By Jack Neima, EAA 413636, EAA Canadian Council
With what seems like rapidly increasing regularity we are being bombarded with news of environmental disasters and social upheaval. Whether it’s due to climate change, political unrest, or the ever-present COVID-19 pandemic, there seems to be no shortage of grim news leaving us all yearning for some ray of sunshine to sustain our spirits. Fortunately, from time to time an uplifting story comes along that illustrates how the general aviation community continues to respond when people are in need. A recent example is the great work done by the local GA community to assist in relief efforts following the massive flooding throughout the Fraser Valley in British Columbia. It reflects positively on all of us, and we salute our general aviation friends in British Columbia for demonstrating so powerfully that we’re all in this together.
Another great example of this spirit of community support is the highly visible aerial art created by Nova Scotia private pilot Dimitri Neonakis, who has attracted some worldwide attention for the way he combines his passion for aviation with caring support for his neighbours. Especially at this time of the year, his story is an inspiration for all of us who ask ourselves “What can I do to support people in need?” With a lot of humility Dimitri recently shared his story with Bits and Pieces and we are pleased to share some of the details with you.
Dimitri immigrated to Nova Scotia from Greece in 1984 and has enjoyed a very successful career in business, enabling him and his family to establish deep roots in his adopted country. Growing up in Greece he was enthralled by the crop dusting airplanes that swooped low over the olive groves and like many of us he dreamed of becoming a pilot, which was a very lofty goal in Greece, but which became a possibility in Canada. After his business career became firmly established, he jumped at the opportunity to take flying lessons, which he successfully completed at the Shearwater Flying Club, obtaining his PPL in 1990. He subsequently purchased a Piper Cherokee and more recently upgraded to a Cirrus SR22, and he has found some very creative ways to use these aircraft to support his community. One of his most successful has been his Dream Wings initiative that has provided more than 300 first flight experiences for disabled children. By itself it’s a great story that we’ll save for another day. This story is about creativity and art.
In early 2020, Dimitri was chafing at the ongoing COVID lockup and itching to get out of the house and back into the air. During the late winter he was toying with the idea of using the Cirrus radar track to trace a huge heart outline over Nova Scotia to send a message of caring and to say to his fellow Nova Scotians that “we’re all in this together.” That idea came crashing down on April 18/19 with the tragic events at Portapique, Nova Scotia, that left 23 people dead following a mass shooting event that threatened to tear the heart out of the heretofore peaceful Nova Scotia community. Between COVID and Portapique, it was clear to Dimitri that the time had come to send the planned message of encouragement and hope. Using Foreflight and his GPS, he traced out a giant heart, centred on Portapique, that he thought he could share with others by posting on a local aviation-related Facebook page. Departing CYHZ, he got a fairly cold reception from ATC when they learned he was planning a local sightseeing flight to the central Nova Scotia region given all that was happening. He returned to Halifax about 45 minutes later and, to his surprise, by then his heart shaped plot track had been captured on FlightAware and posted by another internet group known as Halifax Airport Watchers.
Before he even landed it had already started to go viral, no doubt aided by the fact that the Portapique event was front page news everywhere. On landing approach, the previously cool controller added the comment “By the way, that was a beautiful flight pattern.” He was surprised by such a quick public reaction to a personal gesture that he thought would have limited exposure. By the time he got home he was swamped by personal messages, and he was moved to learn that some of these were from family members of Portapique victims who thanked him for the gesture.
That first gesture opened the door to many further opportunities to demonstrate understanding and support in times of crisis or remembrance. Over the past two years, Dimitri has designed and flown more than 20 track patterns and his activities are now closely followed by a growing fan base. The ATC community now know him by name and are always interested in his latest project. As you might imagine he receives many requests, but he is selective in response, usually willing to agree to good causes with clear community support objectives. A few examples are the tragic Snowbirds crash in Kamloops on May 17, 2020, that took the life of Nova Scotia native Capt. Jennifer Casey.
He also produced track diagrams recognizing the 40th anniversary of the Terry Fox Marathon of Hope and he honoured high school graduates who missed out on many grad activities due to COVID shutdowns.
On December 15, 2020, a scallop dragger was lost off of southwest Nova Scotia taking the lives of six fishermen. Dimitri was asked to support a fundraising effort for the surviving families, and he designed a large heart with an anchor attached that he titles “A Heavy Heart.” It was a real challenge to fly this pattern between Digby and Yarmouth during less-than-ideal weather conditions, but he persevered, and his efforts brought great comfort to the families and contributed to a successful fundraising effort.
We are inspired by the lengths Dimitri has gone to demonstrate how his passion for aviation has been harnessed to bring comfort to those in need and we are intrigued by the challenges inherent in these intricate displays. He tells us that many important lessons have been learned along the way, including.
- The ideal track length is about 320 nautical miles, requiring about 2.5 hours of flight time in the Cirrus
- Wind and weather considerations are paramount and VFR conditions are obviously a must.
- He goes to considerable length to select traffic-free clear airspace and from the pictures attached you can see his preferred areas. TCAS is helpful, as is clear communication of intentions with ATC. When there is potential for traffic conflict ATC has been very cooperative to suggest alternate altitudes to maintain separation and allow him to continue the pattern.
- He is very careful to establish and maintain manoeuvring limits ensuring, for example, no more than 45 degrees of bank in the turns and through trial and error determining best speeds/flap selections for pattern work.
- He believes the initiative has helped to make him a better pilot and has contributed a lot to sharpening his skills.
Dimitri’s latest effort is a Christmas-themed display featuring Santa and Rudolph completed this week and dedicated to his grandchildren.
To help answer the many “How do you do this?” questions on December 10, 2020, he posted the following video of this Christmas art on the Fly Nova Scotia Facebook page, which you may find interesting.
Dimitri has been humbled by the overwhelming response to his efforts and he hopes to continue with more aerial art. He appreciates the opportunity to use aviation to bring comfort to people and he is proud to be part of the general aviation community. We in turn are proud of what he is doing and grateful for the positive message and his contribution to the public image of general aviation.