Don Taft flies for the pure joy of it.
He's animated when he's on the ground talking about his plane, a Beechcraft VTail Bonanza -- and his helicopter. He's even more animated when he's in the air.
Taft can't help but give a little flying lesson. In between talking to the tower as he takes off, he explains his instrument check and the speed of the plane just before it takes off with a rush of air.
"Come on, girl," he cajoles. "You've got to talk to her," he adds with a big smile. Above the city, he points out the Capitol and takes a little buzz over Panther Creek to say hello to his wife, Rita.
"It's the love of my life outside of my wife," Taft said as he talked about his plane.
Buffeted slightly by the wind, the four-seater slices through the clouds at about 200 mph. With barely a bump, he sets it back down on the runway at Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport.
"I've always been interested in flying. I flew in the Air Force, and when the Korean War was over, I came home and got into the family business," Taft said.
The family business was Taft Dairies and the Heritage House. But he kept up his interest in aviation and even used to fly those interested in franchising a Heritage House in and out of Springfield.
For more than 10 years, he's been giving back for the joy he receives from flying by using his plane for Angel Flight or LifeLine flights. The two non-profit organizations, one out of Kansas and one out of Peoria, take patients and caregivers who can't afford transportation costs to hospitals for medical treatments.
"It keeps me flying, and I get a lot of satisfaction out of it. I feel good about it. Life's been good, and this is a good way to give something back," he said.
Life's been good -- simple words that carry a whole lot of meaning for someone facing treatment in a city far away with no funds to get there.
"It can be a little depressing," he said with a sigh. "I remember picking up a couple from a little town in Iowa. They had a beautiful little boy with black hair and blue eyes and a terminal eating disorder. But treatments gave him a little more time, and I helped with that," he said.
The non-profit agencies that use the pilots have protected Web sites where the pilots can sign up for trips. "They usually split the trip into a couple of legs so someone isn't up in the air for a long time," he said.
"You talk to them while they are in the plane and try to keep their mind off of things," he said.
"I reassure them and tell them I've been flying for 54 years."
A lot of the pilots used by LifeLine or Angel Flight are retired. "A lot of guys my age get an airplane and just let it sit. This gives me a chance to fly, and it's something great to do," he said.
Taft helps out as much as he can, but to keep up his flying time he will occasionally take a couple of friends for a plane ride.
"I call them up and tell them we're going to go get a $100 hamburger. With the price of gas, a trip to Mattoon means a $100 hamburger," he said.
He also works with Young Eagles, a program that gives kids their first airplane ride.
About two years ago, he bought a helicopter. "I wanted a challenge, and flying that is a whole different thing," he said. "It's really a challenge because you use both hands and both feet on the controls, so it's a whole different way of thinking, and there's a lot more to think about when you are flying."
At age 76, he said he's got a lot more flying hours left.
Story published Friday, November 6, 2009 ( Volume 4, Number 6 )