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Wendy’s Tour

Posted 4 years 147 days ago ago by Randy Mains

As helicopter pilots we often never know the impact we can make on a person’s life.  That thought came to mind when I read my good friend’s excellent book, The Sky Behind Me written by Byron Edgington, which I can recommend without reservation.

One story he recalled really resonated with me because we helicopter pilots never really know the profound impact we can have on those we carry by just doing our job. 

I was so taken by Byron’s story I asked him if he would mind my sharing that story on my blog with others.  He readily agreed.  So here’s that poignant story written in Byron’s own words about one passenger he flew on a tour of the island of Kauai in the Hawaiian Islands.

One unforgetable passenger I flew showed me courage that I envied—the ability to look at life as it is, without blinders or self-deception. She arrived for her tour wearing a headscarf, several leis, and a smile like the Buddha's. Her name was Wendy, and she had her own reason for taking a helicopter tour of Kauai.

She got my attention right away, during the initial briefing. "We gonna see any rainbows?"

"We almost always do," I said.

Rainbows result from the separation of light into its various wavelengths. As sunlight enters a water droplet, it bends. Light then contacts the opposite surface of each drop, reflects back as if from a mirror, and then glimmers out the other side, separating into the colors we see. For a double rainbow to form the light bounces around yet again, creating a second bow. One detail of a double rainbow is that the secondary bow's colors are a mirror image of the primary's. Red, yellow, green, blue doubles back as blue, green, yellow, red. I'd become an expert at predicting where rainbows would form. A column of rain marched along, the sun at just the right angle to it. I'd add power, race to where the bow would appear, and slow the helicopter. The brilliant arc formed, my passengers made adorable noises, then they'd deplete film and pixels of the bow to take home to Des Moines or Toledo or Fort Worth.

Wendy was adamant. "If I don't see a rainbow today I want my money back!"

Her fellow passengers laughed. So did I. It'll be a fun tour, I thought, despite this woman's frail appearance and demanding style. Wendy was the picture of ill-health. Ash white, head bald, her arms were so thin the bones showed.

But Wendy was as chipper and chatty as a ten-year-old, and a delight to have on board. She acted like she didn't have a care in the world. With Wendy beside me in the cockpit, I eased the collective up and took off. The ground fell away, and our tour began. Shortly, we crossed to the interior of the island, which surrounded us in its lush, tropical splendor.

I launched into my tour talk. "Who saw the movie Jurassic Park?" Half the hands went up, the passengers who'd seen the Spielberg dinosaur classic. "Remember when the helicopter landed in front of a waterfall?" Crossing a ridge, I pointed to my right. "There's that waterfall." Cameras came up, shutters snapping pictures of MaunaWai Puna falls. I crossed in front of the waterfall so everyone could see its 250-foot cascade. Wendy had no camera. She smiled, and patted my knee. "Beautiful," she said. "Just beautiful." She pointed at places for me to take her, joked with other passengers, demanded that I return to spots so she could see them again.

I steered onto the NaPali coast, and entered its velvet green valleys, Hanapu, Kalalau, Hanakapiai. Valley walls were drenched with water, draped with foliage of every hue. Beyond the Hanapu Valley I saw the rainbow. Increasing speed, I raced toward it before it disappeared. On Kauai just blink, and rainbows are gone. I nudged Wendy and pointed. "No refund for you."

She stared at the shimmering arc, and a tear slid down her cheek. Eyes swimming, she looked at me, and she smiled. "Done."

"There might be more of them."

"Done," she insisted, staring ahead. "I can go now."

I made a face, wondering what she meant. At that moment I thought about Wendy's odd outfit, her upbeat attitude, her nonchalance. All those leis. Their perfume filled the cockpit. What was I missing about Wendy? If I was so good at reading people, why had I not solved her mystery? Maybe I wasn't such an expert at body language after all.

Wendy rose in her seat, and pecked me on the cheek. "Thank you. I can go now," she said again.

"We're only halfway through..."

"It's okay," she said, and she patted my arm. I finished the tour, with Louis Armstrong singing Wonderful World as we landed.

As she walked toward the shuttle, Wendy stopped and looked back. She flipped me a kiss, her leis tossing in the breeze.

A month after I'd flown Wendy around the island I got a letter from a friend of hers. The letter explained that a tour of the island was the last item on her bucket list. Wendy died a few weeks after our trip around Kauai.

Randy Mains is an author, public speaker, and a CRM/AMRM consultant who works in the helicopter industry after a long career of aviation adventure. He currently serves as chief CRM/AMRM instructor for Oregon Aero. He may be contacted at [email protected].