Who Am I?

My photo
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 February 2009

Viva Las Vegas! Part III: Friendly Advice

The weather in Vegas is very dry. If you’re coming from a relatively humid environment like Florida, the difference will be immediately apparent. Luckily, Matt, Jamie and I went in the winter, so temperatures were mild. Also, it was quite cloudy for most of our trip, which actually was nice. I didn’t have to wear a jacket or sunglasses or a baseball cap. Can't beat that!

But one afternoon the sun was out. As Matt and I were walking up the strip enjoying the day he turned to me and said, ”You know, I feel like we’re always being ripped-off here.”

Welcome to Las Vegas, where they’ve perfected the art of fleecing the tourist. Everything is expensive in Vegas. Whaddya gonna do, leave?

Want to go up and see the view from the Stratosphere tower? That’ll be $14 please. Oh, you want to ride the “attractions” too? Then cough up $28 for admission plus all three rides, or $24 for just two if you’re a cheap ‘fraidy-cat like me.

Food wasn’t all that bad...I suppose...figure $30 - $45 for an entrĂ©e. Actually, one night we ate inside the Rio Hotel at the All-American Bar and Grill and had unanimously fantastic steaks for $26. Unassuming name, great steak place.

But they kill you if you drink.

We were in the Playboy Club atop the Palms towers. I ordered three drinks – my usual Rum and Coke, and a couple of Vodka/Red Bulls for the guys (it’s the “hip” drink with the kids these days, evidently). The drinks were not big, nor were they strong. I handed my credit card to the bunny behind the bar. When it came back with a charge of $35, I nearly told her that I wasn’t buying a round for the entire bar. Ironically, although the place was jammed it was easy to get up to the bar. Then we figured it out. People do their drinking before going to such establishments. Duh. (I wish I could say that $35 was the cheapest I paid for three drinks but it was not.)

Prior to going up there, we’d paid $75 each for admission to a show at the Playboy Comedy Club on the main level. That fee also supposedly provided us with VIP admission to the aforementioned Playboy Club upstairs. In this case, “VIP admission” meant that we just waited on a line that was only slightly shorter line than the one used by the unwashed masses (i.e. non-VIP’s). The security guys were just as surly to us as everyone else. I mean, hey, weren't we supposed to be VIP's?

Well see, in Vegas every-goddam-body is a VIP. Or thinks he/she is. Everybody.

So here are three pieces of advice if you’re planning a trip to Las Vegas: 1) Bring Chapstick and plenty of it; 2) Bring money and plenty of it - in fact, it’d probably be a good idea to bring all of it; 3) And unless you actually are Mick Jagger or Paris Hilton, plan on waiting in line for everything.

25 February 2009

Viva Las Vegas! Part II: The Rides

Imagine if you will a 160-foot tall square steel girder, mounted vertically. It's got rails on all four sides that run to the top. And on each side of this girder, attached to those rails are outward-facing seats, situated so the occupants cannot see anything - not each other, nor any bit of the apparatus to which they are attached – they're just staring out into oblivion. These seats, with said occupants in them, are then rocketed up the rails to the top. Pretty neat all by itself, eh? I mean, you'd pay to go on a ride like that at an amusement park, no?


Well then, now imagine that this whole contraption is atop a 900' tall, small, round building out in the middle of the desert – like say, oh, the Stratosphere Hotel in Las Vegas. Someone with just such a perverted imagination did that and came up with the Big Shot Thrill Ride.

And yes, it is.

I don’t know how I let Matt talk me into these things, but I often do. In this case, my weak excuse was that it was his bachelor party, and I didn't want to spoil his fun. Jamie had no such problem, however. He was smart; for this outing he stayed back at the hotel.

So we climbed on. Be a wuss in front of Matt? No way! And no turning back now either. One minute, we were seated there, all strapped in. I was having second, third, and fourth thoughts, wondering if this thing was really safe…pretending to be casually chatting with the ride attendant. He was saying something about something, but I couldn't really hear due to the sound of rushing blood noise in my ears. All of a sudden...BAM! WHOOOOSH! Up we go, no countdown, no warning, no opportunity to brace (clever bastards!).

The closest thing I can relate it to is sitting in a little chair on top of a big rocket, then having somebody else light the fuse and run away. Yeah, it's like that. Incredible.

