Strapping on the oxygen mask

Anyone who has ever traveled by airplane has heard the FAA required pre-flight safety announcement prior to takeoff. I, like many other passengers, often zone out during this important information except when it comes to the part about using the oxygen mask in the event of a cabin depressurization. During this portion of the safety announcement, passengers are instructed to place the oxygen mask over their mouth and breathe briefly before assisting their children. There’s a reason for this. You simply cannot properly assist your children if you become incapacitated. You must take care of yourself first then attend to the needs of your children.

As I raise my 13-year-old son with special needs, I am becoming more aware of my profound shortcomings as a parent. I am convinced that I cannot be the best father for my son unless I am constantly regulating and monitoring my emotional and mental health. This often requires personal time away that belongs to me.  I also encourage that my wife take the personal time she needs that belongs to her. There is no shame when parents need to place themselves first. We’ve earned it and we deserve it.

I love my son more than anything in this world, but I also cherish the personal time I claim as my own to recharge, rehabilitate, and strap on the oxygen mask. I know my son benefits more if I’m present, conscious, breathing, and emotionally available to met his needs after I have met mine.

oxygen mask

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Balls to the wall

Recently, I came across an article in the San Jose Mercury News describing the final toast of the four surviving members of the “Doolittle Raiders”. The “Doolittle Raiders” were a band of 80 specially trained Army airmen who participated in one of the most courageous retaliatory bombing missions ever undertaken in response to the devastating attacks on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

On April 1, 1942, 16 specially modified B-25 bomber aircraft were loaded onto the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Hornet docked at the Alameda Naval Air Station located in Northern California. The 16 aircraft were accompanied by 80 Army airmen, 71 Army officers and 130 enlisted men. The mission was orchestrated and led by the legendary military aviator Lieutenant Colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle of the U. S. Army Air Forces.

The weaponry each B-25 would carry included four customized 500-pound (225 kg) bombs. Three of the bombs contained high-explosive munitions and the forth was an incendiary package designed to separate and scatter explosive tubes after its release from the bomb bay.

The primary objective of the Doolittle bombing mission was to fly 16 B-25 bombers 480 nautical miles at extremely low altitudes (to avoid radar detection) to Japan to destroy 10 military and industrial targets located in the cities of Tokyo, Yokohama, Yokosuka, Nagoya, Kobe, and Osaka. The attacks were designed to be rapid and devastating and were intended to cripple Japan’s growing industrial capabilities.

On the morning of April 18, after being unexpectedly sighted by a Japanese patrol boat, the B-25s were ordered to launch immediately. Because each B-25 aircraft was so laden with fuel and ordinance and had only 467 feet (142 m) of takeoff distance; each pilot was required to use a takeoff technique known as “balls to the wall”. After each aircraft was positioned forward for takeoff, pilots shoved the throttle lever balls against the instrument panel and held them at the full power position while the twin engines ramped to maximum power. Once the engines achieved full power, the brakes were released to rapidly accelerate the plane forward.

Miraculously, all 16 B-25 aircraft launched successfully off the deck of the U.S.S. Hornet without ditching into the ocean. After all bombers were airborne, they regrouped for the long flight to Japan. During the first half of the flight over the Pacific, the B-25s flew in small formations then flew in single file. Each aircraft flew slightly above wave top level to avoid radar detection.

When the bombers reached Japan, each B-25 crew jettisoned their bomb loads over the six targets within seconds. Of the 16 participating bombers, only one missed its target. None of the 16 aircraft were shot down by anti-aircraft fire or Japanese fighter plane attacks.

After the bombing raids were accomplished, 15 of the 16 B-25s flew southwest over the South China Sea and into Eastern China while one bomber, extremely low on fuel, headed towards the Soviet Union. With a refueling plan foiled and other unforeseen challenges present, the bomber crews had no choice but to either crash land or bail out once their fuel tanks ran dry.

Fortunately, most of the crews were kept safe by allied Chinese civilians and soldiers. Of the original 80 participating “Doolittle Raiders”, 69 survived the mission by avoiding capture from Japanese forces.

In the end, the Doolittle Mission restored and boosted morale to the United States following the devastating attacks on Perl Harbor just 5 months before. The mission proved that the United States was still capable of responding with remarkable force even after taking an enormous hit to its military. Moreover, it exposed the vulnerability of the Japanese military who believed they were invincible after an overwhelming and victorious attack on the United States. In short, the Doolittle Raid became a turning point in a war that was just beginning to escalate.

