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?

26 March 2009

What I Know About The Economy: Nothing

Remember recently when everybody just *knew* that oil was going to go to $200 per barrel? And that $4.00/gallon gasoline was here to stay? The little “gadget” on the side of my Windows Vista screen tells me that Light Sweet Crude is trading for $53.78 as I write this. Gasoline prices, which had fallen precipitously when oil went into the $30/bbl range, have crept back up to just under $2.00. And they’ve stayed there as oil migrated back up through the $40’s and now into the $50’s.

This tells me that our former assumption that the cost of gasoline was inextricably tied to the price of oil is simply wrong. Gasoline is just another manipulated commodity. Someone…somewhere…has decided that Americans can exist quite acceptably on $2.00/gallon gasoline.

And so we are.

Remember last summer when the “expert” talking heads on the cable financial networks were all predicting that the housing market had “reached the bottom” and things would start to get better? But they didn't. In fact, they got worse. Much worse, which I don't even have to tell you.

People don’t know shit.

And now, just about everybody has criticism for President Obama’s economic-recovery plan. Everybody knows better…everybody knows and will tell you with great authority what Obama should be doing and what he shouldn’t. They speak as if Obama is a complete and utter moron who has no friggin’ idea of what to do, and in any case has no advisors with any practical business knowledge whatsoever to offer advice. Democrats and Republicans alike criticize Obama’s economic plans with uniform vitriol. The man cannot do anything right. Or so it seems.

I am one person who has no opinion on this subject. I literally have no idea about what is going to happen. Or what “should” happen. Yes, my 401k is in the tank, mostly because I put my money into fairly aggressive funds, instead of the one-third stocks/one-third bonds/one-third cash ratio my boss advocates (or something like that). And it’s been successful for him, I might add; he says his 401k is doing well and has not lost any money.

But no matter who you talk to, people are just convinced that the president is not doing the right thing. Along with their criticisms, they offer all kinds of suggestions about this or that:

GM should just go bankrupt.
GM is too big to fail and would irreparably damage the economy.
AIG should just go bankrupt.
AIG is too big to fail.

Yadda. Yadda. Yadda.

Look, I might not be highly edumacated, but I’m not an idiot. I’ve studied the various theories and schools of economics (e.g. Adam Smith, Keynesian, Chicago, Marxism) and I’ll admit that I don’t understand crap about them. Microeconomics, macroeconomics…feh- who can say they truly understand all that mess as it applies to our world today?

And I’ll tell you something else: All these economic theories are probably right and wrong to some degree. In a complicated global economy, I don’t think that one theory rules supreme over another. Nothing happens in perfect laboratory conditions, and there are always variables that people don’t consider. Like those economic pundits on CNBC last summer. Boy, were they wrong! (Yet they blather on today unabated.)

Remember when former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan admitted that he screwed-up? After the fact, of course…after he was no longer in his Wizard of Oz-like position. If you recall, Greenspan said that many of his decisions were based on the premise…his belief that corporations (i.e. banks) would do the right thing for their investors (and by extension, employees and customers). This is an astounding bit of naiveté, causing one (meaning me) to wonder if Greenspan was perhaps senile during his 16-year tenure as head of the Fed? Or was he just stupid? At very least, he was asleep during the 1970’s and 80’s.

Ahh - it is much too simplistic and extremely unfair to lay the entire blame for the country’s current economic woes on the slumped shoulders of Alan Greenspan. But if he was wrong in his assumptions about free markets and the economy in general, then what are we puny citizens to make of this? Do we think we know better than theses so-called experts?

I have a job. I have more money coming in each month than goes out. I am living my life normally. I’m holding off on buying that new car…waiting to see which car companies survive and which ones fail. (Good time to buy a Pontiac or a Saturn or a Chrysler? I think not!) Yes, I am “hoarding” cash but I haven’t reduced my 401k contributions in the hope that I’ll live long enough for the markets to recover.

People often try to engage me in these harumphy, ”Look what that Obama is trying to do NOW!” conversations. I always throw up my hands and stop them. Read my lips: I…do…not…care. I don’t have any control over that, and I’m not going to worry about or lose any sleep over it. I am not angry or frustrated. And I cannot predict the future any more than Alan Greenspan can. If Obama cannot do what he promised during the campaign – if he cannot even begin to bring the economy around, then he’ll be a one-term president. And we’ll go from there.

