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?

28 December 2009

Strange Things We Pilots See From The Air

There are a lot of military bases in the northwest Florida area. Right here in my home town we have the Pensacola Naval Air Station (summer home for the Blue Angels!), which still has active training squadrons. Nearby Whiting Field is where the bulk of the Navy’s “primary” fixed-wing and helicopter training takes place. (That’s where the newbies get their first real flight training.) Just to our east is the Air Force’s Hurlburt Field, where the hush-hush “Special Ops” squadrons are based. Further down the coast is Eglin Air Force Base. And just to our northeast in Dothan, Alabama is the U.S. Army’s Fort Rucker helicopter training base.

So there are always a lot of military aircraft flying around. And there is a lot of what we call “Special Use Airspace” we have to know about. The military uses big chunks of the sky here. There are different categories of airspace. Some of it we are prohibited from ever entering; these usually surround “sensitive” military ground installations. Some of it is restricted pretty much all the time. Others are just “Military Operating Areas” or “Alert Areas," where we know to be on the lookout for military planes and helicopters.

Enroute Charts at SkyVector.com

If you right-click on the little snippet of map above, it'll open up a portion of the FAA aeronautical ("Sectional") chart we pilot use. You can scroll in and out. You'll see a bunch of odd-shaped boxes bordered in either blue or magenta. These are all the special-use airspaces. By zooming out a bit, you can see that northwest Florida and south Alabama are just about covered with them.

As you can see, the different airspaces are "clearly" depicted on our aviation charts. But here, where so many different types of airspaces often overlap, it’s sometimes difficult to tell which is which and what type of airspace you’re in, and whether or not you should be there. It can be a challenge. It takes some diligent studying of the chart to make sure you don’t go astray. Communication with ATC is vital. The military doesn’t take incursions into “their” airspace lightly.

Destin, Florida is a popular vacation spot. Its little airport gets lots of traffic. Unfortunately, it sits smack-dab in the middle of the Eglin Restricted Areas. Graciously, the military has given us a couple of corridors through which to get there. We can get in and out, but we must talk to Eglin Approach and we must have a clearance in advance.

The north-south corridor takes us over an old training airport called Field 2. It's a big place. There’s not much going on now, although I imagine that it was hopping back during the Viet Nam days. Perhaps it dates back to the Korean War or earlier? On the ground is an old Lockheed C-130 Hercules that probably should be in a museum somewhere. Also there are two old F-4 Phantoms. These airplanes seem to be in an almost-flyable condition. However the runways are not maintained so it would be pretty tough to fly them out. I don’t think they ever will.

It's not a great picture, but I don't like flying too low over these facilities, especially if they are still in use, as Field 2 seems to be - although for what, I have no idea. (The curved thingee in the lower-left corner of the picture is the defogger vent of my helicopter.)

When you fly low, as we helicopters do, you can miss seeing the big picture. I'd flown up and down the corridor a couple of times before noticing something odd. Just south of Field 2 is a site that is now used as a gunnery range for tanks. However, it is a little unusual.

As you can see, it is very clearly in the shape of an arrow, and it must have been cut that way deliberately. It even shows up well Google Maps.

View Larger Map

I suspect that the field was originally made and used during WWII. (The buildings at the point of the arrow are fairly recent.) I have no idea where it might have been leading Air Force pilots. It does not seem to point “at” anything. The city of and airport at Crestview, Florida are well to the left of the point.

Of course, maybe it is just a gunnery or some sort of bombing range that just happens to have been carved out of the trees in the shape of an arrow. Maybe somebody knows.

24 December 2009


The weather people had issued dire warnings about this morning. Heavy rain by morning, they said. So of course, I headed out to Walmart at 7 a.m. to buy some groceries. Gene is in town, and Matt and Alisha are coming down on Saturday. Shouldn’t be too crowded early on a Saturday morning, right? Under nasty-looking skies, I wondered if I should have parked closer to the door instead of my usual spot way out on the end of the lane. But the parking lot was packed with others who obviously had the same idea as me. I didn’t really have much choice.

Although crowded, the atmosphere inside the store was mellow. People were smiling and being of good cheer, as you’d hope. I like that. Why can’t we be in this mood all year long? Also, there was a tangible sense of relief. “It’s almost over.”

Oddly, when I got to the front of the store (I shop from back to front, which is the wrong way because I don’t use a list and if I’ve forgotten anything I have to back-track) I saw a long row of empty cashiers! I walked right up to one just as the guy ahead of me was pulling away. Suh-weeet! As I left, I smiled and wished her a merry Christmas; she wished me a merry Christmas back. If anyone thinks that companies are discouraging their employees from saying “Merry Christmas,” I have not seen evidence of it happening in practice. Everywhere I go, people have been saying, “Merry Christmas!” like they mean it.

So my little Walmart experience went well this morning.

It’s been a crazy holiday season though. I see traffic accidents all over the place. Some have been pretty serious, not just your typical rear-enders. People seem to be in such a rush, so impatient, so distracted. It’s almost as if, for some people, the holiday season is just getting in the way of their lives. You see evidence of this all over. People are curt with each other, brusque even. It’s a form of expediency, I guess…our subconscious attempt to Keep the line moving. Don’t get in the way. Let’s just get out of here.

My own philosophy in times like these is to just go slow. Go extra-slow, in fact. Lines are going to be long, yes? Parking lots are going to be crowded, yes? The mall will be jammed, yes? Traffic is going to be bad, of course. So I take it down a notch. I understand that people are frazzled and stressed. So, I…me…the only one I can control…I make an effort to chill out. You wanna cut in front of me in line? Okay, go ahead if you’re in that much of a hurry. I’m not. When traffic gets backed up, I don’t get angry. I expect traffic to be bad.

Generally, I always take the time to greet people I’m about to interact with, but especially so this time of year. Look ‘em in the eye, smile and say good morning (or whatever). Make contact. Ask about their lives – not deep philosophical questions requiring long, involved answers – but just a sincere, “How’s it going in your life on this day?” kind of thing. When I leave, I don’t just walk off. I make sure I tell them good-bye, and lately, wish them a merry Christmas. I want people to see that…well…I don’t know what I want people to do. I just want to put a little human-ness back into our existence here.

People seem to like this, they respond well to it. They smile at me, sometimes when they certainly were not smiling before. That right there is worth getting out of bed for. The sad thing is that I see this not happening a lot. I see so many instances where an encounter between two people might as well have been between two machines, with neither party acknowledging the other’s humanity. It should not be this way – at any time of the year.

Slow down, take it easy. Deep breath. Life's too short. No reason to get all stressed-out. Let’s forget about everything else and focus on why we celebrate this holiday in the first place.

Peace On Earth

Good Will Toward Men

Merry Christmas!

And to you, whoever and wherever you are, I thank you for visiting with me on this blog. I wish for you nothing but the best...good fortune and joy every day of your life. You deserve it.

16 December 2009

Meet The New Boss: Same As The Old Boss

This is a blog by a helicopter pilot. I am not an expert on politics, or the economy, or anything else. But although I am as interested as anyone in current events, I try to stay away from subjects about which I know very little. I’ll leave that to people who do know what they're talking about. But a recent article by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone Magazine got me thinking. In it, Taibbi lists who’s who among President Obama’s economic advisors, and shows how they’re all connected. It’s a long article, but a fascinating read. A link to it is at the bottom of this post.

A lot of people think President Obama is a huge, flaming socialist who’s “driving the country off a cliff,” whatever that means. They ridicule his “hope and change” campaign platform, saying that the kind of change we’ve seen so far is not what we need or want. Less than a year into his presidency, many already consider it an abject failure.

Me, I’ve taken a wait-and-see attitude. I know better than to judge someone on short-term effects. Sometimes things take a while to play out. Like, oh, ten years?

In 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, Congress passed the Glass-Steagall Act (also known as the “Banking Act of 1933”). Very simply, it prohibited banks from being at the same time a commercial bank, investment house and insurance company. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time to keep these things separate and thus, to keep the overall risk for bank depositors low as the economy rebuilt itself.

In the rock’n’roll 1980’s, business was booming. Banks wanted to be more things to more people. They pressured the government to do something about Glass-Steagall. It took a while, but it eventually happened. In 1999, Republican Senator Phil Gramm, along with Republican Representatives Jim Leach and Thomas Bliley introduced the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act ("GLBA") which effectively did away with the Banking Act. A bill such as GLBA had been wanted all through the ‘80s. It was worked on in the 90's and finally signed into law by dumbshit President Bill Clinton on November 11, 1999.

And with that, Citigroup began its takeover of our economy. Well, it and Goldman-Sachs. (If you think the President “controls” the economy you are sadly mistaken.)

The repeal of Glass-Steagall was the instrument that allowed companies like Citigroup and Goldman-Sachs to become “too big to fail.” It allowed banks to, with little oversight, invest in all kinds of cockamamie things like mortgage-backed securities and the infamous collateralized debt obligations (CDO’s). It opened the doors to the sort of financial hanky-panky that uneducated boobs like me barely understand. What uneducated boobs like me do understand however is that things obviously got out of control and the economy collapsed. And by God, somebody is to blame. That "somebody" is a guy named Robert Rubin. But that's getting ahead of ourselves.

