Who Am I?

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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?

31 January 2008

Night Time Is The Right Time - Not

This past Monday the Boss and I left home base shortly before sunset for the 45-minute flight up to the hunting camp. I've sort of gotten used to landing there after dark, although I still don't like it. We have an agreement: I won't land or takeoff from the camp at night if it's overcast. I only do it if it's a clear night.

Enroute, he turns to me and says he'd like to land first at a friend's camp which is nearby and which, luckily, I'd flown over. Once. These hunting camps all have big flat fields, and they make perfect places to land helicopters, if you have one. "Okay," says I, "if we can find it before it gets too dark..."

Flying helicopters is all visual. These crazy machines have no sense of up and down of their own. Unlike an easy-to-fly airplane, helicopters are notoriously unstable. I must be able to see to control the ship. It is easy - very easy to get "spatial disorientation" (i.e. vertigo) when you can't see outside. The movements of the helicopter mess with your head. Yes, I do have gauges that tell me which way is up and which way I'm headed, but I still need outside references to fly the helicopter upright. And sometimes, flying at night is like being inside of a very dark closet with the door closed.

Try this experiment: Turn off the light in your room and close your eyes tightly. Now push your computer chair away from the desk and spin yourself around - it doesn't even have to be that fast. Nod your head a couple of times. When the chair stops, stand up. The sensation of dizziness will be startling. What happens is that the fluid in those little circular canals in our inner ear gets moving, giving us a false sense of right-side up. The fluid in our inner ear is what gives us our equilibrium.

If this happens in the aircraft (which is constantly moving in three dimensions), your body can send you erroneous messages that conflict with what the gauges are telling you. These messages can be so strong that pilots will disbelieve the gauges and crash.

I've been there, a long time ago in a helicopter that was unintentionally inside a cloud due to my own stupidity. The gauges showed me in a steady right turn, but my body was telling me we were in an extremely steep left turn! I literally froze on the controls, panicked. Somehow...don't ask me how...grace of God or something...I did not crash. We eventually emerged from the cloud in a steady right turn. I was able to regain control of the ship, my composure, and continue the flight. My passenger in the back seat never looked up from his Wall Street Journal, none the wiser as to how close he'd just come to death.

Anyway, we did find the friend's camp and managed to squeak in there while I still had enough light to see. The six hunters staying there were all still out hunting, which pretty much ends when it gets too dark to see through a rifle scope. I shut down and got out, enjoying a crisp, clear, moonless January evening as far from civilization as you can get around here. They eventually all came straggling in and we had a nice visit, with them telling stories of all the deer they saw but did not for some reason shoot. Hunters are a lot like fishermen in that way, I guess.

Finally the Boss decided to leave to go to our camp. It was 6:45 by then and was dark, dark, dark. The field we'd landed in was big, but had trees all around the perimeter, which I now could not see. However I had made a mental note of where a good, big open spot between them was and decided that I'd take off in that direction. When it was time to go, I did just that. Six hunters, all standing around watching my departure. Dear God, please don't let me f*** this up. End result: We didn't hit anything.

This part of south-central Alabama is all hunting land. Consequently, houses are few and far between. I leveled off about 800 feet above the trees for the five mile flight to our camp. Below us was a just spooky sea of blackness. It's really quite unnerving.

"Oh my God, it's dark down there!" the Boss said with just a touch of nervousness in his voice.

"Yup," I shrugged, doing my best Gary Coooper, trying to act casual. "But remember something - if you can't see, that means I can't see. This is why I need a clear night to do this." If he wasn't before, he's convinced now.

A week or so earlier, an air ambulance helicopter was out at three a.m. searching for a lost hunter a little further to the north in the state. Although the crew managed to locate him, the helicopter crashed and killed all three onboard. We don't know what happened yet and speculation runs rampant. But I do know one thing: whatever did happen, the flight over that unlit, featureless terrain did not make things any easier for the pilot and may have in fact compounded his problems.

Finding our camp was not a problem for us Monday night. The GPS pinpoints it with accuracy and it happens to be the only lights around for miles. I descended to 500 feet above the trees and slowed the ship way down. The trick is to keep the visible lights on my side of the aircraft; you never want to turn away from the lights, which could put you into that dark closet I mentioned before. Once I had intercepted the proper approach angle and path, the rest was easy...relatively. (Don't get me wrong, it's still a challenge.)

