“I didn’t want to die. I just wanted the pain to go away. I’m sorry for leaving you all to deal with the consequences of my decision”. – Braden
“I still cry like a baby when I think about losing Pam. I wish it didn’t hurt, but after all these years, I admit that it always will. I know that’s not comforting , but it becomes more bearable. Moving on with purpose makes it better. Maybe my testimony might help another young person in a similar place”. -Braden’s Uncle Randy
Readers: This is a painful story particularly for it’s main character, but he has courageously allowed his story to be shared to possibly speak into the life of someone in need. By publicly journaling, our intent remains to be transparent about teen depression and suicide. We are beyond grateful for many understanding friends walking alongside us who care enough to stay. Even when it’s uncomfortable.
“TWA Flight 427 was a regularly scheduled TWA passenger flight departing Lambert-St. Louis International Airport in Bridgeton, Missouri on November 22, 1994, operated using a McDonnell Douglas MD-82. On the takeoff roll it struck a Cessna 441 Conquest II, killing both of its occupants. It was the second of two flights numbered 427 that would be involved in an incident that year, the other being USAir Flight 427, which crashed in September near Pittsburgh, PA killing all 132 on board.
Thanksgiving week, 1994. TWA’s most junior pilot was appointed to take the routine Denver leg on a late night flight. However, this would not be a routine flight. As the passenger carrier accelerated to full throttle, the crew spotted an unlit private plane sitting on the commercial liner’s designated runway.
The pilot on the jumpseat yelled “That’s an airplane!” The junior pilot veered hard left, throttling back, applying reverse engines and brakes. He remained mindful from his training that an over-reaction could mean turning the aircraft onto its side. However, bearing straight ahead would certainly cost the lives of anyone aboard the private Cessna. The young pilot’s gut instincts and hundreds of simulation training hours kicked in: “Just keep your bearings… remain calm… Steer THROUGH it all the way to the end”.
The MD-82’s right wing sheared the top of the stray private plane and the aircraft skidded to rest 300 yards beyond the initial impact. The crew could hear the screams of horrified passengers. Still, they’d been trained to act quickly, calmly, and professionally under duress.
“Tower, this is 427. Repeat, Four-Two-Seven. Are we on fire?… Tower…. Tower…. Repeat: Are we on fire?”
With no response, the captain made the difficult decision to evacuate the aircraft so as to ensure the safety of his passengers. After numerous distress calls and without confirmation from the tower that they were not on fire, he did the unthinkable. The captain left the ship to rule out any flames. A single spark would be catastrophic.
The captain turned the lever on the cabin front cabin door, triggering the escape slide. He jumped onto it, and dropped directly into a river of jet fuel. He then turned to the junior pilot with instructions that whatever he did, don’t let them use this exit. First Officer, Speed had all passengers exit through the tiny forward right side galley door. There was no safer way out.
142 passengers and flight crew safely escaped onto the tarmac, moving to a safe distance. Not one person was injured on the TWA aircraft, but tragically the two occupants aboard the private aircraft which had wandered onto the wrong runway were killed instantly.
Miraculously, with all that metal and friction there was no spark. No explosion. After checking the cabin and confirming no one remained on board, the TWA junior pilot was the last to exit the aircraft. All passengers were out of danger.
The TWA flight crew later received the Award of Excellence from the airline and the Superior Airmanship Award from the Airline Pilots Association for their handling of the accident. The junior pilot soon became one of TWA’s youngest captains in their fleet. His name wasn’t on the front page. It hardly made the back page when the investigation was complete weeks later.
Through Hollywood sensationalism, the world will forever know Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger safely landed on the Hudson River, but relatively few know the name of the pilot that night who helped save a similarly sized aircraft fully loaded with passengers. Randy “Rand” Speed. My brother. Still today when asked about the incident, he responds, “I just did my job”.
Early the following morning, mom called me in San Antonio, leaving a voicemail. “Mark. Randy has crashed his plane… but he’s ok”. WHAT?? Mom, might you have reversed that statement! I don’t know a lot of people who crash a jetliner and come out ok. But what a Thanksgiving we had that year.
I love telling this, and other “Rand stories”. This particular event could have easily ended more tragically had the wrong choice been made while moving down that runway at full speed. Had he veered too hard to avoid the private plane, rather than steering “through”, it could have cost the lives of almost 150 people.
We each have our own very personal story. That single defining experience, shaping who we are. Our testimony.
Recently, Rand was in town for his final flight medical exam required for his return to the cockpit again flying, now for American which had taken over TWA. Randy had been out of the cockpit over two years.
His visit was unexpected. First, I had no plan to see my Tennessee brother on such short notice. Secondly, only two years prior he was diagnosed with advanced stage esophageal cancer. His oncologists, and even Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center gave him a bleak prognosis. He should go home and prepare to die within the next eight months if he took chemotherapy. Left untreated, he had only half of that.