There is the usual negative-g at the apex, of course, which brings the heart further up into the throat if that's possible, and a couple of rebound bounces on the way down just to keep it interesting. If you like rides that get the adrenaline pumping, the Big Shot will do the trick. In fact, I may have left a little adrenaline on the seat. Well, maybe it was adrenaline...or some other bodily fluid. The Big Shot is that, um, “thrilling” (they did not lie). Oh, by the way the view from the top is spectacular. Or so they tell me.

But you know we just had to up the ante. It was Vegas, after all, a place where antes routinely get upped. And it was Matt and me, and we are stupid. And on the roof of the Stratosphere is another poop-your-pants ride called the X-Scream.

Basically this is a very short roller-coaster in which the car, instead of following a track, gets launched into space over the side of the building. It stops, of course, but you don’t know exactly when, which adds to the fear factor once underway. When the car finally, dear-mother-of-God does stop, it lingers there, teetering about 850 feet in the air. Suddenly, the arm the car rides on drops heart-stoppingly until you are pointed at an angle that seems straight down. It then retracts, and you get to do it all over again. It is only slightly less scary the second time. Even though we had watched the thing go through a couple of cycles before our ride, the first-person experience was pretty intense.

The XScream at the end of its run. It does not look like it's going to stop.

Here, the XScream has dropped. It is not, let me emphasize, a slow and/or gradual drop. It is like a freefall. (The woman in the blue sweater to the right looked as if she was going to be sick. And she wasn't even going on the ride!)

Matt went on the third ride, a little tilt-a-whirly thing called the Insanity. You sit in seats suspended under an articulated arm. The seats begin revolving and the arm moves the whole shebang out over the edge. The arms that the seats are attached to are hinged so that centrifugal force causes them to swing outward. You end up facing down at a pretty good angle. Being prone to vertigo (and averse to dying), I passed on that one.

Matt, about to meet his maker before being flung to his death 900 feet below. You'll notice that I had forgotten to ask him for his wallet and watch. Hey, I wasn't thinking straight!

One of these people may or may not be Matt. I had my eyes closed when I took the picture.

We had planned on eating in the revolving restaurant a couple of levels down from where we were. But at the time, my knees were a little wobbly and I wasn't really in the mood for eating. So we headed just up the street to the Sahara Casino where they were advertising $1.00 margaritas. We parked ourselves on a couple of stools and got good and buzzed for about $5.00 apiece.

You've got to love Vegas. It’s just one big adult amusement park. Even if you don’t like to gamble (which I don't) there are plenty of other things to do. Something for everyone! If you go, I highly recommend that you ride the Big Shot. I'll be the guy taking your picture.

From street level.

Stratosphere Hotel Website

23 February 2009

Viva Las Vegas!

Nope, not NYC. Guess again?

Matt, Jamie and I were standing up on the outside deck of the Moon club in Las Vegas, which itself is atop one of the two Palms casino resort towers. It was two in the morning and the place was still packed. We were sipping our hideously overpriced drinks and looking down at the view, which can only be described as spectacular. I had two thoughts: Why had I been so stupid as to forget my camera; and was this what the original Mafia bosses envisioned back in the 1930’s?

Vegas is a trip. It’s unreal. It’s everything you’ve heard that it is and more. It’s a wild, crazy, round-the-clock party town. You can spend a ton of money here, even if you don’t’ gamble. And apparently, many people do.

We’re here for Matt’s bachelor party. He’d never seen Las Vegas. He’s been go Biloxi, Mississippi and New Orleans, but they just don’t compare to Vegas. Nothing does. Matt has an itinerary of sorts – things he wants to do while we’re here. Most of them are straightforward, but…one or two will cause us to invoke the (in)famous and brilliant marketing slogan about the city, of which I need not remind you.

Now, enlisting my help for this endeavor was risky. I’m not much of a gambler, I’m not much of a drinker/partier anymore, nor am I a frequenter of…err, “gentlemen’s” clubs. I can still hang with the young guys (it’s all in the pacing), but honestly, I’m more of a chaperone. Having me plan a wild weekend in Las Vegas is like having your dad do it. This is not good if you’re a 27 year-old guy out on his Last Big Party before submitting to the shackles of marriage. Luckily, we also brought along Jamie, who has more than adequately stepped up to the task. Jamie’s a blast.

