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?

29 May 2008

Consequences: Living Proof

I have the best job in the world. Really. I get paid a huge amount of money to do...basically, nothing. Well, very little. I have the best boss in the world, which is saying something because I thought my last boss was the best-boss-in-the-world. In other words, I'm quite happy with my current situation in life. (Oh, sure I'd rather be fabulously wealthy - wouldn't we all? - but that comes with a whole other set of issues and problems.)

So I was sitting around the airport the other day, doing nothing as usual, waiting on a call from the boss to pick him up for our little forty-five minute flight, my big work for the day. And in between one of my naps Paul Merritt (one of the other pilot hanger-arounders) says to me, "What did you do to deserve a cushy job like this? Surely you must've done something good in your life at some point." (I didn't get it at the time, but I think he was being sarcastic.)

His comment made me think. Had I done something to deserve this? It was an interesting question. Perhaps! However, it must have been something unconscious and totally unintentional to be sure.

Then I had a little epiphany. We are always told that, "Actions have consequences." This statement is usually aimed at us in a negative way, like when we do bad things and get caught. But it works for good things as well. We just don't always realize or recognize it.

I'm not sure of exactly what I've done to merit having a job like this. But I'm damn grateful to have it. We go through life, living it the best we can, the best we know how. We muddle along, doing some bad things and doing some good things. Mostly, we never see the direct result of our actions, unless we get arrested with the smoking gun still in our hands.

I'm sure my nephew with the drug problem has had it told to him over and over in stern tones that his actions have consequences. And I'm equally sure that his association of that phrase is totally negative. What he needs to learn is that there's a flip-side: that good actions have good consequences as well. They're not always apparent nor immediate, but they do occur. And this is what we must focus on.

I'm living proof.

21 May 2008

Warren and Me

I don't think I've ever told you about my friend, Warren. I grew up in the Bronx (as if I expect you all to know exactly where that is), and when I was young I had a friend named Warren Lincoln. He was an only child, and lived with his parents in a tiny apartment near ours. My parents had yanked me out of parochial school by that time, but Warren's family and mine attended the same church on Sunday. Warren was a couple of months older than me, which is a huge amount of time when you're twelve. He was blond and handsome and daring (much more so than I) and worldly and he seemed so much older and of course I idolized him. We became best buds as soon as we met.

We were going to be pilots, Warren and me. He had an unfair advantage: An uncle who owned a plane in Prince Edward Island, Canada where Warren spent two weeks every summer. So even though my dad had been a pilot, once, it was Warren who was getting to fly while I was stuck on the ground. The bastard! I was so jealous.

We used to cut school and trek out to LaGuardia Airport, back when the outside observation decks were open. We just stand and watch the airliners come and go. Then we'd arrogantly roam around the cavernous general aviation hangar as if we owned the place, unchallenged because people incorrectly assumed we were the children of some important customer. I was scared and cautious and fearful of being found out and thrown out, but Warren would readily climb into the cockpit of any of the numerous business jets and wag the ailerons and rudder at me. He was cocky, that boy, I'll give him that.

When LaGuardia was using runway 31 and sending planes out to the northwest, which was, like, all of the time, they'd come right over our Fordham Hill neighborhood. On warm summer days, Warren and I would lie on the grass in a nearby park, staring up at the sky and the endless parade of jets and prop-planes, as well as helicopters traversing up and down the Harlem and Hudson Rivers. With his aviation-band portable radio by our ears, we'd listen to the conversations of the pilots as they passed overhead. We quickly got so we could tell a Boeing 727-100 from a dash-200, with much eye-rolling and sarcastic comments from our normal friends who really could not have cared less about this Air Canada DC-9 or that Eastern Airlines Lockheed Electra.

