OKEECHOBEE — On a wing and a prayer, a septuagenarian couple flew from sea to shining sea in a 70-year-old airplane. Jim and Karen Reynolds are both pilots. Jim has been flying since he was a teenager, and Karen got her license when she was a young married woman with children. In recent years though, they have not spent much time in the air.
In 2016, at the age of 73, Jim was diagnosed with melanoma stage 3-C on his scalp, was referred to an oncologist and went through surgery, where a golf-ball sized patch of his scalp was removed. According to the American Cancer Society website, the survival rate for stage 3-C melanoma is only 40%. “The idea that my time might soon be up sort of took the fizz out of my soda,” said Jim. Fortunately, the doctor said he believed he had gotten all the cancer and Jim was cancer free.
As he pondered his recent brush with death and his new lease on life, Jim decided he would like to celebrate by getting back up into the air. The couple’s 50th wedding anniversary was approaching, and Jim thought it would be fun to buy a plane in Seattle, Washington and fly it home to North Carolina. This would be a coast to coast, sea to sea flight. When he asked Karen what she thought about the idea, she said, “Do it if that’s what you really want.” The Reynolds bought a 70-year-old Taylorcraft sight unseen from the Port Townsend Aero Museum near Seattle.
In December 2016, before they could begin their flight, Jim received the devastating news that his cancer had resurfaced. The original site was cancer free, but the cancer had spread. Prior to their takeoff, Jim went through his first radiation treatment. One of the doctors told them the chance of side effects was fairly low after the first round of treatments, so they decided to go ahead with their plans. “We were convinced we were in the hands of a loving God, who cared for us with all his heart.”
On March 12, 2017, they began the first leg of their journey. Despite carefully planning the timing of the trip to avoid winter storms, the weather was not good for flying when it was time for take off. “It was horrible, just horrible,” said Jim. The test flight was almost a disaster as the trim had somehow gotten out of whack and the plane nearly stalled on takeoff which would have killed them. They considered waiting for better weather but were told if they didn’t go ahead and go, they would be stuck for weeks. "He was right too,” said Jim. "He said the weather would be bad for two weeks, and it was.”
Because of the bad weather, the trip ended up taking twice as long as they thought, because they could not go over the Rocky mountains and had to fly down to New Mexico and then across the country. They made 18-20 stops on their journey, flying about 5 1/2 hours per day, in 2 1/2 to 3-hour legs, before stopping for the night.
At each stop, they met new people and made new friends. Dave Cummings, who flew an amphibian airplane took a look at the route they had planned and advised them to change it. “I’m here to save your life,” he said. “If you go that route, in that airplane at this time of year, it won’t be good.” He went on to tell them about his trip over the same mountains. The wind almost turned his, much bigger plane, upside down. “People were so nice to us along the way,” said Jim. “They would let us in hangars, loan us cars, feed us.” Glen Bride at Flight Services took a personal interest in their flight and spent his time off plotting a route to get them safely home.
The weather was terrible and the couple dodged waves of storms throughout the entire trip, one coming right after the other. “We thought we would get on our route before tornado season, but the weather was unbelievable,” said Karen. “There was a tornado in Moriarty, New Mexico.”
“It was really windy when we landed. The plane danced all around. It was a wild west show, let me tell you,” said Jim.
At the airport where they landed was a glider operation, and the Reynolds told the owner they needed to put their airplane somewhere to weather the storm, but he said there were no spaces available. “About that time, I’m looking back,” said Jim. “Karen had stayed with the plane at the fuel pump. She’s sitting on the tail to keep the tail down in the wind.”
“There was a dust devil coming up behind me,” said Karen. “I didn’t see it. I looked up and everybody was running for me!”
“It was like a 100-foot-wide vacuum cleaner coming across the airport,” said Jim. “It was just sucking everything up into the sky, and it was headed right toward Karen. I thought Karen would try to save the airplane and would get killed, so I came hightailing it as fast as my 74-year-old legs would let me. It was only 150 feet, but it seemed like 3 miles.” When they reached Karen, the man said, “Maybe I’ve got a space after all.” He allowed them to put their plane in one of his hangars. It was empty because the plane was being repaired. He told them they had three days to move it.
“All kinds of things like this happened along the way,” said Jim. “We made it a matter of prayer every time we flew. “We asked the Lord to protect us, and He did. There was some wild and woolly stuff during this trip. At one point I asked Karen what she thought about just calling Delta and heading home. We were ready to quit.” The couple had flown a similar route before but in a different type of plane, and this plane just didn’t fly like any of the other tail-draggers they had flown before. “It’s very different flying out west,” said Karen.
After a long and difficult two weeks, the couple finally made it home. They looked at each other and said, “Well, we made it.” Jim said he believed God planned every detail of their trip to draw them closer to Him and to help them learn to trust and depend on Him.
In 2019, the couple made the decision to sell their little cabin in the mountains of North Carolina and move to Okeechobee. They bought a home with a hangar and runway in the backyard and have been very happy here. One of the things they miss the most about North Carolina (besides the cooler weather) is getting together with friends to play bluegrass music. Karen plays the upright bass, and Jim plays the dobro. So far, they have not been able to connect with anyone in the bluegrass community here.
Soon after their trip ended, Jim began working on a book about their experience and "Sea to Shining Sea”was published this year. The book gives many exciting details about their adventure and can be purchased on Amazon. Jim is considering making an audio version of the book. “It might be a fun project,” he said.