It feels a little like there is a hole in the sky.
I met Greg Connell about eight years ago, choosing him as my primary profile for The Augusta Chronicle’s coverage of the Boshear’s Skyfest. We spent a warm afternoon wandering through his hanger/home in Trenton, S.C., discussing not only his then-burgeoning career as an aerobatic pilot but the complications of naming a band, steak versus seafood and whether, after a particularly poor showing of his beloved Gamecocks, painting his new plane in the team’s distinctive colors was an honor that needed to be earned with a few more wins.
In short, it quickly evolved from a reporter talking to a source about a particular subject to something far better and deeper.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should note this was not the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Our lives did not intersect all that often. I would see him from time to time at the odd party or at the air show. We would say hello, catch up a little and then go our separate ways until our paths crossed again.
But here’s the thing about those rare short moments. While little of any great import was discussed, I always left feeling a little better. For me, and from the sound of things many others have said, being around Connell was a lot like plugging into some sort of exotic power source. Whether it was his good humor, his authentic interest in others or just the unbridled enthusiasm with which he approached his life and interests, he energized people.
I am, sadly, speaking of Greg Connell in the past tense because last weekend, while performing at an airshow in Atlanta with his mentor/partner/friend Gary Ward, Connell’s beloved biplane crashed and he was killed. Too young. Too soon.
Connell’s passing is the latest in a series of performer deaths that seem to have had a profound effect on me. Be it David Bowie or Prince, whose deaths have reverberated internationally, or Connell’s, which is a far more local affair, each one forced me to consider not death itself, but finding some sort of meaning in loss.
So while Bowie, the eternal outsider, showed us how mortality could be fashioned into art, and Prince, the lasting legacy of an artist that often stayed intentionally out of the spotlight, Connell’s death comes with a lesson far more immediate and perhaps more meaningful.
Unlike the two musicians, both of whom used performance as a way to separate themselves from fans, Connell used his flying as a connector. It was performance as communal experience that brought not only those on the ground together, but, as he flew higher into the sky, brought Connell closer to his audience.
His performances were not about impossible feats or uncommon talent, but rather what is possible with work, tenacity and courage. His flights were a fanfare for the common man.
During our first meeting, Connell told me aerobatics wasn’t about flirting with danger, but rather focusing on those things that allowed him to avoid danger. His joy came not from risk but enthusiasm, and that’s what he leaves for his family, friends, casual acquaintances and every eye that stared into the sky and watched him fly. That’s his lesson.
Live life with enthusiasm. That’s what he did – right until the very end.