Today, he is completely cancer free. Not a trace. What a miracle! That’s one reason I asked if we could share his story. Hopefully, the rest of the story will help this all make more sense.
Often, our older siblings carry an unrealistic and lofty position in our eyes. Personally, my “Big Brother” has always been my hero.
We were “dry land farmers”. That means you only irrigate when it’s desperately dry. A family of six. Farming cotton in the west Texas red dirt. Three boys, Randy the oldest. Karla, the only girl (bless her heart), and twin boys, Mike and Mark, the youngest.
Growing up with a fairly large age gap, we felt like this grown-up, Randy, was a stranger under our roof. Too busy being older and responsible to spend any real quality time with us. He had his own room, which we thought was so cool and private. A place us kids weren’t allowed to enter. To touch his Ford LTD was a death wish and don’t even think about coming within ten feet of his motorcycle.
One Sunday afternoon, Mom came outside abruptly. “Boys… hurry! Randy and Pam have crashed his motorcycle. They’re at the hospital right now”. What? This can’t be serious. I mean, after all we’d never had anything serious happen before so it couldn’t be that big a deal.
Arriving at the Brownfield Regional Hospital ER, it became a big deal. I’ll never forget seeing Randy’s ashen face. Emotionless. Destitute. Like every ounce of blood and oxygen had been robbed from him. It was all moving in slow motion. He was just 15 years old and he was afraid of losing his first love, Pam Brown, who was screaming like I’d never heard a person scream while doctors and nurses surrounded her.
I stood on my tip toes and looked into the room through the glass window to see my big brother’s girlfriend writhing in fear and pain. She couldn’t be dying… could she? My very first experience with tragedy. Personal loss. Loss I saw in my family’s eyes. I’ll never forget it. Randy was uninjured, but was forever changed.
Mom and Dad acted as most parents would. To protect the kids, they wanted to minimize the possibility the worst could happen. For the sake of the of the innocent young ones, make sure they don’t know how bad it is. For Randy, how do we even comprehend what to do? Make him feel like it’ll be ok. That was difficult with the Brownfield News plastering horrific front page photos of the two teenagers at the scene while they placed Pam in the ambulance.
Sadly, Pam passed within a few days of the accident. Randy was affected far more deeply than we knew. Only recently has he confided in me and allowed me to share. He was not assured life would be ok again. He worked hard to deal with his unspeakable loss. One that few unfortunate souls will experience, and he was only a young boy.
To complete this story, Randy agreed to allow me to share the following. When he turned 16, he was sitting on his bed, fully prepared to run… permanently. To end his own life. Without too many details, it was a matter of a split second decision. He chose instead to run in a different direction: to live.
Randy decided to become a pilot. I never understood what led him to that vocational choice but I do now. You see, our brother still wanted to end the pain, but if it was intentional that would devastate his family. Instead, he thought as a pilot he’d have a better than average chance to lose his life “accidentally”. Now, it makes more sense. Yet what Satan intended for evil, God turned around for good.
I’ll never forget one Sunday evening after church, Rand took Mike and me above the town in a single prop Cessna purposefully flying straight up, stalling the engine… then free falling into a nose dive! He liked to place objects on the instrument panel and dip the plane to catch the object in his hand. He also loved to surprise the family on a weekend afternoon by “buzzing” the house. (picture Maverick in Top Gun buzzing the tower).
To this day, he has a passion for flight. Ironically, the very thing Randy wanted to use to end his life became the very thing that made him want to live it.
The parallels between Randy and our son, Braden’s stories as teens in crisis, are too clear to ignore; and the contrasts as well. We all have moments we feel like running from the pain life brings. HOW and WHERE we run makes all the difference. Some choose to “run” by avoidance or by leaving the world to escape, feeling no other way to leave. Some “run” to the wrong group of friends or to addiction, drugs, etc. Still others choose to “run” towards Jesus.
Thank God, our big brother chose to continue his run. Later in life he has run to his Creator. Today, his testimony inspires many who have watched him run his race. How many lives could have possibly been lost on that St. Louis runway, and how many lives would have gone uninspired by his healing from certain death to cancer had Rand run another way?
If you can’t tell. I consider my brother to be one in a billion. We pray readers may find hope through his story; perhaps someone who in this very moment feels they have no option but to run away permanently will instead choose life.
Godspeed, Rand. Keep flying high.
Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.
Prayer for readers: Lord, when we run life’s race we are too often blinded to think we run alone. Please remind us that you are right by our side and you go before us. Thank you for opening doors we could never pry open alone, allowing us to run to you. Thank you for answered prayers we call miracles and keeping Randy here to share his inspiring story. May someone in need of hope find it today. In Jesus’ name. Amen.