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?

12 November 2011

Emotional Inertia

We muddle along, day in and day out, under some sort of strange assumption or perhaps expectation that nothing will really change in our lives. And then we get gob-smacked when something major happens: An accident or serious illness; the death of somebody close; the loss of a job…the list goes on. These things do happen. Sometimes you get fired. Eventually our parents are going to die. Accidents don’t always happen to the other guy.

I’ve seen plenty of examples of this. There is a certain psychological or emotional inertia at work that leaves some people unprepared for the little “surprises” that life can throw your way. And when it happens their whole world gets turned upside down.

This past summer that point was brought home most profoundly. We were all cruising along, flying our helicopters, drying our little cherry orchards and having a lot of fun. Monday, July 25th started out like every other day. Halfway through we learned that young Stephen had crashed and was killed. Nothing was the same for any of us after that. I won’t say that Stephen’s death did not affect me, because it did. But maybe not in the same way as the others. I’m sure some of them thought I was a cold-hearted, unfeeling sonovabitch.

For some time now, my philosophy has been that there is absolutely no guarantee that today is going to be anything like yesterday. It is foolish to expect it to be otherwise.

I’m not saying that we should walk around in a constant state of paranoia and fear, but we do need to understand and be emotionally prepared for the fact that as nice as yesterday was, today could be very, very different. And not necessarily in a bad way. Good things do happen too!

20 October 2011

Best-Laid Plans (Part II)

The job in Dallas fell through. It turned out that the LongRanger my friend Brad thought was for sale is...sort of...well...not. The owner does intend to sell it, but he wants to find the replacement helicopter first and he has not yet started that process. Apparently this message was not communicated strongly enough to Brad, who usually doesn't mix up stuff like that. In any event, the aircraft is not available. This made for a tense discussion between Brad and his boss - one that did not go well as you can probably imagine.

So we are looking for a nice, used Bell 407. I should say, Brad is looking for a 407. I'm only pretending to look. They're out there, but they can be spendy. The LongRanger owner is looking for a "deal."

I've had second, third and fourth thoughts about the job. I don't know if I could look at myself in the mirror if I took it. The thought of jumping back into such a situation is simply too stressful - at any amount of money. So I think I'll just stay here in Pensacola and... well that's a story for another blogpost. However, I've got some part-time flying and travel opportunities coming up and I want to be available for them. I want to go up and visit my family in New York for Thanksgiving, and maybe even Christmas too! You cannot do that with a "regular" full-time job.

Oh, and the trip to Chicago got canceled. I was rather looking forward to that, but the helicopter I was supposed to go look at was sold a week or so ago. This is the second one we just missed-out on. I'm starting to feel like Maxwell Smart.



16 October 2011

My Ass and the TSA

I have to go to Chicago this week to look at a helicopter we’re thinking about buying. Quick up-and-back. On the phone with my friend Matt, he suggested that I get a cheap flight that connects through in Atlanta so I could come see him. “You are flying, right?” At which point I launched into one of my patented diatribes about how I will NEVER fly on a goddamn airliner ever again, period. I worked myself into high dudgeon, cursing like an ex-sailor-turned-New Jersey mobster, blood pressure setting off alarms at nearby hospitals and clinics, CIA eavesdroppers yanking off their headsets and blushing in embarrassment. Long-suffering readers will know that this is familiar ground for me.

At one point when I inadvertently paused to take a breath, Matt said in a quiet voice, “Sorry I asked.”

Well, he should have known better.

The last time I flew on the airlines was before the implementation of these new body image scanners (Advanced Imaging Technology) that allow the TSA perverts to look through your clothes and see you naked. This was before the newer, more-invasive "bad touch" pat-down/feel-ups of incontinent grannies in wheelchairs, nuns and little children. No, the last time I flew we merely had to remove our shoes, belts, watches, etc and sneak through the metal detector, hoping our iron-rich blood wouldn't set off the alarm. I wrote about it here. It pissed me off so much that I vowed to never set foot on another airliner. It angers me still.

Fuck the TSA! That’s what I say. I’m tired of this shit.

Those last three sentences are basically what I said to Matt. Only I took about thirty minutes to say them.

I will drive to Chicago. It will take a day and a half each way. It will take a total of 30 hours of driving – in my own car on my own schedule. I may remove my shoes – but if I do so it’ll be so I can drive in comfort not because some idiots are afraid that there’s a bomb in them. I will bring as much luggage as I like including substances packaged in containers exceeding three ounces. I may even bring my gun, or my guitar so I can practice in the motel rooms.

Gas will cost $220 (at $3.50/gallon). I will spend three nights in a motel…figure a total of $300. Food…I dunno…figure $50. Total trip cost: Call it $600. Could I fly up and back more cheaply? Maybe not. The cheapest flight/hotel/car package on Orbitz.com was $573. The cheapest similar package on Travelocity.com was $610. Could I book each item separately and find cheaper deals that would result in a lower overall cost? Perhaps. But the total isn’t going to be that much cheaper than driving. The difference would be that I could do the trip in two days instead of three. But I’d have to agree to being felt up or seen naked by the TSA. The choice for me is easy.

You can't see it with your fancy xray machines, and you certainly can’t feel it with your rubber-gloved hands, but you can kiss my ass, TSA. I will drive.

Sorry, Matt.



