Who Am I?

My photo
A nobody; a nitwit; a pilot; a motorcyclist; a raconteur; a lover...of life - who loves to laugh, who tries to not take myself (or anything) too seriously...just a normal guy who knows his place in the universe by being in touch with my spiritual side. What more is there?

15 July 2018

Home, Sweet...Hell? (It only feels that way)


Well they said it couldn't be done...said it wouldn't be done! But done, it is. I went up to Washington on June 5th, and now I'm home safe and sound(?) in Pensacola here on July 15th. My deal with the Boss was that I'd come up and cover one of the ships that we have a on 30-day contract. Up, cover the job, and then be gone. It wasn't what I wanted, but not for nuthin' the farm manager of the customer for whom I've been working for the last seven years called and put a little pressure on me too. And so I went back.  It's nice to be wanted.

The thirty days went by surprisingly quickly.  As my departure date from Washington approached, my friend Terry remarked that I had not experienced a Florida summer in quite a while, and I might be in for a rude re-acquaintance since it's been so hot and humid this year in the Sunshine State. This is true; the last summer that I was in Florida was 2010.

And sure enough, it's plenty hot here in Pensacola today. The mid-90 degree heat is exacerbated by the 73% humidity, which makes the air feel not just hot but heavy as well. You go outside and the air just weighs down on you. But that's life along the gulf coast – I'm not complaining.  (Up in Washington today, with similar temperatures the humidity is 13%.  Quite the difference!)

Anyway, it's good to be home. Now, all I have to do is get the exhaust system on the motorcycle, get it registered (which I should have done before I left – oops!) and try to get some riding in between rainstorms.

It's going to be a great rest of the summer!

04 July 2018

Cherry Season Update: 2018

Well it's been an odd year so far here in Brewster, Washington.  We've had more rain than last year...sort of.  But that rain has been usually moving in from the north, which is odd.  Normally it comes across the Cascade Mountains from the west, or up from the south.  Not only that, the rain has often been accompanied by high wind.  

One day the other pilot, Matt and I went out to dry, and the wind was howling...so strong I could turn the helicopter around at the end of the row.  I tried different tactics - like starting at the downwind end of the orchard and working my way up into the wind, but no-go.  I couldn't comfortably make the helicopter do what I needed it to do.  These things are like huge weathervanes.  They don't like to be broadside or tail to the wind.

I'm no hero for one thing, and for another the wind itself does a pretty good job of shaking the trees and drying the cherries.  I let our farm manager know that we were going to stand-down until the wind calmed a little.  He was fine with that; they never push us when it comes to weather decisions.  It turned out though that the high winds lasted until sunset.

 Not only has it been the windiest summer I can remember up here, it's also been one of the coolest, temperature-wise.  By now (first week of July) the temperatures should be well up into the 90's and possibly 100's.  But we've been blessed with remarkably cool days when it hardly gets up above 85.  The nights have been cooler as well, getting down into the low 50's, meaning I've been using a lot of propane with the RV furnace kicking on.  

The grower we work for has already started picking cherries.  Things should go quickly.  The state of Washington dictates that pickers can only work in the fields below 90 degrees.  Sometimes that can happen by 10:00 a.m.  You can't get much work out of pickers who only start work at 5:00.  But not this year!  Our grower has them in the orchards all day.  

Once the blocks of cherry trees have been picked and the number of acres of unpicked trees dwindles, our grower will release one of the helicopters and just keep one on for the remainder of the season.  

The good news for me is that while my original departure date of July 10th may have to slip a bit...it won't be much later than that.  Once I get back I'll still have a good amount of our Florida motorcycle riding season left to enjoy.  

17 June 2018

Rainbows

Last season (2017), we dryers of cherries did not do much work.  There was virtually no rain.  Helicopter operators who skimped on their "standby" charges and figured they'd make the revenue up in flight time were left hurting.  Meh, such is business life.  The guy I work for is shrewd.  Even on no-fly or low-fly years we still make money.  (Of course, it goes without saying that we make more if we fly.)

