Aviation High School Rallies in Support after Tragedy

Aviation High School Rallies in Support after Tragedy

By Terry Stephens

Aviation High School’s family of students, teachers and parents rallied to support each other after the stunning news that two freshman girls at the new school, and their pilot, had died on a Young Eagles flight. The aircraft was en route from Boeing Field to Paine Field on October 15, when it crashed, killing 15-year-old Brittany Boatright, 14-year-old Kandyce Cowart, and 67-year-old Gene Hokanson shortly after the plane missed an attempted landing at Paine Field, 30 miles north of their takeoff point.

The plane was scheduled to land so the two students could change seats for the return flight. Witnesses said one of the wheels wasn’t touching the runway on the first landing attempt and reported that the Piper Cherokee seemed to lose power at the south end of the runway as it was trying to gain altitude. Hokanson reportedly tried to avoid hitting people on the ground by aiming for a clearing in a subdivision under construction south of the airfield. The plane clipped treetops, hit the ground nose first in the vacant lot and burst into flames.

L to R: Kandyce Cowart, Brittany Boatright and Young Eagles pilot Gene Hokanson died on October 15 in the first fatal crash since the Young Eagles program began in 1992.

L to R: Kandyce Cowart, Brittany Boatright and Young Eagles pilot Gene Hokanson died on October 15 in the first fatal crash since the Young Eagles program began in 1992.

It was a day of sad “firsts.” The girls’ flight was the first one to take off that day and it was their first flight in a small plane. For Hokanson, of Mercer Island, who earned his private pilot’s license in 1999, it was his first Young Eagles mission. And the students’ deaths were the national program’s first casualties since the Experimental Aircraft Association began the free flights that have introduced more than 1.2 million young people to aviation since 1992.

Volunteer Young Eagles pilots were scheduled to fly 78 other Aviation High School students that day but flights that hadn’t yet taken off were canceled when pilots received news of the crash. National Transportation Safety Board investigators are working to determine what caused the tragedy.

“Everyone affiliated with the high school is devastated by this and we are grieving with the families,” said Catherine Carbone Rogers, communications director for the Highline School District that oversees Aviation High School operations. She pledged the district’s support as the Seattle school struggled to deal with the double loss.

Leading the efforts to comfort and support the students at a time of tragedy were the parents of the two girls who died in the crash. Kandyce Cowart’s mother and father, Suzy and Steven Cowart, urged students not to give up their aviation dreams, according to Reba Gilman, the high school’s CEO and principal.

“I’ve been in touch with the Cowart and Boatright families every day since the accident,” Gilman said. “They’re deeply grieved by the loss of their loved ones and yet they want all of the AHS family to know that Brittany and Kandyce loved Aviation High School, their fellow students, their teachers and their classes. Both families remarked that their girls looked forward to Monday mornings when they could rejoin their friends and engage in the studies and projects they loved.”

Gilman said Cowart’s parents came to the school Monday morning after the weekend crash to tell students, “Kandy wouldn’t want anyone at AHS to lose their passion for aviation or the pure joy of flying because of her death.”

“They encouraged the students especially to take their Young Eagles flight,” Gilman said. “Mrs. Cowart told them she would be there when they landed to see the smiles on their faces when they got off the airplanes.”

Cowart’s family said Kandyce was “passionate about reading, teddy bears, the ocean, traveling, baking, aviation, and tutoring children.” A classmate, Vidal Men, described her as a very bright, positive person “who knew how to make someone laugh when they were down.”

In lieu of flowers, the family requested gifts of teddy bears that will be sent to police and fire stations in Seattle to distribute to children who have had traumatic experiences.

Brittany Boatright’s mother, Gail Boatright, told Gilman she recently asked her daughter if she might want to change schools to take other classes or programs. She said Brittany’s answer was, “No way!”

The young girl was an avid artist, enjoyed reading and writing and loved hiking, exploring and traveling. Working on writing a fantasy trilogy before her death, she was particularly adept at drawing angels, unicorns and fairies. Her family described her as a caring and loving person who was a brilliant student at the top of her class in all subjects. Fellow student Keiko Kiranaka said she was a little shy, “but when you talked to her you found that she was a very kind girl, dedicated to everything she set her mind to.”

Instead of flowers, the family requested that books be donated in Boatright’s name. The school’s Parent Teacher Student Association established a fund to support the families of the two students who died in the crash. They asked that contributions be made to a special U.S. bank account set up for that purpose, and requested that checks be written with both girls’ names.

When classes resumed after the crash, grief counselors and chaplains from local fire and sheriff’s departments were brought to the school to meet with students and staff. An impromptu memorial grew throughout the day in a hallway of the two-year-old high school on the campus of South Seattle Community College near Boeing Field.

In the days that followed the tragedy, the school family attended memorial services, comforted one another and declared their continued support for the school, fellow students, teachers and the career-in-aviation theme that inspired the founding of the school.

“Our commitment to these students is stronger than ever,” said Gilman. “The intent of Aviation High School is to provide students with an outstanding experience that prepares them for college and uses aviation as a theme. That will not change.”

Students at the school expressed their feelings, too, saying that at first it was too shocking to believe, and then talking about their own flights, still coming up. Keiko Kiranaka said she thought her mother would never let her fly again.

“But she told me she wants me to go up very soon, like getting back on a horse after falling off,” she said.

One boy, who was on another Young Eagles flight at the time of the crash, heard the air traffic controller’s emergency calls. Later, he decided to take his first flying lesson as scheduled, just four days after the accident, Gilman said.

Many of the students wrote notes to the Hokanson family, expressing their sadness and regret over the pilot’s death. Gilman delivered the messages when she visited with his family. Kokanson was the founder and president of D.E. Hokanson Inc., a designer and manufacturer of noninvasive vascular instruments used by physicians around the world to diagnose and monitor vascular functions, including fetal heart-beat monitors.

His son, Arvid Hokanson, said “helping people was a passion” for his father, noting that he “loved working with people and introducing people to new things.”

“It was just part of the compassion he had,” he said. Hokanson’s family asked that remembrances be sent to the University of Washington College of Arts and Sciences or to the Nature Conservancy.

Aviation High, a public school that draws students from throughout King County, offers an intensive science and math curriculum, plus seminars in such topics as the history of flight, aircraft design and the mechanics of piloting planes. Some students choose the school because it’s a small, rigorous learning community, while others–like Boatright and Cowart–dream of becoming pilots or astronauts, Gilman said. The school has 200 students in ninth and tenth grade and will add two more classes of 100 students each as it fills out its full enrollment goal.

Gilman said students were incredibly saddened about what happened to their classmates, but that it’s not shaking their resolve to pursue the field of aviation.

“They’re treating the incident as an isolated tragedy,” she said. “If there was a football game and someone was killed, you wouldn’t cancel the next game. Life goes on.”