The harder events we endure in life often lead to good things. Sometimes it is very difficult to see beyond the moment. In times like this we get through things by living from one thing to the next.
Our Spartan story began on Highway 75 just north of Tulsa, Oklahoma on August 31st, 1973. At nineteen you think you are invincible. Traveling home (South on 75) from an Owasso football game, my young wife of 9 months sat by my side in our 1967 baby blue Ford Fairlane. Within moments life changed forever. Traveling East to West two slightly younger boys were coming home from a rodeo, driving extremely fast and drunk. Later the Highway patrol would estimate they were traveling in excess of 90 mph when they ran the stop sign and entered the intersection.
The crash itself was over in seconds, the aftermath would drag on for an eternity. My Ford T-Boned the younger man’s Chevy . With the impact the cars begin to spin in circles like a couple on a dance floor. Down the highway we danced to the music of metal screeching and sparks flying. When the smoke cleared my wife who had been ejected from the car lay in a field beside the road screaming, with her left knee cap gone. The driver of the Chevy sat slumped behind the wheel in a drunken stupor un-harmed while the life slowly seeped from his buddy’s body.
I had preceded my wife’s ejection from the car by a few seconds. Caught between the jaws of two cars locked together and spinning down the road they hammered my body until they broke free going their separate ways. Left behind on the side of the road I lay in a heap. Right arm broken, part of an ear gone, right leg broken in three places with one of the bones nailed into the ground, I was pinned to the ground. My shoes lay yards away out in a field, teeth all knocked loose, head, back and leg bleeding – everything went into slow motion. The only things I actually remembered were the lights of the Chevy whipping through the intersection, the emergency flashers of the Highway Patrol car and his flashlight in my face. My next memory came later as I tried to wipe blood off my face, lifting my broken right arm, it fell across my face.
Later I would learn the ambulance driver who arrived at the scene had a heart attack when he bent over my body. A second driver rushed the ambulance driver, my wife and the other two passengers to the hospital. A second ambulance was dispatched to claim my body. The driver of the Chevy was released from the hospital late that night, a few days later he attended his buddy’s funeral. My wife had several surgeries to repair her knee. Two surgeons worked all night on my broken body. In an attempt to stay ahead of the gangrene they operated on my leg three times in the weeks to come. Each time amputating sections, bit by bit, trying to save has much as possible.
Three days after the final surgery I surfaced from medications to learn that my leg had been amputated above the knee and my right arm which I had almost lost was in traction. That was September. I was home for Christmas.
At nineteen my wife and I were faced with the task of restarting our lives. Fitting for a prosthetic, and learning to walk again was extremely painful and difficult. With the anniversary of the crash just weeks away I felt stuck. Dragging an artificial leg around had been no fun, and I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I really lacked the confidence to move forward. Someone had suggested looking into the Oklahoma State Rehabilitation program. With encouragement from my wife Patsy I went for a test to determine my skill sets and aptitude for re-entering the workforce.
The guidance counselor assigned to my case was great. After analyzing my test results and consulting with my doctor he called me in for his recommendations. I will never forget what he said. “We think you should look for a career in aviation instrumentation and electronics.” I had no idea what he had just said. Once the counselor began to describe the subject I became excited. The idea of a career in aircraft was appealing. But the problem of the “where” and the “how” clashed with the encouragement the counselor offered up. The counselor recognizing that I was overwhelmed put both hands on his desk and looked me in the eye. “The State of Oklahoma will pay for your tuition, books and tools.” There was the “how”. And then came the “where”. “We want to send you to Spartan School of Aeronautics.” Blocks from my dad’s house on Pine Street in Tulsa, I had driven past the school many times.
I enrolled at Spartan and began in the Fall. My new world was filled with new forms of math, physics, flight theory, hair springs, meter movements, transistors (and tubes), and tons of hands on experience. Life flew by and so did the classes. My favorite times were spent in the mechanical instrument lab. The instruction was personal, practical and real. After graduating with a degree in instruments and electronics I faced a whole new world of challenges – landing a job. But again there was assistance. The placement department at Spartan was and still is a great network for locating jobs.
The week following graduation I nervously went for my first job interview with Brittain Industries in Hangar 12 off Sheridan Road. Sitting in front of the Vice President’s desk I fidgeted as he reviewed my application. Then came the questions. Fortunately I had paid attention in school – the next day I went to work.
With a ringside seat to the runways of Tulsa International Airport I began my career working on gyros and pitch controls for Brittain Autopilots. Looking back on years in other instrument companies, large aerospace corporations and three decades of experience I can safely say those early years of learning and working were some of the best.
35 years after that night out on Highway 75 I am still as excited as ever for the role aviation has played in my life. A Bachelor’s degree, two Master degrees, a Doctorate degree, 4 kids and 6 grandchildren later I am still fascinated with our industry. In 2004 as the FAA began to require Part 145 Repair Stations to adapt to “the new rule” changes I began Blue Tuna Docs. This is a company dedicated to helping aerospace companies with documentation and training. Today www.bluetunadocs.com trains approximately 800 to 900 courses a week on the internet. I appear around the country and overseas consulting and teaching seminars to hundreds of people. www.iarenewal.com is a new venture in its second year. In the past 12 months this site has been instrumental in helping over 900 mechanics with refresher training.
Excited about the future? You bet. With Human Factors as a critical issue in aviation maintenance organizations I am very busy helping mechanics, technicians, inspectors, managers and support personnel learn more about the human condition.
Recently I wrote an article on “The Curse of Complacency” that appeared in the September 2007 issue of AMT (http://www.amtonline.com/print/Aircraft-Maintenance-Technology/The-Curse-of-Complacency/1$4445 ). Here I discuss the need for passion and renewal in our industry. A few months ago I was speaking with a group from a helicopter maintenance organization in a Human Factors seminar. As we discussed the subject of passion in our industry, a young man in the back of the room spoke up. I noticed the group’s surprise as he spoke. (He had the reputation for being quiet and shy.) He spoke elegantly about his passion for his work. He pointed to the shop, which was outside our conference room, (there were three new helicopters in various stages of completion) as he discussed how he felt about the privilege of working on things normal people never see. I was humbled by his words and convictions.
Blue Tuna is striving to be an agent of change in our industry teaching one tech, one mech, one inspector at a time. Our office is virtual and open 24/7. Our classroom is at your location, in your conference room, shop floor, civic centers, hotel conference rooms – anywhere there is a place to plop down a laptop and turn on the overhead projector.
Terry and Patsy Tolleson live in Rockwall Texas, overlooking Lake Ray Hubbard. Blue Tuna continues to grow, reaching overseas markets and domestic repair stations coast to coast in the U.S.