The Kindness of Strangers

 Lifting off from the Medford, Oregon airport, heading for Bellingham, Washington on the next leg of my journey to Southeast Alaska, I retracted the gear on the Cessna 182 Amphibious floatplane. After the usual “monkey motion” of the retraction sequence, I noticed that only three of the four wheels were showing in the “UP” position as indicated by blue lights on the panel. The left front nosewheel remained down, with its respective green light glowing brightly. Not knowing what might be causing this, I tried recycling the system. Once again, the green light confirmed the same problem. Okay, time for a change of plans. I contacted my buddy Michael via text as I flew north, who researched possible floatplane repair facilities along my route. He called the folks at Northwest Seaplane Maintenance in Renton, Washington who quickly agreed to meet me that afternoon. I notified ATC of the change in destination and planned the route into the Renton area. The 3.5-hour flight was beautiful and uneventful.

As I checked on with the Renton Tower, the controller was aware of my possible landing gear issue because Northwest Seaplanes had notified them in advance. “Are you declaring an emergency?” asked the controller. After turning a three-mile final, I extended the gear and all four showed down and locked. “No, not at this time.” I replied. He cleared me to land, then provided taxi instructions to the Northwest ramp area. As I taxied in, I could see a strange looking vehicle waiting for me. Known as a “Float Picker”, this mechanical oddity was constructed from the front half of a pickup truck with an extended hydraulic lift attached to raise and move floatplanes. The driver quickly maneuvered the rig under the Wipline 3000 float spreader bars as insurance against a sudden gear collapse. As I completed my shutdown checklist and climbed down from the cockpit, I noticed a slender young man emerge from the bizarre contraption. All sinews and smiles, approximately mid-thirties, he introduced himself. “Welcome to Renton, I’m Denmark.” It took me a bit to figure out that Denmark was his first name, not where he was from. We discussed my mechanical issue and he offered to get started on the repairs first thing in the morning. “My wife Michelle will give you a lift to the motel.”

As Michelle and I visited on the way to the Best Western, she gave me a bit of history. Turns out she and Denmark met online, back in 2014 while playing a game of Word Feud, an online knockoff of Scrabble. She had asked the app to assign a random opponent. Michelle, born and living in Holland, played a couple of games with the young man from Washington state and they began texting one another. One thing led to another, more games were played, then visits were exchanged -- and soon, Michelle was explaining to her parents that she was moving to Washington.

Despite having a ramp full of seaplanes needing repairs, Denmark juggled the schedule to fit me in and ordered the necessary parts. After a couple of days, with the parts in hand, he installed a new gear actuator and completed some other small repairs. The next morning, I was able to continue my adventure, still marveling at his and Michelle’s story of meeting and falling in love over a game of Word Feud.

A few days later, the second act of this story occurred. Early in the morning of July 17th, I departed Bellingham, Washington for Prince Rupert, British Columbia, then on to Juneau, Alaska. It had been an incredibly long day due to unforecast headwinds and some poor planning on my part that required an extra stop in Canada. But, after over eight hours of flight time, glorious scenery, and lousy weather, I was finally on the ramp at Juneau. Being completely exhausted, and totally unfamiliar with the airport layout (Which was undergoing construction). I asked for help. “Juneau Ground, Cessna 81 Fox, can you give me directions to Customs?”

“81 Fox, Customs is hard to find due to the construction. Hold your position and we’ll send a Follow Me truck.” Soon the yellow pickup appeared and led me to the small Customs parking area. As I waited in the fading light and steady rain, I was hoping for a “minimum hassle” encounter with the approaching Customs officer. “Hi, welcome to Juneau. I’m Officer Stephanie Halama and I’ll be processing you tonight.” She invited me to follow her inside where we completed the paperwork review. “Do you have a current negative COVID-19 test?” she inquired. I explained that the test I had taken back in Medford was now more than 72 hours old and would not count. “No problem, follow me over to the terminal and we’ll get a new one for you.” She locked the office and led me through the construction labyrinth to the testing center where she waited for the test to be conducted, then guided me back to my airplane and wished me well on my adventure.

