Growing up, Christina Wood never considered becoming a pilot. She came from a large family and it was the sixties – her brothers went to university, her sisters to nursing school.
Instead, she became a photographer, like her great-grandfather. But the subjects of his work compelled her the most – the glittering fighter planes just debuting in World War I.
Throughout adulthood and the quiet moments of raising her only daughter, she longed to flee.
At 47 she became a flight attendant.
“You know when you just love something right away?” said the Clearwater resident. “I would read the training manual over and over again. It was like doing this for free.”
It suppressed part of her desire. But she dreamed of the days when passengers could feel air on their faces as they flew through the air, and wondered what it would be like to travel on planes last in vogue during her father’s service in World War II.
Last week she got her chance.
Wood, now 74, was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer last July. Doctors told her she had six months to live.
Nearly a year later, she stood on the tarmac of Albert Whitted Airport in St. Petersburg, wearing leather Amelia Earhart boots and a crisp ivory scarf, in front of a World War II biplane. A friend complimented her sharp appearance.
“I wish I had her for it,” she said with a twinkle in her eye.
Wood was chosen to receive the support of My Jump!, a non-profit organization that helps seniors fulfill the items left on their bucket list, with a particular focus on older adults on low incomes.
A group of friends were waiting to see Wood take off, holding placards that read “We love you” and “Hold on your a–!”
One of them was a pilot from her tenure with American Airlines, Bill Norris, 66.
“This won’t scare me after flying with you!” she grinned at him.
Stabilized by her daughter’s boyfriend and maintaining her humor, Wood boarded the deep walkers of the old plane like a pro. A pilot took his place behind her.
The propellers started. Reflexively, Wood grabbed her head with both hands and, for the first time that day, allowed herself a moment of genuine excitement—and perhaps fear.
She left the earth, the plane tottering cautiously up and down before catching up on its climb, as onlookers hugged her daughter Heidi Stubbs, who wiped her eyes fervently.
“Flying has always been the thing that makes her heart glow,” said Stubbs, 52. “I’m so glad she felt well enough to come.”
In the air, the pilot surprised Wood. He handed her over and switched command to the front seat where she sat. For 10 minutes she flew – on her own, with a stick in hand – and turned over the water from the beaches and returned to the center of St. Petersburg.
It was just as she had suspected. Simple. Naturally. Like coming home.
“I thought, ‘I could have done this,'” Wood said. “But everything happens in the timing and the way it should be. That’s one thing this diagnosis has taught me.
“I would change it if I could,” she added. “But you learn that you can do it. You see how people get up. You realize you have no control, but whatever creature is in control of the universe – you just have to appreciate that it’s happening as it should.”