These days, a typical day for Bernie and Laura Schneider of Battle Ground might include tucking their young Golden Retriever, Sedona, into the back of their Maule 5 monoplane for short flight to spend the day at the coast with friends.
The gleaming front-propeller aircraft sitting back on its tail wheel conjures images of a stereotypical Red Baron with pilot scarf flying.
It’s not by chance that Bernie and Laura are relishing their shared enjoyment of flying in this active phase of their retirement. They gave it a lot of thought, and spent many evenings discussing how they would like to spend their newly bountiful time, said Laura.
“We considered a fifth-wheel camper, or a boat, but nothing resonated,” she said.
They expected that the end of their working years would require some adjustment, but were still surprised at the impact of the transition.
“It took me a good two years before I could really settle into retirement,” said Bernie. “I did not expect that at all.”
The couple kept a notebook of the ideas that emerged from their discussions. They would like to visit National Parks, and explore Frank Lloyd Wright-designed homes. Plus they have “gobs of friends” they want to see. But still, they were looking for something more.
Bernie and Laura have both been pilots for many years. Bernie got the flying bug at age 22 when a friend took him for a flight and let him have the controls – he was hooked. By the time he was 25 he was a professional pilot, and he spent 28 years flying commercial passenger airplanes before he retired in 2013 at age 60.
Laura made her career in the air travel industry as well, on the other end of the radio. She first learned to fly while living in Alaska in the 1970s, where piloting an airplane was a common part of the culture and accessible to a young woman. She then worked for the FAA and as an air traffic controller for 32 years, retiring in 2015 at age 62.
Bernie spent his first summer of retirement flying a fire patrol plane out of Kelso. It rekindled his love of general aviation, and sparked the idea of flying a small personal airplane. Though they had toyed with the idea of personal aviation for several years, it was never a good fit. While working, they didn’t have the time to enjoy it and keep their skills up-to-date.
After Laura retired in 2015 they were looking for someplace new to settle. Coincidentally, an old friend was renting their Battle Ground home, which sat in a small community with a private grass airstrip and a large hangar in the backyard. That clinched the deal.
It wasn’t long before the Maule 5 was parked in the backyard hangar, and Bernie and Laura were plotting their next adventure. The plane was born for backcountry excursions, with its short landing distance and 600-mile range.
“What’s fun about this opportunity that fell in our lap is that we are surrounded by friends,” said Laura. Of the five residents along the airstrip, they already knew three.
Their first jaunt was to Copalis Beach, north of Grays Harbor in Washington. Planes can land on one area of the beach there, so they met a group of friends with planes for a day of clamming, took a short flight to Westport for lunch and then flew home. Sedona came along, tucked into her dog bed in the rear of the plane and napping or watching the scenery.
That notebook they kept is filled with destinations they can now reach in their personal aircraft. Most towns have an airport, said Bernie, and it’s rare to not be able to go anyplace you want. Plus, it’s a subculture that has a lot of comradery. Someone at the airport is likely to offer a ride into town for new arrivals.
They fill their days at home, as well. Bernie has a long-standing hobby restoring classic cars, and enjoys spending weekends at car shows and cruise-ins. Laura is a regular at Jazzercise, and has put in a large vegetable garden at their new home. And raising a puppy is a big job; Laura might even train the affable Sedona to be a visiting therapy dog.
They have taken their direction from the research on aging well.
“If you have a plan and do things, you live longer and healthier,” said Laura. “We’ve never had this much fun together as we’ve had the last couple of years.”