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 Oz Report

older newer March 22, 2021, 10:10:36 EDT

Amazing Grace in the Age of Covid

Ron Kittredge

Covid|COVID|Jamie Shelden|John Bilsky|Mike Holl|Paul Allen|Paul Voight|Rob Kells|Ryan Voight|sailplane|triangle

Steve Houser «shouser» writes:

For every season there is a purpose under heaven. So it tells us in Ecclesiastes. A time to be born, a time to die. A time to cry and a time to laugh. A time to mourn and a time to dance.

Ron Kittredge was not a religious man, though he had no objection to those who are. His spiritual nature, though, was hardly suppressed, manifested as it was in his enthusiastic embrace of nature in any way it could be experienced. Foremost in that expression of passionate energy was his love for hang gliding. He loved also to hike, to ski, to fish, scuba dive, paddle, and motorcycle. He preferred a campfire or a good book (Larry McMurtry or Mark Twain) to a television. Knowing the wildflowers, trees, plants and animals, and how they were interwoven, was important to him. He enjoyed mowing the grass and fields on his property where he had built his second home and raised his two children, Anna and Steen, with his wife Katharine. Chopping wood was a common part of his fitness routine.

But those all frequently had to wait their turn when the wind was blowing out of the northwest. That’s when you would likely find him at Harris Hill in upstate New York, just outside of Elmira. It was his favorite flying site. And it was there, on a hot and L/V day, July 25, 2020, that family, friends, and fellow pilots gathered to honor his memory and to celebrate the gift that his life was to so many of them. On that day, still in mourning, we chose to laugh and to dance.

I started hang gliding in 1974 and I met Ron in 1984 when he first began lessons under local instruction. His progress was smooth and steady…and fast. I spent a lot of time with him in the training days, passing on what knowledge I could. It did not take long for him to absorb all that I and other mentoring pilots had to offer before he became an even more reliable source for mentoring newer pilots than we had ever been. Our regional director, Paul Voight, remembers him this way. “Ron and I were friends for almost 4 decades…albeit we didn’t actually see each other for long lapses sometimes, due to proximity. Ron was a fantastic, enthusiastic pilot, and a really good mentor to newer pilots. He had a trustworthy demeanor and a knowledge base to back it up. I remember him missing flying time on several occasions, paying attention to inquisitive new pilots’ questions and helping them with glider tuning. The pilot community will surely miss him on the hill.” There are at least a dozen pilots in upstate NY who could have penned a similar message about Ron. He had flown nearly every site in the state, from Ellenville westward to Binghamton, Syracuse, Elmira and Rochester. Sites in Pennsylvania and New England were also included in the hundreds of hours of airtime logged by him. Ron emphasized safety in his approach to the sport. None of his fellow pilots could recall a single serious accident or incident in all his years of flying. There was no broken or bent metal in his storage shed.

Ron died on June 18. In February he had been diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. Chemo was attempted but failed. Other treatment modalities were explored but none were viable. He remained relatively active up until the last couple of weeks, taking daily excursions for coffee and exploring the surrounding state forests and parks with his wife Kathy. At his memorial, Kathy commented that in those final days he had taken them on some seriously treacherous mountain roads and trails and in so doing, had even turned “getting coffee” into an extreme sport.

Planning a funeral in the time of covid seemed an unlikely possibility. Funeral homes at the time were limiting services to 8-10 people. Kathy knew that that would not satisfy the large number of family, friends, customers and recreational pals that Ron had amassed over the years. She asked instead for help in having a day of memory at Harris Hill. That hatched the plan, with sensitivity to covid related concerns, that came to fruition on that sunny Saturday. In the meantime, word went out among the flying community about his passing, and the regrets, expressions of sadness and loss, condolences and kindnesses began pouring in. A fund was established to purchase a memorial bench and the contributions quickly mounted to well above what would be needed. It will sit to the side of launch facing the inviting view that every pilot gets to experience when standing in takeoff at Harris Hill.

In some ways we were fortunate. Free Spirit Flight Hang Gliding club owns the 5-acre set up and launch area at Harris. In recent months there have been far too many families and friends nationwide who have not had the opportunity to say farewell to a loved one in a meaningful manner. We were able to create a proper and safe social distancing environment in which to gather and express our thoughts and feelings about a valued husband, father, pilot and friend.