I’ll spare you the “our story so-far” details in this post. But this is obviously only Part One. We got here Saturday afternoon; we’re leaving Tuesday. We’re having a great time, spending a ton of money. No broken bones, no bloodshed, no suicide-inducing hangovers. No hookers in the room stories. No lost-everything-at-the-tables stories. Yet. Well, we did almost get kicked off the roller-coaster at the New York-New York casino…while it was already underway if you can imagine such a thing. It’s a long (and stupid) story.

But it’ll have to wait. It’s 7:30. The boys won’t be up for a while, so I’m going to head down, grab some breakfast, and see if I can convince one of the slot machines in the casino to take some (more) money from me.

20 February 2009

Weather - Or Not

If you listened to the weather reports on this past Wednesday you would have thought the world was going to end. There was a cold front approaching from the west. Ahead of it was a strong southerly flow. Tuesday night had been wet, but by Wednesday morning all of the precipitation had moved off to our east, leaving fairly benign weather behind. Still, the forecasters were calling for “severe storms,” especially later in the afternoon.

The Boss and I had a full day ahead of us. Our plan was to leave Homebase and head north to Montgomery, Alabama where the he had a morning meeting. After that, we’d head southeast to the little town of Louisville for yet another meeting. It was a schedule only possible with a helicopter.

I started checking the weather early. It was uniformly fine – overcast in some places, but good visibilities all around and as I said, no precip. Frontal passage wasn't forecast until very late at night. Yet there was this ever-present "chance" of severe weather all day. Talk about doom and gloom! The Boss asked my opinion. I said, “Let’s go!” We were airborne at eight a.m., headed north. With the strong wind on our tail the one-hour flight only took 45 minutes.

Man, it was bumpy! While the up and downdrafts can be rough for all aircraft, they were infrequent on this day. Helicopters do better in turbulence than airplanes for reasons which are complex. Gusts have a longer relative time to act on the wing of an airplane traveling at 120 mph or so compared to the spinning rotor which presents a “new” blade (wing) to a gust about 400 times per minute. Also, the long, limber blades and gyroscopic properties of the spinning rotor tend to dampen the response to gusts better than the relatively stiff, short wing of an airplane. But the cabin of the helicopter, which reacts separately from the rotor, gets shoved around a lot, and those yawing, sideways-slewing motions can be quite uncomfortable.

When we left Montgomery at midday, the sun was out. No sign of any severe weather at all. I began to wonder if the forecasters had blown it?

Arriving at our second destination, I kept two close eyes on the weather – one on the TV radar and one out the window. By this point, virtually the entire state of Alabama was under a tornado watch. There were dire warnings about hail the size of basketballs, and winds strong enough to rip the roof off a Walmart. The plan was, if the weather looked like it was getting bad I was to bug-out and flee…some direction…to where it was good. The Boss would catch a ride home with one of the guys who wasn’t fortunate enough to have a helicopter at his disposal.

Flying home into the setting sun and into the wind was rough. The 50-minute flight actually took 1:05. I know that an extra 15 minutes doesn't sound like a lot, but trust me it can seem like an eternity in a slow-moving helicopter on a bumpy day.

Still, I was feeling pretty good about myself - I had guessed right on the weather. But the Boss wasn’t sharing my enthusiasm. I said that when we’d talked early in the morning it almost seemed as though he was hoping I’d cancel the flights. (He is very skittish about flying in bad weather.) But things just looked too good not to go flying. And even though it ultimately worked out, it might not have.

“It’s certainly about my safety, and yours,” he said. “But it’s also about the safety of the equipment. We sure don’t need this thing damaged by hail and grounded for a couple of months while it’s being repaired.”

This is true. And it's something to consider. When I was at PHI, if my assigned helicopter broke they’d just send me another one. They always had spares (as well as certain performance guarantees in their contracts with the oil companies). But now, ol’ N206TH is our only bird. Without it, we’d be stuck.

I knew that I could avoid the bad weather in flight. But then I thought about my little helicopter, parked out in the open for hours at a time that day. If a bad storm had suddenly formed close by and made a bee-line for it, I might not have been able to get airborne and out of harm’s way fast enough. Maybe it would have been “safer” to just leave it in its hangar at home that day? Well those are the chances you take. Or don’t take.

