Thomas Sosnowski can still recall the flight patterns through the restricted Hudson River corridor, or the way the wind could ambush your wings.
For more than four decades Sosnowski was a contract pilot, ferrying freight and celebrities like Paul Newman in private jets.
These days the 74-year-old Venice retiree sticks to piloting his 2003 Honda Odyssey van, the vehicle as important to him now as the Israeli Astra jets he once flew.
Sometimes he wonders how he got here, so far from where he began – and all those days in the sky. But he’ll never forget the electric excitement that started it all – and that first thrust that lifted him right off the Earth.
A perch in the clouds
The seeds were planted in his childhood in Connecticut.
As a young boy, he was fascinated with model airplanes, Sky King shows, and the thrilling promise of space flight.
On long trips with his truck-driving dad, he got the feel of moving people and freight.
During his first flight, a trip to Miami, when the plane lurched off the ground and soared into the clouds, Sosnowski felt his stomach drop – and a decision solidify in his heart.
“This is what I want to do,” he thought.
After high school – disqualified from military service for health issues – Sosnowski took flying lessons and started a charter business with a friend in the 1970s.
Starting with flight instruction, he later branched out to air ambulances and charter jets, based in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
With growing success, he soon was transporting celebrities through the Northeast, across the country and into Canada, including NASCAR drivers and stars like singer Diana Ross. He recalls fondly the time actor Paul Newman invited him for a burger after a trip to a racetrack in upstate New York.
By 2001, Sosnowski – who had moved to Venice several years earlier with his mother after the death of his father – was slowing down to care for his mother, a retired factory worker. He continued to run charter flights from his base in Bridgeport, Connecticut and Westchester, New York.
But shortly after his mother died in 2003, Sosnowksi decided to hang up his wings for good and retire.
Instead, he turned his focus to something more stationary – the construction of a house in Venice. He poured his life savings into the home but lost it during the Great Recession.
In search of solid ground
At first, he lived out of his car and tried to get by on unemployment benefits from a job at a retail pharmacy.
With his legs and ankles swelling in the car, Sosnowski wasn’t sure how much longer he could last.
A chance encounter with his mother’s old friend saved him.
She invited him to stay with her.
“If she didn’t help me, I wouldn’t be here now,” he recalled.
Sosnowski worked around the house and ran errands, intervening to alert her children during medical emergencies.
Later, back on his feet, he rented a manufactured home with friends in North Port and then got a spot in the Venetian Walk apartments.
By then fully retired on Social Security, he lived on a tight budget.
He badly missed flying – a piece of himself missing. But he enjoyed time with friends on local golf courses.
One by one, though, they started to disappear, many of them passing away.
More recently, Sosnowski’s health problems also flared – his bad back and knees no longer allowing for long afternoons on the golf course.
With rising inflation and higher costs for food, medicine and utilities, his budget seemed to get tighter every month.
His main recourse was his Honda Odyssey van – getting him to the grocery store, doctor’s appointments, and the occasional drive to state parks for a peaceful walk on the paths.
Then one day this past summer, the Odyssey began shaking violently.
First, it was the coil system, his mechanic told him. Then the problems got worse and the van’s air conditioning broke down.
The repairs were estimated to run between $1,500 and $1,800.
Sosnowski had no way to pay it.
“It’s been a struggle, believe me,” he said. “It set me back alright.”
He tried to borrow money, but everyone he knew was on a tight budget as well.
“If I have to get a job, I’ll get a job,” he thought. But then that would mess up his Social Security payments and his rent cap at Venetian Walk. And during a major housing crisis – sky-high rents and major shortages in affordable rentals – where could he go from there?
A short-term auto repair threatened to upend his whole life.
A return to the sky
That’s when someone told him about the Senior Friendship Centers.
Ola Medrzycki, the Friendship at Home Manager, had a way to help.
“That was the last hope I had, was with Ola,” he said.
She turned to Season of Sharing to pay more than $1,600 for the auto repairs.
Sosnowski was grateful, able to get back on his feet.
Most importantly, it’s allowed him to think ahead to an important goal: to see his friends.
At 74 – with his parents long gone and his peers dying off – Sosnowski feels the tug of time.
It’s been four or five years since he’s been back North.
One of his dearest friends – someone he’s known since age 12, who flew with him numerous times – is on dialysis. He lives in the Connecticut town where he and Sosnowski grew up.
Sosnowski is a godfather to the man’s oldest son, and he’s resolved to save up for the plane ticket.
“I’ve got to get up there this summer, by hell or high water,” he said
He’s already thinking about the nonstop flight from Sarasota – the familiar course he once flew himself into New Haven, Connecticut.
See this story as it originally appeared in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on Dec. 28, 2022, here.
Written by Saundra Amrhein, photo by Mike Lang, Sarasota Herald-Tribune.