When it comes to blame, it’s easy to point at Bill Clinton, but Gramm-Leach-Bliley was mainly a Republican initiative. But Clinton did sign it. And they say that Democrats aren’t for big business! How or why he thought it would be good for the economy is anybody’s guess. Mine is that he was an idiot. I take that back- in the short term, the repeal of the Banking Act was "good" for the economy.

But here we are, ten years later and the country is in shambles; the result of Wall Street running amok with nobody watching. No, that’s not correct- lots of people were watching…and approving. Like that nitwit, Alan Greenspan who thought corporations would exercise good moral judgment and responsibility. Yeah. Uh-huh. Right, Alan, good call.

Today, a person doesn’t put their money in a simple “bank” anymore. Oh, no. Now it’s a financial services organization. Smalltown banks get swallowed up and absorbed by progressively bigger and bigger banks. Sooner later, the fish gets so big we can't let him die. He has to go on some sort of fish-life-support funded by the U.S. taxpayers.

Okay, back to Obama. People call him a socialist? Heh. Let’s look at the people around him.

Now we get to Bob Rubin. Right now, Rubin is listed as one of Barack Obama’s “financial advisors.” Let’s see why.

In the early 1990’s, Rubin was with Goldman-Sachs for twenty-six years, ending his career with the company as CEO. In 1992, Rubin was appointed Secretary of the Treasury under President Clinton. It is said that during his time at Treasury he was one of the driving forces behind Gramm-Leach-Bliley, without which Citibank would never have morphed into the giant conglomerate it is today. (So sure was everyone that Gramm-Leach-Bliley would succeed that the merger of Citicorp and the insurance giant, Traveler’s Group into Citigroup was approved before the bill even passed. Talk about a ringer!)

After "retiring" from Treasury in 1999, Rubin went right to work for…ta-da!…Citigroup where they paid him $126 million dollars over the next eight years. A cynic might conclude that this salary was a “Thanks!” for a job well-done on Gramm-Leach-Bliley.” Rubin finally resigned in controversy if not disgrace from Citigroup in January of this year, unable to survive the economic meltdown he more or less engineered.

While he was Treasury Secretary, Rubin had a guy working for him named Timothy Geithner. Geithner left Treasury in 2001, and in 2003 was named President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York where he stayed until 2009. Now here’s where it gets fun.

When Barack Obama was elected President on November 4, 2008, he appointed a former Harvard Law School classmate of his named Michael Froman to be his Deputy Assistant of the National Economic Council. At the time of the appointment, Froman was working for...(wait for it)...Citigroup. Coincidentally (or not), Froman had been Chief of Staff to Bob Rubin when Rubin was Treasury secretary under Clinton. While still working for both Citigroup and President-elect Obama immediately after the election, Froman appointed Tim Geithner(!) to be Secretary of the Treasury. Obama concurred.

A little over two weeks later, on November 23, 2008, the huge bailout of Citigroup was announced. I mean, whodathunkit!

Are there others? Oh hell yeah! When it comes to economics, just about everybody who surrounds our current President is connected either to Bob Rubin, Citigroup, Goldman-Sachs, or all three.

Who really runs this country? The people who control the money, of course. This should come as no surprise to anyone. But banish any thoughts of Barack Obama being a socialist. Obama talks out of both sides of his mouth. He says we should hold "Wall Street" accountable. Yet at the same time he will do what the bankers and his “economic advisors’ tell him to do. The really rich and powerful are not being hurt at all by this current economic burp. For them it is business-as-usual. (There is no telling where Bob Rubin will land next, but it will surely be on his feet.)

Wall Street (and thus capitalism) still rules, if that’s any consolation. The bad news is: The same people that caused this mess in the first place are still in charge now.

I don't know about you, but I don't see this as a good thing.

Rolling Stone Article

04 December 2009


It's not that I'm terrified of bugs, but I really don't like them. My last place was "fairly" bug-free. Oh, the occasional stray would waltz in once in a while but he would be swiftly dealt with. Spiders were tough to completely eradicate. Roaches...well, this is Florida...

My theory is that if you see one roach there's probably a thousand just like him you don't see. So I have a very proactive approach to bug control, inside and out. Malathion is my weapon of choice for the outside. It works! My problem was that I'd spray it so, um, enthusiastically that the pungent aroma of malathion would linger for weeks. (Well, I did mix it a "little" more strongly than the package recommended.)

This new house is absolutely bug-free. Matt and I "bombed" it when it was empty. I can go into the bathroom or come out in the kitchen late and night and be confident that nothing will be scurrying when I turn the light on.

But this morning I was surprised to see this crawling on my dining room rug when I got up:


I don't know what it is, or how it even got in the house. What I do know is that it is a dead something now. And I hope there aren't any more like him in here.

02 December 2009

Balloon-Boy Syndrome Strikes Again

Okay, normally I resist the urge to comment on the idiotic things that sometimes entrance the nation - or at least the media. Like the Tiger Woods deal. I mean, really: WHO FRIGGIN’ CARES?? If you gave the Tiger Woods story anything more than a casual passing glance, you are an incredible moron who should really get a life of your own. And I think that, truly, most of us do not give a rat’s ass about it. However, the media acted like it was the JFK assassination all over again.

Speaking of which…

So here’s the other Huge Story that everyone seems to be focused on: This couple crashed a party at the White House last week. Big hoo-hah about it…big breach of security. They could have been assassins! Or whatever. They bluffed their way in, and now they’re national celebrities, which was their intent all along. WHO FRIGGIN’ CARES??

Well…you know…like a wreck on the Interstate I could not help reading an Associated Press story about them on my Yahoo homepage this morning. The headlines was: “WH gate-crashers went without confirmed invitation.” When I saw that I thought to myself, “No shit.” Was there any question about that? The White House has already said they weren’t on the guest list. End of story? Should’ve been. NOT IN AMERICA, BABY! Even as I clicked on the headline link I knew I was wasting my time. But I'm a glutton for punishment, and I figured that if I read one story about these idiots, it might as well be that one.

And then, down at the very end of the story was this bit:

NBC's parent company, NBC Universal, also owns the cable network Bravo. Michaele Salahi has been trying to land a part on an upcoming Bravo reality show, "The Real Housewives of D.C.," and was filmed by the Bravo show around town as she prepared for the White House dinner.

(Ahhh, well that explains why I saw their ugly mugs – briefly, as I was surfing by – on some NBC “news” magazine show last night. Yay, give them some MORE publicity, NBC!)

But wait…hang on. This Salahi bimbo has merely been TRYING TO LAND a part on that reality show I’ve never heard of and will probably never watch, but Bravo was following her around with a camera crew anyway as she prepared for a party she wasn’t even invited to? And she isn’t even on the show? Oh for the love of God... Andy Warhol, where are you, man. You were so right!

There’s this big debate raging about Fox News. Proponents say it’s the only unbiased news outlet. Detractors say it’s just as biased as NBC, but in the opposite way. Let me tell you something – ALL MEDIA IS BIASED, okay? And all media sucks. The inane, incredibly stupid and out-of-proportion attention given to bullshit stories like the Tiger Woods incident and the White House party-crashers are the very reason I have such a low opinion of the mainstream media.

I may not have more important things to worry about, and I may not be able to completely avoid exposure to the media, but I absolutely could not care less about the things that seem to fascinate our news outlets nowadays.

27 November 2009

Equal-Opportunity Fun-Poking

Right-Click and Open In New Window for full effect

I'm sorry. I can't resist irreverence. Since my beloved Basic Instructions is having technical difficulties, I am forced to seek out other internet comics for my, um, entertainment.

I hope you all had a great Thanksgiving, if you even celebrate such a thing. We do and I did.

25 November 2009

Formation Flying With a Good Friend

My friend Mike Nehring stopped by in his Bell 47 helicopter the other day. Well, it's not "his" ship - he just flies it on a powerline/pipeline patrol contract. It is a beautiful example of the type, done up in a military paint scheme similar to what you see in the beginning of the TV show M*A*S*H.

This day, his patrol ended someplace west of us, and his route of flight home took him right over the Brewton Airport. So he had to stop in to say hi. I love that about flying.

Mike is a great guy and a really good friend of mine who absolutely loves to fly. He's a young, struggling pilot who's just starting his career in this crazy field. As he slowly builds his flight time up, he's already done a lot of different things. Trouble is, many of the jobs in this business are seasonal or temporary. Mike is fixing to leave Pensacola (again) and head up to Oregon for another couple of months of...whatever. He'll be flying...whatever...whatever he can get his talented hands on. In a way, I admire his adventurous spirit. In another, I'm glad I don't have to do that anymore.

Plan A was for me to jump in the 47 and fly with him back to his home base, then he would drive me back to Brewton. But wouldn't you know it, my Boss had a Plan B in mind. He needed me to fly him somewhere in our helicopter.

Mike and I fired up together, and since we were going in the same direction decided to depart the airport as a "flight of two." My JetRanger cruises at 120 mph, but the 47 can only muster about 70 or so, max. I told Mike I'd stay back with him as long as I could, but I didn't want to burn my brakes out trying, har-har-har.

As I've often said, I like watching other pilots fly - especially pilots who are really good. You can tell a lot about a helicopter pilot by the way he lifts off the ground and into a hover. Some pilots just instinctively know how to make the ship levitate as if by magic. Others lurch off the ground so awkwardly that you're not sure if you're watching an accident in the making. Mike is one of the former. The smoothness with which he flies is amazing and inspiring.

