It is a gloomy, rainy day in Paris, a perfect day to catch up on my correspondence, do some writing, and reflection. One of my new e mail friends has asked me a question which echoes a request made by other readers who have just joined into this journal, namely: "Who is this guy whose exploits we are reading?" My long time friends will find some new tidbits among the following, so they will not be so bored, and all will find the seed of motivation which has lead to this adventure. It is not meant to be all inclusive, just a few highlights which are pertinent to the question.
Michael McCafferty was born in Philadelphia, the second of 6 children (three boys, three girls), not an overly large family for Irish Catholics, but sizeable enough to instill an instinct for self-preservation, especially at mealtime.
I was a beautiful child, my mother's favorite (she tells me this in private, however I have heard from some of my siblings that she has told each of them that they were the favorite, which I can only conclude is a lie on their part, motivated by jealously!, or else it is an indication of my mother's wonderful sense of humor. I prefer to think that I am the favorite.).
Early on, I was well behaved, capable of entertaining myself as a result of my extraordinary curiosity. As a juvenile however, I was a delinquent, always testing the rules, self-assured with the knowledge that my intelligence exceeded that of the rule makers. I was incarcerated twice during this period, only for overnight stays, for silly things (once for stealing a flag from a seaside resort [because it has my high school's colors], and once for siphoning gas from a car [didn't need the money, it was more of a prank]). There was a lot more I didn't get caught doing, but it was all of the same minor calibre. Nothing ever violent, and nothing that would ever hurt someone. Well, I did like to blow things up, but it was always small explosions, like mailboxes and urns, and toilets not in use at the time.
When I approached the age of 18, legally considered an adult, and my record of future misdeeds would become public, and more severely punishable, I had the good sense to leave my life of crime and focus on things which really mattered. Girls.
I attended a private boys-only Catholic high school, and a private boys-only Catholic college, so girls were always verboten, and therefore highly desirable. My ace in the hole, so to speak, was that I had wheels. It seems that it is impossible for a guy to date if he has no wheels, and I had the good sense to choose to be born into the brood of Philadelphia's largest Ford dealer, and therefore my access to cheap transportation was assured.
I never got free cars, but I could buy them wholesale, and get them repaired wholesale. I could also steal my father's car-of-the-moment without it being a criminal offense, so I had a youth filled with late night adventures in such incredible automobiles as the Jaguar XK-150/S roadster, which I raced to speeds in excess of 120 mph at 3 a.m. with the top down, in a mad dash to escape the police. I remember turning my lights off (to more clearly see the lights of any oncoming traffic) and passing a milk truck (remember when milk was delivered to your home?) on a curve on an old country road.
I had many cars (one at a time) because I was so rough on them. I loved to experiment with how they would behave in various situations (wet, snowy, icy, sand, bumps, hills, etc). I remember doing 'donuts' in snow on a one lane road, with cars parked on both sides, just to show off for a friend. Surprisingly, I had few accidents, but one in particular happened right in front of high school just before classes started for the day. Everyone was out front catching a smoke just in time to see me hit the brakes and skid into the back of a car which was stopped to parallel park. My target car then hit the guy in front of him, and then he did the same, etc, until we had 5 cars destroyed in a pileup which is still a favorite nostalgia item at reunions. And I can still see the hood of my car crumpling up in slow motion, as it did that morning, just before my face was bloodied on the steering wheel. I tell you all this only to underscore what you have by now determined. I'm lucky to be alive! And aren't we all?
Cars were a major focal point of my life, being born into the business. I used to hang out at my father's car lot, which was situated directly next to the famed Langhorne Speedway, where all of the most famous stock car drivers of the time would come to race. Ford Motor Company would sponsor the best teams and they would use my father's dealership as a staging and repair place in preparation for the races. I would wander in awe through the maze of racing machines, tires, tools, and legendary drivers, thinking that someday I would do this.
And one day, I did. When I finally graduated from college, a minor miracle in itself because I never achieved academic distinction (except for achieving the lowest end of the scale!), I seemed to go through a metamorphosis. My first job, with IBM as a sales rep, was so interesting to me that I buried myself in everything I could read about computers, and I became a very, very good salesperson, using a combination of innate sales talent (Irish blarney), and technical know how, and total focus. This combination led to an excess of cash at an early age, which I spent on (you guessed it) fast cars. I raced my own car in SCCA weekend races on the east coast tracks and did very well. One of those races, at Watkins Glen NY, was so important to me that I still have the glass trophy I won there more than 35 years ago. I'll tell you about that one sometime, it's just too much detail to go into here.