I moved the airplane over to the FBO and tied it down. I retrieved my backpack and got directions to the nearby Super 8 motel. Because of my fatigue and, according to my wife, my propensity to not pay enough attention when given directions, I somehow managed to turn the wrong way while walking to the motel. I found myself back in front of the airport terminal parking area, not sure where to go and thoroughly discouraged by the latest turn of events. I was thinking about retreating to the FBO to start over, when I noticed someone exiting a U.S. Customs vehicle in the lot. Officer Stephanie looked up at the same time, recognized me as I stood in the rain and asked, “Where do you think you are going?” Sheepishly, I explained that I was heading for the Super 8. “Not going that direction, you’re not!” She chuckled. “Come on, get in. I’ll take you there.” I gratefully climbed into her personal vehicle, trying not to get mud and rainwater on the upholstery. She drove the few blocks to the motel, wished me well and departed for home. I booked a room and collapsed for the night. Recently, I discovered Stephanie is the Director of the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection in Juneau.

Now some may think, so what? This was only a small act of kindness, shown to someone in need. But to me, there is a deeper meaning. Such events create a model of behavior for our community. We learn that we are encouraged, if not expected, to jump in and assist because it is the right way to treat one another. Included in this is the knowledge that we will likely find ourselves in similar straits at some point. In talking with many of my pilot friends, it turns out most have had similar experiences where someone stepped up and helped at just the right time. 

Many of you have found important ways to contribute your time and aircraft through organizations like Angel Flight, Pilots & Paws, and the EAA’s Young Eagles. These largely go unreported, often unnoticed by the larger community, partly because they happen so frequently.

In September 2005, hurricane Katrina destroyed much of the Gulf coast. A friend of mine joined me as we volunteered our time and airplane to the relief effort. Our first assignment was to fly supplies into Bogalusa, Louisiana which had been severely damaged by the storm. Because of the devastation in New Orleans, many of the surrounding areas were not receiving much in the way of assistance. Upon arrival, we were driven through the small town to the local church for the night. The Red Cross and Texas Baptist Men’s Disaster Relief teams were on site providing hot meals and labor to help wherever possible. All volunteers, no FEMA, no military, just people who had decided to do what they could to help people they did not know.

The next morning, we were asked to fly a woman from Bogalusa to Monroe. Azalea Johnson, 76 years old, had remained in Bogalusa during the storm because she was taking care of patients in the local nursing home. She worked tirelessly, refusing to evacuate, relocating, and reassuring the frail and frightened elderly residents until all were safe. Her husband Freddy was among those who were moved to safety. Freddy had been a resident of the nursing home, had suffered a heart attack and was now in the hospital in Monroe. Azalea was desperate to get to Monroe and be reunited with her husband, so we loaded her into the Bonanza, flew to Monroe, landing around 4PM. During the flight, although she was obviously exhausted, she refused to sleep. It was her first flight, so she stared out the window, repeating “how beautiful! I can’t believe how beautiful the clouds are.” We grabbed a crew car and rushed Azalea to the hospital where she and Freddy were reunited. The smiles and tears were payment beyond measure for our small efforts.

And sometimes the act is not so small. Several years ago, I was part of a volunteer effort to move people and supplies following a major natural disaster. Many pilots brought their airplanes to the area from around the United States and flew hundreds of hours, paying all their fuel expenses themselves. After the flights were completed, we were asked to tally what we had spent on avgas and send it in to the person who was coordinating the mission. No one was asked to furnish receipts as most of us had not thought to keep them. A couple of weeks later, we each received a check reimbursing us for the fuel expense. The total cost, which had to be well into six figures, was covered by an anonymous donor.

While I am sure such things happen in other communities including sailors, climbers and other adventure enthusiasts, my observations are inevitably filtered through the lens of aviation. Time and again, these small mercies keep happening. Whether it is the offer of a hangar on a stormy night, a mechanic coming out after hours to repair a broken airplane, or volunteers searching for a missing pilot, our tribe responds and does the right thing.

In this time of so many challenges, with so much divisiveness and uncertainty, it is easy to become cynical and to think the worst of people. Certainly, we have our share of malcontents, grumps, crazy uncles, and problem children who act out from time to time. And through the megaphone and the echo chamber of social media, they can easily attract others who egg them on. But personally, I would rather remember the kindness of strangers. To me and today, it seems like a valuable lesson.


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