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 November 2010

The Night Time..ISN'T...The Right Time

I don’t like flying at night. I mean I really don’t like flying at night. Let me explain.

I fly a single-engine helicopter over some fairly inhospitable, densely wooded, sparsely populated terrain (central Alabama). If I had my druthers, I’d always fly up high, day or night, up around four or five-thousand feet. Up there, I’d be in radar contact and could talk to an ATC facility. That way, if anything went wrong I could at least alert someone and get help coming my way. Aviation radios rely on line-of-sight communication. Thus, when I'm down low I'm out of range of any air traffic control facilities. They'd probably not be able to "see" me on radar either.

But my boss doesn’t like to fly high in helicopters. I fully understand this; with no wings and not much structure around you, many people feel very naked and vulnerable at high altitude in a helicopter. The boss likes to fly down around 1,000 feet above the ground. It’s where he’s comfortable. And since it is his helicopter, and since he pays my salary, I comply with his wishes. I may not like it, but unless there is some compelling safety reason for flying up high, I stay down low.

Flying low is risky but not dangerous. (If it were dangerous I would not do it.) The risk comes from the possibility of having to make an emergency landing. A single-engine aircraft is always subject to a failure of the one-and-only powerplant. In a helicopter, when the engine quits you can make a perfectly controlled landing (it’s called “autorotation” and we practice these often). But the descent angle is steep. You don’t glide around, casually looking for a nice, open, level, unobstructed place to land. You land on whatever is immediately underneath you. You better hope it’s something suitable. During the day, we helicopter pilots always keep a sharp eye open for potential emergency landing sites. It's ingrained into us from our very first flight lesson. At night, it's a little more difficult.

An airplane pilot friend and I were talking about this. I mentioned my discomfort about flying a single-engine aircraft at night. He agreed. He told of a recent trip in his airplane in which he was coming back from Tennessee at night and was worried about the engine quitting. I asked how high he was flying? “Nine-thousand feet,” he replied. I said, “What?! From 9,000 feet you can glide fifteen miles in that airplane!!” He'd be in the air for over 10 minutes. That’s enough time to call for help, select a suitable nearby airport, and then eat a sandwich on the way down.

Truth be told, modern turbine engines like the one in my helicopter seldom quit. Keep ‘em supplied with fuel and oil, and they just keep on running. So while the possibility is always there, I'm not super-paranoid about the engine quitting.

However, in a helicopter there are a couple of other things that can cause you to want to be on the ground
right now! There are driveshafts and couplings and gearboxes, that dang tail rotor, and various other mechanical bits…all of which must work perfectly in order to continue flight. Do such things fail often? Thankfully, no. But a helicopter is a complex piece of machinery that is designed, manufactured, assembled and maintained by humans. There’s plenty that can go wrong- we’re all familiar with Murphy’s Law. I’ve already had two complete tail rotor failures in helicopters. Both were when I was flying on offshore oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. Both were during the day, and both were caused by human error (mechanics leaving hardware loose).

So as they say, shit does happen.

As challenging as a mechanical failure would be during the day, it would be immeasurably more difficult at night. Despite the boss’s discomfort, I do fly higher at night – up around 2,500 feet. All this does is give me slightly more time to analyze and deal with whatever failure might occur. Seconds count. It doesn’t help in choosing a landing site; you cannot see anything on the ground at night. All I would do is head for a road (we follow well-traveled roads) and hope to find an open area at the last minute. I am under no delusion that it would be a nice, safe, pretty landing. It will most likely be a crash-landing. I’ve told this to the boss as plainly as I can. He’s okay with that risk, which he feels is not all that great.

Me, I’m not so sure anymore. I’m no kid. I’m at a point in my life where I don’t like taking unnecessary risks. I know, I know, you could say, “But Bob, you still ride motorcycles, and occasionally crash them!” which is true. Riding motorcycles is risky, I admit that. But so are a lot of things in life.

I’ve been flying long enough now that the risks of doing it at night in a single-engine helicopter are getting to me. I’m starting to feel that I just don’t want to be doing it anymore. We are done with football season, in which we do most of our night flying. With the upcoming hunting season, we’ll probably do very little flying at night. Then, as the days begin to get longer we won’t do any night flying at all again until summertime, and even then only sporadically.

So I’ve got a decision to make before we get into football season next year.

12 November 2010

Back In The Saddle Again

Fun Fact #1: There are NO taxicabs in Eufaula, Alabama. None. Zero. This historic city of 14,000 has no taxis. Then again, it has no airline service either. So there's probably no demand for a car service - where would anybody go? Which begs the question: What are we doing here? God only knows. Hey, I only drive the thing; I don't get paid to ask questions. But here we are. I had to borrow a car to get to the hotel. At least they do have hotels in Eufaula, Alabama.

