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 January 2009

Air Travel and the Helicopter Pilot

Two pictures from the interweb that I found amusing.

Or alternatively...

So you've all heard about and seen the pictures of the US Airways Airbus that ditched in New York's Hudson River after running into a flock of Canadian terrorist geese. The pilots did a great job bringing the jet down on that big, long water runway, and the cabin crew did a terrific job of getting everyone out safely. They all did what they are trained to do. But how fortunate it was that this event happened in New York and not, oh, Atlanta, Georgia.

Why did the jet float? Well, there's this uncomfortable fact about airliners: They're nothing but big, empty aluminum beer cans. You're not riding in a tank. In fact, most airplanes don't have the crashworthiness of your average modern automobile. They float pretty good though!

I mean, no shoulder harnesses in airliners? The next time you click that flimsy seatbelt around your waist, give a thought about what that cell phone in the seatback ahead of you will taste like when your face rams into it in a crash. Sometimes I look up at that fresh-air vent in the overhead panel and think what a nice 1" diameter hole it will make in my skull if we ever hit some unexpected turbulence and I'm lifted out of my seat by the negative-G forces. Oh yes, it happens! And you'd better believe I keep my flimsy seat belt fastened at all times when I'm flying, whether the sign is turned on or not. You should too.

"Airline safety" is a myth. The safety of air travel comes solely through not crashing. Fortunately, they don't do it all that often. And sometimes emergencies work out okay, as in the case of the "Miracle on the Hudson!" (Can't you already see the made-for-TV movie?)

I didn't want this to turn into an indictment of airline travel. I'm just not crazy about flying on the airlines. In fact, I hate it - hate everything about it. Hate being in the back, not being in control. Hate the stupid (and unnecessary) "security" measures like having everyone remove their shoes, and leave their cuticle scissors behind (a potential weapon!). Oh, please. It just drives me nuts. In fact, if I can, I'd much rather drive.

But sometimes I don't have a choice. In a couple of weeks I'm flying out to Las Vegas for Matt's batchelor party - and I think we're taking US Airways. I hope a certain Chesley Sullenberger is our captain. Or somebody exactly like him. "Sully" was the captain of the plane in the second picture above.

We'll be flying out of Gulfport, Mississippi, which means we'll probably be taking off out over the Gulf of Mexico on departure. As we're boarding, I will resist the urge to ask the captain if he has a seaplane rating. All airline captains have probably heard that one a million times by now.

18 January 2009

Parachutes - Golden and Otherwise

Here in Pensacola, on Monday the 12th of this month we heard of the crash of a Piper Malibu Meridian in the nearby town of Milton. The Meridian is a sleek, six-seat, turbine-engine, pressurized, high-performance airplane. What was really unusual about this crash was that when rescuers got to the plane, there was nobody in it.

Piper PA-46 Meridian

It turned out that the pilot, one Marcus Schrenker of Indianapolis, Indiana was flying his Piper Malibu Meridian on Sunday night down to Destin, Florida. Schrenker was a businessman who headed up a number of those “wealth management” companies. You know, those are the companies at which people who don’t have the time or expertise to do it themselves invest their money so that they make more money. Trouble is, these companies are sometimes just schemes for the proprietor to get rich, never mind the clients. Sometimes the scam goes on for a long time before failing (e.g. that crazy Madoff affair). But when the house of cards inevitably falls, all hell breaks loose. Apparently, all hell was lately breaking loose in Schrenker’s life.

So there he was that night, cruising along serenely in his Piper Meridian at 24,000 feet. Somewhere around Birmingham, Alabama, a little more than halfway to Destin, Mr. Schrenker reported to air traffic control (ATC) that the airplane had experienced an “explosive decompression” and that he was injured. As controllers watched, the airplane descended to a more breathable 3,800 feet.

Then ATC suddenly stopped receiving responses from the pilot. So they scrambled a couple of jets from New Orleans to go up and assist. The jets intercepted the Piper, and reported that all of the windows appeared to be intact and that, get this, nobody appeared to be in the cockpit.

That would be because Mr. Schrenker had already bailed out.