A friend of mine was flying a Beechcraft King Air on a day when there were thunderstorms afoot. He was plugging along, and thought he'd given the storms a wide-enough berth. (No pilot who flies for a living - and wants to continue doing so - intentionally puts his aircraft so close to bad weather that it scares the passengers.) Even so, the plane was struck by lightning. It's not as catastrophic as it sounds. They didn't even know it at the time, and evidence of the strike wasn't discovered until after they landed. Although the amount of actual damage was slight, the inspection to make sure there wasn't any further damage was extensive and costly. Very costly. And of course, the plane was out of service while the inspection and repairs were performed.

My Boss bought his helicopter to do just what he did on Wednesday. Without it, he would have had to cancel one of his meetings and make the long drive to the other. ”I prefer when the weather people are conservative, rather than the other way around,” he said.

We did actually get some severe weather in spots on Wednesday. But it happened very late at night, just before the cold front came through. So we gambled and won. This time.

14 February 2009

Snap Judgments Falling Flat

First of all, I hate the media. Second, I hate politicians who just have to say something…anything…after a tragedy. Finally, I hate the society we’ve become – always needing instant answers and solutions to everything. Whenever anything happens, we want to know the cause right now, right now, RIGHT NOW, DAMMIT!

A plane crashed in upstate New York the other night. A terrible tragedy, all 49 people on board the plane perished, as well as one person on the ground. Very sad. We hate hearing about things like this.

These things happen. We wish they didn’t. Those of us in aviation try very, very hard to make sure they don’t happen. But they do. Not very often, thank God. But you know, as much as we try to kid ourselves that flying is…or that we can even make it…100% “safe” it’s just not true. Airplanes still crash.

In this case it was a twin-engine turboprop called the “Dash-8.” It was manufactured by Bombardier of Canada and operated by Colgan Airways on contract to and in the colors of Continental Airlines. The plane crashed on approach to the airport in Buffalo, New York. It was at a navigation beacon called the “outer marker,” which tells us that it was about five miles from the field, lined up for the runway. This also tells us that its altitude would have been about 2,000 feet or slightly less. The local weather was not terribly bad. No distress messages were broadcast to ATC by the crew prior to the crash; it simply disappeared from the controller’s radarscopes and crashed into a house.

Bombardier "Dash-8"

Right from the beginning it was clear that the general weather around that part of New York State was not great. Airplanes had reported “icing” conditions. Yeah okay, that happens a lot in the winter. But airplanes (especially airliners) are equipped with various devices to combat ice. They deal with it.

Now today, before the wreckage has even cooled, people are asking (demanding!) to know what happened?!

Well, you know… Who knows?

In typical fashion, the media is all over this crash, covering it from every angle, trying their best to figure out exactly how it happened. Because we’re all such experts at air crash investigations now. The focus is, of course, icing. Granted, bad weather can be a factor in any accident, and the investigators will explore that thoroughly.

In an Associated Press story, the reporter (by the name of John Curran) quotes the NTSB as saying that the airplane “fell flat” onto the ground. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, fell flat? This genius reporter comes to that amazing deduction because the NTSB released a preliminary report saying that the plane came to rest facing away from the airport. Oh. Well of course.

Then, part-time expert air crash investigator and full-time idiot Senator John Menendez from New Jersey chimes in, saying he was told by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood that the plane “…made a 180-degree turn at 5,000 feet.” Maybe so. When it was up at 5,000 feet it probably did make such a turn, perhaps when it was in a holding pattern or when it was being vectored by ATC to the final approach course. This would be completely normal. However, the plane did not crash from 5,000 feet. It crashed from about 2,000 feet. So this little tidbit of the supposed “180-degree turn” is meaningless at the moment.

Ray LaHood should keep his big, fat mouth shut, and the Senator from New Jersey should also shut the hell up. Both of them should keep quiet about things of which they have no fucking knowledge.

Oh, but when did that ever stop anyone? Especially nitwit news writers, ignorant government officials and moron politicians?

I do not know much about this crash, but I can tell you one thing for certain: IT DID NOT "FALL FLAT."

