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OP/ED: Fate or fluke? Accidental honours for war hero's homecoming

What seemed like a striking and awe-inspiring tribute to a fallen Air Force war hero Saturday turned out to be a fascinating, fabulous and fitting … fluke.

I was one of hundreds of people in attendance at Castlegar’s West Kootenay Regional Airport to observe, remember and respect Airman Sgt. Eric Honeyman’s sacrifices as his remains were returned to Canada after being missing in action for more than 70 years (see photo galleries of the landing ceremony, the funeral Monday, and the full story by clicking on the underlined hyperlinks).

I, along with hundreds of others, watched in amazement as an AS 350 Superlifter helicopter whipped the sky above the airport … with a man dangling from a rope 100 feet below the chopper, swaying as many 500 to 1,000 feet off the ground at any given time.

The aircraft, with its startling cargo seeming to hang by the merest thread, circled the airport, then disappeared from view just minutes before Sgt. Honeyman’s Air Canada flight came into view.

Many off the deeply-impressed onlookers  - myself included – assumed the whole thing was a stunning and provocative display staged by the U.S. military to honour its lost airman (one lady in the crowd even remarked, “Wow, now I’m really glad I dressed up for this”.)

It wasn’t any such thing, though.

What it was, was perhaps the coolest coincidence I have been privileged to witness in my entire career, if not my entire life.

Dunc Wassick, of Dam Helicopters, said it was actually a training exercise for local heli-rescue crews, who actually weren’t even aware the event at the airport was taking place.

“No, we didn’t know about it – but it is kind of cool,” Wassick said. “We saw that there was something going on (at the airport) and we were just trying to get out of the way.”

So was it fluke or fate, that the assembled crowd was privy to such a display of aerial prowess just moments before the repatriation of a lost airman?

My more romantic nature wants to believe it’s the latter.

As moving as the ceremony for Honeyman was, it was also, at its core, both very sad and solemn, honouring the sacrifice and death of one of our own – and by extension, those of millions of others during times of war.

The chopper was, for me, a tangible symbol that while Honeyman was lost to us, his legacy is alive and well, as men and women today still take to the skies, defying both God and gravity ... not in self-interest, but rather in service of their communities, their countrymen, and the greater good.

It underlined the modern importance of historical sacrifices – how they ripple through the generations and inform our todays, and our tomorrows.

I never knew Honeyman, but I’m hoping he’d like that; that he’d think it’s a pretty nifty legacy.

I know I sure do.