Teenage years can be tough, and they certainly were for Warren. It was with him that I got drunk the first time, on Boone's Farm Apple Wine, which to this day just mentioning it can make me nauseous. And it was with him I smoked my first joint. Neither of these were first times for him. I never really did get into drugs. For one thing I didn't smoke cigarettes and pot is unimaginably harsh, even through a bong. Other drugs, well...the control-freak in me could never embrace the letting-go necessary to really enjoy the high. I did learn to enjoy a bit o' the drink tho! And to be honest with you, all these years later I'm not sure which is worse.

Anyway, back to my teens. Warren got much more into drinking and drugs than I did, and somewhere along the line he lost sight of the prize. We drifted apart in high school, preferring to hang with different crowds. Long story short, he died of a drug/alcohol overdose at age 22, his potential unfulfilled.

I did grow up to be a pilot, eventually flying sightseers in helicopters around New York City. Occasionally, some big-spenders would spring for an extra-long trip that completely circled the island of Manhattan and took me up over the old Bronx neighborhood. I used to look down and think about the two innocent, carefree kids with big dreams lying down there on the grass, enviously watching the planes fly over. No worries and big dreams. It was incredibly sad. And I used to wonder how and why it is that some kids let themselves be so distracted...let their dreams get derailed and let their lives get screwed up by drugs? I'd ask myself other questions too, mostly the unanswerable kind about the meaning of life and stuff that nobody can explain. Was I just lucky and Warren not? Did his parents not pray for him as hard as mind did for me?

Leaving New York this past Monday, the Delta Airlines 757 departed from LaGuardia's runway 31 and climbed out into a clear blue sky over the South Bronx. I looked down and sure enough, again I could see the old neighborhood...the apartment house we lived in adjacent to New York University...the places Warren and I hung out and watch jets such as this one fly over. It doesn't seem like that long ago but indeed forty years have passed. I pondered my own childhood, and at the same time thought about an 18 year-old nephew who is currently going through a similar rough period as Warren. Time marches on; nothing changes. I'm not sure what, if anything, I can do to influence the outcome this time, but I just hope it ends up better than last.

19 May 2008

Graduation Day

Well we made it through the graduation and after-party with minimal pain and drama. As for the pain part, why are graduation ceremonies so long? It's like they drag it out for the kids, who are probably thinking, "Come ON already! Wasn't four years of this crap enough? Let's get it over with!" At least, that's what was on the minds of many of us in the audience. Drama? Oh, you know there was some; there always is in big families. Fortunately, no blood was spilt, no one got falling-down drunk, no food was thrown, there were no blow-ups or temper tantrums and actually we all had a pretty good time. Strange...

After the party, my brother Bill and some friends and I came down to the beautiful town of Rye, New York (where I've stayed for the weekend with my sister). We went to a local restaurant that was offering what they called a "Kobe burger." According to the Food Network, Kobe beef is:

"An exclusive grade of beef from cattle raised in Kobe, Japan. These pampered cattle are massaged with sake and fed a special diet that includes plentiful amounts of beer. This specialized treatment results in beef that is extraordinarily tender and full-flavored. It also makes the beef extravagantly expensive, which is why it's rarely available in the United States."

Pampered, massaged, beer-fed beef? How could I refuse? I'm in!

Bill ordered a regular burger; I ordered the Kobe burger. The first clue was that it was not that much more expensive than a non-Kobe burger. We suspected something was amiss. And, in fact Bill's regular burger was actually tastier than my trendy Kobe one. Heh. When the guys at the mobile home dealerships try to get me to be a salesman when I'm not flying, I always decline. See, I'm not a very good salesman, but I am very, very good at being sold to. If you know your product well, and I have even a remote need (or even vague want) for it, you can "sell" me. As with the Kobe burger. Oh, plus they overcooked it. I asked for medium and they made it well-done. Bastards! (We joked that it wasn't a Kobe burger from Japan, but a burger named for Kobe Bryant of L.A.)

And so I sit here at seven o'clock in the morning, dreading the drive down the New England Thruway and over the Whitestone Bridge to LaGuardia Airport. And I'm equally dreading the two Delta Airlines flights that will take me home to Pensacola. It's been nice seeing and visiting with the family, but right now all I want to be is home.

