Tom’s sister Petra here, sharing a post written by glider pilot Greg Bahnsen, who gave Tom a taste of what heaven must be like. In the post below, Greg shares flying experiences that he had with Tom, who wrote about their adventures on this blog. You’ll find links to Tom’s posts embedded in Greg’s story. Tom’s best bud Gregh took these photos of Tom and Greg Bahnsen.

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Blue sky with some stratocirrus was above that delightful fall day. Earlier I had had the fun and privilege of taking our then seventeen-year-old nephew on his first glider flight. We had released the tow plane at 4100’ above sea level, a bit above the peak of the back ridge to the east of Bergseth Field. The lift was disappointingly skimpy so we headed out over the plateau and I let him fly for a bit before having him head us back toward the ridge, seeking lift. Alas, none was to be found so I took over the controls and we soon landed. After we got out of the glider, a Schweizer SGS 2-33A, we chatted for a bit about his half-hour flight then he and his family departed.

Another Schweizer, a maroon and white SGS 1-26E, beckoned me from across the field. Soon I was going through the preflight checklist and preparing to take it up for a flight. Between tasks, I looked across the field to the entrance and saw a robin-egg blue, mid-sixties Saab enter and take a spot in the parking area.

The morning had slipped into afternoon far enough that my stomach began indicating that I should eat before flying again. Peanut butter and honey sandwich in hand I looked around to find our new guest(s). Once found, introductions were made and I began to know Tom Roush and his son, Michael. The Saab was the first order of business and I told him about a similar red one that belonged to a friend of mine. (I got to take her up in a glider when she was nearly 93, but that is another tale.) I was delighted to find out that Tom was arranging to take an introductory flight, but that he needed to get to an ATM to get some oval pictures of dead presidents to finalize the deal. If memory serves, I finished my lunch and relaxed. Soon they had returned and Tom, obvious excitement building, got into the 2-33A with instructor John Miller and took off.

While the tow plane took them into the blue, a friend helped me to get the little maroon and white ship staged and I boarded so as to be ready to fly when it returned. The wait was pleasantly short.

Soon I was aloft and heading toward the south ridge. I released the tow plane at an optimistic altitude and, as it was only my second flight in this glider, decided to check out its stall performance. I did a clearing turn away from the ridge and slowly pulled the stick back. Airspeed dropped and dropped until, at about 28 miles per hour, the buffeting began and was followed by a gentle break. Back to the ridge I went in search of lift. No such thing of any significance was to be found and soon I entered the pattern, landed and secured the glider.

The robin-egg blue Saab was not to be seen.

A few days later I opened an email that had a link to What Heaven Must Be Like, or a copy of the file, I don’t recall which. Tom’s enchantingly entertaining tale of his first glider flight verified my suspicion that we both craved being airborne. He was kind enough to share it with the members of Puget Sound Soaring Association as a “Thank you” for his experience.

Soon thereafter we met up on Facebook for frequent late-night chats—often postponing getting to bed when we should. Topics ranged from the current status of the Cortez (his name for his cancer) battle and the current phase of treatment or recovery to parental challenges to studying to become a glider pilot. One memorable evening we spent quite some time playing a word game. Alas, I don’t remember the name of it or the rules, but it involved taking a word and employing a different usage somewhat like punning. Family frequently entered the equation in various ways. We discovered we had many things in common and the conversation frequently returned to hoping that we could go flying together soon.

Naturally, health topics arose often and my wife and I added Tom and his family to our prayer lists and asked many of our friends to do likewise. The summer of 2011 brought a turn of events in my health status. I’ll spare the gritty details, but the short of it was that I had contracted colon cancer. As soon as I told Tom, he asked if it would be OK if he added my name to a number of prayer lists, too. I thanked him heartily. My surgeon ended up removing parts of me and all of the cancer was localized. I was so blessed to not have to have further treatment.

Nearly every year the Museum of Flight at Boeing field holds a Soaring Expo one weekend in March. I let Tom know that I would be helping to staff the PSSA booth for the first shift that Sunday morning. He was in an up phase between treatments and so he came down to the museum and we met for the second time, chatting as we strolled amongst the displays of gliders and other aircraft. As nearly always, a recurring theme was getting him up in the club’s newly acquired PW-6U.

Some years later Tom said that he would be able to come out after church on 5 October 2014. Another basically blue sky greeted me when I arrived at the field fairly early as there were aircraft to prepare for flight and people to share the tasks and visit. Afternoon was getting on when I grabbed my brown paper lunch bag from my car and headed for a seat in the shade. My peanut butter sandwich unwrapped, I glanced toward the gate and noticed a former police car enter the parking area with Tom at the wheel. I strolled over to greet him and invite him to join me on the sidelines as I finished my lunch and spliced new loops on the ends of some tow ropes.

Earlier that morning I had put my name on the list for a flight in the club’s PW-6U. Typically we follow the first-signed up, first to fly rule, so I checked the list and found that we should have our turn fairly soon.

