Electric flight

I grew up with an ear for a particular airplane engine. Although my father had hours and hours of flight behind much smaller engines, such as the Continental C90 flat-four or a Lycoming 150 in Piper Super Cubs, the engines that made music in my ears were the two Pratt & Whitney R-985 Wasp Junior engines in our Beech C45. That twin beech was the airplane of my dreams when I was a kid. It also was the airplane in which my father flew on longer trips that took him away from home for several days. When I heard the sound of those engines low over town, I knew that dad was home. I even learned to note the sound of the engines as he synchronized them after take off.

There are still a few old airplanes flying around with Pratt 985s. There were a few Stearman. The old biplane trainers originally came with a Continental radial and a few were retrofitted with Jacobs engines, but the ultimate upgrade was to the 450 hp R-985. The R-985 also was the standard engine on the DeHavilland DHC-2 Beaver.

A few years ago we were in Vancouver, British Columbia, watching the float planes taking off and landing from the harbor. One of the big operators of sightseeing flights was Harbor Air. They had a fleet that, at the time, was mostly De Havilland Beavers and Otters that had been re-engined with Pratt & Whitney PT6 turboprop engines. The jet engines have a high pitched whine that just doesn’t sound the way I think a Beaver ought to sound. The new engines, however, are extending the life of these venerable old airplanes. Float plane work is hard on engines and airframes and Harbor Air has a lot of high-hour airplanes. They also have the capacity to completely rebuild a De Havilland Beaver from the ground up to make it as good as a new airplane. They put shiny paint jobs on their airplanes to encourage the tourists.

At the time, I said to myself, when I have the time and the money, I’m going to go for a ride on one of those Beavers, but I want to make sure that it is behind a R-985. I want to hear the roar of that old radial piston engine a few more times in this lifetime.

I guess I’d better hurry if I want to do that. The world is changing.

Yesterday, in what they claim is the first such commercial flight, Harbor made the first seaplane flight from their Vancouver base in a Beaver that was outfitted with a 750-horsepower magni500 electric propulsion system. The mother, manufactured by Australian company magnet is roughly the same horsepower as the turboprop engines that were dominating the Harbor Air fleet. It will take a while for the airplane and engine combination to become fully certified by Canadian officials, but it was an historic flight.

There are a few compromises with the electric propulsion system. The lithium ion batteries used are heavy, reducing the amount of weight that the plane can fly. the plane, however, does not have to carry any liquid jet fuel, so that weight is saved. And the range of the plane, with reserves, is only about 100 miles, quite a bit less than with either of the other engines. Battery technology is rapidly evolving, producing lighter weight and more capable batteries. Officials of the company hope to have a 250 mile version that carries 6 passengers within a few months.

Harbor Air said that they plan to electrify their entire fleet by 2022. If they achieve their goal, or even come close to it they will have made a huge advance in commercial aviation. Until very recently, electric propulsion has not been seen as viable in commercial aviation applications. Finding a way to make air travel less polluting seemed to be a challenging conundrum. Harbor Air and magniX believe that they have found a clean and efficient way to power their airplanes.

The aviation sector is a significant contributor to the release of greenhouse gases into the environment. Although the bulk of that pollution comes from much larger aircraft such as the transcontinental and transoceanic jets that are used by airlines, general aviation and small commercial operators have not been known for fuel efficiency or a lack of pollution. If you’ve ever watched a R-985 start up, you know that all of that smoke can’t be good for people or animals to breathe. If you are around those planes, as I was when I was younger, you learn where to stand and where not to stand when they are conducting ground operations.

So the Harbor Air seaplane with the electric motor is a huge step forward toward a sustainable commercial flight operation.

Aviation has always been a place of innovation and new ideas. A century ago, any airplane that could reliably and safely fly 100 miles was an impressive piece of technology. There are a lot of carriers that started out with a barnstormer and a WWI surplus airplane that was held together by the creativity and courage of the entrepreneur pilot. Their safety record was none too good. Even by the time my father was starting his business after WWII, he couldn’t obtain life insurance from conventional carriers because of his occupation. A relatively high-priced Lloyds of London policy was the only way he could insure his family and business would have a future if something happened to him.

I’m sure that there will be some historic and nostalgic airplanes, with the old engines around for many years to come. Harbor Air may continue to maintain a couple of their R-985 powered Beavers just for a few old coots and aviation buffs like me. I might yet get that ride behind the rumble. On the other hand, perhaps instead I will be among the first to take a ride behind the first of their electric fleet.