18 May 2008

Family Reunions

I’m in New York on the occasion of what was supposed to be a family reunion of sorts. Actually, my nephew Eliot is graduating college (Fairfield University) and we thought we’d all get together. But mom sprained her ankle in California and declined to come which, at her age is understandable. My sister Eleanor is overseas…somewhere…doing her archeological thing. And my ever-missing brother Patrick is, well, still missing. I have not seen nor heard from Pat in, oh, ten years? None of us have. We’re starting to get the impression that he doesn’t like us. So the “reunion” consists only of my older brother Bill, older sister Mary and younger sister Elizabeth. Four out of seven ain’t good, but it's what we've got.

One thing about being back in New York: I never want to live here again. It is beyond me how people can deal with the congestion and crowds. I don’t know how I ever did it. But I'm in a crabby mood. It's kind of ironic but I hate flying...well, airline flying. Flying sucks. I wish I'd had time enough to drive.

So we gathered at some fancy-schmanzy restaurant in Fairfield, Connecticut last evening. There were twelve of us including Eliot’s two sets of parents (divorced and remarried), his girlfriend and her parents, and assorted other family members including one nutsy renegade helicopter pilot-brother/uncle of whom they’ve all heard stories. We drank, we ate, we drank some more – it was fun. My ex-brother-in-law Tom, the buttoned-down, high-powered attorney and one of the best negotiators I’ve ever known generously picked up the tab which must have been in the four digits. (I’ll send him a check to cover my share, which was considerable by itself.)

Eventually, we repaired to the college which was hosting a dance; kind of a final get-together for the families of the graduates. It was pretty lame, even by my low standards of entertainment. It was in this huge multi-level hall. There were three bands, each terrible, each with members as old as me. (What, no college-age kids in bands anymore?) The room we settled into had a band that was doing ‘80s music and had the requisite Elvis impersonator (Costello, not Presley). The only people dancing were old people. The college kids looked mortified. One girl’s mother kept bopping-in-place to the music while the daughter kept imploring her to ”Please stop.” It was funny. (And no, I did not similarly embarrass my nephew, if that’s what you’re thinking.)

Today is the graduation. It’s a gorgeous day, so it’ll be held outside, should be nice. There’s a party afterward, and then early tomorrow morning I get the flock out of here and back down to Hicksville (Florida, not the sarcastically-named town on Long Island). It’s nice seeing the family again. I just wish they didn’t live in New York.

14 May 2008

American Idol

So a month or so ago we were in the helicopter, flying up to a board meeting in a town about an hour away. It was me, the Boss and an officer of the company who is slightly older than the both of us. The conversation turned to American Idol. It soon became clear that they were big fans. I thought to myself, "This is pretty bizarre." I kind of stayed out of it at first, not wishing to admit that I've been watching it this year too. But eventually I sheepishly joined in, and we three pontificated for the rest of the flight about the merits of each contestant and who should stay and who should go. General consensus: "Dreadlock Boy" (Jason Castro) inexplicably lasted far longer than any of us thought he would. (In fact, he would go on to be one of the final four!)

At first it struck me as odd that we three fifty-something year-old guys were discussing a silly t.v. show. But then again, I thought back to some similar previous shows, beginning with the long-running Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour which came to television from radio in the late 1940's and incredibly stayed on the air all the way through 1970. And Star Search beginning in 1983 and running until 1995. We like seeing raw talent develop into stars, I suppose.

American Idol has been on the air since 2002. I always thought it was mildly interesting although mostly lame. With a few notable exceptions (Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and Jordin Sparks, of course), the contestants never really seemed all that talented. After season two or three I stopped watching altogether.

