Fliers Offer a Tribute to 2 of Their Own : Santa Paula: A memorial service and flyovers honor the pilots. They were killed in a Feb. 13 collision.


Dozens of airplanes flew in formation over Santa Paula Airport Sunday in a symbolic tribute to a popular aerobatic flight instructor and his student who died in a midair collision earlier this month.

The flyovers followed a memorial service for Lee Manelski, 46, of Santa Paula and David Tomlinson, 18, of Thousand Oaks. They were killed Feb. 13 when their aerobatic plane tried to evade a Bell helicopter at Santa Paula Airport during takeoff.

Manelski’s mother, Dale O’Brien of Northridge, said the airport was the most appropriate place to hold a memorial service for her son, a nationally ranked aerobatic flier. Her son would not have wanted it any other way.

“He told me ‘If anything ever happens to me, I was doing what I loved best: flying,’ ” O’Brien said, fighting back tears.


Tomlinson’s mother, Harriet, said she was pleased by the large and supportive crowd of about 200 people. “It is a beautiful service for the both of them,” she said.

Friends and family of both men gathered in an airplane hangar that stored Manelski’s planes, his plaques and trophies from aerobatic competitions and other flying memorabilia. They stood silently to hear a minister’s sermon and speeches from close friends and relatives.

“It is very touching to have this many people come out for a service like this,” said actor Gene Hackman, a friend of Manelski’s. “He was an extremely well-respected flier.”

Aerobatic flier Jacque Herendeen of Santa Monica said she took offense at the media’s description of Manelski as a “stunt pilot,” saying it implied recklessness. Reckless was hardly the word she would use to describe her friend, she said.

“He was the finest aerobatic instructor that I have ever known,” she said. “This loss is felt worldwide.”

Aerobatics is precision flying that includes the execution of loops and flips and 160-m.p.h. plunges toward the earth.

Immediately after the service, 30 pilots--many of them from the area--streaked through the sky in Pitts Aerobatics, airplanes built in the 1930s, and advanced World War II training planes. Against the hilly backdrop, the colorful aircraft gathered in the heavens for a variety of aerial formations, including a cross.

Manelski’s red and blue Laser airplane stood idle in a nearby hangar with photos of the pilot in his plane and family snapshots.


Flyovers, a common practice in the aviation community to pay tribute to aviators who have died, have become a tradition at Santa Paula Airport, said Dale Donalson, one of the event’s organizers. Donalson said more than 50 pilots volunteered to fly Sunday, but organizers had to limit the number to 30 for safety reasons.

Aircraft mechanic Jerry Deanda of Santa Paula, a longtime friend of Manelski’s, said this was his first experience with losing a close friend in aviation.

“It is the first time I had to do this,” Deanda said. “I have flown in flybys, but this is the first time I had this much involvement.”

Many of those who flew on Sunday were friends of Manelski’s. Flier Bob Herendeen, recently elected to the International Aerobatic Hall of Fame, was once Manelski’s flying coach. He remembered his friend as a “good instructor and pilot.”


“We all miss him,” he said. “It still doesn’t seem possible that he is not here.”

Manelski’s sons--Chris, 19, and John, 13--were passengers on planes that flew over the airport on Sunday.

Chris Manelski said his father, a quiet man, had a deep passion for flying. “His glory was when he was up in the air alone.”