TAMPA — Andy Meyer refused to let a pandemic stop him from seeing his first grandchild.
An avid pilot, Meyer considered taking a commercial flight to Philadelphia last week to visit his daughter and her new baby, Aria. But with the coronavirus spreading rapidly, he didn’t want to risk the exposure to the virus, said friend Omar Medina.
“He said it was a $66 dollar flight he could have taken,” Medina said. “He told me, ‘I’m not going to not see my grandchild.’"
So Meyer, the 64-year-old owner of Continental Wholesale Diamonds in Tampa, took Medina’s twin-engine Cessna. On the way back to Florida, as Meyer flew over Charleston, S.C., something went wrong.
“I’m losing my engine, I need to land quickly, can you get me to the closest airport?” Meyer told an air traffic controller, his voice calm but urgent.
The controller gave Meyer course headings to the nearby Charleston Executive Airport and asked if the left or right engine was malfunctioning.
“It should be my left but I’m having trouble with both,” he replied.
Over the next several minutes, the controller helped guide Meyer toward the airport. Meyer said he wasn’t sure he could maintain the required altitude, then stopped responding altogether.
“He’s flown for thousands of hours, you could hear how calm he was,” said Meyer’s son Jacob. “I don’t think there was a single second that he didn’t believe he wasn’t going to be able to land that plane.”
Sitting at the controls on the way home to Tampa , Andy Meyer had plenty of reasons to be happy, his son said.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Meyer had been in the jewelry business for 40 years. He loved sales, interacting with people and being his own boss. He also made his two kids, Jacob and Gabrielle, a priority.
“He worked hard and put his life into the business, but he did everything for me and my sister,” said Jacob, 35, of Chicago. “He never missed a single thing. Sports, school, any special occasion, he was there.”
Meyer’s business struggled at times and some of the problems spilled over into his personal life, his son said. He went through a divorce about 15 years ago.
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In 2012, the owners of a 35-year-old Tampa jewelry store named Continental Jewelry decided to get out of the business. Meyer was one of the store’s largest wholesale suppliers at the time and helped the owners liquidate the store.
Impressed by the business’s reputation and client loyalty, he incorporated the name into his own venture, Continental Wholesale Diamonds, according to a news release issued at the time. A year later, Meyer moved the store to the Westshore Center on Westshore Boulevard.
A graduate of the University of Miami, Meyer had always wanted to own a home in Florida and in 2016 bought a Harbour Island townhouse on Sparkman Channel. He became active at the Rodeph Sholom synagogue on Bayshore Boulevard and supported local charities, often by sponsoring events, such as the Tampa Jewish Community Centers and Federation and the Tampa Woman’s Club.
Continental Wholesale business hit a rough patch in 2018, prompting Meyer to file for bankruptcy. In a court filing, Meyer said much of the problem stemmed from an employee who stole from the business. He was determined to keep the business open and went ahead with plans to move to a larger space in a building a few blocks to the south.
“He’d worked so hard and had ups and downs, but he’d finally got himself into a place where he was building something great for himself,” Jacob Meyer said.
In 1999, Meyer and a friend flew a twin-engine Baron from Philadelphia across the North Atlantic Ocean, making stops in Scotland, England and Rome.
The trip speaks to Meyer’s skills, said Medina, a Tampa attorney.
“It shows he’s a skillful navigator, a careful planner and knows the condition of the airplane he’s in," he said. He called Meyer a cautious pilot who “did everything by the book."
Meyer had owned planes in the past but in recent years had rented to fly. When he decided he wanted to own one again, he made plans to become part-owner of a 1964 Cessna 310 that Medina had owned for more than two decades. Medina said the engines and props on the six-seat plane had less than 200 hours on them and he recently replaced the instrument panel with new, state of the art technology.
Medina said Meyer had flown 15 to 20 hours in the plane, including 10 with an instructor, a requirement by Medina’s insurance company for Meyer to be covered while flying by himself.
On March 18, a day after his daughter Gabrielle Sullivan gave birth, Meyer took off from Peter O. Knight Airport in Tampa and flew north to Philadelphia. In a photo he posted on Facebook the next day, Meyer is smiling as he holds the baby swaddled in a blanket with a pattern of pink roses.
“Say hello to Aria,” the post says.
Meyer left Philadelphia on March 21, stopping for fuel at Rocky Mount-Wilson Regional Airport in North Carolina. He took off again at 5:31 p.m., according to flightaware.com, and would have touched down about 8:15 p.m. at Zephyrhills Municipal Airport, where he planned to refuel before continuing on to Tampa.
He was about five miles northeast of Charleston Executive Airport when he radioed air traffic control to report engine trouble.
During the radio transmission, available on atc.net, Meyer told the controller he was alone and had three hours of fuel on board. The controller said they were notifying the airport he was on his way and had an emergency.
Over the next several minutes, Meyer struggled to get a visual on the airport. The controller asked Meyer if he could guide him in from the south, requiring Meyer to turn around. Meyer said okay.
The controller told Meyer he was about a half mile southeast of the airport and asked if he could maintain an altitude of 2,000 feet.
“I don’t know what I can maintain, just please give me...please give me where I’m going,” Meyer replied, his tone more urgent.
The controller told him to turn right but Meyer didn’t answer. The controller told him to check his altitude immediately. No answer.
“If you hear this transmission," the controller said, “radar contact lost.”
Back in Tampa, Jacob Meyer was at his father’s townhouse with his dad’s girlfriend, preparing a dinner of steak, chicken, fish and shrimp. Jacob had flown in from Chicago and hadn’t seen his father since Thanksgiving.
When his father didn’t show up by 8:20 p.m., Jacob checked flightaware.com and was puzzled to see his father had stopped in Charleston. Then he saw how his speed and altitude dropped steeply. When Meyer called the airport and relayed the plane’s tail number, the person who answered began to stammer as if unsure what to say, then asked him to hold.
Jacob searched online and saw Charleston news outlets reporting that a plane had crashed into a wooded area near the airport.
“From that point, it was just confirming what we already knew,” he said.
Jacob Meyer learned later the plane hit a tree and went down about 2,000 feet short of the runway. He was told his dad did not suffer.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash and typically releases a preliminary report within a month or so. A final report, which outlines the cause of the crash if possible, takes at least a year.
As word of his death spread, friends took to Facebook to pay tribute and flooded Jacob Meyer’s phone with condolences. Many had a similar refrain: He was kind, generous and always there when we needed him.
Jacob Meyer said he immediately made sure the jewelry store and its contents were secure. The next step is to do a complete inventory and then decide the store’s future.
On Thursday, Jacob flew to Philadelphia to see his father buried in a family plot. Jewish tradition calls for burial within 24 hours, so they wanted to proceed as quickly as possible. Because of the coronavirus, only Jacob and a friend attended, and the funeral director live-streamed the burial on Zoom. Jacob called his sister on FaceTime and held his phone during the service.
After the pine box was lowered into the grave, Jacob dropped a shovelful of soil onto it, another tradition. He held the phone up so Gabrielle could say some final words to her dad, then dropped some soil for her.
Just as the service ended, a small private prop plane flew over the cemetery, the buzz of its engines breaking the silence.
At some point, after the pandemic ebbs and people can gather and embrace again, the family will hold a life celebration in Tampa, Jacob said.
“That’s when we’ll really be able to memorialize him.”