Learning to fly high after loss

In July 2019, I finally obtained my private pilot license. It took me seven years. Being a pilot had not been in the cards for me. It wasn’t even on my bucket list, because I didn’t like flying and had no interest in airplanes. People seem to have solid reasons why they undergo the vigorous flight training, which takes considerable time and effort. So why did I become a pilot? Here is my story.

I always considered flying a dangerous hobby, and a waste of time. That was when Ken, my late husband of 30 years, was alive. He was an airplane enthusiast, who flew single- and multi-engine land and seaplanes as well as a helicopter. He spent thousands of hours reading aviation books, making model airplanes, and going to air shows and air museums. He collected hundreds of plastic airplane models, posters, books, aircraft manuals, and war memorabilia. He once said if we visited the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, he could be a guide and explain all the aircraft there. I did not share his enthusiasm, and luckily for me, we never got the chance to go.

Ken was in Sendai, Japan, for business on March 11, 2011, when the tsunami hit. I was at home in Seattle with our teenager, Ren. Late at night, we learned about the preceding earthquake and a possible tsunami and turned on the TV. I recognized Sendai Airport, where Ken was supposed to be working. The image of raging water and debris crushing into the land turned me ice cold. It wasn’t the dread I felt, but rather an invisible part of me screaming and suffocating as if I were beneath the dark seawater. I knew somehow Ken had died. I could not sleep that night. A week or two later when KOMO news staff came to our house to interview the family of a tsunami victim, I collapsed and was taken to the emergency room. Ren and I went to Japan at the end of March, and identified Ken’s body on April 1st.

When your loved one dies, a part of you goes with them. Grief transforms your brain. I desperately wanted Ken to come back. I wanted to ask him what to do with his aviation collection. To reclaim a part of him, what little I could keep, I decided to learn to fly. At the celebration of Ken’s life, I made a speech in front of a hundred guests, declaring that I would get a pilot license. My friend told me recently that she had not believed me, and I wonder how many other guests had thought I was serious. How could a Japanese woman in her 50s, with no knowledge of or previous interest in aviation, become a pilot? I was still in a haze and thinking it might be a bit more difficult than obtaining a driver’s license. After all, flying is three-dimensional, right? How dreadfully ignorant!

Mayumi Nakano
A most unlikely path to the flight school.

When I finally started taking flight lessons a year or so later, I just prayed for rain or IFR weather. But as soon as I got up in the sky, I found it was exhilarating to fly. Yet it was impossible for me to take control of flying in the beginning. I had a hard time even understanding how to change frequencies. The thick Jeppesen textbook, which explained everything from the aerodynamic principles to flight regulations, was overwhelming. I just could not learn no matter how many times I read it. I am very sure a large part of my brain was paralyzed because of grief and it took me years to be able to learn new things again. However, I just pressed on. Flying was one positive thing I was doing after Ken’s death. I had given myself a goal to keep moving forward. At least when I was flying, I was away from my immediate problems or sadness, as I had to deal with my fear of dropping from the sky. The instructor was kind and understanding, which meant that flying could be a therapy at that time.

I had to take long breaks from flight lessons. After losing his only child, Ken’s father became depressed and suicidal and died within a year from a heart failure. I kept saying to myself that I had to go on. I couldn’t die before my parents because I couldn’t bear to make them suffer again. They had lost their only son, my brother, in a traffic accident in 1991. As their only remaining child, I had the responsibility to take care of my old parents. In 2016, I stayed with them in Japan and took care of my father as he was dying from cancer. He passed away peacefully at home on Christmas Day, 2016. It was not as devastating as losing Ken, as I had been mentally prepared for my father’s death. But it was another huge loss for me. He had been my life mentor. When my brother died, it was my father who showed me how to deal with the crisis, saying, “I try not to think about it.” That attitude of not brooding over the unchangeable past has helped me through my toughest times.