But the show is much better this year for some reason; the level of talent has been awesome. Having said that, from the beginning the guys did seem stronger than the girls. However, each of the "top twelve" kids has been very, very good in their own way. While it's usually been easy to see in advance who was going to win, this year it was not so obvious. As the contestants were eliminated one by one, it left a stronger and stronger group. Of the final six, there was no real walk-away-with-it-all winner - excluding the young Archuleta, who has that Paul McCartney/Donny Osmond/Nick Carter/Jesse McCartney thing going for him.

Anyway, this week it was down to two guys and a girl: the Davids, Cook and Archuleta; and Syesha Mercado. Among my friends, speculation ran wild as to who would be eliminated.

I was never a fan of Syesha's. In fact, I thought she should have been eliminated weeks ago. But strangely, she got better and better - so much so that I became a big fan and was actually rooting for her to win.

Sad to say, Syesha was eliminated last night, making it a fight between the guys. In a way, it doesn't matter which of the Davids win. They'll both go on to become recording artists, as will Syesha and yes, even Dreadlock Boy. They all deserve it - as do many of the other contestants this year.

David Cook is probably the most-talented of any contestant of any season. He's awesome, and in a perfect world he should win.

But despite his narrow range and odd voice, the giggly David Archuleta will win, primarily because of who's doing the voting. It has nothing to do with talent or musical ability. It has to everything do with the teenage girls who think he's dreamy. And they're the ones who are voting, not old guys like me and my Boss and the Exec.

American Idol one of those "water cooler" shows and is unique in that it appeals to an extremely broad spectrum of society - everyone from young kids to grownups (at least, certain corporate heads and helicopter pilots). It is a tremendous thing in that regard. The sponsors are certainly getting their money's worth.

08 May 2008

Looking Through New Eyes

In my own self-aggrandizing way, I often mention how long I've been in the flying business, how many hours I have logged, how good I am...the whole bit. I am a pilot and am quite proud of it. And I'm not ashamed to let you know, either! But flying is what I do; it's my chosen profession, my career. You should be proud of what you do, and you should strive to be the best at it, whatever the field.

As jaded as I sometimes get about my career, I never get that way about flying. I love to fly - in any kind of aircraft, it does not matter. Sometimes I'll go up to the airport just to hang out. Oh, I pretend that I'm there to "wash the helicopter" or the admittedly flimsy "check on the ship" but the reality is that I just enjoy being around airports and airplanes and airplane people. I love people who love to fly. There is a...I don't know, just "something" about them. I could use a hackneyed cliche like "a soaring spirit" and that comes pretty close. Pilots generally are not depressed, suicidal people. On the contrary, they're usually boisterous, happy, "up" kind of folks. We know what we do - we're very self-aware. And we acknowledge that we are privileged to see the planet on a regular basis in a way that very few others do.

I've written about all of this before - I'm getting repetitive. The reason I bring it all up again is because it's always fun for me to look at flying through the eyes of those who are not as old and experienced and seen-it-all jaded as I.

We share our hangar with a guy named Dofin Fritts who builds and sells an aircraft called the RAF2000 gyroplane. It's a cross between a helicopter and an airplane. It has a "conventional" engine and propellor to provide the thrust to move the thing forward. As that happens, air flowing through the rotor causes it to spin ("autorotation" is what we call it). As the blades rotate they somehow...magic?...produce more lift than the energy it takes to spin them and the aircraft flies. Since the rotor is not powered by any means other than the wind, the gyroplane cannot hover. But it can fly very, very slowly and is just as maneuverable as a helicopter, for whatever that's worth. And for some people it is worth quite a lot. They are also relatively inexpensive to own and operate compared to "real" helicopters and even airplanes.

Dofin's students are often people with no other aviation experience. They ooh and ahh over my helicopter (it is pretty snazzy, even for a "lowly" Bell JetRanger), and they talk about their aviation dreams. It is quite inspiring to from people who are not yet pilots but want it so badly. It makes me smile on the inside and outside, bringing me back to when I was at that stage of the game, when all I could think about was getting in the air and learning how to do this thing.