I have always been interested in flying, even as a small child I would fantasize about flying, but I was always told that I would never be able to fly because I had such poor eyesight. I believed them, until one day I discovered a magazine about flying which contained an ad selling remanufactured biplanes (Stearmans), and then the thought finally hit me that I could buy my own plane and fly it without needing the military or the airlines to provide one for me. The other option, buying one of the "normal" (single wing) general aviation aircraft available at the time (Piper Cub, Cessna 150, etc.) was completely uninteresting to me simply because they just looked so normal. If I was going to fly, it was imperative that I would fly something which looked extraordinary. This was just the natural extension of my philosophy concerning the selection of cars, either for racing, or for everyday use.
Immediately upon seeing this ad for these biplanes, I phoned to inquire about price and availability, in spite of the fact that I had never even sat in a small plane before. From that point on, my sole focus was to sell enough computers to get the plane. Unfortunately, the price of the plane went up rapidly due to the demand. When, after six months of selling, I had the original purchase price, the new price dictated another 3 months of selling, and then when I had that in hand, the price had already escalated again.
During this period I took flying lessons, in a "normal" airplane, a Cessna 150 which I disliked immensely, flying only in the very early morning, lest I be seen in the Volkswagen of the skies. I took only 8 hours of lessons, just enough to solo, and prove to myself that I could indeed handle an airplane. It was also during this period that my boss at IBM showed me the ultimate price one must pay for poor judgement in the air. He was a new pilot too, and he got lost in a fog, lost control and found his own untimely demise.
There was really only one thing that could have kept me from flying and racing cars at that point in my life, and as luck would have it, that one thing came along in the form of a lovely and spirited young lady with whom I fell in love, and her priorities included a home and a family, and therefore these goals became my priorities. This was the end of my racing and my flying for the next quarter of a century.
The result of that union was threefold: 1. I discovered what it was like to love, and to lose that love. 2 & 3: My two incredible children: son Michael and daughter Kendra. Everything in life is a matter of choices and tradeoffs, and I feel that I made the right choices and the right tradeoffs, because I would never go back and change any of it.
Success in business came to me as the result of lots of work, which somehow seemed not to be so hard, as I was just naturally focused on the very challenging aspects of computers, and starting and running my own businesses. This involvement in computers and business consumed the next 25 years or so, and was successful in every case (one "failure" was very educational!), and provided the backdrop for some other growth experiences as well, including divorce, bankruptcy, and malignant cancer, all of which I seem to have recovered from quite well. The business career culminated in my inventing and writing and developing and selling the program which I called TeleMagic, a contact management and sales automation software product for sales and business people. This last chapter in my business career consumed, quite literally, 7 years of my life, and ended with the sale of my company, and my retirement from business, and the rebirth of my flying career.
In the early TeleMagic years, when I was still working out of my small apartment in Del Mar, California, atop a cliff overlooking the surf, I would be working on my computer when sometimes I would notice a biplane come flying low along the waterline, then pull sharply up, reverse direction, then dive down again and disappear back up the beach. I was so moved by those moments that I would imagine that one day I would do this.
And one day I did. Within a few months of the sale, I started taking flying lessons in a Stearman. With only a few hours in this vintage biplane, I noticed a Waco YMF-5 at an air show and was astounded to learn that these planes are built brand new, from scratch, by a little company in Lansing Michigan. I was immediately smitten with the beautiful lines of this Waco, and on the flight back home in the Stearman, all I could think about was the Waco. On the first day of business after the air show, I called the Waco factory, and after a brief conversation, sent them a deposit to reserve a plane for me. This time, there would be no delays, no price increases. This time I would have my biplane, and I would fly it. Little did I know how costly it would be.
I was so filled with the enthusiasm of flying, and the excitement that soon I would have my very own biplane that I just had to share this wonderful experience. I asked my flight instructor, who just happened to be the son of a writer of some of aviation's more popular books, to give rides to some of my closest friends. I would have preferred that I do the flying, but I was still a student. And I would have preferred that it would be in my own biplane, but it was not yet ready for delivery.
It was on the first day of Spring, March 21, 1993 that a small group of my friends went for rides, one by one, in the biplane I first flew, a pumpkin colored 450 Stearman, with pilot Rob Bach at the controls, while I stayed on the ground and awaited their return. One by one, they got a small taste of the joy I feel each time I take to the sky. One by one they returned to a gentle landing. Except one.