My father in heaven must have thought that I needed someone with whom I could live my life. Three months after his death, I met Ben in Seattle. On our first date, I knew he was the right guy for me. I felt my father had chosen him specially. Ben encouraged me to continue my flight lessons, and showed me how a plane’s engine and carburetor work. After a while, I discovered Ben was a pilot. Despite all his knowledge, though, he had not been a pilot in command for a long time, having obtained his license almost 40 years ago. I guess I had inspired him to become current, which he did in January 2019. Then I passed my check ride in July of that year, and the following month, we got married. This year, in June, we bought a Cessna 150, our first baby. If I hadn’t met Ben, I would not have continued flying by myself. He turned out to be a perfect partner, and we love flying together.

As I started to become increasingly confident in flying, I grew more interested in airplanes. I developed a respect for aviators and their achievements. Flying, as it turns out, is no waste of time at all. It is proof of human ingenuity, courage, and determination. This year, I also began training to become a docent at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, something that would have made Ken happy and proud. I realized that I have an ample supply of aviation reference materials that Ken had left.

On a sunny afternoon after flying to Friday Harbor, I stopped by a grocery store. As I was paying, the cashier asked what I had been doing on a beautiful day like this. I replied honestly that I was flying and I am a private pilot. He asked casually, “What made you want to become a pilot?” Well, it is a long story…

61 Comments

    • Thank you for your kind words. When the tragedy happened to us, there was no choice except how to react to it. I had to survive and I chose to do my best to survive. I determined not to succumb to my grief. I determined to make my life a happy story. I am glad my story inspires other people.

    • Thank you for recommending Linda Street-Ely’s story. It seems like a very good story. We grow spiritually when we suffer.

  • That’s great courage and determination. This history encourage me to continue taking classes until I get my private license
    I m 63 years old and I just started 3 years ago taking classes

  • Mayumi, thank you for the courage to tell your story. I am preparing for my check ride after 5 years of on and off again training. I lost my wife several years ago and I finally realized that flying was my therapy. You are an inspiration! Enjoy everyday.

  • I say Bravo Mayumi, flying has been most challenging and rewarding Activity in my 28 years of flying. Keep up the good works.
    If you happen to come to Los Angeles look us up Hovan and Lucie, (626-792-9597) we fly out of El Monte Airport.

  • Hello Mayumi: Many thanks for allowing us to share in your uplifting (no pun intended) story. The world can certainly use more of what you write vs. the constant barrage of negativity plaguing us all today. My therapy involves returning to the realm of aviation at age 84 after 35 years of business piloting everything from a Beech D18 to Bonanzas, a variety of Cessnas eventually finally a C-340. All came to a halt back in 1994 when retiring from business and selling that plane as it was not privately affordable. Now, however, the bug has bitten again although from a perch on the ground as work progresses on joining the simulator community by building a full size replica of the 340 cockpit. My Honeycomb yoke just arrived from Sporty’s and it is a real beauty. Life has become exciting again as the parts and pieces come together and I look forward to X-plane’s appearance on three 50″ TV monitors just mounted in my cubicle. My 86 year old life partner is watching as holes are drilled in her walls wondering what devil has possessed me. Only all you pilots will understand.

    • Hello Dave… Consider the soon to be released HP Reverb G2. This will open up the world of VR. Shipping in December according to latest news.

  • Mayumi,
    That was an incredible and eloquent account of what you have been through and how aviation turned out to be therapeutic in many ways. I am inspired by your story and am a student pilot with 55 hours in my logbook. I am encouraging my daughter who is clearly interested to pursue her pilot’s license whennshe is old enough (she is 13 now). Many many happy flights for you and your family. Thank you for sharing your story.

  • Thank you for sharing such intimacy. Today, with all the harshness found on line this was truly inspiring and up lifting. .

  • Dear Mayumi, thank you for your story. I am 68 and my wife died two years ago from a very painful cancer. I am a pilot but my wife, Caroline, did not like flying, but she did fly with me a very few times. I have one video of us flying together with the camera posted behind our heads and I get to see her with me in the plane and I remember that beautiful day. My grief was almost overwhelming. We loved each other so much – she was my whole life. One of my airplane partners, Billy Meadows, got me up in our C310 and we flew to Jekyll Island and had lunch and flew back – everything was unreal then it was like I was in a dream – and my other partner, Kacper Gradzki, took me up and had me fly instrument approaches, trying to keep me going. When Caroline was alive and I went flying, as soon as I got the plane back to the hangar I would call her and let her know I was back and when I started driving home, usually this would be in the evening, I would call her and say I was on the way and she would say, “Hurry, supper is ready!” After her death I would come back to the hangar and start crying, remembering . . . I have kept at flying and it and my work has kept me going. When I am up in the sky and look out over the amazing beauty of God’s creation, it calms me and reassures me. Caroline is not dead, she is more alive than ever, in a better world.

