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?

30 December 2010

Bob Does Not Do Karaoke

That’s right, the rule is No Karaoke. But that rule got violated last night, under the influence of mass quantities of alcohol as you probably can imagine. But we’ll get to that in a bit.

Matt came into town from Atlanta yesterday. A mutual friend of ours died – a guy who’d been a strong father-figure to and big influence on Matt since the age of 10, about when Matt’s own father left the building, as they used to say about Elvis. (Matt is now 28.)

Fred Sale was his name. He ran the local batting cage/arcade business near the airport. He was a gentle giant of a man, with snow white hair and beard, and the Santa Claus disposition to go with it. Yes, he was jolly. Always jolly. He was kind and patient, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. He was generous with his time and advice to the kids who hung around the arcade. He was an accomplished mechanic. He was also deeply religious, but far from judgmental. Although our views on religion differed widely, we had lively, fun conversations about spirituality.

I met Fred about fifteen years ago when we were both about 40. With his white hair, he looked much older than me. Turned out he was four months younger. Diabetic and overweight, he didn’t take particularly good care of himself. He had constant heart problems. In the end, his big heart gave out in his sleep on Christmas Eve. Why do so many people seem to die during the holidays?

After the funeral, Matt, my friend Mike and I went out to dinner. We figured that the town would be pretty quiet this close to New Year’s Eve, but we were wrong. The restaurant we went to out on Pensacola Beach (the Grand Marlin) was packed, and Seville Quarter was hopping. One of the many bars in the complex had a karaoke machine, and like rubberneckers at a train wreck we were drawn in.

Karaoke is a much-derided form of entertainment. Everyone thinks they can sing. Most people cannot. It can be literally painful to hear some people torture a song. But here’s the thing: Karaoke brings the people of the bar together. With the right crowd it can be a great time for everyone. There is a sense of collective fun. Nobody boos (although it is certainly justified now and then), and everyone appreciates a singer’s genuine effort. And some of them can be quite good! There was one strikingly beautiful young woman named Kate who would have easily made it through the first few rounds of “American Idol.”

Now, if you don’t like to drink…or if you do your drinking at home, alone, then the bar/karaoke scene is probably not for you. Matt and I generally prefer to see live bands – but then again we’ve seen some horrible live bands that are even worse than good karaoke, if those two words can even go together.

So we’re sitting there getting wasted. Mike bailed early…something about “going to see about a girl.” Matt and I joined up with a small group- a guy and two girls who’d been up on stage a couple of times. I was idly flipping through the song selection book, and you know what, they really do have every song ever recorded in the history of music.

Now let me reiterate: Bob does not do karaoke. Nobody wants to hear Bob sing. But you know… I mean, there were so many other bad singers belting out bad renditions of “Bad Romance” (Lady Gaga) that I thought…well, what could it hurt? Except ears and sensibilities. But Matt’s never heard me “sing” (which we will put in quotes because it is a very loose use of the term). So I gave the DJ my song and waited for the call. I must have been pretty drunk.

I won’t say that my version of Elvis Presley’s “Promised Land” was very or even any good. You cannot hear the music very well up on stage. Elvis’s backup band kept getting ahead of me, and I was struggling and rushing to keep up. And I could only “sort of” hear myself. And what I heard were a lot of bum notes. I’ll tell ya, it sounded NOTHING like my version in the car singing along with the radio. Nothing. In fact, I was surprised (and dismayed) at how bad it sounded.

Poor song choice? Perhaps. Some time later, I gave the DJ another suggestion: Johnny Cash’s great “Man In Black.” By now I must have been very drunk. Hoooeeee, worse than before! It was like the Tennessee Three were on speed, rushing way ahead of me while I stumbled along behind. Way behind. Like Nick Nolte after a three-day bender. Nobody booed- but they could/should have.

The DJ had planned on cutting it off at midnight. But the place was so crowded, and the crowd was so good that he kept going. At one point- and this had to be around 1:00 a.m. he stopped by our table. “I’m gonna stick around,” he announced. “Any requests?”

“Achy-Breaky Heart!” I yelled impulsively. It’s a rousing, crowd-pleasing song of which I thought I knew the lyrics. On the other hand, it’s been years since I’ve heard it. And although the words are displayed prominently on a nearby monitor, I thought I would just “wing it.” Sadly, I thought wrong. Let’s just say, my performance had deteriorated somewhat as the night progressed. Which it does. Ah well…

Matt, always the smarter of the two of us, declined to sing. It was probably a wise decision.

