It all began with a flight to Florida in 2010. David Stagliano peered over at his 11-year-old son, Matthew, as the airplane was taking off. They were Disney World-bound, but Matthew was, well, a bit nervous.
“This kid had the death grip on the seat when we took off,” Stagliano remembered. But just a few years later, Matthew told his father that he wanted to learn to fly a plane.
“I said, ‘You know what, I’m going to take on this bet with you, Matt,’ ” Stagliano said. ‘“I’m going to pay for the $99 intro flight. If you can’t handle taking off with Southwest, being in a small plane is going to put an end to this whole discussion right away.’”
Matthew took off on that half-hour introductory flight to test the air. His father still remembers seeing his radiant smile from ear-to-ear when he landed.
“And I knew I just lost the $10,000 bet,” he said.
Before long, Matthew was a student at Connetquot High School by day and an accomplished aviator by night. At just 16 years old, Matthew had flown across the country, up and down the Hudson River, and even through the tight corridor of One World Trade Center. During his freshman and sophomore years, he convinced the principal to let him do flyovers before the homecoming games.
Matthew's father remembers that sophomore flight last year.
“It was a ‘Matt kind of luck’ day, because the winds were really strong that day,” Stagliano said. “He just happened to get off the ground. One degree before they would have cut him off from taking off. He just happened to get in the air.”
Matthew died that evening during his nap.
The condition that took Matthew’s life was hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, in which the heart enlarges and restricts blood flow. It is asymptomatic, yet the gene that causes it occurs in one in every 500 people, according to the American Heart Association.
His mother, Regina Stagliano, wants to spread the word to every parent on precautions they should take.
“We just want to get the word out to people to find screenings, ask your physician, tell your pediatrician you want an EKG [electrocardiogram],” she said. “You would never know what’s in there until you look. Matt ran track [and] was 6 feet tall. He didn’t look like a sick person. And he was.”
But his parents also want to celebrate Matthew’s life as they raise awareness. To honor his memory at this year’s homecoming on Saturday, they had a plan: They contacted the Geico Skytypers and asked if the team would be willing to coordinate a flyover at the game.
Once the flight squadron was on board, more people came forward to show their support. Officers from the New York Police Department Mounted Unit, of which David Stagliano is a member, came with their horses. So did the color guard from the Civil Air Patrol, where Matthew was a cadet staff sergeant.
“We didn’t want to make it a solemn event,” Stagliano said. “We wanted to make it a Matt event.”
Following the singing of the national anthem Saturday, three aircrafts zoomed overhead and left trails of fluffy smoke streaking across the sky, just as Matthew had accomplished one year earlier. The weather was cloudy and cold in the morning, but seemed to brighten up just in time.
Matthew’s parents stood out among the sea of Connetquot red in matching royal blue jerseys, made specially to honor their son.
After the initial introductory flight that set Matthew’s sights sky-high, he was able to meet members of the Blue Angels, the United States Navy’s elite flight demonstration team.
He politely asked the lieutenant commander to sign his logbook, and in it he wrote the words, “Dream high, fly high.”
It became Matthew’s motto. His parents had those words printed on the jerseys they wore in honor of their only child.
"If you take anything from Matthew, from the spirit of him, it’s his can-do attitude," his father said. "That’s what I would like this day to be [about] -- his can-do attitude. Matthew took on everything. He lived his life to the fullest, to the very last second he had, and that’s what we’d love to see people do at this school. Just go after your dreams and do it. Matt made every one of his come true, in his short 16 years."