Estimated reading time 12 minutes, 19 seconds.
A Halifax, Nova Scotia-based pilot has earned a unique reputation for designing and orchestrating as many as 20 flight path tributes (also known as sky art), in just under two years. The story reads like the manuscript of a feel-good movie, but this airborne hero prefers to spend his days in the clouds — rather than basking in the limelight.
Dimitri Neonakis sat with Skies to share how he found and honed his passion for philanthropically-inspired sky art with his single-engine, 310-horsepower aircraft — a Cirrus SR22 (C-GZPT). It was in the days that followed the worst mass murder in modern Canadian history (April 2020). Nova Scotia was grieving for the town of Portapique, and Neonakis felt compelled to help.
“I thought of the people of Portapique, N.S., [and] how scared they must be, and I decided to do something I had never done before. I would go up and fly in the shape of a heart.”
And because he hadn’t attempted sky art before, he kept his plan to himself. Then, without overthinking, he began with a “pass over the area where the massacre started.” And then to his surprise, as he was “closing the heart,” someone posted the flight path on social media.
“It went viral before I even landed,” he joked.
“[That evening], I was getting hundreds of messages and phone calls from reporters from all over North America.”
He admits that a few days later he looked at the flight path and was surprised by how perfectly it turned out.
“Especially the center of the heart,” he said. “How did I do that? I thought it was pretty cool. And from there, I wanted to do it again.”
Neonakis’ drawing of Const. Heidi Stevenson, an RCMP officer who was killed in the N.S. mass shooting, inspired a private message from her mother, thanking him.
Feeling encouraged, he drew a “large bird” in honor of the CH-148 Cyclone maritime helicopter that crashed in the Ionian Sea off Greece, killing six members of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) — also in April 2020 – the most significant loss of life for CAF since Afghanistan.
“And with George Floyd, my kid said, ‘Dad, go make a raised fist.’ So, I did – and that one went viral, too.
“The more I drew, the better I became at it. Then, I started learning about [sky art] and how to calculate it,” he said. As his talent grew, so did his following. Neonakis has received admiration and praise from all over the world.
His most recent drawing was an anchor in memory of “six fishermen who died, lost at sea. That one helped raise $80,000 for the families,” he added.
Neonakis grew up in Greece and said he “developed an ideation” for aviation as a boy while watching crop dusters spray olive trees. “It was like a festival to me,” he recalled.
After immigrating to Canada in 1984, he shared that he “always wanted to be a pilot, but it was difficult and times were hard.” In Canada, he “started a family and a business,” and once he had enough set aside for his flight training, he began.
Today, he has over 2500 flight hours.
At age 35, he walked into a Dartmouth flight school and said, “I want to get my license.”
He told Skies that each masterpiece takes around six to seven hours to draw (into ForeFlight). Through experience he’s learned that each design can’t exceed 320 nautical miles. The actual flight “takes about two-and-a-half hours to fly.”
And thanks to “coming from a long line of artists,” drawing is the easy part. Flying is often the biggest obstacle, thanks to wind direction and speed hurdles.
“I’ve had to take 380 turns within six nautical miles,” said Neonakis. “And when I fly around 6,000 to 8,000 feet, it is sometimes 80 knots. It can throw you off course. So, I’ve learned how fast, steep, and early I can get into a turn without losing sight of the flight path I want to draw.”
Everything is “hand flown.” Neonakis said he only uses autopilot to “take a sip of coffee.”
Asked if he has a favorite drawing, he said he can’t choose – each has too much meaning. But his tribute to fallen Snowbirds Public Affairs Officer, Jenn Casey, comes to mind.
And if all of this wasn’t impressive enough, Neonakis also founded a small charity, Dream Wings, where he offers free flights to children with disabilities. Both the sky art and Dream Wings are completely funded out of his own pocket.
Neonakis created Dream Wings after offering assistance to a mother who was loading her wheelchair-bound child into her car. He wanted to help raise awareness about different childhood illnesses.
“[The charity and the sky art are] my way of giving back to the community, as a thank you to Canada and its people, for accepting a young Greek immigrant back when I was 18 years old,” he said.
When asked what he gets out of all of this, he responded, “A lot more than they do.”
Neonakis has flown over 750 children, three of which have succumbed to their illnesses. Their names are inscribed on one of the wings of his Cirrus.
He shared the story of a child who is blind and was a victim of schoolyard bullying.
“The kids who bullied him heard he was my co-pilot, shook his hand and said, ‘Hey, I want to hang out with you. You’re cool. You’re flying airplanes.’
“So, you asked what I get out of it. You have your answer,” said Neonakis, as he fought back his emotions.
As we near the second anniversary of the tragedy in Portapique, the big-hearted pilot shares that he’s taking a break from sky art.
“The last sky art I did was for a child who became a drive-by shooting victim,” said Neonakis. “His name was Marmar; I drew his name and a heart. So, whenever something like this comes, I will get up in the air and draw. But it has to have meaning. If it doesn’t help people, well, what’s the point?”