Matt and I have not gone out partying like that in a long, long time. There’s a good reason: We call it a “hangover.” And truthfully, I’m getting a little old to be hanging around in bars, getting drunk and making a fool of myself. I do enough of that at work! Fortunately, neither Matt nor I had a bad hangover this morning.

As always, it was a good visit and a great night on the town, even if the circumstance (Fred’s death) was kind of a bummer and even if we did drink a little too much. We vowed to not do this again anytime soon, at least not until the next time we hang out together. And then he jumped in his car and headed back to Atlanta, leaving me to just chill on a rainy, dreary day and be glad that none of our other friends were there with their cellphone cameras with the quick upload-to-Facebook feature.

See, as long as there’s no video evidence, it never happened. And Bob can still say that he does not do karaoke.

24 December 2010

Christmas Wishes

Grrr, that just makes me mad. I had what I thought was a great post yesterday. But I got to thinking that it sounded a little familiar. So I went back and reviewed my Christmas posts for the last couple of years. You guessed it, yesterday's post is an almost note-for-note remake of the one in December 2008. Damn! What- am I that hard-up for material...that short on creativity? I must've had the Chiffons' "He's So Fine" running in my head when I wrote yesterday's post*.

You can read 2008's post HERE if you like. You probably won't be able to tell the difference from yesterday's.

But if you want to read a couple of really GOOD posts about Christmas, read THIS one by my blogger friend Bob from Nashville, TN. And while you're at it, read THIS one from him as well. I've mentioned "Other Bob" before. He writes in an easygoing, casual way. His posts never fail to make me feel good - like a phone call from an old friend. Ahh, I'm starting to sound like a broken record. But I love reading Bob's stuff, as well as posts from Debby in Pennsylvania, and my friend and fellow helicopter pilot, Hal Johnson who should write more.

Anyway, I offer my apology for the repetitive post, which has hastily been deleted. And I hope that you'll accept this modified-and-superior one (with 27% more originality!) in its place. Well, I hope it's superior.

This year has been odd. Christmas came fast!...well, all of 2010 went by in a blink for that matter. Were we all so preoccupied with the economy, politics, a never-ending "war" on...something or somebody, and the existence (or non-) of Big O's birth certificate?

Or were we just having so much fun that the year flew by?

My friend Matt in Atlanta posted on his Facebook that he took Alisha and Dylan out to look at Christmas lights last night (Christmas Eve). Later on he noted that it was, in his words, "kind of lame, not many people decorated." Hmm.

Every year since we've had the helicopter, the Boss usually takes people up to fly around our town and look at Christmas lights. I go along, as I must, and I do not complain. It's always spectacular.

Err, not this year.

This past Monday we went up again shortly after sunset. Gorgeous, brisk night, not-a-cloud, full moon. A beautiful night for flying. I punched up a modern-Christmas music station on the XM radio and flew around, looking for the usual "hot-spots" I figured would be all lit up: No dice. Oh, there were some...the regulars, of course. But as Matt found out was the case up in Atlanta, down here in Brewton, Alabama there were noticeably fewer Christmas lights up this year than last. A puzzling, troubling sign o'the times. We didn't stay up long - it was too depressing.

It's been a tough year, and it seems as though our collective spirit has been broken. It's sad. And my Boss, who's no slouch when it comes to financial stuff, predicts that 2011 may be as bad or worse than 2010. Oh joy! Let us hope he is wrong.

So again I apologize for the repost. But I do want to thank you all for indulging me by continuing to read this never-ending stream-of-consciousness (more like stream-of-crapciousness), and I sincerely wish everyone a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

And I promise not to make this same post next year.

*Oh, and for those of you who might not have gotten the reference, Beatle George Harrison was successfully sued by the writers of "He's So Fine" because they convinced the court that George's "My Sweet Lord" was a direct rip-off.

17 December 2010

How To Make Shorter Blog Posts

I usually agonize over my posts. I write them up in MSWord, and then spend an eternity editing, tweaking, fiddling, changing, cutting-and-pasting until I get them to a point I’m happy with. Only then will I transfer them to Blogger and tweak some more. I admire my blogger friends like Debby, who can convey in so few words what takes me so many. Brevity is not one of my strong points.

The day after my little run-in with the FAA that evening, I had to fly my boss. So on Wednesday morning I was sitting in the pilot lounge at some airport and had a couple of hours to kill. I’m never without my laptop, so instead of starting with Word, I fired up Blogger and directly began composing while the event was still fresh in my mind. I got the main part of the post down, then hit “Save” and went on to some other stuff, figuring on getting back and adding more stuff to the post later – like, about the adversarial relationship between the FAA and the rest of aviation.

Anyway, the boss showed up a little sooner than expected. We flew on to our next stop. I had just shut down - literally the blades were still spinning - when my mechanic Chris called.

