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Just hours after a deadly killing spree concluded in Nova Scotia on April 19, Dimitri Neonakis took to the air in his single-engine Cirrus SR22.
Like many Nova Scotians, his mind was reeling from the news that a 51-year-old denturist had taken at least 22 innocent lives before he himself was fatally shot by provincial RCMP officers. He wanted to show the small coastal community of Portapique and others touched by the massacre that they were in his thoughts.
“This terrible tragedy on top of the crisis we’re going through in the whole world [COVID-19] shook us up here in Nova Scotia,” he told Skies on April 20. “It shook me up, too, and I thought of taking this flight to sort of hug the community from the air. There was nothing else I could do.”
Lifting off from Halifax Stanfield International Airport around 6:30 p.m. local time, Neonakis simply told air traffic control that he was heading north for a sightseeing flight.
“In my own mind, the flight was just to hug the community and it was just for me, to say, ‘I care about you.’ It was my own thing that I felt I needed to do.”
High above Portapique, the pilot traced a heart-shaped flight path in the sky. It was meant to be a personal gesture and an expression of solidarity for his fellow Nova Scotians, but when he returned to Halifax he realized he hadn’t really been alone up there after all.
“As I came in to land, the air traffic controller instructed me to exit the runway and return to my hangar,” recounted Neonakis. “Then she said something I’ll never forget. She said, ‘By the way, that was a beautiful flight path.’ ”
Later that night, news of the flight broke on social media, prompting an outpouring of thoughts and feelings about the horrible tragedy.
“I realized I had taken thousands of people with me to mourn and pay their respects. That’s when I realized this thing meant a lot to people who are grieving right now. Later, when I read thousands of messages that came in from social media, I realized I had given hope and a bit of comfort to thousands of people across this province and the country.”
More than anything, Neonakis is glad the flight has given people something hopeful and positive to talk about.
“It’s like when a person is drowning and you throw them something, they grab it right away. People need something positive right now.”
Neonakis is no stranger to sharing positive experiences through flight. In 2017, the Halifax businessman started Dream Wings, an initiative that introduces children with disabilities to the joys of flight.
In three years, he has flown 450 children on more than 350 flights – all of them entirely at his own expense.
“Giving them this unique opportunity, it means the world to them and to me,” he said. “Each one is unique. I have succeeded in curing some children from their fear of flight just by teaching them to understand, by bringing them close to the airplane and working with them. It’s such a wonderful feeling to finally get those children to beat their fears and jump on the airplane!”
Dream Wings is about more than a “joy ride,” said Neonakis, who has been flying since 2001. For him, it’s created an awareness that children with disabilities are no different from any other kids.
He’s developed strong ties with many of the children he’s flown.
Last fall, he spearheaded a fundraiser to buy an electric wheelchair for one of his young passengers with spina bifida, presenting it to him on Dec. 18 at the airport in Sydney, N.S.
Names of some other children, ones who have been lost, are stitched on the right wing.
The chance to connect with these young people and make a difference in their lives is priceless to the Nova Scotia pilot, who bought his Cirrus in 2019 and flies it to the various properties and restaurants he owns around the province.
But when the weekend rolls around, it’s time for the fun flying.
“Every time I set up five or six or seven flights, I can’t wait for the weekend to take those kids up. One time, I did 14 flights in one day!”
Over the years, he’s learned to keep the flights to no more than half an hour, and he stays close to the airport in case he needs to land quickly. Neonakis logs about 450 flight hours each year, with 150 of those being free flights with children and their parents. Sometimes, he’ll fly to Sydney, N.S., where he will spend the day doing a few flights with Cape Breton families.
There are 80 families waiting for flights right now and as soon as COVID-19 is safely in the past, Neonakis intends to get up in the air.
“It’s the most amazing thing,” he concluded. “Children who are visually impaired can fly the airplane by feel. One little guy who is 12 years old flies in perfect harmony, executing my commands like an autopilot. I was amazed.”