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‘He loved to fly’: Mourners remember Columbus youth killed in Metro helicopter crash

Police helicopter pilot’s body recovered from Coosa River after Friday crash into Lake Mitchell

The body Retired Columbus Police officer and Metro Narcotics pilot David Hall's body was recovered from Lake Mitchell in central Alabama's Chilton County Sunday. The helicopter he was piloting hit a wire over the river and crashed Friday, Nov. 16
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The body Retired Columbus Police officer and Metro Narcotics pilot David Hall's body was recovered from Lake Mitchell in central Alabama's Chilton County Sunday. The helicopter he was piloting hit a wire over the river and crashed Friday, Nov. 16

Karen Griswold has a lot of stories she could tell about her younger son, Austin, the one who will be 22 forever.

Asked for one Monday morning, before his funeral that afternoon at Columbus’ Wynnbrook Baptist Church, she chose one his barber told her.

Austin always went to the same family barber in Phenix City, where he had a regular appointment. One day when he was there he met another Austin, a little boy around 4 or 5 years old.

When they first met, the elder Austin said something to this effect: “Your name’s Austin? Cool! My name is Austin, too!” They bumped fists and talked, and from then on, the barber scheduled the boy’s appointment right after the young man’s, so they could give each other the fist-bump and chat.

On Nov. 15, the barber finished big Austin’s hair before little Austin got there.

“I don’t have much daylight left,” he told her. “I’ve got to get home and wash my car.”

That’s a shame, she said: He’d miss seeing the child.

He paid for his haircut and got his change, and she walked to the back of the shop.

When she came back, he was still there. She thought he had left. Did he need something?

“I’m going to wait around a while, so I can see my little buddy,” he told her. When little Austin came in, they did the fist-bump, and talked, and then the elder Austin left.

It was a good thing he waited, because they never saw each other again.

Austin Jay Griswold was killed the next day when the Columbus’ Metro Narcotics Task Force helicopter piloted by reserve police officer David Hall hit a power line over the Coosa River, and crashed into Lake Mitchell. Hall also died in the crash.

The passenger was not supposed to be aboard the aircraft Hall was flying to Canton, Ala., for maintenance. Hall had picked Austin up in Auburn, Ala., to ride along. Though Hall was among those involved in Austin’s flight instruction – Austin had been obsessed with flying since he was a child, and never missed a chance to go – the ride-along was not for training.

“He was not taking flight lessons,” his mother said.

The National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration are investigating the crash.

Funerals for the deceased are being held in Columbus this week. Hall’s is set for 2 p.m. Saturday at Wynnbrook Baptist Church, 500 River Knoll Way, with the Rev. Kevin Calhoun officiating. The family will receive friends at the church after the service, according to McMullen Funeral Home and Crematory, which also handled Austin’s service Monday.

Remembering

Karen Griswold likes the barber shop story because it illustrates how her son treated people, and his sense of responsibility.

“He was a person who loved to please people, especially those who were closest to him,” the Rev. Grant Parker told more than 200 people gathered for Austin’s funeral.

Born July 20, 1996, Austin graduated from Northside High School in 2014, and from Columbus Technical College in 2017, with an HVAC certificate. He worked at Integrated Supply Company in Columbus as a warehouse manager and driver. He also was a student at FlightWays in Columbus, working toward a private pilot’s license.

“My son has been obsessed with flying since he was little,” his mother said Monday morning. Chris and Karen Griswold have an older son, Kyle, 26, and a younger daughter, Kristin, 18. Told to draw pictures when they were kids, Kyle drew a pet iguana; Kristin drew an abstract; Austin drew an airplane.

“He loved to fly,” his mother said. Some people find commercial airline flights stressful or tedious. Not Austin: “He could not wait to get on that plane.”

A cousin speaking at the funeral said he once asked why Austin liked it so much. “There’s no feeling like being in the air,” Austin replied.

Flying was not his only obsession: He loved the outdoors, particularly fishing, and he liked being tidy and organized.

His car and his boat were never soiled, as he washed them constantly: “Those were his babies. They didn’t get dirty,” his mother said.

Of Austin’s boat, the Rev. Parker told mourners: “He would dry it off after he took it out of the water…. He was fastidious about washing and details and all that.”

He would wash other people’s cars, too, for free, his mother said, and he would do it perfectly, too, because he was so meticulous.

“He was ahead on everything,” Karen Griswold said: He was seven months’ ahead on his car payments, and four months’ ahead on his boat.

Said the preacher: “He paid his relationships ahead as well.”

He started at Columbus Tech before he got a job at Integrated Systems, which supplies refrigeration pipes for grocery stores and other businesses. Deciding he liked the job and would stay on, he wanted to drop out of school. His mother talked him out of it, and later on he told her, “Mom, I know you were right.”

Because he loved Integrated Systems, he had made no other career plans. “He loved that place, and they loved him,” his mother said.

“He came into work every day with a smile on his face and a great attitude,” a coworker recalled at the funeral. “We come to work every day and bring up memories of him, followed by tears, followed by smiles and laughter.”

Smiles and laughter overcame tears at his funeral, at times, as when a friend remembered their building a backyard bonfire. The friend threw a box of fireworks into it, ignoring Austin’s warning, “That’s not a good idea.”

The friend thought the box was just burn. He was wrong: “We ended up running and running with hundreds of bottle rockets flying at us,” he said.

A music-backed montage of photos shown at the service often depicted Austin fishing, or holding fish he’d caught, or just sitting on his boat.

A cousin told of calling Austin on occasion to see if they could hang out together. “Only if you want to go sit on the boat,” Austin replied.

His ingenuity was remarkable: If he needed a tool he didn’t have or couldn’t get, he fashioned something that would do the job. “Austin might have hated school, but he was good with his hands,” the cousin said.

His mother didn’t think Austin ever planned to work as a pilot, but he did intend, one day, to buy his own plane. His favorite one to fly was a 1970s single-engine aircraft with the wings set over the cockpit.

He didn’t always tell her when he was going up, but before he first flew alone, he texted her: “I’m about to do my first solo. I love you.”

She asked that he text her back when it was over, and he did: “I’m alive,” he messaged.

“Thank God,” she replied.

The Sunday before he died, he flew two solo flights, taking off and landing. His parents watched. His performance looked perfect.

The following Thursday, he saw his little barber shop buddy for the last time, and the next Friday he was gone, the week before Thanksgiving. “It will never be the same for us,” his mother said of the holiday.

At the funeral, the Rev. Parker told everyone how Austin, the 22-year-old who had been in a hurry to go wash his car before dark, waited in the barber shop to see the little boy with the same name.

“You behave for your Daddy,” Austin told the child.



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