An overflow crowd came to the Agricultural Hall on Tuesday afternoon to celebrate and remember David Willey, the Vineyard Haven man and Cape Air pilot who died last Friday evening when his plane crashed near Nip ’n’ Tuck Farm in West Tisbury. He was 61.
They came to grieve, to share memories and to support the wife and children he left behind. They filled 200 folding chairs arranged for the service. They stood in the aisles and against the walls. They spilled out onto the steps of the hall as a light afternoon drizzle came down: family, friends, coworkers, Island teachers, classmates of his children, employees of the Martha’s Vineyard Airport.
The grand hall was quiet, save for hushed greetings, and gentle sobs.
At two o’clock, two Cape Air planes flew over the hall in formation, a tribute to the pilot favored by coworkers and passengers alike. Mr. Willey, a pilot with the company for three years, was the sole occupant of the 1981 twin engine nine-passenger Cessna 402 headed to Boston when it went down.
A large American flag was the backdrop for a stage sparsely decorated with flowers. As Mr. Willey’s brother in law Greg Coogan approached the microphone, the flag fluttered in an early fall breeze.
“Dave’s life story has as many twists and turns as the airplanes he was determined to fly as a young boy in Monroe, Michigan,” Mr. Coogan began. He went on to describe a man in love with his wife, Jackie, and his three children, Megan, Ross and Sophie. “He wasn’t a guy’s guy or a ladies’ man — he was a satisfied fellow in love with his family, the kind of guy whose wit and warmth gladdened all ages,” he said.
“His romance with Jackie was the kind we all hope for,” he continued, and then read aloud from one of the many poems Mr. Willey wrote for his wife of 25 years. It was signed simply, Love always and forever, DW.
“When Dave sat down beside you, you knew when he asked a question, it was because he wanted to hear the answer,” Mr. Coogan said. He paused occasionally to collect himself. “Sixty-one.” Pause. “Not a line on his face, a head full of hair, a wily grin and a heart full of optimism — Dave, every inch of his personality defined in the phrase, ‘it’s not the years in your life, it’s the life in your years.’”
The hall filled then with the opening notes of a Van Morrison song. The music cut the silence, and those gathered wiped away tears with tissues or palms. They quietly touched the shoulders of loved ones nearby.
Next to speak was Cape Air pilot Jon Nelson. “Dave had an air about him that lifted you up. He made you feel better,” Mr. Nelson said. The two shared the cockpit, flying charter planes together. “I am a much better pilot, husband, father, friend for having known him.” It was a comment echoed by each and every speaker to follow.
“I wasn’t a member of the family, but I had a bed at their house,” said Matthew Sheehan, who first met Mr. Willey in 2004 while loading luggage onto his Cape Air plane. The two became close, with Mr. Willey serving as a mentor for the young Mr. Sheehan, who is now a pilot with the company. “He would go over bills with me, show me how to balance things,” he said. “He was like my dad.”
Friend Paul Brisette described his “great laugh, accented by a wiseguy snicker that I kind of liked.”
Jonathan Mayhew, the Chilmark fisherman who flew with Mr. Willey as a swordfish spotter, called him a good man on watch, the seaman’s term for a trusty crew member. He shared with those gathered the advice he could hear Mr. Willey dispensing were he still alive. “Live life to the fullest. Love family. Don’t be afraid of the challenges,” he said. And finally: “Be a good man on watch.”
Cape Air founder, chief executive officer and fellow pilot Daniel Wolf spoke for the 150 Cape Air employees gathered at the hall and the over 450 who could not attend: “It has been repeated many times to me since last Friday what a wonderful mentor Dave was for our young and aspiring pilots. He took them under his wing, taught them, nurtured them and in some cases became a second father to them.
“What Dave probably never understood is that he was a mentor to us senior folks as well. Dave and I both flew on Saturdays and it was always comforting to hear him on the frequency knowing that I could simply copy his solution to any aviation challenge and follow him,” Mr. Wolf said. “We will always remember the Willey twinkle in his eyes and the spring in his step. He surrounded himself with positive energy, amazing spirit and wonderful humor. Dave Willey exemplified goodness in the world.”
Mr. Willey’s competence as a pilot was reaffirmed by Estelle Thompson, an employee at the Martha’s Vineyard Airport who knew him simply as the Cape Air pilot she preferred when travelling to Boston for work. “I would get on Dave’s plane and go to sleep,” she said, her voice breaking. “And wake up when I got to Boston.”
Many who knew him could not attend the ceremony and so Mr. Coogan read aloud their notes of sorrow. “I can remember the day when you were my swordfish pilot,” wrote friend Everett Mills. “I asked you to bring me cigarettes the next day. The next morning as the Super Cub approached the boat, I wondered, how’s he going to do this? Most swordfish pilots dropped deliveries to their boats in the water next to the boat in a garbage bag. Not you. You flew straight at the boat, slowed the plane down, pulled straight up over the deck and dropped my carton of cigarettes right on the deck of the boat, wrapped in the Standard Times of the day . . . wow.”
With a parting blessing from the Rev. Alden Besse, those gathered stood and left the main hall. They trickled into the back room where long tables were piled high with sweets, bowls of pasta and salads, coffee, wine and beer, all donated by friends and community members. Photographs of the pilot and his family hung on the wall. Employees of Cape Air stood outside for fresh air. They commented quietly on the service and picked at the food on their plates.
Inside, the family received the growing line of people who waited patiently with hugs and words of sadness. How much he will be missed, they said.