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?

25 May 2009

Things That Make My Life Easier

Back when we were first talking about getting a helicopter, the Boss wanted a device called a Stormscope. This is a little gadget that detects and displays lightning strikes. Where there is lightning there is usually a thunderstorm, and conversely a thunderstorm will always have lightning. You don’t want to go there, especially in an aircraft. Sometimes there will be electrical activity in the area that shows up as lightning on the Stormscope even though no thunderstorm is present…yet. This electrical activity will almost always cause turbulence. So if you just avoid the areas of “lightning strikes” you should have a pretty decent ride. Clever device, this Stormscope.

The little clusters of green dots are lightning strikes.

However, technology has moved on a bit since the Stormscope was invented. Now, any aircraft can have tons of weather information downloaded right to the cockpit, to your portable GPS. These units are so inexpensive that there is NO EXCUSE for any pilot to go flying without one.

Instead of the Stormscope, we opted for the Garmin 496. This wonderful little gizmo sits right up on top of my instrument panel, where the Boss and I can see it clearly. Basically, a GPS utilizes signals from satellites and provides navigation information from here to there. It knows where you are, can tell you how fast you’re moving, how high you are, and how long it’ll take you to get where you’re going. It can display this information in a number of different ways.

The Garmin 496 is much like the Garmin Nuvi, Magellen, Tom Tom, or built-in GPS in your car, but the aviation model does "a bit" more. I can access the weather at any reporting station by either looking it up or scrolling the “mouse” pointer to it on the map. Early one morning I had taken off and headed northbound out of Home Base. The weather was generally good, but on the moving map an airport up ahead had a little red flag sticking off to one side. Curious, I scrolled over to it. A window automatically opened up that showed the weather: Visibility ½ mile, ceiling 100 feet. Fog! Glad I hadn’t planned using that airport as a fuel stop.

The Garmin 496 also comes equipped with a super-accurate terrain and obstruction database. It knows where all the hills and towers are – handy for low-flying helicopters! When it alerts me that there’s a tower or some other obstacle nearby, there is one and I better be looking out the windows. (In the daytime some of this is superfluous, but at night or in bad weather this information is invaluable.)

We have a subscription to XM Radio, and all of their channels are available to us through the Garmin. In addition, XM provides weather information in nearly real-time. It can display an overall satellite cloud image, a radar image, lightning strikes, or any combination thereof. The weather-radar display takes some getting used to. In the beginning I was not confident that it was very accurate. I have since changed my mind.

Recently, I had to make a flight from Gulf Shores, Alabama back to home base. As I took off and headed to the northeast, I immediately could see a bad line of storms ahead. Pensacola Approach Control warned me of their presence. They were also clearly depicted on the Garmin. I could see they were moving to the northwest. It appeared that I could scoot around the east side of the line. Which is exactly what I did.

As you can see in the above image, the pink line is my intended course. The little icon of the helicopter, which is me, is displaced somewhat to the right (east). I am at 2,071 feet, about ten miles northeast of Pensacola Regional Airport (KPNS), making 101 knots across the ground. Thirty miles and a little under 18 minutes to go. Off to my left is some very bad weather, represented by the orange and dark red colors. Had I not deviated, I would’ve flown into a thunderstorm. As it turned out, we got a few sprinkles on the bubble, but that was all. (By the way, the big green blob just inside the compass rose would appear to be light precipitation/rain, but in reality is just a bunch of wet clouds from which no rain was falling.)

Could I have gotten home without the Garmin? Sure, but I would have been “hunting and pecking.” And I may have made the wrong choice and gone around the west side of that line, which would have been a BIG mistake. Having the “big picture” made the flight so much more comfortable and easy. And safe.

I also purchased a small collision-avoidance device, a ZAON XRS, which also sits up on the dash. It detects other aircraft and displays their relative position to me.
In the example above, the plane is headed northeastbound (060 degrees) at an altitude of 700 feet ("FL007"). There is one aircraft 2.5 miles ahead to the front-right, 600 higher in level flight, and another aircraft three miles off the left wing, 700 feet above, climbing. This unit is designed to play through the Garmin GPS. When an aircraft gets close, a little window opens up on my main map with a dot representing the other traffic’s position and altitude.

I think back to when I first started flying in the 1970’s, and how “blind” we were in the sky. We had the most basic electronic navigational aids that told you very little about your exact position…there were no moving maps…no satellite radio/weather…no way of knowing if there were other aircraft in your vicinity. We were pretty dependent upon air traffic control to warn us of unseen traffic and the worst weather ahead – if they even could: the information they had was crude and incomplete.

We’ve made so many incredible advances since then. The amazing Garmin 496 combined with XM Weather and the XAON collision-avoidance device gives me unbelievable capability in a small, inexpensive package. I would never want to leave the ground without them.

20 May 2009

Star Trekkin'

Okay, I have seen the new "Star Trek" movie twice. Enjoyed it immensely both times. This, despite the fact that I’m really not a big fan of science-fiction. But I was a fan of the original TV series, and wanted to see how this prequel would handle this...this...this institution we've all come to know and love. Well, some of us.

