When Sarah King Fortney took her husband’s pilot’s uniform out of the closet this week so she could display it at his funeral, their 16-month-old son, Calvin James, kept touching it. He even tried to put it on.
Clarence Wayne “C.W.” Fortney II, 34, was a passenger on Flight 5191, traveling to Atlanta on the early-morning flight Sunday so he could report for duty as a pilot for Air Tran Airlines that afternoon.
Yesterday, at a private memorial service for the 49 victims of the plane crash, the child wore pilot’s wings and epaulets on his shirt. “It’s his Dad’s life,” said Sarah Fortney. “Flying was his Dad’s life and death.”
“My husband’s life is a story about possibilities,” said Sarah, 31, after the service at the Opera House. “We grew up in Stanton, a town with limited resources,” said the Lexington resident. “It was a pipe dream that he would become an airline pilot. He wanted it like a politician wants to be the president. But he had a relentless passion for it. He sacrificed everything for it.”
C.W. Fortney’s earliest memories were of going to the airport in Powell County with his father, Wayne Fortney, and his grandfather, Cotton Fortney. Both were private pilots. The boy would sit for hours scanning the skies for any sign of an incoming plane.
When he was 5, his mother, Andrea, paid $35 for his first ride in a prop jet.
Stanton is a small town, with a population of just over 3,000 in the last census. Sarah had always known C.W., but they didn’t have their first date until she was 18. He took her to a University of Kentucky football game.
“It was a disaster,” she remembers. “It rained. I didn’t know anything about football. I didn’t think there would be a second date.”
But then she ran into C.W.’s grandfather. Had he mentioned her?
“All he told us was that you were the most beautiful girl in the world,” Cotton Fortney told her.
During their courtship, her husband helped nurse Sarah’s father, Powell County Circuit Judge James King, who was terminally ill with cancer.
“He was the son-in-law I always dreamed of having for my daughter. This week, everybody wants to tell me their feelings about this man, this ethical, moral giant. I loved him as my own,” said Sarah’s mother, Faye King, of Stanton.
Sarah is quick to say that her husband was human, too.
Last week, he heard that there was a blood shortage in Lexington, and he insisted on donating blood.
He passed out, Sarah said, smiling. But when he came to, he said he was ready to donate some more.
As a pilot, he was at the head of his class, a man who received accolades from Federal Aviation Administration officials who flew on his plane. But she never thought he could drive an automobile that well. “Away from the cockpit, he was bored to death,” she said.
After the attack on the twin towers on 9/11, Fortney was among thousands of pilots who lost their jobs. He didn’t know whether he would ever fly again.
Sarah met with officials from Air Tran Airlines after the crash to thank them for hiring him and reigniting his dream.
Last week had started as a beautiful week, Sarah said. On Aug. 22, the couple celebrated their eighth wedding anniversary.
“I’m the luckiest man alive,” he told her. “He said he loved me. He loved Calvin. He loved his career. He had finally made it.”
They hired a baby-sitter for the first time since Calvin was born and went to downtown Lexington to hear some music.
That’s what she remembers as she goes to briefings with the coroner and the National Transportation Safety Board.
Sarah still doesn’t know where her husband was sitting on the plane because he wasn’t a registered passenger -- just an off-duty pilot hopping a ride to work in Atlanta.
Investigators have told her that two passengers were moving around the plane and appeared to have been trying to help other passengers escape.
She believes her husband would have attempted a rescue: “If he could, he would have been the first to help people out.”
Her husband thought there were potential hazards at Blue Grass Airport, she said. He worried about the trees at the end of the runway. Those were the trees that Flight 5191 clipped as it crashed.
He was concerned about a mural near a runway at Blue Grass Airport that he thought confused pilots trying to land.
“If there’s anything that needs to be done structurally at the airport, it needs to be done immediately,” she said yesterday after the memorial service. “If anything needs to be done to improve air-traffic control procedures, it should be done immediately.”
Nonetheless, Sarah said, “If my husband were here today, he would still say that a commercial airliner is the safest way to travel.”
Calvin James Fortney cried pitifully for hours on Sunday.
Thinking the baby had an earache, his mother took him to the doctor.
But Calvin James wasn’t suffering from physical pain, Sarah believes. The blond toddler was reacting to the deep sorrow all around him.
“He sees me hurting,” Fortney said. “He’s confused.”
Sarah says that as she raises Calvin, she will repeat to him the motto his father lived by: “In dreams and in love, there are no impossibilities.”
But she has no idea what she will tell the boy about this crash and the way his father died.
“I don’t have answers for him, she said. “No one will ever have answers for him. But he will always have lots of love.”
A fund that will benefit students from Powell County who want to attend college has been set up in memory of Comair Flight 5191 victim Clarence Wayne “C.W.” Fortney II. Donations should be sent to Whitaker Bank, 130 South Main Street, Stanton, Ky. 40380.