December 2021
Always Looking Up
A talk with Russ Chappell

About ten years ago I was sitting in a local diner, eating breakfast and reading the placemat “Coffee Gram” while sipping my coffee. A small ad caught my attention, for a meeting of the Prescott Astronomy Club. I had a telescope and a lifelong interest in space, so I was excited to visit with local astronomers and space nerds.

I showed up at the Prescott Library at the given date and time and made my way to where a table was set up with volunteers greeting members and selling raffle tickets. As an outsider I quietly moved toward an open seat in the back of the room, and soon I was approached by an outgoing character who introduced himself as Russ Chappell.

Me being in my mid-20s, with the approximate median age of the club closer to the mid-60s, Russ told me how happy he was to see somebody with a little less grey on top, and encouraged me to come back the following month. I soon realized this guy was anything but another member of my “old man club” (a term coined by my wife).

Russ was the webmaster, managed the monthly raffle, and volunteered at nearly every public outreach event. He did not hold an elected position on the board, but made himself available for most board meetings to offer his support in any way possible, and when we ordered a custom button press, he took on that job as well. Despite his nearly full-time volunteer duties with the Astronomy Club, I later learned he did just as much with the Prescott Community Access Channel (now Prescott Media Center) and Prescott Audubon Society, including writing an article on the Bird of the Month for this publication.

So I was extremely honored when John Duncan asked me to do an interview of Russ, an opportunity to give my friend some much deserved public recognition for the years of service he has given this community.

AE: Let’s start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?

Russ Chappell: I was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and raised by my grandmother, because my mother died of tuberculosis shortly after my birth and my father was quarantined with TB till his death when I was seven. Whenmy grandmother’s heart gave out, I went to a foster home, which didn’t work out, and then to a religious boarding school, which also did not work out, and at 14 I became a confused street kid. So much for childhood.

AE: Those are some major social and emotional changes for a child. What were your personal interests during that time?

RC: Survival. As a child I dreamed of being a veterinarian, but leaving school at14 ended those thoughts. My primary focus became food, a roof over my head and staying employed. I was fortunate to meet a fellow old and wise street-dweller who provided me a secret to surviving — get a job, show up early, keep your mouth shut, exceed expectations and don’t be a clock-watcher. And it worked. Opportunities for new and exciting adventures have constantly opened for me.

AE: It sounds like hard work has been a running theme in your life since childhood. What path did that take you on?

RC: The Army fit me well, since their mantra was that the most important thing in life was the “mission,” because that was already embedded in my mind. Focusing on “mission” is still what I bring to most things in life, including volunteer service. My military service includes Survivor Assistant and Personal Affairs Officer, Battalion Adjutant, Aviation Operations Officer, Safety Officer, Primary Flight Instructor, Instrument Flight Examiner, Standardization Pilot and Medical Evacuation Pilot.

AE: I know your military experiences had a large impact on your life and placed you at the junction of some major historical events,  giving you a unique view of one momentous 1980 event we’re all familiar with, especially those in the Pacific Northwest — the explosion of Mount St. Helens.

RC: On May 16 I was tasked with flying a USGS team to the mountain to realign several laser targets being used to monitor the five- to six-foot daily expansion of a bulge on the northern side. It was a routine flight and, aside from some annoying odors, uneventful.

A friend of mine owned a helicopter company in Forks, WA and had crashed on May 15. When I returned home on the 16thI drove to Forks to visit him and his family.

On May 18, shortly after 8:30am, I was standing in the doorway of their home saying goodbye when a muffled explosion and concussion of wind shook their house. I thought someone was blasting in the general area, but I now believe it was a shock wave from the mountain, 160miles away.

I headed back to Seattle, blasting my eight-track and enjoying the beautiful scenery along the way. When I reached Puget Sound to board a ferry to Seattle, I looked to the south and saw a huge mushroom cloud rising high into the sky. I tuned to a local radio station and learned the mountain had erupted, and realized less than 40 hours earlier I had landed on that mountain.

When I reached my apartment in Tacoma there was a message to report to my unit the 243rd Aviation Battalion, a CH-47 helicopter company at Fort Lewis. There was turmoil! Concerns about ash damage to aircraft were being discussed, with suggestions to relocate our aircraft to Canada. The challenge was a directive for the unit to be available for search and rescue on short notice, and eventually orders came to set up a temporary base on the Toutle River, about 15 miles to the west of the mountain, for air-traffic control and faster response if aviation support was warranted.

Several days after the May 18 eruption I was co-pilot of a Ch-47 Chinook transporting over 20 reporters, video crews and photographers from the major media for a close-up view of the damage. We were in radio contact with USGS with orders that if there was a significant earthquake during our flight, we were to immediately abort the mission and evacuate the area.