“Hey, I heard you had a visit from the FAA last night,”
he said.
“How the heck did you know that?!”
I asked. Only the people at the airport knew.
“I read your blog,”
he said.


There are two little buttons at the bottom of each Blogger page: “Publish Post” and “Save Now.” I must have hit the wrong one.

One of the things I would have added to the story was that, as one commenter pointed out, my deal wasn’t technically a “ramp check.” Although they can happen at any time at any airport, those meetings with the FAA are usually unexpected. This one was pre-arranged. It was more of a “facility visit” or whatever they call it. The inspector admitted that they’d known about our helicopter for a while, and had been meaning to pay us a visit. “We’ve been here for nearly three-and-a-half years,” I said. “What took you so long?”

I went back and re-read the "Ramp Check" piece. I thought to myself that it was pretty good as it was, with no further need to mess with it. I’ll have to try that again in the future – just get to a natural stopping point in the story and hit “Publish.” Like now.

15 December 2010

Ramp Check!

There are a couple of things that strike fear into a pilot's heart. I've already talked about our annual flight physical, perhaps the scariest thing we endure. Right after that comes inflight fire, and catastrophic structural failure. But among them on the list has to be a little visit from the FAA we call a "ramp check."

What happens is this: You land somewhere. A well-dressed person with a clipboard and the usual ID-on-a-lanyard approaches your aircraft. He or she announces that they are with the FAA and they'd like to ask you a few questions. They will usually proceed to verify the legality and safety of you and your rusty, trusty steed. It is the aviation equivalent of getting stopped by the cops and getting a random driver's license check along with a vehicle inspection.

We pilots have a bunch of rules we must comply with. A bunch of rules. Among them, there are certain documents we must carry on our person and in the aircraft. Although we are not required to keep our maintenance logs in the aircraft, we must be able to prove that the ship has a current Annual Inspection in effect, and that it is loaded within the weight and balance limits.

While going over your documents and while perusing the aircraft, there is always a chance that the FAA inspector will catch something that is not to his liking. Thus, we fear getting "grounded" in a place other than home. It is why many pilots get nervous when the FAA shows up.

When I was at Petroleum Helicopters, they told us to not fear the Ramp Inspection. The company took great pains to comply with all applicable regulations. As long as we pilots did our part and followed the rules (both company rules and those of the FAA), we had nothing to be afraid of. In the 13 years I was with PHI, I never got ramp-checked even once.

But this past week, an FAA inspector showed up at our Home Base and asked the airport operator if we were there. As it turned out we were gone. He said he'd be back. From his description I knew who it was - but we'd never met. So I called the guy and offered to set up a time when we could meet. I did not ask what it was all about, although I was curious as you can imagine.

The inspector arrived on the appointed day. It was cold in the hangar and I knew he wouldn't be hanging around very long. He gave the ship the once-over, then dove into the maintenance records. Not to brag, but we have a very squared-away operation; I keep very good records.

I know from experience that the FAA does not care too much about the actual plane. Let me explain. Any aircraft has little niggling stuff...we call them "discrepancies"...which can render the ship unairworthy depending on who's doing the looking. Some planes have more than others (mine has very few - if any). The FAA knows this. They know that they can go and "ground" just about any aircraft they look at. So instead they look at the paperwork. If the paperwork is in order - well organized and up-to-date, then they assume the aircraft has been receiving good maintenance. A sketchy airplane with bad paperwork will put them on edge. A nice-looking ship with good paperwork puts them at ease. It's just human nature.

After about an hour, my FAA inspector was satisfied - and pleased. He did give me a few items he felt needed correcting (e.g. a missing placard on the instrument panel, and a logbook maintenance signoff he felt was incomplete - both easily fixed).

04 December 2010

Night Time Ain't The Right Time, Part II

Okay, let me explain. In my last post I wrote about my discomfort with flying at night in a single-engine helicopter at low altitude over inhospitable terrain. That will never change. I'm not going to find a way to "relax" or come to terms with it in any way. It is a risky endeavor; it will ALWAYS be a risky endeavor. Is it riskier than flying at a higher altitude during daylight over good terrain? Yes. How much riskier? It's hard to say. But it is that higher level of risk that makes me uncomfortable. Any pilot who downplays or minimizes the risks of flying at night is being very naive and not looking at things properly.

