John Driggers is a self-professed adrenaline junkie.
The Culpeper resident and the face of Multiple Sclerosis in the community, John recently fulfilled one of his lifelong goals of flying in a biplane.
The Hospice of the Piedmont patient said he’s always loved adventure, recalling stories from his youth.
“It started when I was 13 years old: I climbed Mt. Fuji in a hurricane and spent the night on the mountain,” he said. “We were reported missing when we weren’t heard from after our ascent, but we had no idea we were in trouble, and I was hooked. My need for adventure started then.”
Since he was diagnosed with MS in 1998, the disease has not slowed him down. In fact, the self proclaimed workaholic continued his full time job for two more years before finally retiring in 2000 and settling into his family life at home – and more escapades.
“My favorite adventure so far was the one that took place recently,” John said of the opportunity he had this fall to fly with a stunt pilot in a small biplane over the town of Culpeper, where he and his wife Janet live. Because of John’s disease, he is confined to a wheelchair, which made the mechanics of getting into the biplane a little trickier. Luckily, a local friend named Chuck had access to a truck with a cherry picker and regularly uses the cherry picker to take disabled veterans on plane rides. Chuck was dispatched to help move John from his wheelchair into Rick’s Boeing PT-17 Stearman 220 HP for the flight back in October.
“Chuck picked me, dropped me in and I fit in the cockpit like a glove,” John said.
As members of John and Janet’s family looked on, John took to the sky.
“It was a family outing,” he said. “I was happy that my family on the ground could see and hopefully gain some enjoyment out of my experience. Taking off was the biggest thrill. I felt so free – I could look out and see things I hadn’t ever seen from the ground. It was the ultimate adrenaline rush.”
As the pilot of the Pitts Special acrobatic plane, Rick, maneuvered the machine through loops and drops, John’s family below stood in awe… and John had the time of his life. John’s wife Janet noted that, as he was doing rolls in the sky, he was looking out the cockpit, waving to the crowd below “like Miss America.”
“When he did his parachuting, I was scared, since then as much as he looking forward to it, I was so excited for him,” Janet said. “He got to do something most people won’t get to do in his condition.”
John said that the poem, High Flight, by John Gillespie McGuire Jr. popped into his head as he soared through the air.
"Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds -
and done a hundred things You have not dreamed of -
wheeled and soared and swung high in the sunlit silence.
Hovering there I've chased the shouting wind along
and flung my eager craft through footless halls of air.
"Up, up the long delirious burning blue
I've 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."
“At the very end, it says I reached out and touched the face of God, that’s the feeling I had,” John said. “I was free, I was soaring and I’ve done 100 things that people would not do. I felt lucky. I made a concerted effort to concentrate and enjoy it. It was euphoria.”
“What I want to teach people is to not give up,” John said about his desire to continue pursuing adrenaline-pumping activities, even as he’s disabled and pursuing end-of-life care for his disease. “Why would I want to sit here and wilt away? I don’t want to. I’m not going to give up.”