By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"I said, 'You know, it's so expensive,' and she was a typical dumb-ass 16- 17-year-old and said, 'I'll just borrow the money.' 'I can't let you do that, but let's go see. Maybe they'll put more money on the table. Maybe there's more financial aid there. Let's go see.'"
Originally, the Scott and Worley families planned to drive. But on the day before they found themselves at the Sweetwater, Jerry Taylor, a family friend, invited Rivera-Worley to lunch.
"He said, 'Why don't you fly?'" Rivera-Worley recalled while sitting in the office where she works as Denton County's chief civil attorney. "I said, 'Oh God, I can't afford to fly the whole family there, to New Orleans.' He said, 'Well, what if you had a plane and somebody to fly you there?' I said that would be a hell of a deal."
Taylor said his son, a senior at the University of North Texas, was racking up flying hours as part of his plan to become a commercial pilot. A flight to New Orleans would help, Taylor said. The younger Taylor held a commercial pilot's certificate and was trained to fly multiengine aircraft. He'd flown for four years, accumulating 450 hours in the pilot's seat--considered a "reasonable" amount of experience for a young pilot. To put it in perspective, a co-pilot on a small commuter airplane would probably have to have a minimum of about 2,000 hours in the air before being hired, a pilot's association representative says.
When an airplane large enough for both families couldn't be found, the senior Taylor found one that could take three. Rivera-Worley convinced her son, Ernest, to let John Scott take his place on the smaller airplane. The trip seemed like it would be a fun getaway.
"We planned to arrive at about 10:30 and then probably go out to eat, and then the next morning we had stuff planned at Tulane all day, and then we were going to play Saturday and Sunday and come home Sunday afternoon, something like that. Sarah's birthday was Monday, so we were going to make a little birthday trip out of it."
Bryan Scott Taylor was an attentive pilot, and when it came to safety he went by the book. If he was taught he was supposed to check something before each flight, that's just what he did.
"I would have flown with Bryan anytime, anyplace," his father says confidently.
His son was qualified to fly by "instrument flight rules," relying solely on the bank of instruments in the cockpit if it was impossible to see anything out of the windows and it was unwise to trust what his senses seemed to be telling him. About half of the nation's 635,000 active pilots are qualified to fly using instruments. It's not easy, but Taylor was a skilled instrument pilot, his father says.
"I remember this one trip, we came into Lufkin late at night. Two o'clock in the morning. Pouring down rain. Cloud cover down to 800 feet, at the point of which you have a go, no-go decision about whether you can land," he says.
"We came around...lined up like so coming in for a landing. I said, 'Bryan, I can't see a blooming thing.' 'I'm right on Dad; don't worry about it.' We came down, dropped out of the clouds. As soon as we dropped out of the clouds, here's the airport, Addison airport...We popped out of the clouds at 800 feet, landed in three seconds. No time to adjust. If you're on, you're on."
On the morning of April 2, 1998, the younger Taylor drove out to the Denton Municipal Airport and inspected the bright canary yellow and pea green Piper Cherokee that he rented for that night's trip to New Orleans. He took it up for a test flight.
Sometime between 6:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. Taylor's passengers arrived at the airport in a minivan. It was a beautiful, clear spring evening, and conditions seemed ideal for a flight.
"The plane didn't seem old and dilapidated or anything...It's not like the seat belts didn't work or this seems like it was falling apart. I mean, it wasn't a jet, but...I didn't have any reservations in climbing in there," Rivera-Worley says.
She and John Scott got into the back so they could share a bottle of liquor and have cocktails on the way. Sarah wanted a good view out of the front window. The takeoff was perfect, exhilarating.
"Everything was fine," Rivera-Worley says. "We were flying. Sarah was sitting in the co-pilot's seat, and she was telling me, because I had told her how I'd always wanted to learn to fly a plane, and she was like, 'This is so cool. I want to learn to fly a plane, too.'
"We were flying above the clouds. You could just see everything. The sun was shining over there, and after a while, off in the distance, you could see some lightning and flashes way off in the distance. It was a beautiful view...It was really great."
As the tiny airplane passed from the skies over Texas to Louisiana, the twilight of dusk turned to dark. The clear view of the ground also had changed. Now there were thick clouds and no clear air until you reached about 700 feet above ground. Inside the cloud cover it was raining and pitch-black. But, using what is known as the "six pack" of cockpit instruments that provide all sorts of information about the airplane's altitude, speed and pitch, Taylor could easily take the airplane down through the clouds as he'd done at other places before. He would "pop out" at just about 700 feet above their destination, Lake Front Airport. Taylor began descending.