I know my father, given the choice, would choose to be the first to fly behind the new motor not the last to fly behind the old technology.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Getting a Christmas Tree

Here in the United States almost everyone knows the storyline of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” The animated television special first aired in 1965 and has been shown every Christmas since. There are several themes to the special. Charlie Brown is a bit ambivalent about Christmas. Lucy advises him to direct the annual Christmas pageant. Everyone makes fun of the short spindly tree that he brings until the true meaning of Christmas works its magic on all of the characters in the story.

I’m not sure that the special actually grasps the totality of the true meaning of Christmas, but it does help people to see through some of the glitter and hype of the season. The cartoon special is genuinely fun to watch with some great animations, including Snoopy playing “crack the whip” with Linus’ blanket.

What has emerged is the designation of a “Charlie Brown Christmas Tree.” Whenever there is a tree with a crooked trunk or a lack of needles, or a huge bare spot, we refer to it as a “Charlie Brown Christmas Tree.”

We’ve had several Charlie Brown trees over the years. For the first few years of our marriage we didn’t have a Christmas tree of our own. We were students and took a break from our studies to return to our parents’ homes to celebrate. When we moved to North Dakota we started our family tradition of a tree. Because I had grown up near the mountains and our family went up to the mountains to cut our own Christmas tree each year, that was what I expected one should do. The problem is that the corner of North Dakota where we moved isn’t exactly covered in evergreen trees. The solution was a trip of about 50 miles one way to the Slim Buttes in South Dakota, where there are some pretty good stands of Ponderosa Pine. The Slim Buttes are also home to a good bit of gumbo if you catch them at the right time. We didn’t own a four-wheel-drive vehicle, but we had tire chains and that was good enough for the adventure. A couple of years during that time we put together a small group of people and went on a “Gathering of the Greens” expedition to secure Christmas trees for the congregations we served and for the homes of the participants. We’d pack a hearty lunch, fill our thermoses with hot coffee and head out.

The Slim Buttes is a good destination for Charlie Brown Christmas trees. Ponderosa pine are beautiful, long-needled trees, but they don’t have an excess of branches and they tend not to be shaped like a traditional Christmas Tree with a well-rounded, conical set of branches. We learned to set the Christmas tree in a corner so that the best side could be exposed and decorated.

The television special does get that part right. The quality of the celebration isn’t dependent upon the shape of the tree.

The Boise National Forest in Idaho gave us a few more options in terms of tree cutting and we were able to access forested sites a bit closer to our home. Getting the tree was still a major excursion and took a bit of planning. Some of the years that we lived in Boise we purchased a noble fir or a spruce tree from one of the vendors selling trees just for the convenience of being able to obtain the tree in town. It isn’t the same and commercially raised Christmas trees are cut weeks before you take them home, so aren’t as fresh as the ones you cut yourself.

Moving to the Black Hills brought the adventure of going for our Christmas Tree to a new level. We live right next to the national forest. The Black Hills have both Ponderosa Pine and Black Hills Spruce trees in abundance. A tree permit from the forest service allows you to go on a grand adventure and seek just the right tree for your home. In addition, the house we bought in Rapid City has an entryway with the ceiling reaching up to the second story. We had a place for a really big Christmas tree and I went a bit overboard the first year we lived here. The tree was not only so tall that we were standing on the stairs to decorate it, it also was so wide that it pretty much blocked the passage from the living room to the kitchen.

In subsequent years we’ve been happy with a tree that will fit under the 8’ ceiling in our living room. We have had some grand adventures seeking our Christmas tree in the hills, including one December when we went out in below zero temperatures with my mother who was past the age of 80. We ended up cutting a tree that could be seen from the road, something we rarely do, and rushing back to the car because it simply was too cold for my mother to get out and hike. Another year, Susan and I went to get the tree and had the starter in the truck fail 8 miles from the nearest house. We ended up spending the night in the truck before hiking out the next morning and raising the concern of our daughter and several members of our congregation.

