Flying And Fathers

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Sometimes in this job you find a story that goes far beyond a love of airplanes and fascination with flight to connect on a personal level. Such was the case when I came across an article about Southwest pilot Bryan Knight, who flew his Vietnam veteran father’s remains home fifty-two years after Col. Roy Knight Jr. was shot down flying a mission over enemy territory in Laos. Discovered more than five decades after his loss, Knight’s remains were transported to Honolulu, Hawaii, and then to Oakland, California. Bryan Knight was captain on the Southwest flight that carried his father from Oakland to Dallas, Texas.

The aircraft landed at Dallas Love Field (DAL), the same airport where the family had said goodbye to Roy Knight Jr. five decades previously, last week. It was greeted by a water salute from airport firetrucks and Col. Knight’s remains were received with full military honors. It has been reported that a gate agent shared the family’s story over the airport intercom while hundreds of passengers stood quietly at the terminal windows, bearing witness to the terribly bittersweet homecoming.

Bryan Knight’s willingness and ability to honor his father’s legacy, to perform this loving duty with the support of not just his family, but his employer and crew, brought home to me again how very tightly this community of ours can weave itself together sometimes. It reminded me of the respect and dignity aviation can bring to one of the hardest things we face as human beings. Not least because of how much the gift of flight meant when it was time to say my own farewells.

The last conversation I ever had with my father was about airplanes. As I was leaving his New Jersey hospital room to return to school in Arizona, I told him I’d take him flying soon. We talked about destinations, finally agreeing that we should plan something that would let him see the Grand Canyon from the air, since it was close to school and we’d gone on a fantastic trip there a few years earlier. We both knew there was almost no chance of the flight happening and that I was only going back to school under extreme protest.

I walked out of that room believing I wasn’t going to see him again. At that point, cancer had won and we were just waiting in that in-between place where the doctors stop trying to say anything positive and start asking gently if you’ve made all the plans you need to. He couldn’t leave the bed and, shortly thereafter, was too tired to say more than “I love you” on the phone. Talking about that future flight gave us both something to hang onto, smoothing one or two of the sharp edges off of that last goodbye and offering a temporary safe haven of better times and things we’d loved.

I’m the first in my family to fly. It was a strange new world for my loved ones, who, I think, weren’t always sure what to do with a kid who wanted wings. They were encouraging and supportive in spite of that. The moment I expressed interest in pursuing aviation as a career, Dad brought me to meet with the aviation professors at the university where he taught. He was also my first passenger.

The ink wasn’t even dry on my certificate before we were sitting together in an old Cessna 152 at the end of the runway at Terre Haute Hulman Field (HUF), where I’d learned to fly. I remember him looking at me and saying, “This is so much worse than driver’s ed. I have no idea what to do if something goes wrong.” I remember laughing my way through takeoff and promising him with all of the assurance of a bulletproof, immortal 19-year-old that it was OK, because I did.

Once we had a good bit of altitude, I let him fly, shadowing him on the controls and trying to pretend like I wasn’t watching every move made by the man who’d taught me to drive, build boats, patch drywall for potentially dangerous deviations. He was grinning like he did when we went sailing, which was his passion. Upon our return home, he regaled the family with (somewhat embellished) stories of our first airborne adventure. Mom was worried he might want lessons too. I hoped he would, but, sadly, he never did. He stuck to flying with me instead.

Knight was five years old when he said goodbye to his father for the last time. I was 25 when I said goodbye to mine. My dad was not a member of the military and I didn’t fly him home, but the Knights’ story brought back the peace and dignity that aviation gave our own last goodbye. I can’t thank them enough for their openness in sharing their journey.

In September, it will be eleven years since my father died. I still find myself wanting to reach for the phone to tell him about it after I’ve had a particularly wild flight (Aerostars!) or when his two-year-old granddaughter, my niece, correctly names every aircraft picture in my phone gallery. All of that said, I couldn’t be more grateful that every time I get in an airplane, part of what comes with me is memories of my dad.

In memory of Terence W. O’Connor, 1952-2008

3 COMMENTS

  1. Indeed memories keep ones alive in our hearts. I remember at 10 years old flying with my dad and cousin in a C172 from Des Moines, IA to Denver Co. It was one sad day for my dad when due to heart bypass surgery he lost his airman medical. Back then special issuances after recovery did not exist. At my dad’s encouragement I got my Private certificate while finishing high school, that was my graduation present from him. I didn’t have to ask twice for a flying partner after his left seat days were done as he was willing to go any time and take controls from the right seat at least part of every flight we made together.

    One of my daughters has fond memories of her and I flying C152s and C172s up and down the central coast of CA when we lived there (beautiful sunsets at times). Back in Iowa now I as able to take her son at 3 years old on his first flight last winter. He was all grins and I’m hopeful he and I have more flights to come.

  2. Kate, thank you for sharing this message from your heart.

    The story of Col. Knight’s return home in the embrace of his son’s Southwest 737 is, as you say, a wonderful example of “how very tightly this community of ours can weave itself together sometimes.” The Knight story was recounted on various public websites, and I was pleased to see by the comments how it touched so many people. However, there were the few cynical, grouchy trolls who felt they had to criticize Southwest Airlines, accusing them of making a publicity stunt out of this story. I just shake my head in disbelief.