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 July 2009

Super Pilot!

So we leased this Beechcraft Super King Air 200, which I’ve mentioned before. To date we’ve flown it for about 30 hours, and I’ve been in the plane on virtually every flight. So far I have not touched the controls. Not once. (By the way, the cockpit has two pilot stations and two complete sets controls - like those old Driver's Ed cars with two steering wheels.) Of the two pilots we’ve hired to fly the plane, one actually does let me make the radio calls. The other pretends I’m not even there. They're great guys and all, and I enjoy flying with them. But with both, I feel pretty useless.

The reason they don't let me fly is because I’m not “rated” in the King Air. There is this thing the FAA has called a Multi-Engine Rating and you need it to fly airplanes with more than one engine. I do not have that rating (although I do have about 2,500 hours in multi-engine helicopters for which ironically no additional rating is required). So even though I've been flying for over 30 years and have about 11,000 hours of accrued total flight time and of that, 1,000 hours is in airplanes ("are" in airplanes?), without the FAA’s blessing of the all-important “multi” rating I am evidently totally incapable of handling the King Air. It must take a super pilot to handle a Super King Air 200!

The pilots would cite insurance requirements blah blah blah as the reason they don’t let me fly. Well that, and they must think I’m going to crash the plane if I so much as take hold of the yoke in a stabilized climb or descent, never mind making something so dangerous as a turn. And yes, it’s true that I cannot act as pilot-in-command (PIC) of the Super King Air. But the plane only requires one super pilot, just like every little Cessna 150 out there.

So even if they would let someone else fly for a bit, they are still PIC, still in charge, still responsible. Letting someone else drive the plane is akin to sitting on your father’s lap while he lets you steer the car. (Hopefully you do not still do this now – your father is probably much too frail for you to be sitting on his lap.) It’s a risk – albeit a small one in my opinion, but one these pilots do not feel like taking. And yes, I’m whining.

It’s funny, in a way. Pilots are so weird. It doesn’t matter what or how much experience you have, or how many aircraft you’ve flown. If you haven’t flown THIS particular type of aircraft you know nothing. Not that they’ve said that to me in so many words, but the message is clear.

That’s not to say it hasn’t been fun and valuably instructive. Sure enough, flying the King Air is different than what I have been doing all my life (although truthfully, not all that much different). We fly higher, we always talk to air traffic control, and we can and sometimes do go through clouds instead of around them. Compared to a helicopter, the plane is very stable and “easy” to fly. Sure, the systems (e.g. electrical, hydraulic) are more complicated than those in my simple Bell 206 JetRanger, but by the same token the King Air ain’t exactly a 747. It has an autopilot, and the cabin is air conditioned and pressurized so that we can fly at 26,000 feet and the inside of the plane feels like it’s only at comfy 5,000 feet. There is a refreshment center with cold drinks, and a potty if I have too many of them.

So I’ve been sitting there, watching and learning at lot, and will continue to do so. One day soon, I’ll have my multi-engine rating. And then I will be a super Super King Air pilot!

27 July 2009

The Professor and The Law

I suppose I would be pretty pissed if the cops came to my home without a search warrant and demanded to see proof that I was allowed to be here. Especially if I was already inside and had to answer the door when they rang the bell. If I was a crook, would I do that? Would I answer the door and be all, like, “Yes chaps, can I help you?”

Or would I bolt out the back door and over the fence and into the high school parking lot behind my house? The reasonable man would conclude that if I weren’t supposed to be there, I’d be on the lam, and fast. But cops aren’t always reasonable.

And so a couple of days ago when the cops in Massachusetts town of Cambridge knocked on the door of a townhouse, a black man answered. He was Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and he happened to be a professor at nearby Harvard University. We can assume that he was dressed as a Harvard professor might dress – that is, it’s safe to say he wasn’t in shabby, torn clothes, smelling like Thunderbird wine and reeking of weed. You know, like a professor from UCLA Berkley, say.

As a black man in white America, Professor Gates probably took severe umbrage at being asked if he was supposed to be in his own home. I can fully understand that. Racism still exists in America, no matter how much we white people try to deny it.