On Veterans Day this year, three of the four surviving members of the “Doolittle Raiders” toasted their fallen comrades by sipping 1896 cognac. The 1896 cognac was selected because it was produced the same year their heroic mission leader Lieutenant Colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle was born.

The “Doolittle Raiders” were and are among some of the most courageous members of the “greatest generation”. Before these last four men pass from this earth, their complete stories should be captured and find their rightful place in history along with others who have faithfully served their country above and beyond the call of duty.

Doolittle B-25

B-25 bomber awaiting takeoff from the U.S.S. Hornet on April 18, 1942.

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Seeking justice for Ethan

On January 12, 2013, a 26 year old man with Down syndrome named Ethan Saylor was killed after a brutal altercation with three off-duty County Sheriff Deputy Officers.

The story begins at a Maryland movie theatre. After watching the movie “Zero Dark Thirty” with his aide, the aide left Ethan alone at the theatre to retrieve her car. While waiting outside, Ethan decided he wanted to see the movie a second time and walked back into the auditorium without paying for a second ticket.

The theatre manager called security to report the incident. Within minutes, three off-duty Frederick County Sheriff Deputies entered the auditorium to remove Ethan from his seat. After a heated exchange of words, the three Deputies proceeded to throw Ethan to the lobby floor and pin him down to handcuff him. During this altercation, Ethan’s larynx was crushed. Unable to breathe, Ethan Saylor died at the scene from asphyxiation. The death was immediately ruled a homicide.

Before the officers grabbed Ethan, the aide had warned them not to touch him and stated that she alone could properly de-escalate and resolve the situation. Ignoring her pleas, the officers instead proceeded to subdue him. Had the officers heeded the warnings of the aide, Ethan Saylor might be alive today.

In July, the Frederick County Sheriff’s department conducted an internal investigation and cleared the officers of all wrongdoing.

This case represents a profound tragedy on so many levels within the special needs community. Calls for an independent investigation have been voiced from many Down syndrome organizations including the National Down Syndrome Society (NDSS) and National Down Syndrome Congress (NDSC).

The Month of October is National Down Syndrome Month. Throughout the county, hundreds of awareness events called Buddy Walks will take place. Our regional Buddy Walk on October 19th is dedicated to honor the memory of Ethan Saylor.

If you would like to sign a petition seeking justice for Ethan, please visit this site.

Ethan Saylor

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A true unsung hero

Their eyes make contact from across the pavilion. Slowly, the young girl in the wheelchair maneuvers her way towards him. When they meet, he bends down and tenderly puts his arms around her and embraces her for what seems like an eternity. After they separate, the smile on the young girl’s face is as bright as the sun.

This man who loves to hug special needs children is not a famous athlete or celebrity. He is simply known as “Louie” to all the parents and children who visit his summer family camp located in central Oregon.

During the year, “Louie” makes his living as a humble Oregon dairy farmer. Over the summer, however, he is viewed as a hero by many parents and their children with disabilities.

Louie Kazemier is the director of an amazing family camp called Camp Attitude. Camp Attitude is a non-profit family camp devoted to serving families with special needs children at no charge. Currently, Camp Attitude runs eight summer camps per year which provide approximately 35 families with a weeklong camping experience like no other. Children campers are paired with teenage volunteers or Buddies while parents receive much needed respite from the day to day challenges of raising a special needs child.

Louie believes that every child camper is perfect just the way they are. He further believes they are made just the way God designed them. When Louie looks at a child, his or her disability becomes invisible. He focuses beyond the physical and instead sees every child’s individual heart. In short, Louie gets it and has the camp to prove it. It is clear that while being a dairy farmer is his occupation, running Camp Attitude is his passion. Without a doubt, Louie Kazemier is truly an unsung hero.

Recently, while being interviewed by local news station, Louie reflected on Camp Attitude’s future: “I don’t look at what we have done; I’m looking forward five years to what we can do because I think we have just started.  I don’t think Camp Attitude is it. We’re going to run out of summer before we run out of families”.