A helicopter flies by tilting its rotor forward from the horizontal, directing its energy upward (lift) and rearward (thrust) at the same time. The faster you want to go, the more you have to tilt the rotor forward. If the main rotor mast is mounted perpendicular to the airframe, the whole helicopter assumes a nose-down attitude as you go faster. It can be quite uncomfortable for the pilot as well as the passengers.

In the Bell 206 JetRanger, the main rotor mast is tilted slightly forward by design. Plus there is a big stabilizer on the tail that helps "pull" the tail down (i.e. the nose up) in flight. The end result is that the 206 can fly along at 120 mph with a "fairly" level cabin attitude.

The Bell 47 is an older design, never intended to go fast.

So here is Mikey trying to keep up with me at 70 mph.

Looks comfy, doesn't it? Imagine spending hours at a time sitting leaned over like that? I wished Mike had a camera and could have gotten a picture of my ship. The difference is quite noticeable.

We only flew like that briefly. The Boss and I had to go so we increased power and sped up. Mike reduced power for a more comfortable ride (and to pull something less than full power). But it was fun flying together, even for a short time.

One of the things I love most about aviation is the camaraderie and fellowship.

15 November 2009

Camera Shopping

My rusty-trusty Canon digital camera finally bit the dust, a victim of severe photo abuse. It’s hard being without a pocket camera, so yesterday morning I went to Best Buy and bought one of those Nikon Coolpix cameras. It's exactly the same as the old Canon, only lighter (and slower - an annoying trait of these digital cameras). I paid $199 for it ($214, including tax). From doing a little research, I knew I could have sourced the camera online for around $160, saving over $40. But I decided against doing that, and here’s why.

Retailers suffer when consumers go in, look at a product and then go home and buy it online. That bothers me. It bothered me a lot even before the internet came along.

As a motorcycle rider, I’ve always needed “things” to support the habit. You know, riding gear: helmets, jackets, gloves, rainsuits, accessories…all the stuff that goes along with riding the bike. Back in the 1970’s there used to be a number of motorcycle shops that specialized in nothing but parts and accessories. But as more and more discount catalog organizations flourished, the local stores found that they couldn’t compete. The consumer asked: Why buy a helmet at full retail when you can get the exact same helmet for some nice discount from a catalog?

Well, because it helps the local economy and keeps that store in business, that’s why. It’s only gotten worse since the invention of personal computers and the ability to click-shop.

To use Best Buy (or any retailer for that matter) for my camera comparison “shopping” and then go buy it off the internet would be unfair, I think. Lots of my friends have no qualms about doing their research in stores and then buying online. And so I imagine this practice will continue if not increase.

But what happens when there are no more retailers like Best Buy? I did not count them, but there was the usual crowd of employees running around the store yesterday morning. Where will those people work? My friend Matt works in a bank. But there are “e-banks” available now with virtually all the services of a “real” bank. The downside is that there is no physical building to visit, but honestly, how often do you actually need to go into your bank nowadays? The only reason I do is because my company cannot direct-deposit my paycheck yet. But that will change, probably soon.

Having stores like Best Buy around is worth something to me. I was able to go in there and compare a whole bunch of similar cameras they had on display side by side. And the choices are many! Initially, I wasn’t married to the Nikon, but it ended up being the one I liked best. So I bought it. They had plenty in stock. I got it the same day I wanted it, not at some point in the future.

Then there’s the tax issue. If you buy online, you usually don’t have to pay Florida sales tax, although some vendors do charge it. (Whether or not they actually remit it to the state is another story.) So the $15 in tax that I paid yesterday would most likely not have gotten to the state’s treasury.

Obviously our global economy is changing as we shift more toward buying things off the internet and not from a local store. And maybe I was foolish to “waste” the $40 I could have otherwise saved. I don’t know. All I know is that I feel better for buying this little camera from a local business, even if it did cost me more.

01 November 2009

Halloween Party

Matt and Alisha came down from Atlanta for the weekend to attend the wedding of two friends out on the beach. Getting married at sunset on the beach on Halloween night? Odd, in my opinion, but hey- who am I to judge? Why be conventional? The three of us planned on meeting up afterward.

There are nights that I don’t like to go out and party. New Year’s Eve being one of them, St. Patrick’s Day and Halloween being two others. But I agreed to meet them out at Cap’n Fun on Pensacola Beach. I got there around ten, and the place was jumping. A lot of times I’m the oldest guy in places like that. But not last night! It was a nice, diverse crowd. Everyone was in a good mood and the entire huge place had a good vibe going on. Maybe 90% of the people there were wearing a costume. Of the remaining 10%, I couldn't tell if maybe half of them were supposed to be in costume or were just wearing their usual strange getup. Kids these days...

Actually it was the four of us. Matt dressed as Yankee baseball great, Joe Dimaggio. Alisha was Marilyn Monroe. Pete the pharmacist was (a very convincing) Borat. And Bob was…well, Bob doesn’t dress up on Halloween, being the stick-in-the-mud, party-pooper that he is. No, that’s not correct; I went dressed in my usual costume…as a geeky helicopter pilot. One very inebriated little girl stopped me on the way back from the bathroom, standing directly in front of me, blocking my path, sizing me up and down.

“Who are you?”
she demanded.
I am nobody, I replied.

“Well you should say you’re Mr. Rogers!”
she suggested brightly.

I looked at her closely, trying to determine if she was mocking me or just having a good time in the spirit of the night. She seemed drunkenly sincere, so I thanked her, and laughed, and left. Heh- Mr. Rogers. Good one. Come to think of it, I should've borrowed the McGruff costume from the Sheriff's Office.

There was a band playing that called themselves Monsterprty. Without the “a.” I suspect that their name once appeared on a marquee or flier that was too small to fit the entire name, so someone decided to drop a vowel for space considerations. Either that or it was a typo that stuck. Either that or they mistakenly thought it would be clever. They were a high-energy party band that had a varied repertoire that ranged from ultramodern stuff way back to Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” which inexplicably has become something of a bar-band staple 'round here.

As I've mentioned before, Matt and I love live music. There is just something about the spontaneity and creativity of music being performed live. Over the years we've seen an awful lot of bands. And a lot of awful bands! They're usually at least tolerable, and we’ve only walked out on…maybe two bands since we’ve been hanging out. We both agreed that Monsterprty wasn’t bad. They weren’t good either, but they weren’t bad. At least they were in tune. Most of the time. And they were loud, I’ll give them that. Fortunately (or not), my hearing has been so damaged by a lifetime of flying noisy helicopters that I can tolerate the loudest of bar-bands now. At least I don’t have tinnitus. Yet.

After one of Monsterprty’s lively sets, the very young (maaaaayyyybe 21 year old) lead singer came down and was chatting up some girls right near where we were standing. I nudged Matt, “Go tell him!” And Matt, my ever-willing accomplice, leaned over to the boy and said, “Hey, you guys aren’t half-bad.” I couldn’t hear the singer’s response, but I saw his face light up with pleasure as he mouthed the words, “Thank you!”

It’s not that we like to be unkind. We don’t. In fact, we prefer to pass along positive feedback to bands we see. But sometimes we can’t resist messing with them just a little. Monsterprty may be a halfway decent bar-band, but they’re surely not the Next Big Thing. Not as long as they're content to be singing other people's songs. Bands like that generally don't have a very long shelf life. I hope that lead singer is putting money away for college.

Unusually for me, I didn’t drink much last night. Between ten p.m. and two a.m. I only had four overpriced, watered-down Rum and Cokes. The FAA is now taking the view that someone who gets a DWI cannot be trusted to obey all of the federal regulations that guide us pilots. So we are required to report to them such driver’s license “actions” (suspensions, etc.) within 60 days of the event. Some sort of counseling is usually required, even for a first offense. A pilot who accumulates three DWI’s will find himself no longer a pilot at all. I won’t say I’ve never driven drunk in the past when I was young(er) and stupid(er), but it’s sure not worth the risk now. I must be getting old.

I will close with this: If America is really serious about getting drunk drivers off the road, why do they let bars have parking lots? It's not like we go to bars only to ogle the girls and listen to mediocre bands. A lot of people go there to drink, too.

31 October 2009

McGruff Duty

So I flew McGruff the Crime Dog around all this past week while the Boss was out of town. I got roped into it last year when the Boss generously donated the use of the helicopter to the local county Sheriff’s Department while he was also out of town. They were doing an anti-drug presentation at various local elementary schools and thought it would be neat if McGruff could arrive by helicopter. My boss thought it would be neat too.

The police do this in conjunction with “Red Ribbon Week.” They've been using a helicopter to transport McGruff for three years now. Escambia County (Alabama) Sheriff Grover Smith puts the show on, and it is emceed by the capable, enthusiastic Chief Deputy Mike Lambert who does a great job. Basically, they give a couple of short anti-drug speeches, a drug-dog demo, then show a video of an exciting local police car chase filmed by one of the dash-cams.

The kids either got to see McGruff arrive or leave the school (sometimes both). I gave them a demonstration of how the helicopter can hover in one spot, then move sideways and backwards. No airshow, no funny stuff. The last thing in the world I want is to have a couple of hundred kids seeing McGruff die in the flaming wreckage of a helicopter. Oh, the headlines...

The first year, they used a local operator who is no longer around. The second year, they came to us. And when the police ask for a favor, whaddya gonna say, no?