Now, the cops had their suspicions. Earliler, when Gates and his driver arrived home in the middle of the day, he inexplicably found the front door “jammed.” In their attempts to open the door, a neighbor obviously thought they were trying to break in and (presumably in a racist panic) called the police. Thus, when the cops showed up they didn’t know what to expect. They rang the bell and a black man answered.

Then things got weird. Gates got mad, got loud. Probably over-reacted. We can imagine him thinking, I don’t have to take this shit! He followed them out of his house and into the street, reportedly hurling epithets the whole way. The cops, being cops, and probably deciding that neither were they going to take any shit from some irate black guy who maybe shouldn’t be in that house in the first place, ended up hauling Gates off in handcuffs.

Did this all have to happen? Nope. Embarrassing? Yep. Stupid? Yep, on both sides!

Gates could have easily provided identification that proved he was indeed allowed to be in his own home. Reportedly he did, showing his driver’s license and Harvard ID. But why should he have to? What is this, Nazi Germany, where the police can come to your door and demand identification? And if you don’t provide it you get hauled off to jail? Sorry, but that’s not a country I want to live in.

I suspect that this whole situation would have been handled differently if Gates had been a white man. The cops would have been less defensive, more solicitous. And the white man answering the door might have been less defensive than the perhaps overly-sensitive professor of African-American studies at Harvard. Sadly, we know how this case turned out.

Then, as we all know now, it got even weirder. President Obama just had to weigh-in, calling the actions of the police officer “stupid.”

Now people who dislike Obama are calling for him to apologize. Not me! At least, not to the police. I think the actions of the cops were stupid! I just don’t think Obama went far enough. I think he ought to call the actions of Professor Gates stupid too. Can you imagine? “This was a stupid situation in which both parties acted stupidly. Professor Gates is just as much at fault for escalating things as were the police. The only thing I’m sorry about is having opened my big, fat mouth in the first place. That was stupid, too.”

Now THAT is something I’d like to hear the President say. However, I’m not holding my breath.

26 July 2009

Honduras: It Wasn't A Coup!

In the U.S., a President can only serve two terms then he’s out. There are good reasons for this. In February of 2009, Venezuela’s Constitution was changed to allow the President to serve an unlimited number of times. Venezuela’s current President, Hugo Chavez may now rule forever, like Fidel Castro in Cuba.

In June of this year, Honduras President Manuel “Mel” Zelaya maneuvered a Constitutional referendum that would allow the President to serve an unlimited number of terms. He tried to put it to a vote. It must be said that voting in Honduras is a joke; the population is largely uneducated and not politically savvy, and elections can be bought in any number of ways.

Zelaya’s attempt to change the Honduran Constitution was illegal. Understanding how fragile democracy is in such countries, it is designed to prevent just such things. When Zelaya would not back down, the government had no choice: It arrested Zelaya and expelled him from the country.

The world mistakenly viewed this as just another Central American “coup.” It was not. It was a democratic government doing what was necessary to protect itself from dictatorship.

True, expelling Zelaya from the country was extreme and possibly illegal. But Honduran leaders saw it as their only option to prevent rioting and bloodshed. In that way it was effective. Zelaya has been barking from outside the fence, unable to rally his dwindling supporters to any good use.

Of course, Zelaya’s buddy Hugo Chavez is all up in arms, calling for his return to power and making vague threats of using military force. To its credit, the Honduran government, headed by the natural successor, Roberto Michelletti (who by the way is a member of the same party as Zelaya) has staunchly resisted.

It’s important to realize that the military is not in power in Honduras. The democratic government is functioning normally. It was not a military coup, as our idiot President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have been erroneously characterizing it.

The media has been less than helpful. There have been many confusing things put out, both in print and by video outlets like CNN. It’s shameful. But below is a link to a short article from the Opinion page in today’s Washington Post which sums up the situation very clearly. If you think that what happened in Honduras was “just a coup,” I urge you to read it so that you many more fully understand what’s going on in that country, and why Zelaya must not be allowed to return to power and thus, that democracy can be protected. (The link goes through La Gringa's Facebook account so you won't have to sign in to the Washington Post website. Thanks, LG!)

