On what would have been the 13th birthday of Andrew McMorris, the Boy Scout who was struck and killed by an alleged drunken driver while hiking with his troop last year, his family took to the skies.
Andrew, a Wading River seventh-grader when he died six months ago, was an aviation buff who spent many weekend mornings plane-spotting at area airports and dreamed of becoming a commercial airline pilot. He had planned to celebrate his entrance to teenage-hood by flying at the same Ronkonkoma flight school he had attended.
So on Saturday, the day he would have turned 13 years old, his parents and older sister took turns taking the reins of the same single-engine plane that Andrew had flown during flight camp.
"Andrew would absolutely be so excited," said his mother, Alisa McMorris, after she and her husband finished their flight. "Today's flight is just in honor of him. To do what he loved and embody his spirit."
Andrew's father John McMorris, wearing a red ribbon with Andrew's face at the center, added: "We're doing exactly what he wanted to do."
Andrew was 12 years old on Sept. 30 when, according to Suffolk County prosecutors, alleged drunken driver Thomas Murphy, 60, of Holbrook, struck him and some of his fellow Scouts from Troop 161 as they walked along a road in Manorville.
Murphy, who prosecutors said had a blood alcohol level at the time of the crash that was more than twice the state legal limit of .08 percent, has been indicted on 16 charges, including aggravated vehicular homicide. Four others were injured in the crash.
The McMorris family has since conjured the strength to try to make a difference, speaking before an audience of hundreds of students at Shoreham-Wading River High School about the dangers of drunken driving.
"It's the hardest thing you can talk about, but you step on stage and you feel empowered,” said Alisa McMorris.
When Gail Mancuso, vice president of the Mid Island Flight School in Ronkonkoma, which runs a weeklong camp for middle school- and high school-age students learned that Andrew had been killed, she was devastated. She vividly remembered Andrew, who had attended the camp last summer in a class of 18 students and received a Scout badge as a result, for his seriousness and attention to the task.
"He took it very seriously," said Mancuso. "He paid attention. He asked questions. Some of the kids are in there and are like, 'It's camp. We're having fun.' He was serious. He wanted to absorb as much information."
And the actual flying brought him so much joy, she said.
"The first day he took his flight, he couldn't smile brighter," said Mancuso. "He was very excited."
On Saturday afternoon, in the same Cessna 172 SkyHawk that Andrew had flown — under the watchful eye of an instructor — his parents and sister took to the air. Arianna, 17, flew around Long Island MacArthur Airport with an instructor, describing the ride on a windy day as "bumpy,” while Andrew's parents took turns on the controls flying to Brookhaven Calabro Airport and back to MacArthur.
"I'm blown away at what he was able to do at 12 years old," said John McMorris. "I was scared to death up there. But he had no qualms about it, no fears. He embraced it and loved it."