Atmore P.D. Officer Matt Rabren and his partner, Avalon

That year, I had big “POLICE” decals made up and stuck on the side of the ship. The cops gave me a blue jumpsuit (but no gun, dammit) and asked me to give a talk to each assembly about police aviation. Like an idiot, I said yes. We were all a big hit. But when the Boss got back from vacation and heard about it, he was not pleased. He said we’d missed a golden marketing opportunity with all those potential customers (teachers) in the audience.

My phony police helicopter

So this year, no decals and no jumpsuit. I wore a polo shirt with the company logo so there was no confusion that I was a civilian. In their speeches the cops gave us props for our part in making it all happen, which was nice. I thought I could weasel my way out of giving the kids the police-aviation talk, but no such luck.

When you stand up in front of a roomful of hundred kids or so, it’s short-attention-span theatre, baby. The first year I was pretty nervous, and from their blank stares I realized that some of the things I was telling them were way over their heads, so to speak. During the course of that week I tailored and refined (and shortened) the talk. But it was hardly riveting.

This year I decided to try comedy. I’m a frustrated stand-up comic anyway, and here was a perfect opportunity. I started off making jokes about McGruff, and what he was like as a puppy…e.g. chasing his tail instead of bad guys, “taking a bite out of…” the cat, and solving the mystery of my missing goldfish by pointing out to me the tiny paw prints of the cat on the side of the fishbowl. The teachers were all laughing, but the kids still looked back at me with that now-familiar blank stare.

Finally, at the last school I decided to speak their language. “My name is Bob Barbanes,” I announced. “But my friends all call me Sponge Bob.” (Uproariously laughter.) “They call me that because I’m always sponging off them…like, ‘Hey, you gonna finish those fries?’” (Blank stare/stony silence.)

Ah, well. So I’m no Mr. Rogers or Captain Kangaroo. But I'll do better next year, you just wait! I'm working on new material, and I'll have those little bastards laughing or my name aint Sponge Bob.

20 October 2009

Balloon Boy

It’s not that I’m clairvoyant, but I am a big ol’ skeptic. I figured something was up. I mean, it didn't take a geeeeeenius to see through this one. And who names their kid “Falcon” anyway?

First we heard the alarming news that some sort of helium balloon...kind of a homemade flying saucer...had gotten loose from somebody's backyard in Colorado and there might be a boy inside it. Dear God! Edge-of-seat stuff! Another national emergency of the “baby falls down well” type we seem to do so well. News helicopters circled military helicopters who could only stand-by and do…well...nothing but watch with the rest of us.

Shortly thereafter the craft came down and lo and behold, no boy in the balloon. Did he fall out? Dear God! We were on the edge of our seats yet again. Turned out he’d been hiding in the attic over the garage all along, they said. Next, we heard that the parents had been on ABC-TV’s “Wife Swap” show.


And that they were now "storm chasers."

Publicity stunt, said I.

And that’s all it was.

The sad thing is that the boy, already saddled with the unfortunate moniker, “Falcon” will now and forever be known as “Balloon Boy.” Just say those words and everyone knows who/what you’re talking about. Ain’t the media wonderful!

My youngest sister Eleanor tweeted, “Developing…Jon Gosselin to adopt Balloon Boy in advance of new poor parenting reality show.” I thought it was funny.

But seriously, who names their kid, “Falcon,” anyway?

15 October 2009

"Catch The Wind" Again!

Two things: I heard an old song on the radio the other day and saw a new TV commercial. Both brought back a flood of memories.

Some time ago I wrote a post about two companies that used the old Donovan song, “Catch The Wind” in their television commercials. Volvo used it quite effectively; GE, not so much.

Now along comes the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company. Founded in 1851, it has long been known familiarly as “Mass Mutual.” Coincidentally, that is the marketing name they’ve taken on now: Odd how that works, eh? Of course they are more than just a life insurance company. These days, it’s the “MassMutual Financial Group.”

Okay, they needed a TV commercial. They wanted to stress family values in these troubled times, because that is what every insurance company/bank/investment company/big corporation wants you to feel when you think of them.

So the new MassMutual commercial begins at night with a shot of guy in a huge office. It must be late at night because it’s very dark outside and none of the surrounding buildings have many lights on (so it’s not just 5:30 on a winter’s day). We wonder: What kind of miserable, slave-driving company would pressure an employee to work those kinds of hours? Oh yeah – heh- an investment company! The phone rings, and the poor, overworked bastard looks down at a picture of his daughter on his desk - a daughter he probably hasn't seen much of lately.

The next shot is during the day, ostensibly the weekend. The guy is still in his office, still hard at work. But it is a home office now, and the only view he has is of his small backyard with its tiny pool in which his young daughter and a friend(?) are playing. We wonder: Was he terminated from his investment company job? A sign drawn in a child’s scrawl says, “Daddy’s Office.” Is he into Network Marketing now? Amway, perhaps? There is no dialogue. In the background, some smooth-talking voice-over announcer is saying something about decisions and policy-holders and...some other forgettable crap.

Throughout the commercial, Donovan’s “Catch The Wind” is playing. It must mean something. Is it a metaphor for the guy’s failing career? We don’t know.

If I were doing that spot, they would still show the home office and the sign his daughter made for it. But he would be in in the pool with her, not watching her play while he’s too busy “working.” And in the background, an unanswered phone would be heard faintly ringing…

I love when TV commercials use the right music, images and words. When it happens, it’s magical. Below, you can watch the new MassMutual commercial and decide for yourself whether it works for you or not. I think it is merely average, not very inspiring, and hardly magical. And alright already, I also think we’ve overused “Catch The Wind,” thank you very friggin much.

Okay, so much for that. Next, I heard an old Nick Drake song on Sirius/XM radio that I now cannot get out of my head. It was, naturally, in an advertisement where I first heard it.

So please watch what is probably the best commercial in the history of television commercials. Notice there is no narration. Notice how the people in the ad don't speak either. Notice how you cannot even see the product clearly. Notice the wonderfully appropriate soundtrack song. Notice how unlike a commercial it is and rather more like a little minature drama. But when the company's logo lights up at the very end of the spot, I want one!

I can watch that commercial over and over. One YouTube commenter called it ":59 seconds of art." And I agree! How do you say so much in quick, little shots? I love the part when you just see the backup lights come on, then the next shot is the car driving off down the road. They made their decision! I love the questions the spot raises about the relationship of the couple in the backseat: The way the boy looks at the girl early on - first date, perhaps? And I love how she looks at him at the very end. Car? It's about a car? Who car? What car?

Volkswagen has always put out creative, fun commercials, even today. But this old one for the Cabrio was just the best.

DISCLAIMER: My family has always owned Volkswagens. Many years ago I bought a white Cabriolet for my mom in California, and drove it out to her from Florida. I loved that car - I think my sister in Albany, NY still has it. And I currently own an '85 VW Camper which is (patiently) awaiting a new engine - coming soon!

08 October 2009

Too Funny

I don't often laugh out loud at things I see on the internet (other than Scott Meyers' "Basic Instructions" of course). But I could not resist posting this.

28 September 2009

People. Feh- Who Needs 'Em?

We Harley riders like to tell you that our bikes have “personality.” We especially like to tell you this when they break down and strand us out in the middle of nowhere. As mine did today.

Ah, did not know I had a(nother) motorcycle, eh? It’s a long story. A three-part story actually, which you’ll read some day if I ever could get the pictures off my old computer that died so bad that it won’t even turn on now. It’s on my list...

But I digress.

Today was a gorgeous day for a ride. I didn’t have to go up to Brewton, but it seemed like a good excuse to roll the bike out of the garage, as if I needed one. “Work” completed (hah), I was on the way home, taking the long way/scenic route as usual. We’re talking back roads. And I was just cruising along, not a care in the world…fat, dumb and happy, singing out loud.

Going down that long, lonesome hiway
Bound for the mountains and the…

Then the engine died.

Crikey! Or words to that effect.

Oddly, the engine didn’t completely quit. It kept running at idle or just a little above, but would not accept any throttle (an important piece of troubleshooting information that would come in handy). And it kept backfiring. And all my electrical devices were dead. It was like somebody sort of shut the key off. But not.

I stopped in the driveway of a farm, a million miles from nowhere. The bike continued to idle, and I did not shut it off, oh no! Over the years, I’ve learned this the hard way. When something is wrong and you pull over by the side of the road, DO NOT SHUT THE FRICKEN ENGINE OFF! Believe me, it will *not* restart. Just ask my friends Greg and Chuck about the time I got the “Alternator” light in my Jetta on I-10 and pulled over to the side to look under the hood. Out of habit, I threw it in “Park” and shut the ignition off. As soon as I did, we all three looked at each other with that, “Oh shit,” expression. I screwed up. Coulda just left it running and drove to the nearest exit to check things out, but noooooooooooooooooo. I had to strand us on the Interstate for a couple of hours. I am moron.

Anyway, lesson learned, as I said.

On the Harley today, I did not see anything obviously wrong, nor did I expect to. It was an electrical problem to be sure. But what? I knew there was a convenience store about five miles ahead, so I limped on down the road at about 15 mph, idling in second gear, which is all I could get out of it. Many things go through your mind at a time like this. Mainly, how much is it gonna cost me to flatbed this sonovabitch piece of junk home from here? $100? Probably.