Washingon Post Article

19 July 2009

Bad News Pensacola, UPDATE

Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan cryptically called the Billings murder a “humdinger.” He said it would make a good mystery movie; that there were more details that would be released in the coming weeks and months. Today, we learned a tiny bit more. You can check out the story as it develops by reading our local mullet-wrapper/bird cage-liner, a link to which is posted at the bottom of this page.

The Billings have been portrayed in the media as a wealthy, generous couple who opened their hearts and home to as many as 17 children over the years, most of them disabled in some way. Not much has been written about their past, or how Byrd Billings attained his wealth.

Turns out, Byrd Billings bankrolled bars. Topless bars, to be exact. Specifically, one particular place called “The Backseat” here in Pensacola. It was a dump, and please don’t ask me how I know. And others, reportedly. He bankrolled “numerous” nightclubs too, but the type of such clubs is left unspecific.

In today's Sunday edition, the Pensacola News Journal reported that twenty years ago Billings and a former girlfriend tried to illegally adopt a baby. They were sentenced to probation. Billings did end up legally adopting that child, then he and his future wife Melanie continued doing that up to the present. Most of the kids they adopted were "special needs" children.

However, the PNJ also details another scheme in which Billings tried to copyright the names of his children, and he sued the state of Florida for infringement whenever any of its agencies used one of those names inappropriately.

“Bizarre” is how the PNJ describes some of Billings’ activities.

As Billy Mays might say, But wait, there's more! Billings was also in the used-car business, owning a number of lots over the years. He not only sold cars, but he financed ‘em and repossessed ‘em too. He may have stumbled into the used car business by first being in the car detailing business, which he was. Coincidence of coincidences, one of the suspects in his murder worked at a car-detailing business.

So what does this tell us about the man, Billings? Well, not much, and certainly nothing that we can point to and go, “AHA!” But the businesses that Billings was involved in have a reputation for seediness and sleazyness, and it causes us to at least raise an eyebrow. We know…come on, let’s not be coy…we know the types of people he was associating with…had to associate with in the topless bar biz. And the used car business on top of that. So along with that raised eyebrow we wonder, did he know any of his killers? Or did he have past dealings with any of them? The Sheriff says no, but the police will lie and say anything right up to the point of trial when they are finally under oath. And maybe not even then, but that's my ex-New Yorker skepticism and cynicism talking.

The couple’s oldest daughter, Ashley is bristling at the innuendo being bandied about, and you can't really blame her. She told the PNJ that her father’s business dealings were always above-board. Perhaps. We do not like to speak ill of the dead or those who cannot defend themselves. But for all of his good press, let's not be so quick to canonize Byrd Billings. Not just yet.

Eight people have been arrested so far, seven men and one woman. Well, six men and a sixteen year-old boy who’s being charged as an adult. All of the men have been charged with murder and are being held on either no bond or a bond so high that it's like, fuggedaboudit, you ain't goin' nowhere. The woman, by the name of Pamela Wiggins, was only charged as an accessory and, astoundingly is free on a $10,000 bond. The low bond has most people in Pensacola going, "Uhhhhh, say WHAT???"

This Wiggins woman: now here is a bit of a puzzle. She owns a number of properties here in the Pensacola area, one of which she had rented to the alleged “mastermind” of this plan. Although she was no real estate mogul (and no one had ever heard of her before this case), business must've been good for her because Wiggins was found on her 47-foot yacht (the Classy Lady, heh) moored at a fancy-schmancy marina in nearby Gulf Shores, Alabama. Sheriff Morgan inexplicably asked her to just saunter over hear to P'cola at her leisure, which she did, and then she was arrested. But she must be singing like a canary because the perception is that she's getting some extra-special treatment.

On the evening of the crime, police say that Wiggins' SUV was parked near the Billings’ house, and it was into said SUV that the guns and stolen safe were transferred. It was in the backyard of her own home that the safe was buried. Police said that this Wiggins was at the scene of the murders, in her SUV, but she was not driving it. Police say she was only a passenger. We are left to wonder whether there is yet another person involved here and whether a ninth arrest will be made? It would seem so.