Louie Kazemier

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Welcome to the new economy

Last year, I read an interesting article in the San Jose Mercury News entitled: “Robot Culture Blossoms in the Bay Area”. The article highlighted a start-up robotics company named Momentum Machines based in San Francisco. The company is presently hard at work developing an apparatus called the Burgeon that can produce an assembled hamburger (complete with toasted buns and an array of condiments) every 16 seconds. In addition to slapping together burgers, the contraption can grind the meat, stamp out the individual patties and cook the burgers. In short, the company’s goal is to revolutionize the fast food industry with more efficient automated food delivery.

I remember recently entering the lobby of a company I was working for. Instead of being greeted by a smiling receptionist, I noticed a computer terminal next to the vacated desk. As I approached the terminal, it greeted me with the words: “Visitors please log in here”.

There are more examples I could illustrate within this blog but I will stop here. Here is an interesting question to ponder: how many more years do you think the United States Post Office will exist?

As we digest the monthly jobs reports, it should come as no surprise why we are experiencing a slow economic recovery. While more sophisticated jobs continue to be created, older traditional jobs are being destroyed by advanced technology and automation. For the purposes of cutting costs, companies have declared more and more occupations expendable and thus have replaced human beings with machinery and software. As a result of this activity, we now have fewer jobs available and more people looking for work. Granted, displaced workers must attempt to re-tool their skills and adapt the best they can to this new economic reality. However, not all displaced workers have the economic means to access higher education or the desire to become software engineers.

I have nothing against technology. I participate with thousands of others by using automated checkout machines, ATMs and other convenient technologies from time to time. At my core, however, I am still a people person and prefer interacting with humans over machines if given the choice.

I remember once asking my dad why we needed janitors. He replied: “because it’s honorable labor done by decent people that needs to get done”. The bottom line is this: All types of work (not just technology jobs) brings tremendous purpose to people’s lives. In my opinion, everyone is called to perform some sort of honorable labor and everyone brings something to the table. Unfortunately, many of these honorable jobs are gone forever.

So we keep on keeping on while continuing to create, celebrate and reward jobs that focus on the next big thing. Once we have the next big thing, thousands of additional workers will be added to the unemployment rolls. Sure, we may be experiencing an economic recovery, but it’s a recovery that is failing to lift all boats. Stubbornly high unemployment? Yep, there’s definitely an app for that.

Welcome to the new economy my friends.


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The critical lessons of ValuJet 592

As a technical communications professional, I belong to a large organization called the Society for Technical Communications (STC). At our last monthly meeting, our chapter invited Joseph Devney to speak. Mr. Devney is a noted linguist and technical writing consultant working with large organizations on improving company documentation in order to enhance customer satisfaction and avoid costly litigation.

A large portion of Mr. Devney’s presentation entitled: Unhappy Customers Are Just the Beginning: Potential Costs of Poor or Missing Documentation focused on both the legal consequences and threats to human safety that can result from unacceptable company documentation. One of the highlighted case studies presented during the talk was a horrific 1996 crash of a passenger jet in the Florida Everglades that claimed 110 lives.

On May 11, 1996 at 2:04 pm EST, ValuJet Flight 592 departed from Miami International Airport en route to Atlanta carrying 105 passengers and a flight crew of 5. The aircraft was a 27-year old McDonnell Douglas DC-9-32 operated by ValuJet Airlines (a low cost regional carrier based in Georgia).

At 2:10 pm EST, approximately 6 minutes after takeoff, a loud bang was heard over the headphones of the pilots followed by smoke and a fire in the passenger cabin. After the cabin fire started, the plane immediately began to lose all electrical power. Both pilots requested an immediate return to Miami and began turning the plane around.  However, as the fire progressed inside the cargo hold of the aircraft, it is believed that the heat weakened forward floor beams of the passenger cabin eventually collapsed and destroyed the hydraulic flight controls of the aircraft. It is also believed that the flight crew most likely became unconscious from the toxic fumes consuming the cockpit.

