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.”
He 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.
Don’s son asked, “What lesson?”
“Pay attention to wind direction.”
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
(6-1-1923 to 6-5-2000)