Last Lesson from Don

The last time I saw Don was two weeks before friends threw him out of their airplane over Winter Haven airport. Not many people get an air-show memorial service, but Don had his own way of living, so it seemed appropriate to send him off this way.

The memorial service took a few hours as pilots stood in the hangar and shared stories until they wept and sat back down. Grown men, pilots who had survived combat, guys who didn’t flinch during an engine failure or at the smell of smoke in the cockpit, buried their faces in handkerchiefs. The Quiet Birdmen sniffled. Don, one man announced, had flown in the Berlin airlift in WWII. This amazing, beloved, gentlemanly flight instructor had guided me through the hurricane season in central Florida one flight at a time. And he never said, “You did that well for a girl.”

planes in missing man formationHe taught me loops and rolls, spins, stalls, and emergency procedures, none of which frightened me as much as standing in front of his peers to praise him. As a writer, I was elected to speak on behalf of his students. I stood behind the podium to hide my quaking knees to deliver the eulogy.

“Don loved to fly. He said he knew he wanted to fly the first time he saw a plane overhead. He wanted to be in the sky and he believed he could fly. He flew for fun, for the joy of being airborne in  loops and rolls and spins. He flew for his country with honor and distinction. He talked about planes and looked at planes with a passion women envied. He measured his time in the sky not in hours, but in logbooks. He flew to teach others, to pass along the skills and–whenever possible–to pass along that passion.

“I was one of his students. I hear his voice when I fly, reminding me step by step, to reach for professionalism. In five years of flying with him, I heard him raise his voice only once. He was teaching me the differences between a Cessna 172 and a retractable-gear 182. We had just landed and were taxing to the ramp when he reminded me to open the cowl flaps. I had put my hand on the gear switch.

“He didn’t scare easily, but I did embarrass him once. We were headed to St. Petersburg airport and Tampa approach gave me instructions at auctioneer speed. Don had often told me to loosen my grip on the yoke and to lighten up about flying. So I did. I asked approach to slow down and give me the instructions in blonde speed. Approach spoke slowly and distinctly. Don then told me we would not be stopping in St. Pete for lunch because he didn’t want anyone to know he was in the plane.

“Don loved to fly so much he and his friends built a Murphy Rebel. Flying wasn’t his hobby or part-time job. Flaying was his passion and now part of his legacy. Our lives are better because Don replaced our fears with abilities and our doubts with knowledge. Now when planes fly over, we can look up and remind ourselves, that thanks to Don, the world is bigger. We can fly.”

After the hanger service we gathered outside under the blazing Florida sun and enjoyed an easterly breeze. We, his students, were part of his legacy. While we waited for a memorial fly-by in the missing-man formation, we swapped stories. Don made 77 seem young. He lived with gusto.

Don believed in reincarnation, which prompted one gruff-voiced pilot to say, “I guess he’ll have to come back as a bird.”

“Have to be an eagle,” another pilot said. All agreed.

“Well,” a fellow Christian pilot snorted, “I wonder what he’ll say to God when he gets to heaven.”

Three of us answered in unison, “When can I fly?”

All heads turned toward the sound of the approaching planes in the bright blue sky. Each plane represented part of his aviation career: a military trainer, a seaplane, the Cessna 173 he owned and the Murphy Rebel he had helped build but never flew. Of course, Don’s ashes were loaded into the Murphy Rebel so he could finally ride in it. His ashes were mixed with a pound of flour for better visibility. The Murphy Rebel had taken six men seven years, two marriages, $60,000, one heart surgery, and umpteen thousand cigarettes to build. Originally Don had been designated as test pilot for the maiden flight by vote of the partners because he was the oldest.

Instead Skip Komlodi, the second oldest of the builders, had served as test pilot. Rumor had it the microphone was keyed on during the first landing and everyone tuned to the frequency heard language forbidden by FCC rules. When asked about it, Skip said he could neither confirm nor deny the use of profanity during the test flight. The men made a few adjustments to true out the plane in time to fly it for the service.

Don’s grandchildren pointed out the approaching planes with enthusiasm.