My son Michael was the last to fly that day, and when I strapped him into the cockpit before takeoff I was thinking how much I loved him, and what a wonderful person he turned out to be. The pilot looked at the gas gauge and mumbled a few words about having enough. But he didn't. The plane ran out of gas and crashed into a small hill near the runway, destroying the plane, and breaking Mike's back, paralyzing him from the waist down. I was on the scene before the paramedics lifted him out of the plane, and I could hear him telling them that he couldn't feel his legs. He was incredibly lucky to be alive. My only thought from that point on was that we would do whatever it took to overcome this setback. I was convinced that he could prove wrong the doctors' prognosis of life in a wheelchair. And he did.
It was not without Hurculean effort on his part that he did this. If there is any message that I want to share with you, dear reader, it is that Michael is my personal hero. During his extended hospitalization, and rehabilitation, he never once complained of the pain, he never once railed out against me for having been the one to get him into this mess, and he never once gave up the fight for recovery. If I did not see it myself, I would not have believed that it is possible to fight so hard and so long and still maintain a delightful sense of humor and be a loving, lovable person. As I write this, Michael is walking with the assist of crutches, but he is most definitely beyond the point where the best doctors had ever thought he would be. Michael's continued work at recovery will almost certainly assure further recovery.
The pilot received only a small cut on his forehead, and a six month suspension of his license. He is now flying passengers for Reno Air, a fact which I find completely unimaginable, and revolting.
For several days after the accident, I could hardly walk myself, a condition which most certainly was psychosomatic, partly in sympathy for my son's condition, and partly because it seemed that I could not possibly deserve to walk under the circumstances. For the next several months, any thought of me doing any more flying was unthinkable. My sole focus was on helping Michael through this crisis. It was only when he started showing signs of improvement, and commitment to improvement that I could give my own life any thought.
It was at that time that I had to decide if I would ever fly again. If I did not, it would send the wrong message to Michael, that it was OK to quit when things don't come out as planned. If I did not fly again, I would have backed away from a great personal challenge. I figured I had no choice in the matter. I just had to fly.
The ancient McCafferty (county Donegal, Ireland) coat of arms is emblazoned with the Latin phrase "Justicia et Fortitudo Invincibilia Sunt" (Justice and Fortitude are Invincible). I hung that coat of arms on the wall of my son's hospital room and told him that it was pure "Justice" that he walk again, all he had to do was to provide the Fortitude, and he would be Invincible.
So it was then that I re-ordered my Waco from the factory and proceeded in earnest to achieve my wings, and to overcome the midnight devils which would visit me and fill me with fear and doubt. My hero was my son. If he could overcome his devils, then I could overcome mine. (And so can you!)
Here's a photo of Mike: My Hero, My Son.
Now that you have some historical perspective, you may understand my current motivations. During the last few years I have learned something about the nature of Spinal Cord Injury, and how scientists are working on finding a cure for paralysis, and just how close they are. A condition which for thousands of years had been considered to be a death sentence is now giving way to the inexorable advance of technology and human will. If we can put a man on the moon, we can surely find a way to repair a few nerve bundles, can't we? In my experiences with my own challenges in life, and in those of the people close to me, I have witnessed that we are quite capable of doing virtually anything that we truly believe and persist in going after with total focus.
So the thought occurred to me that somehow I could help with the search for the cure for paralysis. Yes, it was a biplane that Michael was riding when his paralysis occurred. Could my biplane help somehow to find a cure for those who are paralyzed now or in the future? It seemed to have a ring of Justice to it.
My work now is simply to do what I can to help with the search for the cure for paralysis. I will fly my biplane, and with my writing, I will share these great adventures with others, and I will share at least 51% of the profits from these adventures with the organizations who are dedicated to the search for a cure for paralysis. I am not going to browbeat you for donations, but I will point you in the right direction if you are so inclined: Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation
I believe that our actions cause our results. And that we all have some personal responsibility to contribute to the common good of mankind in whatever way is appropriate for us at the time. I believe that if our actions are congruent with our beliefs then we live a good life. I fly a biplane and I write, this is what I do right now, and I do this for me and for the common good.
I heard this advice for writers: People will love you if you get them to think that they are thinking, but they will hate you if your really get them to think. At the risk of offending you, dear reader, I ask you to think about what you are doing that is for the common good, and if by some chance that element of your life is not currently active, then would you consider joining me in a worthwhile cause? I want no money, I have enough. Would you simply click your mouse on the website above and learn more about what could be done if the resources were available? And then follow your heart?
My message is over. Thank you for reading this far.
Tomorrow we go to the Paris Air Show!