Okay, back up for a second. Yes, night flying can be beautiful, often spectacular, especially when it's "severe clear" and calm. For some psychological reason the aircraft noise seems muted. It seems to run more smoothly. You fly along, feeling strangely insulated in your little cocoon, under a dome of twinkling diamonds, above a carpet of sparkling, flashing red and white Christmas lights (white house and streetlights, red tower obstruction lights and the tail lights of cars). It seems that you can see forever. Even the passengers are less boisterous than they are during the daytime, and have more of an hushed tone in their voice when they talk on the intercom. With the right XM music channel selected the experience can be indescribable.

Cities and towns show up clearly at night, even from very far away. "See that glow of lights off the left? That's Birmingham. How far away? Oh, about 60 miles." Closer in, the green and white airport beacons beckon alluringly...comfortingly. As your eyes adjust to the darkness you find yourself turning the instrument panel lights down lower and lower. Sometimes, when there's a full moon out, it can be almost like flying in the daytime, such is the detail you can make out of the terrain below.

Flying at night can be beautiful. From a couple of thousand feet up...in an airplane...a night flight can be one of the most sublime, awe-inspiring experiences man can have.

That's the good news. There is bad news.

For one thing, not every night is clear and calm. Clouds don't magically disappear at sunset, nor does the wind inexplicably lay down. Fronts don't always move through when they're "supposed" (i.e. forecast) to. And fog sometimes forms behind them when it's not supposed to. And that's just for starters.

When we take off from Tuscaloosa, Alabama headed for my boss's hunting camp (which is out in the middle of 4,000 very dark acres), we are usually right at maximum allowable weight. With a full load of people and bags, I cannot carry much fuel. If for some reason I cannot land at our camp (which has happened), my only alternate is the airport in Selma, which is unattended at night and out in the middle of nowhere. If I cannot make it into Selma (which also has happened), we might have enough fuel for a return to Tuscaloosa...or we might not. I have been thrust into this very situation once...which was more than enough. Thankfully, it worked out and I was eventually able to land at the camp. As I've always said, I'm glad I was born lucky instead of handsome.

You give me an airplane...any airplane (but preferably one with two engines), and let me go up high where I can talk to ATC and show up on their radar...you give me a clear night with light wind, and a nice, lighted runway to land on at the end of the flight...and then I'll say that I'm comfortable at night. In fact, I'll fly until sunrise. I'll even say I enjoy it! Until then, in my present job I remain with a certain level of uneasiness.

Does this uneasiness or discomfort compromise how "safe" I am? Honestly I do not know. That's hard to assess. All I can say is that I am aware of it and I try to not let it affect me. There are other things in my life that I am uncomfortable doing; that does not mean I don't do them well.

Not only that, but all helicopter pilots fly along with a certain level of uneasiness whether they admit it or not. It has to do with the nature of these peculiar machines. The truth is, helicopters have a WHOLE BUNCH of things that can go wrong at the exact wrong moment. You cannot just sit back and fly blithely along as if you were paddling a canoe down a lazy river. I'm not saying you have to be overly-paranoid, but you have to be ready for anything. Certain emergencies do not give you much time to respond and react. Sometimes all you have is a few seconds to analyze and perform corrective action before the helicopter does what we coyly call "departs controlled flight." Which is to say, "it crashes." Which is not a good thing as you can imagine.

Back during the Viet Nam War, ABC newsman, the late-Harry Reasoner composed a little treatise about pilots and the machines they fly. To him the difference was striking. Here's what he had to say:

The thing is, helicopters are different from planes. An airplane by its nature wants to fly, and if not interrupted with too strongly by unusual events or by a deliberately incompetent pilot, 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.

This is 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 that if something bad has not happened, it is about to.

Granted, nobody is shooting at me, and helicopters are more reliable than they were back in 1970...but most of us old-timers have to admit that ol' Harry pretty much nailed it. Most of what he said is still true today.

It is about 80 miles from Tuscaloosa down to our hunting camp. Even something "simple" like a chip light would be problematic. See, we have these magnetic plugs in the engine, main transmission and tail rotor gearboxes. If the plugs begin collecting metal, indicating a developing problem with that component, a light comes on in the cockpit. According to my Bell 206 flight manual, the response to *any* chip light is to "land as soon as possible." What does that mean? Bell tells me: "Land without delay at nearest suitable area (i.e. open field) at which a safe approach and landing is reasonably assured."

Not so difficult during the day. Kinda hard to do at night.

Assessing the level of risk, hazard or danger in any given task is very personal, and depends on a lot of things. What might seem unreasonably dangerous to one pilot might seem perfectly acceptable to another. In my case, I guess I've become too much of an introspective anticipator of trouble. (Which is odd, considering that I fly airplanes too. I would have described myself as a clear-eyed extrovert! Damn.) Nevertheless, perhaps it's time for a younger, more-bulletproof and less brooding pilot to take over this job.