On Wings of Light

There aren't any airplanes in the sky right now.
Nothing but wild blue yonder is visible through the window frames as the afternoon sunlight mixes with tinted glass and softly invades the room. There are plenty of airplanes in here, though. A Flying Fortress, a stealth bomber, a Steerman biplane, a few Spitfires, all in flight forever in one-dimensional skies that hang on the walls of this pilot's shop at a small Valley airport.

I've never been in a pilot's shop before. It's got charts, manuals, yoke clips, Sic-sacs, altimeter bugs, headsets, flight logs. It's got coffee mugs that say "Will Fly for Food." It's interesting, and it's also hard to look at all this flying-related stuff and not think of TWA Flight 800 and the images of shards of wreckage, the questions of mechanical failure versus terrorist attack, the shock of sitting on your back porch watching a plane explode, the list of names in the paper whose families received phone calls bearing news that I cannot imagine hearing.

One October night in 1987, about seven o'clock, Andrea Waas got one of those phone calls. Her father--an experienced pilot who adored flying--had been killed while at the controls of a small plane.

Waas is a pilot herself, loves to fly. The Kansas City native works part-time at the pilot's shop. "But this isn't really a job to me," she's saying, "it's hanging out at the airport more than anything else. I'd live at the airport if I could."

Her real work is something called Wings of Light, a support-group network for survivors of plane crashes, families of victims and rescue-response personnel. Waas founded the company in early '95. It was shaped by her professional background in nonprofit management (Wings was initially laid out as her master's thesis).

And, of course, that phone call.
"I wouldn't have started it had Dad not been killed; I would have thought there were existing organizations to fill that need," she says quietly. On this Saturday afternoon, the whole airport is quiet. "But going through his accident, waiting for answers about the accident and not really having anywhere to turn for information . . . the National Transportation Safety Board investigators just collect information. They send you the report from Washington, D.C., when the report's final, and that's it."

When she finally did see the report, it revealed that her father's airplane had just received an "annual" (basically, a physical for aircraft). A replaced part had caused the accident. Waas says that information was an essential steppingstone to finding peace of mind, but also just the beginning of the journey.

"Family members were there [for me], and that's pretty much it," she offers. "But one thing I learned was people grieve in different ways. And so my needs in going through the whole grief process were different from my brother's, different from my sister's and mother's. We were all kind of too close to the situation, and it would have been helpful to have somebody that had been through it that understood some of the feelings that you have, some of the needs that you have."

And that is pretty much the creed upon which Wings of Light was born.

Waas walks around with a beeper clipped to her belt; since the TWA tragedy, it's been doing its job. "When TWA went down, I got a lot of calls," Waas acknowledges. "When ValuJet went down, I got a lot of calls; it brings back memories. Or on anniversaries, whether it's a specific holiday, or the individual's birthday, or the date of the accident itself."

She is not the only one taking calls. Wings of Light has a group of board members--a surprisingly official way to describe volunteers who provide sympathetic shoulders, 24 hours a day, to those who have lost loved ones to airplane tragedies. Located all over the country, board members specialize in different aspects of trauma connected with air disasters. Yet these people are not counselors, Waas stresses. Wings does not provide psychological or psychiatric therapy, even though it can put survivors in touch with qualified groups upon request.

"We have two flight attendants who survived crashes. A woman in Oklahoma City who is involved with accident statics. An ex-FAA man who was in the office of accident investigation. We have a funeral director in South Dakota who lost a close friend in a crash. An Oregon man who survived [a] small plane crash, [was] almost killed, and an accident investigator, who also survived [a] crash, though he is permanently disfigured from it.

"So everybody on the board has a specific function."
Though many on her board are industry veterans, Waas says she has received a mixed response toward her efforts from the industry itself.

"There are those people in aviation who don't want to talk about accidents. They don't want to acknowledge the fact that they have them; that gets back to the denial in the aviation community that accidents happen. To put a very detailed crisis plan in place is admitting that one of your planes could actually go down."

Airlines have recently taken a lot of heat for the handling of the human side of crashes--"some could do a lot better"--but Waas also lays part of the blame on the media.

"Showing wreckage is one thing; showing bodies lined up on a pier is just not necessary," she clarifies. "Whenever there's an accident, it seems that the media makes it sound like the most dangerous thing you can do is get into an airplane. So there's resistance there, and that--especially for people in the industry--makes it even more difficult for people that survive, because their friends and families don't want to talk about it."

To some, Wings of Light may seem an amazingly selfless commitment on Waas' part. Ironically, she's had to deal with the negative side of that. Wouldn't this lady want to distance herself from her father's accident? Why would she place herself on call to have her own pain dredged up by a stranger's experience?

"What I'm afraid of is that people may think I'm not dealing with it, not moving on, or I'm not getting on with my life, and that's not true at all," she explains. "For the most part, now I don't think about Dad's death until someone brings it up and asks me a question."

Or when something happens like it did at the airport today:
"If you had been here four hours ago, you would have seen a different person," she tells me, hand unconsciously moving to stomach. "A plane had just taken off and lost an engine, there were parts all over the runway. I heard that a plane went down, and I went out and all you could see was a pillar of black smoke. I immediately thought, 'There's no way he made it.' That was difficult. It brings back memories for me of what it felt like to get that phone call, and my first thought was what somebody was going to go through in the next 45 minutes."

In this case, memories and smoke were all there were; the pilot walked away.
"There was another crash here in this area a little less than a year ago. A man was alone in an airplane and was killed, and his family went to the crash site," says Waas. "The reaction of people at the airport was just horrified. They thought that was so morbid, and the family should be kept away from it, and that's because they don't understand what it feels like to go through it. For the majority of people, it's extremely important to go to the crash site or to have something from the crash site. You've just lost somebody you're very, very close to, and a lot of times you try and find whatever you can to hold on to."

Waas herself holds on to something from her father's crash; it's with her everywhere she goes, every time she takes to the air herself.

"Dad used to go to these safety seminars, and when you go, you get a little card that says you've been there. Dad had that little card in his wallet when he was in the plane crash, and the edges are burned. That is always with me. Not because I can't get over it, but that it's a reminder of how quickly things can happen."

Wings of Light can be contacted at 1-602-516-1115, or

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Peter Gilstrap
Contact: Peter Gilstrap