Coughing and spitting and popping, I made it to the convenience store. As luck would have it there was another motorcycle parked outside. Turned out that it belonged to the slightly scary-looking bestudded and “gauged” teenage clerk inside with the unnaturally black hair. I switched the bike off and, sure enough, it would not restart. When I turned the key back on, no juice at all. It was almost as if…thinking now…the battery…had…completely…died. But that usually doesn’t happen. Plus it’s a relatively new battery.

I pulled the left sidecover off, exposing said battery. On the inside of the cover there was a little decal with a diagram that showed the negative cable from the battery and the location where it attached to the engine. Why this diagram is there, I have no idea. (Or…maybe I do now.) When I looked at the connector post on the back of the engine where the negative battery cable was supposed to be, it was empty – nothing attached to it. What the…?

Probing a little further, I found the wayward negative cable. The terminal end had cracked cleanly off, and then the cable had fallen down among some others that are clumped there between the engine and the frame. Harleys do vibrate a bit. Even modern ones. They’ve rubber-mounted the engine now to keep the vibrations away from the rider, but the engine itself still jumps around like a hardware store paint shaker.

So it was just a broken electrical connection. All breakdowns should be this easy! On the other hand, I had not brought along even one lousy tool, not a pair of pliers or a screwdriver, not even my trusty Leatherman which I usually never leave home without, except for today. As I said, I am a moron.

The store manager, a short, heavyset, pleasant woman named Kathy came outside for a smoke. She was about my age. And she noticed me standing there over my motorcycle, scratching my head.

“Got a problem?”
she asked.

“Well, it is a Harley…” I cracked. “And it is broke.”

She chuckled. “Is there anything I can do to help?” She came over and bent down over the engine, probing in a way that said it wasn’t the first dead Harley she’d ever troubleshot by the side of the road. I explained what had happened, and showed her the naked terminal post. She fished around for the cable like she knew what she was doing. And to my surprise she discovered it without me having to point it out.

“Well, what do you need, hon?”

“A length of wire would do it, I suppose.” All convenience stores these days have a selection of automotive supplies. I figured that they’d have something I could make work. I pointed inside the store. “I’ll find something in there. I needed to stop for a cold drink anyway.” I was very affecting an air of Ah can do this ma-self, ma’am, thankyouverymuch.

Kathy wasn’t having it. She marched me inside with an odd sense of urgency. She disappeared into a back office, then came right back out with some old computer power cords they weren’t using anymore. In her hands were a pair of scissors and a razor knife. “Will this work?”

Man, I laughed. I didn’t know what to say. Of course it would work! It was exactly what I needed. So I sat down at a table and in a couple of minutes had fashioned me a new wire that I was able to splice between the old, broken one and a (different) grounding point on the engine. I knew it would get me home. I went outside, hooked everything together and the bike started right up as if it had never missed a beat. I had been there less than fifteen minutes, total. I killed the engine and went back inside.

“I don’t know how to thank you, ma’am,” I said, sincerely. (Actually, I do, and I will.)

”Bahhh, don’t worry about it, hon,”
she said with a dismissive wave of her hand. “I’ve watched plenty of Harleys get worked on in plenty of strange places. Things are always vibrating loose and breaking on ‘em. You just be careful riding home.”

The absolute, incredible kindness and generosity of complete strangers is one thing that constantly amazes and delights me about people. I did not know this Kathy from Adam. Yet she jumped right in to solve my little problem as if it were her own…as if I were 2,000 light-years from home, not 20.

One of the nice things about being a motorcyclist is that you get to interact with people in interesting ways. People still seem to be drawn to and friendly to motorcyclists for some reason. And when the motorcycle you ride is a Harley, you often get to interact with them under…well, unusual…circumstances. (Although having said, that, Harleys are waaaaaay more reliable than they used to be.)

In my short, sweet life, I have had far more rewarding and positive experiences with people than bad ones. And it is these positive experiences that keep me coming back for more (or is it “going out for more?"), seeking out all the good Kathys of the world so I can talk to them, even just for a little bit.

I love people. What a dreadful place this planet would be without them.

20 September 2009

We Made Southwest Airlines Go Around

Friday night, on our way home from Pennsylvania we had to stop in Birmingham, Alabama to drop off one passenger. We found ourselves in a bit of a race. Us and the thunderstorms: Who would get to Birmingham first? This King Air has two sources of weather: Onboard weather-radar that looks forward but only at short ranges; and for strategic planning a satellite-based Nexrad weather that shows a bigger picture.

The Nexrad was showing a solid line of east-west thunderstorms south of Birmingham. In the official jargon of aviation, it was what we pilots call a “line of shit.” Like the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes, the storms were marching inexorably northbound, kicking everything in their path. From our vantage point, it appeared that we and the thunderstorms would arrive at the Birmingham Airport at roughly the same time. We watched them with concern, and formulated a plan to reverse course and high-tail it outta there to Huntsville (which was still in the clear) if we lost the race.

Approach Control kept us high…too high, really. We found ourselves inside of ten miles from the airport, still up at 5,000 feet, still hauling ass. Not a terrible situation, but at night you should take your time and fly more conservatively. Normally, Approach would have had us lower by then. No pilot likes being rushed. Ben was torn between slowing down and keeping the speed up. We couldn’t see the airport visually, because the clouds below us offered only temporary glimpses of the ground. But we certainly had it on the moving map display and could see how close we were getting.

A Southwest Airlines plane checked in on the frequency behind us. The pilot said, “…we have the King Air in sight.” So we knew that they were #2 behind us on the approach. And we knew that they were probably looking at the same weather we were. They knew that the airport was fixing to get pounded, and that our “window” was closing…fast.

Just as the Southwest pilot said she had us in sight we entered a cloud deck with rain. So she could not have kept us in sight very well. I wondered about that. We popped out the bottom of the cloud just as we intercepted the final approach course for runway 24, landing to the southwest. Ben had his competent hands full slowing down and staying on the glideslope. The King Air really puts on the brakes when you pull the power back and throw the flaps and the landing gear out. Maaaaaaarvelous plane! Things were working out nicely…for us.

Now, air traffic controllers do keep airplanes apart, you know that, but when you get close to landing things change a bit. If you say that you have the airplane in front of you in sight, then it becomes up to you to maintain a speed and separation and spacing that will allow you both to land. If you get too slow and too far behind the traffic, ATC might ask you to speed up. If you get too close, ATC might tell you that you are closing-in on your traffic and might suggest you slow to your minimum approach speed, but they will not command you to slow down. There’s a reason and I’ll get to it in a second.

Birmingham Airport sits in a big valley. As we eased down the final approach we could see the storms crossing the ridgeline just south of the airport. It was close, but we were winning. The Tower controller was squawking about windshear and stuff at the far end of the runway. It was raining pretty good ahead of the storms themselves and the runway was already wet. Final checklists complete, everything was looking good. Ben slid it on smoothly and we had good traction as we slowed.

The Runway 24 at KBHM is 12,000 feet long. Plenty of room. But the turnoffs for the FBO (fixed-base operator, or "terminal for small planes") we were parking at were using are more than halfway down. In good weather (e.g. daytime, not raining) we might have "landed long" to minimize our time on the runway. On a dark and rainy night however, you shoot a standard approach, which puts your wheels on the pavement about 1,000 feet down from the near end. This means that small, relatively slow airplanes like the King Air (compared to a 737) have a long roll-out. Tower asked us to exit the runway at taxiway H-2, which was still a ways up ahead. He matter-of-factly mentioned that there was a Southwest Airlines 737 on “short-final.” We knew the big Boeing had to be close.

Off to my right I saw the sign for taxiway H-3 and asked if we could take that? Tower said okay. But in the darkness and rain, I noticed too late that the turn onto H3 would be more than ninety degrees, and the taxiway led back to who-knows-where. On a wet runway in gusty winds and rain, the last thing you want to be doing is horsing an airplane around trying to make sharp turns while still slowing down from landing. Ben, who could see less from his side, decided to just continue down to H2, which was only slightly further ahead. I told the Tower we’d take H2 instead.

From the Southwest plane we now heard an urgent male voice. “Now!” he said. We angled over and got off the runway as expeditiously as we could. The next voice we heard was the Tower controller.

“Southwest 480, go around. Traffic on the runway.”

As we turned to get off the runway I looked back. The Southwest plane was literally over the threshold of the runway, in the flare (round-out), about to touch down. They had cut it too close on us. The Tower guy let it go as far as he could, but rulez is rulez. You can’t land if there’s already a plane on the runway.

The captain of the airliner acknowledged the go-around, and he clearly was not happy. They were probably cursing us mightily as they went by. The Tower asked them if they could just “make closed-traffic,” which is to say just swing around and come in for another landing? But the female pilot, back on the radios now, sighed and said no, they would not be able to keep the airport in sight and would need to go out and get sequenced-in again for another ILS approach. Which is what they did.

When we switched to Ground Control, I told the controller, “Well, we tried.” And he said, “Not your fault, guys,” which we knew to be true. In their haste to get on the ground, Southwest had simply followed too closely behind us. (They landed about ten minutes later – how, I do not know as it was raining and lightninging and thundering the whole time.) We got soaked just running the short distance from the plane into the FBO.

What we didn’t know at the time but found out later was that Southwest was ahead of us and originally going to approach and land on Runway 6. But storms in that direction forced them to circle and backtrack, looping around to set up to land on Runway 24, which put them behind us in the sequence. So they must have been anxious, figuring that they only had a short time to get on the ground. Any delay would cause them to have to go somewhere and “hold” (fly in a circle) while the storms passed. And then they would be faced with having to penetrate and pass through that very same line to get to the airport. Sometimes we get pinned between rocks and hard places in the air. Lines of thunderstorms can sometimes extend for 100 miles or more.

