“You need to be prepared. When you return from this adventure, you will no longer be friends.”
We were sitting in a small Russian apartment in Moscow, with various people around the table, and wine glasses and warm bread in front of us. We were listening to a Russian adventurer that made numerous treks with National Geographic.
He was very confident that this friendship was on its way out the door after we returned from this flight. All of his friendships made during the planning had ended during or very soon after the adventures.
When Nikki and I left that apartment, we were silent in the car while Olga drove us back to our lodging. I knew both of us were thinking the same thing. Why does that have to be? What changes the friendship? What can we do to prevent this from happening?
I met Nikki Mitchell in the summer of 1996 at the Lebanon, TN airport. She had purchased an airplane out of a barn and her flight training didn’t qualify her to fly it. It was still sitting in that barn and she was looking for the instructor that would train her on it.
I walked from the hangar into the airport lobby, carrying a 12″ needle in one hand and an iron in the other. Never one to sit back and just wonder, she walked over and asked why I had these items at an airport. I explained that I was teaching out of a 1946 Piper J3 Cub and it was a fabric-covered plane. One of my students damaged the fabric and I was repairing it.
That conversation turned into Nikki immediately hiring me as her new tailwheel instructor. We didn’t know that the adventure had just started.
During our first two months of flying together, we talked about our childhood similarities. She was raised in Texas on a cattle ranch, with a strong mother and a father who let her know there were no boundaries to what she could accomplish.
I was raised in Arkansas by a hard-working mother and a crop duster father, who threw me in an airplane at nine months old and encouraged me as I grew up and entered the male-dominated world of aviation. We were both Daddy’s girls.
At this time, Nikki spoke about three Soviet women who broke a long distance non-stop aviation record in 1938. I had never heard of the “Flight of the Rodina” before. Rodina means “Motherland” in Russian. Nikki casually asked, “Do you think this plane could retrace that flight and would you want to do it together?” I replied “Yes, to it all.” That was all it took to start planning the adventure.
We worked every day on planning of this “around the world” flight and it took two years for us to put everything together. Our friendship was so strong that when we lost most our sponsors, because Russia had not given us permission to do the flight, we started hocking each other’s possessions. I remember calling her to ask if she had the title to her Isuzu Trooper, because I had just taken out a loan on it. We had a very flexible bank officer helping us.
When we took off on July 4, 1998, we embarked on one of the best friendship-building adventures that I have ever been a part of. It was friendship-building because we had listened to and addressed the comment from the Russian adventurer, “you need to be prepared.” He meant prepared to lose the friendship. We meant to take preparations not to lose the friendship.
Nikki and I sat down one night and got brutally honest with each other. The first question we asked each other was, “What do you think your strengths and weaknesses are?” Nikki started telling me what she thought hers were. Then it was my turn. I told her what I saw as my strengths and then my weaknesses.
The second question was, “What do you see as my strengths and then my weaknesses?” It was incredibly hard and eye-opening for both of us. I believe it would be for anyone. Then we made a promise to each other – when we encountered a situation where she needed to use her strength, I would step back and support her. When it was my turn to use my strength, she would step back and do the same. We never failed to do this. We took it seriously.
Nikki and I passed that exercise on a few years later to a couple of young men who were planning a flight around the world. After they returned, they told me it was the most important advice that they had received.
When you spend two years planning and 49 days on the adventure, you know each other pretty well. We laughed about our stories while we were flying across the North Atlantic. We had told them so many times, we just started numbering them and saying, “How about #17” and then would burst out laughing.
I could go on about our friendship all day long. It’s a bright light in my life and a deep hole in my heart. The world lost Nikki to pancreatic cancer 15 years and five days after the day we took off on that adventure. She was full of grace, strength, love, and warmth during the 31 months she fought the disease. She honored me by allowing me to become her caregiver and I promised her I would be there throughout the whole journey.
She would have done it for me. We never failed each other.
The Nikki Mitchell Foundation was launched one month after her death. Nikki left a notebook of instructions and a goal to serve cancer patients, create awareness and find a cure to this nasty disease. She left us a “New Adventure”.