GRAND ISLAND, N.Y. – Loved ones of John Lawton will gaze heavenward on his 90th birthday Monday.
Again and again and again.
Otherwise, they might miss his Cessna 172 as he attempts to make 90 flying passages across the U.S.-Canadian border.
"Somehow, I got a wild idea that I needed to do something different for my birthday," said Lawton, who has been a pilot for 56 years.
From the Ohio airport he bought following a career at the former Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory in Buffalo, Lawton set his sights on a watery stretch of the northern border in the Niagara River, north of Buffalo.
The spot gives him a good view of the border, he said. It's also near where Lawton had what he calls the closest call of his flying career, a disorienting, dark and snowy flight home from a December 1956 business meeting in Syracuse. It ended with an unannounced landing at Buffalo Niagara International Airport, which had been closed amid an 11-inch snowfall.
Lawton hopes for clear skies when he takes off from that same airport Monday and spends an estimated one to two hours at an altitude of around 3,500 feet, performing a series of tight, nearly aerobatic, figure-eight patterns in his four-seat airplane.
He has asked his non-pilot daughter, Brenda, along for the ride. Lawton's son, a pilot, will stay on the ground so no one can question who was really at the controls.
"I've been working on it and am trying to perfect the flying technique to do it," Lawton said by phone from his Westfield Township, Ohio, home. He has made practice runs over a roadway to get a feel for the turns and timing.
The Federal Aviation Administration's Buffalo approach control, which oversees the airspace at low altitudes, has signed off on the flight. Lawton also has gained support from fellow flier Claudia Childs. The former chief of detectives for the Buffalo Police Department opened Little Bird Airways after retiring, offering scenic flights over western New York.
Lawton got in touch with Childs after reading in a Buffalo News profile that she wants to fly on her 90th birthday — still 3 ½ decades away.
"I was a cop for 25 years. I'm thinking, 'Who am I talking to?'" Childs recalled of the first phone call. She was convinced he was the real thing after learning of his credentials and plans, meticulously thought-out in his scientist's way.
Childs has suggested Lawton break up the 90 passes over the border with a couple of spectacularly scenic circuits around Niagara Falls, which straddles the United States and Canada just north of where Lawton will be. She thinks Lawton may have a shot at a record for being the oldest pilot to circle the Falls.
As far as the rest of Lawton's plans, Childs would take a more relaxed approached, she said.
"I would be doing more gentle turns," she said. "But John has more flying experience. He's talking about doing a little more precise maneuver."
"Instead of doing nice comfortable figure eights," she said, "he's going to be doing more extreme figure eights to get the turns sharper."
If all goes as planned, Lawton will add to a long list of flying highlights accumulated over more than 6,000 hours of flying in more than 40 models of aircraft.
He was involved in developing Lacrosse guided missile systems, collecting snowflakes in flight during lake-effect snowstorms in Buffalo and initiating avalanches by dropping explosives in the Italian Alps. He led a 1968 research team that created the Skadi, an electronic rescue beacon to locate avalanche victims, and has lent his skills to Angel Flight, the Civil Air Patrol and the Experimental Aircraft Association.
In 2007, he received the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award, given for 50 years of safe flights.
Should the weather not cooperate Monday, Lawton will take to the skies on the next possible day.
Childs is now a believer.
"He's the Cadillac of pilots," Childs said.