The plane continued southbound at 3,800 feet. It doesn’t take a genius to see that Schrenker’s scheme was for it to continue out over the Gulf of Mexico and crash into the water. It shouldn’t have taken a genius to realize that a turbine engine, especially the type that was installed in Schrenker’s plane, is horribly inefficient at low altitude; fuel consumption is very high. To be most efficient, the Piper Meridian needs to be flown high, up around 20,000 feet to achieve the maximum speed and minimum fuel consumption.

But Mr. Schrenker was not a genius. In fact, as we would soon come to find out, he was not a particularly bright guy at all. And unfortunately for him and his grand plan, the Piper ran out of fuel before it hit the coast. Oops! Luckily, it did not crash into any houses when it came down.

Schrenker had bailed out of the plane near the town of Harpersville, Alabama, where he just happened to have one of those rent-a-sheds. In that shed was a motorcycle. After successfully landing, he hitched a ride to a motel with the local cops. He gave them his own, real name and claimed he'd been in a canoe accident. They had no reason to suspect him - his plane hadn't crashed yet. Schrenker spent the night in a local motel room (again, under his own name!), then split town on the bike in the morning, leaving a trail of breadcrumbs that Stevie Wonder could have followed.

He traveled south on the bike, ending up in a campground in Quincy, Florida. There, the police closed in. The cops were able to trace him through a wireless connection he used at the campground to send an email to a friend. Heh. Big Brother *is* watching! (They can also easily use your cell phone to track you if you're dumb enough to leave it on while on the lam.)

Bizarrely, Schrenker stuck to his story in the email, claiming that he really did have an explosive decompression, and that bailing out of the plane was “an accident.” What?! How does one “accidentally” bail out of a plane? Planes are not equipped with, and pilots do not routinely carry parachutes. Anyway, by the time the cops got there, Schrenker had already slit his wrist in an apparent - this time genuine - suicide attempt. [Edit: He failed, and is currently in the hospital.]

Now that Schrenker’s businesses have collapsed, many people have reportedly lost their investments. Schrenker, meanwhile, lived a good life: airplanes, nice cars, nice house, beautiful wife (who’d recently filed for divorce, unfortunately). Here is a picture of Schrenker in presumably happier times.

I don't know much about money. I don't have much of it and certainly couldn't tell you where would be the best place to invest yours. And if I could, I wonder if I'd be smart enough to know which company was legitimate and which was just a scam?

I fear that we are going to see more events like this, as the economy gets worse and more “money management” companies fail. I just hope that the guys who head up these companies are not pilots.

Pensacola News Journal Article on Schrenker

Fox News Timeline

13 January 2009

I Love Bonnie

My "job" is such lately that I have a lot of down time. The helicopter must be available to the Boss on a moment's notice, and he pays me well to stand-by in case he needs to go someplace. And so I do.

I'm not a fan of daytime TV. I don't watch "morning shows," game shows, soap operas, court shows, or any of the daytime talk shows like Oprah, or Ellen. But there is one show that I watch without fail.

I've already written about what a big fan I am of Bonnie Hunt. Most mornings, I do get to watch her show. It airs here in Pensacola on Fox at 9:00 am (check your local listings). Y'all know how much I love to laugh, and Bonnie does the job. I think she is just great.

Well-known TV critic, Roger Ebert thinks so too. He calls Bonnie, "...funny, direct, down-to-earth, and has real feelings." (Ebert's blog article is linked below. It's worth reading.)

Don't believe me or Roger? Check out this appearance Bonnie did on The Late Show with David Letterman in which she is talking about the the movie, "Cars," (which she was in). See if you can keep from laughing at a hilarious story she tells about her trip to the premier.

Bonnie Hunt is downright likeable. Truth be told, she's a lot like my three sisters - which is no surprise since both Bonnie and I come from large Catholic families. She is warm and funny and self-deprecating, and extremely quick with the ad-libs and one-liners. She seems like a genuinely funny person, and she sure cracks me up. And when she talks to her guests, she does seem to really care about what they have to say, not merely in how she's going to set up the next joke.

I spend an hour watching the Bonnie Hunt Show and I'm always in a better mood afterward. It's a great way to start off my day. I hope the show runs forever.

