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?

21 February 2008

Our Fire (ahem) Engine

Every industry has its own jargon and lingo, eh? Did you know that there's a difference between a fire truck and a fire engine? Evidently any four year-old would but I did not. A fire engine is typically a tanker truck with the intended purpose of putting fires out. A fire truck is typically the equipment hauler (e.g. ladders, etc.) that is used for entry into a burning building and the rescue of its occupants.

Now, firefighting technology has advanced greatly over the years, and things are not as simple as in 1968 when our fire engine was built. (Earlier reports had us thinking that this truck was from the 1950's but we found a data plate that revealed its true date of manufacture. It's not as old as I am, it just looks it.)

We did get a proper mechanic to come look at the truck, which you'll recall that Paul and I were not able to get started. Mr. real mechanic pulled the drain plug on the carburetor, drained out all of the bad gas, ran some good gas through it and immediately had the engine running. Made me feel like an idiot, because: a) I suspected that's what was wrong; and b) I could have done exactly that had I been so inclined. Which I was not.

Which is strange, because I usually like working on stuff and dont' mind getting my hands dirty. But the prospect of tackling the fire engine engine just seemed too daunting. I mean, what if it hadn't been something simple like bad gas in the carb? Then I would've been up the proverbial creek without a manual. And although I like canoeing, that's not a place I prefer to be.

Another company came and took the truck to their shop to work on the brakes and give it a general cleanup. Couple of days later they returned it to our office, not quite as good as new but close enough. The mechanic showed me how to get the pump working and water to come out of the hoses under pressure. Yeah, like I'll remember. To be safe, I had him also show someone who would. Interestingly, our pumper can use its own 1,000 gallon supply of water, or it can hook up to a city hydrant. It can also draw from a lake, river or pool, or hook to another tanker truck as a source. Very versatile.

Bossman was making noises about me driving it up to the hunting camp. I strongly demurred. Back in elementary school, when asked to draw pictures of what we wanted to be when we grew up, some kids drew fire trucks. I drew airplanes.

This is a truck from another era - a bad era. For one thing, it's HUGE. The steering wheel is as big around as the tires on my mountain bike. There is a power steering pump on the engine, but the wheel still takes two strong arms to turn. Which is okay, because the clutch takes two feet to depress. The "throw" on the shifter is so long (I kid you not) that the lever actually hits the dash when pushed forward, and hits the seat when pulled back. The brakes provide only mild retardation of speed. A person would have to be mildly retarded to drive it on public roads. The guys who actually drove these things to fires back in the day must have been cavemen, or pumped up on enough steroids to make Roger Clemens look like a one-time user.

Okay, so we've got our fire engine. I'm sure our camp residents will feel somewhat safer...unless they see me driving it toward their burning house. As a fireman, I make a pretty decent pilot.

19 February 2008

Nuts and Bolts

Back a million years ago when I was in radio, the owner of our station decreed that we never let the audience know what was going on "behind he scenes." We were to never describe the technical aspects of what we did. When there was a glitch of some sort, and there often were, we were not to explain it - just move on with the show. It was all supposed to be theatre-of-the-mind, and the less the listener knew about How It Worked the better.

In the helicopter, I similarly do not like to explain the nuts-and-bolts of what I'm doing, even to those, like my boss, who have some familiarity with flying. I see the looks on the faces of my passengers as they watch me go about my business. I prefer for them to think that flying is magic or something...that making the helicopter fly from here to there "just happens" by me moving these sticks around in some mysterious ways. It's dumb, I know.

As for blogging, the posts obviously don't just appear on the screen. They take some work. I know some bloggers who write very quickly, who post every day. That's not me. I labor over each post - believe it or not - until it conveys just the right thought and has the right "sound" when I read it in my head. I usually compose in Word. Then, when all of the spelling/grammar mistakes have been handled, I'll paste it onto the blogger program, format the text into this stupid Trebuchet font, insert any pictures, then send it on its way.

But yesterday morning something strange happened. I was composing that piece on going to the drag show, but I was editing it directly in Blogger, not MSWord. I knew I was going to have to go flying (and be gone for the whole week), and wanted to speed the process up a bit. The Boss called, and moved our departure time up. This meant I'd have to leave for the airport right then, and I wasn't even packed. So I closed the laptop, figuring Blogger would just save the rough draft of the post for later. Wrong - it published it! Way prematurely, I might add.

Last evening I got to the hotel here in Birmingham and settled in. Job Number One: Check email, of course. Imagine my shock to see an echoed response to the unintentionally posted Emerald City deal! Dang it, that wasn't supposed to happen. So I went in, deleted the post, finished it offline and the posted it again.

There. I've violated my own rule about not letting people behind the scenes. But it kind of ticked me off, and I felt the need to explain.

