An Aerial Tribute to Honor Our Veterans

Story By Jim Hanson, EAA 557748

Art By Sarah Stultz/Albert Lea Tribune

The American Legion was founded in 1919, 103 years ago. Albert Lea, Minnesota, Post #56 was founded that same year. The Post follows the Legion mission of aiding and honoring veterans — and the Memorial Day or Veterans Day tradition of honoring those who died on active duty.

At Albert Lea, a tradition was started immediately after WWII. The city surrounds Fountain Lake. Years ago, the Legion and the VFW decided that an appropriate way to honor all veterans was to pay tribute to those who served on land, at sea, or in the air by dropping a memorial wreath into Fountain Lake from an airplane. Post #56 is sited on Albert Lea’s Broadway Avenue — right downtown — and only a few hundred feet from Fountain Lake Park.

In the days after WWII, the “wreath drop” was conducted by locals using a J-3 Cub or, occasionally, an Aeronca Champ. The Post’s honor guard “presents colors” at Fountain Lake Park, the guard places a wreath in the lake — honoring those who lost their lives or served on land and sea — and the aircraft simultaneously drops a similar wreath into the water offshore in memory of those who served at sea or in the air. Families gather on shore to watch, and the honor guards fires a volley and plays “Taps.” An impressive ceremony, held in a relatively small community, where people unfailingly remember those who served.

I’ve been flying for nearly 60 years, and have served as the fixed base operator at the airport for 40 years. This year was my 50th year of involvement in the community Memorial Day tribute. I’m honored to be able to do so — we make plans each year around the ceremony.

In the early years, there were some issues with the dropping of the wreath. In one case, the pilot of the Cub (seated aft) was skidding the aircraft so he could see the drop point, and upon reaching the point, told the passenger seated in front to “throw the wreath.” Because the aircraft was skidding, the wreath came back inside the aircraft — twice! On another occasion, the dropping aircraft was an open-cockpit Stearman, and upon landing, the crew found the remains of the wreath in the horizontal stabilizer struts. One crew, mindful of the prohibition of flying low over town, dropped the wreath from 1,000 feet, and it landed out of sight of the viewers, nearly a quarter of a mile down the lake.

Determined to provide a meaningful experience, a local former WWII military pilot suggested a formation flight. He carefully drilled local pilots in formation flight, and organized four types of aircraft into four elements of four aircraft each — two-place, four-place, retractable, and twin engine. Noted former Albert Lea resident and WCCO-TV personality (a former Marines pilot) Sherm Booen was the emcee. The plan fell apart when the second element followed too closely behind the first, which then disrupted the carefully laid plans as the aircraft scattered. Ever the professional, Booen deadpanned to the crowd, “ONE of them dropped the wreath, but we’re not sure WHERE!” Formation flights were never attempted again.

In the years since I’ve been performing the honors, we’ve stuck to a single aircraft, working in conjunction with the honor guard. To keep it legal, we flew at 500 feet above the lake, avoiding populated areas, but that left the wreath out of sight of the viewers. On one occasion, the airport (located 1 3/8 mile from the site) was clear, but dense fog enveloped the lake. Fortunately, there is a water tower located only 300 feet from the drop site that was visible from above the fog. I waited for three seconds after passing the water tower to be sure the wreath dropped in the lake and away from the crowd and it worked. The Legion commander said “We couldn’t see the aircraft, but the wreath floated down offshore, right in front of the site!” We made changes to the wreath over the years in the interest of safety — making it smaller and lighter, using styrofoam instead of the heavier traditional straw. I dropped it from the window of my Cessna 206, and when I closed the window, I felt my hand was sticky. I thought, “it must be the flowers.” When I put my left hand on the controls, I noted that it was bloody — it turned out that the florist had used pins to attach the flowers, and they worked out of the wreath and stuck in my hand.

Not wanting to repeat that experience, for several years I used my Enstrom helicopter, coming to a hover over the water in front of the honor guard on shore, and dropping the wreath at the same time as the one dropped by the honor guard. It worked out well — until it didn’t! The honor guard had a delay in getting through the crowd to the dock, and I was having difficulty holding a hover, even with the advantage of “ground (or water) effect.” “Throw the wreath!” I told my passenger. He replied “They ain’t ready!” I told him to “Throw it anyway, we need to get out of here!” Struggling to gain translational lift (clean air through the rotor), I was able to avoid a dunking and climbed out.

For the past 10 years, we’ve changed again — we use my Lake Amphibian aircraft — and rather than dropping the wreath, we land on the lake one minute prior to the drop time, taxi past the dock, and with a nod from the Honor Guard, simultaneously drop the wreath in the water. After the Guard plays “Taps,” we take off again.

By Sarah Stultz/Albert Lea Tribune.

Once again, that worked — until it didn’t. Last year, the lake was being dredged, and the dredge was parked in the narrowest point of the lake, leaving only 3,000 feet of lake to operate from. That’s enough for takeoff, if the wind is right, but not a good idea. Plan for “Plan B, C, or D!”

