While Mary Hamilton Moe was growing up in suburban Philadelphia, her father would teach her to drive at the local cemetery, where she couldn’t “hurt anyone,” she said. But teenage Moe wasn’t interested in driving at all, she said.
She wanted to fly.
Life, however, always got in the way, said the 91-year-old great-grandmother of two.
“Well, there were two children to raise and all sorts of things like that,” said Moe, a Chevy Chase, D.C., resident.
After years of waiting, she finally saw her dream come true June 4 at the Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg.
Her flight was emotional, said Carole Drake, Moe’s daughter who lives in Potomac.
“My daughter even said, ‘Look at grandmom go!’— just seeing her behind there,” Drake said. “Kind of fearless.”
Moe co-piloted a plane for the first time, thanks to the help of Wish of a Lifetime, a Colorado-based organization that grants the wishes of deserving senior citizens, and the sponsorship of TAD Relocation, a Gaithersburg business that helps senior citizens downsize and transition into new homes across the country.
“We partnered with Wish of a Lifetime to find seniors and honor them for their wonderful lives,” said Susie Danick, founder of TAD Relocation. “We just wanted to find a way to honor them and provide the funds to help them with a wish that they haven’t been able to do.”
Moe’s interest in flight developed at age 10 after the Lindbergh baby was kidnapped.
“I thought that was the most interesting thing in the world, and that got me into Lindbergh’s history,” she said. “And my sister, I remember, that Christmas gave me the book, ‘We,’ written by Charles Lindbergh, about his flight across the Atlantic. So that just fascinated me.”
The 1930s were still some of the early years in aviation history. The first flight school had only opened two decades prior, and commercial airports only began surfacing in the 1920s. The first prototype of what would become known as a modern-day commercial jetliner wasn’t invented until 1952.
But when aviator Amelia Earhart made the news— first for being the first female to fly solo across the Atlantic and later for her disappearance in the Pacific— Moe discovered her penchant for travel.
“We lived in England for a while,” Drake said. “And ever since then, she would go a couple times a year across the Atlantic, and she would always count the number of times she had been.”
But Moe didn’t think she would ever get to fly. She kept busy, juggling her work in advertising and raising her family, Drake said, and soon the dream got put on the backburner.
It all changed when, in her early 30s, Moe was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“At that time, I wished I would be a flying grandmother and that my children would be grown up and I would take off someday,” said Moe, who beat the cancer at 34. “So [today’s flight] is fulfilling that wish.”
But before the booked limousine could pick up Moe at her home at the Knollwood Military Retirement Community in Chevy Chase, on Wednesday, months of preparation had to take place.
Moe had initially heard about Wish of a Lifetime through Knollwood and brought up the idea to Drake, who helped submit the application.
The concept of the wish fulfillment program is simple. All eligible senior citizens can apply for the chance to have their wish granted, and recipients are chosen based on the purpose of their wish and whether they have a compelling story, according to Wish of a Lifetime’s website.
Meanwhile, around the same time, Danick and her husband, Joel, were inspired to give back to the community. They liked Wish of a Lifetime’s mission because the foundation honors seniors, who are TAD Relocation’s core business, Danick said.
“There aren’t a lot of organizations that focus on seniors from that aspect,” said Joel Danick, who joined the company 10 years ago. “There are a lot of senior support agencies … but nothing that really focused on fulfilling [wishes].”
They fundraised $5,000 through community efforts and sent the donation under one main condition: It would serve a senior citizen in the Washington Metropolitan area. Since then, the company has raised another $5,000, and the next recipient from the area will be announced in July, Susie Danick said.
After receiving the donation, Wish of a Lifetime paired TAD Relocation with Moe and announced the surprise at a Knollwood anniversary celebration just after Christmas this past year.
“She was really, really shocked,” Drake said. A few months later, Moe’s dream was ready to take off.
The sleek black limousine picked up Moe at 10:30 a.m. on June 4 and brought Moe, her daughter, granddaughter, two great-granddaughters and three friends to the airpark.
There she met Batelle Rachmian, general manager at the flight school and Moe’s instructor for the day. In the classroom, they reviewed the area, what to expect while in the air and taking off, plane controls and the flight plan, Rachmian said.
Moe said she just felt “a couple of thumps” in her heart before the flight and was eager to get aboard.
They took off in a single-engine Cessna 172 and went 15 miles north and returned within the hour. Rachmian said that although Moe is the oldest student she’s ever taught, Moe performed better than other beginners on their first lesson.
“She really knew what was going on. If it’s other airplanes talking, she knew that there was someone telling us they’re coming, and she knew when she was doing something wrong, she could figure it out,” said Rachmian, who has been an instructor for eight years. “And there was one time that I held the [control] yoke, and she noticed. She could potentially do solo.”
The Federal Aviation Administration mandates a minimum of 40 hours of practice, including five solo, for a private pilot’s license, according to the administration’s website. But the average is closer to 70, based on how often they fly, Rachmian said. Moe has about four more hours paid for by the wish.
For now, Moe is just enjoying the experience— she even jokingly brought along a Neiman Marcus shopping bag for a barf bag— after plans derailed last month when she caught pneumonia, and she wasn’t sure if Wednesday work in her favor either.
“I thought today, ‘Oh, it’s going to be rainy and stormy, or it’s going to be hot and sultry,’” Moe said. “But it’s a beautiful day, and I couldn’t wish for more.”