The Southwest pilot tried, but he just misjudged the spacing. We normally come “over the fence” at around 120 knots. When we were two miles from the end of the runway, we had slowed to 147 knots, still faster than normal and slowing further. The Southwest plane was now only four miles behind us and closing fast. They were doing 200 knots – more than fifty knots faster than us. And they wouldn’t be able to go much slower than that.

Ben and I talked about it in the FBO during the half-hour we waited for the storms to pass. Had we been able to fly a more normal approach profile (i.e. slower), it would have been obvious sooner that Southwest was too close. The controller would have said something, and perhaps Southwest would have increased their spacing. But they were burning toward the runway just like we were, fully aware that things were about to get ugly.

It would be great if we all flew on nice, clear days, with blue skies and birds chirping and flute music playing, when everything is easy and no tough decisions need to be made. But that’s not how it is in real life. Sometimes you do what you’ve got to do to make things work. And sometimes you mess up. We did the best we could. We did not rush or take unnecessary risks in conditions that were less than ideal. We felt badly that Southwest had to go around, but that little “deal” was on them, not us.

The rest of the flight back home was under beautifully clear, starry skies.

18 September 2009

Fish Out Of Water

I don’t like motels. But lately I’ve been spending a lot of time in them, as our airplane and helicopter venture hither and yon. Last weekend I spent two miserable days in a motel in Livingston, Alabama – which is about as far out in the middle of nowhere as you can get. Couple of days later it was another overnight in Birmingham, Alabama. Last night it was a motel in Latrobe, Pennsylvania where today our passengers are playing a round of golf with some guy named Arnold Palmer. (I hear he’s an avid pilot, but he may have some other claim to fame as well.)

Latrobe…which they seem to pronounce LAY-trobe is an interesting place. It’s pretty. I initially thought it was out in the boonies, but it turns out that Pittsburgh is only about 40 miles to the west. And while the residents of Latrobe probably think they live “out in the country,” it seems pretty crowded to me.

I grew up in New York City, but have been living in the south since 1987. A strange feeling comes over me when I come back north. It’s hard to explain. It is a subtle but palpable tightness of my gut and overall feeling of dread. I feel out of my element, like I don’t belong here.

I think it is the density of population that makes me uneasy. Things are much more crowded here in the north. Businesses are clumped together with little space between. Additionally, they are built close to the roadway, crammed into smaller lots, with commensurately small parking lots. Everywhere you look you see houses and buildings and people.

From a driver’s perspective, the roads are narrow, the lanes are narrow, and there are few turn lanes - not much space to get off the lane of traffic to turn into where you’re going. Drivers are more aggressive.

In the south things are more spread-out. There’s more room. It’s odd that I feel this way now, considering where I grew up. But being in the north just makes me claustrophobic. I could never live in “the north” again.

We’re supposed to leave LAYtrobe around 4:30 this afternoon, headed home. I’m looking forward to it.

11 September 2009

The Requisite 9/11 Post: You Say It's Yer Birthday

Greetings from Livingston, Alabama. Don’t ask me why I’m here. I’m a “corporate pilot,” and the one thing you need to know about being a corporate pilot is that you’re often called to give up your weekends. And so the Boss needed to come up here for this one. While he’s doing…whatever…I’m stuck in a motel until Sunday. In the middle of nowhere.

It’s a living.

Okay, 9/11. First of all, it's a sad day for all of us. We are a changed nation now. More angry, more paranoid, more protective, more self-righteous. More willing than ever to go wage war on anyone who threatens our "way of life." More willing to strike first than to be struck again in that way.

But secondly, today is my birthday. The terrorists have screwed-up my birthday forever, right? I know, it's trivial compared to the seriousness and importance of the day in general.

But then, why do we put so much importance on birthdays in the first place? My email inbox had numerous birthday greetings today. My Facebook page too (don’t we all have them?). A friend from PHI who I have not spoken to in years and years? Oh, and people at work were bubbly with “Happy Birthday!” Yeah, even the Boss. Even that rat-bastard Hal Johnson…whose blog I usually highly recommend but have since changed my mind…who I thought would have the decency to just leave it be just had to chime in. It seems that the more you try to ignore or downplay your birthday, the more people just have to remind you of them. Strange, that.

I turned 54 today, okay? I’m not real happy about it, and to be honest I would rather not have been reminded. Time is flying by at an alarming rate. It used to go so slowly. When did it speed up? This year has been the blink of an eye.

On this day eight years ago, I woke up, got a cup of coffee and got online right away as usual. A friend immediately IM’d me that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. Bewildered, I turned my TV on…

It probably began that way for millions of us. Everyone has their own “9/11” story.

For me, the strangest thing about that morning was the Pentagon crash. First reports were that a “car bomb” or explosion of some sort had gone off “outside” at the Pentagon. First reports were not that a plane had crashed. Only later did we learn that it was actually a plane…a big plane…a friggin’ Boeing 757 that crashed into the Pentagon.

I always thought that was odd. I wondered how people could mistake a 757 for a car bomb? Wouldn’t the first reports be that a big plane crashed into the Pentagon?

A pilot for American Airlines was enroute to Chicago when he received this message from Dispatch directing him to divert to Kansas City (the airport code of which is "MCI"):


And so call me a tin-foil hat-wearing conspiracy nut, but I’ve always suspected that there was more to the Pentagon crash than the government has told us. I don’t know what, but I would not rule anything out.

Everything changed on "9/11." It is probably unnecessary to say that generations from now, we will look back on that awful day as a major turning point in our country’s history.

Next year, if I mark my birthday at all (and I certainly do not intend to), it'll be on September 1st, not the 11th.

Whine Mode: OFF

09 September 2009

A Moving Story

Moving sucks, no two ways about it.

Couple of months ago, Jacob moved from Pensacola down to Panama City. (Thankfully my part in that process was minimal.) Then a month ago we moved Matt and Alisha up to Atlanta. Two weeks ago we moved Gene over to Jacksonville.

Then it was my turn. Matt’s suddenly-vacant house needed a tenant. I could stay living in my little dumpy apartment, OR I could slide right into Matt’s three bedroom, two bath house complete with a (drumroll, please)...two-car garage (finally!). The rent wouldn’t be much more than I was already paying. Plus, with the garage I can bring the motorcycles over and get rid of the $130/month storage shed they were staying in.

Fortunately, I don’t have a bunch of heavy stuff. So the furniture/washing machine/dryer jazz was fairly easy. Unfortunately, I have years and years of assorted crap collected…enough books and magazines to start a smalltown library…a huge record (vinyl LP’s and cassette tapes) collection, airplane and motorcycle parts galore…you name it. None of it in any kind of order. Or box.

When Matt was applying for his new position in Atlanta, he hoped for at least a little time to make the move up from Pensacola. But when he was accepted, the bank said, “The job starts Monday, take it or leave it.” So he did what any husband would do: Went to work and look for a new house in Atlanta while staying with relatives, and left Alisha behind to pack up their belongings in the old one in Pensacola. Which she did. It must not have been easy. They have two kids.

Aaaaaaaaaanyway, so they’re gone and I now have this big ol’ house all to myself. It is literally twice the square footage of my apartment. Plus, it’s got a big attic and the aforementioned garage. I’ve also got a guest bedroom and an office/computer/workout room. It’s really more room than I need. Almost makes me wish that I’d gotten married and had kids. (pause) BWAAAAHAHAHAHAH, I kill me.

As big as it is (which is great), there is also a downside to living in a house: The lawn. The goddam lawn. Matt, since he knew he was moving had not mowed in a couple of months. Here I come, and guess what, the yard looks like an African jungle out there - a waving Serengeti-like plain of sawgrass in which you could lose a small pony. Okay, that's silly, that's an exaggeration. But certainly a large poodle.

So this morning, after it was already above 80 degrees with the humidity climbing, I fired up an old, recalcitrant gas lawnmower that got left behind (Matt has a new riding lawnmower in Atlanta, of course!). The problem here is that this here house is on a big corner lot. And on a hill. It’s incredibly hard to mow – unless you’re paying somebody to do it. Which I’m not. By the time I was half-done I was about ready to have a coronary. It dawned on me why I don’t own a house.

I grew up in New York City, in apartments. I like apartments.

Back to moving, and how much un-fun it is. The moving out is bad enough. First you have to box up all your crap, throw half of it out, then get the rest over to the new place. That took about a million trips because I had done exactly none of that boxing-up bit in advance and so was not even remotely ready to move when I had the trailer rented and the necessary friend(s) present.

Okay, so you get it all moved, but then there’s the unpacking and sorting and putting things in new places. And this is a major pain too. Fortunately, this new house has tons more room to store stuff, and it is easily absorbing all of the detritus and other junk I’ve accumulated over the years. The garage is slowly emptying as things migrate to their new locations – none of which I’ll remember when it comes time to look for something important. "Now where did I put that (insert item here)?"

I hope you never have to move. I hope you’re in a nice house or apartment, in a nice location, and never have to go through the hassle of packing up and leaving. It’s such a pain in the ass that – hey, remember those books and magazines I complained about having earlier? - I just might set fire to the place and walk away next time if I ever have to move again.

