a woman at that time. She soloed out of then Auburn Crest Aero in Auburn. Her cross-country flight was from Auburn Crest Aero to Albany, Ore., and back.

Together the couple owned four different airplanes, a two-seat Taylor Craft, purchased in 1958, a Tri-Pacer, bought a year later, and two Mooneys, the last one being a Mooney Super 21 purchased in 1966. The Tri-Pacer was painted white and purple with a Purple People Eater painted on the tail. They went back to the Mooney factory to see how they were manufactured in Kerrville, Texas, with a group of seven other Mooneys flying in formation the entire way.

Christensen flew co-pilot to Clyde’s pilot. They were married for 45 years. Christensen said they would fly somewhere almost every weekend and took all their vacations in one of their planes. One of their favorite places to fly for vacation was into Mazatlan, Mexico. Christensen said the joke between them was always, “Do you want to go get a $10 hamburger somewhere?” Which meant they would spend about $9.50 in fuel to land somewhere and buy a 50 cent hamburger.

On Sept. 26, during a flight that lasted a little more than an hour, it all came back, the fond memories of those by-gone years and the know-how to guide a plane.

At first, Gwinn wasn’t sure she could pull the surprise off. The morning was a bit foggy and she begged for a clear, calm sky.

Christensen thought for sure she was going to the ocean. Gwinn had been helping Christensen tick off items on her “bucket” wish list of things she wanted to do before she was too old to enjoy them.

Christensen said she became suspicious when they pulled into the Pierce County Airport and parked in front of SpanaFlight building. She wasn’t buying the quick-stop-for-coffee response she was getting.

Christensen’s blue eyes began to tear up when she realized what lay on the horizon and that she would be flying without Clyde. Those tears would later turn to tears of joy and a big smile as she soared near Mount Rainier, her Bonney Lake home and her daughter’s home in Graham.

Gwinn said her mother was walking on air after the flight.

“Wow,” Christensen said. “They’ve spoiled me. I think I should do it once or twice a week.”

At 90, Christensen said she’s in excellent health and is enjoying life more now than in her teenage years.

She said she gets up every morning, sits on her deck with a cup of coffee and spends time with the squirrels, cat and birds.

“And I say this is the day the lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad. I really do and then I go.”

Go she does; Christensen is a busy woman, including hours she spends at the Enumclaw Senior Activity Center, where she’s been a volunteer for many years.

A day or two before her flight, Christensen was at the Enumclaw center enjoying a celebration in her honor, but the surprises were for those who came. Christensen turned the tables and threw a party for her daughter, whose birthday is close to the same date, and Christensen took the opportunity to hula for the crowd.

“At 90 years old, it’s about time they’ve seen it,” she said. “At 90 years old I got to show my girls how I can flip my hips.”

Those at the senior center weren’t surprised by her impromptu display, she’s taught hula dancing there. She also plays the organ on occasion. For many years, she wrote a meet-your-neighbor column about those who visit the center to help everyone get better acquainted. She’s also an ordained minister, who helped a couple at the center renew their vows on their 50th wedding anniversary by presiding over the ceremony.

“Lola is a delight to have at our senior center,” director Jobyna Nickum said. “She walks in our door bubbling over with giggles and laughter and enthusiasm. You always know when Lola’s in the building.

“Lola is an inspiration to me,” she continued. “I hope at 90 I am that active. That I’m volunteering out in the community, helping others and that there’s that joy of living that radiates out of me like Lola.”

Reach Brenda Sexton at bsexton@courierherald.com or 360-802-8206.

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