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?

15 January 2010

Flying At Night

I was at the hunting camp the other evening. I’d taken one of the Boss’s business partners on a flight over to Mississippi, where he’d spent the day in a meeting. We got back to the camp a little before sunset. Nobody met us when we landed, so I shut down and went down to the camp house. After a few minutes the Boss arrived. When I could get a word in, I asked about his plans for Thursday and Friday. In other words, did he need me to spend the night?

“Oh no, I don’t have anything for you to do. You can go home,”
he said.

I grabbed my coat and headed for the door so fast that it surprised him. Not that I was in a hurry to leave the camp and the meal that Chef Giovanni (of “Hell’s Kitchen” fame) was preparing. I just wanted to get airborne while there was still some light left in the sky.

As I get older, I find that I really don’t like flying at night. The Boss, on the other hand, loves flying at night. He doesn’t understand why I don’t.

But here’s the deal: I fly a single-engine helicopter. If the engine were to quit over the terrain between the hunting camp and our Home Base it would be, as we pilots call it, ugly. The chances of me setting it down safely are slim. We have a saying…an emergency procedure really, about this particular event:


Autorotation - ENTER
Landing Light – ON
If you don’t like what you see…
Landing Light – OFF

Yes, it’s a joke. But it’s based in reality. Because there’s not much choice of landing sites at night. You take what’s below you and hope for the best.

I know, I know…the rate of engine failures is very low…so low in fact that it really is not a concern. And when we think about possible emergencies that can occur to helicopters, there are a bunch! For instance, there is only one main transmission, and one tail rotor, and one hydraulic system… So there are a few more things that can go wrong than just the engine quitting. In a well-maintained aircraft, these things rarely fail. That doesn’t make me feel any better, however. It’s a psychological thing.

Back in 1971, ABC newsman Harry Reasoner had visited Viet Nam. He wrote a treatise about helicopters and the people who fly them that has become famously definitive:

You can't help but have the feeling that there will come a future generation of men, if there are any future generations of men, who will look at old pictures of helicopters and say, "You've got to be kidding."

Helicopters have that look that certain machines have in historical drawings. Machines or devices that came just before a major breakthrough. Record -changers just before the lightweight vinyl LP for instance.

Mark Twain once noted that he lost belief in conventional pictures of angels of his boyhood when a scientist calculated for a 150-pound men to fly like a bird, he would have to have a breast bone 15 feet wide supporting wings in proportion.

Well, that's sort of the way a helicopter looks.

The thing is helicopters are different from airplanes. An airplane by it's nature wants to fly, and if not interfered with too strongly by unusual events or incompetent piloting, it will fly.

A helicopter does not want to fly. It is maintained in the air by a variety of forces and controls working in opposition to each other.

And if there is any disturbance in this delicate balance the helicopter stops flying immediately and disastrously.

There is no such thing as a gliding helicopter.

That's why being a helicopter pilot is so different from being an airplane pilot, and why in generality airplane pilots are open, clear-eyed, buoyant, extroverts. And helicopter pilots are brooders, introspective anticipators of trouble.

They know if something bad has not happened it is about to.

That last line says it all. It is me to a "t." And it is every other helicopter pilot I know, too. Now, I fly both airplanes and helicopters, so you might assume that I possess the qualities of both. Sadly, I know fully well that I am at heart a "brooder, introspective anticipator of trouble." I accept this. I cannot help it (although I do try to compensate for it). I'm not sure if a career spent flying helicopters has made me this way, or whether I had these inherent qualities to begin with and they have made me a successful (read: still breathing) helicopter pilot.

All I know is that I do not like flying at night.


Bob said...

Once again you have drawn us into your life and what you do. Those of us who spend all of our time on land, of course, find it fascinating.

Anonymous said...

In 1984, while shooting Video for RJ Reynolds, shooting for Aminoil off Long Beach, Ca. Took a JetRanger offshore to an oil rig. Spent the day, flew back at night. Lets examine this picture. Single Engine Helicopter, over the Pacific ocean at night. This was BEFORE I became a Helicopter Pilot, we didn't know the risk back then. I look back at my photo with my mae west on sitting in the door. Just Damn! We were lucky the engine kept making noise! I do love the JetRanger, LongRanger, and UH-1 Series too! I have a buddy nearby who owns a UH-1B (workhorse) and UH-1F (parts ship)AND a JetRanger!
Ron Snipes
New Bern, NC