We have never been really big on lots of Christmas decorating. We get our our nativity sets and we decorate our tree with lights and our favorite ornaments, collected over years of being married, but we don’t go in for big outdoor displays. We like the lights put up by our neighbors, but Christmas is a busy time for us and we’ve tended to make our family celebrations a bit more low key and private. So when our children grew up and began to spend Christmas away from our home, we downsized even a bit more. Some years we’d get a 6’ tree,

Yesterday was a delightful day for us. We went out and got our Charlie Brown tree. We didn’t go as far from home as some years, and selected a small Ponderosa pine that was growing too close to its neighbors to become a healthy full-sized tree. But the walk in the woods was just right to renew our spirits and remind us of what a wonderful place we live. We’ll decorate our tree and its fresh smell and long needles will keep that memory fresh all season long.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

A Wider Perspective

In addition to reading the online versions of US newspapers, I read the home page of BBC news each day. I often also read other International newspapers online. Interestingly, because of paywalls and article limits, which exist on US news sites, I tend to read more articles on BBC and NPR than on other sites. I suspect that this gives me a bit of a bias in my news reading, but I try to maintain some balance and at least keep up with sources that offer perspectives that are different from my own. I try to at least be aware of what the people I serve are watching and choosing for news sources. I do not, however, watch television very much at all, so I don’t have the died of 24/7 news repetition that plays in the homes of some of the members of my congregation. I’m pretty sure that I have some sense of what our folks watch, but I don’t immerse myself in all of it.

I was struck by the contrast between US and international sources this morning.

The New York Times first five stories have these headlines:
How Giuliani Led Trump to the Brink of Impeachment
What to Watch at Today’s Impeachment Hearing
Saudi Gunman Had Clashed With Instructor at Florida Base
Barr Dives Into the Culture Wars, and Social Conservatives Rejoice
Despite Warnings, Trump Moves to Expand Migrant Family Detention

NPR’s first five stories are:
Biden Rejects Calls For Impeachment Testimony As A Trump Ploy to ‘Divert Attention’
Democrats’ Impeachment Process to Resume Monday - As Will Battles with GOP
FBI Is Investigating Pensacola Shooting as Terrorism
Justice Department Watchdog Report On Russia Investigation Due Monday
Caroll Spinney, Who Played Big Bird And Oscar On ‘Sesame Street,’ Dies At 85

Over at BBC the first five are:
New Zealand volcano eruption kills at least five
Russia banned from global sports for four years
Finnish minister, 34 to be world’s youngest PM
French far-left leader sentenced for intimidation
Saudi Arabia ends restaurant segregation

Outside of the BBCs use of normal sentence structure instead of the US news sources using headline capitalization, there is a very notable difference. It appears that the US news sources are focusing solely on what is happening in our country. If one goes only to US news sources, one might get the impression that the drama in Washington DC and the after effects of a mass shooting were what the whole world is focused upon. Go outside of the US for news coverage, however, and one is quick to discover that there is a lot going on in the world beyond our borders. The contrast is even more striking when you notes that none of the top five stories on BBC are about events in England. In fact all of the 14 top news stories on the BBC home page are about events that occurred outside of England. The site does have a US & Canada tab and a UK tab at the top of the page, where you can access geographically sorted news stories, but the site is designed to bring news of the world to those who visit it regularly.

When you assume that you are the center of the universe, you get a very different view of what is important than when you pay attention to the wider world. The narcissism that is so evident in American politics today seems to be influencing our culture in so many ways. We are losing the ability to see ourselves as the rest of the world looks at us. Although news sources in other countries pay attention to the US and keep a large contingent of reporters here to cover the news in our country, they do not see every whim of every politician to be news.

And if you pay attention to US news sources over time, you get the impression that their attention span is incredibly short. Personally, I am very interested in US immigration policy and stories about what is happening at our borders. I find that many days it is hard to get fresh news on that topic. It is almost as if that is “old news.” Our short attention span is on impeachment hearings this week, but there is some indication that the House of Representatives is planning to finish up its work on that topic before Christmas. We’ll soon be on to something else. Meanwhile, there are some alarming things going on with Immigration. The New York Times does have a story about the Trump administration’s attempts to expand the detention of families and children at US border crossings. Family incarceration always brings to mind images of WWII German concentration camps and US Japanese detention centers. The world does not have a pleasant memory of times when governments have attempted to lock up entire families. There is a definite paranoia in detaining people who pose no threat. Even if the economic threat perceived by some were real, it is a pretty selfish perspective to think that families seeking safety should be incarcerated or sent into the hands of kidnappers just so that they can’t compete for jobs. Our selfishness as a nation, however, is rarely the topic of a news story.