18 February 2008

Emerald City and Our Big Gay Night Out

There is a dance club called Emerald City in Pensacola. It is a gay club, but on Sunday nights they have a special called "Drink & Drown." Pay one price ($8.00) to get in and drink for free until one a.m. Also on Sunday night is a drag show. Supposedly, a lot of straight people go there on Sunday night. My friends Matt and Alisha have been threatening to take me there for some time. We merely needed a Sunday with a holiday to follow. Yesterday was one of them, today being President’s Day.

Now, let me say up front that I am not a big fan of drag shows. I don't understand them...don't "get" them. Guys dressing up as girls and lip-synching to Diana Ross songs? Not my cup of Earl Gray. It’s like karaoke, only worse, if that is possible.

Apparently though, many straight guys are enamored with drag queens. (Isn't there even a very popular one in Las Vegas?) Me, I'll never understand the attraction from either angle. First of all, I cannot fathom why any guy would want to dress up as a woman. I throw on a pair of boxers, a pair of jeans, a t-shirt and some sneakers and I'm out the door. Women's clothing (not to mention makeup!) is...complicated...at least, as executed by high-fashion divas. I guess you could say I'm a typical guy: Too lazy to be a woman.

So anyway...we get there around 10:30 and the place was empty. Not a good sign. We ordered some Rum and Cokes and received the worst example I've ever tasted. Not exactly your top-shelf brands there. I believe it was some sort of synthetic rum and possibly some generic Coke-wannabe or Mr. Pibb. Dreadful. But did we stop drinking them? Hell, no, they were "free!"

The first drag show began promptly at 11:30. There were, maybe, 50 people in the audience. Three or four performers, all aging and heavyset, with big hair and bigger boobs. One had the name of Anna Rexia and she/he certainly wasn't...anorexic, that is. The first did the requisite Diana Ross number (and gay anthem, evidently), "I'm Coming Out." How original. Straight(?) guys crowded the stage, stuffing dollar bills into her faux-cleavage. And I kept thinking to myself, “Hey guys, it’s a MAN!”

The last performer was wearing a sequined backless dress, a little number that nicely accentuated her back muscles that would put any construction worker to shame. Not very ladylike!

By the start of the second show at one a.m., the place had become quite crowded. However, due to the copious consumption of the aforementioned “rum and cokes” we were too drunk to determine the makeup of the crowd. Maybe too drunk to care. But there sure didn’t seem to be all that many straight couples that came for the drag show.

The “ladies” took the stage again, but by this time we’d lost whatever fleeting interest we had. We didn’t meet or see anyone we knew, and the “party” atmosphere just wasn’t making it. The joint wasn’t jumpin’, in other words. Or maybe it was and we weren’t. Funny how that works sometimes. The it’s a goof thing wears off very quickly. “They” say that it’s more fun in the summer, when there are more tourists in town and the place is jam-packed. Maybe. I’ll have to take “their” word on that.

So we did the only thing we could do at that point: we followed the time-honored southern tradition and went to a nearby Waffle House to sober up before driving home. The Waffle House is where all the cool drunks go after partying! In fact, Matt observed that in Pensacola, if they outlawed booze the Waffle House chain might go bankrupt from the lack of after-hours business. (I just had coffee. I don’t know how people can eat those big, greasy meals at that hour of the morning.)

Anyway, that was our big gay night out. Obviously, there’s an aspect of this that eludes me.

This afternoon I flew the Boss up here to Birmingham, Alabama where he has to be for a couple of days. I’m stuck in a motel, bored, nothing to do, a rental car at my disposal and the company credit card in my wallet. I think I’ll go out and see what kind of Monday nightlife Birmingham has to offer. Full report to follow…just don’t expect any more drag queen stories. I’ve had my fill, thank you.

07 February 2008

The Fire Truck

The caretaker of our little airport had a bad stroke recently. Alan is his name. He's a British guy, a nice guy too, with no relatives in this country. He's also self-employed, and I doubt he has the insurance coverage that will provide for the long-term care that a bad stroke requires. So he's selling off some of his stuff. Turns out Alan is quite the pack-rat and collector of things. Oh boy, does he have things!

I was on my way up to the airport today when the Boss called. "Bob, I'm buying Alan's fire truck," he said. I didn't even know Alan owned a fire truck, but I wasn't the least bit surprised.

"It's sitting in a hangar...has been for some time, I guess. Could you get the battery charged up, get it running and get it cleaned up so we can bring it up to the hunting camp?"

That's actually not a bad idea. There are a dozen or so homes at the camp, and they're all a long way from civilization. If any one of them caught fire they'd burn to the ground. Our ability to put them out would depend entirely on how much beer we'd collectively drank up to that point.