Airplanes do not just fall out of the sky. I know we all have that fear…that every airplane up there is just a second or two away from “falling out of the sky.” The wings will suddenly and inexplicably “lose lift” and it will crash to the ground. But it does not happen that way.

This particular airplane crashed in a very small area. In other words, it did not leave a big, long trail of wreckage. So we know that it came down fairly steeply. That being the case, it came down nose-first, in a nearly vertical dive. Not “flat.” We can assume that it…the term we use is, “departed controlled flight.” Airplanes that are not under control are generally banking or turning or pitching, or perhaps all three. Sure enough, the NTSB preliminary report indicates that the Dash-8 was behaving in just such a manner. We can also be sure that the pilots were doing their damnedest to get the plane back under control. Unfortunately, it looks like they didn't have enough altitude to do so.

After any accident, we pilots talk among ourselves, going over the details of what we know, and speculating generally on what might have caused it. We know how aircraft fly, and we know the various things that can go wrong. But we know better than to come to any snap-judgments or instantaneous conclusions. We know better than to latch onto one bit of “evidence” and go, ”AHA! THAT’S THE CAUSE!” as so many seem to want to do (Fox News, anyone?)

All right. Airplanes don’t just suddenly dive out of the sky. So why would this airplane do that? Good question. And it’s one that we currently do not know the answer to. Could it have been ice on the wings? Sure. Could it have been something else entirely? Sure. When the wreckage is recovered and analyzed by the NTSB, we’ll know more. That will probably take more than, oh, a day. Sorry news fans, but it might even take more than two days.

In the meantime, the wild, idiotic speculation by the media and anyone who can muscle their way in front of a microphone and a camera just pisses me off.

12 February 2009

Come Speak Me A Song

We all appreciate artists who are multi-talented: screen actors who can also sing and/or dance, beginning with Al Jolson I guess, up through Fred Astaire, then to my favorite, Dean Martin. In the 1960’s we were treated to Richard Harris’ wonderful, “MacArthur Park.” It helped if the actor/singer also played an instrument, like Andy Griffith or Dudley Moore. Some were more successful than others. Like Elvis…who was more of a singer-turned-actor come to think of it.

Although rare today, there still are stars who can pull it off. Like John Travolta, who had a couple of hit records and danced up a storm in films like Saturday Night Fever and Grease.

There have always been actors who wanted to get in on the crossover appeal, but couldn’t actually, you know, sing. Think Lorne Greene. The star of TV’s Bonanza had a number of spoken-word “songs,” like “Ringo” which had nothing to do with the Beatles but was about a gunslinger in the old west. At least Lorne did original stuff.

Some stars tried to use their acting “chops” to reinterpret songs into spoken-word dramas. Think Star Trek’s William Shatner, who's not shy about poking fun at himself now. But before he realized what a caricature he'd become, he once did an ultra-serious spoken-word rendition of Elton John’s “Rocket Man.” It’s on YouTube, and it’s nothing short of hilarious. You should check it out. Shatner parodies abound, of course.

But you all know I’m a big fan, so at this point I’m forced to scream like Chris Crocker, “Leave William Shatner alone!” There are worse. There were the actors who took themselves really seriously. There was Telly Savalas. Ol' Kojack did a spoken-word rendition of a great song from the 1970's called "If." Replacing David Gates' beautiful soprano is Savalas' trademarked gravelly voice. See here (it really is worth clicking - is that a smoking jacket he's wearing?).

I love the very beginning. As Telly lights that cigarette he looks (glares?) at the camera as if to say, "What the hell are YOU lookin' at?" and looks like he's about to kick our ass. Then he launches into a sappy love poem accompanied by the cherubic, big-eyed blond. Bizarre, man, bizarre.

Which brings me of course to Scott Meyer and “Basic Instructions,” the funniest comic strip in the world, perhaps the funniest comic strip that ever was or will be. (Right-click and select "Open Link in New Window" if you want to see it bigger.)

Every panel in this strip makes me laugh. I love how Rick says, “I hope you get some enjoyment out of…what’s about to happen.” And Missy complaining about getting dragged into it. And the smoking jacket, of course!

I woke up this morning thinking about this strip and began laughing out loud, chuckling uncontrollably. For the first time in my life I was happy no one else was there, because they’d surely be thinking, “What kind of lunatic am I sleeping with?”

