Dr. David Coats was a dear friend who was a true aviation aficionado and a fixture at the Cherokee County Airport (JSO). After a long bout with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL), he recently passed away (May 2013). Those of us who knew him best at JSO wanted to do something special to commemorate his life. This is the story of a special flight about a special man performed and recorded by some special people. I hope you enjoy. Here’s the link to a superb video of the flight.
About 2 weeks before he passed away, Dr. Coats called me and gave the report that things were not going well for him physically and that this trip to MD Anderson Hospital could be his last. It was a very matter-of-fact discussion that was a real demonstration of love to his family as he did not want them to worry about logistics after he was gone. He asked that I spread his ashes from an airplane, for which I instantly agreed. I gave him my hope for a good recovery and spoke my last words to him. Within 2 weeks he had gone to meet our Lord.
I had lots of communication with the family after he passed, was asked to speak at his memorial service, and then started to ponder an appropriate way to handle the aerial ash spreading. A quick review of online accounts of what to do and what not to do gave me the understanding that this was not to be an easy task. Do it right and everyone is happy…do it wrong and the everyone in the cockpit will be choking on ashes. Do it right and there would be a wonderful memory, do it wrong the vacuum cleaner would be sucking up ashes from the airplane carpet. The stakes were high but the mission important.
The best method appeared to be to deploy a “package” (with Dr. Coats’ ashes) that was wrapped up in a rope. The idea is to place the ashes in a paper bag that has small handles attached (I used a bag from a shoe store). Then the bag is rolled up with a rope that is long enough so the package unrolls and “opens” beyond the tail of the airplane. For the Malibu, the problem was making the package small enough to get out the small “whiskey hatch” (the small window within the left window) without breaking first. I was concerned (justifiably, as proved later in a practice flight).
I decided that the Malibu was the proper steed to use for the flight. Dr. Coats owned N4388M for over 24 years and there really was no debate…no other airplane would be suitable. The current owners (thanks Don and Lynda!) gave permission…no, they demanded that I use their airplane as this was just too special an occasion. Next, Jack Porbeck (JSO Pilot Association President) put out the word amongst the local pilots that plans were being developed.
That word being put out by Jack turned out to be critical because it notified Kevin Miller (owner of KM Aviation, an aircraft painting company at JSO). Kevin wanted to be involved and offered his C-182 for a formation flight. He wanted to do a Missing Man Flyby to properly honor Dr. Coats. Two airplanes don’t make a spectacular formation, so Ryne Bergren offered to fly Dr. Coats’ other airplane, a pristine Flight Design CTLS. So with three airplanes, we began our preparations.
3 days prior to the event Kevin, Ryne, and myself held a pre-mission briefing for the practice run. I’ve done lots of formation flying in the Army flying Blackhawks and Apaches, but little in the civilian world. Kevin and Ryne had little experience, but lots of passion and desire. I briefed the flight like we would a military mission, and hoped Ryne and Kevin had the flight aptitude to make it happen. Our first attempt at formation flying went flawlessly. We only used two airplanes with myself as “lead” in the Malibu and Kevin and Ryne both flying the C-182. Kevin proved to be a superb formation pilot and kept in perfect position throughout the whole flight. I felt much better, but we still had to practice another flight with all 3 of us and Ryne was unproven.
James Reynolds is the grandson of Dr. Coats and he comes for a visit to Texas every summer with the highlight of the trip being “training flights” with Dr. Coats. I had the opportunity to fly with James this year in Dr. Coats’ absence, and I learned that James is not only “bitten by the aviation bug”, he’s a dang good student pilot (he’s only 14 years old) who will be a fantastic pilot when he turns 17. So, it seemed only appropriate for James to be the one to toss the ashes. James joined myself and Kevin for all additional training flights.
Our team was ready for the flight, but there was one team member that we still needed. We wanted to record the event and so I placed a call to Rick Morrison with Abba Productions, a company at JSO that makes videos for businesses and individuals who “have a story to tell”. Rick jumped at the chance, and I’m so glad he did! He installed a camera on the outside of the Malibu and then also recorded the flight from the drop zone. The resulting video of the flight was singularly outstanding (I’m sure you’ll agree!).
Dr. Coats never told me where to drop his ashes, but his wife Emily came up with the neat idea to drop the ashes at Love’s Lookout, a local rest stop on HWY 69 that boasts a wonderful view of East Texas. Emily said it was Dr. Coats’ favorite part of the drive from his home to the airport. So, with with all of the people in place and a plan for success, we pressed on.
On the day of the event I wanted to test the whole routine, but mostly wanted to test the deployment of the “package”. I made a “dummy package” with wildflower seed (thanks Dr. Spence!) mixed with soil that was to be about the same size as the real “package”. When we flew the test flight, the package rolled out of the airplane, but got caught up (with the smaller twine that I used) and did not fully unroll and did not deploy. I used a bag made with fabric, which proved to be far too durable. As the “dummy package” was pulled back in to the airplane without deployment, I had a sinking feeling that things were not going to go well for the real mission. I went back to the hangar and re-rolled the real package with a heavier rope (that hopefully would not snag as it unrolled) and ensured that the paper bag was ready.
We chose 7:30pm on a Saturday to be the date of the event. The Lord provided a perfect evening of weather. There were small storms all over East Texas this evening, but none in the immediate area. The area storms provided shade from the setting sun and ensured that the air was perfectly calm. It could not have been any nicer.
Dr. Coats’ wife (Emily), son (Jason), daughter (Catherine), and grandson (James) joined me in the Malibu and Kevin and Ryne took off soon after in the C-182 and the CTLS. The sun glinted through some of the clouds providing a really nice sunset and we formed up for flight. Radio communication was established with Rick at Love’s Lookout (he even recorded the radio chatter!) and we proceeded to the huge overlook. Ryne and Kevin flew perfectly snug. It was so impressive to see them fly with precision when they knew the pressure (and cameras) were on. With a countdown from 5-4-3-2-1, Ryne climbed up sharply and James deployed the “package”. It could not have gone any more beautifully! The package deployed and then broke up in the vortices of the Malibu (as seen in the video) and everyone on the ground was pleased.
More importantly, the Coats’ were clearly moved by the occasion. It was clear to them that lots of practice, energy, and coordination had gone into the flight. I was thrilled to have been a part of a flight that required the professionalism of so many people. Kevin and Ryne flew with tremendous precision, Rick (as always) set the cameras exactly right and created the video, and lots of coordination occurred by lots of other people to make the flight a really special event that truly did honor the memory of Dr. Coats. This was one special trip for one special guy.