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?

21 May 2007

The Life Aquatic

I have written before of the word for people who don't own boats here ("stranded"). This is a water-borne culture. Everything revolves around the sea, and everyone owns and drives a boat. You have to! But since arriving, I have been beholden to others for transportation. Which is ironic, since I have a helicopter at my disposal. I mean, you'd think...

As beautiful as Guanaja is, it is not rife with places to land a helicopter. Most of the beaches are sloped, and helicopters can generally only handle a slope of ten degrees or so, which isn't much. Plus, landing on the beach is terribly hard on the bird. The downwash from the rotor whips up the sand and water, eroding my main and tail rotor blades and getting sucked into my engine. Not good. Even the elevated pad at our home cay is not quite high enough to avoid kicking up a sea- and sandstorm when I land. There are a couple of docks, soccer fields and the odd small field that I can use, but it's not like I can zip around like some bumblebee from flower to flower when I want to go shopping or visiting.

There are no landing spots down on the Cay, our equivalent of "downtown," so doing any business there requires a boat ride. Mostly I've been using the Boss's boat when he's not here. But that's not a good situation. It sucks down way too much gas for me to be piddling around with it. It's the boating equivalent of taking the SUV down to the corner for the newspaper.

The Boss's Speedboat

I've been looking for something to call my own. Now, if you put the word out here that you are looking for a boat, you will be swamped with offers. Everybody either has an incredibly overpriced boat for sale, or knows someone who does. I made a lot of "test drives," but couldn't decide. For one thing, I wasn't sure what I wanted. I only knew that I did not want a rear-drive outboard, period. Man, I do not like driving those. Cabin-cruiser? Might not be a bad idea, but there's always that gas-consumption thing. Big boat? Little boat? Decisions, decisions.

The head of our power company here owns a small 6-seat runabout with a HUGE engine. He doesn't pull away from the dock; he blasts-off! like an F-15 getting catapaulted off the U.S.S Iowa. I see him going by our cay sometimes. It looks bizarre, like something out of a cartoon. The entire boat is out of the water except for the propeller. I've ridden in this boat - it is a kidney-busting experience.

Actually, I just wanted a slightly smaller version of the two "speedboats" we use for work: open-hull, center-console outboard. Plenty of room for people or "things," lots of versatility. Matt Hewatt, one of our regular guests (who's been down here so many times and helps us out so much that he ought to be on the payroll) made noises about a boat partnership so he'd have something to play around and go diving with when he was here.

The Boss bought a piece of property from a guy who was leaving Guanaja. The deal came with other things, among them a boat. ...An open-hull, center-console, with a 60 h.p. Yamaha outboard! It had been in storage since 2004, but was pronounced solid by people who know about such things. It was offered to me for a good price. Needless to say, I jumped on it like a zit-faced, virgin teenager who'd just been offered a "sleepover" playdate with Paris Hilton.

Mi lancha nueva (my new boat)

Ta-da! Stranded no longer!

Now, couple of problems right off the bat. First, no top. Needs one of those cool Bimini tops like our other boats have (gotta have some shade). That's easy. Second, only 60 horsepower? Come on, man! I need, like, 200. Back in Florida, my friends ribbed me unmercifully because I drove a Dodge Neon. "Chick car," they called it, alluding to my lack of penisization. Not that I am sensitive to such insults, mind you (who, me?), but if I ever do buy another car it will be a "mid-life crisis" Dodge Viper with that muscular, Corvette-shaming V-10 engine! Or maybe a big, bad-ass 4WD pick'emup truck. Adios, chick-car. Hello, chick-magnet!

According to the records, the boat is 16.5 feet long. But honestly, it drives really well, like a good 17-footer. I mean, when you're in it you'd swear...

The boat has already been called "cute," "sweet," and I thought I heard someone say "darling," but when I looked around they had turned away and were covering their mouth (a snicker, perhaps?), so I'm pretty sure they were referring to the lancha. I'm glad to see that guys are guys the world over. It restores my faith in humanity.

Seriously, it is kind of small. Three grown men and their dive gear, that's all or we're shipping water over the transom. But at least it is fast, even with that puny 60 h.p. engine (must be light). And it doesn't seem to use much gas at all. So we'll have to see if it sticks around, or if I end up with something slightly bigger.