At 2:13 pm EST, ValuJet 592 disappeared from radar. The DC-9-32, lacking all necessary flight controls, rolled right and crashed nose first into the Francis S. Taylor Wildlife Management Everglades at a speed of 507 mph (816 km/h) killing all 110 persons on board instantly. When the aircraft made impact, it disintegrated into hundreds of pieces. Recovery efforts at the crash site were hampered by multiple sawgrass injuries, hungry alligators and a lack of roads nearby. Because the crash zone existed in swamplands, pieces of wreckage had to be transported by airboats to distant roads.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) later concluded that the main cause of the crash was the chemical reaction of several unexpended oxygen generator canisters improperly stored in the forward cargo hold of the aircraft. Oxygen generators are Coke can size canisters installed inside the bulkheads above the passenger seat. When an oxygen mask is released and pulled during a cabin de-pressurization, the oxygen generator unit activates and supplies the passenger with needed oxygen. When activated, chemical oxygen generators also produce a tremendous amount of heat due to a phenomenon known as an exothermic chemical reaction.

Upon further investigation by the NTSB, it was also discovered that the cargo hold of ValuJet 592 was transporting company owned materials (COMAT) in addition to passenger baggage. These items included full and empty oxygen generator canisters, spare aircraft wheels and other spare parts. It comes as no surprise that having these other combustible materials stored on board only fed the fire.

In short, when the boxes containing oxygen canisters were loaded into the cargo hold, they were marked as expended or empty. During the flight, the unexpended canisters rolled around inside the boxes and activated when the release pins came out. As the canisters heated up, they caught fire and burned with intensity as other active canisters released oxygen and fed the fire. Within minutes, the combustible aircraft tires were also burning and contributed to the massive fire that consumed the lower portion of the aircraft fuselage.

In my opinion, there were other unfortunate factors that contributed to the crash of ValuJet 592. The airline was a low budget airline that routinely cut corners and was run by apathetic executives who did not budget properly for safety or training programs. ValuJet was also clearly in violation of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules forbidding the transportation of hazardous materials. Finally, the airline was attempting to save money by hauling aircraft parts aboard passenger flights instead of paying a ground shipping company to properly transport these materials safely.

Above all, however, the single biggest failure that contributed to this tragedy was lack of proper communication between ValuJet and one of its maintenance contractors SabreTech.

Among the ValuJet Airlines documents surrendered to the NTSB was a document labeled as Work Card 0069 (see ValuJet Work Card PowerPoint below). This document explains the procedures for replacing expended oxygen generator canisters. An additional document that was surrendered is a SabreTech shipping ticket (see shipping ticket image below) dated May 10, 1996 that lists the COMAT items loaded into the cargo hold of ValuJet 592 prior to takeoff.

ValuJet Work Card

ValuJet Shipping Ticket

In my professional opinion as a technical writer, these two documents should never have been released or used. The Work Card is disorganized and contains no illustrations until the end of the document. Figures are called out in the steps but do not appear on the same page. The document also uses some terminology that a person who speaks English as a second language might not understand. The warnings and cautions are all written in upper case and warnings are not placed before the stepped procedures. Procedure steps use letters instead of numbers.

The shipping ticket form is also disorganized and lacks additional columns or rows to accommodate detailed information. It is written by hand instead of generated on a computer and is almost completely illegible. Most importantly, it does not comply with any official FAA standards and contains no warning or danger notices addressing the handling of hazardous materials.

Documents this critical should have been authored by a professional writer who understands writing to a specified audience. Moreover, the documents should have gone through a strenuous signoff loop involving upper management (and the FAA if necessary). The documents should have been edited over and over then tested by the end user(s) for clarity and usability. Only then should documents this critical be released into the document stream. The bottom line is this: any documentation that is not well written or disorganized will not be taken seriously or will be ignored.

The first part of Joseph Devney’s presentation title hits the nail square on the head: Unhappy customers are just the beginning. Indeed, poor or missing documentation could cause much more legal and financial pain later on. In the case of ValuJet 592, it cost 110 human lives, destroyed company assets, and ended the operation of an airline.

ValuJet Airlines (already possessing one of the worst safety records in commercial aviation history) never recovered from the Flight 592 crash. Unable to financially operate on its own, it merged with another regional carrier named AirTran Airways in 1997. On November 17, 1997, the newly merged company retired the ValuJet name and chose to operate as AirTran Airways.


ValuJet 592 Memorial honoring the 110 passengers and crew in the Florida Everglades.

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Roger and me

I recently returned from a memorial service in Southern California that honored the life of my former Brother-in-Law Roger Nielson who unexpectedly passed away from a massive brain hemorrhage. In short, the service was a glorious celebration of a unique and adventurous human being who marched to his own drummer. The reception that followed featured an eclectic array of vintage (and slightly expired) wines, a full spread of delicious Mexican food and plenty hilarious “Roger stories” at the open microphone.

