July 23, 2016

Mostly sunny

Westfield Twp. pilot getting up in years … literally

John Lawton, of Westfield Township, wanted to do something different for his 90th birthday. He decided to mark the milestone by flying over the U.S.-Canadian border on the Niagara River 90 times in his Cessna 172.

“It’s just something that I have wanted to do,” he said.

John Lawton poses by his Cessna 172 airplane in Wadsworth last month. (AP PHOTO)

His birthday was Monday but due to high wind conditions over the Niagara River, near Buffalo, N.Y, he only was able to cross the river 28 times, which took him about 45 minutes.

He plans to complete the rest of the crossing today and even take a couple turns over Niagara Falls.

“I expect the weather to be good,” Lawton said.

His original plan was to execute the turns in a tight, almost aerobatic figure-eight maneuver, but due to the wind conditions he was forced to make wider turns.

He chose the West Branch of the Niagara River because it is easy to see the border in that location.

The area is also where he recalls one of the closest calls of his 56-year piloting career.

On a night in December 1956, Lawton experienced limited visibility during a snowstorm and had to land unannounced at Buffalo Niagara International Airport — almost colliding with a telecommunications tower.

His daughter, Brenda, accompanied him on his 28 turns Monday and will finish the feat with him today as his co-pilot.

His son — who is also a pilot — will be watching from the ground.

This feat will be only one of many in a career marked with plenty of highlights, including more than 6,000 hours of flight in more than 40 different models of aircraft.

He was employed by Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory, in California, from 1951 until 1978.

Among many interesting assignments, he once was called on to safely trigger avalanches by dropping explosives in the Italian Alps and assisted in the development of the Lacrosse ground-to-ground missile system.

He also was involved in weather research. He once collected snowflakes while in flight over Buffalo as part of an investigation into lake-effect snowstorms.

In 2007, he received the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award, given for 50 years of safe flights.

Lawton said he hopes to fly over the border 100 times on his 100th birthday.

Contact reporter Andrew Davis at (330) 721-4050 or adavis@medina-gazette.com.