12 October 2011

History Repeating Itself? (Updated)

When my former boss was looking to buy a jet, we focused on a mid-1990’s Cessna Citation V/Ultra. It’s a wonderful airplane. Dependable, tough, economical, can carry a big load and go a long distance…what’s not to love? Well, Citations are not sexy. They have a straight wing (not very jet-like) and they sit low to the ground (no fancy airstair to use getting in and out). My boss ended up buying the equally-unsexy Westwind jet.


Cessna Citation


Westwind

Cessna has been in the jet game for a long time. The first Citation, the model 500 came out in 1971. The original was a small, slow jet. Over the years, Cessna made many nice improvements. They stretched it and put larger engines and better wings on it. The fact that the same basic airplane (the “Ultra”) was produced right up through 2008. Cessna is still making derivatives of the Citation…newer, better versions.

There are a lot of people making business jets. Gulfstream (nee Grumman) still builds the crème de la crème G-550 (as well as other, smaller jets). Lear is still in business, unbelievably, although it was bought some time ago by Bombardier of Canada which has its own line of bigger jets, the very successful Challenger series.

Legendary airplane maker, Beechcraft merged with British company, Hawker. Hawker has produced a business jet forever, the incredible -125 model. Over the years, Hawker improved and improved it; the new model 1000 is a far cry from the original, but the heritage and lineage is unmistakable. Concurrently, Beechcraft also produces the Beechjet 400 and a small jet called the Premier.

South American airline maker Embraer has also recently entered the business jet market, not only with corporate, plus versions of its ERJ line, but an all new small jet called the Phenom 100 and 300. And let’s not forget the French company, Dassault who have been building the well-respected Falcon line of jets forever as well.

The trouble is, nobody is really selling any jets- new or used. The market is in the toilet. So it is very odd that, of all companies, Honda is entering the field with a new business jet. And this is no ordinary jet. For one thing, Honda decided to mount the engines on the wing – but not under the wing as would be typical. Honda mounted the engines on pylons above the wing. Not only that, but wind tunnel testing caused them to make the shape of the fuselage very…well…odd. The bug-eyed look is usually disguised by the paint scheme. See here.


HondaJet

In the 1990’s, nearly everyone in the aviation industry knew that Honda was working on the design of a small jet. We’d seen pictures and we’d puzzled at the, um, unconventional look. The HondaJet program was announced officially in 2006. Certification should begin sometime in 2013. The date has been pushed back a couple of times already. Maybe they're waiting/hoping for the economy to improve?

Two things will work against the success of the HondaJet. The first of course is the name. Honda? Puh-leeze. Couldn’t they at least have called it the AcuraJet? Can you imagine a businessman at a party…a CEO or something. And he tells the pretty young blond that he’s leaving in the morning on the company jet for…somewhere…Barbados. Pretty blond widens her big, blue eyes and says, “Oooooh, a jet! What kind do you have? A Gulfstream?” And Mr. Ceo shuffles his feet, downs his drink and says, “No, actually, it’s a…well…a Honda.”

Yeah, right. Pretty young blond won’t be joining him on the jet to Barbados, much less back to his house tonight.

Secondly, the unusual look of the plane will inhibit sales. People like things that look “normal,” and the HondaJet does not look normal. Seriously, it looks strange.

In 1990, Beechcraft came out with a new, revolutionary turboprop design which they called the Starship. It had a little wing up in the nose (called a canard), swept main wings, no vertical tail/horizontal stabilizer at all, just rudders on the end of the main wing, and…get this…turboprop engines that were mounted backwards! on the wing.


Beechcraft Starship

Guess what? It didn’t sell. Beechcraft eventually ended production and tried to buy them all back and scrap them. Sad, because it was a great airplane. The buyers of business aircraft are fickle. I wonder if the same thing will happen to the HondaJet?

P.S. I found this little 3.5 minute video of the HondaJet on its maiden flight in December of 2010. Sure is a curious-looking little bugger.


06 October 2011

The Return of "Where's The Beef?"

Uh-oh. You know me and television commercials. I hate most of 'em. But occasionally we'll find a gem. I've written about some of the good ones before. And I'm happy to report back when I discover another.

Remember the old commercial for the Wendy's hamburger chain in the 1980's? It starred three little old ladies who've just been served a (presumably) non-Wendy's hamburger with a big, fluffy bun. The shortest of the three women, the famously cantankerous Clara Peller examines the burger and begins yelling, "Where's the beef?!" It became a catch-phrase of course, because you know how we Americans love a good catch-phrase. Watch...



Okay, so the video quality is terrible. Digital recording equipment hadn't been introduced yet in 1984 when the commercial first aired.

Soooo... I happened to catch the newest Wendy's commercial. In it a young man (the guy who played Dylan on ABC's "Modern Family") rummages through a thrift store bin and selects a yellow t-shirt with the words, "Where's The Beef?" on the front. He puts the shirt on and then, evidently unaware of the significance of the expression, is surprised when everyone who sees him shouts out, "Where's the beef!" He finally arrives in front of a Wendy's where he makes the connection.



The payoff comes right at the end, naturally. The protagonist sits outside on a bench, eating his burger. A pretty girl sitting next to him says, "Nice shirt!" instead of what he (and we) probably expects. Cute.

I love this commercial because of its callback to the original. I like tradition (it's why I ride a Harley, after all). And even if the phrase has lost its literal meaning, as one snippy, humorless media blogger/reviewer opined, the phrase is so linked to Wendy's that it doesn't matter what those three words actually are. The spot just sparkles with brightness and color, the people in it are impossibly good-looking and dammit, it makes me want to run out and buy a Wendy's hamburger.