Roger Ebert's article on Bonnie Hunt

The Bonnie Hunt Show

11 January 2009

Some Helicopter Stuff!

Well, it is called "Helicopter Pilot"...

One "feature" of the Bell 206 helicopter is that it’s got this huge “bubble” windshield and no way to get heated air to it. This can be a problem. There are two little fans up in the nose that take fresh air from the outside and direct it onto the inside of the bubble, but they are ineffective at defogging. There are aftermarket kits you can install that divert air from the main heater ducts and route it to a tube along the base of the windscreen. The air arrives as a little puff from a series of microscopic holes. Trouble is, by the time it gets there most of the heat has been lost. And the volume is not great in any event.

Bottom line: Bell 206’s have sucky defoggers. Hey, what can you do; it’s been a problem with this particular helicopter for over forty years.

A coincidentally unfortunate characteristic of the 206 is its propensity to fog the inside of said huge bubble windscreen. If the ship is left outdoors and there is any amount of humidity in the air, the outside of the bubble will become opaque with moisture. If you make the newbie mistake of wiping or hosing it off, the inside of the bubble will fog instantly and solidly for reasons I do not understand. You can wipe it off before starting up, but condensation from the breath of the pilot and passengers will ensure that it is completely fogged-over again before you can say, “Dammit to hell...”

Experienced 206 pilots keep big towels with them on rainy/wet/high-humidity days. It’s fun to try to keep the windscreen clear, especially on takeoff.

We were up at the hunting camp this past week. The Boss had guests, as he does every week during the season. I was doing what I do best: hanging around, twiddling my thumbs and doing nothing...well, actually I was performing “medevac standby.” Our ship does not have the ability to carry a stretcher. Nevertheless, if one of the hunters should – God forbid – get hurt, I could airlift him out to a trauma center in Montgomery, Alabama and be there inside of a half-hour. The alternative is a long ride up a dirt road to the main road, then a twenty minute ride up to whatever general hospital they have in Selma.

On Wednesday, one of the Boss’s major clients decided to stop by for supper. They landed their corporate King Air 350 at the Selma airport. I flew over and picked up Jim the CEO and his pilot Jeremy, both of whom I knew. They could not stay overnight, so the plan was for me to fly them back to their plane after their short visit.

Around nine p.m. we went to the helicopter. Sure enough, the bubble was covered with dew. I checked and thankfully the moisture was all on the outside. However, I resisted the urge to hose it off. Jeremy and I left our doors open as I fired up, just to help keep the inside from fogging. We could not see anything out of the windshield as I began my liftoff to a hover. Jeremy was looking at me kind of funny, but didn’t say anything.

Taking off from our little hole-in-the-woods at night is tricky. Aside from our settlement at the end of the road, there are few lights, and it’s very easy to get spatial disorientation…vertigo, if you’re not extremely careful. The helicopter has no inherent stability or sense of up/down/left/right. It relies solely on me being able to determine those things. And buddy, while you might think it’s an easy thing to do, it is not. Not when you have no discernable horizon and the motions of flight mess with the feeling of gravity.

So what I do is, I stack the deck in my favor. Our inviolate policy is that we will not takeoff from or land at the camp if the night is overcast, period. Also, I’ve developed some techniques that work and keep me safe.

I position the helicopter so that all of the houses (there are about 20 plus our big, well-lit open-air barn) and various other lights in the camp are on my side. Then I circle over those available lights, keeping them in sight and using them as a reference as I gain altitude. The alternative, taking off and just blasting straight ahead would put me out over the darkest of dark places. I’d be struggling to see something and find some visual references as I wrestled with the helicopter, trying to keep it upright. It would not be fun. (No, we do not have an autopilot, although I sometimes wish we did. Or night-vision goggles.)

Once I circle up to 500 feet or so, I can usually pick out the glow of lights from other nearby towns. When I’m confident that I have enough visual references to safely continue, I do. (If not, I would merely spiral back down and land. Hasn’t happened yet because we simply do not try this on “bad-weather nights.”)

