Monday Mourning

From the Archive – 10/17/2005

It was a lousy way to start a week, and a terrible reason to get back to posting here after an 11 day absence . . . I found out this morning that two students from Seattle’s Aviation High School, Brittany Boatright and Kandyce Cowart, were among the three people killed in the crash of a Piper Cherokee 140 near Paine Field in Everett, WA on Saturday. The two were participating in an EAA-sanctioned “Young Eagles” flight – a program in which young people are matched with willing and experienced pilots to give them their first flight. To date, the program has flown more than 1.2 million students – before last Saturday, those flights had a perfect safety record. Those statistics are admirable, even incredible, but they’re not of much comfort today.

Our team has a close relationship with the staff, faculty, and students at AHS. They use Flight Simulator in a number of ways in their curriculum, and they’re brought here to Microsoft in groups meet the team and tour our facility. In addition, I sat on an advisory committee to advocate for the school to representatives of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and served on a panel of judges for students’ final project presentations as part of their History of Aircraft Design class. My proudest moment, however, came just 5 weeks ago, when I was honored to be the keynote speaker for the opening day of their second school year, welcoming a student body that had just doubled to two hundred. When the principal introduced me as, among many other things, “ . . . one of the school’s best friends”, all I could think was “Well, the feeling is mutual.”

I have friends on the board like Erik and Ron, friends like principal Reba and visiting teacher Gus . . . I’m sure they’d all agree, however, that it is the students that are most remarkable. Friends of mine that I’ll mention only by the nicknames I’ve assigned them, like “Monkey Story”, “Falco”, “Extra Canopy Bug Guy”, and, umm, “Andrew”, and of course, my key operative in the student body, “Cheesy”.  These are not average high school students by any measure – they are among the most intelligent, engaged, focused, enthusiastic and (they may not like me for this) mature and polite people I’ve ever known, of any age.

Like most people, sometime in my earlier-thirties, I woke up in the morning with an official case of adult cynicism, and that’s when I started using phrases like “these kids today”, “when I was your age”, and “I fear for the future”, and actually meaning them.

What a pleasant surprise, then, to meet first a hundred and then another hundred teenagers and be so quickly and easily proven completely wrong.

And then . . . what a tragedy when their numbers are suddenly, randomly, and senselessly down by two.

I didn’t know Brittany and Kandyce personally, but, if they attended the first day of school, they heard me say, in among my other rambling and tangential remarks, how lucky they were – lucky to have found an amazing school, lucky to have found a way to wrap their education in passion, and most of all, lucky to have the leadership and experience of the newly-minted sophomore class to guide them. It was hard this morning not to feel especially bitter about that, asking myself if I still thought any of them were lucky. Of course I do, just as I feel lucky to count an entire school full of amazing people among my friends.  And just as I would have felt lucky if I had gotten the chance to meet Brittany and Kandyce before they . . . left.

It sounds like a terrible cliché, but Aviation High School really is like a big family – more to the point, they’re like a friend’s family that welcomes you as one of their own, without the baggage, and that you spend time with by choice, not simply because of an accident of birth. 

Being a family, they will feel these losses more strongly than some schools might. Thankfully, being a family, especially one of such unusual character also means that they will find that much more strength, and be in the position to help each other cope, to see each other through.

One of the many things that seems so unfair is the fact that they didn’t need a tragedy to bring them together – they were already close, already strong. One of the many things that makes me feel so terribly guilty is that it did take a tragedy to move me to write about the school here. My friends deserve better.

We don’t know yet what caused the crash, and may never know all of the details with any certainty. Eventually, that will matter, but not today – no amount of investigation, no detailed analysis will restore three lives ended early. There is some comfort in the old and tired bromide that says that Brittany, Kandyce, and the pilot, Mr. Hokanson, died doing what they wanted to do. Right now, that doesn’t do much to offset the shock of a happy and exciting beginning turning so abruptly into a dreadful and tragic ending. But, over time, it will help.

According to one media outlet, the AHS students’ most recent quote of the week was from the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, side one (back when albums were albums and had sides), track 2 – “With a Little Help from My Friends”.  I applaud their taste, not leastwise because they chose a song that’s not only before their time, but before mine, making me feel at least a little younger in the process. With that in mind, I’ll close this with the clumsy and hastily assembled words I wrote for the card that accompanied the flowers we had sent to the school this morning:

“To the staff, faculty, students, and families of Aviation High School:

None of the best things in life are without risk, but that lesson should never have to come at such a terrible price. You will all get by with a little help from your friends – just please remember that you have friends here, too.”

I assume that information about preferred remembrances will be forthcoming, and I will do my best to promote and support those efforts as they emerge. In the meantime, I’d recommend that anyone that is so inclined consider doing whatever they can to support and promote the cause of aviation education – the Richard Harvey Scholarship would not be a bad place to start.

UPDATE:

This article mentions that:

"A fund has been established to help the families of the two Aviation High School students who died Saturday in a small plane crash. Donations may be made by check to “Brittany Boatright & Kandyce Cowart” and deposited at any branch of U.S. Bank."

The US Bank account number for the fund is: # 1535 5735 1472.

For those who want to remember the pilot, Eugene Hokanson, as well, I’d recommend a donation to and / or membership in the EAA.

My thanks to all who have written and / or commented with words of support.

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