Canopies were set up in the tree shaded western end of the property. Masks, gloves, wipes and hand sanitizer were available at a sanitizing station located between the tables holding a picture board and other mementos of Ron’s life and the table for the guest book commentaries. Attendees respectfully maintained social distancing as they took turns at each of the tables. People brought their own chairs and picnic lunches and parking was no problem at all for the 70 plus who attended, half of whom were active or former hang glider pilots. Harris Hill has hosted a national fly-in and other flying related activities, but this was the largest crowd the site had ever seen.

Club President Jim Kolynich’s assembled WW Falcon was the backdrop to each speaker as stories of the phases of his life were told. His wife, his sister Julie Smith, and his daughter Anna recounted his family life. There was his childhood friend and best man at this wedding. Coworkers and partners from his successful career as a contractor reported on the quality of his work and his concern for his customers and their appreciation for and loyalty to him. I spoke on behalf of the flying community. It was clear from each of the testimonials/eulogies that Ron had left a meaningful impression in every arena of his life. While I was speaking, hang glider/sailplane pilot Jamie McGuire, having towed up from the Harris Hill glider port east of our launch, buzzed overhead, tipping a wing in tribute. His timing couldn’t have been better.

Pilots then stepped into launch and took turns releasing some of his ashes into the gentle updraft as part of their personal goodbyes. His daughter then spread some onto the hillside. All the while a friend of Kathy’s sang Amazing Grace. Not a dry eye in the place.

As if the sky Gods themselves had been waiting patiently for the ceremonies to end, the windsock began to flutter, and light cycles began to drift into launch. And so, to make the day even more perfect, family and friends who had never seen what Ron so loved to do, got treated to over a dozen launches and short soaring flights of hang and para gliders. With that, the mood shifted to one of joy and gratitude, that we could come together and say goodbye and love on one another and be more a part of what Ron loved to do. He would have liked that.

When I left Harris at around 5:30PM, many attendees were staying to visit and catch a glimpse of any further flying that would occur. On the hour-long drive home, my thoughts drifted not only to Ron but to the good fortune we in upstate New York have had in not only the development of some quality flying sites, but to the quality of pilots we have produced. I thought of Ed Jowett, Ron’s near constant flying companion over the past decade and a half. How he will miss his friend! I thought of how much Ed contributed to making Ron’s memorial happen. There are names the flying community will not recognize or remember, the guys who got landowner permission to use their property, that wielded saws and blades to cut out launch slots and maintain them, that discovered early on the hazards of 360’s too close to the treetops. Some have passed on. I thought of Dave Black and of Bob Murphy, and Mike Holl, early pioneers who are no longer with us. I thought of Rob Kells and Dick Reynolds and the energy they infused into the upstate flying community. I thought of Jay Gianforte and his contribution to harness design and improvement, not to mention his flying skills. There is Linda Salamone from the Rochester area, a one-time national women’s champion and competition pilot. I could never forget Paul Allen, now of the Idaho flying community, who also fledged in upstate New York. Dan Walter showed many of us the altitude and cross-country potential of our sites. Still does. Jack Slocum did over 175 miles from Hammondsport to north of Philadelphia. They were also the ones who showed up for the work parties and made sure the sites were maintained and safe for the newcomers and the rest of us.

The loss of instruction over last several years has stalled the growth of the sport in upstate NY, but there is still some new blood to carry on the passion and helpful tradition of pilots like Ron. I think of Ryan Voight out of Ellenville, of Dave Koehn in the Catskills, of John Bilsky in northern Pa. Rochester Area Flyers continues to make efforts to produce new pilots and teaching continues at Susquehanna Flight Park outside of Cooperstown.

So, while the numbers may have dwindled, the passion hasn’t, nor the willingness to help and encourage those who are new to the sport, much as we saw from Ron. Some of us have contributed more than others but we have all shared the spiritual experience of being truly in the moment that hang gliding brings. Ron was the best of us, ever reminding us to be better people, not simply better pilots.

The week after Ron’s memorial, Dave Koehn enjoyed a 52-mile triangle out and return flight from Mt. Utsayantha, an amazing feat in our neck of the woods. Paul Allen once told me he thought a 25 miler in the northeast was like a 50-60 miler out west. He would know. He’s done both. Dave emailed me privately after the flight and said, “on my way [flying] back from Grand Gorge, I thought about Ron, so in a way, it wasn’t just me up there.” How better to honor the best of us.

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