    • I’m sorry for your loss. After a good cry, we all have to look up in the sky because that’s where our love is.

  • This is an inspiring story. Thank you for sharing it. I too recently became current again, after a 40-year hiatus, because I have visions of touring the country after I retire next year (I blame the book Cannibal Queen for that) and creating a photo scrapbook of my travels. I’m also concerned about the state of General Aviation in that it seems to be becoming out of reach for ordinary people and would like to participate in anything that helps to promote GA.

  • Nothing could be more inspiring during these days of open anger and hatred than the story of you and flying. Thank you.

  • Wonderful – So full of inspiration and love. Many thanks from the many I know will feel connected and inspired. Maybe to fly (I certainly hope so). Maybe to another goal that keeps the taste for life alive.

    • Mayumi,

      Thank you for finding the words to express your journey to the freedom of flight. There is no other activity that makes you feel so good about yourself. I recommend “Journey of Souls” by Michael Newton. It gives one such a wonderful understanding of what happens in between life times.

  • Thank you all for sharing very personal, painful, and joyous memories. I cherish every moment I fly with my family knowing full well that each flight soon becomes a memory. I wish you all the best…

  • We all have a story and yours is very inspirational and poignant. Have met a few that have never given it a go even though they say it’s on their bucket list.

  • Mayumi,

    Thank you for sharing your poignant and inspirational story that isn’t just about aviation but is truly a compelling life journey. I wish you happiness.

  • More tears than I would like to admit, all with a smile at the end. Congratulations. It is beautiful to see how you pulled through and made something beautiful out of the immense pain of losing a partner.

  • Your story is excellently written and very inspiring. I am a student pilot, at 71 years old … or rather 71 years young when flying. I WILL continue! Thank you.

  • Thanks for sharing your truly inspiring story! It is truly inspiring because it has inspired me to resume my flight training after losing my second CFI (to job transfers). I assumed that it just wasn’t meant to be, but your story has made me think otherwise — I need to press on and finish what I started at age 59.

    • Resuming flight lessons after many months of not flying is the most difficult part of becoming a pilot. But life happens. We have to push ourselves back on the rails sometimes. Good luck!

  • Thank you for a very inspirational story Mayumi. I hope your words will resonate far beyond the aviation community. They can help many people on multiple levels.

  • What a beautiful story. Though my connection to aviation was not inspired by loosing a loved one, I do share that experience with you. It has been 15 years for me, but your story brought tears to my eyes. In part because it opened the doors to the memories and emotions of my experience, but also tears for you that you had to experience this as well.

    Thank you for sharing.

  • Wow. What a story. I’m so glad you found a positive thing and a way to move forward in flying. I hope the thrill and satisfaction I know I feel from flying remains a balm for your soul and a means of deep connection with both of your husbands. Thank you for sharing and God bless you.

  • Mayumi,
    Thank you for this beautifully-told, inspiring story. Like many who read it, I suspect, it brought tears of sadness for your loss, and of happiness for what you have gained. I hope you will write more about your flying adventures with Ben in your C-150!

  • Dear Mayumi,

    Thank you for sharing this moving story. I am sorry for your loss. The emotions you describe can be well appreciated by many pilots. As you discovered, flying lets us look at the world a little differently. It gives us a new perspective that we cannot experience with our feet anchored to the ground. Primary of these is that ground-based troubles and cares diminish with increasing altitude.

