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Thursday, November 1, 2007

Editor’s Notebook: The Best Part of My Job

James T. McKenna

I’LL CONFESS I’M PRONE, AS PERHAPS many of us are, to get "head down" and lose perspective amid the press of daily duties.

For example, as I write this, my local fire company has just concluded its annual open house (I believe I’ve mentioned before that I am a volunteer firefighter in Fairfax County, Va.). In the United States, these open houses coincide with the national Fire Safety Week in mid-October, so there is a fair amount of publicity about the event, with all the grade schools and community groups notified and banners and placards put out in the community. That, combined with the fact that this year’s event was held on a beautiful day, helped persuade all the neighbors to come visit the firehouse and climb all over the fire trucks.

Their efforts involved hovering within feet of a sheer rock face at 18,000-plus ft with a potential avalanche about 50 ft directly above their main rotor.

I was in charge of organizing our open house, and I was struggling to cram that in with an unusually busy time here at Rotor & Wing. So in the week leading up to the event, I spent a lot of solitary time wondering why I had taken on the task. There were the mundane matters of coordinating things, getting the word out to people, ensuring enough bodies showed up to make the event fun and safe, and preparing the station and the apparatus for the open house. On the day of the event, there was the matter of making sure the hard workers took time to feed and care for themselves, the slackers stepped up and contributed, the kids jumping on and off the fire engine left the station uninjured, and everyone had a good, educational time. All of those things came to feel like a stream of little, unnecessary headaches. By noon on open-house day, I was ready for the event to end; we had 4 hr more to go.

Just then, a young man pushing a baby in a stroller came up to me. His pretty wife had a toddler on her hip. We greeted them, joked with the kids, and answered their questions. As they started to move on, the guy reached out and shook my hand and said, "Thank you."

"Well, thank you for coming out," I said. "We love to see everyone here."

"No," he said. "Thank you for being a firefighter." That cleared my perspective right quick. Here I was grumbling to myself about the "burden" of the event, and this guy was just thanking me for being there.

I’m no fire veteran by any stretch. I’ve worked a few small fires, helped out at a number of accidents, and helped cut a woman out of a crashed car once. But many at my station are the real thing. One visitor to the open house earlier had mentioned that not one but two of his young children were delivered by crews from my station. (Apparently when his wife’s body decides to deliver, it does so now.) Two firefighters there were honored last year for plucking two kids from a rain-swollen river. To the young father who thanked me, I was a representative of those and all the other dedicated and brave individuals in the fire service. His handshake reminded me why I volunteer to organize the open house.

This came to mind when I received a reply from Lt. Col. Rashid Ullah Beg of the Pakistan Army School of Logistics. I had e-mailed the colonel to inform him that he was a recipient of R&W’s Helicopter Heroism Award for 2005.

After reading descriptions of what he and his copilot pulled off on Aug. 10, 2005 on Pakistan’s "Killer Mountain," we couldn’t help but present the honor to the pair. Their efforts, summarized on pages 28-30, were awe-inspiring. I won’t spoil the story, but it involved hovering within feet of a sheer rock face at 18,000-plus ft with a potential avalanche about 50 ft directly above their main rotor to rescue a stranded climber.

Amid the press of deadlines, I’d lost some perspective on the award. The colonel’s e-mail straightened me out.

"I do not find words to express my joy," he wrote. "Being a reader of R&W for such a long time, I had never ever imagined I would also be some time in the magazine, let alone be nominated for such a prestigious award... This is something which every pilot in the world would look up to."

That reminded me what the best part of my job is and how lucky I am to bestow the award on behalf of R&W and its owners.

We bestow two this year. Because of logistical challenges, we did not present an award for 2005. So we correct that with the award to Colonel Beg and his copilot, then-Maj. Khalid Amir Rana. (He’s since been promoted to lieutenant colonel.)

We also honor the 2006 winner of the award, the flight crews of Hong Kong’s Government Flying Service, who on Aug. 3, 2006 rescued 91 individuals from the grip of Typhoon Prapiroon as it bore down on southern China. Their story is recounted on pages 26-27.

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