As I've mentioned, I spent thirteen happy years working for Petroleum Helicopters and flying around south Louisiana and offshore thereof. That part of Louisiana is very flat and mostly swamp. And when I go back to that area of the country now, as I did the other day, I always feel comfortable in the familiar surroundings - that weird sense of deja vu. In the picture above, (you can see it better if you right-click on it and select "Open Link In New Window") we have just left New Orleans and are headed sort of northeastbound to Gulfport, Mississippi for fuel.
Couple of things about the picture that you might notice if you expand it.
Yes, the instrument panel "cowl" is covered with deer hide. The boss is an avid hunter. When he suggested it, I was skeptical of how it was going to look. But the custom-interior shop that did the job really made it turn out nice by adding some leather of a complementary color to the sides and fitting the whole thing really well. It looks a whole lot better than you might assume. So basically, the instrument panel in my helicopter has more hair than I do at this point. (Mechanics who work on the ship facetiously ask if the next modification will be a set of steer horns mounted on the nose, Cadillac-style?)
If you look at the Garmin 496 GPS you'll see that we are well to the right of a direct-line course. We did some sightseeing around New Orleans before leaving. We are 35.3 miles from Gulfport and yes, we are only doing 96.6 knots (about 110 mph) across the ground. The Bell 206B is not the fastest helicopter in the sky, especially when heavily loaded and fighting a headwind.
That little grey unit just to the right of the GPS is my Zaon XRX collision-avoidance thingee. There's an antenna inside that pyramid-shaped area that can sense when other aircraft are in my vicinity (*if* they are equipped with transponders and have them turned on). It is wired so that the traffic is displayed on the GPS screen, which is super cool.
To the left of the GPS is the XM Radio "hockey puck" antenna, which gives us satellite weather (also displayed on the GPS screen) and all of the XM Radio channels, which play through our headsets. The system is designed so that the XM Radio goes on "mute" when there is any ATC radio chatter or anytime someone talks on the aircraft intercom. Sometimes, when the passengers are being overly talkative, I'm tempted to say, Will you guys please keep quiet and let me listen to "Me And You And A Dog Named Boo?"
We certainly didn't need the XM Weather to see that huge rain shower up ahead, right along our route of flight. Knowing that it was drifting to the north (i.e. to our left) I aimed for the south (right-hand) side of it. We got just wet enough to wash the bugs off the windscreen. The boss laughed, "You did that on purpose, didn't you?"
Sometimes out in the Gulf of Mexico it's hard to tell which way a storm is drifting. Choose the wrong way and it can make your life miserable. Alas, I have chosen the wrong way on occasion. Win some...
When you fly on the Gulf Coast, you deal with these pop-up rain showers and thunderstorms all the time, especially in the warmer weather. It's a little easier for us helicopters than high-flying airplanes, because I can usually see under the clouds to where the storms are and fly around them. But if push comes to shove, I can always just land. And yes, I've done that a time or two.
Here we are (above), just a little west of Gulfport, Mississippi. The area just to the north (left) of the beach highway used to be chock-a-block with houses. That was, until 2005, when Hurricane Katrina came through and dismantled or relocated them. This stretch of the Gulf Coast is representative of what you'll see for miles and miles and miles as you fly east from New Orleans across Mississippi to almost the Alabama state line. The amount of destruction is simply astounding. The place was just leveled. We've flown over remote places where there is evidence that there once was a settlement of some kind - a group of what they call "camps" down here - but not anymore. Just gone.
The strange thing is that, like in New Orleans there is very little rebuilding going on. Oh, some businesses and homes have come back, but when you drive around down here, you just don't see a lot of construction happening. And it's been nearly three years! The Mississippi Gulf Coast has been so badly damaged that it will probably never be back to what it was, pre-Katrina, in my lifetime. I don't think people in general realize just how much destruction was left in Katrina's wake. The human toll must have been unimaginable.
Finally, see that big storm up ahead? Well right underneath it is the Gulfport Regional Airport. That's where we were headed. Were headed. That particular storm was hardly moving at all (and was in fact growing as we approached), and had lightning popping out of it to boot. So I gave it a wide berth, circumnavigated well around to the south, and continued on to Mobile, Alabama instead. Stayed far enough from it that this one didn't even put so much as a sprinkle of rain on the bubble.
One thing I've always like about helicopter flying is that our arena is down in the contour of the land, not way high up in the clouds like airplane guys. I am licensed to fly airplanes too, and I do like them, and could even see myself at the controls of a big jet as it zooms off to Europe or other far-off place. Each has its own attractions, but all in all, I have preferred to be a tree-top flyer.
And I probably always will be.