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A flight for the ages

<p>Percy Skinner decided he wanted to celebrate a milestone birthday in a unique way.</p>

Brent Ashcroft

Published: 8/8/2016 6:21:58 PM
Updated: 9:19 AM EDT August 9, 2016

Age is inevitable, but aging is not. Statistics prove it. Over the past 100 years, human lifespan has nearly doubled, from 46 to 77 years.

By the year 2030, one in five of the world population will be over 65 years old.

The takeaway from all these facts and figures? If you’re in the so-called “golden years,” you may have more life left than you think. So don’t just sit there… go do something you love!

An elderly man from Shelby, Mich., recently did just that, and what he did, very few his age have ever done.

It unfolded July 6, 2016 at Oceana County Airport, which is tucked in the middle of several corn fields near Shelby. This airport may be small, and certainly doesn’t command much air traffic, but, on this particular evening, it hosted something very big for somebody who was very old.

Percy Skinner is a life-long resident of Shelby, Michigan. He acquired his piloting license in 1943, and flew planes until 1990. On July 6th, 2016, Percy decided to get back in the cockpit again as part of his 100th birthday celebration.

Percy Skinner is a native of Shelby, and decided he wanted to celebrate a milestone birthday in a unique way.

“I turned 100 years old on June 17,” said Skinner. “Now I’m looking forward to 200.”

Percy arrived at the airport along with several family and friends. They all were eagerly anticipating watching the man celebrate his milestone birthday with a milestone moment.

With a gallery of close to 25 supporters and loved one looking on, 100 year old Percy Skinner got clearance for takeoff, zipped down the runway, lifted the nose of the plane up, and returned to the air.

“When I was 8 or 9 years old, I remember when I was a kid, working out in the field, I would see an airplane go over, and I would say, ‘if I ever get the chance, I’m going to be up there,’” said Skinner. “It finally happened on August 19, 1943.”

That was the first time he piloted an airplane. Since then, Skinner has flown all makes and models of aircraft, which led him to eventually acquiring his pilot’s license.

But Skinner didn’t show up at the airport on this day to reminisce about the past. Instead, this day was entirely designed to focus on the present and his ability to recall and reconfirm that this centenarian has still got what it takes to pilot a plane.

“I intend to fly that plane just like I used to,” said Skinner, referring to the one-engine Cessna sitting idly on the airport tarmac behind him. “I intend to do everything.”

“Everything” means start the plane, taxi down the runway, take off and land.

When asked if he could remember, in order, all the things one needs to do to get ready to pilot an airplane, Skinner’s 100-year old brain rattled off every detailed step in succession.

Percy Skinner, using his walker, gingerly makes his way to the cockpit of the Cessna airplane, sitting on the tarmac of Oceana County Airport.

“First, you fasten your seat belt, then turn the gas on,” he said with confidence. “Set the brakes, and then turn all the radio switches off so when you start the plane, it doesn’t put a load on them.

“Put your carburetor heat on cold, and your mixture on rich.

“Then, you prime it if it needs priming.

“Turn the master switch on, and start it, and once it’s started, check the oil pressure.”

While Skinner planned to fly the plane entirely by himself, he did have a co-pilot alongside him in the cockpit just in case he needed help.

Frank Witt, whose side job is being a flight instructor, rode along during the flight.

Although Percy Skinner remembers, in detail, how to pilot a plane, he had some help, if he had needed it. Flight instructor Frank Witt (left) commandeered the co-pilot seat during Percy’s milestone flight.

“Percy knows all the ins and outs of flying yet,” said Witt, just prior to hopping into the passenger side of the cockpit. “I will assist him whenever he needs it.”

Around 6:15 p.m., Skinner got up off the picnic table he was sitting on, slowly grabbed ahold of his walker, and gingerly walked toward the airplane. His 100-year old frame, though hunched over and moving very, very slowly, eventually made it to the pilot seat and, with assistance, he climbed in. Skinner had a few questions for his co-pilot, but once he got the answers he needed, he started the propeller and began taxiing the plane down the runway.

For just the second time in 26 years, Percy Skinner was ready to re-acquaint himself with the friendly skies.

“This is 5795 George taking off on runway 8,” Skinner said in his headset.

He was given clearance for takeoff.

That’s when Percy punched it.

100 year old Percy Skinner got clearance for takeoff, zipped down the runway, lifted the nose of the plane up, and returned to the air, where he&rsquo;d spent more than three decades as a licensed pilot.

With a gallery of close to 25 family and friends watching and cheering on the ground, Skinner got the plane up to the proper speed, pulled back on the controls, and lifted off the ground, and away he went.

The flight plan initially took them due west toward Lake Michigan. Once they got to the shoreline, Skinner banked the plane right, and began traveling north.

The plane would become just a black speck, then eventually disappear from view.

Skinner climbed the plane to a cruising altitude of 2,500 feet. Once he got there, he leveled the plane out then began to just fly casually and take in the incredible view. Skinner flew all the way to Ludington. His control of the plane was so perfect, Frank Witt barely did anything. Witt spent more time taking pictures with his cell phone than helping Percy make piloting decisions.

Skinner followed his flight plan immediately after takeoff. He traveled west to the Lake Michigan shoreline, then banked the plane north toward Ludington. Skinner piloted the entire flight while co-pilot Frank Witt took pictures on his cell phone.

Forty-five minutes later, Skinner’s plane reappeared on the west end of the airport, and began banking east in order to position itself for landing.

“In all the different planes I flew, in all my years of flying, I’ve never had a problem,” said Skinner.

His track record would remain flawless because he didn’t have a problem on this day, either. With his fan base fixed, Skinner began to descend, and bookended his birthday bash with a perfect landing.

“The air was nice and calm up there,” said Witt. “Everything went smoothly.”

Percy taxied the plane back to its tie-down spot, turned the propeller off, and took a moment to reflect on what he had just done.

Percy Skinner returns to the ground after his short flight from Shelby to Ludington and back. He&rsquo;s greeted outside his Cessna plane by several supporters who congratulated him on piloting a plane at 100 years old.

“As long as I can do what I need to do to fly an airplane, I have no qualms,” said Skinner after his flight.

As Percy was assisted out of his pilot’s seat, the gallery of on-lookers began to gather around the airplane to congratulate him on his accomplishment.

“I wish I could fly once a month instead of once a year,” he said. “I’m very fortunate to still be able to do this.”

Most don’t get to 100 years old, and the few who do likely don’t fly airplanes. Percy Skinner hopes this wasn’t his final flight, but if it was, he has 100 reasons to be thankful for it.

“My life is in God’s hands, and whatever He wants me to do is fine with me,” Skinner said. “If He makes it possible, I’ll do it again; if He doesn’t, so what.”

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