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November 4, 1996

Drilling Down

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It seemed like just another day at the Ashland County Airport in Ashland, Ohio. Instructors for the flight school were buzzing about, preparing for lessons, when Ralph Danison walked in. The 18-year-old announced he was scheduled for a lesson. But he didn’t wait for the instructor.

Danison got more than a flying lesson that day. He got a lesson in trust, understanding, and most of all, survival. And he got a second chance at life.

The young man had an employee help him move the plane out of the hangar—the employee thought the instructor was on his way. Danison took a seat in the cockpit—and took off on his own.

The reasons for his solo flight weren’t clear to anyone involved that day, until the end. Apparently, Danison, who had been treated for depression and anxiety for nearly a year, had decided he didn’t want to live anymore. One day short of starting college, Danison couldn’t take the pressure anymore. His father died when Danison was nine; his mother battled cancer twice. Life just wasn’t going as expected.

During his solo flight, Danison radioed Christine Hoadley, a 23-year-old who was flying that day to qualify as a solo pilot on a Cessna 172. Danison called “mayday!” then asked Hoadley to tell his family he loves them.

Hoadley wasn’t going to let him go that easily. She knew what those words meant; a former member of her aviation fraternity in college had committed suicide by crashing is plane. He said those very same words. She understood what Danison was going through, what he intended to do.

Because she understood, she was able to—eventually, and with the help of others—talk him through the procedures of landing a plane. She got him safely on the ground after several attempts. It was as if Christine had the words of Lewis Thomas posted on the screen as she worked: “Society evolves this way, not by shouting each other down, but by the unique capacity of unique, individual human beings to comprehend each other.”

What Danison did can’t be excused. He was arrested for felony grand theft of an aircraft. The point, however, is that Danison’s predicament could have been avoided with a little understanding of his situation. Had he been able to express his feelings—and had people hear him and understand him—he may not have been driven to such extremes.

Like most situations in life, we just want other people to hear us out—nod a bit, sympathize, empathize if possible. We don’t need people to necessarily agree with us; that’s too much to ask. But a little understanding goes a long way.

Each of us is a little lonely, deep inside, and cries to be understood. –Leo Rosten

You can’t just expect others to understand you all the time. Give something back to others; take time to listen, tap into their thoughts, and feel what they’re feeling. You never know whose life you might save—including your own.

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