It’s not surprising that John G. Lawton fulfilled his dream of making 90 aerial crossings of the U.S.-Canadian border when he turned 90.
He’s a high school dropout with a doctorate in aeronautical engineering from Cornell University.
He emigrated from Austria in 1940 to avoid the horrors of the Nazis, was turned down when he tried to join the U.S. Army because he wasn’t a citizen, only to be drafted into World War II six months later.
He helped develop the Lacrosse ground-to-ground missile guidance systems in New Mexico and a method for in-flight collection of snowflakes during Buffalo’s lake-effect snow storms.
It took the retired Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory (later Calspan) engineer two days to achieve his goal, but Tuesday he completed his mission and landed at Niagara Falls International Airport for a “debriefing by the media.”
He originally planned to do it Monday – his birthday – but because of high wind, he was only able to make 28 crossings over the Niagara River at Grand Island in his Cessna 172. Winds were lighter Tuesday, so he was able to make figure-8s to do the 62 remaining crossings. He added six crossings and a swing around Niagara Falls for a total of 96.
His daughter, Brenda Alberico, accompanied him and kept track of the crossings with a GPS system.
But why did he do it?
“There’s no earthly reason for it. I don’t have anything better to do,” he said. “It’s just sort of a gimmick, a stunt. It doesn’t serve any practical purpose. It’s just to see if I can do it.”
While he makes it sound like a lark, the task involved quite a bit of concentration.
He relied on the assistance of pilot and former Buffalo Police Chief of Detectives Claudia Childs to point out landmarks Monday. He got in touch with her after reading in a Buffalo News story on her new airline, Little Bird Airways, that she is planning to fly on her 90th birthday.
Tuesday morning, before Lawton departed from Hamburg Airport, airport owner and pilot Rod Walsh, 85, and Mort Senseney of Hamburg, an 89-year-old pilot who flies out of Hamburg, briefly compared notes and posed for pictures in front of Lawton’s plane.
Senseney flew a Lockheed P-38 for the Army-Air Forces in the Pacific during World War II, while Lawton served in the infantry.
Lawton, who moved to Ohio about 25 years ago, learned to fly in 1956 in an 85 HP Cessna 140, flying out of Buffalo Airpark, in Gardenville, now called Buffalo Airfield. He has logged 6,000 hours in 40 different aircraft since then. One reason he wanted to make the international border crossings over the Niagara River is because it is a recognizable border. The other has to do with his first solo long-distance flight, which took place Dec. 26, 1956.
He had a student pilot license, and his flight instructor was a co-worker he calls Jim. They had a business meeting in Syracuse, and since the weather was clear, they decided to fly, using a Cornell Flying Club aircraft. The plane had no radio or electronics, just the minimum standards at the time: airspeed indicator, altimeter, compass, tachometer, as well as engine instruments and fuel gauges.
Lawton was at the controls, and he followed the Thruway to Syracuse, planning to do the same on the return trip, which worked out until they ran into a snowstorm that erased their view of the car lights on the Thruway. Jim took over the aircraft, as they flew west in the darkness, not knowing where they were until clouds broke several times and they saw some local landmarks, including Ezra’s hot dog stand on Wehrle Drive near what is now Buffalo Niagara International Airport. Charlie the Butcher is located where the hot dog stand stood.
They were looking for the much smaller airpark in Gardenville. But Lawton didn’t want to go back into the squall a fourth time, and Jim couldn’t get a green light from the airport tower in Cheektowaga. “To hell with the green light,” he told Jim, “let’s just land.”
They ended up landing in a foot of new snow at the big airport and maneuvered the little plane into the laboratory’s flight research hangar, worried that an airliner might land on top of them. They also called the tower to report they had landed on Runway 14, and the man in the tower said, “What airplane landed where? This airport has been closed for hours!”
It was a much different day Tuesday, with bright sunshine and blue sky, perfect flying weather for the white Cessna with blue and red stripes for the flight over Love Road and West River Parkway on Grand Island.
Lawton also has flown many fights for charitable groups such as Angel Flight, Chernobyl Children, Civil Air Patrol, Life Flight, Light Hawk, National Ski Patrol, Patient Air Lift Services, Western Reserve Land Conservancy and the Young Eagles program of the Experimental Aircraft Association. He was on the ski patrol at Kissing Bridge for 20 years.
The father of seven, grandfather of seven and great-grandfather of three moved to Westfield, Ohio, after retiring from Calspan in 1978. He has owned several airplanes through the years and bought a small airstrip there and sold it, although he still lives on the airstrip.
“I’m married to somebody always looking for a challenge in life. Even at 90 years, he came up with a challenge,” said his wife, Beth, who stayed in Ohio for this trip.
When asked why he started flying, Lawton said, “Why do you start dancing? I don’t know, just something to do.”
He promised to return to Buffalo in 10 years for 100 international border crossings on his 100th birthday.