Veteran Air Force pilot in hospice surprised with opportunity to fly again

By JULIANA SUKUT | The Billings Gazette | Published: March 7, 2019

BILLINGS, Mont. (Tribune News Service) — George Snyder may not be one to laugh, but his wife could tell he was happy Tuesday as he got a chance to do what he always loved again — fly.

Snyder, 84, was surprised with the flight by his wife, Sharon Snyder, and the activities director at his nursing home, Marika Waldo.

He was admitted in February to hospice care with Eagle Cliff Healthcare in Billings. His Type 2 Diabetes had worsened, and about two months ago a bacterial infection in his foot led his doctors to amputate his right leg just below the knee.

During the past month his health took a turn for the worse. He’s been classified as failure to thrive.

One day he opened up to Waldo; he told her he wished he could fly in an airplane one last time.

That's when Waldo learned that Synder had served as a pilot in the U.S. Air Force in 1954 and piloted planes for the majority of his life.

After his discharge he continued to pilot airplanes well into his 70s. At one point he owned two planes. Snyder also bred dogs and would often fly the puppies to their new homes across the country. Originally from Brooklyn, New York, he's lived with his wife Billings the past 11 years.

Being in the air was a huge part of his life. Waldo decided she wanted to fulfill his wish.

Waldo puts on the “Living Life” program, helping seniors and individuals in assisted living to fulfill wishes on their bucket lists. She's now helped five people fulfill their final wishes. It's her passion project to help them be who they were before hospice, she said.

A few weeks ago she began the preparations to get Snyder into the air.

On Tuesday around 3:30 p.m. the Billings Fire Department’s Engine 33 pulled up to the hangar. Three firefighters were standing by to help Snyder into the plane.

The pilot, Colin Nygaard, eagerly awaited the departure in his brown-striped Cessna plane, just like one Snyder had owned.

Nygaard is the president of the Yellowstone Flying Club, which has a goal of getting people in the air — whether they are Boy Scouts, young people who don’t have access to flying or, in this case, veterans.

He’d never done a flight like this but said was gung-ho from the beginning to help fulfill Snyder’s dream.

They wheeled Snyder to the base of the plane and strategized about getting him safely into the cabin. Sharon Snyder would fly in the back of the cab along with him.

Sharon Snyder flitted around taking photos while the firefighters maneuvered Snyder into the plane.

Then Waldo made sure Snyder was OK. “Are you ready, George?” she said.

It's a question that had some weight. Snyder's health had been declining, and Waldo had asked Sharon Snyder days before if she still thought it best to go through with the surprise. Sharon Snyder was firm — they would follow through on the plan.

On Tuesday, Sharon Snyder was confident they had made a good call.

“George Snyder might not be one to laugh, but he’s happy,” she said of her stoic husband. “I can see it in his eyes.”

“I see a smile on that face,” said Therese Teske, who also provides care for Snyder through Compassus Hospice.

It wasn’t long before the couple and Nygaard were in the air, just a small dot in the sky.

The flight lasted about an hour. Sharon Snyder said George was quiet while up in the air, soaking it in.

Afterward Waldo took the couple to their favorite restaurant, Fuddruckers, for a post-flight dinner and shakes.

“I was dumbfounded, I must say,” Sharon Snyder said. “Between Eagle Cliff, Compassus Hospice, the Billings Fire Department and the pilot, what they did for this man. They did it out of complete and total love.”
©2019 the Billings Gazette (Billings, Mont.)
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