The current thinking about the start of an “off-airport” takeoff is to go up vertically until you are sure that you are above all of the surrounding obstacles – in my case, trees. Only then do you transition to forward flight. And that’s exactly what I did.

We were way under our maximum allowable weight, so the helicopter climbed smartly straight up in the cool night air with power to spare. I couldn’t see anything out the windshield, but there was nothing to see out there anyway. There was plenty to see out my side window though. I could tell that Jeremy was apprehensive; there wasn’t anything to see out of his window, so he thought this idiot helicopter pilot was just taking off in the blind with foggy windows.

Once I knew I was above the trees I gently eased into forward flight, still climbing as I circled around the settlement, which was very well lit up at that hour. Almost immediately, the moisture streaked off the bubble. And voilĂ ! we could see again. And it was a beautiful, clear, smooth night with nearly a full moon and visibility that was awesome. Flying at night really is magical. It’s amazing how bright things are when the moon is out – almost like daytime. (But my takeoff technique is the same whether it is or isn’t.)

I had explained to Jeremy what we were doing as it was happening. Even so, as we homed in on Selma he shook his head in disbelief or amazement, one or the other. It must have seemed horribly unsafe to him, and he probably thinks I’m a humongous lunatic. They sure don’t fly their big twin-engine turboprop that way.

I know that what I do in the helicopter might appear to be risky. And it is. But it is not intrinsically unsafe – if it was I wouldn’t do it. Still, I’m not sure Jeremy would willingly trade jobs with me. And you know, I honestly wouldn’t want to trade jobs with him. Such is the difference between flying helicopters out in the bush (which is really what I do) and the rest of conventional corporate aviation.

Each of our little corners of the industry has its attractions. Along with cropdusting...excuse me, "aerial application," bopping around in a basic, unsophisticated helicopter from site to site is about the last of the out-on-your-own, middle-of-nowhere, seat-of-the-pants flying jobs left down here in the "Lower 48." Hell, most days I get to fly in jeans and a leather jacket.

And I like it.

...I just wish the Bell 206 had a better defogger.

08 January 2009

And Even More Basic Instructions

You all know what a big fan I am of Scott Meyer's "Basic Instructions" comic strip. I think it's the most clever and consistently laugh-out-loud funny comic I've ever read. Matt gave me Scott's compilation book, "Help Is On The Way" for Christmas. It's freakin' hilarious. Seriously. Scott has a most warped sense of humor.

Scott often uses images of his wife Missy in his strips. He usually gives her the good lines...the counter-punches to his dumbness. She is the sensible - and more importantly - sane one, the polar opposite to Scott's male craziness.

On Scott's blog, after viewing one recent installment of the comic, a commenteer noted that Missy looks something like, well, a lesbian. He was stereotyping her because of the short hair and nerdy glasses. Here's the strip in question: (And again, if you're blind like me, you'll probably have to right-click and "Open Link In New Window" to be able to read it.)

Eh- maybe she does, maybe she doesn't.

On Scott's blog, the comments went back and forth. Missy herself even posted that she was indeed, "gay for Scott" and suggested that she might get a wig for future drawings. Bizarre, that last part.

So Scott did something incredibly clever. He took one of his old strips and redrew it. He took Missy out, and in her place he put in the image of actress Portia de Rossi. Here are the two strips, the old then the new:

This is genius on so many levels. For one thing, despite the fact that Scott wanted to portray Missy as looking less like a lesbian, Portia de Rossi actually is a lesbian. Secondly, using a strip about a running gag as a running gag is brilliant. Thirdly, the redrawn strip again shows us the little picture of Scott in the smoking jacket, which was the subject of an earlier strip and has become a running gag by itself.

And I love the play on words in this strip. In my typical obliviousness I had never before noticed the similarity between Fats Domino and Chubby Checker. Tubby Marble? Gordo DeChessbishop? Oh, L-O-L !

Too much! Why can't all comic strips be this funny and good?

Here is the comic strip with the lesbian discussion. It starts with the second comment.

And Here is where you can order "Basic Instructions" stuff, like Scott's book. Please do! (I've already got one of his t-shirts, but I really love the one that says "I'm With Embarassed" with the arrow pointing off to the side. Yep, gotta get that one too.)