Some people are better off being single.

06 February 2009

Manifesting Destiny

I know a guy who says he’s good at manifesting things…willing them into existence just by thinking about them. He brags constantly about seemingly random events that occurred simply because he conjured them up. Eh- I’m not a believer.

Or at least, I wasn’t…

My living room carpet just inside my front door had gotten dirty. I guess it was from me traipsing mud and dirt (and tools and parts and crap) in all winter. I had vacuumed on Wednesday and hadn't even made a dent in it. I was pretty bummed. And I was resigned to renting one of those carpet shampoo machines that you see in supermarkets and Home Depot and doing it myself. But then I thought, “Gee, I wish those guys would come around.”

"Those guys" are the ones who go door-to-door offering a free one-room carpet cleaning if you’ll just recommend their product to a friend. They’ve been here twice before, the latest time while I was in Honduras, and the guy taking care of my house let them do it. Worked out great!

Lo and behold the next day (Thursday afternoon) I was at home puttering around as usual when the doorbell rang. Big tall kid with a pamphlet in his hand, and a smaller kid with a 2-liter bottle of Mountain Dew in his hand. Nicely dressed – shirts and ties. I thought at first that they were thirsty religious missionaries (we get them a lot too). But then I spied what was behind them: A big box that said, “KIRBY” on the side.


”Hi, my name is C.J.,” the tall kid said. “Have you ever heard of the Kirby vacuum cleaner?” I said yes. “To demonstrate our product, we’d like to offer you a free carpet cleaning today if you’ll just recommend this vacuum to another person.”

I said, “Come on in, boys!”

The younger kid was Corey, and C.J. said it was his “first day on the job.” Uh-huh, whatever. After the usual pleasantries, C.J. set Corey up in the house and then split. Obviously they had a van-full of kids and vacuum cleaners in the neighborhood. As soon as he was gone, I gave Corey the bad news.

”Hey man, cut to the chase, how much is this machine?”

“Well, it retails for $2,400.”

I said, “I thought so. Corey, I’m not buying a vacuum cleaner from you today. All I want is for you to clean my carpet, and I *will* tell a friend about it. So you might as well relax and just go about your job.”

I figured I’d tell Matt. He and Alisha have two kids…and a messy, clumsy friend who often spills his drinks and doesn’t take his muddy shoes off before walking on their cream-colored carpet. (Hey, don’t look at me!)

Corey said, ”That’s cool, man. I appreciate you being honest.”

After about an hour, my carpet was looking pretty spiffy. That Kirby vacuum does a kick-ass job! I was genuinely impressed with it. Not impressed enough to actually buy one, but you know.

That’s when The Boss showed up. Doug. (They all use just their first names – no business cards, no documentation other than a dog-eared handout.) The pretense was that he had to “check on Corey’s work” but we all know that he was there to close the deal. Sure enough, the high-pressure sales pitch began. The old, “What would it take to get you into this vacuum cleaner today?” bullshit that we’ve heard a million times. (Do they think we’ve never been subjected to a sales pitch like that before? They should know better.)

Persistent to the end (I’ll give him that), Doug the Boss kept lowering and lowering the price, pushing and pushing until he’d gotten it waaaay down below his initial “discounted” price – agonizing as if he’d be losing money on the deal. (He asked me to not reveal the actual rock-bottom price offered, and I agreed. But it was very low.) I’ve got to admit he was good - he tried every sales trick in the book, all of which I was expecting. It’s such a game. I wished that some of my other friends could have been there to see a real pro in action. Doug that is, not me.

It was amusing and fun – up to a point, but I finally had to put a stop to things. I had been up-front with them from the beginning. All I wanted was the carpet cleaning. As long as that came with no strings, we were cool. I held up my hand. ”We’re done here, Doug.” Denied and dejected, he left quickly, leaving a chuckling Corey to pack up their vacuum which they fully intended to not have to do. I offered to give him back his bottle of Mountain Dew (hate the stuff) but he said to just keep it.

So my carpet looks great!

As I said, I hadn’t been sold on this “manifesting” hoo-hah, but now I’m kind of leaning towards believing it. Now I’m trying to think of something else I need. I’m kind of in the mood for a new adventure. If I can conjure up the carpet cleaning guys, who knows what else the human mind is capable of?

