One Week, Two Losses


It wasn’t a funeral, because Jack Arthur, 62, never wanted one, and we don’t do gloomy at this Midwest country airport (6Z6). Instead, to honor a departed pilot, who’d suffered a heart attack, we assembled for the Missing Man Formation preflight briefing.

We the living, some with non-FAA/PMA stents in our breaking hearts, cling to tradition in hard times. The plan was for a five-ship V-formation to fly overhead, then midfield above the bereaved, one element pitches up and turns west to signify the deceased pilot metaphorically going west … to Nebraska, perhaps.      

Not being flippant, but I simply despise losing a pilot friend of over 30 years who’d recently retired from teaching and was nearly done building his dream hangar. He’d planned to spend the next decades restoring Ercoupes, the stubby classic for discriminating aficionados. To truly live demands passion, and Coupes were among Jack’s. Yeah, I’d rib him (see June AVweb blog “Don’t Need No Rudders”), but he’d smile and counter, “Any time you want to fly a real airplane …” I never made the time, and now it was time for his sendoff. 

Because I owned the slowest airplane and was mediocre at formation flying, I was designated lead. I’d planned to use my ‘46 Aeronca Champ, but it was still in the shop awaiting the local mechanic, Craig, to finish an annual inspection. Instead, he planned to take time off to fly his Aeronca Chief as wingman to my substitute Citabria.

Someone suggested we scatter Jack’s ashes from the formation, but I paused to remember my one bungling attempt at that 21 years earlier. I’d lost a student. Couldn’t find him anywhere. Turns out, he’d drilled himself into a field while strapped to an ultralight. If you enjoy flying lawn chairs with engines, well … fine, but I won’t scatter your ashes.

Here’s why: I agreed to scatter my ex-student’s ashes above a sunrise celebration-of-life ceremony. Having never performed an ash scattering, I figured it couldn’t be too difficult to fly solo with a sack full of dead guy on my lap. Over the open-air assembly of mourners, I steadied the control stick between my knees and carefully opened the bag to disperse the ashy bits into my wake, so he could slip the surly bonds of …. 

It was a goat-roping mess, as a powdery blast immediately sucked into the cockpit, coating my sunglasses. Reverting to “fly the airplane,” I ripped off the glasses and accidentally released the bag of remains, which spiraled to the ground where it exploded in a Wile E. Coyote puff, compromising the touch-the-face-of-God poetry originally envisioned.  Repressing that memory, I returned to the present and announced there’d be no aerial ash hauling. Doable, but not by me, not today.

I suggested, instead, spreading him from the airport’s tractor when we reseed the runway in spring. Figurative rebirth and all that. Jack would giggle, knowing he’s keeping the field green for future generations. Jack’s Missing Man Formation went off well, but Craig wasn’t available, because two days prior, my intended wingman, Craig Martin, 62, died of a sudden heart attack, despite holding a valid FAA medical certificate, making death if not impossible, certainly illegal.  

In Ernest Gann tradition, Craig was a true “gentleman of adventure.”  A working commercial pilot, mechanic and parachute rigger, he was quick to smile while offering you a beer at sunset outside his hangar. An avid skydiver, he’d politely laugh at the tired old saw, “Never catch me jumpin’ out of a perfectly good airplane.” Fine. Stay on the ground.

Craig believed in perfectly good parachutes and knew that should his fail, well, he’d had a perfectly good life. Our Missing Man Formation performed admirably, despite missing yet another truly great man. Yeah, I’m bitter but realistic as I struggle to discern the bright spots.

We lost two airport friends within days of each other. My friend, Wayne—still alive—mused that when you’re born and the nurse slaps your butt, somewhere an hourglass inverts. When the last grain slips through the surly neck of unknown fortune, then it’s time to push away from that which binds, especially funerals, and enjoy the freefall into infinitely new dimensions beyond words ….

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  1. Paul, I enjoyed your piece in spite of the fact that it deals with a sobering subject / the age old mystery. You have my sympathies for the loss of your two friends. Keep on flying — it’s a fine way to remind yourself you are indeed still alive.

  2. Being 67 in a few days this story touched me a lot. For various reasons, it has now been almost 50 years since I did my solo, but my teacher then one day told me about his first pupil, a young girl, that crashed on her first take off.

    It still affected him, after all those years.

    He had waved her off, and the classic glider had accelerated down the runway, as so many times before. To his horror, as soon as the winch wire released, the Bergfalke 3 had dived straight down.

    Another friend had a similar experience, but this kid, also in his late teens, was at altitude when the elevator controls died on him, he could dive, but not climb. Thankfully, the ailerons worked normally. He got orders from the ground to abandon the plane, so he ejected the canopy, took off his harness and was just about to jump when he noticed that while sitting on the backrest of the front seat, the plane stopped diving, due to the drag of his body, so by controlling the stick with his right foot, for aileron input, and waving his arms up and down he had a modicum of control, and eventually managed to land totally unharmed.

  3. Beautifully written blog, Paul. Hoping that your passion and love of flight and writing will heal any wounds of the heart from the loss of these two great friendships of yours.