High-flying Geoff Hutchinson knows the North East skies all too well.
Before being diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease in 2010, the 66-year-old was a passionate pilot with a fondness of life at thousands of feet.
The pensioner had thought it had dashed any chance he would have had of returning to the air.
But Geoff refused to be grounded by the terminal illness, and thanks to St Oswald’s Hospice in Newcastle he had another chance to see the green fields – from a glider at 3,000ft.
“It was the hospice’s suggestion and of course I said yes,” said Geoff.
“The best feeling is when you take off and the ground slips away from you. It felt lovely not having to worry about having to take off and land.”
Geoff, a former IT worker for Nexus, lives with his three sons Andrew, 37, Thomas, 35, and Robert, 34, in Morpeth, Northumberland.
He always had a keen interest in aircraft and learned to fly in his early 20s at Newcastle Aeroclub on small Piper Cherokees.
There, he met fellow pilot Colin Tweddle and the pair struck up an immediate friendship.
More than 40 years later it was Colin, now chief gliding instructor at the Northumbria Gliding Club, who piloted Geoff on a 10-mile route over the countryside as he returned to the skies.
Colin said: “He was quite surprised. I said ‘Hi mate’ and he said ‘Bloody hell are you my pilot?’
“I replied that I certainly was. It was a good bit of banter.”
The trip was organized by Lisa Cairns, 46, from Woodside, who works as Geoff’s occupational therapist at St Oswald’s, in Gosforth.
In her spare time she’s been working towards her PhD, which she recently received from Northumbria University.
Lisa said: “As part of my role I tend to organize specialist bespoke services. They’re small gestures but they really increase the patients quality of life, even for a few hours.”
Lisa has previously organised a trip to an open-top quarry for Geoff, who is also a keen geologist.
She also says that she is looking into the feasibility of patients tandem skydiving with the British Army’s Red Devils team.
And the experiences Geoff has been able to have, coupled with the care he’s received, means he has nothing but praise for the hospice.
He said: “People tend to think as Hospices as dimly lit places. I remember first arriving in here and I though ‘Oh for God’s sake’. I really thought it was the end of the road.
“That hasn’t been the case at all.”
Motor Neurone Disease is a terminal disease that slowly paralyses the entire body over two to three years. Medics say there is no known cure and no way to predict who will be affected.
It is also the most common reason given for visiting the euthanasia service, Dignitas in Switzerland.
And Dr Tim Williams, a Motor Neurone Disease specialist at the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle, described it as one of the most feared conditions within the medical community.
He said: “To go from being physically fit to completely paralyzed – it’s pretty grim”.
“I say to diagnosed patients ‘Look there may be things you want to do, places you want to go and people you want to see, you should think about doing this now’”
For this reason, Dr Williams believes that work carried out at St Oswald’s is essential.
“It’s not about quantity. We’re trying to add quality to the lives of those with terminal conditions,” he said.