First flight, life’s dream; Austin’s Shirley Thayer takes to the skies at 87

Published 8:17 am Wednesday, August 16, 2017

As a child growing up near Cherry Grove, in Fillmore County, Shirley Thayer would run outside the family farmhouse to watch her neighbor, Bernard Pietenpol, fly over in one of his planes.

On Sunday, Thayer, some 80 years later, finally got to feel the thrill of a small plane ride when her grandson, Brad Weber, took her into the heavens in his Cessna 172. They took off from the Austin Municipal Airport and ferried over Austin, Lyle and Albert Lea during their hour-long flight.

“I was so excited,” said Thayer, 87, of Austin, on Tuesday. “When Brad offered, I accepted immediately. I never backed out.”

Email newsletter signup

When Thayer was growing up in the 1930s, airplanes were still the stuff of magic. Newspapers were filled with the exploits of Amelia Earhart, Wiley Post and other famous aviators.

“I’d read everything I could about women aviators,” she said.

But it was Pietenpol — today known as the “Father of Home-Built Aircraft”— who inspired her. He created small planes; his designs eventually earned him a spot in the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame.

Shirley Thayer and her grandson, Brad Weber, pose for a picture prior to their Cessna flight.

“I watched all these things he could do,” she said. Pietenpol’s farm was only four miles from her parents’.

“He (Pietenpol) would test his planes … do spins and rolls. It was all very exciting.”

Her father, Lloyd Kniffen, was also taken with flying but, as a busy farmer, could never pursue the interest. So enamored was she with flying that she was certified in aviation ground school many years before, and she always yearned to get her pilot’s license.

But as a young widow with three children, and the high cost of lessons, she thought she should stay on the ground. She became a nurse and later, an anesthetist.

Years went by. Thayer married Don Thayer (many in town may remember him as a music teacher at Ellis Middle School) and although she considered flying lessons again, Don wasn’t thrilled with the idea. He served as a radio man on flights looking for enemy submarines, during his time with the U.S. Navy; he was well-aware of risks.

Even during Shirley’s flight last week, Don
preferred to stay ground-side.

“I had no desire to ever go back” into an airplane, he said.

But when Thayer’s grandson offered her a chance to go up, she did not hesitate.

“When I started to take lessons, I told her that as soon as I was done, we could go up,” said Weber, 41, who works as administrator of primary care services at Mayo Clinic Health System in La Crosse, Wis.

“So, I wanted to honor that commitment; it was a bucket list kind of thing for her. I got such a kick out of it. It was a neat, neat experience, sharing what I had learned with family members.”

They couldn’t have had a better time, he said, adding he enjoyed showing her all the gauges and what each one did.

A Cessna 127 gets ready for take-off from the Austin Municipal Airport with Shirley Thayer of Austin, her daughter and her son-in-law on board. Photo provided

“It wasn’t a sunny day, but it was so calm, so smooth up there,” he added.

“I was bemused … how on earth could he know what all those gauges meant? It was a lot different than when I was young, when you flew ‘by the seat of your pants,’” Thayer said.

Thayer said she was “perfectly calm” at lift-off.

“I thought, ‘Well, here it goes; I hope it lifts off,’” she said with a chuckle. “I looked down and thought, ‘If we came down, I guess there wouldn’t be too much left.’”

“She was calm,” agreed her daughter, Michelle Lane of Austin. “She’d say, ‘Michelle, look down.’ I’m afraid of heights. But she was as cool as a cucumber.”

Thayer laughed.

“I felt totally comfortable with him (Brad),” Thayer said.

After the tour of towns, Thayer anticipated “the most exciting part — the landing.”

“He put it down as smooth as can be,” Thayer said.

Thayer admitted if she ever entertained thoughts of taking lessons, they ended with her flight.

“Too many gauges,” she said.

But if she was asked to fly with someone else again?

“I’d say, ‘Take me up!’