The thing to remember about this version is that the story exists in an alternate universe. This allowed the writers quite a bit of latitude and flexibility, because the canon of the legendary franchise is well known. Loyal purists don’t like it messed with.

Anyway, I thought it was a fun, funny, exciting movie that took liberties with the past while staying true to the characters’, well…character. The actors cast who play these sci-fi icons are terrific. Karl Urban, the guy who plays Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy is especially good. And not to worry, all of the familiar catch-phrases and trademarks are present and accounted for. Young Spock arches an eyebrow and says, "Fascinating," Scotty says, "I'm given it all she's got, Captain!" and Dr. McCoy says, "Dammit, I'm a doctor, not a physicist."

I can’t wait for the sequels. Or maybe I can.

The boss and I were flying…somewhere…the other day, listening to the 70’s channel on the XM radio. The d.j. came on and mentioned that the new “Star Trek” movie was still breaking box-office records in its second weekend of release. “What’s strange about this,” he cracked,” “…is that so many people have seen the movie..." (pause) "and none of them brought a date!”

Ouch! I laughed because it’s true. Thinking back, I remember not noticing a whole bunch of couples. Even I had gone with my buddy Matt, an unrepentant trekkie. It is definitely a guy’s movie, not a chick-flick.

12 May 2009

Christ and Killing

I’ve been kind of depressed lately. Not as in, “I’m gunna kill mahself,” depressed, but just not happy with the way things are going in the world. Maybe "discouraged" is a better word. It's put me in a perpetual bad mood.

Recently, two sheriff’s deputies were gunned down in a town near here. They thought they were responding to a simple domestic disturbance, but for some reason it turned deadly. The man shot them both, then fled in his pickup truck. Other deputies gave chase, as you can imagine. In the town of Crestview, Florida, the police put those “spike strips” down on the road, intending to puncture the truck’s tires. The man simply drove around them. As he did, the cops opened fire, killing the 28 year-old driver. The cops justified the shooting by claiming that they were only stopping an obviously dangerous killer from possibly killing again.

Many people down here were exultant. They seemed happy that the man died. “He got what he deserved!” they cried, which seemed to be the prevailing sentiment.

Well, wait. Hang on. Yes, it is awful and tragic that the two deputies were killed as they were just doing their job. But that’s no reason to celebrate in the death of the man who killed them. Also, he still should have been afforded the right to a fair trial. If society decided that the death penalty was his punishment, then so be it. But I will not be happy or rejoice over it. And it really disturbs me that people find some pleasure in the death of another man - either locally or globally (as in the case of Saddam Hussein).

We seem to have become a society that enjoys killing…enjoys death. We’ve become a war-loving culture, and we wage it gleefully, as if there were no cost other than a monetary one. We like sending our troops in harm’s way. It makes us feel like we’re tough guys, I guess – The U.S. doesn't take shit from anyone! When it comes to our “Muslim extremist” foes, we still hear the call to, “Bomb them back to the Stone Age!” We’d rather not make peace – we’d rather make war. We sure don't mind hurting or killing one another either if it's "necessary."

And this is what’s got me down lately. I don’t think it’s what we’re meant to be doing. And I’ve been puzzling over how to put these thoughts into words.

Then along comes one Cynthia Tucker. She’s a writes for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column often appears in our local Pensacola paper. This past Sunday, May 10, 2009, her subject was torture. You know, the infamous waterboarding. The former Administration actually got some of their lawyers to issue an opinion that waterboarding was not, in fact, “torture” and was, in fact, legal. Ms. Tucker (as well as a great many other Americans including me) disagrees.

Ms. Tucker bemoans the fact that although we as a nation have collectively known about waterboarding for a long time, we who call ourselves spiritual have been curiously silent about it. She writes:

Many evangelical Christians, black, white and brown, are Biblical literalists, insisting that homosexuality is a sin and evolution is heresy because the Bible says so. That same Bible introduces a simple teacher who instructed his followers to turn the other cheek, to repay cruelty with kindness, to disregard their personal safety. Yes, we may be forgiven for being afraid, but fear cannot justify inhumanity to others. How does that jibe with support for barbaric treatment of detainees?

The religious right certainly isn’t responsible for the decisions of the Bush administration, which raised torture to official policy. Nor were conservative Christians alone in their failure to speak out — loud and long — against it. Even as reports leaked out about simulated drownings, chaining prisoners to the ceiling and slamming them against walls, there were few voices raised in protest. Much of America stood by quietly as our ideals were trampled, international law violated and our moral standing eroded


Since the awful events of “9/11,” we’ve become a paranoid, fearful nation…a nation bent on getting revenge. And if we can’t get that, then we want to protect ourselves – and if it means going out and “killing them before they can kill us,” well…that’s okay.

Except it’s not.

Back in the early-1990’s there was a proliferation of “What Would Jesus Do?” bumper stickers. People wore bracelets and things with the intials, “W.W.J.D.”

I think we should update that phrase now. I think it should be, “Who Would Jesus Kill?”