As the Collier Countians pay homage to fallen American heroes at Naples Memorial Gardens on Monday morning, a steel-tube-veined butterfly will rise above the crowd.
He will flap his wings and then fly to the Gulf of Mexico in a precise ritual to honor deceased veterans.
This butterfly is a 1945 Piper J-3 Cub, and its pilot, Jessica Stearns, is especially dedicated to offering this salute. Stearns, an Air Force veteran, flew 381 missions over Vietnam from 1962 to 1972 during the American conflict there.
Stearns often flew a C141 Starlifter, the polar opposite of the tiny two-seater she now owns. Massive four-engine jets with swept wings, they looked like spaniels from the sky. But they were workhorses for the US presence in Vietnam, carrying up to 35.5 tonnes of cargo – or about 80 liters for wounded soldiers.
It was one of Stearns’ jobs, as an aerovac (aeromedical evacuation) pilot, to transport seriously injured troops to hospitals in Japan or the Philippines. Every now and then the plane was targeted and Stearns remembers narrowly escapes: “The guardian angels were with me,” she said.
Sometimes the loading of the Starlifter was silent, filled with coffins.
“They are the toughest,” she reflected.
The wolf cub she flies today weighs just 700 pounds. Stearns can attach it to a small trailer and pull it into the shed on her own.
“That’s what I like about it. It’s simple. There is no electrical system,” she said.
Everything about its 65 horsepower engine is mechanical. The gas tank contains a float attached to a thin metal rod that rises from the engine cover, indicating how much fuel is remaining sinking lower as the tank empties. The air speed gauge is driven by the force of the wind entering a soda straw-sized tube, known as a pitot, on the wing beam.
Stearns attached a battery-powered intercom and radio to a midpoint for contemporary communication needs. She can speak at the airports she flies to for monthly lunches in the state with the Florida Cubs Flyers. She will need communication to pursue a dream with this plane that she has made with other devices: to fly all over the United States.
Despite being born in 1940, Stearns is still an energetic 20-year veteran in the military and 16 more as a pilot for People Express and Continental Airlines. She still trains pilots and has been an aerial photographer for decades – five of her photos are in the US Air Force National Museum exhibition on the Vietnamese conflict.
And she’s a volunteer ready to honor veterans and her country. Stearns made the flag presentations at the Naples Philharmonic Patriotic Pops concerts on Thursday and Friday, and is part of the VFW Post 7721 presentation team on Monday.
She’ll fly for the morning salute to the Naples Memorial Gardens in a post uniform, a little more dressy than the shorts and t-shirts she prefers. But then she can go out and go straight to the other ceremony.
At approximately 4:00 p.m., Stearns will fly over a service to Terracina Grand on Davis Boulevard. She flew over funerals for veterans whose families are requesting and for Veterans Day service in November, as well as for July 4.
It’s a ritual that begins with the standard flight checklist. Her plane is only five years younger than her, so good health is paramount. Stearns prefers the older equipment, confirmed by his car: a blue Pontiac Catalina ’66 capable of rolling on the hips.
This aircraft is an observation and training machine. It was reused after the WWII application was withdrawn while it was still in production. Stearns likes to guess where he went in his first life, outfitted with skis for an owner in Ithaca, New York.
It’s only in the movies that a pilot simply jumps into his barnstormer and flies away. On Monday morning, Stearns’ first ritual begins before she throws the propeller to start her plane.
She cuts the ignition and puts the flight controls in the correct position. She slowly walks around the plane, inspecting the brake linings for sufficient padding, the propeller for nicks that foreshadow metal fatigue, and the pitot tube for an obstruction that would disable her airspeed indicator.
Stearns checks the security of all wiring connections it can reach, tightens the spark plugs, and cleans any debris from the air filter.
“I will also take a gas sample to make sure there is no water or sediment or anything interfering with the carburetor. Every bolt I can see I check for m ‘make sure everything is secure,’ she said.
Since the fenders and most of the frame are fabric-covered tubular steel, Stearns looks for warping or bending. She lowers one aileron to check the opposite reaction of the other, rotates the rudder for flexibility, and places the four brace cables that keep the aft elevator stable.
“The AD Major sound is what I’m looking for in all of them,” she said. Each moving part will be carefully lubricated quarterly.
Monday morning, she will pass the name of the script under the front right window, voted and baptized by her pilot friends: Hyperion. Then another ritual begins.
Stearns will fly to the memorial service site from the east and deliver a pilot’s salute, seven wing strokes, above the crowd.
“This is the norm for someone who dies – either a seven or 21 gun salute.”, She explained, joking, “I don’t think 21 wing wags would be good for any. of us.”
Finally, it will begin to climb into the western sky and move away.
“That’s what they say about a pilot who dies: Flyn West.”
Harriet Howard Heithaus writes for the Naples Daily News / naplesnews.com. Contact her at 239-253-8936.
If you are going to
Memorial Day Monday Events
Memorial Day Service: 9 a.m. on Monday, May 31, Riverside Park, 10450 Reynolds St., Bonita Springs. Flag display, 21-gun salute, wreath laying, opening speech by retired US Air Force sergeant. David Grossi.
Memorial Day Event: 9.45 a.m. Memorial Gardens, 525 111th Ave., Naples. Sponsored by Hodges Funeral Home and Cemetery and Collier County Veterans Council. Address, taps, music, summons, 21-shot salvo, color guard. Participants are encouraged to bring seats.
Lely Presbyterian Memorial Service: 11 a.m. on Monday, May 31. Lely Presbyterian Church, 110 St. Andrews Boulevard, Naples. Half-hour memorial service led by Chaplain Ed Brandt, a retired Brigadier General Chaplain with over 31 years of National Guard service who is now Presbyterian Pastor Lely. 239-774-615 or www.lelychurch.com.
Commemorative ceremony and folding of the flag: 2:30 p.m., Monday May 31. VFW Post 7721 attends ceremony at Terracina Grand Senior Living, 6825 Davis Blvd. Speakers, flag folding ceremony.