A Wing and a Prayer

Even at 100, Cole Kugel is ready for takeoff.

The clouds were so thick that "you could barely see the sky," Ferguson recalls.

But Cole told him, "It's all right. Let's go."

And they did. The 99-year-old pilot took off, steering the plane east to circle his farm, his favorite short trip, then returned to the Longmont airport. As the Cessna rumbled roughly along the runway, Cole jabbed Ferguson with his elbow.

John Johnston
The wild blue yonder: The Longmont Flying Ranchers then (Cole Kugel is ninth from the left).
The wild blue yonder: The Longmont Flying Ranchers then (Cole Kugel is ninth from the left).

"Takes a really good pilot to bounce it twice," he said.

After guiding the plane back into the hangar using a winch apparatus he'd made from an old washing machine engine and mechanical sheep-sheerer gear box, Cole surveyed the Cessna once more. "I've never busted one of these things up yet," he said. "I don't want to start now. So maybe it's a good time for me to give it up."

Several weeks later, on June 8, 2001, Mildred passed away. She was 97.

After Mildred's funeral, Cole returned to the red-brick-and-shingle home they'd built decades before on a hill in west Longmont and did what he always did: persevered.

"She lived a pretty good lifespan," he says of his wife, and says little more.

In September, Cole slipped and fell while unloading a fifty-pound sack of birdseed from his car, breaking his right hip. Following surgery that replaced the bone with titanium, he moved temporarily into an assisted-living complex.

He decided not to take his pilot's medical exam and every-two-year flight review. Without them, he could no longer fly solo or be the pilot in charge of a plane.

In retrospect, Cole believes he could have passed both tests, even with his injured hip and blurred vision. In fact, he later passed his driver's license exam "with flying colors." But he simply didn't have the heart to think about flying.

"At my age," he remembers thinking, "I probably don't have any business going up anymore."

Such thinking worried his family and friends. So after Cole returned home from the care center, they hired assistants to help him around the house. They telephoned regularly. They popped over to say hello.

And as he had done so many times before, Cole surprised them. Each day, he'd scribble an itinerary and tick off the items one by one: Plow the snow, pay the bills, visit buddies with the Flying Farmers, visit buddies with the UFOs (United Flying Octogenarians), change the oil in his cars, cook meatloaf, drive to his farm and watch the wheat.

"It's just plain old determination," Gary Kugel says.

"He's the Energizer Bunny," Dworak agrees.

But Cole says it's even simpler than that. Throughout his life, he's been an optimist. Even during the Dust Bowl and the Depression, and through the deaths of his parents, his siblings (Paul passed away in 1991) and many friends, he's always been able to look ahead.

"I just don't look back on those things," Cole says. "That's just part of living. There are still things down the road that I want to do."

Including flying, as it turned out.

When he sold Ferguson his Cessna, Cole made him agree to one special term: Ferguson had to let him pilot the plane once more on his hundredth birthday. Under Federal Aviation Administration regulations, that's perfectly fine. Since he did not take his medical exam last fall, the FAA no longer recognizes Cole as a licensed pilot -- but his airman's certificate lasts a lifetime, according to Roland Herwig, FAA spokesman. As long as he's accompanied by a qualified pilot who has passed the required reviews, Cole can still handle the controls.

Which is just what he intended to do on his big day.

As his birthday approached, Cole paid a visit to the hangar and waited as the door rolled back and revealed a newly painted plane that Cole did not recognize at first as his old Skylane. He poked his head inside a cockpit as compact and stylish as an English sports car and ran a callused hand along the glossy wing.

"Good-lookin' plane," he said then. "Sure do miss it."

Wearing his Flying Farmers jacket, he walked around the aircraft, tapped the asphalt with his engraved A&M cane, and glanced toward the clouds.

"Weather permitting," he said, "I want to fly."

On the morning Cole ushered in his second century, he gazed out the window at patches of ice and fog. His birthday flight would have to wait.

His guests would not, however. By 9 a.m. on March 14, they'd collected outside his door. They'd traveled from as far away as Canada, lured by invitations that read: "No presents, please. Just bring yourself and we'll have a good time." And, as the home slowly filled from wall to wall, they wasted no time doing just that.

"Next year, we'll have to have the party at the Playboy Mansion!"

"Gee, Cole. Aren't you tired of hearing 'Happy Birthday' yet?"

"Did you know he was born before 'Happy Birthday' was written?"

"Cole must be old. There are nothing but old people here."

"What do you mean? Cole's the only one who doesn't make us feel old."

All day long, the visitors came. They ate sheet cake decorated with an airplane. They gathered around to look at the latest volume of the Guinness Book of World Records, which lists Cole on page 56, between the Oldest Windsurfer and the Oldest Adoptee, as the Oldest Qualified Pilot -- no matter what the FAA may have to say about that. And they formed lines in front of the birthday boy, who reclined in an easy chair smooching cheeks, patting backs, shaking hands and posing shamelessly.

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