This year, we've already had more rain and have done more flying in the first couple of days of the contracts than we did all of last year!  It's been weird, too.  The rain has been coming from the north, which is kind of unusual.  Most of the time it comes from the west across the Cascade Mountains or up from the south.  Whatever...we'll take it! 

I'm assigned to a grower that contracts for two helicopters.  We position them on this grower's property in an LZ (landing zone) they've set aside for us.  They've also provided complete hookups for a couple of RV's.  The other pilot and I have individual motorhomes.  It's not exactly plush, but it's not bad either.  Hey, I could stand on my head for two months if you paid me enough.

The other night just before sunset, a big storm had formed just to our northeast, moving to the southwest.  It looked as though it would barrel right over us and drench us as it passed.  The other pilot and I stood outside, watching it keenly.   Thankfully, it dissipated before it got to us, leaving us with only a few sprinkles.  It did, however provide a spectacular rainbow.  I can't recall ever seeing one so complete.

Nature can be pretty interesting sometimes.  I remain unconvinced that rainbow would be there had the earth evolved from...whatever...but had man never come into existence.  Nope, I believe that cool stuff like rainbows were put here specifically for us humans to enjoy.  And that, we do!

06 June 2018

More Changed Plans

When I got home from Washington State last year, I vowed that I would not return for the 2018 season.  I bought a motorcycle and planned to ride it all summer long with my friends, Jacob and Terry.  I live in Florida.  I've made my life here since 1987.  And there's a reason why I stay: I love Florida!

Since starting my little summer sojourn to Brewster, Washington in 2011, my stay up there got progressively longer.  It mostly lasted six months.  And it's fun, don't get me wrong, but it takes a huge chunk out of my life here where I call home.  My boss at the helicopter company would like me to move to Washington full-time, but I just don't see that happening.

This year the helicopter industry finds itself in the midst of a pilot shortage.  The ad we put for pilots got only a fraction of the views and very, very few resumes in response.  We ended up not having enough pilots to cover the contracts for cherry-drying that were already in place.  Early on during the process, it became clear that I'd have to go back and cover one of the ships.  And that's what happened.

So here I go, on the road again...or more accurately in the air again.  United Airlines has agreed to fly my butt up to the town of Wenatchee, where the boss will pick me up for the two-hour drive up the Columbia River to Brewster.  This year, I'm only staying for thirty days. 

Anyway, that's the plan.

30 May 2018

Cab Driver Stories: Taxis versus Uber, Part II

THE TAXI PROBLEM

Taxis have a bad image.  My friend Matt travels a lot and thus uses hired-cars to get to and from airports.  He makes the sweeping generalization that, ”Taxis are awful.” In his experience they probably are. And whether that is absolutely true in every city or not, it has become conventional wisdom. To wit: Taxis are beat-up, uncomfortable, smelly cars driven maniacally by foreigners with little command of the English language. Oh yeah, and taxis are super-expensive.

(I should point out that here in Pensacola our per-mile rate is $2.25. It's the cheapest in the state of Florida and hasn't been raised in over ten years.  Uber's per-mile rate is $.91 but they add on a bunch of extra fees, so you can't make a true apples-to-apples comparison.)

If you've ever operated a vehicle and had ten or fifteen different people get in during separate trips every day of the week, you'd understand why taxis are generally not brand-new in appearance or condition. They do get beat up by passengers who don't give a shit about them. People litter...they spill stuff...they get sick...they break things...they sometimes stink. It's why most cabs have spartan interiors made of heavy-duty materials. 

Additionally, taxis generally rack-up tons of miles per year...and nearly all of it is city-driving. It's a hard life for a car.  With my taxi (a 2006 Ford Freestar), even though I only worked three days per week I was still driving 3,000+ miles per month.  Now with Uber, it's even more.