Instead, I asked the service clubs to have the florist put flower petals into a sack, and I would drop them from my old Cessna 120 — my first airplane. I estimated the wind drift, and my wife dropped them on command to float down onto the lake. We hadn’t dropped petals before, but onlookers on shore said “We initially didn’t think you dropped anything, but during the military honors, the petals gently fell into the lake, right on the dock. It was beautiful to see the flower petals floating gently to earth and landing on the water, right after the honor guard performed.”

The only negative comments were that people couldn’t initially see the flower petals dropped from the airplane. We will use more next time.

We also dropped petals over the large and small town cemeteries in the county, and received thank-you notes for those as well.

We may continue to use this option, instead of a wreath drop.

There’s a metaphor here, or several:

“On this day of remembrance, even the flower petals that would normally be discarded at the flower shop would have their very own ‘day in the sun’ and be appreciated — and be put to good use — honoring veterans and comforting survivors. Like the discarded flower petals, may we ALL be ‘put to good use!’”

Conducting the Aerial Tribute

This has been an extremely effective way to involve aviation in honoring our veterans with the participation of the service clubs. We get a lot of compliments on it every year — from the service clubs, and from the general public — and it’s good community relations for aviation. As with everything in aviation, the FAA has a say in how it is conducted safely. Consider the following if you conduct something similar:

  1. COORDINATE, COORDINATE, COORDINATE! Coordinate with your local service clubs. This is to honor veterans. Make sure it IS an honor by making it work without problems. Consider the FAA rules. Make sure that law enforcement is notified. Make sure the media is notified (you may even want to consider having a media person on board. We often take an announcer from the local radio station, leaving the “visuals” to the local newspaper and TV stations.)
  2. Have a single person in charge with an air band handheld radio — someone you can count on if there is a delay or a problem arises to coordinate with the event organizers.
  3. Consider the safety and legalities. Neither aviation nor the service clubs want bad publicity! Make sure it comes off on time and without a hitch!
  4. In this case, the good news is that it is held in the center of town. The bad news is that it is held in the center of town, and that means complying with FAA rules about flying over “open air assemblies of people.” To avoid this, we do it offshore — we are never overhead any crowds.
  5. General aviation pilots often are tempted to try “formation” flights. DON’T! A formation flight over a crowd or congested area may look good, but it triggers FAA requirements for low altitude flights, pilot training and certification, and prior permission. Remember, this is about the veterans — not you.
  6. We did away with the heavy wreaths formerly used, in favor of lighter weight examples so there won’t be a hazard to people on the ground. Alternately, we use flower petals.
  7. We use a flight path that avoids residential areas.
  8. We use an altitude that will ensure that the wreath will not be a hazard to people on the ground.
  9. If using the seaplane, since we are landing (The FAA’s “except for taking off or landing” exception in the FAR’s) the minimum altitudes do not apply, but for safety and consideration of others, we use the uncongested approach and departure routes.
By Sarah Stultz/Albert Lea Tribune.

Other than a seaplane, perhaps the best way to render honors is with the flower petal drop, as seen above. Some tips:

  • The flower petals do not pose a hazard to “people or property on the ground” — they are very light weight and won’t cause injury, but that same light weight can make it hard to hit the target because of drift.
  • To adjust for drift, make a preliminary drop of a partial roll of toilet paper on a remote field from your anticipated drop altitude. The toilet paper unrolls and falls at a rate only slightly faster than the flower petals. Observe the drift and adjust your flower drop accordingly.
  • How low can you go? Once again, common sense and the Federal Aviation Regulations prevail. (FAR 91.119). There are exceptions for “sparsely populated areas” and “except while taking off or landing.” In our case, the drop area is located 1 3/8 mile from the airport, almost exactly on runway heading so the drop can legally be made on takeoff or landing at the airport. People are used to seeing aircraft taking off and landing over the drop site at these altitudes. We have never had a complaint in the 50 years I’ve been involved.
  • Use a lot of flower petals, as they will disperse, and they will be hard to see from the ground. We used five quarts of petals. It was “just enough”. Having more petals will also result in a longer stream, increasing your chances of hitting the target.
  • It should go without saying, but you need an aircraft with an openable side window. Do not try to use a vent window or the door.
  • I shouldn’t have to mention it, but don’t have the pilot do this by him or herself. Let the pilot concentrate on flying, and the “bombardier” concentrate on the drop.
  • Unlike the wreath drop, the flower petals can be used if the drop zone is, (in FAA-speak) “in proximity to an open air assemblage of persons.”
  • Consider, as we did, including the local cemeteries for a tribute as well — but follow the same rules and regulations. We receive many “thank you” notes and calls from people that saw or heard about the fly-over. The fly-over has been covered many times over the year by the local newspaper and television stations. I can’t think of a better public relations issue — something aviation needs!
  • IF, ON THE DAY OF THE DROP — FOR ANY REASON, SOMETHING JUST ISN’T RIGHT — DON’T DO IT! A mishap, a violation, or bad publicity is just not worth it! As pilot in command, you are responsible for a safe operation. (Be sure to contact the person in charge at the drop site, so they can answer questions why you’ve elected NOT to continue the drop, in the interest of safety.)

Jim Hanson is the long-time operator of the Albert Lea, Minnesota, airport, and a veteran and Legion member himself. He can be reached at or at his airport office 507-373-0608.

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