    Your story evoked connections for me on several levels. First are the memories of the time I spent in Japan as a young Air Force Airman, stationed not far from Sendai, on a mountain-top radar station. Mind you, this was a mere 13 years following the end of WW-2. As I traveled on trains or through towns and villages on my motorbike, there was never a thought of risk or hazard, the greatest of which, back in those days, were the roads, being either dirt or gravel. The nearest paved roads to us were in Koriyama, about 25 miles from our radar station. Because I was removed from the hustle and bustle of American bases, I was a novelty as a fair-haired Gaijin, but the people were always kind, and I made friends easily. When I heard news of the tsunami, I thought of my time there and the friends I had met. I thought of the times I spent traveling the local countryside, sometimes looking out over the Pacific and the coastal towns and villages. These same towns and people who were tragically affected by the tsunami.

    In particular, I am reminded of my friend Ono-san, who I worked with as a radar technician. He and I struck up a fast friendship. On one occasion, he invited me to visit his family with him in Sendai on a weekend pass, but as a somewhat shy 19-year-old, I declined the invitation. Since them, I have come to realize what an honor it was to receive such an invitation, and I will always regret not going. I lost contact with Ono-san after leaving Japan, but I now wonder how he and his family fared in the wake of the tsunami.

    Friday Harbor is another connection. Did you know it was the home of Ernest Gann, the famous aviation writer? What a lovely place! I recall arriving in a Mooney one sunny afternoon. I was on a trip from Northern California to visit my daughter, who lived with her mom in La Conner. When I discovered she would be at Friday Harbor to cheer her High School football team, I naturally diverted to pick her up, along with her best friend. I got a ride from the airport to intercept them at the ferry landing, just about to board for the ride back to Anacortes. The teacher wasn’t about to release her friend to my custody without parental permission, which we soon established with a phone call to her mom in La Conner. The one-hour ferry trip turned into a 10-minute plane ride to Bellingham.

    Best Regards,

    Ken Howell

    • Hello, Ken. I like your name for some reason. I enjoyed your story. I will read Ernest Gann’s books or watch his movies in the near future for sure. Thank you for sharing your story.

  • When handed a bag of lemons, consider making lemonade. You now are able to share the same airspace that was a large part of Ken’s life and love of flying. Furthermore you have found a new partner, Ben, to share the joy of flying. The death of my three year old son due to leukemia forty years ago, was the motivation to obtain my private pilot license. It was the perfect medicine for a surgeon spending 60+ hours a week in the ER, OR and office. It became my therapy and I love interacting with ATC, planning cross country flights and the ego boost from executing an instrument approach in moderate turbulence in Class B and Class C airspace. Thanks for sharing your story.

  • Your well written story inspires me to get back into a C 150 and again experience “low and slow” flight. Guess I’m still a kid at heart even though the clock shows I’m 86…taking me a long time to grow up!

  • Thank you for sharing this story. A friend sent me this because recently my 32 year old son died. The grief has kept me from flying. Flying was one of the few things we did together that was just for fun. It has been months and I haven’t been able to get back in my little Cessna 150 and fly again. I hope I can turn my grief into a new found love of aviation. Your story gives me hope.

    • Thank you for sharing your story. Losing a child is the most devastating thing. Please accept my sincere condolences. When my brother died, my mother became depressed and suicidal. But my father tried ‘not to think’. Please save yourself. I hope you will find courage to move on and keep flying. Best wishes!

  • Ad Astra per Aspera; the Kansas State Motto, seems to be your motto as well. Paraphrased as: “the accomplishment of great things through the endurance of hardship.”

  • Thank you for an amazing story. Let me say congratulations from the bottom of my heart. I’m currently in the Midwest, farthest from the coastline. I visited Boeing Field about 20 years ago. I did my first spin there. I first visited Friday Harbor from the air, and then by ferry for holidays. Such a beautiful place Seattle. I wish you all the best in the future.

  • Thank you for the wonderful story. I cried and after drying my eyes I remembered my first flight in IMC. I took off under a gray overcast and climbed into it. It was bumpy in the clouds and I had to concentrate on the instruments. But during that climb a strange and wonderful thing happened: the cockpit got slowly brighter and brighter and then all of a sudden I was on top in golden sunshine, the sky that deep blue you so rarely see from the ground. I looked down at the clouds and saw my airplane’s shadow rushing along them shrouded in rainbows, a phenomenon that’s known in the aviation literature but I rarely get to see it.
    I’ve lost loved ones too but I’ve also felt the wonder and triumph of flight. Guess that’s why your story spoke to me so powerfully.

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