24 March 2009

Flying For a Living

Well I finally found out how the normal people live this morning. I joined the early “rush-hour” commute into Pensacola for a change. At six-thirty I was coming through the town of Pace, turning west onto Highway 90 to cross Escambia Bay to the big city. I was among the teeming masses who were playing Demolition Derby, all hell-bent on getting where they were going as fast as humanly possible. The sun wasn’t even up yet. Oh, it was a trip, man.

Trouble was, I’d been up since before three a.m., already been up to the airport, already flown the boss, already put the helicopter away and was headed back home.

I often look at people with normal jobs and wonder how it was that I ever chose this crazy career in aviation? Or did it choose me? I’m not really sure.

I have plenty of friends who work Monday through Friday and then have the weekend off. Nice, normal lives where they’re home and sleep in their own bed every night…nice, predictable lives in which can plan outings and holidays and vacations well in advance and stick to them.

Instead, I’m always leaving my house at 0-dark-thirty, long before dawn, driving the opposite direction of the few cars out on the road at that hour to some deserted, godforsaken airport where I’ll drag the helicopter out of the hangar and take off for…who knows where, sometimes? Or I’ll be straggling in the door well after midnight. Sometimes both in the same day!

I don’t work much, but when I do it often involves very early morning departures or very late arrivals back at base. Long days spent cooling my heels at some airport or, more frequently, some remote site out in the middle of nowhere. I’ve worked more weekends and holidays than I’d care to admit (like this past New Year’s Eve and Day), and I’ve spent a fair amount of time on overnight trips with the boss.

We had just such an overnight trip planned last week. It was supposed to be just one night away from home. But I know my boss. I packed for three nights, just in case.

On Tuesday morning, we took off early, bound for Eufaula, Alabama – or so I thought. After we’d been airborne for a bit, the boss casually mentioned what he’d be doing in Dothan that day.

“Dothan?” I said, a little puzzled. Chuckling, I reached up to change the destination in the GPS. Luckily Dothan and Eufaula are not that far apart and it only required a small course correction.

"Bob, you’re supposed to be able to read my mind by now," he chided me, grinning. "Sorry, I guess I forgot to tell you."

Eh- He’d also forgotten to tell me that our itinerary had completely changed, making it fortunate that I’d brought along multiple sets of underwear and socks. On the other hand, I don’t nail him down to an itinerary in advance. His life is just much too fluid. Most of the time, he just gives me our first destination so I know how much fuel to put on, then we go from there. It works for us.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. I get paid very well to do very little. And the fringe benefits are terrific. It’s just that the schedule is a little…well…"irregular." It’s been that way since I got into aviation full-time back in 1982.

That’s just the way it is, the nature of this crazy industry. If you cannot be flexible…if you cannot go with the flow and be open for changes on-the-fly, you’re not going to enjoy this job very much. I know some people for whom this type of thing would drive them nuts. Fortunately, it does not bother me. Like I said, I’ve learned to pack extra clothes.

The Tuesday morning we left for Eufaula? I got home Thursday evening.

22 March 2009

More "I Hate The News Media"

Here is why I am sick of the news media in this country:

A plane crashed on Sunday in Butte, Montana. Apparently, all fourteen people aboard the plane were killed. This is a little odd, and a bit of a problem because the plane, a Pilatus PC-12, is only certified to carry a total of eleven people including the pilot. Such a high-density seating configuration is kind of unusual. Most PC-12s are configured to carry six passengers plus two in the cockpit.

The Pilatus PC-12 is a single-engine turboprop airplane powered. It has a huge cabin that is nearly the same size as a Beechcraft King Air 200, and uses basically the same engine - but just one of them, compared to two as in the King Air.

Pilatus PC-12

Seating diagram. The two pilot seats to the left of the entrance door are omitted for clarity

High-Density Seating Configuration (9 passengers plus 2 pilots)

Can more than one person occupy a single seat? The FAA does allow an adult to hold an otherwise unrestrained child as long as that child is under two years old. So there will have to be some splanin’ to do just if there actually were fourteen people aboard this aircraft.

But that’s not what’s bugging me today. Last night I read about the story on Yahoo News. Evidently it was a feed from the Associated Press. The story was filed just a few hours after the crash occurred. Here is part of what was written:

"The plane was registered to Eagle Cap Leasing Inc. in Enterprise, Ore, (FAA spokeman) Fergus said. He didn’t know who was operating the plane.