Not long after I had finished dealing with all of the tow ropes that needed my attention, I could sense that Tom was dithering. On one hand, he was enjoying the chats and meeting some new people, the warm autumn sunshine, the peaceful surroundings interrupted occasionally by the tow plane pulling another glider into the air. But others were going up and we were waiting and we wanted to get in the air, too, and the sun was westering. A dragonfly made for some pleasant distractions now and again, but. . . . The sun got lower.

One thing I knew that Tom didn’t yet. Regulations for aircraft that do not have navigation lights state that such aircraft must be on the ground by sunset. I, too, was getting more anxious. We had been wishing, hoping and planning for this for quite some time and I was beginning to fear that we might not get to fly after all. That was not something that thrilled me.

I was about to intercede with the field manager, the person coordinating the operation for the day, when he said ours would be the next flight. Relieved, we went to the glider staging area and I gave Tom a concise briefing and helped him get situated in the front cockpit. Once I had completed our pre-takeoff checklist I had our wingman check the sky for traffic. Time was getting very short. He got sidetracked by someone asking him to help with some other task. The tow plane was running and ready and so were we. “Could you do that after you launch us, please?” I asked. Thankfully he returned to run our wingtip and we were soon heading toward the rapidly setting sun and into the evening sky.

The tow plane pilot turned toward the south, then continued his gentle bank toward Mt. Rainier. I could almost hear Tom’s breathing ease with being in the air at last. Fall beauty surrounded us. To the west, the sun was getting ever closer to the horizon with band of stratocirrus clouds decorating the sky above it. To the east, a full moon was making its way up the sky. Below us the landscape was dimming, but, scattered amongst the evergreens were pockets of colorful foliage.

When we got to release altitude, I briefed Tom on the procedure we would follow, then asked him to identify the yellow release handle and pull it. With a loud noise the tow rope was released and we did a gently climbing turn to the right. As the airspeed bled off, our passage through the air became almost silent as we began our descent through the totally calm sky.

We headed north, skirting the ridge, and Tom pointed his Nikon toward the sunset. To give him a better shot I lowered the left wing and added some right rudder to maintain our heading. That slightly dimming orb was getting closer to the horizon. I checked the altimeter and then the sun again. Better tuck the nose down a bit to increase our descent rate.

Check the sun position again. Oh, dear. Time to head toward the landing pattern. But we have a bunch of altitude that we need to get rid of in a big hurry. . . .

Gliders are built with devices to solve this problem. They are called spoilers or air brakes. Technically there is a difference in the way that they are made, but the result of using them is the same: increased drag and sink rate. I could use them, but I prefer a technique that I find more enjoyable.

“Tom, how do you feel about steep turns?”

“I don’t know. Try me!”

Instantly I roll the glider into a 60-degree right bank.

“Whee” comes from the front cockpit. I complete 810 degrees of descending spiral, level out at pattern altitude and heading and soon the rising moon is in front of us as we glide down the final approach to touch down as the sun eases below the horizon behind us.

We stopped opposite the glider trailer and I helped Tom extricate himself from the cockpit. I handed him his Nikon and he took several photos while I assisted with stowing the glider in its trailer.

With the dew wiped off of the wings, the glider was tucked into its trailer to await the next weekend. Tom said good-bye, the rest of the airfield and aircraft were secured and I drove home with the memories of a beautiful, satisfying—albeit quite short—flight.

Our Facebook chats continued and it wasn’t long before he shared a link to his view of our time together that day: The images he took richly embellish the record.

Time continued to go down the minute drain. Our evening chats interspersed our weeks with topics from cats to Saabs, CNC machines to SQL, food to music. And often aviation and looking forward to gliding again. Especially since neither of his flights involved any significant soaring. Both were essentially what we call “sled rides.” Once you release, it’s just a glide back to earth. More battles with Cortez ensued. None of them particularly pleasant. Some of them more successful than others. Tom rejoiced that my checkups continued to be clean.

One day shy of a year later the skies were once again blue. This is not always the case when one goes soaring, but it really was this day. Tom wasn’t sure if he could make it out to the field, but I went out anyway. Art and Jerry, two of my high school classmates, were in the area for our 45th reunion and I had offered to take them up for their first glider flights. With my name on the list, I puttered around, helping with the operation until my friends and their wives arrived. As we waited our turns, Tom called to see how things were as he was considering coming out. I told him that I thought there was a really good chance that I would be able to get him in the air, too. He said he should be out in a bit over an hour.

The flight activities were fairly relaxed that day. No one seemed in a big hurry—more interested in savoring the warm sunshine of the autumn day. While we visited, my turns moved up the list. Tom and his friend, another Greg, arrived shortly before it was my turn for the glider. The glider I would be flying was a Blanik L-13 AC. It isn’t as sleek as the PW-6U, nor is its performance as good, but it is fun to fly and has a certain charm all of its own.

We decided that Art would be the first, so I helped him get comfortable in the front seat of the glider, gave him a briefing of his surroundings, how to exit the cockpit, made sure his harness was secure, then I climbed into the back cockpit, completed the pre-takeoff checklist and we launched.