It's only been just over a month since I last flew by myself, but it seems a lot longer. Back when we did a couple of flights with my friend Mike as pilot-in-command, I took two short segments just to show him a thing or two. The pain in the arm made it not enjoyable. Plus, flying from the copilot's side just felt...I dunno...wrong. (For those flights the Boss had to sit in the back. He normally rides up front with me, and I'm sure it felt equally wrong to him.)

But today I got back in the ship, climbed back into my regular seat. Ahhh, it felt good! There are only a few things in this world that I do well. Flying is one of them. And in this helicopter I am at home...maybe more so than when I'm in my real home. Still I was a little nervous: Had I forgotten anything? (That's why they make checklists.) Still, I paused one last time before hitting the starter button...looking around the cockpit, making sure everything was set right. Satisfied that it was, I fired up and took off for the Boss's house.

With just me in the cockpit and my bags in the luggage compartment, I knew the ship would assume a slightly nose-high attitude in a hover. So I lifted off slowly...feeling it...easing it elegantly and smoothly into the air like I've done it a thousand times before. And I have, actually- 50,000 times, I reckon, or more. (Back when I worked for PHI I amassed some 7,000 hours over thirteen years. On most jobs I was assigned to, I averaged six landings per flight hour. Add to that all the takeoffs and landings I did before that as a sightseeing pilot in NYC, and those I've done since and I easily have over 50,000 landings, which always must equal the number of takeoffs.)

It's a good feeling, like slipping into a comfortable old pair of jeans and sneakers. It was a gorgeous, beautifully clear day. The slight headwind slowing us down did not bother me in the least. I was back in my element and loving every minute of it.

So here we are in taxicab-less Eufaula, Alabama. Even so, I love coming here. For one thing, Eric, the guy who runs the FBO (fixed-base operator - a facility for general aviation) is also a helicopter pilot not to mention a great guy. He and his wife always go out of their way to make sure I'm well taken care of. I mean really, they go above and beyond. Wonderful people.

Headed down into town on Highway 431, I spotted a place called River City BBQ on the side of the road. Talk about your holes in the wall. But despite recommendations of other, more upscale places to eat, I knew where I'd be coming back to. And sure enough, once I got checked-in to the hotel, I made a bee-line back up the road. It was dark when I arrived and I thought the place was closed because the big sign out front was unlghted. Nevertheless, the locals were streaming in.

The special was a chicken and brisket platter (with two sides and Texas toast), so I ordered that plus a large sweet tea to go. They had a whole long list of side items from which you could select, but I stuck with the old standby beans and slaw. I had barely gotten my big jug o'tea filled when they were calling me back to pick up the food. It was McDonalds-fast.

A little pricey, it came to $16.00! When I got it back to the hotel I saw why: It was enough to feed an army. Seriously, it was a lot. I do know some (unattractively skinny) people who, upon seeing such a mountain of food will grimace and turn away. Not me! I consider such meals a challenge - one that I have proven time and again to be up to. And tonight was no exception. (They're not stingy with the sauce, either. There was so much leftover that it made a great dippin' sauce for the Texas toast. Yum!)

It. Was. Marvelous.

If you're ever on the road between Dothan, Alabama and Columbus, Georgia, stop in at the River City BBQ. It'll have to be in the daytime because you won't find it at night. You won't be disappointed.

Good flying and good food...does life get any better than this?

09 November 2010

Collateral Damage

In the words of Montgomery “Scotty” Scott, the Chief Engineer on the Starship Enterprise, “Ya canna change the laws o’physics!” When you throw yourself off a motorcycle and go tumbling down the pavement at 25 mph there are consequences to pay.

Although my broken arm was the focus of my attention immediately afterward, there were other injuries suffered in my accident. I mean, thinking back, even though I had just grabbed the brakes and had started to slow down, I honestly hit the ground still going about 25 or 30 mph. Trouble is, the pain from the other bangs was so comparatively less than that of the arm that they temporarily faded to near insignificance. It wasn’t until the pain in the upper arm abated that these other injuries made themselves known. Then boy, did they!

For one thing, my whole arm was beat up, not only from the shoulder to the elbow, but the elbow itself and down the forearm as well. My left foot also hurt like hell, so it must have hit something either on the motorcycle or on the street (probably the latter). Oddly, I had a strange, sore, black and blue mark on the back of my leg below my knee. I couldn’t figure out where this one came from, except to assume that my leg must have whacked the rear turn signal as the bike and I were going separate ways.

