Friday, August 5, 2011

Ode to Keavy

Some predictable words were said over Keavy Nenninger's casket last week. If you stay in the flying game long enough, you'll hear that old overworked platitude. You'll hear it again and again. You'll hear it at the funerals and the memorials. You'll read it in the obits and the columns, in bars and hangars. 

She/he died doing what she/he loved.

I don't want to hear it.

If Keavy had a crystal ball before she went up that day—two weeks ago—and that ball told her she would crash, do you think she would say, “Well, I think I'll go up anyway. I love it so much, dying will be worth it.”?

No. She wouldn't. So don't tell me that. Instead, tell me she died living and loving her life. Because that was the essence of who Keavy was.

I've been flying for over 40 years. I've lost many friends and acquaintances. Most were military pilots. A few of them died in spectacular crashes that made big news and even history. But when word reached me about Keavy it hit me worse than any of the others. It was a kick in the gut.

She was our “airport girl,” a daughter-figure to us graying pilots. She washed our planes, fueled them, begged rides, and sat for hours at a time with us listening to the tales and the techniques. She couldn't get enough. I remember numerous times seeing her running toward me, arms open, then the hug and the great smile. And the question I always knew was coming: “Are you flying today?”

Of course I also saw her throw her arms around the likes of Pete, Gordy, George, Tom, Bosch, Steve, B.J. and anyone else who had a plane. She especially loved us warbird drivers.

I took to Keavy because I never had a daughter. If I did, I would want her be like Keavy.

I knew she had a “life” off the airport too. You bet. She was a model student, a champion soccer player, and an achiever in every club or group she joined. Her energy for living was inexhaustible and she sowed it everywhere she went. Her enthusiasm for living life to its fullest was utterly contagious.

She soloed and got her license at sixteen. We missed her when she left for college. One of the most often asked questions at Moontown Airfield when her mom, Lisa, came out to fly, was, “When is Keavy coming back?”

After dazzling her professors at St. Louis University she collected an aerospace engineering degree, then got a commercial pilot certificate. She interned with Delta and used her travel passes to see the world.

A couple of months ago she called me and said she wanted to be a military pilot. “That's wasted talent,” I told her, but she wanted it badly—wanted another challenge.

Then I met an officer in charge of pilot recruiting in the Andrews Air Guard and told him about her. His eyes got big. “She's exactly what we're looking for,” he said. “Please have her get in touch with me.” She did. They began processing her application. I anticipated bragging to the guys that I had created a new second lieutenant and a new KC-135 tanker pilot. 

My best memory of Keavy was the day I saw three Yak-52s roaring overhead in a perfect military “vic” formation. They taxied in. One was Gordy's plane but he wasn't in it. In the front seat sat a grinning Emily Dover, another young lady who became smitten with the flying disease at our airport; and in the back, a beaming Keavy. Both wore hats that read, Women Fly. With those two around, our cups ran over with the sweet zests of life. They made us smile a lot. 

I didn't know Emily very well. Two years later her short life would end in an unexplained crash. Two years after that, Keavy would follow her into Eternity.

Now our cup is not so full without them, but our lives are richer because of them.

We bade So Long to Emily two years ago.

Now, So Long, Keavy. Our eyes will go wet every time we remember you.

And that will be often.

From Keavy's Facebook page: "I love this plane!"

The next-to-last entry in Keavy's Facebook page: "Gravity is over-rated!"
She was right.