Needless to say the truck would not start despite my best efforts, which consisted of me standing around with my hands in my pockets watching Alan's friend Paul Merritt crank and crank the engine. After a while, the hangar filled up with the unmistakable smell of seriously rotten gasoline. I thought to myself, "This would make a dandy explosion if someone were to so much as, oh, flip a light switch." And what delicious irony that would be: an explosion and fire in a hangar occupied by a fire truck that was incapable of putting itself out.

My expert opinion was that the carburetor is probably gummed up. I had actually come to this opinion while I was still on my way to the airport. Gasoline goes bad, turns to varnish if you leave it long enough. Machines need to be run more than once every three years or so.

The Boss arrived to survey his new purchase. What is it about fire trucks that brings out the kid in grown men? He was acting like it was Christmas morning...excitedly flipping switches and pulling levers, climbed up into the driver's seat and of course we had to blow the siren...the loud siren...in the hangar. Oh wasn't that a treat! (We have a proper mechanic coming to get the truck running.)

Since Alan is out of commission, his friends have been filling in for him, keeping the place running. Mostly Paul. A couple others. It pays to have good friends. Young people sometimes minimize this. "I don't need anybody," they'll proclaim sourly. Oh yes you do, man, yes you do. Or you will.

Our airport normally has a lot of Navy T-34 trainers in the traffic pattern, and today, being beautiful, they were out in force. Dofin Fritts was up in his gyrocopter doing training. Two Beechcraft twin-engine airplanes, a Baron and a King Air arrived simultaneously and disgorged their passengers. Shortly after lunch a woman flying powerline patrol in a Cessna 172 stopped in for fuel. Then a brand spanking-new Robinson R-44 helicopter landed. The two guys flying it were on the last leg of the delivery flight from the factory in Torrance (Los Angeles), California to St. Augustine, Florida (over in the very northeast corner of our state). Then a Piper Cub landed! Our sleepy little Alabama airport had turned into Grand Central Station.

I volunteered my services as "line boy" and gassed-up those who needed gassing-up. Funny, it's where I started in aviation, and it's probably where I'll end up again some day...an airport geezer with stories of back in the day when *I* used to fly those choppers, by cracky... "Yessiree, I used to fly one down in Honduras, an FH1100, I think it was..." And I'll pretend to not notice the glazed-over eyes of my captive audience who'll probably be thinking, "Jeez gramps, will you just pump my goddam fuel and stop with all the yakking?"
Ah the young - no respect for age, I tell ya.

We're all hoping and praying that Alan makes a full recovery and returns to work soon. Although things had not been too promising early on, one month later he is up and walking around. The wonderful staff at the West Florida Medical Center have been pushing him hard. Knowing Alan, he's pushing himself just as hard. The human spirit is a wonderful thing.

In the meantime, I don't mind helping out where I can. Especially if it means that I'll get to crank up the fire engine and take it for a "test drive" around the airport runways. With the lights and siren blaring, of course. You know that nobody...and I mean nobody is a bigger kid at heart than I am.

05 February 2008

Autogyros, Gyroplanes and Gyrocopters

Letters...I do get letters...

"Kman" from Long Island, New York asked: "Was that a gyroplane used in the Bond movie,"You Only Live Twice?"

Yepper! It sure was. In fact, it was a relatively famous (in aviation circles, anyway) ship called "Little Nelly," built and flown by a guy named Ken Wallis. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

In the beginning, and by that I mean back in the 1920's, a guy named Juan de la Cierva was experimenting with the concept of the autogyro in Spain. His pioneering work in the field of rotor dynamics lead directly to the gyroplanes and helicopters of today.

One of Cierva's early autogyros - half airplane/half helicopter

In the U.S., the "father" of the gyrocopter is Dr. Igor Bensen. In the mid-1950's he began experimenting with autogyros. Eventually he designed his own single-seat aircraft and coined the term "gyrocopter." You may have seen the ads for the "Bensen Gyrocopter" in various magazines back in the 1960's and '70s.

In Europe, Bensen's counterpart is Wing Commander Ken Wallis, who looked at the Bensen designs and in the early 1960's began modifying them as he saw fit. (Some of Wallis's designs are quite clever.)

Gyrocopters fascinate me. On one hand I'd love to own and fly one; on the other hand I think they're goofy and impractical. But before being consigned to aviation's bin of discarded wierd designs, let's take a closer look at these unusual machines.

I could write a whole bunch of words about gyrocopters, but I'd rather let you see the video. In this case, it's another YouTube video which is really a short clip from a progrm on The History Channel. It's only seven minutes long, and it's really interesting. Enjoy!

01 February 2008

Dreams That Come True

Aviation is strange. But it's what I love about it.