Well why not just replace the cab every so often and keep a nice one on the road? Good question. But look, nobody is getting rich operating a cab. At most, you can average...if you're lucky...$1.00 per mile (your revenue divided by the total of all miles, revenue and “deadhead”). Big cities like New York and such where “deadhead” miles are fewer are the exception.  Here in Pensacola, the rule-of-thumb is revenue-out / deadhead-back.  So while you make $2.25 per mile with a passenger in the car, you're coming back empty the same distance, which makes your net revenue for that trip $1.12 per mile.  Add some cruising around between fares or deadheading to a dispatch pickup and your revenue-per-mile goes down even further.  For me it always remained right around $1.00/mile.

If your vehicle costs you $0.30/mile to operate, that doesn't leave much left over for profit and living expenses, never mind vehicle replacement. So unfortunately, most taxi companies keep their cars on the road as long as possible, sometimes longer. They delay or completely forego maintenance items like shock absorbers and oil changes, etc.

For us owner-operators, banks and credit unions don't like to finance taxis. ”We don't do commercial loans!” one particularly testy credit union loan officer told me back when I was buying my first cab. So in cities like Pensacola, drivers buy cheaper cars they can pay for in cash. Even the “big dog,” Yellow Cab has a large percentage of older cars in their fleet.

From the driver's perspective, you don't exactly need a college degree to do this job. No special training is required (other than learning and having an intimate knowledge of your city, and since the invention of GPS even that is no longer a prerequisite). Thus, cab driving attracts those who...let's be honest...may not be suited or even able to hold any other type of job. The pay and working conditions aren't great enough to attract those who might otherwise go to work for NASA. The end result is that you often get to ride to the airport driven by the dregs of society in claptrap beaters with meters.

If the cab even comes at all.

Here in Pensacola, when people call Yellow Cab for a ride, that company has, incredibly, stopped giving an ETA of when the driver will arrive! ”We'll get to you as soon as possible,” they say. Now there's some stellar customer service, no?

Add it all together and you have an unpleasant and undesirable situation for the potential passenger/customer. It is no wonder that taxis have such a bad reputation across the nation.

Then again, the paying passenger is not in the cab for very long – it's not like you're going to ride in the thing to California or become good friends with the driver. Most taxi trips are short. You want a limo? Hire a limo, you cheapskate.

THE RIDE-SHARE SOLUTION

When Uber/Lyft were invented, the emphasis was on nice cars. Uber initially claimed that they'd only allow cars that were no older than three years. That has been expanded to fifteen years here in Pensacola and many other cities. When I signed-up with Uber there was no vehicle inspection required of my car. Marketed as “Your own private driver,” Uber didn't exactly come out and promise a limo-like experience, but it was implied. And indeed, many Uber cars are nice, often higher-end late-model cars that are meticulously maintained by their proud owners.  Drivers were encouraged to be friendly, to offer water and snacks, and to play the kind of music the passenger liked to listen to.


Add to all that a cellphone app that works easily everywhere in the country...an app on which you can actually see on a little map on your phone the car that's coming to get you...an app that tells you the driver's name, his "star rating" and the license plate of his car...I mean, why wouldn't you use Uber instead of a regular ol' taxi?

Compared to traditional taxis, Uber was a breath of fresh air. Customers became infatuated with the new service.  They were lead to believe that it was really possible to get a "taxi" ride for less money in a nicer car...and that somehow Uber could make that work out.  The question is: Will the business model hold up? Or will we eventually see Uber cars become just like conventional taxis (i.e. more beat-up and just about the same cost) but with a better method of dispatch and payment? Time will tell.

23 May 2018

Cab Driver Stories: Taxis versus Uber, Part I


Throughout the world, and especially in the U.S., public transportation of people for hire is regulated. Whether it's a small municipal bus service or one like Greyhound that travels across state lines, operators are subject to various government regulations. Whether it's a small air charter operator with a single-engine Cessna, a little helicopter giving rides at a county fair, or a big airline like JetBlue, same deal.