If that isn't good advertising, I don't know what is.

05 October 2011

It Was 20 Years Ago Today...

Okay, not twenty years ago as The Beatles sang, but it was just a year ago today that someone ran a red light and caused me to drop my motorcycle which resulted in me breaking my arm.

I'm usually not big on anniversaries or event-marking on a calendar, but this was something of a pivotal event. Just days afterward I made a decision to quit my job and do...something...else. I did not know then and to a degree do not know now. But had I not quit I never would have been able to go up to Washington State to dry cherries, never would have had met those wonderful people and had that awesome summer. So maybe there really always is a silver lining.


My arm has pretty much all healed. I still have some range-of-motion issues and cannot reach behind my back. One friend pointed out that this would be a problem if I'm ever handcuffed. I've manage to live to the age of 56 without ever being handcuffed, so I'm not too worried about this. (Now watch- having said that I'll go out for cigarettes or something tonight and get my ass arrested.)

I've ridden the motorcycle a lot in the past year, both here in Florida and up in Washington. It didn't take long to get over my paranoia about cars running red lights. I rode with a heightened sense of awareness (not going to be taken by surprise like that again) but no fear. On the other hand, I've become oddly and extremely paranoid in a car. Whether behind the wheel or as a passenger, I'm constantly on edge about people pulling out without looking. I've become a terrible back-seat driver, jabbing for that non-existent brake pedal on the passenger floorboard. ...Or should I say an even-worse back-seat driver because I was bad enough already. I cannot explain it, but I feel more in-control, and therefore safer on the motorcycle than in a car.

That's strange, isn't it...a person who feels safer on a motorcycle than in a car?

04 October 2011

Best-Laid Plans

The job in Dallas may not exist after all.

As I've written about before, my jet pilot friend Brad’s boss is a big hunter. Kind of on the side, he also owns a huge lumber company that has made him very, very wealthy. To get around among his various, spread out business and personal properties, he owns two business jets. He bought the second one merely because the warranty ran out on the first one, and then kept the first one as a backup. Seriously.

He’s always been making noises about buying a helicopter for use at two of his (many) hunting camps. Every year he talks about it but so far has never done anything about it. Initially he wanted a small helicopter: The new Robinson R-66 turbine seemed to fit the bill. Nothing fancy, just a basic turbine helicopter to scout his properties when he was there.

I’ve known Brad for years. We’re good friends. From the beginning we’ve been looking for a way of working together. And by “working together,” I always thought it meant as the two-man crew of some bizjet, which would be a gas. When he told me that his boss was looking for a helicopter, I “sort of” committed to come fly it if and when that should ever happen. You know, the half-hearted thing one friend might say to another. Like, “Sure I’ll help you move!” while secretly planning to be in the Bahamas that weekend.

This year’s hunting season is upon us. Turns out that the new Robinson helicopter is experiencing some, err, “technical difficulties” in production. A brand-new one would not be available until February of 2012, after hunting season had ended. So it didn’t look like Brad’s boss would get a helicopter this year either. Oh well.

But then Brad found out that a friend of his who owned a very nice Bell LongRanger was interested in selling. The friend wants to move up to a model 407 which is newer and faster. The quoted price range for the LongRanger was good (about the same as a brand-new Robinson). Friend to friend. Aircraft brokers call such transactions “off-market” deals. Brad called me in Washington and suggested that we: A) go look at the ship; and B) talk to his boss about considering a different type of helicopter. I jumped in the car and beat feet for Dallas.

When we finally met up with Brad’s boss, he was much more receptive to the idea than we’d anticipated. I told him that the helicopter was in fine shape and suggested he go to Tulsa and take a look at it and maybe go up on a demonstra... He cut me off with a wave of his hand.

“You guys like this thing?”
he asked. Brad and I said we did. “Well I don’t need to see it. If you guys like it, that’s good enough for me.” He turned to Brad. “Okay, do it. Get it done. Buy it and get it down here.” Brad and I looked at each other uncomfortably. We weren’t that far along in the deal yet. Then his boss turned to me and we made our little employment arrangement.

I left Dallas the next morning, not quite knowing what to expect. I was ambivalent about taking the job. Money is nice, but it’s not everything. The prospect of moving to Dallas and taking one of these hybrid “corporate/personal” flying jobs was not attractive. My last job was exactly that, and there was a reason I left it (actually there were many reasons). My stomach was in knots as I drove across I-20 for home.

Tuesday morning, Brad called me up. “You haven’t started driving toward Dallas yet, have you?” he asked coyly. I told him that I had not. It turns out that the owner of the LongRanger has decided to not sell after all…at least not until he finds a 407 first. And that process has not yet begun in earnest. Oops! Brad had to relay that information to his boss, who was not pleased. Brad said that he got a major ass-chewing over that one.

So now we’re supposedly looking for a 407 for the LongRanger owner. To be honest, I’m not looking all that diligently. If this whole thing falls apart, I’m okay with it.

02 October 2011

Old Warhorses

It's been a busy couple of weeks! Since I’ve been back in Pensacola, I’ve been to see two Sikorsky S-55 helicopters that Dave Smith of Golden Wings Aviation in Brewster, Washington is/was interested in buying. We have to replace the one that crashed and burned, and the prospect of more business for next season means that we'll have to add more aircraft. Trouble is, there are very, very few of these S-55s left. Time is taking its inevitable toll on the survivors. They are, after all, nearly sixty years old.