Now, either Wiggins was the one who was supposed to disable the security system in the Billings place or she was not. Police aren't saying. But if she was, then she was in on the planning and is more than just an "accessory" driver...err, passenger/gun hider/safe burier. If she was not the security system disabler, then is there still yet another arrest to be made?

There is also a rumor...just a rumor, mind you...that there is another safe in the house. Ooh, did the crooks get the wrong one? Or is this just a bit of police disinformation?

I think it's the latter. See, the police are calling this a home-invasion/robbery. Maybe I've watched too many episodes of Miami Vice, but I'm thinking that it was a home-invasion/murder. I think the robbery was just the ruse, the cover of the real crime, which was the execution of the Byrd and Melanie Billings.

Whatever the real reason for the murders was, it's a strange, sad, captivating case - at least for us here where it happened.

The Pensacola News Journal Homepage

15 July 2009

Bad News Pensacola, Again...

Here we go, Pensacola has been thrust into the national spotlight. As usual, not in a good way, either. A week ago, a wealthy, well-respected and -loved local couple was killed. This particular couple cared for 17 children, most of them adopted, many of them with “special needs.” Byrd and his wife Melanie Billings were known for their kindness, philanthropy, and donations to charity. They had a large home on a big piece of property just west of town. A disturbing fact of the crime was that it was committed in the evening, still during daylight, while many of the children were home.

HERE is a link to a pretty good story in the Pensacola News Journal.

We were shocked, of course. We learned right away that the killers were caught on a surveillance camera video. Released to the media, the tape showed an older, red Dodge van drive up to the house. Three people got out and went inside. The front door was not locked. There are still parts of the country where the need for that is not perceived. Very quickly, they came back out and drove away. Police did not say so, but I suspected there were other cameras around the place, maybe some inside the house as well.

Because if there are cameras outside, there are usually cameras inside too, and in this case there were. These reportedly show the actual shootings of the couple but were, understandably, not released to the media. However, a tape from another outside camera was released, and it showed four people dressed in “ninja” garb approaching and entering the house through an unlocked back door.

All in all, the intruders were in the house for about four minutes. Clearly, this was well thought-out, well-planned, well-rehearsed and well-orchestrated. The only glitch was that the security cameras had not been turned off. Police cannot explain why – they only say that the person in charge of doing so did not.

Our Escambia County Sheriff, David Morgan has been circumspect and terse, releasing only incomplete bits of information. On the day after the murders, he described the intruders as, “white.” A reporter pressed him: White males? Morgan gave him a steely stare. “White,” he repeated. “Just white.” Aha. Okay. Might not have all been men, I get it.

The arrests came quickly. The van was found immediately, of course. You can’t hide a big, red Dodge van, especially when it’s been plastered all over Channel 3 news. Sure enough, it was parked, semi-hidden behind a mobile home in a trailer park in town. Three people were in custody right away; more soon followed. So far, a total of seven are behind bars, including a sixteen year-old boy – maybe one or two more to go.

The obvious motive is robbery. The killers made off with a safe which was said to have been in the couple's master bedroom. But Sheriff Morgan likens this event to a movie, with numerous twists and turns to the plot. And it causes one to think: What does he mean? Was it just robbery…or something more? What do you keep in a safe that you would not (or cannot) deposit in a bank? It was noted almost in passing that among the law enforcement personnel involved in the investigation, there were members of the FBI and DEA participating too. DEA?

We are not surprised to find out that some of the people involved have extensive criminal records. Lots of jail time. Police say that the way that everyone (including the killers to the victims) is related to each other in this case is a complex web. In events like this, we never know the full story right away. It will come in time though – probably when the book is published.

You hate to hear about murders like this, especially when they happen in your backyard. Nobody likes to see their town portrayed in a bad light. If you live in, oh, let’s say New York City it’s not so bad because with all of the millions of people who live there you know a lot of bad stuff is going to happen.