The Department of Transportation regulates for-hire travel here in the U.S. And for good reason. We don't want just anyone starting an air service and carrying passengers around for a fee. We expect that there would be some minimum standards of service. Pilots need to be properly trained and licensed; airplanes need to be inspected and maintained and airworthy; the operation must be defined as to scope and area.  You wouldn't want a charter operator in flat and swampy Pensacola to fly up to and start doing business in, say, Colorado without special training on the hazards of mountain/winter flying.

Wherever you look, whether it's a railroad or just a shuttle bus in your home town the service is regulated by some agency or entity. Even taxicabs have traditionally been subject to regulations, although mostly on the state or local level. We put up with such regulations because we understand that there needs to be some sort of governmental oversight and scrutiny in the interest of public safety.

Then along came Uber...

Uber initially claimed that they were not taxis, oh no! Uber was merely an informal, internet-based “ride-sharing” service by which people could arrange for a car to come and take them somewhere for a fee. Why, that's not like a taxi at all!  Uber claimed that they were only an intermediary (just an internet app, really), matching up like-minded passengers with independent drivers.  The fact that the drivers actually work for Uber, and that Uber insures the trip, collects the money for the trip and pays the driver...well, they were swept under the carpet as inconsequential.  Not like a taxi at all!

Along the way, Uber morphed into a “ride-hailing” service.  And what kind of vehicle do we hail? Right, a taxi. Local governments were too stupid to notice the subtle change.  And in any case it didn't matter - Uber already got their nose under the tent and there was no stopping it.

From the federal down to the local levels, our government is typically run by old people who are generally not hip to all this new technology with which we're constantly bombarded. All across the land, moronic local governments (like the one here in Pensacola), smitten and awed by the shiny technology of hailing a cab ON OUR PHONE!...gave Uber carte-blanche to operate with basically ZERO regulation or oversight. No special driver licensing or background checks/fingerprinting, no vehicle licensing or inspection...no commercial insurance...no nothing. Anybody with a car could now be a cab-driver!

(To clarify, a taxi must have expensive commercial insurance in place for EVERY mile it drives here in Pensacola, whether empty or with a fare. On the other hand, Uber only provides commercial-level coverage for the passenger when they are in an Uber car. At all other times the Uber driver relies on his personal auto insurance policy. It's a clever manipulation of the rules and could arguably be considered insurance fraud.)

What happened next was predictable: the dismantling of the taxi industry. Full-time cabbies who depended on driving a taxi for their livelihood found themselves put out of work by a bunch of part-time, unregulated independent-contractors driving for Uber as a “side-hustle.” Nationwide, cab companies have been systematically put out of business by these “ride-hailing” companies which governments are now calling “transportation network companies” which is just a bullshit way of saying “a cab company but we don't want to call that.”

Here in Pensacola, the taxi business at the airport is virtually dead; Uber has taken over. In this town, the only thing taxis have going for them is that the Navy doesn't allow Uber on the base...yet. There are approximately 4,000 sailors and Marines here, fresh out of boot camp, most of whom cannot own cars and all of whom want to be OFF THE BASE! on the weekend. So from Friday afternoon through Sunday evening there just aren't enough taxis to handle the demand. For a cab driver, you can make a pretty decent living just working the base on weekends. Which is what my friend, Terry and I did...or used to do. But once the Navy starts letting Ubers on the base, it's game-over for the taxis. I suspect that'll happen sooner rather than later.

The question is: Should the transportation of people for hire be regulated on the local level as it is on the federal? Should there be any regulation at all? Many states, like Florida have abolished their statewide rules for taxis and vehicles for hire, leaving it up to local municipalities to make their own rules...or not. The states hilariously claim that this “levels the playing field” which it absolutely does not. Most cities simply follow the state's lead. But not all.

