Flying High In The Face Of Disaster

By John McCord, DPM

Like many growing up during the Cold War in the ‘50s and ‘60s, I was tired of always preparing for a disaster. During air raid drills at school, a bell rang and we would “duck and cover.” That meant crawling under your flimsy wooden desk and covering your head in case a hydrogen bomb hit the school. The school janitor ran around with a whistle and wearing a civil defense helmet.We had to stay under the desks until the janitor, who was totally into “disaster preparedness,” blew the all-clear whistle. To make matters worse, the janitor was my father. My best friend was the son of a dentist who was so anal about the possibility of a nuclear attack, he built and equipped a bomb shelter in his basement. Charlie and I hid out in the shelter and busted open the boxes of crackers and dried fruit. I was prepared to face the bomb head-on rather than hide in that dark basement eating hamster chow. Charlie broke the bad news that his dad would let only family and his hygienist into the shelter if Russia dropped the big one on us. It took maturity and personal experience with life’s little emergencies to interest me in preventing disasters. I became a pilot at 18. Flying airplanes is all about being ready for bad things to happen. I learned this a few years ago while flying home from a camping trip. My son and daughter were asleep on the plane. My four-passenger Cessna’s engine was a little rough during the pre-flight test but smoothed out as I crossed the Strait of Juan de Fuca. After 35 years of flying, I learned always to think about where I would land if something happened to the engine. They call this “situation awareness.” You always know where you are and what’s ahead. I was disappointed when the controller instructed me to descend to the final approach course over Olympia. I brought the plane down 2,000 feet and closed the throttle to decrease manifold pressure. The plane would then begin losing 500 feet a minute. When I pulled the throttle knob out, the engine quit. A pilot performs several procedures when that emergency occurs. I went quickly through the drill and the engine remained silent. To get safely to the ground without a working engine, one rule is to keep flying but slow the airplane down to the best rate of glide and look for a safe place to land. Part of situation awareness is knowing where the nearest suitable landing strip is. I knew about a 5,000-foot paved runway three miles to my left. I told the controller my situation and changed to the nearest airport’s traffic advisory frequency. I told the other planes in the pattern my status, asked for right of way, then entered the downwind leg of the pattern. My son awoke and said I seemed to be having engine trouble. Then he leaned against the window to enjoy the rest of the trip. My daughter was still asleep and I felt it was best not to wake her. Turning to the final approach, I closed the fuel valve and turned off the electricity to prevent a fire. I opened the cockpit door slightly for quick egress once we landed. It turned out to be the smoothest landing I’ve ever made. The silent plane coasted to a stop and my daughter woke up, looked around and asked why we stopped there. Being prepared for that emergency kept it from becoming a disaster. I’ve used the same concepts to keep my podiatry practice ready for emergencies. During the past 26 years, my practice has survived two floods, a 1980 volcanic eruption (Mt. St. Helens — 38 miles from my office) and a major earthquake. One of the most important aspects of being prepared is backing up the data on our office computers and keeping a backup copy outside the office. My good friend, Stephen Miller, DPM, was fortunate to have a copy of his backed-up data at home when his office burned in October. Steve’s office was totally ruined but his business survived. He just restored his data to his home computer and his patient lists and financial records were accessible. He was also still able to see patients as the other physicians in his small community of Anacortes, Wash., let him use their offices on their days off. After talking with Steve, I reviewed the disaster plan for my office and made some adjustments, something we all should do occasionally. I wonder if Charlie’s dad had a disaster plan for his dental office. I doubt it. He was too focused on that Cold War thing. Dr. McCord is a Diplomate with the American Board of Podiatric Surgery. He practices at the Centralia Medical Center in Centralia, Wash.

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