The first one was up near Atlanta, Georgia. It was absolutely gorgeous. Recently refurbished, it looked like it just rolled off the assembly line…a brand-new 1955 model helicopter. The owner had it on some contracts and it was actually flying and making money for him. Bottom line: He wasn’t looking to sell.

I knew the second one was not going to be as good. It lives down in south-central Florida at a small airport. It’s been sitting outside for nearly ten years, and hadn’t flown in a long, long time, since a hurricane damaged it in 2004. I’d seen an old, post-hurricane picture of it and it looked rough back then. Helicopters do not improve with age, especially if they’ve been sitting outside in a harsh environment, as this one had. The skin of the S-55 is magnesium, not aluminum as is more conventional. Magnesium does not stand up well to salt air.

I knew the ship was bad, but was sad to see that it was worse than I'd anticipated – beyond economical repair. It wasn’t even worth the money it would take Dave to have me haul it up to Washington.


I shook the owner’s hand, telling him we’d be in touch. But both of us knew that the ship was a goner. What had once been a proud, good-looking, money-making helicopter was now a rusting, worthless hulk. Sooner or later the landing gear legs will get weak, and a strong wind will come along and knock it over. It’ll die right there, like an old warhorse put out to pasture with no one taking care of it. These things tug at the heartstrings of a pilot. I took a picture of it for posterity and left.


Looks good from here? When you get closer...and not much closer...the flaws begin to appear.

19 September 2011

Complications...

It was tough leaving the good people I’d worked and played with over the summer in Brewster, Washington. I’d had a ton of fun and formed some really good friendships, but eventually I really had to go.

When I first got up there, Dave Smith, owner of Golden Wings Aviation gave me a spare car of his. I was content to ride the motorcycle around, but there were times when a car came in handy (e.g. trips to Walmart) and I was glad to have it. In the end, I drove that car back down to Florida, leaving the Sportster in Washington for next summer when I return.

And this is where I left it. The sign on the outside of the hangar wall says, "Harley Parking Only - Violators Will Be Crushed." I know it's in good hands. And yes, they will put it in the hangar.

I did not have a flying job lined up for my Return To Real Life. That kind of worried me, but I am a big believer in the power of prayer. And you know, God works in mysterious ways. My friend Brad flies a jet for a wealthy Texan who lives in Dallas but has properties all over the place. Said wealthy Texan has been thinking about getting a helicopter for some time. A “good deal” helicopter has surfaced and Brad thought it might be a good candidate for his boss. He wanted me to take a look at it: How soon could I be in Dallas? So I said goodbye to my trusty Sportster and beat feet out of Brewster on Sunday evening, headed south. I did not get to stop and visit with friends along the way as I’d planned. (I also did not have to go to California either; the helicopter I was supposed to go see there got sold.)

I arrived in Dallas on Tuesday night. Wednesday morning, the first thing Brad and I did was jump in his car and drive up to Tulsa, Oklahoma to look at a Bell 206L LongRanger. This is a stretched and more powerful version of the 206B I had been flying in Alabama. This “L-Model” is much nicer, newer and has less total time on it. It’s also got an autopilot and air conditioning. Sweet! I gave it a good once-over and pronounced it as something I’d like to fly. A knowledgeable and experienced mechanic will have to evaluate the mechanicals.

Back in Dallas, we were supposed to meet with Brad’s boss but he was never available. I stuck around, getting familiar with the operation. He needed to go to his ranch in south Texas on Friday, so I rode along in the jet. I’ll tell ya- I’m a helicopter pilot by birth but I could get used to that jet flying stuff. Brad flies the twin-engine, six-passenger, single-pilot Hawker-Beechcraft Premier. It’s got bells and whistles that business jet pilots could only dream about just a few years ago. At the ranch, things kept getting in the way of us sitting down and talking helicopters.

The Beech Premier that Brad flies.

We finally met up with the boss back in Dallas on Saturday morning. I thought it was just a preliminary talk, but it turned quickly into a job offer. He pressed me for a salary number. I threw out a fairly large one. After some discussion, he agreed.

So now I have this dilemma. It would be foolish to turn down this gig – the money is just too good. But these “corporate/personal” flying jobs can and often do suck. They demand a lot of a pilot’s time: weekends, holidays and such. Often there are “extra duties” that don’t involve flying. (My last job had too many of these, as my then-boss made it clear that he considered me one of his least-productive employees.) This new boss does not seem to require much from Brad other than flying. That would be good for me as well. And even better, I’ll get to fly with Brad in the jet! (He and I are pretty good friends and have been for some time looking for a way to work together.)

So that’s my story. I keep falling into these weird situations. I have to say, I’m ambivalent about taking this job. Life is complicated, and it does not necessarily get easier...or more simple...as you get older.

09 September 2011

Owed To Johnny Rivers

I don’t know why I never respected Johnny Rivers as a musician. I guess I always just figured he was a singer of someone else’s songs and therefore not someone to be taken seriously. He might be best remembered for that “Secret Agent Man” song – at least, that’s what I remember him best for. But in researching him for this blog piece, I realized that he had quite a lot of hits over the years…and they were all songs that I knew (and liked) and went, “Ohhhh yeaaaaaah, he did do that!”

I always thought that Rivers only sang “Secret Agent Man” in front of a backup band or session musicians. Turns out, he doesn't look anything like I pictured him - and I'm surprised that since the 1960's I can't remember seeing even one picture of him. Also turns out that he not only played guitar on the song, but played that famous and iconic opening riff as well as the solo in the middle. Listen here…



I love the introduction by a very inebriated Judy Garland. She looks like she can barely stand up.