But in sleepy southern towns like Pensacola we like to think we’re removed from, and maybe somehow immune to the type of ghastly crime that pervades “the big cities.” I don’t lock my door during the day, even if I have to go out. My shed in the backyard is always unlocked, and my Harley back there is usually unsecured, easy-pickings for someone with a pickup truck and a ramp. I think I live in a “fairly safe” neighborhood. It’s a myth, of course, a false sense of security. Bad people are everywhere, even here, even in Pensacola, Florida.

The only bit of comfort I get out of this case is that arrests were made so astonishingly quickly. Thank goodness for modern technology. In the old days, the bad guys might have gotten away with it. Or at least it would’ve been much harder to catch them. To their credit, Sheriff Morgan and his whole department worked tirelessly, around the clock and quickly rounded up the suspects. Who doesn’t like to see justice served?

05 July 2009

The Name Game

And now I find out - a little late, as usual - that the tallest building in the western hemisphere, formerly the tallest building in the world, the Sears Tower in Chicago, Illinois will soon be known as the Willis Tower. What the… Willis Tower? Whatchootalkingabout, Willis?

It seems that the Willis Group Holdings, an insurance company based in London, England is renting office space in the 1,450 foot tall Sears Tower. The rental agreement specifies that they can put their own corporate name on the building.

Why on earth would they do that, you ask? Why change the name of an iconic landmark that’s had the same identity since 1973?

Simple. First of all, because they can. But then… It turns out that the Aon Corporation, also a big competing insurance conglomerate which is based in Chicago, has their headquarters in the third-largest building in that city, the 1,136 foot tall Aon Center.

Get the picture? Willis will now be able to say that “their” building is taller than Aon’s.

Well whoop-de-friggin-do. This is what passes for important executive decisions in the new Corporate America.

It is worth noting that Sears, Roebuck & Co. commissioned the building for their corporate headquarters - the building that would bear their name. So regardless of who owns the actual piece of real estate, it can legitimately be called the “Sears” building forever.

Not that Willis now owns the Sears Tower, mind you…just as Aon doesn’t own the Aon Center. Willis is taking only 140,000 square feet of the Sears Tower, in which there is 3.8 million square feet of rentable space. So Willis is utilizing less than half of one percent. Sticking their corporate logo on the buildings is more than a little disingenuous since neither controls the entire property. Willis and Aon are merely the "primary tenants" in their respective buildings. The real owners of the buildings are allowing Willis and Aon to use them as billboards.

On the other hand, when the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company bought the Pan Am Building in Manhattan from that airline in 1981, they didn’t immediately put their own name on it (although they probably could have). That didn't happen until Pan Am went out of business in 1991. And although the building has been sold yet again (in 2005), the new owners (an investment group) have so far opted to leave the “MetLife” logo on the building, perhaps recognizing the landmark recognition value.

The Old Pan Am Building

The "New" MetLife Building

It will be curious to see whether people (especially Chicagoans) will accept and adapt to the name change, or whether it’ll continue to be known as the Sears Tower. It would be funny if it was the latter. Can you imagine the CEO of Willis, overhearing people - perhaps his own employees - referring to “his” building by its former name? “No, it’s the WILLIS TOWER, you idiots! WILLIS TOWER! Get it through your heads, it’s not the Sears Tower anymore. WILLIS TOWER!!” Then he goes home and kicks his dog. Heh. It would serve him right. (The CEO, not the dog.)

Speaking of landmarks and name-changes, in New York City there are Consolidated Edison electric power plants in various places. One is in Queens, close to LaGuardia Airport. It has five pairs of twinned smokestacks. It is distinctive enough to be used as a reporting point for the helicopters that are always buzzing around the city. Air traffic controllers refer to this point as, no surprise here, the “ten stacks.” It is even marked that way on an aeronautical chart.

Nearby, slightly north of the "ten stacks" but up in the Bronx there used to be another power plant. It only had five single smokestacks, and the La Guardia controllers referred to it that way: the “five stacks.” We had to know which was which because of their importance due to their proximity to the approach/departure path of one of the airport’s runways.