For instance, Pensacola still has their “legacy” rules for taxis in place, which seem onerous now compared to the free-reign they've given the “ride-hailing” services. The city even removed the one-and-only taxi stand we had downtown. If our idiot mayor thought he'd see less traffic downtown at night on the weekends, he didn't anticipate the substitution of the comparably few (or at least finite number of) taxis for the jam-up of unlimited Uber cars that now prowl downtown trying to snag the closest “ping.”

If anything, traffic is worse.  And here's why.

In the past, taxis would cruise up the street. In a time-honored tradition, someone would step out from the curb and hail one. The cab would stop, the people would climb in, and the cab would be underway again with fairly minimal delay. Now, an Uber passenger clicks on the app from inside the bar/club.  The Uber car goes to the pickup point, double-parks in the street with its flashers on and waits for the rider(s) to eventually come out of the bar, which they typically don't do until they receive a notification that the Uber car has arrived. The police have begun hassling such rideshare drivers for blocking traffic. Gee, whodathunkit? One problem for another. (Yes, I drive for Uber now. No, I don't work downtown on the weekend.)

Ultimately we have to decide how much government intervention we really need in our lives. Right now, people seem to want it both ways. We want air travel, buses and railroads to be well-regulated, but not taxis! We're willing to make an exception for Uber/Lyft because of the incredible convenience they provide, and we thus gloss-over or summarily ignore the issue of regulation and public safety.  Seems to me that carrying people for hire is carrying people for hire no matter what particular mode of transportation it is, whether they're in a four-seat Cessna or a four-seat UberX.

I'll deal with “the taxi problem” in Part II.

15 May 2018

Cab Driver Stories: The Big Switch


Me and my buddy, Terry May, Pensacola, Florida's two newest Uber drivers.  (It may not be clear in the pic, but Terry is the one wearing shorts and a knee brace.)

Life is strange. Don't ever let anyone tell you it's not.

As I mentioned in my post on May 2nd, I have switched from being a taxi driver to driving for Uber. And now, two weeks down the road (if you'll pardon the pun) I can report: So far, so good. It's like taxi driving, only easier.

My cabdriver friend Terry was witness to the speed and ease with which I was able to find a replacement vehicle for my aging Ford minivan. He has a similarly-aging Dodge. And although his van was still in pretty good shape, you just never know what's going to break next on a car with 200,000+ miles.

Casually perusing the online ads, Terry found a late-model Dodge for sale at a used-car dealership over in Mobile, Alabama. It looked to be in nice shape, but was priced $4,000 below “book.” Terry called the dealer and got the bad news: Hail damage to the hood and roof. Hmm. We decided to go take a look at it anyway.

The hail damage was minimal, or at least as “minimal” as hail damage can be. Yeah, it was noticeable on the hood if you looked just right. On the roof there was virtually none to speak of. We took it for a test-drive. With 86,000 miles it still drove like new. The interior was immaculate. Like mine, it was a one-owner car. The dealer had it since September and he wanted it gone; hence, the low price.

The taxi drivers here in Pensacola call Terry, “Mr. Lucky” because of all the good trips he gets. His good-fortune continued. A buyer “magically” appeared for his pickup truck that he hadn't been driving much in the last five years. Then a guy came along and wanted to lease-purchase his current taxi. Suddenly Terry had no reason to not buy this van. He did, and then with some understandable reluctance he signed up with Uber, which was the great-unknown for us.

So now we both have “new” Dodge minivans...vans with zero maintenance issues...vans that people get in and go, “Is this brand-new?” (Yes, they are that nice.) We went from taxi drivers to Uber drivers literally overnight.

Our cab driver buddies act as if we've committed an act of treason. They plaintively ask us, “Are you coming back?” We reply ambiguously that we might return, but the truth is that neither Terry nor I would ever go back to driving a regular taxi. I'll get into the reasons why in future installments here.

In the meantime, Terry and I just laugh that we quite suddenly and unexpectedly made the Big Switch from taxis to Uber.  And it wasn't nearly as traumatic as we imagined.