Just kidding, Matt. Just…umm…kidding. Yeah. I think. I’ll let you know after I have to mow the lawn again.

07 September 2009

Health Care, Anyone?

Talk to people. Everybody has thoughts on health care. Everybody’s an expert. Everybody knows what’s best.

Except…we don’t. It is a complicated subject. There is no easy, magic-wand solution.

At least I certainly don’t know what the solution is. The only thing I do know is that every American deserves to have health care. Not “access to health care.” Don’t try to be clever and give me that semantic bullshit. This is the U.S., supposedly the most advanced country in the world. The fact that so many of our citizens do not have health care is deplorable…shameful. We must change that.

How? Like I said, I dunno.

One of the blogs I regularly read is by another guy coincidentally named Bob. I love his stuff. He is a terrific writer. Although our political views differ, he strikes me as a smart, reasonable man who puts a lot of actual rational intelligent thought into things. Thus, I respect his opinions. (And he's not even a pilot!) The link to his blog is to the right over there ------>

Bob has written a great post on the health care issue – better than anything I could ever write. Please click HERE and see what he has to say. I think you’ll agree with him. Oh, and please do read the comments too. The respondents to Bob’s blog are as reasoned as he.

03 September 2009

Changing Pilots

Well, we had to change pilots on our King Air. The first guy just hated our plane too much. His King Air – the one he normally flies – was just the most perfect King Air in the world, don’t you know. Our King Air on the other hand was a big pile of crap. He disliked our plane so much that it was causing him to make mistakes in it. So distracted was he by the differences between the two planes that he sometimes made some basic errors that could have gotten him in a lot of trouble. In aviation, accidents usually result from a “chain” of events/mistakes, starting from some seemingly innocuous ones.

Anyway, it wasn’t working out. Neither for him or for us. I knew it; he knew it. So I quietly started looking around for another pilot. There are a lot of out-of-work pilots out there. It didn’t take long for me to find one.

The new guy, by the name of Ben is in some ways the exact opposite of the old guy. Not only is he a great pilot, but he welcomes my presence in the cockpit rather than considering me an irritating intrusion. He’s flown a number of flights for us already, ironically none of them with me onboard (except for one familiarization flight the day he was hired). Until this past Tuesday. Then we finally got to fly together on a “mission.”

It was an easy flight: Just take the Boss up to Tuscaloosa, Alabama and back. About 30 minutes each way with a long wait in the middle. But it was one of the most fun, instructive flights I’ve had in a long time. (By the way, the same flight in the helicopter takes me nearly an hour and forty minutes one-way!)

We took off and got our IFR clearance, which was good because Tuscaloosa Airport, which should have been severe clear, had a low, thin, unforecast morning cloud deck sitting right over it. Ceiling: 1200 feet overcast. Tops of the clouds: 2500 feet. It would take a while to burn off. Ben flew the plane while I handled the radios, checklists and some other cockpit stuff. It’s a small thing, I know, but it felt good to be involved in the flight instead of just feeling like a passenger in the copilot’s seat.

We broke out of the clouds right at 1200 feet, and the runway was right in front of us. As it should be. “Instrument flying” in airplanes is great! So different from the hunt-and-peck method of navigation I usually employ in the helicopter, in which it is sometimes a real challenge to remain in “good” weather (i.e. enough visibility to see forward and the ability to stay high enough to not hit anything on the ground).

Ben has been terrific, generous and helpful. From the first day on the payroll he’s been giving me pointers on the fine art of King Air flying. He does things a little differently than our last pilot – and this gave me cause for concern at first – but experience has shown that his way is equally as good if not better than anyone else’s. And that’s the strange and wonderful thing about flying: Every pilot has his/her own technique; there are usually many “right” ways of doing things.

I’ve had the pleasure of flying with some awesome King Air pilots in the past. I’ve tried to learn something from each of them. Even the guy who didn’t work out wasn’t a bad pilot – in fact he was damn good! Most of the time. I’m sure that in his own airplane he was superb. He just had some issues that got in the way of his doing a great job for us. No big deal. No harm, no foul. But I do like this new guy, Ben. Fingers crossed that he works out well. So far, there’s every reason to believe he will.

02 September 2009

Flight-Physical Time

My FAA medical certificate expired at the end of August. Dang, has it been a year already? I don’t know about the rest of you, but 2009 has flown by, no pun intended.

I used to worry about taking my annual physical exam. We all do. It’s one of the few times during the year in which we could lose our ability to do something we love (not to mention that particular something is what puts food on the table). I’ve written about this before, a couple of years ago. Elevated blood sugar? “YER OUTTA HERE!” Diabetes doesn’t “fly” with the FAA. High blood pressure? Here, take this medicine FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE. We all like to think that we’re reasonably healthy, so no one wants either of those two things to happen.

I’ve been going to the same doctor for years and years now. Not that he knows me, only seeing me once every twelve months but he, his office and his staff are all familiar to me. It’s comfortable. I went in, filled out the form, hung around for an hour or so being poked and prodded and measured while chatting with the PA’s and finally the good doctor himself. After the necessary scrutiny, they handed me the sought-after form and I’m good to go for another twelve months.

Today’s exam was a piece o’cake. Makes me wonder why I sweated these things for so long? I guess as I get older, the less stressful it is to be poked and prodded. (Okay, if I'm being honest, there was one poke - or maybe it was a prod - that was not much fun. I won't go into details.)

27 August 2009

Changes, Holding Patterns, and Comedowns

I never really liked that dark blue background with the white text. Too hard to read. I noticed that a couple of other bloggers have changed their background colors, and so I figured that since it's been...what...over three years that this blog has been up, maybe it was time to redecorate - you know, spruce the place up a bit.

Or maybe it's time to put it to bed once and for all. Surveys indicate that more and more people are Facebooking and/or Twittering these days. And Facebook is much better for posting pictures. Are blogs still viable anymore?

I had done my Recurrent Training in the helicopter last week. And if I do say so myself, I did pretty well. Smug with pride at my god-like mad flying skillz, the very next day I showed up at Pensacola Aviation where I am taking lessons in pursuit of my Instrument Rating. That's the one the FAA requires you to have if you're crazy enough to want to fly inside of clouds. I never did. That's why I fly helicopters! We helicopter pilots generally fly down low, in the terrain. Smart helicopter pilots stay well clear of clouds. (You need the Instrument Rating to fly above 18,000 feet, too, which is where our King Air spends the bulk of its time.)

So my instructor, Will and I went up in this little Cessna 172. I wear a "view-limiting device." This is like a pair of oversized, opaque sunglasses with a little cut-out in them that allows me to see just the instrument panel. The idea behind flying on instruments is that you do it when you cannot see outside because of the aforementioned cloud.

The task for this lesson was Holding Patterns. This is a deal where air traffic control "parks" you over a navigational fix somewhere if things get too busy. You go to the fix and then start flying racetrack patterns in the sky. There's a procedure to it, of course. The inbound leg should only be one-minute long. If there is any wind, you have to adjust the outbound leg to make the inbound come out right.

And there was wind. Plenty of wind!

I went 'round and 'round and 'round, never getting it quite right. Eventually Will gently suggested that we move on to something else. Will is a lot younger than me, and doesn't have as much total time. I think that he's a little reluctant to criticize me when I go wrong. I can be...you'll find this hard to believe...a bit "bossy" in the cockpit. And I think it inhibits Will from being as assertive as he should be. I did warn him of this in advance. Still, he is much too deferential. He needs to be tougher on me, kick my ass some more if I'm ever going to pass the checkride.

The lesson did not end on a good note. I was not happy. The holding pattern lightbulb did not come on, and I did not suddenly "get it."

There's always next time.

But I'll tell you what: Every time I get to thinking that I'm the World's Greatest Pilot, some little event comes along to disabuse me of that silly notion.

26 August 2009

You're So (anonymously) Vain

In my post, “Going, Going…” I mentioned that when you read a lot of blogs you sometimes learn more about the blogger than you’d want to know. Such is the case with one blog I glance at. This guy purports to be a military veteran, a helicopter pilot and further, purports to currently fly an air ambulance helicopter. However these things are unverifiable considering that his blog is anonymous and the profile picture he uses is of a small, two-seat Robinson training helicopter. There is no picture of him, no email address, no real information at all. Hmm... Perhaps he doesn’t really exist?

This is the problem with the internet. You can be anyone you want to be, even if you’re a nobody. Because a nobody can be a Somebody if that nobody has internet access. Anyone can publish anything they like, anonymously. Trouble is, some people who do this want to be taken seriously.

I did not mention the name of the particular blog I was referring to, and it does not appear - never has - on the right-hand side of this page. I did say that while this blogger and I *purportedly* have aviation in common, I doubt very much that we’d be friends in real life. Reason being, his blog is not at all about flying but entirely about politics and his hatred…yes, hatred of liberal democrats. (I keep clicking on his blog in the futile hope that he’ll write something…anything…about flying, but every time I do? DENIED!) Nope, nothing about flying – just politics. He and his peanut gallery of anonymous followers truly believe that the country is on the verge of destruction (engineered by guess who?), being destroyed from the inside out. It's as radical a stance as I've seen.