As we were towed aloft we went through a few hints of lift (minor bumps), so I had hopes of a flight somewhat more interesting than a sled ride. Once we were free of the tow plane, Art’s body language relaxed a bit and he started enjoying himself a little more. I told him that if we had had more lift, I would have offered to let him do some of the flying, but I was going to have to work to keep us up long enough to get a reasonable feel for what this gliding thing is all about.

Alas, the hints of lift were tormenters and soon we were forced to head back and rejoin the rest of the group on the ground. After Jerry took his place in the front seat, I performed the pre-takeoff checklist for his first glider flight and we were soon airborne.

Jerry’s time slot turned out to be the best for duration. We were able to milk the lift enough to remain airborne about 42 minutes. We had fun chatting as we descended, hugging the upwind side of the ridge to eke out all of the lift that we could. Soon we were entering the downwind leg of the pattern with pre-landing checklist finished. As we rolled to the end of the runway, Tom, with his friend, was patiently awaiting his turn.

Since this was Tom’s first time in this model of glider, I gave him a briefing, too, and helped him get situated in the cockpit. I could tell that he was in some discomfort, but that the prospects of getting in the air were going to take the edge off of that momentarily. Back into the rear cockpit, I went again. This time I had Tom do the checklist under my supervision and to my satisfaction. When all was ready, we had our wingman check for traffic in the area and, once given the all clear, we launched.

The tow phase of a flight can provide a good idea of how good the lift is going to be. In this case, I surmised that what I was feeling might get us a flight that was more than a strictly down-hill glide. As the sun was higher in the sky than on his previous flight, we didn’t have to race the sundown. Also, the terrain was brighter, the colors more engaging, the cockpit warmer.

Once we freed the tow plane, I immediately began searching for lift. Tom had brought his iPhone along this time instead of his Nikon and began shooting pictures while we enjoyed the autumn beauty and interspersed the wind noise with some conversation. (See this post for pictures and his side of the story.)

The lift was slightly better than nothing, but not all we desired. Soon we were rolling to the end of the runway, then stopped. In the quiet, we opened the canopy and got out.

Gliding is like lunch. There is no such thing as a free one and all of my friends were ready to do their parts. The FAA has regulations about this—and nearly everything else related to flying you can think of—and lots of things that would likely never cross your mind. With the rating that I hold, I am allowed to only charge up to a prorated amount of the flight costs. So, we got out the rate charts and did the math. Art and Jerry had brought amounts of cash that were easy to manage. Tom drew out a fifty-dollar bill from his wallet that had a story behind it (see the link above). He said he’d been saving it quite a while for such a flight. That was all fine and good—and made the day more special—but, with the other funds at hand, there was no way to make change for the $13 that I owed him. I said he could pay me later. That he didn’t want to do. I could send him a check. Hmm. A better idea came to mind. I offered to keep it as credit towards our next flight and he heartily agreed.

Greg and Tom soon left, winding their ways through the woods, down to the Enumclaw plateau and to their separate homes.

Art, Jerry, and their wives offered to take me to dinner, so we could do some more catching up and review the guys’ first glider flights. We chose a Thai restaurant for dinner, then went across the street to a delightful shop for ice cream. The next time they come around during flying weather at least one of the wives may decide to check out the relatively silent skies, too.

Cortez got cranky and raised his ugly head again. Sometimes our Facebook topics got rather technical and medical. I described a machine that hit Tom with needles of radiation as something that came out of the cantina on Mos Eisley. Gold buckshot. Biological/digestive reactions to being inundated with strange chemicals. The fatigue, the struggle to breathe, the fatigue, weight gain due to extreme water retention. The litany lengthened nearly every time we caught up with each other on Facebook. Frequently we would work in our hopeful dream to fly together again soon. “After all,” I’d remind him, “I still owe you money toward that next flight.”

Tom’s interest in my wellbeing—and that of my wife—was humbling. Even during his greatest suffering, he found the strength to ask about us and pray for us.

The treatment protocols changed and usually between bouts he would get a break to recoup and for evaluation of the relative effectiveness of the last trial. So, on another peaceful and beautiful (he managed to pick great days) afternoon, Tom brought his mother, Irmgard, out to see the field. I could see where Tom got some of his sense of humor and kindness from her. They shared some fresh Bartlett pears and conversation. The wistful look in Tom’s eyes was quite pronounced as the gliders would go by on the way to the staging areas, taking off, or in the air over our heads. I offered to take him up—after all, I owed him some money toward that end—if he felt up to it. But I also insisted that there was no pressure either way. It was all his choice. We conversed more as he ate a sandwich. Occasionally I would excuse myself to go launch a glider or do some other task. After enjoying the calm and fellowship with the folks around them and the warm lazy afternoon a while longer, Tom’s energy level was dropping. Since he needed to take his mom back to Roy, then drive to Seattle, he opted to share a good-bye hug and keep looking forward to another flight.

My wife maintains that my guardian angel is preparing a list of all of the great places to soar in the universe. I am so looking forward to sharing that list with Tom.