CHARLESTON—Father Allen Corrigan, of the Diocese of Cleveland, likes to say that he first started flying an airplane in elementary school.
When he was in the third grade at Catholic school in Ohio, he would “fly his desk,” drawing the controls of an imaginary cockpit on the surface and pretending to fly during class. The young man’s interest was noticed by the nuns who taught him, and it never fell away.
In 1997, several years after he was ordained, Father Corrigan took to the skies for real. He learned to fly and became the co-owner of a Cessna 172 Skyhawk.
As a priest who loves having wings, he is also a member of the National Association of Priest Pilots (NAPP), an organization of Catholic clergy and associate lay men and women who share a love for aviation.
The group’s members call themselves the “Flying Padres.” First formed in 1964 by two priests from Kentucky, it started out with about 80 members. That year the group also received the endorsement of Pope Paul VI. Today, it has more than 100 members from around the U.S. and overseas, including Brazil, Africa and Australia. They represent all levels of the hierarchy, from parish priests to bishops, and all levels of flying experience, from students to experienced professionals and flight instructors.
The organization held its national conference in Charleston for the first time July 10-12. Thirty priests from all over the United States and as far away as Jamaica spent three days worshipping and praying together. They visited historic sites in the city and talked about the two things that bring them together: their commitment to sharing the Gospel and the joy of soaring through the skies.
Father John Hemann, of the Archdiocese of Dubuque, has been a member since the beginning and currently serves as treasurer. He started taking flying lessons shortly after he was ordained in 1961 and earned his pilot’s license in 1964. Over the years, he has owned or flown 11 different airplanes and only recently stopped flying himself, content to ride along with his fellow priests as a passenger.
“Many people are surprised when they hear about a group of Catholic priests who are also pilots,” Father Hemann said. “It is something many don’t think a priest would do.”
Father Hemann enjoys being part of priest pilots because of the close friendships he developed with fellow clergy who share a love of flying. He talks readily about the diversity of experience the men bring to the table.
Some are diocesan priests, while others are in religious orders. Father Hemann himself spent 28 years as a military chaplain, retiring as a brigadier general in the National Guard. Father Joe McCaffrey, a member from the Diocese of Pittsburgh, is a chaplain for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Father Hemann also is proud of the group’s commitment to charity. He said they regularly raise money to purchase airplanes for priests doing mission work overseas, as a way to help carry out ministry in the field. Many of the priests say flying offers a unique chance to evangelize.
“As a priest and a pilot, you encounter people you wouldn’t ordinarily meet,” Father McCaffrey said. “Many of them fly themselves, or are initially interested in the fact that you are a pilot, and those conversations will often turn into a chance to talk about God and the Church. It’s a whole different way of encountering people.”
Father McCaffrey, who has been flying since 1998, tells the story of a friendship with a couple at one of his parishes. The wife was Catholic. Her husband was not, but he did have an interest in flying. Father McCaffrey showed the man his plane and took him along on a few flights. Along the way, talk moved from flying to spiritual matters, and now the man has joined the Church.
Flying also serves as a much-needed release from the daily stresses of running a parish or ministry. Father John Schmitz, of the Diocese of Jefferson City in Missouri and the group’s president, said he tries to take his Cessna 150 up once a week, although sometimes his work makes that a challenge.
When they are above the clouds, many priest pilot members say they find inspirations for homilies and learn new dimensions of their faith.
Being high in the air at the controls of a plane offers a different way of understanding life, they said, and a new focus on surrendering completely to God.
“When you are 3,000 feet up, you have a very different perspective on life,” Father Corrigan said. “You can’t worry about the little things.”
To learn more about the National Association of Priest Pilots, visit www.priestpilots.org.
Top photo: Members of the priest pilots meet at one of their airplanes before leaving Charleston after a July 10-12 meeting. They are (left to right) Father Phil Gibbs, Father Jack Paisley and Father John Herzog.