I wish small helicopters had some form of artificial stability that would right the thing and allow me to get my bearings if I became disoriented. (Have I whined about this before? It seems that I have.) But they do not. Why not? It's a long story - too long for this blog. Basically, there are just too few helicopters out there to make it economically feasible.

Hunting season is over as of today, thankfully, so we won't be going up to the camp nearly as much. Flying at night can be beautiful, and a lot of fun in the right conditions. I appreciate the amount of night time flying I've been able to do, but I won't be sorry to see it end. For now.


Redlefty said...

Great insight into your world; thanks!

Anonymous said...

I was kinda on the edge of my seat while reading at times, Bob. Great stuff.
I couldn't help but think of JFK Jr while reading and how awful that had to be when/if they finally realized his error.


Hal Johnson said...

I'm with ya, Bob. Give me fifty miles visibility, no cloud cover, and a full moon, and I'll jump at the chance to go out night flying. But, for every night like that. . .

I'd been flying nights out of Morgan City before the strike. During that time, I did get more comfortable with night flying. I progressed from muted terror to moderate anxiety.

David said...

Wow. Count me with 'Anonymous' on the edge of the seat here.
I had a particularly humourless 'client' in Teguc. The closest he ever came to humour, "Vertigo. Don't get it. If you do, never admit it."

Anonymous said...

Hey, Bob, kman here again. I have to ask you... so that flight I took from Long island to Philly, 10 years ago on a AA Eagle (prop plane for those who don't know) flight with the lightning, and thunder, and wind gusts with everyone grasping their seats, little kids crying, and the aircraft dipping and shifting left and right and rattling like crazy could have had the pilot changing his shorts when he departed the aircraft? Call me naive, but I just never thought of this. Maybe that's why they separate the cockpit and passengers with doors. :-)


Bob Barbanes said...

"...From muted terror to moderate anxiety." Heh, I like that, Hal. That's me in a nutshell at night, both, even now. I do know guys who *say* that they enjoy flying at night, and perhaps they do. I'm just not one of them.

As for vertigo, it's real and it's dangerous. I don't mind admitting that I got into it, but rest assured I never want to experience it again. JFK Jr's crash is perplexing, because airplanes in stabilized cruise flight are relatively stable, and fly pretty good by themselves if you leave them alone and don't futz with the controls. How he managed to get so messed up is a puzzle. But like I said, what our bodies tell us can be VERY convincing and very wrong. John Jr. may have just been doing what his body was telling him he *should* do, when in fact he shouldn't have. Training is one thing; real life is another. Especially when real life is a very dark, hazy night out over a body of water like Long Island Sound. You can't see anything outside the windows. Then maybe you turn your head around and reach for something- a map, perhaps? -from the back seat. And when you bring your head back around to the front...whoa-nelly! Which way is up?!

Kman, it sounds like your American Eagle crew inadvertently flew into a thunderstorm, something we are obviously supposed to avoid. If it was as you describe...lightning, thunder, the whole bit, then yes, the pilots would probably admit to being scared if you asked them privately afterward. NOBODY likes being inside a thunderstorm. Because even though the storms themselves don't rip airplanes apart (rather, it's the subsequent loss of control that usually does it if the pilots aren't really careful and good), as the pilot you realize that you're extremely "close to the edge."

In my small helicopter, the Boss always sits up front. This can be a distraction sometimes, like when I need to devote 110% of my efforts at flying the helicopter. And so yes, that is why they put doors between the cockpits and the cabin. There is stuff that the paying passengers just don't want to know, and shouldn't. But even if I could get the Boss to sit in the back, it wouldn't make much difference in our ship, as it's all open anyway. Thankfully, he knows when I need to concentrate and lets me work in peace - so we don't end up in pieces.

Anonymous said...

Hi Bob,

I've always wondered why pilots such as yourself don't invest in a pair of NVG? I'm not a pilot (yet, hopefully someday) but never understood why all pilots don't own a pair? I'm sure they're hella expensive, but wouldn't they be worth the money when you're in situations like this one you described? I assume a pilot would have to receive some training in their use though, right? What am I missing?

(By the way, I'm on Just Helicopters as Feyd934)

Great writing by the way!