There is a guy who runs the Brewton Airport on weekends. His name is Jeff Youngblood. His real job is in law enforcement, but he is an unabashed airplane nut, and spends much of his spare time (too much of it, probably) at the airport. Like many, his entry into aviation was full of fits and starts - it's hard to commit the time, energy and funds that it takes to learn this properly. But he's done it, of which he can be very proud. As a hobby, he buys and sells airplanes, so far profitably (at least, he hasn't lost money on one yet). In this way he can always own and fly an airplane, even if it is only temporarily. Not a bad idea! Needless to say, he wants to pursue flying commercially. And I mean, what pilot wouldn't want to get paid to do this?

We've got a lot in common, Jeff and I. Being in law enforcement he's already fond of guns, as am I. He's also a motorcyclist, which is always a plus in my book. And he currently (if only temporarily) owns an absolutely gorgeous Cessna 150, like the one I owned only nicer (...the one I owned and NEVER SHOULD HAVE SOLD, by the way). We're scheduled to go flying together this weekend. I've flown in a bunch of airplanes recently, but it's been a long time since I've actually touched the controls of one. If Jeff'll let me, I'll try not to embarass myself too badly.

Jeff has started his own
blog called "FixedWingFlying." He is a surprisingly good writer. His perspective on flying at this point is that of someone just coming into the career. His stories are full of the joy we all feel when we're "up there"...the joy that some of us tend to forget over time.

I hope Jeff keeps his blog up. The path to being a professional pilot is full of adventure and fun. And I anticipate hearing the tales he has to tell along the way. I hope you will too.

06 May 2008

Some Interesting Flying

Been busy. Oh, it's been busy, too busy to write, it seems. Plus, the laptop has finally bitten the dust. I'd been putting off getting a new one - maybe too long. First my Windows2000 glitched, which it NEVER does. Or never did, to be more accurate. It says, "Please install Recovery Disk" which I do not have not in my possession; I don't think anyone does. Then, when I booted it up in "Safe" mode, it told me further that there is some unspecified disk error. So I guess it's good-bye old reliable and hello new-laptop and, as much as I hate doing it, upgrading to Windows Vista.

Last week, I flew the Boss up to Atlanta in the helicopter, where he met up with some other friends who'd arrived by their company King Air and they all went to a Bon Jovi concert at the Philips Arena. Bossman paid for tickets for me and the King Air pilot, although they weren't on the ground floor, right in front of the stage like his. Let's just say that at any time I expected oxygen masks to drop down. Oh well. We still had a great time. Bon Jovi puts on a terrific show. And it's funny - as much into music as I am...and as long as I've been listening to Bon Jovi...I only new about one-third of the songs. Maybe half.

Interestingly, the Philips Arena had a clever anti-alcohol-abuse policy: Beers were $6.75 apiece! Cass (the King Air pilot) and I each had two. Any more than that and we were going to have to hit the ATM, and that would have just been silly.

Here's the King Air parked at Atlanta's Peachtree-Dekalb Airport snuggled up right next to an old BAC 1-11...hey...isn't that the jet Bon Jovi uses to fly around? Yepper, sure is.

We had barely gotten back home from Atlanta when I was in the cockpit of the very same King Air, playing "copilot" this time on a flight up to Louisville, Kentucky for the running of some famous horserace (I think it had something to do with a hat). Bossman sometimes borrows the plane, and he doesn't like flying in airplanes with just one pilot up front. So he requested that I join them on the trip. If nothing else, I could act as a second set of eyes in what was sure to be a very congested area.

It was. Atlantic Aviation, the operator for general aviation aircraft at the field said they had 300 airplanes on the ground at the time of the race, and they "handled" a total of 800 airplanes that day (some came and quickly departed without sticking around like we did, and then came back later for their passengers).

And here we are, just arrived in Louisville. Check out all the planes lined up along each side of a taxiway they were using for parking. This was one of many such taxiways crowded with corporate airplanes.