X.XXXXXX is listed in Oregon corporate records as Eagle Cap’s president. Attempts to reach him by phone were unsuccessful."

You bet your ass they were unsuccessful. Sooooo…these morons from the Associated Press actually managed to ferret out the phone number for the head of Eagle Cap Leasing and called him on a Sunday right after the plane his company owns was involved in a fatal crash? And the guy had the gall to not answer his phone? Gee, ya think? (Turns out that that head of the company is also a pilot and was possibly in the plane at the time - although this has not been yet confirmed by the FAA.)

Look, let me tell you something. If I am ever involved – even just peripherally - in a fatal aircraft crash and you try to contact me ON THE DAY OF THE ACCIDENT (especially on a Sunday?)…if you should somehow get through to me, Mr. Associated Press reporter, I believe you’re not going to like what you hear. If you ever say something to me like,
”Gee, Mr. Barbanes, I know you’ve just suffered through a horrible, tragic accident, but can you tell us what happened? Can you give us a statement? After all, Associated Press readers want…hell, NEED to know!” My statement will be along the lines of where you can stick your microphone and notepad. You will get nothing printable or quotable from me. And that goes for you too, Mr. Fox News, and you Mr. CNN, and you, Ms. Local News Station too.

Why does the media in this country feel like they just have…like it is their God-given right…to invade the privacy of people immediately after such tragedies? And on a weekend yet! No matter what the subject or situation is, the media feels obligated to “get the story!” Get that soundbite! And when they can’t, they cop an attitude. The old, damning, accusatory, ”…Attempts to reach Mr. X by phone were unsuccessful.” As if to say, “The nerve of him…not talking to us!”

Screw you.

Being a news reporter used to be an honorable profession. No more. These all-news TV channels are not necessarily a good thing. As my friend Mike Brady says, ”They have three minutes of real news that they have to cram into 30 minutes of air time.” You got that right, Mike.

In this day of round-the-clock, “wall-to-wall” news coverage, networks are desperate for anything they can put on the air…even if it might not actually qualify as “news”…even if they have to make it up…or even if it means harassing some poor owner of a company whose plane just crashed, killing all onboard including a bunch of kids. Never mind that the guy - even if he wasn't at the controls - is in the middle of dealing with a horror that no sane person would wish upon anybody. What’s more important is getting a statement for the Associated Press.

It’s a disgrace, I tell you. And I’m sick of it.

11 March 2009

I Hate Fox News

Alright, it’s official: I absolutely hate Fox News. As a “news” outlet it is pathetic. If you rely on Fox for your “fair and balanced” worldview, you have my deepest sympathies. And pity.

On Tuesday afternoon of this week (March 11th) a gunman went on a rampage in the little southern towns of Kinston, Samson and Geneva, Alabama. With a population of around 2,000 people, Samson is literally out in the middle-of-nowhere. It’s 25 miles to the nearest Interstate Highway, and that's across the border in Florida. Geneva is slightly bigger, with 4,000 people. The nearest “big city” would be Dothan, about 30 miles or so to the northeast. You might not even know where Dothan is, so let’s say about 75 miles south of Montgomery, right near the Florida panhandle. There ain’t a whole bunch of anything in that part of Alabama, just cotton fields.


The town of Samson is not even on most state maps of Alabama (right-click to open in bigger window)

The gunman reportedly set fire to his mother’s home with her in it, then drove around, shooting other people with (police say) automatic weapons. The wife and infant child of a sheriff’s deputy were killed. A state policeman was shot at, although thankfully he was not killed. The gunman fired from his vehicle as he drove,

When it was all over, eleven people are reported dead including the gunman, who police say died of “self-inflicted” gunshot wounds. (Yeah, I’d say that too.) Today (Wednesday), the cops are trying to piece it all together and identify all of the victims.

Obviously, this is a horrible tragedy, especially for such small towns. The mayor of Samson said he was sick to his stomach because he knew all of the dead people – had known most of them for years. And we don't doubt it.

This morning, Fox was reporting, ”We have terrible breaking news…” as if none of its viewers were tuned-in yesterday, or logged-on to their computers at all in the last 18 hours, or even watched their local TV news at five, six, nine, ten or eleven pm. Well, I suppose Fox does cater to cave-dwellers with no other contact with the outside world.

