Hospice Patient, Former Pilot Gets To Fly Once More

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Aging , Airport

Pilot Kyle Takakjian, right, with Eugene Peterson, left, and George Vermelyea, center, in the cockpit during last Thursday's flight. COURTESY PHOTO

CHATHAM – The staff at Broad Reach Hospice and Palliative Care were well aware of Eugene “Gene” Peterson's background as a Navy and commercial airline pilot. When he expressed a desire to fly again, his care staff went into action.

Susan Eenigenburg, the Hospice chaplain, social worker Jenna Good-Fantini and hospice nurse case manager Teri Reilly met with Administrator Carla Torres and told her about Peterson's request. Broad Reach's Hospice received donations from time to time, and this seemed like the perfect use for those funds.

“We try very hard as a hospice team to get to know what's important to our patients and families,” Torres said. “This was such an obvious opportunity to use that money to do something special for Mr. Peterson.”

Good-Fantini cleared it with Peterson's doctors, contacted Chatham Airport and made the arrangements, which was “more than easy” thanks to airport management.

Last Thursday, on a warm, cloudless day, with friends, family and members of the Broad Reach Hospice staff watching, Kyle Takakjian, a pilot with Stick 'N Rudder Aero Tours, took Peterson for a 30-minute flight in a Cessna 172, fulfilling the retired pilot's wish.

“It was wonderful,” Peterson, a Brewster resident, said after the flight, which took in the Outer Cape as far north as Wellfleet.

“It was just fabulous,” said George Vermelyea, a friend of Peterson's who accompanied him on the flight. At one point, Takakjian let Peterson take control of the craft.

“He kept us flying straight and level,” Vermelyea said.

Peterson flew S-2 aircraft while in the Navy and then spent 33 years working for United Airlines, flying all over the world, said his wife, Joann. Originally from Aurora, Ill., Peterson met his future wife while stationed at the Naval Air Station at Quonset Point, R.I. She grew up spending summers at a family cottage in Harwich. On one of their early dates, about 59 years ago, Mr. Peterson took her for a flight out of Chatham Airport; it was the only time he flew out of the airfield.

“The essence of Gene is flying,” Joann Peterson said. During the summer, he often sat on the patio at Broad Reach and every time an airplane flew by would say “it's such a beautiful day for flying,” she said. In early September she took him to the airport to watch the flights but there was little activity. But on the drive back to Broad Reach, he said “I would give my right arm to go up one more time,” she said.

She praised the staff at Broad Reach as well as the folks at Chatham Airport. “We're very fortunate,” she said.

“He's always talking about” flying, said Good-Fantini, who kept an eye on the weather to find the perfect day to schedule the flight. Flying “just brought him such joy.”

“This was a little bit unusual,” compared to other requests Broad Reach Hospice tries to fulfill, Torres said. “But we thought it was doable. It means a lot to him. We're glad to watch him enjoying it.”

“It's just great to be able to make these things happen,” added Good-Fantini.

Watching from the sidelines were two friends of Peterson's, Fred Love of Harwich Port and Roy Freeman of Brewster. Freeman knew Peterson through the Brewster Baptist Church, and said whenever he'd talk about flying, “he'd just come alive.”

“He's just a great guy,” added Love.

As the Cessna touched down and taxied toward where the small group had gathered, Freeman added, “This is just so special.”