The clip is interesting. Johnny is clearly singing and playing the guitar – not sure if his bass player and drummer are the ones being heard. Perhaps there is a band offscreen somewhere, or perhaps Rivers is singing/playing to a soundtrack.

And what a soundtrack! In the 1960’s we went through a period where “rock ‘n roll” artists were accompanied by orchestras with predominant, big brass bands with big, modern amped-up drumkits and up-front electric guitars. (Think of the James Bond theme.) The result was a huge, bombastic sound that was, in my humble opinion, really awesome. Then The Beatles came along and pared us down to two guitars, bass and drums. And we thought that was all you needed to be a rock band. (Then of course later The Beatles added a full orchestra to their music and we were back where we started.)

It is said that while Johnny Rivers did do versions of other peoples’ songs, he “made them his own” and in some cases did a definitive version that was better than the original or the one a major artist was primarily know for. Which brings us to…

A song popped into my head the other day. It was called, “The Snake” written by a guy named Oscar Brown Jr. but made popular in 1968 by a singer named Al Wilson.

Take me in, oh tender woman
Take me in for goodness sake
Take me in, oh tender woman
SSSSSSSSSighed the snake…


Great song. Songs like that get rattling around in my brain and I can’t get them out for days. Anyway, I was going to put Al Wilson version of the song up here in this post, but as I was listening to it I saw that Johnny Rivers also did a version of it. Turns out that Johnny Rivers produced the Al Wilson version when he signed Wilson to his record label.

I listened to Johnny Rivers' version, which was performed on that same TV show on which he did "Secret Agent Man." And I have to admit, the guy does a great job! Listen...



This Johnny Rivers' version is awesome - he kills it! This is such a great video. I really love the go-go dancers in the background, especially that skinny girl on the left. Look at her go(go)! Also, check out how the bass player can't keep his foot still during the song. And again, that backing orchestra is tremendous.

Johnny Rivers' attempted rise to fame coincided exactly with the arrival of The Beatles and the British Invasion. The Beatles knocked just all American artists (including Elvis!) off the charts. Those artists were still making records, but our focus was on the new style of music from England, with which we were so infatuated. But Johnny Rivers persevered, and he ended up having a long string of Top-40 hits, right up through 1977.


Surprisingly, Rivers is still singing and playing today! You can check out plenty of YouTube videos of his performances. He still looks and sounds great...for a 68 year-old guy.

So this is my post giving belated props to Johnny Rivers, a very under-appreciated artist of humongous talent. I've owed it to you for a long time, Johnny. Sorry it took me so long to get this to you.

02 September 2011

On The Road Again? Err...not yet

Nope, still in Washington. Yes, I've stayed a lot longer than originally planned, and I have this nagging feeling that I ought to leave. Young Brandon is still here too. I suspect that we’ll both be gone very soon though. We both need to move on and get on with our lives, but we've been dragging our feet. Maybe we just don't want this to end. It's really been an awesome summer. And you cannot imagine how amazingly beautiful it is up here. Or maybe you can, if you’ve ever been to this part of Washington State.

There is a farmer up here who owns a Bell 206- the one my friend Mike was flying before he left suddenly to take a job in Alaska (long story). His replacement, a pilot named John, is also gone, as the cherry-drying season has ended. Although it’s ended for me too, I’ve been hanging around on the flimsy excuse that the weather has been too nice here and is too hot and humid in Pensacola.

So anyway, I heard that this farmer needs some 206 flying done, and I’m a Bell 206 kind of guy. I called up his insurance company and they easily added me to his policy. I suspect we’ll do some flying this weekend or perhaps early next week. Make a little extra money.

Then yesterday my jet pilot friend, Brad called. The guy he flies for, a rich lumber guy in Texas has been threatening to buy a helicopter for a couple of years now. Well guess what: Hunting season is right around the corner and a Bell 206 LongRanger has been found. (The LongRanger is just like a JetRanger but it’s stretched a bit and has two more seats. It also has way more power.)

A long time ago I had “sort of” committed to Brad that I’d come to fly his boss’s helicopter, not really thinking that he’d ever actually pull the trigger. But Brad was very clear: They could have the deal done within a couple of weeks. Oh Jeez…I really wanted to not have to take another full-time flying job. I don’t understand it. They just keep dropping in my lap. And the kind of money they’re talking about is too good to turn down. Unlike my old boss, this other guy pays pilots what they’re worth, not the minimum he can get away with. (By the way, I will finally make a post about the reasons I left my last job, which a lot of people thought was the perfect flying gig.)

The company I’m working for now wants me to swing by Los Angeles, California on my way home to look at a helicopter that’s for sale down there. Yeah, heh, “swing by,” not like it’s out of the way or anything. I'll also stop in Dallas, Texas, which I had wanted to do anyway, just to see Brad if he wasn't off on a trip. Only now it'll be an official stop. And I’ll probably end up flying this winter for yet another rich guy, something I swore I’d never do again. Looks like I won’t be getting home anytime soon. Life is funny like that, as my blogger friend Debby is fond of saying.



14 August 2011

Should I Stay Or Should I Go

The cherries are all picked, the helicopter is back at home base, I’m no longer living in an RV in an orchard somewhere. So ends Bob’s Great Cherry Drying Adventure. And now the question is…

What’s next?

There’s really nothing for me to do here. I might as well head home. I should head home. There’s “stuff” to do in P’cola. But I don’t know if I will. At least not directly.