No matter. For the moment, I have wheels, baby! And you know what? It does make me feel like a kid getting his first car. Now, if I can just keep from crashing it, running aground on the reef, or having it drift away when one of my non-Boy Scout knots comes loose... Now all it needs is a name.

No more "Pilot Bob" for me. You can just call me...well, is "Admiral" too presumptuous?

(*Oh, and by the way, yes I know that the F-15 is not a carrier-based fighter, and the U.S.S Iowa was a battleship. Good on those of you who caught it and were going to give me shit on the "Comments" page. Thank you anyway.)

19 May 2007

On Flying

I am, in my own estimation a damn good pilot. But then I should be, given the number of years I've been doing it and the amount of experience I've attained. There are two types of professional pilots – the very good and the dead. No in-betweeners, no room for "just average" pilots up there. You’ve got to be good when you're doing it for money (insert cheap, hooker-joke here). I know that must sound horribly pompous, but I have not stayed alive all these years by luck and my movie-star good looks alone. Even the worst of the pro-pilots I've ever known was still pretty dang good.

The trick in all flying (private and professional) is to not think that you're better than you are. Oh boy, is that easier said than done! We get to thinking that we're Chuck Yeager. Or we not-so-subconsciously assume that the very fact that we've survived all these years and amassed all these flight hours makes us good by default. Nope. Not at all, not at all.

If that sounds contradictory to my first paragraph, let me explain. Because of my experience I better be good, yes. But that, by itself, does not make it so. Many pilots make that mistake, and it is a doozy. We pilots are cautioned to guard against complacency, and most of us try pretty hard to avoid it. Despite that, sometimes there is an insidious complacency that worms its way unknowingly into even the most careful pilot’s psyche.

Being a good pilot requires constant work. You can never sit back and rest on your...um...laurels and think that "good" is automatic or even continuous or self-sustaining. And so I work very hard at maintaining my proficiency. And I very much admire those other pilots who do likewise.

Take Mike, our fixed-wing pilot. (He reads this, so I have to choose my words carefully.) He's not the only good pilot in the world, obviously, but Mike is - no shit - one of the best pilots I've ever flown with. The guy just flat knows his stuff and can make that King Air dance and sing. Of course, Mike's been doing it forever (you should see his resume), and he’s flown much bigger things than a King Air, so he should be good. The thing I love is that he still puts as much effort into his work this far down the road as he undoubtedly did when he was first starting out. That's is the very definition of “professionalism” and “dedication,” words we sometimes throw around all too casually these days.

I like watching other pilots fly – always have. You can learn a lot. When I was working for Petroleum Helicopters Inc. in the Gulf of Mexico, I was assigned to a base that had thirty resident aircraft. Most days, after I got off duty I’d just hang around, watching the stragglers come in. End of the long day, tired, hot, worn out…you could forgive these guys if they just swooped in and plopped it down like a sack of wet cement. But no, they would put as much effort into that last landing as they did to the first one this morning, twelve hours ago. It was inspiring.

There was this one guy…Joe Bell (an ironically coincidental name for a helicopter pilot). Older guy, retired out of the Army. Been around. Soft-spoken (unlike most of us) and very likeable (also unlike most of us). He got assigned to a oil company customer flying a snazzy, shiny-new Bell 407. But it was a h-o-r-r-i-b-l-e job. Always first to take-off in the morning, right at sunrise. And his customer flew him the absolute FAA-maximum of eight hours every damn day. Usually he’d come dragging in right at sunset, but other days he’d get his eight hours in by three p.m. and be done before all the rest of us. Oh God, I felt sorry for him. I’d come skipping and whistling in from my air-conditioned, twin-engine helicopter after a “grueling” 3.5 hour day in which I'd done maybe eight or nine landings, my day done by 4:30. My paperwork would be finished and I’d be having a cup of coffee in the pilot lounge when Joe would come in looking like a wet dog at 6:50.

Hovering a helicopter is work. It takes incredible concentration. The Bell 407 is a particularly twitchy, not to say “squirrely” helicopter, especially near the ground. It takes finesse to fly smoothly. And here would come ol’ Joe after one of his eight-hour, “thirty-five landing” days. He’d hover up to the front pad and set ‘er down just so smoothly and gently. I'd watch and just shake my head and smile. I admired that guy, I’ll tell you what.

