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Cancer Patient Makes ‘Bucket List’ Trip to AirVenture

By Barbara A. Schmitz

  • Lee Griffin
    A cancer diagnosis couldn’t keep Lee Griffin away from fulfilling his bucket list desire to visit EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. He and a friend flew to Oshkosh in Griffin’s T-28 Trojan. They planned to depart for Texas Saturday afternoon, where he will be beginning cancer treatment.

July 25, 2015Coming to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh had always been on the bucket list of Lee Griffin, of North Pole, Alaska. Even a cancer diagnosis four weeks ago couldn’t keep him away.

Griffin and friend Jeff Cornett made the 2,600 nm, 19.4-hour flight from Fairbanks in Griffin’s orange and white T-28 Trojan, the only operating T-28 in Alaska. They arrived in Oshkosh on July 20.

“I call it BUB, Big Ugly Beast,” Griffin says, while sitting in the shade of its wing on Saturday. “It’s my mistress.”

An airplane nut since age 5, Griffin says he always wanted to come to Oshkosh. “This is like flying to mecca.” He says his love for aviation came from his father, who soloed in 1932.

“Before the first grade, I broke my very first piggy bank for a ride in an Aeronca Champ,” he says. “I have been breaking bigger and bigger piggy banks ever since.”

He soloed in a Champ in 1961, but first earned his ticket in 1971 due to finances. He hoped to become an Air Force fighter pilot, but because of a previous car accident, flunked the flight physical. “The Air Force said, ‘Kid, you can do maintenance, maintenance, or maintenance.’ So I did maintenance.”

Being a mechanic turned out to be a handy thing, especially after he purchased the derelict T-28 in 1991. Why the T-28? “Because I’m not very bright,” he says, laughing. “The state of Alaska sold four of their six T-28s in 1990 because the state figured they were too expensive to operate. That was a good hint that I didn’t take.”

Griffin says it took him seven years to refurbish BUB, and too many hours to count. But every year he tries to make it a better airplane. “I’m in phase five of a massive rewiring project,” he says, noting that he has already done 115 cannon plugs and 4,000 to 6,000 wires.

Griffin says he’s enjoyed his time in Oshkosh and has gone to the museum and seen quite a bit on the grounds. “But I’m happiest in Warbirds,” he says, “although I like everything from Aeronca Champs to F-100s.”

He and Cornett planned to depart Saturday afternoon and head to Texas, where Griffin will begin “round two” of cancer treatments at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Griffin survived adenocarcinoma of the esophagus in 2000 and was in remission until his diagnosis four weeks ago. “It is even a more neater sounding malady,” he says, “signet ring cell adenocarcinoma of what little remains of my tummy.”

But he is confident he will survive. “The team at MD Anderson really saved my butt the first time, and I fully intend them to save my butt the second time. Every day on the right side of the grass I’m a happy camper.”

What’s the next thing that Griffin would like to cross off his bucket list? “Win the Publishers Clearinghouse and buy a P-51,” he says. But he’d be happy just coming back to AirVenture 2016.

“I’ll be here next year,” he says. “This should be easier to fight than the previous one.”

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