Kirby Vacuum Cleaners

02 February 2009

Hell's Kitchen

Every year, the Boss hires a chef to cook for us during hunting season at the camp. This year, we stumbled onto this guy named Giovanni. Although he is of Italian descent, he grew up in France...and then New Jersey when his family moved over. From there, he gravitated down to the resort town of Destin, Florida where he's made quite a name and reputation for himself. As it is the slow season in Destin, many restaurants have closed, leaving Gio between gigs. Thankfully for us! But guys like him are never out of work for long.

We knew right from the start that "Gio" was the right man for the job. He is a superb cook, but he is also a colorful character with lot of animated stories. He's easygoing, upbeat and fun to be around...one of those guys you just can't help liking immediately.

Turns out, Giovanni is one of the contestants on a TV show called "Hell's Kitchen" put on by the world-class asshole...err, sorry I mean world-class "chef," Gordon Ramsay. This Ramsay guy has made a career out of being an obnoxious jerk, and has a couple of shows where he gets to do just that.

Gio didn't say too much about the show (like who won), other than saying he didn't. The rules of programs like that are pretty strict about not discussing it until the whole series has aired.

So last Thursday night was the premiere of this season of "HK." The Boss called and asked me to pick Gio up at the hunting camp in the afternoon and fly him to Destin where the owners of the Marina Cafe restaurant were holding a little viewing party in his honor - and then bring him back afterward (he does still have a job to do for us). I got an invite to the party, of course - free food and drink for the night! And while I could not drink, nothing said I couldn't eat!

We had a nice tailwind on the way down, thanks to a cold front that had snuck through that morning. It was beautiful and clear, a perfect day for someone's first helicopter ride. The 110 mile flight took exactly one-hour, despite the circuitous routing you have to take as you thread your way through the various restricted military airspaces around Eglin Air Force Base.

The party was great. We got there a little after six. The place is divided into two rooms: a long dining room and a large, stylish bar. It wasn't a private party, and the restaurant/bar was open for regular business. As show-time approached, the place got more and more crowded, until it was quite packed. With a bunch of big-screen TVs all blaring the Fox channel loudly, I asked the maitre d' if the other patrons didn't mind all the noise? He swept his hand across the room and said, "Everyone's here for Gio!" It was true; the non-party patrons had gone. Gio circulated through the room like an experienced politician, posing for about a thousand pictures.

Gio did tell us that everyone on the show was an accomplished cook in their own right - they wouldn't be there otherwise. But the producers edited the footage in a way to make it look like the chefs are the most inept, bumbling fools who couldn't boil water. Vulgar and abusive, Ramsay is particularly hard on them, sometimes spitting out their food. But that's part of his schtick. You either find it entertaining or you don't. (I don't.)

Gio's official "HK" bio calls him "pompous," and "arrogant." That is an exaggeration; he is nothing of the sort. But that is the way the producers decided to portray him, so they played up his occasional bursts of fiery Italian temper. Ah, television.

See Giovanni's "HK" bio

As ten p.m. approached, we had to leave. The Destin FBO closes at ten, and it's difficult (but not impossible) to get out onto the ramp. Plus, the nice tailwind we had on the way down would be a headwind on the way back to the camp.

At 1,000 feet we were making a blistering 80 knots (92 mph) across the ground. The direction and velocity of wind changes with altitude. On a hunch, and because I don't like flying low, I climbed up to 4,500 feet. Gio and I watched the groundspeed readout on the GPS creep up to 95 knots (110 mph). I love these little accomplishments...when I can cheat Mother Nature a little. Hey, you might not think that there's much difference between 92 mph and 110 mph in the grand scheme of things, but every little bit helps when you gotta pee (as I did, just as soon as I took off, naturally). Still, it took us a long hour-and-a-half to get "home." Sadly, the 95 knot groundspeed did not last for the duration of the cruising portion of the flight; the further north we got the more the speed dropped off.

So Gio has become a real celebrity in Destin. He did not get kicked off the show in the first episode, of which we are glad. We'll all be watching for him in the new episodes to see how long he lasts. As soon as his stint with us is over, he'll be starting work at a restaurant called Destin Chops as it reopens for the season. We wish him the best of luck. Now we've got yet another reason to go to Destin (where the Boss has a beach house anyway). As if we needed another.

