Flying With Dad: Michael's Memories

Michael's story as told to AOPA.

Photo courtesy of Michael Sullivan- (Dr. Bruce Campbell (left) and Michael– October 2014)

Father’s Day...A day to celebrate our Dads.  Mortimer A. Sullivan, Jr., USAF Retired Colonel – He was my Dad and a private pilot.  He passed away last May, at the age of 83.  He had a passion for flying, one I tried to adopt when I was 18. Unfortunately, once I went to college, I stopped pursuing lessons. When someone dies, many people try to remember them through stories or by hanging on to something they left behind.  His passion for flying was one that no one would ever forget.  As his son, who at the time never got to be a pilot, I wanted to learn more. I began to think a lot about the plane he used to own, which he sold back in 1985. So, 5 months after my Dad’s death, in October 2014, I was sitting at my desk.  I looked over at a picture of Dad's old Cessna.  I stared at it for a few minutes, just thinking about him.  Then it occurred to me. "I wonder where that plane is now?"  So I went to the FAA website, and put in the tail number - 9997T, or "Triple Niner Seven Tango", as Dad called it.  The owners name came up, Bruce Campbell.  It still showed that the plane was in use, and this gentleman lives in Naples, NY (Finger Lakes Region – a 2 hour drive from my home).  I searched that name, and came across a few “Bruce Campbells” in that area.  After several failed attempts, I finally had a good lead.  I reached the office of  Dr. Bruce Campbell at his vet hospital, and left a message with his secretary that I was looking for the Bruce Campbell who is a pilot.  She confirmed he was, and said she would have him call me.

About 2 hours later, my phone rang….”Mike?  My name is Dr. Bruce Campbell – I am definitely the guy you’ve been looking for.  I HAVE 9997T!”  What a great moment.  I instantly felt like another part of Dad was present.  We had an amazing conversation.  I told him I had taken flying lessons in the past, and was contemplating getting back in the air.  He strongly encouraged it and offered to be my pilot mentor.  We made an instant connection.  He said he would love to meet my wife Michele and me.  He would fly over to my area with his wife to show me Dad’s old plane.  We spent the next 3 weeks trying to find a good day between work schedules and weather.  That day finally happened last October, on a gorgeous fall afternoon in Upstate, New York.  Bruce and his wife Susan, flew into Hamilton Airport (VGC) to meet up with us. We could hear him on the radio in the airport office as he was on final approach, and walked out to the taxiway (small municipal airport, so we had permission) and watched 9997T descend and land.  Here it came, the beautiful blue bird that took my mom and Dad on their honeymoon in 1965.  That plane that created so many memories for my Dad and our family.  Here came that airplane that I had my first flying experience in.  I was overwhelmed as I approached 9997T to meet Bruce and Susan.  Knowing the adventures that that plane has seen dating back to the early 60's with my Dad didn't make me feel sad, but rather energized to know that this is just another example of something Dad touched that continues to bring joy to someone else. 

We took Bruce and Susan to the Colgate Inn for lunch, where we exchanged many stories.  Very interesting to hear of the adventures Dad's plane has seen since he sold it to Dr. Campbell.  The Campbell's have a summer home in northern Wisconsin.  They use the plane to fly there (7 hour plane ride as opposed to 20 hour drive).  He also goes to Plymouth, Mass and Martha's Vineyard, among other places.  He has thoroughly enjoyed every minute.

As far as the plane -  It looks amazing - on the outside exactly the same as the picture we have of it from when Dad had it.  When Bruce bought the plane, there came a point (regular maintenance) that it needed to be painted.  He told me the mechanic said, "Hey, now you can paint the plane any color you want!  What would you like to change it to?"  Bruce said, “Absolutely NO CHANGES!” - so to this day, the plane remains - three tone blue with the gold stripe on the tail!  The inside has been slightly modified and updated to include GPS, and it has new upholstery, but other than that - same plane - new adventures.  And it’s being flown by a man who appreciates not only the plane, but its history and the stories behind it as well. What a great man – full of enthusiasm and appreciation.  We made a great connection with Bruce and his wife. 

As we finished lunch, I said I’d check the wind at Hamilton, but being that I was fairly new to flying, I couldn’t remember the airport identifier to put in to find the weather.  Bruce said, “It’s easy to remember. It’s VGC.”  “VGC??”  I said.  “How is VGC easy to remember for an airport named Hamilton?” Bruce said, “It’s easy.  I remember VGC as this airport because of what got me here.  The ‘Very Good Call’ I got from you that started this friendship.”  If that wasn’t something Dad would say, I don’t know what is.  Bruce is an amazing guy!  As they prepared to leave, I stood at the taxiway and listened to the engine rev for takeoff.  I don’t know if it was just luck or timing, but Bruce and Susan’s climb into the sky was right in front of me.  I looked up, saw the plane pass through the setting sun, and then turn west.  There went Dad’s plane, with yet another new memory attached to it.  And Dad, I’m sure was looking down with a smile on his face knowing that aviation has once again brought people together to share stories.

I started taking flying lessons last October, thanks to my Dad's inspiration, the encouragement from my new friend Bruce Campbell, and the unending support of my wife, Michele, and my kids, Alex and Kate.  My instructors Rick Bargabos (and when he needed a break from flying with me!....Adina Szewczyk), have been incredible partners on this journey. A journey that has opened me up to a whole new set of friends.  Right down to Louie, the seasoned airplane mechanic who runs the airport, and also does the maintenance on the planes.  His constant quizzing as I walk out to the plane keeps me always learning and taking nothing for granted. On December 7th, I soloed for the first time.  I felt as though Dad was sitting right next to me with his hand also on the yoke.  That just made that day even more special.  Then, six days before the 1 year anniversary of my Dad’s passing, on May 21, 2015, I took my FAA Check Ride.  I am proud to say, I am now a private pilot, just like my Dad was!  And did I mention my Dad’s father was as well?  That’s right, I am now a third generation pilot at the age of 45!  I am already creating memories with my wife and 2 kids.  I am planning a flight with my family to celebrate my Dad this Father’s Day.   Maybe a fly-in breakfast….maybe just take to the skies to enjoy the beauty of Upstate, NY, that most people can only see from the ground, or out a 1 foot wide side window on a jet. This journey has truly been a privilege. 

Photo courtesy of Michael Sullivan

Sometimes, when you think you may have lost a little of your past, just close your eyes, and put yourself back in those simpler days.  The memories come flooding back.   While I wish I had made this connection while Dad was alive, I KNOW, he is looking down and smiling, knowing I’m in good hands with my pilot mentor Bruce and my “airport friends”. I am also sure he is pleased that his son is now a private pilot!  I loaned Bruce Dad’s old pilot log book so he could read about the adventures that were logged in 9997T prior to his ownership.  I also pointed out the handwritten message that was scribed in the front of the log book.  I’m not sure who wrote it, but it will stick with me always, and whether you fly or not, you should make it something you keep in mind when you need a boost.  It reads, “May good fortune wing its way as your faithful copilot – setting the course and keeping you “on track” – always.”  Happy Father’s Day!  It’s a day to celebrate whether you’re able to hug your dad or simply remember all the great things he has made possible for you.

Thanks for the memories Dad!

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