Well you know you can never say anything on the internet without starting a flame war, and sure enough this blogger deduced that I was talking about him. I suppose he was feeling much like Warren Beatty felt the first time he heard Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain.” He (the blogger, not Warren Beatty) fired off a comment to my original post, then made a post on his own blog about it, encouraging his coterie of toadies to come here and make their presence known. Their responses on his blog were full of the amateur (and worthless) psychoanalysis we’re all so fond of.

I make no such assumptions about this blogger. I have no idea why he is like he is, only that from his writing he comes across as a bitter, bitter man. He does hate, and I did call him a hater, and he was offended by that. And, as internet patrons often do, he resorted to schoolyard tactics, shooting back that I’m not any different/better because I once called Nancy Pelosi a “loony.” Which I did. Which she is, let’s be honest.

To the blogger-in-question and his followers, the world is very black and white. If you don’t believe what they believe, if you’re not in lock-step with them, then you’re the enemy. That blogger characterized people like me as (and I quote), “…dispassionate ‘don’t worry, be happy’ types (who) blithely accuse others of hate while throwing stones through the walls of their glass houses, ignoring what appears to be a concerted attempt to collapse our economy.”

Wow. Please read that sentence again. “…A concerted attempt to collapse our economy.”

That’s first-rate paranoia, man. If Stephen Stills had not already written “For What It’s Worth,” he would have had to re-form the Buffalo Springfield and write it now. Oh come on, you remember:

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
Step out of line
The man come and take you away

And again, this is what I don’t like about the internet. Anyone can say anything with no recourse. People like to think that they’re being “passionate” about things. Yeah…it’s easy to be passionately anonymous when you're being critical. But that’s just immature sniping from the sidelines. I say, if you’re really, truly passionate in your belief that the country is being destroyed from the inside out…that there really is a concerted attempt to collapse our economy…then you should go out and goddam DO something about it (like, maybe get active in politics?), not whine on a blog like an anonymous little child.

Or shut up.

Senator Ted Kennedy died last night after losing the fight with a brain tumor. Never mind that it must have been a horrible, painful way to die. Never mind the career in public service that Senator Kennedy had was long and illustrious. Never mind his many accomplishments, his years of public service when he could have easily said, “Screw it!” and lived off the family money in Hyannis Port. Never mind any of the good things that the man has done in his long life. Never mind the awful tragedies he's had to bear. Forget all that. The anonymous blogger I wrote about in “Going, Going…?" Today, less than twelve hours after Senator Kennedy's death was announced, he posted a chortling: “Mary Jo Kopechne Was Unavailable For Comment.” (The post had, typically, almost no content.)


His entire blog is like that - radical, mean-spirited and nasty. See, I think people like that…people who always see the negative side of everything…those people are just miserable scumbags. You didn’t like Teddy Kennedy? Fine. At least have some decency in the man’s death. To make a comment like that is sinking to a new low. Which I didn’t think was possible. But comments like that come easily when no one knows your name.

But this is what politics has become, and what it’s done to us as a nation. It’s a form of total negativism that brooks no compromise, no middle-ground, only extreme polarization. I call it The Limbaugh-Hannity Syndrome. It makes people hate others so much that they lose their humanity.

I miss the old-school media, where there was accountability. If a newspaper reporter wrote something, he had to back it up with facts. If you disagreed with him, you knew who he was and you could challenge him directly. Same thing with TV reporters, whose integrity was put on the line every time they went on camera. Remember when CBS produced some bogus and easily-debunked documents about George W. Bush’s military background? Dan Rather (eventually) lost his job. Didn’t anybody at CBS remember that typewriters of the 1970’s couldn’t easily do a superscript font? Sheesh.

Now, there is no accountability on the internet. Now it’s all innuendo and opinion – anonymously, of course! Sure, with anonymity comes great freedom of expression. But that freedom comes at the price of trustworthiness. I do not trust anything I read that is posted anonymously. In fact, I view all of it with great suspicion. It makes me wonder why the writer is so ashamed of his views that he is unwilling to put his name to and stand behind them. (La Gringa gets a pass on this. She is in Honduras, and she is very critical of the government. She has a very real concern for her safety and maybe even her life.)

I am no expert on politics or the economy (or life, or anything else except flying for that matter), and I do not pretend to be. I am not a genius, but I’m no idiot either. Call me na├»ve, but I trust our political system and our system of government. At least I trust it enough to know that it is self-correcting, and if this Obama guy screws up too badly, he’ll be outta here! in three short years. But I am not about to jump to any conclusion that only eight months into his presidency, it is already a total failure. (Very soon we’ll have the elections for the Democratically-controlled House of Representatives. Republicans are going to be clamoring to regain some seats. We’ll see what happens, and afterward we won’t need a weatherman to tell us which way the wind is blowing then. Should be interesting!)

Yes, I realize that I'm ranting about nothing...that I've wasted my time and yours on some silly, insignificant internet thing that only gets around 200 visits per day. My own blog only gets around 50 visits per day. Neither of us are curing cancer or setting the world on fire in terms of "readership."

My name is Bob Barbanes. I am a working corporate helicopter (and King Air!) pilot who lives in Pensacola, Florida. If I write something you don’t like, you can call me on it – literally. My phone number is 850-512-2663. If I’m out flying, leave a message and I’ll call you back. My real email address is on every page of this blog.

I always encourage comments here. I don’t need to screen and pre-approve them the way some bloggers do, and I never delete them. So feel free! Of course, if you want to comment anonymously, that’s okay too. Feel, um, freer.

20 August 2009

Fun Day (Therapy)

The helicopter went in for its Annual Inspection on June 24th, nearly two months ago. There were some “issues” that came up, and the two-week inspection turned into a month-and-a-half inspection. Nothing serious, but in aviation, nothing is ever simple.

Oh well…

Two weeks ago, with all inspections and repairs done, we rolled the ship out for its maiden “operational check flight” (we don’t used terms like test flight anymore). The damn thing wouldn’t start. The cause was not immediately apparent, so the troubleshooting began. Luckily (and inexpensively) it turned out to be a bum gauge. But the process added a full week of “down time.”

Last Thursday…finally…we got it running. Our mechanic, Chris and I took the thing up for a short “shake-the-bugs-out” flight. There were none; the ship flew beautifully – just like it did before the Annual.

And then I parked it. The Boss didn’t need to go anywhere. If ever there was a good time to have maintenance issues, this was it.

Today, I had some annual Recurrent Training scheduled. The good folks at Lunsford Air Consulting were sending over one of their Bell 206 experts. He was going to fly with me, then (hopefully!) douse me with Holy Water and pronounce me good-to-go for another year. Our insurance company requires it, and it’s just good common sense.

And don’t you know, the Boss decided he wanted to fly. Today. Of course.

We are nothing if not flexible. What happened was, I took the Boss to where he needed to be, then met up with the Lunsford instructor and did the training at a different airport. Right when we got done, the Boss called and said he was ready to go home. Good timing!

So I got a good three hours of flying in today. Some nice cross-country flying, and an hour-and-a-half of show-me-what-you-can-do training. (By the way, we pilots confusingly call a “cross-country” any flight that goes from one place to another. It doesn’t mean trans-continental, but rather just from here to there - doesn’t matter how long or short of a distance.)

I don’t get “check-itis” anymore. That’s when you get really nervous with an FAA Examiner or Instructor Pilot looking over your shoulder. I mean, I’ve been at this for a long, long time. If I don’t know what I’m doing by now, something’s wrong. I know I’ve got some bad habits, and it’s always good to hear constructive criticism from an objective observer.

So the training was fun. I don’t often get to do certain things…like emergency procedures and some out-of-the-ordinary maneuvers. Flying the Boss (and his friends, family and business associates) around requires that I fly pretty conservatively. On the rare occasions when I’m by myself, I resist the urge to “play.” It would be easy to go practice engine-out landings or some such, but the risk of doing so by myself is high. I don’t like risking the Boss’s helicopter. It ain’t mine to risk, after all. The best way to do those things is with an instructor. And that only happens once a year. I look forward to it.

We did all of the usual maneuvers, and the unusual ones too. The instructor found a tiny little clearing in some trees near the airport into which he asked me to demonstrate a “confined area” approach/landing. Heh. He’s obviously never been to our hunting camp. The “little” clearing he found was plenty big enough. Piece o’cake.

I only messed-up one maneuver, the dreaded Stuck Right Pedal. In this case, we simulate what would happen if the tail rotor pedals were stuck in the full-right position (or nearly so). It is an emergency situation that is virtually impossible to occur in a Bell 206 because of the design of the control linkage (and very improbable in other types), but the FAA still has it in their curriculum and so instructors want us to demonstrate it. And so I tried. Let’s just say that we would have lived but the Boss would’ve probably had to buy a new helicopter. The not-so-dreaded Stuck Left Pedal demonstration went a lot better. It’s just easier with the left pedal stuck forward is all – you’ll have to take my word on it.

In the end, it was a full day of "flying," even if the total actual flight time for the day wasn’t all that high. I was immersed. Engaged. Back in the saddle. It had been nearly two months since I did any “real” helicopter flying, and boy, if felt good.

Although I shouldn’t be, I am constantly surprised at how much I still love flying helicopters. After all these years and all these hours of experience, and the 50- or 60,000 landings I’ve done (and that’s no misprint, I’ve done around sixty-thousand landings) - and no matter how much I say I hate it and how I’d rather be doing something…anything…else, I still get a big kick out of flying these crazy contraptions. It is what I do.

Thank God I do it reasonably well.