The worst-looking injury occurred to my side. My entire left side, from my beltline down to my knee, front to back, was black and swollen. It looked and felt like a ripe plum. So swollen and tender in fact that I thought the skin might split open. It was scary-looking. And painful. I took progress pictures, but since they reveal parts of my body that only a cheap hooker should see, you won’t be getting to. And believe me, you don’t want to. At least, I would hope not.

The side injury was disturbing to the few who saw it. It’s amazing that you can take such a beating with only one broken bone. So I guess I’m fortunate. Equally amazing, the black patches soon faded and within two weeks were completely gone, although the soreness remained.

The arm is healing well, just not as fast as I’d like. I don’t have full range of motion yet, and it’s a painful struggle to get it all back. Then again, it’s only been five weeks since the accident, and the doctor told me it might be as much as eight weeks of healing. They gave me some rehabilitation exercises to do, but maybe I’m pushing things a little.

I dwell on this accident because it’s the first one I’ve had in 38 years of motorcycle riding. Oh, I’ve dropped bikes before; low-speed get-offs that were more embarrassing than anything else. But this was the first, dammit-better-go-to-the-hospital accident I’ve had.

Speaking of which, the more I think about my treatment at Sacred Heart Hospital here in Pensacola, the angrier I get. We all know that people who work in hospitals have a prejudice against motorcycles and those who ride them. “Donorcycles,” they snidely call them.

What makes me angry is that none of the people who saw me in the Emergency Room that evening bothered to find out if I had any other injuries…never bothered to inquire as to the circumstances of my crash. They focused on the upper arm and the upper arm only. Truthfully, I was sore all over – all up and down my left side from my shoulder to my foot. I just didn’t know how badly I was hurt. The fact is, nobody even asked. It wasn’t until two days after the accident, when I was finally able to get my pants off when I looked in the mirror and went, “Holy good-night!” or words to that effect. It was ugly. …Err, uglier than usual.

And not that there was anything the E.R. staff could have done for me – thankfully they didn’t have to. But nobody knew that at the time.

I guess the takeaway here is that if you’re involved in a motorcycle accident, the treatment you receive in the hospital may vary. Next time (and God-forbid there is a next time), I’ll go to Baptist Hospital.

07 November 2010

Conan O'Brien and His Return to TV

Am I the only person on the planet who does not consider Conan O'Brien funny? I'm puzzled that so many people do. Various sources refer to O'Brien as a "comedic genius." Genius? Really? Rolling Stone Magazine recently did an article on him, sort of explaining why he is so popular with the college-age stoner crowd. And maybe that's it: Maybe I'm just too old and out of it to "get" his humor. I pride myself on keeping up with pop culture and stuff. And so it's kind of sad/tragic that I realize I'm on the wrong side of the generation gap. When did that happen??

O'Brien may be a great comedy writer (I'll admit that), but his on-air persona just does nothing for me. I don't find him funny at all and in fact, I find his interview skills particularly weak. Instead of genuinely listening to what the guest is saying, he always seems to be figuring out a way of turning whatever they say into some faux-self-deprecating joke. And everything is a joke to Conan O'Brien - a joke that he pretends to make at his own expense even though we know (wink-wink) he doesn't really mean it. It's as annoying as it is juvenile.

Thus although I shouldn't be, I am baffled by O'Brien's popularity (he reportedly has over a million Twitter subscribers), and all the hoopla surrounding his return to television - albeit as the host of a talk show on basic cable. I mean, TBS for cryin' out loud? What, TVLand didn't bite? He must be some kind of world-class attention-whore if he'd settle for the pittance TBS was able to cough up - which surely must pale beside what he used to make at NBC. He has said that he's not going to "reinvent the wheel" of late-night talk shows. How could he? It's been tried before - unsucessfully - by others, most notably Howard Stern. So we're not going to see anything different than what Jack Paar and Groucho Marx pioneered a thousand years ago. Wowee.

After NBC gave him the boot (and a $34 million severance check) and gave The Tonight Show back to Jay Leno, O'Brien was subject to a non-compete clause in his contract, which has now expired. Suffice to say, I won't be watching O'Brien's "triumphant" return to almost-late-night TV tomorrow night. Or the night after, for that matter.

You know, if it was me, if I was some unfunny, pretentious goofball and a major TV network just gave me $34 million to leave my job, I'd run away fast and you'd never hear from me again, ever.

Then again, I'm not a world-class attention-whore.