I might not fly very much as a "corporate pilot," but I sure do eat well.

"Hell's Kitchen" airs on Fox on Thursday night.

Fox's "Hell's Kitchen" website

Marina Cafe/Destin Chops website

01 February 2009

In Defense of the Business Jet

Much hoopla was recently made about the troubled Citibank’s intended purchase of a “$50 million” business jet. The outcry was incredible, as if Citi was going to take $50 million in cash from the TARP money and plunk it down on the Gulfstream salesman’s desk, "Here ya go!"

Are we really that stupid? Don’t we realize that Citi was going to finance the jet? And that financing would probably be with a term of 20 or 30 years?

Suddenly, business jets have become the focus of our national anger…flagrant wastes of money! The perception is that these are nothing more than ostentatious “luxury jets,” something more fitting for a rock star than a corporate executive. So far, nobody is stepping up in defense of the corporate jet as a business tool. Pity, that.

My Boss is on the Board of Directors of a certain company which is inconveniently based in a tiny town in eastern Alabama. Every month, he has to attend a four-hour board meeting. Bad news: Interstate highways do not go there; it’s all back roads. Scenic, but slow. From our company headquarters, mapquest.com tells us that driving will consume a few minutes shy of three hours of his time. One-way. In perfect conditions. Six hours total of (unproductive) driving and four hours of meeting: Ten hours expended - one whole day gone.

But the Boss owns a helicopter, and I fly him to the meeting, which starts at one o’clock. We leave right from his office at noon. It takes us just under an hour to get there. I land in a soccer field right behind the building in which the meeting is held. We’re home before six.

The advantage of using the helicopter is that the Boss can work in the office all morning, and he can get back at a reasonable time as opposed to late in the evening. Instead of a grueling three-hour drive on Alabama back roads, it’s an easy flight each way.

This is just one example of how the Boss uses the helicopter. There are others. Having a “corporate aircraft" increases his productivity immensely. He loves it. To him it is well worth the cost.

Having said that, we did not buy the biggest, fastest, most capable, most expensive helicopter available. We selected our ship carefully from the used-aircraft market, and we bought it at a good, fair price. He paid cash. We’ve taken some grief from others. They ask, ”Why didn’t you guys go with a new Bell 407??” Well, for one thing, the Bell 407 is not that much faster than our 206. The 407 has a slightly bigger cabin, but conversely a slightly smaller cockpit, which is where the Boss always rides. Too, the purchase price of a 407 is roughly four times (or more!) what we paid for ours, and is much more expensive to operate. It is sexier, yes. But “sexy” doesn’t figure in on the bottom line. The 206 suits us just fine.

Larger corporations have obviously larger travel needs. One of my non-aviator friends joked, “Did Citibank *have* to buy a $50 million jet? Wouldn’t a *two* million dollar jet have been good enough?” Well, maybe…maybe not. Two-million dollar jets typically cannot carry very much of a load, nor can they go very far without refueling. If a corporation needed to take a bunch of people from one coast to the other…or from the U.S. to Europe, then a $2 million jet would not suffice. There are other considerations too.

But I cannot speak for Citibank. Their transportation needs and wants are between them and their Board of Directors, not us. We shouldn’t even be involved in it.

As I’ve written, we are also “in the market” for an airplane to augment the helicopter. Right now the Boss is balancing his own needs and wants, trying to select the plane that best suits our “mission profile.” The problem is we really don’t have one, just as we had no clearly defined mission profile for the helicopter. The Boss just knew he could use it, and use it he does! It makes good, defensible business sense.

The plane we buy will likely not be a $50 million jet, because we have no need for such an aircraft. However it will probably have two engines, and those engines will probably be turbine (i.e. a turboprop, where jet engines drive propellers instead of using their thrust to propel the plane).

Perhaps if all corporations used as much intelligence and discretion in selecting the proper aircraft for their needs as my Boss, they wouldn’t find themselves having to justify their use to the American public. And too, it wouldn’t hurt for one of those highly-paid CEO’s to come out and say, ”Hey look, these jets are important TOOLS that help us be more efficient in the conduct our nationwide and global business.”