Young pilot dies after memorial fly-by
By CHRIS TISCH and LEANORA MINAI
CLEARWATER -- Hundreds of fingers pointed to the sky at the Clearwater High School graduation Thursday evening.
A small plane buzzed over Jack White Stadium. It pulled behind it a banner that read: "Good Luck CHS class of '02. With heavenly love, Ricky."
The fly-by was in remembrance of Ricky Teal, a Clearwater High senior who was killed Jan. 11 in a car crash on Keene Road. The plane circled several times before heading south.
"You saw every arm in the house point up, every camera started snapping," said Rick Teal, who paid $550 to have the banner flown in memory of his son. "The first couple times around, I was crying."
In the cockpit was Brian Mason, a 21-year-old St. Petersburg resident who dreamed of someday steering 747s. After the fly-by, Mason flew to northern Manatee County, where he dropped off the banner, then took off to head back to Pinellas County. But shortly after takeoff, the single-engine Cessna 172 crashed in a field in northern Manatee County. Deputies later found Mason dead in his seat.
Word of the pilot's death came as a shock to Ricky Teal's family, who had slept late after working until 3 a.m. at graduation festivities. They didn't find out until a friend called and told them it was on the news.
"The wave of emotions just overwhelmed me," Rick Teal said. "The first thing I thought was, 'I wrote the check that killed him.' My whole family is so distraught over this."
As the Teals struggled with the news, Mason's family in Minnesota grieved.
His father, Bruce Mason, said that his son wanted to be a commercial pilot since second grade. He took flying lessons at home and also studied for 11/2 years at the University of North Dakota.
"If anything, he already wished he could have been in a cockpit of a 747," his father said.
In March, Mason moved to Florida because he was tired of studying and wanted to fly all of the time, his father said. Florida, with its sunny weather, would offer the most potential to build up flying hours.
Mason needed 1,400 hours to move to the next level, "flying canceled checks around from town to town," his father said. By 30 years old, Mason wanted to be in the cockpit of a major airline.
"He was a wonderful son," his father said. "We were looking forward to watching him continue to move up the ladder."
Mason also was a country music fan and went on missions for his church.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the crash. Officials with the Manatee County Sheriff's Office said Mason, who had 400 hours of flying under his belt, did not issue any mayday call before the crash.
"There's no sign of foul play," said Dave Bristow, spokesman for the Manatee County Sheriff's Office.
Mason's employer, William Bruckner, who owns Florida Aerial Advertising in St. Petersburg, hired Mason in March to fly his banner aircraft.
At 7 p.m. Thursday night, Mason flew over Clearwater High School, where 334 of Ricky Teal's classmates were taking their seats to begin the graduation ceremony. Friends and family shielded their eyes from the sun to see the banner as the crowd fell silent.
Later in the program, CHS senior class president Nicole Wilson asked for a moment of silence to remember Teal's death in a car crash Jan. 11. Wilson later dedicated her diploma to Teal's memory. She asked her classmates to do the same.
"He touched the lives of everyone he met," Wilson said.
After leaving Jack White Stadium, Mason then flew back to a grass strip in Manatee County to drop off Bruckner's banners and equipment.
Mason most likely crashed on his way back to St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.
Mason did not return to the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport by 9 p.m. as scheduled. Bruckner called authorities at 1 a.m. The Sheriff's Office found the Cessna within 30 minutes, and Mason was pronounced dead at 2 a.m.
Bruckner could not be reached for comment.
Bruckner had a series of disputes with the Federal Aviation Administration and Albert Whitted Airport in the 1980s; his pilot's license was at one time revoked for violating FAA rules.
At the graduation, Rick Teal said, he could see Mason in the pilot's seat from his position on the ground. He said the plane circled several times, the last time just as the national anthem was coming to a close. Teal said Mason rocked the plane slightly back and forth as he left, which he took to be a wave.
Teal said that as Mason circled for the last time, he passed over batting cages on Clearwater High's grounds that had been built in Ricky Teal's memory.
"I could see his head and shoulders and I just blew him a kiss, and he was tilting his wings back and forth," Teal said. "And I said, 'Thank you brother, go carry Ricky away and off into the horizon.' I watched it go off until it was out of sight. It was like he left heaven, flew down here, and flew back to heaven."
Mason's father said of the tragic coincidence: "I find it very eerie. I also find it fitting, maybe."
Teal said his family knows the pain Mason's family is feeling. Like Mason, Ricky, 18, was much-loved by his family. His dreams were of becoming not a pilot, but a professional baseball pitcher.
"I feel so terrible for his family," Teal said. "I just know there is a mother and a father and siblings that are in anguish today. I'd love to see them. I'd like to apologize to them, number one, but number two, to let them know how special it was what he did. The last thing he did was send a heavenly message to a lot of people. And God will take care of him for that.
"I would want them to know," he added, "that their son is in heaven with Ricky right now."
-- Staff writers Aaron Sharockman and Jean Heller contributed to this report. Chris Tisch can be reached at 445-4156 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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