Watching a really good pilot is quite literally like watching an artist at work. It's like looking over Picasso's shoulder as he paints and wondering, "Why is he dabbing the brush like that? Why is he using that particular color? And what the hell IS that thing he's painting?" Pablo himself might not even be able to respond with anything more than a simple, shrugged, "Eh - beats me..."

It's never good to look too closely at something lest you spoil the magic or kill the spirit. Kind of like how looking at a ghost sometimes makes it disappear. Or how your car keys disappear the moment you go looking for them. (Okay wait, strike that last, but you get the idea.) We have these God-given talents. We shouldn’t question them, just make the best of them. As the artist’s talent flows through his hands to the brush and onto the canvas, so a pilot’s talent flows through the stick or wheel and out to the control surfaces or rotor blades.

Ah, but if only it were that simple for us. There is so much other technical stuff to know and keep abreast of. But it is one of the reasons I so love flying: It is the perfect left brain/right brain activity, requiring the constant involvement of both, and as rewarding to the artistic side as it is to the technical side.

I hope that the day I have to lay my paintbrushes down is a long, long way off.

08 May 2007

Odds And Ends

Please don’t misunderstand something. When I write about the medevac flights I do, it is not out of a sense of self-aggrandizement or because I’m looking for a pat on the back. It is merely because I think what my boss is doing is a wonderful thing for this place…this little slice of what would otherwise be paradise called Guanaja. The people here need so much; that’s pretty clear. The fact that we can help in our small way makes me feel pretty damn good. But not only that. I love it when helicopters can be used to help people. It is the most noble use of the machine in my humble opinion, and I’m proud to brag a little about our ship.

* * *

Lalo called me last night, all excited. You have to know Lalo. And if you did you would love him. A big, burly, teddy-bear of a man, black as the ace of spades, always smiling, always animated, always in a good mood, with eyes that light up like ornaments on a Christmas tree when he talks…which is in a mild Caribbean patois…almost Jamaican but not quite. He’s all-business on the job, but sometimes when he sees me somewhere else, he’ll give me one of those playful, vice-like hugs that squeezes the air out of me and lifts me off my feet like a ragdoll. We should all have friends like Lalo.

“Bob! Bob!” he said excitedly. He always starts out his conversations with me that way and I always chuckle when he does. “You know what that little shit went and did?”

I knew he meant Jose-Luis. I braced for collision. Now what?

“He done got himself a JOB, son! He working on the yacht!”

I asked Lalo how Jose-Luis got the job…was it something he did?

“No, Bob. People know him! They know he family. They know he got them three chirren!”

Well, maybe. Methinks bigmouth Lalo just put a bug in the right person’s ear.

But uh-oh, that’s one of those good news/bad news kind of things. The “yacht,” the ferry that makes a couple of trips a week between here and the mainland port of Trujillo, gets my vote for the boat Most-Likely-To-Turn-Turtle-And-Go-Right-To-The-Bottom-In-The-Awful-Conditions-Of-A-Perfectly-Calm-Clear-Day. So while I am happy for Jose-Luis that he has a steady income again, I’ll have to keep praying for him even harder than ever now.

The yacht was leaving for Trujillo this morning, so I went into town to see Jose-Luis and give him a little support…give him the Stern-Parent, "I’m happy for you but don’t screw this up" talk. Which, come to think of it…talk about role-reversal! Whoa, when did that happen? It wasn’t all that long ago when people were having that talk with me. At least, it doesn’t seem so.

* * *

I talked with our employee Fidel Hernandez today. It was his father whom I took down to La Ceiba on Sunday after his accident. When I asked about him, Fidel broke into a big smile. “Good! Good!” he said. “Thank you!” he said, gratefully pumping my hand. And I was thinking to myself: Hey don’t shoot me, I’m only the piano player. (That was the title to an old Elton John album, and I’ve always wanted to worm it into one of my posts some day. Finally got the chance!)

¡Un buen día! A good day. A very good day!

06 May 2007

Three-Four Whiskey To The Rescue! Again.

...And I was just telling The Boss about how the medevac flights had dropped off. Somehow, I knew it wouldn't be long until we were called again. I wasn't wrong. Got the call Sunday morning at 10:30. An MVA (that's police/medical people short-hand for motor vehicle accident).

We have a total of...oh, eight, maybe nine cars/trucks on Guanaja and maybe as many small motorcycles, most of them on the road between Savannah Bight and Mangrove Bight. I personally have been in the back of a stake-body truck over there, jammed in with a bunch of other guys, women and children, thinking to myself that if the driver so much as goes off into a ditch it's gonna be ugly.

