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Pasco Tribune

Ultralight pilot had lifelong science curiosity

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 01:25 PM

Bill Athey had an insatiable curiosity.

As a teen, he learned how to build a color television set.

He was so good at repairing televisions, an electronics store hired the high schooler to work on their backlogged items. He cleared that out in no time.

Athey could make the perfect rose with icing to top off a cake. And recently, he perfected a cheesecake recipe his oldest son, Ryan, loved.

He taught himself how to play the guitar, later moving on to the banjo. Athey even struck a chord or two on the violin.

"I think he was just born with it," Athey's sister, Sybil Bowen said of her older brother. "He was a lifelong learner and he loved to find out about things. I suppose he was the kind of person who would look at something and take it apart and would want to know how it worked."

Sunday morning, Athey took his first flight in an ultralight aircraft he purchased this summer. He did all the work on the plane himself.

Authorities received calls abut 8:30 a.m. a plane crashed into the power lines near Pilot Country Airport in Gowers Corner. Witnesses told investigators he was attempting to land when it became ensnared. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

Athey, the father of two sons – Ryan, 23, and Wil, 21 – was 53.

A date for a funeral has not been set.

Speaking from her home in St. Louis, Bowen, 51, seemed in awe of her big brother as she recounted his many passions. Most of those stories brought laughter.

"There's never a good, convenient time for people to die," Bowen said, "but he lived a full life and he did die at a time when he was happy again."

Bowen said her brother had plans to pick up their parents from the airport in Tampa that afternoon. Billy and Georgia Athey were returning from an Air Force reunion in Washington, D.C. Athey wanted to drive his parents up to the hangar space he rented for the night and show them his plane.

It never happened.

"He wanted to have an ultralight plane forever," Bowen said. "As long as I can remember, he wanted to fly because, of course, that fascinated him."

Pilots of ultralight pilots don't need Federal Aviation Administration certifications or licenses. Nor do they need to undergo and pass a physical, something required of general aviation pilots. Ultralight aircraft don't need to be registered and maintenance records aren't required.

Although he hadn't attained his license, flying wasn't new to Athey, Bowen said.

The 1977 Leto High School graduate went on to Hillsborough Community College, completing his engineering degree at Eckerd College.

He worked as an engineer at Honeywell in Clearwater for at least 15 years before he was laid off. There, he worked on navigation programs, some of which were used on NASA shuttles.

For the past, roughly, five years he worked at CAE, a company that designs flight simulators, in Tampa.

His passion for space and science was apparent anytime a shuttle was launched or in the air. He would send out emails and text messages giving times – very precise times – as to when the craft would be passing overhead and visible.

During one visit to Florida, Bowen remembers Athey looking at the watch on his arm and then shooing her out of the house so they could watch a shuttle fly by.

The former Eagle Scout and later scoutmaster of Troop 68 in Odessa, did the same recently when the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, were visible.

Bill and Sybil's father, Billy Athey, is retired from the Air Force and during his career, the family lived in England, France, Alaska, New Mexico, and Georgia; finally settling in Odessa.

When they were kids, William, known to most as Bill, had an interest in operating a Ham radio. Growing up in that home on Garden Lake Circle, Bowen remembers hearing Athey conversing with people all over the world on his radio. He even had a map with pushpins indicating all the places he made contact with fellow Ham users.

"My brother was very passionate about many, many things and he loved to share that with people," Bowen said. "He loved to do things for other people to help them – that's really who he was."


edaniels@tampatrib.com (813) 371-1860 Twitter: @EDanielsTrib

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