There is a lot going on in the world. And the world is filled with people who are caught up in dramatic events. A cruise ship side tour to a volcano can turn deadly in a matter of minutes. the Olympics can be transformed by a major competitor being banned because of doping. Peace talks aimed at ending the war in the Ukraine are beginning. India is struggling with the definition of citizenship, the democracy protests in Hong Kong continue after six months. There is a lot going on and we aren’t the center of every story.

I plan to continue to read stories from news sources outside of the US. I hope that others will do so as well. Although my calling is to serve a particular people in a particular place, we are all a part of something bigger than ourselves. And God, Creator of the Universe, loves all of the people of this world.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!


A friend asked me if my wife is my soulmate. It is not the kind of language we use when talking about our relationship, so I paused a moment before answering. We are very close. We have a wonderful relationship. We have more than 46 years of being married and so many shared experiences. We have similar tastes. We enjoy being together. I know that I am very lucky in love. I met and married the right person. But I am not sure what the term soulmate means.

If you google “soulmate” you’ll get page after page of online dating services. Apparently there are some people who believe that computers are very good at matching people. I know people who met through online dating services and who are pleased with their relationships, so I don’t want to discount the value of such services, but what does a computer know of someone’s soul? What questions could a computer questionnaire ask that would help match the parts of a human being that cannot be seen or measured?

In a book that is older than our marriage, Howard and Charlotte Clinebell explored the multi-faceted nature of intimacy. They wrote of recreational intimacy and work intimacy and a whole list of different ways in which a couple could draw close to one another. Their theory was that some couples are naturally intimate in some ways and less close in other ways. Awareness and counseling can help couples draw closer to one another. The book made sense to me when I first read it and I have used the principles in the book when working with couples who come to me for help with their relationships.

As a seminarian I did an internship at the Wholistic Health Care Center, where my focus was on pastoral counseling. I did a lot of individual counseling, some couples counseling and a bit of family counseling. Most of the couples counseling that I did in that setting was focused on divorce. Couples who came to the center seeking counseling usually had one member who had decided to divorce. It was nearly impossible to dissuade that person from that decision. They had made the decision before coming in to the center. I found the work to be frustrating and a bit sad. I knew that my success rate in that kind of work would be small.

As a pastor, I have tried to engage couples in thinking about their relationship at the beginning, to help them consider questions about their relationship before marriage. That has not met with great success. We were extremely careful with pre-marriage counseling with the first couple whose weeding we officiated, and that relationship didn’t last a year before a divorce. These days the marriage ceremony is generally several years after the beginning of a relationship. Couples who come to the church to be married often have lived together for a long time and have established a lot of their relationship before deciding to marry.

After years of experience as a pastor and after years of being married, I really don’t know if I am much of an authority on marital happiness. I’m tempted to say that part of what makes for a successful marriage is luck. I can’t explain why I met the right person so early in my life and others do not. It feels like extraordinary good fortune that Susan and I found each other when we were young. Having spoken with a lot of people and observed a lot of couples, it seems to me that it is relatively rare for a young person to find the right mate right off the bat. I did.

Beyond that, I guess that it would be fair to say that a couple has to both work at a relationship, though I hesitate to use the term “work.” We have focused a lot of time and attention on our marriage. We have invested a lot of energy in doing things together and sharing our experiences. But it hasn’t seemed like work. I don’t remember every not wanting to be married. I don’t ever remember not wanting to do what I could to make our marriage work.

I don’t use the word soul much. I am a pastor and I understand the concept of spirit and I speak of the spirit regularly, but I am not sure that my theology of spirit encompasses a sense of the soul. Webster defines soul as “the immaterial essence, animating principle, or actuating cause of an individual life” and adds “the spiritual principle embodied in all human beings, all rational and spiritual beings, or the universe.” I think that most people use the term soul to refer to a part of their individual identity that continues on beyond death, and perhaps existed before birth. I have no expertise or experience about what happens before birth or after death, but It seems to me that the essence of all beings is God and I do not know whether or not we can exist apart from God. In the resurrection, it seems to me, we are with God. The love that never dies is the the love of God. I could go on and on trying to wrestle with the concept of soul, but for the purposes of this journal entry, I simply prefer the term spirit to soul.

So I’m not sure if I’ve found my soulmate. I’m not sure that such a thing exists. I have found a person whose spirit animates my spirit, and with whom I have been able to share my life. I have no doubt that I have found the right person and that every day I try to be the right person for her. In her I have found someone so fascinating and so appealing that a lifetime is all too short to explore our relationship.

