Andrew Lindsay Phillips was born on May 24, 1966, to Dorothy and Fred Phillips in Ottawa, Ont., but grew up mainly in Jamaica and the Philippines, where his dad worked for CIDA and the Asian Development Bank. A curious, insightful boy with hazel eyes and chubby cheeks, Andy loved to tinker, building model airplanes and Lego cities. The eldest of three kids, Andy was mature for his age. “He knew everything,” says sister Liz, recalling how, as kids, he once calmed her down during a monsoon in the Philippines by explaining the science behind it.
An independent spirit, Andy took the family’s moves in stride. “It all meant new adventures for him,” says Fred, who had his pilot’s licence, and took Andy flying in Jamaica. At 12, he begged his parents to let him buy a “wreck of a motorcycle” to fix up, says Fred. Believing he’d never get it on the road, they relented. But working with a mechanic he’d befriended, Andy proved them wrong: within six months it looked like it had come out of a showroom, says brother Justin. Unbeknownst to his parents, he criss-crossed the Philippine countryside on the bike, revelling in the freedom.
In his quest to figure out how things worked, Andy was a voracious reader, and rarely needed instruction manuals when putting a machine together. An “experimental guy,” says Justin, he “tried everything”—including burying fireworks underground and setting them off, covering the family’s cars and fish pond in dirt. When he was in Grade 10 his parents separated, and he and his siblings moved back to the Ottawa area with their mom. He attended Merivale High School because it had a shop program.
Andy pursued his hobbies passionately. In his early 20s, he rode across the country on his motorbike, and took his Jet Ski down to Florida to try it out in the ocean—evidence, says friend Rob Timlin, of his desire “to be set apart.” By the time he met Dawn Grainger in 1990, he had his own contracting business, which began with building decks. After he finished a job for her parents, they sat down together and “couldn’t stop talking,” says Dawn, who had also grown up overseas. “We knew right from the get-go this was it,” says Dawn, who was drawn to his calm, caring demeanour. They were married in 1996.
At first, his business was “a really tough go,” says Rob. But Andy, who built his first house at 24, found “niche markets where other people couldn’t compete,” says Rob. When building cabinets, for instance, he didn’t stick to predetermined sizes; instead, his “approach was to build everything exactly the way the customer wanted it,” says Rob. His dedication won customers’ respect. “If something didn’t go well he’d lose sleep over it,” says Dawn.
He was adept at fielding the queries about the universe his sons Mitchell (born in 1999) and Grant (born in 2003) came up with, and his uncanny ability to explain things in simple terms prompted Dawn to call him “Metaphor Man.” This knowledge came, in part, from what he read and watched. Mayday, a TV show that investigates airplane crashes, was a favourite. “He was fascinated to learn what went wrong,” says Dawn.
Andy, who “seemed to go from toy to toy,” says Dawn, always had a project in the works. After he finished building his “dream house” in Carp, Ont., about five years ago, says Dawn, she encouraged him to indulge his oft-expressed desire to learn to fly planes. When he began taking lessons, “his whole demeanour changed,” she says. Andy, who had always been happy, became giddy. “It was like someone flicked a switch,” she says. “He just had this passion.”
Before long, Andy set his sights on building his own plane. In 2006, he ordered a kit plane, a two-seater Van’s Aircraft RV 7A, and threw himself into the construction of it, which took over the family’s garage. Some pilots spend 10 years assembling such aircraft, but Andy finished his in just 22 months. Friend Colin McGeachy, with whom he shared the plane, helped design the elaborate paint job. On the nose, a green and red shark’s mouth, inspired by the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, appeared to be ripping through the plane’s silver body. “Wherever it went,” says Dawn, “it got attention.”
Andy became a proficient pilot, learning tricks from a former snowbird, and needing little excuse to take to the skies. On Jan. 23, he took off from the hangar at Smiths Falls, Ont. He and his flying buddies were en route to Lindsay, Ont., for a “$100 hamburger”—the cost of the fuel required to take the plane out of town for lunch. But on their way back, the other pilots lost sight of Andy. Investigators have yet to determine what caused the crash, but Andy’s plane went down just north of Madoc, Ont., where search and rescue crews found him that night. Andy Phillips was 43.