Thursday, August 28, 2014
If you happened to be staring skyward Thursday around 2:40 p.m. at Mercyhurst University, you may have spied a plume of smoke streaming from the back of a restored 1944 Boeing Stearman as it flew over the Erie campus.
Not to worry; that was none other than our own Sister Mary Matthew Baltus buzzing by.
Nancie Baltus was 15 when she took her first flying lesson in a vintage biplane. Thursday, the spry 90-year-old strapped on a headset, boarded the open-air flying machine at North Coast Air and let pilot Scott Allen fly her back in time to the golden age of aviation.
The rarefied experience for Sister Mary Matthew, a former astronomy professor at Mercyhurst who helped develop one of the school’s signature scientific facilities – the observatory atop Zurn Hall - came courtesy of a Mercyhurst trustee, who prefers to remain anonymous.
The opportunity first arose last year at a Mercyhurst Prep Gala when a biplane flight over the peninsula was offered for bid at a fundraising auction. Sister eagerly bid, but was outdone by deeper pockets. Seeing her disappointment, the Mercyhurst trustee quietly placed an anonymous bid for a second flight as a gift for her many years of Mercy Service. This year marks her 70th anniversary as a Sister of Mercy.
Mercyhurst President Tom Gamble was on hand at North Coast Air to give her a hug and bid her a safe flight. Several other friends and trustees stopped by to witness the historic moment.
Sister was cool and collected as she climbed on board the shiny red, white and blue plane.
“I just want to feel what it is like again,” she said. “The last time I flew one of these was 1945.”
Allen explained that his aircraft was fully restored several years ago and that it had been among a fleet of Stearman planes used to train World War II pilots. He estimated 8,000 were manufactured and only about 1,000 remain in operation.
He flew Sister along the peninsula and then up and around Mercyhurst, where he unleashed his smoke system to the delight of spectators below.
Once back on the ground, Sister Mary Matthew was all smiles.
“I got to see Mercyhurst, the observatory and my old family home on Beech Avenue,” she said, obviously pleased.
When asked if she’d do it again, she didn’t hesitate: “Oh sure, but next time I’d like him to let me fly it.”