Enduring the storm

I’ve always accepted the title “airport bum” among the terms that have been given to describe me. I grew up having out at the airport, learning to fuel planes and polish plastic windshields when I was barely big enough to push around the ladder and handle the gas nozzle. I really enjoyed being around airplanes and pilots and listening to their stories. When I was not long graduated from theological seminary, I would hang out at the airport in the town where we lived in southwestern North Dakota, looking at the comings and goings of airplanes, talking with the pilots and occasionally, when I had the money, flying a 2-seat Cessna 150 that could be rented. One of the airplanes that spend some time in and out of our airport really garnered my interest. It was a highly modified North American T-28. There was additional armor plating on the canopy, wings and tail. It was painted white and had a distinctive registration number: N10WX. The final letter, X, indicated that it was registered as an experimental aircraft. I suspected that all of the extra armor was the reason. I soon learned that the airplane was operated by the school of mines and technology in Rapid City and the National Science Foundation. I kept hanging out at the airport until, late one afternoon, I saw the pilot fueling the plane. I peppered him with questions enough to learn that the plane was part of a science research project. They flew the plane directly into thunderheads, enduring severe turbulence and hail. I tried to get a ride in the plane, offering that I worked for a radio station and could produce press credentials. There was no way that I was going to get that ride. The airplane was filled with electronic equipment and monitors. The pilot insisted that I wouldn’t want to ride anyway. He showed me dents in his helmet caused by being banged on the interior of the plane flying in turbulence and dents on the non-armor plated tips of the horizontal stabilizer caused by 3” hail hitting the plane. He said that the hail hitting the airplane drowned out the sound of that massive Wright R-1820 Cyclone engine. I asked him what it was like and how he could read all of the extra instruments while flying blind into the midst of a massive prairie thunderhead. He said, “Flying into the heart of the storm, you don’t even look out the windows. You’d get vertigo the minute you did. There is just you, the airspeed and attitude indicators, the stick and the throttle. You don’t worry about anything except surviving.”

I’ve remembered that conversation for nearly four decades now and shortened the quote in my mind, “Flying into the heart of the storm, you don’t worry about anything except surviving.”

I never got a ride in that T-28. I’ve never ridden in any T-28. But there are some times in my life when i’ve flown into the heart of the storm. I’ve been flying into the heart of the storm this week, and my mind has been focused on surviving.

For many years I have been a member of our community’s LOSS team. We are a team of volunteers who respond whenever there is a death by suicide in our community. We provide support to those who are left behind in the midst of overwhelming grief as they seek to sort out their lives in the face of the death of a loved one. Their experience with sudden and traumatic death is overwhelming. They can suffer from PTSD anxiety flashbacks. We provide information and referral early in the process in an attempt to relieve some of the suffering. We also provide support groups and ongoing assistance for suicide survivors. For the last couple of years, I have served as the team coordinator, receiving reports of every suicide in our community and making sure that the team is dispatched in a timely manner. Since the various restrictions of the coronavirus pandemic, I have been the first responder of a team of first responders, mostly going out as an individual with law enforcement to reduce the potential exposure for other team members.

That is how I know that half of the suicides in our community this year have happened this week. I know because I have responded to every one of them. As a community we need to carefully analyze what is going on to see if there are any connections between the various deaths. Do we have a cluster event in our community? Are there patterns that can reveal possible signals that can be used to prevent future suicides? Is what is going on caused by the stress of virus-related shutdowns, unemployment, or other factors? There are a million questions in my mind. At the moment, however, I’m focusing on simply staying alive and healthy myself. When can I sneak a nap? Am I drinking enough fluids? Am I always carrying PPE with me wherever I go? Do I have enough resource packets for the situation?

I know that we will need to be careful about analysis and use the information we are gaining from our visits to do what we are able to prevent future suicides. I know that there will need to be a lot of follow up, including forming a new set of guidelines for the team and a new system of dispatching team members to prevent members from being exposed to too many deaths in a short amount of time. These much-needed things have to be put on the back burner. I don’t have time for any more meetings this week or even next week. The name of the game right now is just getting through what needs to be done without dropping major parts of my regular job, which also demands my time and attention.

I have been told that the T-28 storm penetrating airplane, which was retired in 2005, taught aircraft designers a great deal about how to protect aircraft from intense battering. Some of the technologies developed have been applied to advanced fighter aircraft now in use by the US Air Force. Three is much to be learned from weathering the storms of life.

I pray that we have the wisdom and endurance to weather this storm and will be able to develop the community resources that will make the next storm easier to endure - maybe even less severe.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!