Eric Savader was not the kind of man who would let a little thing like a life-threatening illness interfere with his ability to have fun. Only in his early thirties, and with his melanoma progressing to the point where he could no longer pursue his long-time hobby of scuba diving, he decided to try something new.
He had always wanted to fly, and with time at a premium, he bought a Phantom Ultralight and proceeded to learn how to pilot it. This was how Eric came into our lives, which gives us just one more reason to love ultralights.
Eric and his ultralight landed at The Airlie Center in Warrenton, Virginia, where Mike Murray, a long-time friend of Eric's wife, Mary Hanley, kept his Max Holste 1521 "Broussard" hangared.
Airlie is a place with its own ultralight story, one of geese following an ultralight from Canada after imprinting upon it as their mother. Their story made headlines around the world and even had a Hollywood movie based upon it, but Eric's story is just as inspiring in its own way.
Almost every Saturday, Eric would drive from his home in Washington, D.C., to this beautiful setting in the Virginia countryside. There he would fly or join in on various airplane restoration projects with a group of guys known as "The Irish Air Group," so-named by Mike Murray. In addition to Mike and my husband, Bill Reese, the group consisted of pilots, mechanics, and museum technicians from the Air & Space Museum, where Bill is employed as the Chief of Restoration. What brought this group together was a love of airplanes, and what keeps them together is that strange form of male bonding that involves merciless teasing, horrendous insults, and the absolute certainty that they will always be able to count on each other when the chips are down. At this point, Eric had fewer and fewer chips on the table, but he still had no problem holding his own with this group.
Eric pursued flying his plane with the same sort of gusto with which he had pursued everything else in his life, from his days as a medic in the Navy, to his political activism, to his interest in social causes and health care. Of course, he shared his plane with everyone else in The Irish Air Group, and as they all took their turns flying it, an amazing thing happened. They all began to relive that joy they felt when they first took up flying. The ultralight had put them back in touch with the sky, the elements, and the essence of flying itself. They felt that it had put the fun back into flying.
Over the course of that year, Eric fought a valiant battle and missed very few Saturdays out at Airlie, but he was growing progressively weaker. Bill Reese had promised Eric that as long as Eric was strong enough to fly, Bill would get him into that plane, even if it meant carrying him out and putting him into it. By Memorial Day, 1997, Eric was very ill, but he and Mary came to a picnic at Airlie, after Eric spent the morning in the hospital with an IV to build up his strength. As Mary proudly snapped pictures, Eric went up in his beloved little plane, not once but twice. We all knew these would be his last flights, but that bittersweet knowledge didn't keep the big smiles off of our faces, and no one smiled more than Mary. She had never seen him fly before, and she was positively beaming.
LIVE OUT LOUD
During the last months of his life, Eric's many friends had sought a way that they could honor his life. Eric himself gave them the answer. His dream was to help children and adults with disabilities. He knew all too well how much some of the equipment they needed could cost, sometimes thousands of dollars for a single device. Eric didn't like the idea of anyone missing out on the opportunity to spread their wings and live life to the fullest.
I'd like to tell you at this point in Eric's story that a miracle had occurred, but in real life that doesn't always happen. Eric died in the summer of 1997, but his legacy lives on in The Eric Fund. Quite appropriately, the first fund raiser was held at Airlie a year after his death. Eric's mother, Bobbie, came up from Florida, and his brother, Scott, brought his whole family. The afternoon was filled with food and music, but the real star of the show was Eric's ultralight. People climbed into it to have their pictures taken and to remember Eric. It was a successful event attended by people with generous hearts and spirits who hoped to fulfill the wishes of a friend whose own heart was as big as they come.
This success has now made it possible for us to give out our first award to a disabled child. A young boy named Ryan, who has cerebral palsy, will be able to attend his neighborhood middle school for the first time thanks to a voice-output device that will enable him to speak. So, as Eric did, Ryan too will soon be "living out loud," which is quite a fitting tribute to a man whose presence could fill a room. We have discovered, through the applications we received for the first award, that Eric was right about how great the need is for a fund such as this.
As for the ultralight, it still flies out of Airlie. Eric's wish was that it remain with the boys of The Irish Air Group, the friends he had made in the last year of his life. Surely, as they fly over the beautiful, rolling hills of Virginia, they carry the memory and the spirit of Eric on board with them. I guess that probably makes theirs the only single-place ultralight with a copilot.
Pub: Ultralight Flying!
Date: October 1999 issue
Author: Susan Reese (board member)