The idiot talking-head woman on the Fox News morning show today was interviewing Frank Lindsey, the Chief of Police in the town of Geneva by phone. In an incredulous, breathless, I just can’t believe this!! tone of voice (which is how Fox reports every story, come to think of it), she asked him how on earth something like this could happen…how a man could shoot so many people and not be stopped? Like, oh my God! You could almost see the question in her mind: ”Why wasn’t the S.W.A.T team called out? Where were the police helicopters?

The Chief fielded the question gamely. ”Well, he was in a moving vehicle most of the time,” he explained patiently. ”He had a lot more firepower than we did. All we had were our pistols. He fired 15, 16 rounds at us from automatic weapons.”

I am convinced that people who live in big cities like New York, L.A. and Washington D.C. have NO EARTHLY IDEA of what it’s like to live in rural America. Not just “the suburbs,” but way out in the boonies, in towns like Samson, away from the cosmopolitan locales where TV networks like to put their headquarters.

In rural America, law enforcement is, to put it kindly, a joke. Small towns do not all have quick-response S.W.A.T teams on-call. Local police agencies are usually understaffed, and – let’s be honest – some of the officers would not be likely candidates for a position with any CSI squad, not even the TV versions. There is always the State Police, but they are usually out patrolling the highways, keeping the public safe from heinous criminals doing 67 in a 55.

My friend Greg was on his way home from work one night. Passing through the tiny town of Castleberry, Alabama (pop. 600), Greg was nearly killed when his truck was broadsided and destroyed by a drunk driver, who got out of his work truck and fled the scene. As they were putting Greg into the ambulance, the driver showed back up and tried to blend in with the crowd.

”That’s him!” Greg said to the local (part-time) cop. ”Are you gonna do a field sobriety on him?” he asked.

”Yeah, we’ve told him to come to the hospital for the blood-alcohol test,” the cop said, indicating that they knew the guy.

Guess what, the guy never showed. What a surprise. Ergo, no results of any field sobriety test!

In rural America, there just aren’t a lot of cops. And the few that are out there have to cover a lot of ground. In fact, when I lived in Santa Rosa County, Florida (a suburb of Pensacola), the Sheriff at the time freely admitted that on weekend nights, if you weren’t bleeding when you called the cops, it might take “a while” (up to 30 minutes) to get a car to your house. Nice to know if you ever think you hear a prowler or suspect someone is trying to break in. (Escambia County, in which Pensacola is situated just grounded its two police helicopters due to budget cuts.) Often, there is just a small Sheriff’s Department to cover a whole county, with no local P.D. agencies in any of the towns.

This is how it is when you get outside of the Washington D.C. Beltway. No S.W.A.T. teams, no police helicopters that are constantly airborne, no cops patrolling with M-16’s at the ready…not always. And let us remember that the cops usually show up after the fact.

This must be unbearably troubling to some…that a crazy guy can load up his car with automatic weapons and go on an unstoppable shooting spree. We like to think we have “security” but it is just an illusion. The reality is that the police…hell, nobody can protect you from everything. It’s one of those “inconvenient truths” of living in a free society.

And you know, I’m okay with that. Maybe Fox Newslady was aghast with horror and disbelief, but I understand the way things are in this country…that bad things like this happen…have always happened. People do terrible, terrible things and there’s not a whole lot we can do to prevent them from happening. And that’s probably never going to change.

08 March 2009

Oh, Happy Day

A big day yesterday! Matt and Alisha got married.

I’ve mentioned Matt a lot in this blog. We’ve been friends for over ten years. And, as with any two people who’ve hung around together and done so many things for so long, of course we’ve been through a lot. I’ve watched him graduate from college, get his degree, get started on a great career, become a parent...and now get married! It’s almost been like watching my own son grow up. And yeah, we are that close. I could not have been prouder, standing up on the altar as Matt’s best man.

The wedding was beautiful and Alisha was ravishing. Matt looked as handsome as ever.

With all the ups and downs of life, it’s great to know folks for whom things are going really well, to share and revel in their successes. I generally prefer to focus on positive things rather than negative, so it’s nice to see people in happy times.

In the end, all you can do is wish them well. They’re off to a good start. Matt and Alisha are both great people, and I know they will have a wonderful future together.

I'm happy if they are.

And it looks like they are. Congratulations, guys.