Here's another view, looking the opposite way as the ground service guy tugs "our" King Air into its parking spot. That's Cass making sure they didn't ram our plane into anything.

We went up the day prior to the race. Walking out to the plane, Cass graciously asked, "Okay, how do you want to do this?"

"Uhh, do what?"

"Do you want to handle the radios? Checklists? How much work do you want to do?"
he expanded.

"Ohhhhh," I said, finally understanding. "Umm, nothing. I want to do nothing."



Look, here's the deal. Cass has been flying that King Air for something like thirteen years. Same company, same airplane. Single-pilot...as in "by himself." He's a one-man-show. Now suddenly a "copilot" was thrust upon him - one with whom he'd never flown before.

Airliners are flown by more than one pilot. It is supposed to be "safer." It splits up the workload, and adds a double-checker to make sure nothing gets missed. But airline pilots undergo intensive standardization and proficiency training in the specific duties of each position. Thus, even if two airline pilots have never flown together before, they each know what to expect of each other, what their responsibilities are, and how to conduct the flight while functioning as a team. It works.

But a Beechcraft King Air requires only one pilot. And truthfully, for a large plane it is not that complicated to operate, contrary to what you might otherwise expect. Many corporations are happy to fly with the minimum crew of one pilot. If that pilot is experience and competent, then he is perfectly capable of safely transporting the airplane and its passengers hither and yon. It's done all the time, every day of the year.

So what was I expected to do? Jump in and immediately start flying as a crew in a single-pilot plane? If anything, I would be more of a distraction. Cass would have to double-check everything I did to make sure it was correct. So it would not lessen his workload in the least, and it could very well add to it. That certainly wouldn't enhance safety. As a "good copilot," I promised not to touch, adjust or move any control or switch on my own.

I would merely be on the lookout for other planes. I did volunteer to do whatever he asked. If he wanted a radio frequency changed, I could do that. If he wanted something looked up in a reference book or database, I could do that. If he wanted a Coke from the back, I could do that too. And in fact, he did ask me to do a couple of tasks along the way (not the Coke thing though, thankfully).

When we got to Louisville, the Boss asked Cass if I was a good copilot? Cass and I exchanged a knowing look: Yes, I was; I hadn't touched anything. The Boss pressed, "Did he handle the radios for you?" - meaning, did I do all of the communicating with air traffic control? I changed the subject without answering directly.

After the Kentucky Derby was over, there was a mad scramble at the airport. Everybody wanted to leave at the same time. We fired-up the engines and joined a conga-line of airplanes that were snaking their way toward the departure runway. It was like rush-hour at JFK Airport. Only, the line wasn't moving much. ATC (Air Traffic Control) did the best they could, but were overwhelmed by the sheer number of airplanes. We spent nearly one-and-a-half hours in a traffic jam on the taxiway. Some hapless pilots spent more time than that. Wasteful? Oh yes!

See all those airplanes directly in front of us? They're not moving. See all of those business jets parked to the left and the right? They're all in the process of loading their passengers and starting their engines and will very soon be trying to muscle into the line. Notice how it's still light out? The sun is still up at this point.

The flight home was at night by the time we took off. The skies were clear and empty and smooth as glass. Flying at night is wonderful...magical! Cass and I kept ourselves amused and awake as we worked our way back south to Alabama. Toward the end of our two days together (nearly five hours of that in the cockpit), we'd gotten to a point at which we actually could have acted as a flight crew. Cass is a really great guy and a great pilot. In fact, if and when we fly together again I'll...nah, I'll just sit there like I did last time.

Now Bossman is making noises like he'd like to have a King Air of his own in addition to the helicopter. Now that would be sweet! I love flying helicopters, but you sure can't sit back and relax and let the thing fly on autopilot at 27,000 feet while you have someone hand you a sammich and a Coke from the back. Like you can in a King Air.

I do believe I could get used to flying something like that!