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A final wish: Vietnam veteran takes to the mid-Michigan skies

John Cascaddan, a 72-year-old Vietnam veteran and former missionary pilot, had his final wish to fly again granted Thursday morning at the Clare Municipal Airport. Gary Todd, airport manager and pilot, worked with Howard Lilly and Jim Bonnell to help Cascaddan fly again. Photo by Holly MahaffeyBy Holly Mahaffey

CLARE COUNTY, Mich. - John Cascaddan, an Air Force Vietnam veteran and former missionary pilot, thought he would never fly again.

After not touching a plane for the past 15 years, Cascaddan, 72, suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and a resident of The Laurels in Mt. Pleasant, took to the skies once again today with the help of some community members willing to help him live out his final wish. 

“He’s as happy as a lark,” said Jim Bonnell, who helped make the flight happen. Bonnell’s wife Kay works along with Howard Lilly for The Touch of Life Ministries. It was during the ministry’s time at The Laurels that Bonnell and Lilly heard Cascaddan’s story and decided to help. 

After contacting some area airports, Clare Municipal Airport Manager Gary Todd agreed to take Cascaddan up in a plane Grumman Traveler AA5 over mid-Michigan Thursday morning. 

Todd said he wanted to help because “it was a veteran - we don’t do enough for our military and guys who can serve. Anytime I can help a veteran,” said Todd.

“It was kind of his ‘last request’ type thing - how often do you get to fill someone’s last request?” said Todd. 

Bonnell and Lilly picked Cascaddan up from his home at The Laurels and drove him to the Clare Municipal Airport for his flight. 

“He’s a really neat guy,” said Bonnell. “He flew C130s in Vietnam and B52 bombers.”

Photos by Holly Mahaffey

Cascaddan said he took an interest in planes at an early age, and decided to join the Air Force along with his twin brother. After getting his bachelor’s degree during his time with the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Cascaddan was sent to Vietnam and said he flew his first flight mission in 1963 and completed flight missions in the Pacific Rim. 

“After the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam in 1975, I came back to the States,” Cascaddan said. He taught English to Southeast Asian refugees during his time at California State University, Sacramento for a year, which is where he met his future wife, a Japanese student. 

After his marriage, Cascaddan said he moved with his wife to Japan and opened a school teaching English there. As a civilian, Cascaddan decided to use his flight skills for a new use - missionary flights dropping bundles of King James bibles over China. 

“I had a job to do - I was concerned about doing the job right,” said Cascaddan of the risks involved with stealth flights over China to drop the bibles. “I had a job to help people learn about God and the English language. No one was ordering me to go.”

Photo by Holly Mahaffey

Cascaddan estimates he flew about 100 missionary flights before eventually moving back to the United States. He said he’s been in nursing homes the last four years, and didn’t think he’d ever fly again.

“The flight today was a gift from God,” said Cascaddan. “I had a fantastic time.”

Originally published online and in print in the Morning Sun, a Mount Pleasant, Mich. daily newspaper. Photo by Holly Mahaffey