These people here do not know how to drive. There are no driver education schools. They have no sense of "keep right." Many guys assume that they can drive a boat, so driving a car should be a piece of cake. One of the things I have feared is that with the proliferation of cars on Guanaja there would be accidents. There'll be single-vehicle accidents (car runs off road into tree), vehicle/vehicle, and vehicle/pedestrian accidents. With these accidents are going to come injuries.

But we have just a couple of medical clinics here, and they can provide only a limited amount of care. Anything more serious than a few stitches and you're in trouble, bub. Which is where we come in: There are no commuter airline flights in or out of Guanaja on Sundays, so the helicopter is really the only realistic way off the island. The wind has been blowing lately, and the seas have been miserably rough. Boat rides can be downright dangerous for otherwise healthy people. Hit a big wave while sitting in the wrong position can throw your back out, big time. (Don't ask my how I know. But I do not sit down in rough water anymore; I only stand.)

What scares me...and I mean that literally...is that the number of vehicles here will grow faster than our medical facilities can handle the inevitable accidents. I.E., people are going to die. It's as simple as that. As great as the helicopter is, it can't work miracles. Ours is not one of these "flying emergency rooms" like a lot of air ambulances today. With ours, we yank the seats out and put a stretcher in and go, baby!

But we are not a commercial operation. Plus, our availability is not guaranteed. The lack of a small part can keep us grounded for a protracted period of time. It weighs heavily on me. I'd hate to have to turn a flight down for someone with a dire need. Luckily this helicopter is pretty dependable. It's an incredible ship, and I've grown quite fond of it.

As a side and lighter note, I should point out that the marvelous FH1100 helicopter was the first helicopter used as a dedicated air-ambulance in the United States way back in 1969. It was the model chosen for a special year-long demonstration in the state of Mississippi, funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation. It provided 24/7 statewide helicopter air ambulance coverage. You can read about it here on this page of the factory's website www.fh1100.com (but basically I just told you all about it). It's an interesting story, and it proved the value of using helicopters as air ambulances - as if that needed proving. Now, nearly forty years later they are commonplace in virtually every community, even tiny little Guanaja, Bay Islands, Honduras. Sort of.

During Project CARE-SOM, the FH1100s and its medical crews were often the first ones on the scene after the police. "Snatch and run." When I worked at the factory I got to know one of the pilots who flew on the project, and the stories he could tell!

Things have changed. These days, when the "EMS" (Emergency Medical Service) helicopter is usually called to a scene, it will not be the "first-responder." There will always be ground medical crews there who'll stabilize the injured and prepare them for transport, whether it be air or ground. At that point the decision will be made. This just makes good medical sense.

The guy yesterday is the father of one of our workers. He was on a motorcycle that somehow came together with a car at a blind spot in the road. And they said he was hurt bad - needed the helicopter ASAP. I hustled out the door to get the helicopter ready and get my stuff together.

The rendevouz point was the soccer field in Savannah Bight, exactly the same place I dropped off Marcos when I brought him up from La Ceiba. I've mentioned before that I don't like these "site-landings" as we call them. The helicopter always attracts a lot of attention and draws a big crowd. There are no police here, so needless to say there is no crowd control. There is always the danger of someone walking into my tail rotor, so I'm extremely paranoid.

As I circle over the soccer field, I see the crowd around the injured man, and more headed that way from all compass points. I sigh to myself; it's going to be a zoo. When I delivered Marcos home, it was pandemonium as soon as I shut down. Surprisingly, oddly, the mob is somber and extremely well-behaved. They respectfully stand back and let the guys do their work of loading the man into the ship. And the man is in pretty bad shape, they did not exaggerate. Perhaps the people are aware of the gravity of the situation. Kids do mill around, but they give the helicopter (which I leave running) room. It's strange.

I assure my employee that I will have his father in the hospital in 45 minutes. He looks at me gratefully and says thanks. The man's wife climbs in next to her husband and we beat-feet out of there as fast as my little helicopter will go.

The actual flight is uneventful. In fact it is a beautiful day and flight. I can see the mainland as soon as I take off. And it strikes me that as great a flight as this is, my passengers cannot enjoy it. Alas, that's the dichotomy of the air ambulance.