The flying centenarian
February 18, 2013
As the sun rose over western Colorado on Feb. 16, the sky was blue and cloudless, and the wind was calm. It seemed like a great day to fly, and for Wesley Burnham, flying seemed like a great way to top off his 100 years of life on this planet.
And so he flew.
Burnham, who lives part time in Redstone and spends most of the year in Minneapolis, has been a pilot since 1968. On that Saturday, though, he had two fellow pilots – Shane Evans and Steve Kent – on hand to take him for a celebratory ride.
Arriving at the Glenwood Springs Airport, Burnham climbed into Evans’ 1984 Cessna airplane. After taking off, the trio flew up the Crystal Valley, over McClure Pass, and up the drainage of Muddy Creek, where Kent owns a ranch, before circling back and passing over the Redstone home where Burnham stays with his son Al and daughter-in-law Shirley.
“It was wonderful,” he said. “Smooth air – a perfect day to fly.”
For Burnham, the flight was just the beginning: He would celebrate his birthday that evening at the Redstone Inn with 40 of his closest friends.
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And although he didn’t fly himself around on the day he turned 100 (the last time he did that, he was 99), Burnham said he was planning to take the controls soon.
“If I had been at my home in Minnesota, I would have flown my own plane,” he said. “I will fly the plane myself when I get home.”
The secret to staying young and healthy
For Burnham, flying has never been a job. He had a storied career as an orthopedic surgeon, serving as chief of orthopedics in a large army hospital in the South Pacific during World War II, and then running a private practice in Minneapolis until the age of 72.
Although he fell in love with flying during his first commercial flight – a United Airlines route from Minneapolis to California in 1934 – he didn’t take up the pursuit himself until decades later.
And when he did, it was at the suggestion of his late wife, Esther, who died in 1993.
Burnham recalls being home in his study one evening, dictating notes from a day in the operating room, when Esther raised the idea.
“At a pause in my dictation, she said, ‘Why don’t you go get some flying lessons?'” Burnham said. “She thought that something she knew I loved would keep me young and healthy.”
As it turned out, she was right.
“My secret for keeping young is my flying,” Burnham said. “It’s been a constant challenge. The freedom of flight, going where you want to in three dimensions, is uplifting.”
Although Esther never liked to fly herself before Burnham got his license, she soon began taking regular flights as his co-pilot.
In the days before Global Positioning System technology, the pair flew together to the Arctic, Esther navigating by studying the shapes of lakes that passed beneath the plane, Wesley at the controls.
Over the years, as the laws of probability might predict, Burnham has had some close calls while flying, leading him to label the pursuit “a wonderful experience interposed by moments of sharp terror.”
In the late 1990s he said he was hunting with a friend in Alaska when one of their floatplane’s engines quit just after takeoff. The pair glided the plane about eight miles down the valley and crash landed on a partly frozen lake before radioing for help.
Such risks, though, appear to have paid off where Burnham’s mental and physical health are concerned. Although he’s old enough to have three children, four grandchildren, and 11 great-grandchildren, he also seems to have a near perfect recollection of his distant past.
Without effort, he rattles off all the airplanes he has owned – the Cessna 182 he now stores in a Minnesota hangar, a Piper Super Cub, a 1960 Cessna Skyhawk and a 1970 Cessna 180.
As a side show featuring photos from his long life plays on a nearby coffee table, he narrates in rapid-fire fashion: There he is racing speedboats as a young man, then posing in front of a rhinoceros he’s just shot in east Africa. There’s Esther on a ship in the Mediterranean, then on the balcony of their hotel in Delphi, Greece.
Aside from being an avid hunter, (“I’ve hunted everything from elephants to squirrels,” he said), Burnham also loves to snowmobile, and still drives his own machine. At press time, he and his son Al were planning a 35-mile snowmobile trip on the south side of McClure Pass.
Burnham has been coming to the Roaring Fork Valley since 1975, and he says he values his trips more with the passage of time. “I love coming out here, because in Minnesota I live in an extended care facility with all these old people,” he joked.