Capt. Brian Florence (’90) has flown with United Airlines for nearly 30 years, but one of his most memorable flights was the last ride of John Paul Riddle. Florence was an Embry-Riddle student just shy of his 21st birthday when he flew to South Florida to scatter the ashes of Embry-Riddle’s cofounder.
“I met [Riddle] on campus several times. I first spotted him grabbing a bite at the grill in University Center,” Florence remembers. “He was an older gentleman in a ball cap and blazer. He laughed a lot and seemed very kind. When someone told me who he was, I walked over to shake his hand. He was very interested in talking with students.”
When Riddle died in April 1989, the Daytona Beach Campus hosted a memorial. On display was his portrait, draped in school colors and a floral arrangement in the shape of an airplane. Members of the Embry-Riddle community read Psalms, and a student offered a reading on the joy of flight from Richard Bach’s novel, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Students shared memories, mentioning Riddle’s visits to residence halls, where he joined in card games and Monopoly and enjoyed watching Miami Vice with students. At the end of the service, the recessional was Wild Blue Yonder, originally the Army Air Corps’ anthem. There was also a fly-over by university aircraft.
Florence says he wasn’t expecting to be part of Riddle’s sea burial. His eyes were on graduation and his first job, as a primary flight instructor for the university. He was co-captain of the Eagles Flight Team, busy preparing for the National Intercollegiate Flying Association (NIFA) competition in Grand Forks, North Dakota. He had recently completed his complex airplane endorsement when he got a call from his academic advisor and coach, Mike Wiggins (’76, ’81), asking him to help pilot the mission. Wiggins was confident in his choice. “Brian was a standout student and the one who first came to mind when this honor arose,” he remembers.
Florence had the skills but not the wardrobe. “I had to find a blazer, shirt and tie,” he says. He flew one of the school’s Cessna 172s from Daytona Beach to Miami International to meet Tandy Miles Riddle, who entrusted him with her father’s ashes.
It was a nerve-wracking flight for a new pilot. Although Eastern Airlines was on strike at the time, Miami was an exceptionally busy airport. “We were on approach between two DC-10s with their higher approach speeds. For me to come in at 120 knots as we landed was a new experience. We taxied to Signature Aviation under and between the wings of some very large jets.”
In the plane were Wiggins (now professor and chair of the department of aeronautical science), and George Thune, university public relations director. The trio flew over Coral Gables out to sea, and at about 800 feet, they scattered the ashes. “I was nervous about the dispersal, but I held the plane steady while Dr. Wiggins dispersed Mr. Riddle’s ashes,” Florence remembers.
Florence says giving Riddle his final ride home is one of his most cherished memories. “It wasn’t a lot of ceremony, but it was aviation in its purest form: A young pilot, in one of our planes from a pioneer’s namesake university, set him free.”
Like Riddle, Florence also committed to a life in aviation. Today, he flies Airbus A320 and 319 aircraft for United Airlines throughout North America and the Caribbean. His piloting experience extends to B727, DC-10 and B747-400 aircraft. He has been an instructor and facilitator for a command leadership program for United and has served as a consultant and participant in industry groups such as the Air Line Pilots Association. From 1997 to 2002, he was a regional and national judge for NIFA.
Florence is also involved in welcoming young talent to aviation as vice president of aviation community development for the LeRoy W. Homer Jr. Foundation. The foundation encourages disadvantaged youth to pursue careers as professional pilots and awards annual scholarships for private pilot flight training.
John Paul Riddle also has a resting place on land — with the Royal Air Force pilots who died while training at the No. 5 British Flying Training School operated by Embry-Riddle (See sidebar). A gravesite marker commemorating his life rests at the British Plot of Oak Ridge Cemetery in Arcadia, Florida.
Kim Sheeter publishes the aviation/pop culture website WilderBlue.com and is planning to publish a biography of John Paul Riddle in 2021.