As the planes reached mid-field, one broke away. This missing-man formation was impressive in that such dissimilar planes could maintain formation. Suddenly, the ash and flour mix shot out of the plane. The wind spread the mixture in a great plume toward us, sending us scrambling back to the hangar.

“Leave it to Don to deliver one last lesson,” I whispered to Skip.

Skip grinned.

Don’s son asked, “What lesson?”

“Pay attention to wind direction.”

Post Script

The first aviation article I ever published was in the prominent (Airplane Owners and Pilot’s Association) AOPA Magazine. After Don read my praise for him in the article, he gave me a hug. Click here to read that article.

Don Thomas Kohler

(6-1-23 to 6-5-2000)


Six Percent Sound Off


Cessna Centurion 210

This is me with my favorite plane.

Let a headset mess your hair,

Break a nail, you don’t care,

You have earned the right to fly.

Goodbye roads and hello sky!

High wing, low wing, try them all,

Aerobatics have a ball.

If any man should give you flack,

Check your six, I got your back.


Only six percent of pilots are women. I wrote this to a pal when she earned her wings. She said to share it. So to my sisters in flight, whatever you fly, this one’s for you, too!


Six percent.

This is hubby’s favorite airplane. I am his co-pilot.

Triple Tree Fly-In near Greenville, SC

North pavillion

North pavillion

The 7th Annual Triple Tree Fly-In near Greenville, SC, will be held from September 4th to 8th, 2013. This is not your port-a-potty and picnic table kind of fly-in. No, siree. As a veteran of five Triple Tree Fly-Ins, I enthusiastically recommend it for the southern hospitality of everyone involved. In rain and shine, I’ve had fun at Triple Tree.

First of all, the Triple Tree Aerodrome (SC00) has a grass runway (03/21) with a tower manned by FAA volunteers from Greenville, SC., for special events. Pat Hartness, retired CEO of Hartness International, bought the tower for $100 from a nearby military airfield and had it cut into quarters from top to bottom and reassembled on the Triple Tree airstrip. He won’t tell me how much that effort cost.

South pavilion overlooking lake

South pavilion overlooking lake

Secondly, surrounding the grass strip lies 400 acres of lush camp ground, two small lakes, a wooden pavilion on the south end of the field,  two wooden restroom buildings with granite counter tops, and a large masonry building on the crest of a hill overlooking the north lake that has a walk-in fireplace and kitchen manned by an army of friendly volunteers.

Owned by Pat and Marylou Hartness, the Triple Tree Aerodrome is best known for hosting radio-controlled airplane events that features one quarter-, one-third and even half-scale models. (The power to weight ratio is off the scale for these models.) The September fly-in is referred to as a full-scale model event.

Pilots from KGIF

Pilots from KGIF

Pat Hartness has a hangar full of radio-controlled airplanes on display at the south end of the field near the larger of the two lakes and the large pavilion where the Saturday night BBQ is held on a bluff overlooking the field. His full-scale toys are also kept there when he doesn’t need the hangar for concerts and parties.

Greenville Jet Center supplies a fuel trailer and a van for the event. The local chapter of the Civil Air Patrol volunteers manpower and a VHF Comm Radio for the control tower. Vendors offer food, souvenirs, and some airplane supplies.

Hands-on workshop

Hands-on workshop

And for those pilots who want hands-on workshops, come to the south pavilion behind the hangar. Wherever you go on the field or in the pavilions enjoy hangar talk, tall tales and the company of like-minded aviation enthusiasts.

Fishing, hiking, karaoke and cookouts around the lake make this a fun family getaway. On occasion the Fly-In offers a day tour to nearby shopping areas, and plantations.

Triple Tree Tower

Triple Tree Tower

Participants can camp by their airplanes at the north end of the field. The larger curved lake at the south end of the field can accommodate sea planes. Those wishing to bring campers or recreational vehicles can park near restrooms and showers at the south end of the field where there are limited power hookups. Tent camping and self-powered trailer camping falls under the trees at the north end of the field. Walking on the landing strip is not allowed for safety reasons. For those who prefer to stay in hotels, see the website for local listings. For more information, such as approach procedures and frequencies, hotels and camping info, see the website:


RV-6 N661DJ

Hubby and I will be arriving in a red and white RV-6, N661DJ. See you there!