My friend Mike called with a line on a short-term job flying sightseers around some national monument. I might go do that just for the fun of it. Then again, I have a friend down in Arizona I’d like to go see, plus another one in Dallas. That’d really be the long way home. I may take the bike…I may not. There are other options.

I got a grand total of about 20 hours flying the S-55 up here. I never did get to fly that one painted up in U.S.M.C. colors. It doesn’t matter – you cannot see the exterior paint from the pilot’s seat. Maybe next year. And yes, there will be a next year.

My money situation is such that I don’t have to rush home and get another full-time flying job. I was worried about that. The pressure is off, at least for the time being.

My friend Mike and our pilot Luke are gone. Mike found a flying job up in Alaska and left halfway through the season. A couple of weeks ago Luke was in one of our helicopters that was damaged in a hard-landing. He wasn’t injured, but beat-feet outta here the next day. Stephen got himself killed. Travis left quickly one day once his contract was over. All of a sudden Brandon and I are the only two left, and he’s got one foot out the door as we speak. Then it’ll just be me. Instead of a big, end-of-season party/barbecue/blowout with all the gang, everything just sort of fizzled out. Meh- things don’t always go according to plan.

We have a lot to do before next season. I have taken on the task of writing a training manual and a general operations manual. We need both. We grew a lot between last year and this. Next year, we’re going to be bigger still. There’s a lot to this cherry-drying thing; it’s not as easy as it might appear. I want to help the new pilots we have coming onboard next year, giving them some of the information I had to learn on my own this year. But manuals can be written anywhere, even in Pensacola, at my leisure.

I guess I’ll pack my bags. It’ll be hard to leave. I’ve really grown to love it up here. Winters are hard though, and I want to get out of here before it starts getting cold. But I’m really looking forward to coming back next May.

28 July 2011

Fatal

Aviation is cruelly unforgiving of mistakes. One mistake, you’re dead…period, end of story, cancel Christmas. We who have been in this business for any length of time understand this. I may appear all casual and goofy about flying, but I take it very, very seriously. I did not get to this stage by treating what I do in the air as a lark. Not crashing takes hard work.

Our company had a fatal accident this week. On Monday one of our young pilots died. While drying a field of cherries he managed to run into a powerline which caused him to crash. This happens a lot in “ag work” (which is what we do). It happens even when pilots know the wires are there, as this pilot did.

We are always stunned when we hear such news, especially so when it’s someone you’ve come to know and like. You shake your head in disbelief and ask, “How could this happen? He was such a good pilot.” And Stephen was. A good pilot, yes. So young (24) but full of enthusiasm and skill, with a ravaging thirst for knowledge. We say this next part a lot: "He’s the last guy you’d expect to go out and crash the helicopter." But crash it, he did.

The NTSB showed up quickly, as they do. What happened was obvious, both from witness statements and the strands of powerline wrapped around the rotor head. Stephen hit the lines while in a bank at the end of a row of cherry tress. Instead of cutting them cleanly, the rotor head spooled them up. A witness said the rotor stopped completely before the helicopter hit the ground. Horrible stuff to hear, because I do the same kind of work. I deal with wires in just about every field I dry.

What the immediate evidence tells us is that there was probably nothing wrong with the helicopter. Stephen did not hit the wires from above (which might have indicated a descent from a power failure, say). No, he hit them from below; the helicopter had been under control up to that point. Maybe he simply misjudged…maybe he forgot they were there…maybe he got distracted…maybe the sun was in his eyes…something…nobody knows. We pilots hate it when people throw the term “pilot error” around loosely. Accidents always seem to get blamed on the pilot(s) first. But the fact is that most general aviation accidents are caused by pilot issues than anything else. Mechanical failures, while they do happen, are rare when it comes to causing accidents.

And so we are left to pick up the pieces, both literally and figuratively. The accident itself is over, but the effects linger. There are details that have to be taken care of. The wreckage has to be recovered from the field. Stephen’s family will have to come and collect his things (his car is still parked at our hangar, standing as a stark reminder). Last but not least, we still have a contract to service. We cannot just tell the farmers, “Sorry, you’re on your own now!” If it rains we’ll still have to dry them…with another ship…with another pilot.

I was out drying that day. I had just landed to get some gas, and was still in the cockpit shutting the helicopter down when my phone rang. It was the FAA in Spokane. “You know your company had a fatal accident today,” the guy said. No, I did not know that. Then he told me who it was. He had called me because everyone else in the company wasn’t answering their phone. Yeah, well it’s our busy season and all our ships are out flying. He asked for some details about the pilot: age, hometown and such.

As I climbed out of the helicopter, my farm manager came over with drying instructions – which fields to hit, which I could ignore because they have been totally picked. He could immediately tell that I was upset, so I told him what happened. “Take all the time you need before going back up,” he said kindly.

But this was not the first pilot who I’ve known who has died. It happens. I won’t say that you get used to it. We all deal with it in different ways. Me, I’m just good at compartmentalizing. As long as I don’t think about it, I’m okay. On Monday, after I heard the news about Stephan, I got myself together, refueled my ship and went back to work. “Up there” is where I feel in control. Up there I don’t have to think about other worldly things. Up there I just do my job and try really, really hard to not crash the helicopter.

24 July 2011

Flying The Sikorsky S-55, Part 1

Here I am, just landed after a one-hour cherry-drying flight. They stopped us short because it started raining again. Which means Travis and I will have to go out and dry the whole place again when the sun comes out. Oh-friggin'-joy.