A solid overcast forced us to navigate low-level along the Toutle River, which was a challenge since the river was filled with logs, houses and destroyed vehicles, all covered by gray ash. It was an eerie scene, with little recognizable terrain features to guide us. When we reached the mountain, clouds were a few hundred feet above the blown-out side. We hovered at the edge, allowing our passengers to peer into the crater and videotape and photograph the damage from the right-front access door of the Chinook. After about ten minutes we received a call to evacuate the area and had everyone sit down, strap in and hang on as we descended, rapidly and as low as possible, and flew behind high ground to the north, returning to base camp.

AE: Having such a military career and specifically a firsthand view of such a catastrophe, what lessons have stuck with you over the years?

RC: Humans can be pretty arrogant, which is perhaps justified considering some of the challenges they have overcome and accomplishments they have achieved. However, some situations are huge — really huge — and deserving of respect and a wide berth. Mount St. Helens was one such event. Somewhere between 57 and 64 individuals lost their lives, hundreds of square miles of land were devastated, thousands of animals died, and the overall damage was estimated at over a billion dollars.

What sticks in my mind is how our attitudes toward the force of nature changed. When Spirit Lake innkeeper Harry Truman elected to remain with his property, I admired his rugged independence. After May 18and following our recon mission to the mountain, my admiration changed dramatically, and I gained a new respect for the power of Mother Nature, which affects my decisions on where to live to this day.

The camaraderie and friendship from my military days is something I cherish. I speak several times a week with former aviation and military friends. As our numbers dwindle we enjoy reliving many past experiences, but also express gratitude for our current existence. As we relive stories and experiences, one common thread is a sincere devotion to this country along with frustration to no longer be active in protecting it.

I have high personal expectations and often fall short of my goals. I find solace in believing that those who do much have greater opportunity for mistakes, while those who do little have less opportunity. I handle pressure from my mistakes by taking responsibility for errors and fixing them — better yet, identifying them before they become an issue and quietly resolving them.

AE: Where did you land (pun intended) when you left the military for civilian life?

RC: My civilian jobs included carpenter, ranch hand, farm laborer, janitor, medical orderly, health-club manager, salesman, IT consultant and programmer, graphic designer, commercial and corporate helicopter pilot, logger, fish-spotter, seismic exploration, and Congressional Liaison Officer.

AE: What brought you to Prescott?

RC: My wife Pat and I lived in Lake Havasu, and while traveling around the state stopped in Prescott. One of our friends from Lake Havasu, an entertainer at the Pine Cone Inn, had told us about it, one thing led to another and we moved here.

AE: You write our Bird of the Month column. How did you get into writing?

RC: Over the years many jobs required writing in various styles, military, governmental and civilian. I have written technical manuals, software user guides, personnel-management manuals, employee manuals, aviation-maintenance and operational manuals, lesson plans, etc.

Bird of the Month articles were a challenge because there is so much information available and article size requires sticking to basic facts and minimizing explanations. With that in mind, my goal was to stimulate curiosity while hoping some readers might dig deeper on their own and discover the excitement available in the world of birding.

AE: From the Audubon Society to the Astronomy Club, you have kept your plate extremely full, but I know that only represents a small portion of the organizations you have a passion for and have volunteered with.

RC: Over the years I have volunteered with motorcycle clubs, kennel clubs, animal rescue, neighborhood watch, a PEGTV channel, Audubon, Astronomy Club, Toastmasters, and orphanage outreach programs. I owe a debt of gratitude to both the Prescott Audubon and Prescott Astronomy Club for allowing me to play in their sandboxes and support their important missions.

You may be starting to pick up on the fact that Russell Chappell is the humble guy in the background, without whom many local organizations would flounder or cease to exist. He wears so many hats I cannot name them all, and I probably will never know the full extent of everything he has been and continues to be an integral part of. Russ has quipped to me about the pseudonyms he has written under, both in jest, but also to defer the limelight from his labors to others. He is the first to lend support to a valiant cause and doesn’t allow anything to detract from the “mission.” I am grateful to have worked with him on so many levels, through various organizations, and shoulder-to-shoulder at a slew of community events, but the biggest privilege of all is to call Russ Chappell my friend.

Editor’s note: Having written our monthly Bird of the Month column since June 2017, Russ has announced his retirement from that duty. His shirttail from the first column read, “Russ Chappell is a member of the Prescott Audubon Society and supports the Chapter as webmaster and as needed. A retired helicopter pilot, he spent most of his life avoiding birds, now he spends time photographing and studying them. He blames Eric Moore for this affliction.” With this bit of irony we’re pleased to announce that Jay’s Bird Barn owner and Prescott City Councilman Eric Moore and writing partner [name] will be taking over as our columnists for 2022. Thanks again, Russ, it’s been great! — Ed.

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