Pasco plane crash ended life of man who shared his wonder with others

Published Sept. 18, 2012

ODESSA — Bill Athey loved to learn new things, but he could never keep them to himself.

In high school, he built his family's first color television. An Eagle Scout, he also tried out for the Olympic cycling team and barely missed the cutoff. He rode his bicycle across Florida "just because he could," said his sister, Sybil Bowen.

A science freak, he would email family and friends with the precise dates and times they could see the space shuttle or other phenomena in the night sky. He became an engineer who often volunteered in schools. Sometimes he brought his homing pigeons. Other times he talked about space or operating his amateur radio.

And recently, Athey, 53, fixed up an ultralight plane and took flying lessons because he finally had the time and the money.

"He wanted to fly an ultralight for as long as I can remember," said Bowen, 51, of St. Louis.

Athey was taking his first flight in the plane about 8:30 a.m. Sunday when it snagged power lines near Pasco County's Pilot Country and crashed, killing him. Bowen said she was surprised to hear the details about the crash.

"He was never a risk-taker," Bowen said. "If he were flying a kite, he'd make sure you were at least 6 miles away from any wires. He would never take a chance or do something stupid."

Athey's crash was one of two ultralight fatalities on Sunday. A second happened about 11:30 a.m. when another aircraft took off from Hernando County Airport, stalled, crashed and burst into flames, killing 50-year-old Christopher Ambrose Washington of Spring Hill.

Although Athey's crash was the first fatality at the Pilot Country airstrip, according to its manager, it was not the only fatality associated with the airfield. In 1995, a plane that took off from Pilot Country crashed shortly afterward, killing one.

A graduate of Leto High School, Athey grew up in an Air Force family. He lived in various places but finally the family settled in the Citrus Park area, which his grandfather developed. As a teen, he got a job at an appliance repair shop because he could fix anything, his sister said.

After high school, he went to Hillsborough Community College and Eckerd College. He worked for Honeywell as an engineer until he was laid off several years ago, Bowen said.

He most recently worked for CAE, a company that designs flight simulators.

Athey would have flown ultralights years ago but a divorce "put that on the back burner," Bowen said.

He loved to take his two sons, who are in their 20s, camping and hiking, she said.

"He doted on those boys, Bowen said.

She described her brother as a man of strong Christian faith who regularly volunteered at homeless shelters. Though she's saddened by his death, Bowen said she knows he died doing something he loved.

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"I know where he is," she said. "He's talking with Albert Einstein. All those scientific things he wondered about, he now knows the answers."