Building and Flying Handwash Stations for the Navajo Nation

I said goodbye to Eric Kee at the lonely Tuba City airport and we lifted off just as the summer air was getting rough, leaving Eric there with 12 Rubbermaid “Brute” trash cans, a pile of preassembled PVC pipe and 6 foot pumps designed for boats. It was enough material to do final assembly on six handwash stations for use with Navajo families that lack running water.

I had been to the Navajo Nation a couple of times for service projects. Both were great trips and along the way I made friends with Eric, now the pastor at the Tuba City Church of Christ. However when I first met him he was a project coordinator at a volunteer organization. Which really meant he made sure we experienced an authentic sweat lodge and he also showed us a secret and historic Navajo Refugee cave (the cave was deep and also a little sketchy and he said he hasn’t taken anyone else there since).

Building the prototype
Handwash station number one (you can’t really see the foot pump)

This first trip was, it may be important to mention, over 10 years ago and we also had a fun time tumbling large boulders into the upper reaches of the Grand Canyon, creating enormous booming sounds.  At the time we justified it as being on reservation land and Eric being Navajo. Eric told me on this trip that he found out the reservation land actually ends 50 feet from the rim where it is federal national park property. So it was indeed illegal but I think the statute of limitation has run out on that.

They fit!

Recently I heard that the Navajo Nation was getting hit particularly hard with Covid 19 and I wondered if I could help. When I happened to read about portable handwash stations made relatively inexpensively from PVC Pipe, Rubbermaid garbage cans and a marine foot pump, it seemed like something I could build and fly into Tuba City.

I contacted Eric and he was excited to help by placing the units in the deep reservation where the residents don’t have running water. I contacted my neighbors Lynn, Jim and Jerry and they all agreed to help build and pay for four handwash units. Lynn agreed to fly with me and do final assembly in Tuba City Arizona.

Mark Rudolph is a good friend who did one of the service projects with me, knows Eric and pilots a similar plane to mine (a Cessna P210). He agreed to also build and transport some units and his neighbor Drhuv helped out.

Lynn

Since this was in the middle of the pandemic we decided to just drop off the units at the airport, chat with Eric and catch up on things, then take off again without actually going into Tuba City. Eric offered us a place to stay in some church buildings that hadn’t been used in the previous six months but we’d still need to travel in the same car, etc. so to be as safe as possible for everyone we decided to fly into Escalante Utah and base the mission out of there.

It took a few week to purchase all the parts, drill lots of holes, glue lots of PVC and test units. Everyone helped and we made a few modifications. The units had been designed for homeless shelters and we made a few changes based on how we thought these would be used.  I had carefully measured the plane but was still surprised when all 8 garbage cans (one can for fresh water, the other for grey water) actually fit in the back with all the seats removed).

Lynn and I flew direct to Escalante early one morning and met Mark and his neighbor. We hiked a slot canyon, had dinner in the pilot’s shelter and enjoyed a warm campfire after a cold wind had died down. Early the next morning we flew out and flew about 1,000 feet above the Escalante river, then Lake Powell and finally over the Navajo Nation. At one point (since the winds were calm) I flew through a notch in a rocky ridge. You definitely get more of a sense of speed when the rocks are 50 feet off your wingtips.  That was a stunning and memorable flight. In flying over the “deep res” it was apparent that running water is a huge job, as most homes are very spread out in a very arid area. I overflew the city then landed at Tuba City’ airport where Eric and his kids where waiting.

His kids?

Well, first things first. Everyone put on their face masks and Mark and I took the kids up for a short flight over the city. Very cool. Yeah, I know we decided not to drive in the same car, but we couldn’t help it. Hopefully the masks, short duration and lots of airflow helped keep everyone safe.

We then assembled a few units so Eric could see how they went together. We then chatted while his kids disappeared into Eric’s truck to watch a movie, and after some time we took off for Escalante. We probably could have flown directly home, but flying early morning is so much smoother and enjoyable (and safer) that we decided to spend another night in Escalante and head home in the smooth morning air.  Sure enough, the ride into Escalante was a little rough with the typical afternoon turbulence. The flight the next morning was great, and by 10:00 am we were home.

Tuba City airstrip
Photo from Eric of final assembly of units at Church in Tuba City

A few days later Eric said he had placed his first unit with a family that had previously been washing their hands in a shared basin of water (so the last person washed with a film of dirt in the water). In addition an elder in the tribe had committed to keeping their 32 gallon fresh water container full (supposedly good for 500 washes).

It actually looks useful!!!!

Yep. That felt good.

EDIT: Someone asked how they can help. Eric still does volunteer programs through the church and tries to keep track of those in need in his community. You can donate to his church at the website: www.tubacitychurchofchrist.com.

4 thoughts on “Building and Flying Handwash Stations for the Navajo Nation

  1. Hey Ney, love your adventures, especially since my piloting adventures these days consist mostly of some sporadic right seat time in a rapido, vintage Cheyenne IV, flown when new by Chuck Yeager in which he set some speed records with the bird.

    The current owner bought it new and we fly it, less nowadays than before, to haul him and his family and workers to various places.

    I love your airplane, have a few hours in the P210 and more time in the Silver Eagle conversion that I could never cozy up to because of the weird torque excursions due to the turboprop characteristics.

    I’ll cut to the chase, I’d like to interview you for my Everyday Heroes podcast series, of which I have gathered many and am in the process of planning a launch as soon as I fine tune them for max attractiveness.

    I can send you one of my podcasts that is awaiting publication, nested in my buzzsprout account so you rest assured I’m not going to misrepresent you when I go public.

    Looking forward to a possible connection.

    Best to you

    Bert

    Bert Botta TWA/Netjets (ret) Aviation Writer Email: botajet@gmail.com Cell: 415-320-9811

    >

    1. Thank you Bert. I don’t really think a hero label applies, but I did send you an email. – Ney

  2. Vearl S. La Berge July, 2020 — 12:30 pm

    Great read. Thank you for the story and the work you and other neighbors did on this human project.
    Jim & Vearl

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