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Delmont air traffic controller, hospice worker pursues writing passion |

Delmont air traffic controller, hospice worker pursues writing passion

| Sunday, February 7, 2016 10:15 p.m.
Patrick Varine | Tribune-Review
Van Brenlove, 67, of Delmont, has worked as an air-traffic controller, a flight instructor, a hospice worker and a writer during his varied career. Above, Brenlove at the Delmont Public Library, where he leads a monthly writers' group.

Air-traffic controller. Hospice bereavement counselor. Author.

What do these things have in common? Van Brenlove.

Brenlove, 67, of Delmont has had about as varied a career as a person can have, and through it all, he has been able to hone his love of writing.

While trying to find a way to avoid studying for final exams during his time at Washington & Jefferson College, Brenlove and a friend found a cheap introductory flight lesson at a Washington County airfield.

“I happened to be the one sitting up front,” he said. “The pilot let me fly the plane very briefly, and I was just hooked.”

Brenlove, who grew up in Penn Hills, passed an aptitude test for aspiring air traffic controllers and was sent to Oklahoma City for several weeks of training. He eventually made his way to airports in Ohio and Minnesota before landing at Pittsburgh International Airport in the early 1980s.

There, he and his co-workers controlled a roughly 30-mile radius around the airport that extended 12,000 feet into the air.

Brenlove said the quality air traffic controllers need most is good spatial orientation.

“You’re looking at a radar scope that’s two-dimensional, but you’re working in three dimensions and you have to be able to visualize that,” he said.

Steve Kantola, 60, of New Castle had Brenlove as his instructor at the Pittsburgh airport, and the pair carpooled to work for several years.

“He kind of took me under his wing,” Kantola said. “I would tell him how much training (stunk), and he would tell me to just hang in there. Of all the trainers I had, he was among the very best.”

As a Level 5 airfield, Pittsburgh International handled, on average, 100 takeoffs and departures an hour, and Kantola said Brenlove was in his element in the high-stress environment of the control tower.

“Van just did it with ease,” Kantola said. “He was outstanding, and he’s one of the closest friends I’ve ever had.”

After his stint in Pittsburgh, Brenlove taught both air traffic control and flight instruction for 15 years at Daniel Webster College in New Hampshire. But 9/11 changed the airline industry to a great extent, he said.

“Students became much more reluctant to become airline pilots,” he said. “It was time for me to make a change.”

He moved back to Pittsburgh in 2003, and after joking to a friend that he might be able to work in the hospice industry, he found himself in a new high-stress position: working with families whose loved ones were in the final stage of their lives.

Brenlove served first as a volunteer coordinator at Heartland Home Healthcare & Hospice while living in the Crafton area, and then as a bereavement counselor at Grane Hospice in RIDC Park.

It was a chance to bring his deep sense of spirituality into the workplace.

“I didn’t have to keep my faith and my work separate,” he said. “It’s very integral to hospice work. There’s the physical caring for the person who’s dying, but the spiritual care for the person and their family is a big part of it.”

Jeff Youell of Sarver worked alongside Brenlove for more than five years at Grane Hospice and said he had a real talent for putting families at ease.

“You never know what you’re stepping into as far as family dynamics and how a family views what really is a crisis,” Youell said. “Van was able to flow very easily back and forth between being lighthearted and expressing a good sense of humor to filling a need to provide support for a family and be very serious.”

Brenlove said working in hospice was among the most life-changing and rewarding things he’s done.

“It’s a very intimate experience,” he said. “When a family that is in such a difficult situation brings you into their lives and kind of leans on you, it means a lot.

“We’re kind of guides for people who haven’t been on that journey before, and the gratitude they showed for the work we did was really wonderful.”

Along the way, through the airline and hospice jobs, Brenlove had opportunities to indulge his passion for writing.

His writing was first published in a regional Minnesota magazine, a piece about air traffic control. That led him to publish a book, “The Air Traffic System: A Commonsense Guide,” which was written to familiarize small-aircraft pilots with the ins and outs of the industry. During his time as an instructor, Brenlove wrote “Vectors to Spare,” a memoir of his time as a controller, and more recently, because of the massive amount of change in the airline industry, he published a complete revision of his first book.

After moving back to Pittsburgh, he wrote several stories for local medical newsletters about the hospice industry.

These days, he is semi-retired and has begun leading the Night Writers, a local group that meets monthly at the Delmont Public Library.

“I’m really excited for some of the folks in our group who are working on novels,” he said. “I’d really like to eventually write some fiction, whether it’s a novel or a short story.”

Kantola said he expects that Brenlove will reach that goal.

“He sees something he wants to do, and he’s able to go out and do it,” Kantola said. “I admire what he’s done.”

Patrick Varine is a staff writer for the Tribune-Review. He can be reached at 724-850-2862 or

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