LAKE CHARLESTON - Vanessa Metzler didn't realize she'd witness a thing of beauty when she came to the lake Wednesday afternoon.
She and many other spectators gathered between the Alex Russell Memorial Pavilion and the floating fishing pier to see a red and white Cessna 172XP with pontoons land on the mirror-like waters of Lake Charleston. The plane, appropriately named "Samantha the Swan," brought a retired Air Force general and his pilot fiancée from North Carolina to Coles County for a weekend music fundraiser helping veterans through the Horses for Heroes therapy program.
"My dad told me to come out here and take pictures of this. He was bummed out because he missed it because of work," said the 18-year-old Metzler after she had shot images on a small camera. "I've never seen anything like it. It was exciting and beautiful."
Gus and Marie King of Charleston were waiting to say hello to retired Air Force Gen. Larry Huggins and his flight instructor fiancée Susan Van Fleet. They had met the couple during the summer and wanted to see the landing, the first scheduled water landing of a plane in the history of Lake Charleston.
"We never thought they'd pull it off," said King, a National Guard veteran, referring to the efforts to gain permission for landing the plane on the water in Lake Charleston. Of course, it's hard to turn down a general's request especially when he is helping out heroes.
As the plane was secured to the wooden pier, some young children were anxious to say hello to a passenger in the aircraft. Molly, an energetic Labrador Retriever, jumped out of the plane and then took a leap off the pier into the cool water of Lake Charleston. After shaking herself off, the dog had gained her land legs back.
As Huggins and Van Fleet met the small crowd of welcomers, he asked a dark-haired girl if she wanted to be a pilot. She shook her head and admitted to a fear of heights.
"She's scared of heights, too. And not only that but she can't swim," the Vietnam War veteran said as he pointed to Van Fleet with a laugh.
Huggins and his way with words brought the couple together. He was speaker for a conference at an airport one year and Van Fleet was smitten with the jet pilot who used to fly an F105 jet as a decoy for drawing North Vietnamese surface-to-air missiles away from American fighter bombers.
"He was like a movie star to me," she said. They are engaged to be married next month in North Carolina.
They keep on the move helping with different fundraisers, especially for veterans. The Horses for Heroes fundraiser is scheduled from 1 to 3:30 p.m. Saturday at the Paradise Equestrian Therapy Center, located at 18146E County Road 750N off the East Harrison Road southeast of Charleston.
Huggins said the concert will have great Bluegrass music and old-time string music bands, including Hog Wire, Patt & Possum and the New Mules. Money raised will help the Horses for Heroes program that helps military personnel suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries and other debilitating medical conditions.
"Anything people here can do to help the veterans we appreciate. And thanks for letting us land on the lake, too," Huggins said. "The amazing thing is so many of these wounded veterans are fighting against getting a medical discharge. They want to keep serving anyway they can even though they've lost a limb," Huggins said.
The couple regularly flies to different states to boost fundraising efforts. They also enjoy the scenery as they travel. Molly, who wears special earmuff to protect her ears from the plane engine noise, likes to look at any ducks below.
"It was beautiful coming over the mountains from North Carolina. The trees were changing. That trip would take a day and a half by car but this was a straight shot for us," Van Fleet said. The plane did get refueling in Kentucky that offered a lunch break.
Their trip ended with a perfect landing on a magnificent fall day and a moment that made history as well as lifelong memories for a teenager and others on hand to see it happen.
Contact Meeker at firstname.lastname@example.org or 238-6869.