Eventually, the actual five smokestacks themselves were torn down, leaving nothing but a big brick building that was eventually demolished. For a while, controllers referred to that piece of land as the “no stacks.” Those of us who flew around the city regularly knew which building they meant, but it often confused out-of-town pilots. I always chuckled when I heard a controller tell a pilot to, “…report the no-stacks” and that pilot would reply, “Wilco.” Heh-heh, the no-stacks.

Looking at the above map (you might have to right-click and select "Open Link in New Window"), the former Con-Ed "five stacks" plant in the Bronx was just across the water from the “ten stacks," close to where the box with the word “Bronx” in it appears on the blue route. The area has changed a lot now, and the power plant itself it gone. An old-timer like me could pinpoint the location from the air, but it’s irrelevant. I doubt any of the current air traffic controllers would know anything about the "no-stacks."

I guess I’m a bit of a traditionalist. To me, it'll always be the "Pan Am Building." And so I lament the changing of the name of the Sears Tower. It’d be like changing the name of Central Park to, oh, “Trump Park” or "The Michael Jackson Memorial Park." It might happen, but nobody is ever going to call it that. Certainly not I.

03 July 2009

Billy Mays, Conclusion

I guess I should say a word about Billy Mays, the television pitchman who I made fun of in an earlier blogpost. Mr. Mays died this past Sunday, June 28th at his home in Tampa, Florida. Mays apparently died in his sleep. The doctors have so far ruled it a heart attack. He was 50. He leaves behind an ex-wife and 24 year-old son, as well as his current wife and three year-old daughter.

I wish I felt…something…about Billy Mays’ death...something other than indifference. Like I said about Michael Jackson, we live then we die. Some of us get to live a really long time and die of natural causes; others get taken “before their time,” whatever that is.

I admired Billy Mays because he was very good at what he did, even though I didn’t like it very much.

Rest in peace, Billy.

02 July 2009

Air New Zealand: Up Front and Out In The Open

My friend Gene usually sends me these things long before I ever find them. But not this time - hah!

If you've traveled by airline at all (and who hasn't?) you've had to sit through one of those mandatory pre-takeoff safety briefings. You know, where the cabin attendants tell you things like how to buckle your seatbelt and what to do in the "unlikely" event of a water landing. Most of us pay scant attention to these briefings. Yes, yes...I know the oxygen mask bag will not inflate, and I know that the nearest emergency exit may be behind me, and for cryin' out loud yes, I know it's a federal crime to smoke in the bathroom. Heard it a million times, toots. But the FAA requires that the briefings be given, and so they are.

Airlines handle them differently. Some use a video briefing which is harder to ignore, and some of these (like Delta's) are quite well done. Southwest Airlines doesn't use video briefings, but gives its cabin crews a lot of latitude in their live presentation. I'm sure we've all heard by now of SWA's "Rapping Flight Attendant." Yawn. Look, just get me to my damn destination and don't try to make a bad comedy act out of the flight, mm'kay?

Well, now. Along comes Air New Zealand. Like all airlines these days, Air New Zealand is feeling the pinch of reduced revenue from fewer passengers and less freight. Recently, the airline created an ad campaign stressing that, unlike some other airlines, Air New Zealand had no hidden fees. Everything was all up-front and out in the open. Then they created this video passenger safety briefing. Heh-heh. Never let it be said that New Zealanders don't have a sense of humor.

Here's the TV commercial. It's done in a similar vein.

There's a story behind the new commercial and passenger briefing, and you can read it

I can't remember the last time I saw a TV commercial for an airline. None of them seem to be advertising anymore. And who can blame them? Can you imagine what their main selling point would be? "We torture you slightly less than our competition. The good news is, because we don't have any direct flights and everything connects through Atlanta, you hopefuly won't be on any of our planes long enough to notice what a crappy airline we really are."

Reportedly, Air NZ saved a lot of money on both their TV commercial and passenger safety briefing by using regular employees rather than real actors. In fact, if you watch the television commercial again, look at the :13 second mark. One of the baggage handlers is Air NZ's CEO, Rob Fyfe.

Air New Zealand. Nothing to hide, eh? Everything is out in the open, eh? Clever, that. I say, good on ya Air New Zealand!

Blooper Reel of TV commercial