And I’m less confident than I once was about my ability to help others with their marriages. I now what has worked for us, but that might not be the right thing for others. I do hope, however, that others can find the love and joy and wonder we have found and that they can enjoy it for many years.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Ministry and Community

There are some exciting conversations about theology going on these days. Most of them aren’t happening in the church. Increasingly as I strive to serve a congregation, I find that I need to be aware of the conversations that are occurring outside of the congregation. Part of the reason is that no one can honestly serve a Christian congregation in the United State these days without giving serious thought to the people who aren’t in the room. Whether the congregation is large or small, urban or rural, growing or declining - we all share the reality that our congregations do not reflect the diversity of the communities in which they are located. There are people who are not participating in the church, and that group of people is, according to several Pew studies, the fastest growing category when it comes to religion in America.

So I pay attention to a lot of conversations that don’t take place in the church. I do it enough that some of the members of the congregation I serve have noticed. I’ve had several conversations over the years with congregants who wish I would spend more time visiting in nursing homes and reaching out to elders in our congregation. They are sure that I could make more time for these tasks if I would only spend less time volunteering in community nonprofits and service agencies. They are right that I should be spending more time visiting. They are also right that I could make more time available for visitation by focusing my attention on those people who are members of the congregation and not worrying so much about those who are not members. I try to look for the truth in that kind of conversation and adjust my life in response to the truth I discover. I have adjusted my schedule. I cannot, however, faithfully serve this congregation if I am not serving those who are outside of the membership. And, I am convinced that it is critical that our congregation pay special attention to those who are not attending church if it is to find its future areas of service and ministry.

Outside of the church there are many people who have been injured by the institution. There are folks who have been hurt by church policies, people who have been turned off by dogmatism, those who disagree with church politics, folks who see no future in institutional religion, victims of clergy abuse, and lots of other folks who have no interest in the institution of the church. They may have given up on religion, but they have not stopped thinking about God. They continue to engage in theological thought. And they continue to engage in theological discussion - its just that they don’t do it in front of church folks that often.

It is interesting to me that there are even a lot of academic theological discussions going on in places other than the church. The public radio program and podcast On Being with host Krista Tippett, frequently engages serious academic theologians and discusses topics of God and the relationship of spirituality to every day life. There are several other podcasts to which I listen from time to time that engage academic theology, but are hosted by and engage mostly people who are not church leaders per se.

I have a couple of friends who have degrees in academic theology, biblical studies and other areas of religion who are not active in a local congregation of the church. Some days, when I am frustrated, it seems as if there are parts of our church’s Conference and National settings that are terribly far removed from the everyday life of local congregations. I once asked, at a meeting of national leaders of our denomination, “Do any of you actually go to church anymore?” It was a rhetorical question and unfair of me, but there was a grain of truth in the sense of distance between denominational leaders and the local church.

Serene Jones, who is a minister and who is active in the church, and who recently was interviewed by Krista Tippett on On Being, is the president of Union Theological Seminary in New York City. She makes a big point in her writing and lecturing about the distinction between religion and theology. She may be right that there is plenty going on in religious institutions that is less than thoughtful and less than studied about God and the relationship of God to the people.

She is, like many young theologians, a bit too individualistic for my tastes. I am so firmly rooted in the traditions of discipleship as a communal adventure that I don’t understand the contemporary popularity of one-off individual religion, practiced with a certain purity and consistency of thought, but without the presence of a community. Still, her thought is often brilliant. Her particular theology is deeply rooted in place, somewhat different from many Old Testament writers.

She does, however, redeem herself in my eyes by inviting that all good theology must be public theology. She asks, “What is theology, if it’s not talking about our collective lives and the meaning and purpose of our lives and how we’re supposed to live together and who God is, in ways that are part of our conversation together?”

It is clear that my own theology continues to grow and develop and that I need to keep talking with people outside of the congregation I serve in able to be able to talk in a meaningful way to the people I am called to serve.

It comes down to a basic theological conviction. I really believe that God loves everybody and the world. I really believe that God forgives in mercy everybody and not just a select group of people who agree with me. If God loves and forgives every body, then I am called to take seriously both the congregation that has called me to be its pastor and the community in which it is located.

Advent is a perfect season to remember the “both/and” nature of our calling. The announcement of the Christ child didn’t occur within the walls of established religion. The announcement was made to those who were outside of the immediate faith community. The Good News is for the whole world and not just the folks who are most familiar to us.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!