Finding family at the Shelby County Airport

Published 3:12 pm Wednesday, June 16, 2010

On Easter Sunday 2009, Woodstock resident Jane Carson and her daughter Andrea gazed out the windshield of their 1956 Cessna 172 as the first glimmer of the day’s sunlight began to creep over the earth.

From hundreds of feet in the air, the duo, along with local pastor and pilot Tom Nash, began to read Bible verses aloud as they held an airborne Easter sunrise service.

“Everything about the earth’s creation and all the blessings we enjoy was in that sunrise,” Jane said. “We were just overwhelmed.”

While gazing out onto the golden sunrise, Jane, Andrea and Tom thanked God for the ways he had blessed their lives, which Jane said were plentiful.

When Andrea was born in 1976, she lacked an immune system. From Andrea’s first day alive, doctors began telling Jane her daughter would not live more than five years.

Today, Andrea is 34 years old, and regularly helps her mother co-pilot the Cessna 172 the mother-daughter duo stores at the Shelby County Airport.

“When I was 8, we got a children’s Brittanica encyclopedia set, and I learned about the seven wonders of the world,” Jane said. “From that point on, I made it my goal to find the eighth wonder of the world.

“In 1979, we went to the Mayo Clinic, and the doctors were shocked Andrea was alive and doing so well,” Jane added. “That day, one of the doctors told me ‘Andrea, I think you have done the one thing you wanted to accomplish in your life. Your daughter is the eighth wonder of the world.’”

Year after year, Andrea continues to baffle doctors who tell her it is medically impossible for her to be alive, Jane said. Because her body does not produce adequate white blood cells, she has little protection from diseases and is more likely to develop deadly conditions like cancer.

The 34-year-old has also had several operations to remove all but her most vital internal organs, and an early age oxygen deficiency has made it difficult for her talk.

But a strong religious faith and a passion for flying has kept Andrea going through the hardships she has faced, her mother said.

However, Andrea was not always excited about flying.

“Years ago, I had an aerial photography service, but I just couldn’t get her into the plane with me,” said Jane, who divorced Andrea’s father in 2001. “But I wanted her to fly with me, because flying was the closest I could get to comfort during this whole situation.”

But in the early 1990s, Andrea agreed to fly with a family friend through the Angel Flight program, which is a volunteer-run organization focused on transporting medical patients free of charge.

When Andrea and her pilot did not return when they were scheduled to, Jane became worried. But about an hour after their scheduled return time, Andrea excitedly called her mother to tell her she loved being in the sky.

Since then, the mother-daughter duo has racked up more than 500 hours of combined flight time, and has traveled to locations across the continent.

“When you enjoy flying, it releases a lot of endorphins. I think that has really helped her (Andrea) stay OK this whole time,” Jane said. “Once you get bitten by the flying bug, you’re hooked.”

Since buying the Cessna in 2003, the Carsons have flown out of several different Alabama airports, including the Bessemer Airport and the Tuscaloosa Airport. But the pilots’ attitude at the Shelby County Airport convinced the pair to call Calera their “home airport,” Andrea said.

Because most pilots and airplane owners are male, the Carsons initially had trouble gaining acceptance by their peers.

“The greatest difficulty was getting to airports when we were looking for a plane, and them asking us ‘you’re going to buy what? Is your husband going to come out and look at it first?’” Jane said with a laugh. “I’ve found people who treat you stupid and look down on you are usually stupid.”

But even before the pair began keeping their Cessna at the Shelby County Airport, the airport’s regulars immediately treated her as their friend and equal.

“They are just part of the group,” Nash said. “We love having them out here.”

“Shelby County makes us really comfortable, because we all come out here as people. Not as men or women, but as people,” Jane said as Andrea turned to her and smiled. “They just took us right in. They just don’t know how much we appreciate them.”