Roger Nielson was a brilliant geological scientist who loved collecting and consuming vintage wines, dining on complementary happy hour “meals”, hanging out with his buddies and neighbors and scoring a great bargain. He was a simple man who was not materialistic or vain. He enjoyed telling elaborate stories and owned several running and non-running automobiles. His passions involved anything mechanical.

As a child and teenager, I would spend my summers in Southern California visiting my older sister Suzanne (who was married to Roger from 1970 to 1986) from New Jersey. In the fall of 1976, my parents and I moved to Northern California and I continued to travel the short distance to Southern California to visit my sister and Roger.

The moments I spent hanging out with Roger were some of the most extraordinary adventures I have ever had in my life. They will never be duplicated or forgotten. In fact, many of them are vividly returning to my mind as I write this blog. Roger lived life to the fullest and loved company doing it.

Roger and I shared a profound passion for aviation. I remember how excited I became when Roger announced it was time to watch some planes land at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). I can still see my sister’s eyes roll as we loaded the family into one of Roger’s beat up vehicles to make the long drive down to LAX.

Most people I know who enjoy plane watching probably do so from a reasonable distance. Not Roger. We would park underneath the landing path of one of the four main runways against the airport perimeter fence. This position offered the best possible place to experience maximum aircraft decibels and believe me back in the 1970s, passenger jets were extremely loud. Being one of the busiest airports in the United States, airliners were landing every ten minutes or so. During takeoffs, you could feel the hot exhaust from the engines while covering your ears from the deafening roar. It was better than being at a rock concert. Roger and I would be the only ones standing outside while the rest of the family hunkered down inside the car holding their ears.

I learned much about automobiles and engines hanging out with Roger. He loved to buy old beat up cars at a bargain and fix them up or cannibalize them for spare parts. For the first time in my life, I witnessed the inner workings of a car engine while learning what pistons, camshafts and valves do. I watched as Roger invented ways to repair cars that were extremely innovative and even patentable. I remember he once repaired the ignition system of a late 1960s Oldsmobile Toronado leaving two wires sticking out of the dashboard. Instead of turning a key to start the engine you had to touch two wire leads together with your fingers. As you could imagine, this operation was tricky as you could easily electrocute yourself starting the car.

Roger always drove below the speed limit because he did not want to apply un-necessary stress on his repaired or rebuilt car engines. I remember once being late for a flight back home to Northern California. Roger was (as usual) driving below the speed limit on Interstate 405. At the time, all I could remember thinking was how pissed off my mom was going to be if I missed my flight. Just before reaching the off-ramp to the Long Beach Airport, we were pulled over by a California Highway Patrol officer. Instead of acknowledging responsibility for breaking the law, Roger calmly lectured the officer on the potential hazards of running older car engines at higher RPMs. This lecture did not faze the officer, however, as he finished writing the ticket and handed it though the open window. Fortunately, I made the flight home with minutes to spare.

The summer parties I remember ranged from elaborate dinner parties to grabbing lawn chairs and moving from driveway to driveway in the neighborhood. Each party featured plenty of wine, cheese, crackers and other goodies Roger would pack in a brown paper bag. Needless to say, sobriety was not an expected outcome at many of these neighborhood shindigs.

There are many more stories I could share. During the memorial reception, the open microphone session lasted more than two hours. When God created Roger Nielson, He destroyed the mold. There was simply nothing like being with this man. I sipped my first glass of wine, smoked my first cigar and started my first car engine all on his watch.

So now, I proudly raise my glass of aged Pinot Noir to you Roger Gibson Nielson. I thank you for all the memories and adventures we had together. I thank you for teaching me and others the value of being frugal and, most importantly, being yourself. I know you are now seated at a large table surrounded by all your good buddies who have passed before you. I also know you are enjoying a great glass of your favorite wine accompanied by some tasty goodies from Trader Joe’s. You will be greatly missed on this earth.

And if I’m ever at a dull party, I promise, I’ll always remember your famous line: “Relax, relax. The wine’s coming”.

Me (L) and Roger (R) at a car show.

Me (L) and Roger (R) at a car show.

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