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Private pilots plan to converge on Somerset for 9/11 memorial

Sunday, August 11, 2002

By Jack Kelly, Post-Gazette National Bureau

Private pilots from around the country plan to place a wreath at the Somerset County crash site of United Airlines Flight 93 in a ceremony Sept. 5.

The wreath will be laid by Donna Miller of Golden, Colo., a furloughed United Airlines pilot.

Miller is one of hundreds of private pilots participating in a Flight Across America to honor the victims of Sept. 11 and to celebrate flying.

The flight, which organizers hope will involve takeoffs and landings at each of the 15,000 public-use airports in the United States, will culminate in a ceremony Sept. 8 on the deck of the USS Intrepid. A World War II aircraft carrier, the Intrepid is now a floating museum moored at Pier 86 in New York City.

At the Sept. 8 ceremony, flag bearers from each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico will present to New York City officials a state flag which has flown over their capital.

Miller is the designated flag bearer for Colorado. It was her idea to stop in Somerset County to pay tribute to the heroes of Flight 93. When she told other pilots of her plans, they wanted to join in.

"The response has been overwhelming," Miller said. "I let other flag bearers know we were going to lay a wreath, and they made plans to join us."

After the stop in Somerset County, the pilots plan to go on to the Pentagon for a wreath-laying ceremony Sept. 6 before arriving at Essex County airport in Caldwell, N.J., the evening of Sept. 7.

The Flight Across America is the brainchild of Molly Peebles, 34, a single mother of three who lives in Redmond, Wash. Peebles received her private pilot's license last year. She originally was scheduled to take her final check ride Sept. 11.

"Aviation was the tool that brought about the horrific events of Sept. 11," Peebles said. "I wanted to create a unifying event where aviation would again be the tool. The act of 50 pilots carrying their state flags across the country to New York City is symbolic of a nation coming together to stand in solidarity."

To be selected, state flag bearers had to write an essay on why they wanted to take part.

The flag bearer for Pennsylvania is David Pekala, 37, of Wilkes-Barre. Pekala is a scientist who develops vaccines for Aventis Pasteur, a French firm which has a manufacturing plant in Swiftwater, Monroe County.

"Two weeks prior to Sept. 11, I did a night flight down the Hudson River, never realizing that I was seeing the Twin Towers for the last time," he said.

Pekala spent the first nine years of his career working for the Department of Defense and is eager to do whatever he can to strike back at the terrorists. He said he was proud that Aventis had donated 50,000 units of tetanus vaccine to New York City the day after the attacks.

The Flight Across America officially kicks off at noon today at Paine Field in Everett, Wash. Erik Lindbergh, grandson of Charles, who made the first solo transatlantic flight, is the keynote speaker.

Jack Kelly can be reached at jkelly@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1476.

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