Aug 012013

The wild blue yonder has always held Ed Kopec’s full attention. It still does. Ninety years young, a 30-year career military man, and a pilot for most of his life, Kopec still lives for the feel of wind rushing under the wings, lifting him and his spirit to dance among the clouds.

Kopec was born in West Groton, near Windmill Hill. He left to serve in World War II, starting in the Army Air Corps around 1941, flying bombers and transport planes. He stayed in the service and moved to the Air Force when it was created at the end of the war. He was stationed in Texas, where he met and married his wife of 69 years, Mary Fitzgerald Kopec. Kopec came home and was based at Hanscom Air Force Base in Lexington. He retired as a lieutenant colonel after 30 years’ service. A long time assessor in Groton, he is also well-known in political circles and from his years of helping out at polling places in town.

Her grandfather has remained fascinated with the sky and flying, Laurie MacGregor said.

“Everywhere we go in the car, he’s talking about the sky and clouds. If we see contrails or vapor trails, he always tells me all about it — I’ve heard it every day since I was a kid — ‘Oh, this would be a great day to be flying!’ he says,” she said.

“Then he made a comment one day — ‘Oh I’d give anything if I could go up one more time.’ The day I picked him up to do this, two weeks ago, we picked him up, and we went over to dinner in Lancaster. We were going down Farmer’s Row, heading down into Ayer, and he starts with the clouds. He says to me, ‘Oh, this would just be a beautiful day to be up there, wouldn’t it?’ And I said, ‘Ya think so? I guess it would be a good day to be up flying.’ And he says, ‘Yup, it would be. But honestly, I like it when it’s stormy and clouding up.'” MacGregor remembered.

“And I told him I had a surprise for him after we eat. It was still a little early to meet everybody at the hanger, so I drove the long way around to Fitchburg and by the hanger at the airport. Then when we pulled into the airport, he saw my fiance standing there, talking to Jeff Hill, the pilot, because they’re friends. And he said ‘What are you doing here?’ And then he turned around and saw my mother and my brother, and said ‘What are you guys doing here?’ Then my sister in law pulled in, and he said ‘How come everybody’s here? Are we having a party?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, you and Tim are having a party up in the sky. You’re going flying.'”

High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I have climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of and wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hovering there,
I have chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air….

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I have topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
– Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

“And he just started laughing, and said ‘You’re crazy!'”

“And the pilot said, ‘No… I’m taking you up.” And he just broke into such a grin!”

“They put the things on his ears, the headset, and he was like ‘OK, I’ve got this.’ He was talking to Jeff about the instruments and how everything worked, and Jeff said, ‘You remember all that, huh?’ And he said, ‘It’s like riding a bike, you never forget.'” MacGregor said.

Pilot Jeff Hill enjoyed the ride as much as Kopec did. “It’s not every day you can give back to some guy who served his country for what, 30 years? And all the flying and stuff he did. It started when I donated an hour’s scenic airplane ride to a cancer research fundraiser,” he said. “Then she contacted me and asked if I could take her grandfather up instead of her. Then we found out I went to school with her fiance. They showed up down here one evening, and we loaded him in the airplane with another grandson and we went flying for an hour.”

“He talked about coming back, flying at night across ‘The Pond,’ they called it, with the copilot sleeping and the autopilot on — it was a as boring as could be and hard to stay awake. But we went up over Groton and around his house, then we headed back over Mount Watatic and he saw the people up on the top of Watatic and we headed down to the Quabbin Reservoir and he flew the airplane himself for 15 minutes or so and did pretty good. He grabbed on to the control yoke there and slid his feet up to the pedals and he was just as straight and level as could be. I was surprised. 91 years old, but he just jumped right on the horse and kept on going.”

Hill owns and operates Autumn Air Services, a plane maintenance and repair business at the Fitchburg Airport. Kopec’s ride was in Hill’s personal plane — he doesn’t usually provide airplane rides. But this was special.

“It gave me a lot of joy putting it together,” MacGregor said. “He’s always been our hero. My dad was a police officer, and we loved him, but Grampy was always Grampy. It was the whole military thing. He’d never judge anybody — he always accepted you as you are. Except it you walk in the house with your hat on. He’ll ask you if your head’s cold — it’s that military thing you never wear your hat inside,” she said with a laugh.