AOPA Pilot Magazine - April 2021 - 24

FLYING LIFE

The missing man formation

BY NATALIE BINGHAM HOOVER

How pilots say goodbye to loved ones
THE NIGHT BEFORE MY FATHER'S FUNERAL, we threw a
party at our house. It was a first-rate throwdown complete with all the things dad had said he would want
for a thing like this, including the speakers set to Garth
Brooks and the Eagles, freely flowing Bud Light, and
a huge sign hanging on the back patio that said " Bon
Voyage. " The next day at the funeral, Dad's best friend
from the U.S. Air Force told irreverent stories that were
Dad's favorites until the priest literally ushered him out
of the pulpit. It was, I thought, the greatest sendoff anyone has ever had.

My son couldn't understand what was
happening, but I still felt grateful to be
standing there, holding his little hand in
mine, as I said goodbye to a friend.

NATALIE BINGHAM
HOOVER is a CFI,
CFII, and MEI who
has logged more
than 3,000 hours as
a flight instructor.

24 | AOPA PILOT April 2021

That was, until I went to an aviation-style memorial in 2020. Doug Spillars, the man who hired me for
my first pilot job as a certificated flight instructor at
his flight school, died after a long battle with cancer.
Mike, Doug's longtime business partner, popped his
head in my office one afternoon after Doug had passed.
" Hey, this Saturday, at 2 p.m., we're doing a little thing
for Doug down at the hangar. " I had no idea what to
expect, never having attended a memorial service at
the airport. But assuming it would be casual, I brought
my 6-year-old son along, as does any working parent
who can't stand to miss a Saturday with the kids. We
donned our 2020 masks and walked up to the hangar
where people stood spread out in small groups or in
lawn chairs under the wings on the ramp. There were
long tables of barbecue and Diet Coke, and, to my son's
delight, a big basket of packaged chips. We picked a bag
of crunchy Cheetos and went to find Mike.
" Keep your eyes up, " he told us. " They're about to
do the missing man formation. "
I'd never heard of the missing man formation before,
but once it was over, I walked away thinking maybe that
was the best sendoff ever. (Sorry, Dad.)
For those of you, like me, who were unaware of
this beautiful aviation tradition, the missing man formation, as described by Wikipedia, is " an aerial salute
performed as part of a flypast of aircraft at a funeral or
memorial event, typically in memory of a fallen pilot...

service member, or a well-known political figure. " The
missing man (see " Briefing: Aerial Tributes, " October
2020 AOPA Pilot) has been performed for Ronald
Reagan, Dale Earnhardt Sr., and Neil Armstrong, just to
name a few folks you might have heard of. Although aviation gets the credit for starting the practice, the missing
man formation has adaptations that have been seen in
everything from racecar driving to football.
Here's how it went for Doug: As we all stood on
the ramp, facing Olive Branch's lone runway, three aircraft flew by in formation: a bright-red Pitts, flanked
by two Beechcraft Bonanzas. As the aircraft flew overhead, a kilt-clad man marched along in the grass playing
Amazing Grace on his bagpipe to a stunned, silent
crowd. On the second pass, the Pitts pilot broke off from
the group and flew straight up and out of sight, leaving
the Bonanzas to fly on without him.
" Doug loved a hangar party, " Mike whispered as
we watched the airplanes overhead. My son couldn't
understand what was happening, and there was no way
I could have explained it to him past the lump in my
throat, but I still felt grateful to be standing there, holding his little hand in mine, as I said goodbye to a friend.
When we got home that night, my husband asked
our son about his trip to the airport. " It was really cool,
Dad. A red airplane with two wings flew straight up to
Heaven. " OK, so maybe he did get it after all-the important part, anyway. For Dad and Doug, neither memorial
service was a particularly spiritual event, but we weren't
burying bishops. We were honoring our father or friend
or son or husband in the way that felt right to us, by
celebrating the everyday things they loved while they
were with us. The family back patio and the airport
ramp became sacred spaces, surrounded not by rafters
and stained glass, but by blue sky and old friends. With
churches closed and gatherings restricted, 2020 was a
year when so many people passed away without a formal memorial service of any kind. But I hope you were
able to find a way to say goodbye to your loved ones in
a way that reminded you of the good times.
When I go, my wish is that my friends and family
will be able to gather and tell stories that make them
laugh. There should probably be ice cream involved,
and good wine, maybe airplane rides for the kids,
and some version played of The Old Rugged Cross.
Bagpipes not required.
AOPA
myaviation101.com


http://www.myaviation101.com

AOPA Pilot Magazine - April 2021

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of AOPA Pilot Magazine - April 2021

Contents
AOPA Pilot Magazine - April 2021 - Intro
AOPA Pilot Magazine - April 2021 - Cover1
AOPA Pilot Magazine - April 2021 - Cover2
AOPA Pilot Magazine - April 2021 - Contents
AOPA Pilot Magazine - April 2021 - 2
AOPA Pilot Magazine - April 2021 - 3
AOPA Pilot Magazine - April 2021 - 4
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AOPA Pilot Magazine - April 2021 - Cover3
AOPA Pilot Magazine - April 2021 - Cover4
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