I've been off most of this week. Just no flying to be done, although the Boss promises that next week is going to be, as the kids say, "hella busy." (Or maybe they don't anymore, who knows?) As for the flying, I say bring it on, baby! It's not like I'm overworked here - not that I'm complaining, mind you.

The weather hasn't been all that great. But today was crystal clear and not too cold. Even the wind died down. I went up to the airport to hang out. I swept out the hangar and (re)organized our supplies and tools. Then I cleaned the ship, and took a good, close look at it just in case we need to fly early Monday morning. I was sorely tempted to pull it out of the hangar and do an "ops check flight"...not that it needed one, but you know...[ahem]...just to make sure.

We share our hangar with a guy who builds and teaches in gyroplanes. More commonly called a "gyrocopter," this aircraft is sort of like a helicopter in that it has a rotor overhead. But this rotor is not powered, it just "freewheels." The gyro also has an engine, similar to a fixed-wing airplane. It is the engine that propels the gyrocopter forward. As it does, air passing through the rotor causes it to rotate. It is a curiosity of physics that this air passing through a rotor not only causes it to spin, but that this spinning can create enough lift to raise the craft into the air. But that is exactly how a gyroplane works.

My friend Jim Logan flying his RAF 2000 gyroplane

The technical term for the phenomenon is "autorotation." It is what allows my helicopter to make a safe landing if the engine should ever fail. In that event, my rotor will also freewheel. As the helicopter descends, air flowing upward through the rotor keeps it spinning at its normal operating rpm. I can perform all flight manuevers except one: I cannot go back up; I am committed to landing.

A gyroplane can be just as maneuverable as a helicopter, although the gyro lacks the ability to come to a complete dead-stop hover in the air like I can, heh-heh. However, gyros don't go very fast, and if the wind is strong, a gyroplane can come to a virtual standstill by facing right into it. Like a helicopter, if the gyro's engine fails, it simply descends to earth under complete control.

Anyway, there were a bunch of "gyro guys" hanging around. Two had built their own machines and were getting checked out. One, an older gentleman from Key West, Florida, had a lot of flight time in airplanes and was finding the gyro to be quite a challenge. One of his helper-buddies happened to be a helicopter pilot. As we talked, it coincidentally turned out that he had a bunch of time in the FH1100 helicopter back in the 1970s. I pointed out to him that not only was the current FH1100 factory located only about 15 miles away, but I also had quite a bit of time in that ship. Small world indeed!

So I hung around chatting with these guys, listening to their interesting stories, letting them do the talking. I've been involved in aviation for a long time, and it's neat to talk with people who've been in it a *lot* longer than me.

Then my phone rang, as usual. But it wasn't the Boss, it was a mechanic friend I've known for a long time.

"What are you doing on Monday?" he asked. "I've got a ship that needs a maintenance test flight, and..."

I told him that I might have to fly on Monday, but asked if it was possible to do the flights today? He said it would, so I hopped in the Jeep and headed over, breaking most speed limits in the process.

The ship in question was a very nice Bell 206B. Some maintenance had been done to it and the ship was freshly painted. It was about the same as our own 206B - maybe a little more plush, and a lot heavier - like, 250 pounds heavier! In helicopters, lightness is next to Godliness. 250 pounds is either one huge passenger or a whole bunch of jet fuel. With just my mechanic friend and me onboard and 90 gallons of gas, we were only slightly under the maximum allowable weight. We could've taken a box of Kleenex along. Maybe two.

I'm not exactly crazy about the paint job, but the owner picked it, so...

After a very thorough preflight inspection and run-up, my friend and I took it up for a quick "around the patch" flight. I brought her back in and set down. Satisfied that all was well, we went up again, this time on a longer flight to check the various items that needed checking. With one minor exception, everything was in good working order. The ship flew very, very nicely!

I have to admit a certain bias for Bell 206B JetRangers. I love 'em. And I especially love 'em when they're as nicely outfitted and set-up as this one. I've flown...oh, thirty or so different Bell 206's in my career. Some were nice, some were...um...not. Like any piece of machinery, a helicopter can get ragged as it ages and lose its luster. Some of the JetRangers I flew in the Gulf of Mexico were the aerial equivalent of pickup trucks. They were serviceable and safe, just not very pretty. This November Thirty-Six Mike Kilo is going to make its owner one very pleased man when he picks it up.

So all in all, a great day! I got to hang around an airport (and be slightly productive), talk to some interesting pilots, watch some gyros and airplanes (Navy T-34's) fly, then got to go flying myself. For someone who's wanted to be a pilot ever since he could remember, days don't get much better than this. And it is days like these that remind me of the boy I used to be, hanging around airports and dreaming about the day I'd grow up to be...well, me.