Understand, the S-55 was designed in 1949 and produced through the 1950's. Helicopters have come a long way since then.

It took me a little while to get used to flying this strange machine. The control system is old and crude by modern standards. The three-blade main rotor has a diameter of 53 feet. But it only turns at about 220 rpm - very slowly in comparison to modern helicopter rotors which typically turn close to 400 rpm. The low rpm of the Sikorsky means that the long, limber blades can “whip” if you make sudden, jerky or aggressive cyclic stick control inputs (the “cyclic” is the main stick between your legs). The S-55 teaches…demands…you to be smoooooth on the controls.

The collective lever is located alongside the pilot’s seat on the left, and is hinged at the rear. It controls overall thrust of the main rotor. Pull up and all three blades change pitch at the same time. Here is an image taken from the FAA's "Basic Helicopter Handbook." It shows the controls of a small Enstrom helicopter, but all helicopters have similar control setups.


On the end of the collective is the twist-grip throttle, which as you would assume controls the rpm of the engine. In flight, the engine and transmission (i.e. main rotor blades) are "married." That is, if you increase engine rpm, you'll increase main rotor rpm. And vice-versa.

As you lift the collective lever higher, the main rotor blades increase their “bite” of the air. The more bite (we call it “pitch angle”) the more wind resistance (we call it “drag”). So they will slow down unless you increase the throttle to compensate. Thus, as you move the collective up and down in response to varying demands for power, you must also increase and decrease the throttle to keep the engine running at a very specific rpm.

Most modern piston engine helicopters have correlators that mechanically match the engine speed to main rotor pitch angle. Turbine-powered helicopters have speed governors that automatically control rpm. These devices make the pilot’s job a whole lot easier. Does the S-55 have one? Nope! Well, let me rephrase that: The manufacturer claims that there is a throttle correlator. However, if there is one installed, it doesn’t work very well. And by not very well I mean “at all.” This makes for a high workload - difficult at first for a guy who's spent the last, oh, thirty years flying turbine helicopters where you just set the throttle to "FULL OPEN" and leave it there.

Other Sikorsky helicopters I’ve flown have what we call a “heavy” collective. What this means is that even though the collective is hydraulically boosted, it will drop like a rock if you don’t deliberately hold it up. The S-55 does this as well. There is a crude friction lock, but they do not all work well on these sixty year-old helicopters. Most of these S-55’s have very heavy collectives. It feels like you’re lifting the whole helicopter up by your left arm. It quickly gets tiring. What we shorter pilots do is wedge our left knee under the collective to hold it up. Not the greatest solution, but it works.

The fourth control we have is for the tail rotor, controlled by two pedals. The tail rotor is that sideways-facing prop on the back of the helicopter that counteracts the torque of the main rotor and allows us to point the nose of the helicopter in any direction we want while hovering. Without it, the fuselage of the helicopter would spin uncontrollably under the main rotor. I think there’s some Newton’s Law that explains this. Anyway, that tail rotor is simply a big, controllable pitch fan. In the case of the S-55, the tail rotor measures 8’6” in diameter. The pedals my feet rest on control the pitch of the tail rotor through a linkage consisting of a series of stretchy cables and sloppy chains. Hey Sikorsky, were you perhaps related to that Rube Goldberg guy?

Modern helicopters have tail rotor controls that are hydraulically boosted; you control tail rotor pitch with the balls of your feet, like pressing the accelerator in your car. Not the S-55. This is a he-man helicopter! You stick your whole foot on the pedal and mash it like you’re trying to kickstart a Harley – or panic-stop your stuck-accelerator Toyota. Weird.

Did I mention the noise? The unmuffled 700 horsepower radial engine underneath my feet roars like a funny-car dragster at full throttle. The main rotor transmission located right behind my head also screams like a heavy metal rock band singer with his amp turned up to 11. Modern transmissions have gears that are cut on an angle so they run more quietly. Sadly, that particular bit of technology had yet to be developed when the engineers were laboring over the S-55 design. And soundproofing hadn’t been invented yet either. At least we have better noise-canceling headsets now. It's a wonder my father wasn't stone deaf. Oh yeah, and the seats suck (that was one of the first things I had to rectify – my poor, aching lower back!).

All in all, as crude as it is, the S-55 is a strong, dependable helicopter. Nothing fancy, no gizmos or newfangled electronic crap. Just a simple, basic helicopter that is well-suited for its role as a cherry-dryer. And in its own kooky way, it’s got a lot of, um, character and is actually a lot of fun to fly. But Lord almighty, do I miss my nice, modern, easy-to-fly, quiet, smooth, comfortable, turbine-powered Bell 206. My father must have been a real man to fly these things for as long as he did. Me? I am a wuss by comparison.

23 July 2011

Mike's Luck With Cars

Mike's Geo Tracker

My friend Mike has the best bad luck with cars.

One night last fall, he and his girlfriend, Judy were at my house in Florida. At some wee hour they left in Mike’s 1992 Geo Tracker which has about a million miles on it. Ten minutes later he’s on the phone – broke down just a couple of blocks away. Could I come and get them? Sure! I did, and took them home. Literally, they had made it two and a half blocks.

Next morning we towed his car back to my place and did some troubleshooting in the cruel light of day. The engine would crank (turn over) fine but apparently had no spark at all. Something didn’t sound right. On a hunch, we popped the distributor cap and hit the starter. The distributor wasn’t turning. This could only mean one thing: The timing belt had broken. Meh- this is what happens when you buy a well-used car.

Technical Aside: Smack dab in the center of the engine, the crankshaft sticks out at both the front and at the back. At one end (the “rear”) it drives the transmission, as you’d expect. Where the crank comes first out at the “front,” there is a “timing belt” under a cover that connects it with the camshaft which in most cars is up in the cylinder head. The camshaft often drives other items, like the distributor which sends electricity to the sparkumplugs. Please don’t confuse the timing belt with the “drive belts,” which are on the outside of the engine and turn the water pump, alternator, power steering pump and (usually) air conditioner although not on Mike’s car. (Oh by the way, there are oil seals at both ends of the crankshaft, but we’ll get to them in a bit.)

Okay, back to the broken timing belt. We picked up the shop manual for the car and a new belt, spending a total of about 25 bucks. I read up on the procedure. It seemed very simple: Pull just about everything on the front of the engine off, remove old belt, install new belt, put everything on front of engine back on. Sounds complicated, but in reality it wasn’t. That little Geo has plenty of room under the hood to work on stuff, unlike most of the cars I’ve owned where it seems that the car was assembled upside down…by midgets with tiny, tiny hands.

Mikey started the job around 10 a.m. I had some errands to run, and when I got back he was buttoning it up. Total time on the job: About four hours, which is phenomenal I think. Had I stuck around to “help,” the job surely would’ve taken six or eight hours, maybe more.

So a couple of Saturdays ago we were tooling around up here in Washington in the very same Geo Tracker which has even more miles on it now. We’d just gotten back to his hangar when I smelled burning oil, which is never a good thing.

“Uh-oh, what’s that smell?”
I asked.

“Uh-oh, there’s smoke coming out of the hood!”
Mike said, alarmed. Smoke is not a good thing either.

Popping the hood, we saw that the engine compartment was covered with oil. Apparently it was coming from the very front of the engine, down low and being blown around by the fan.

“Looks like you blew a seal, Mike,” I said.

“Leave my personal life outta this,” he replied. {Rimshot}

Another Technical Aside: Oil is stored in the oil pan. It is sucked into the oil pump and sent directly to the crankshaft under high pressure, and then to other parts of the engine. There are the aforementioned seals at the back and front to keep all that oil inside. If one of them fails, it makes a big mess. If you don’t detect it in time, the “OIL” light on the dash will illuminate signaling that you’ll be stopping on the way home to buy a new engine. Because when that light comes on at speed, it is usually too late. Be warned! They don’t call them “idiot lights” for nuthin’. You’re an idiot if you let one of them come on.

Luckily for Mike, we detected the leak before all of the oil puked out. Again I went to the shop manual. Turns out that to change this part is not hard. You take everything on the front of the engine off, pry the old seal out with a screwdriver, press a new one in, then put everything on the front of the engine back on. Easy as cake!

The NAPA parts store here in Brewster does not stock the part, of course. And this was the Fourth of July weekend to boot, so even if they ordered it on Sunday, Tuesday would be the soonest it would get here. Maybe Wednesday. Fortunately Brandon, one of our pilots was over in Seattle picking up his girlfriend at the SEA-TAC airport. Using the mighty powers of the internet, we found a NAPA store in Seattle that actually had the $10.00 part in stock. A quick call to Brandon elicited a promise to pick it up before he made the four-hour drive back to Brewster. And that’s just how it worked. Brandon got back Sunday evening.

Mike started working on the car around 10 a.m. on Monday morning. The job went pretty well…only…one whole hour was wasted due to just one glitch. The picture in the manual showed four small bolts holding the front pulley on when in reality there were five. Both Mike and I thought that fifth “bolt” was just a locating dowel or something. D’OH! Once we (he) got that off the job went 1,2,3. As usual, Mike did all the very dirty work while I stood around and helped…err, watched (read: kept my hands clean).

And fortunately, he’s done most of this very job before. To do the timing belt, the only thing he did not take off which he had to this time is one little sprocket on the front of the crankshaft to expose the leaking seal. Even with the wasted hour, he was all done well before five o’clock, which I think is amazing. He had the car buttoned up and test-driven in plenty of time to get himself cleaned up and drive to a Fourth of July dinner party. Then again, he is a pretty good mechanic. Me, I’m a pretty good stand-around-and-watcherer.

I wish all of my breakdowns were this easy. They’re not. When my cars break, they go on the back of a flatbed and mechanics charge me a whooooole lot of money to fix them.

Mike must live under one hell of a lucky star.

12 July 2011

The Rain Came

With apologies to Ray Charles… Oh, it’s drying time again, we’re going to fly now…

Yeah we finally got some rain today! All five of our contracted helicopters flew. All of our low-time pilots are happy. The boss is happy. I’m happy.

We have two S-55’s now at the orchard in Malott, Washington, north of Brewster, where I'm staying. Travis is flying one and I’m flying the other. The second ship arrived just yesterday. Timing, as they say, is everything. Although I’m comfortable in the helicopter, I was initially supposed to fly with Travis as “copilot” in order to get some actual drying experience before going out on my own. It did not work out that way. Instead, since both helicopters had to fly, the boss came up and flew with me this morning. Tomorrow I'm on my own.

Here’s the deal with cherry drying – it’s not that hard: A hovering helicopter produces a downward-moving, vertical column of air. The pilot hovers slowly along the rows, using the downwash to blow the water off the branches. Hover too low or too slowly and you risk damaging the trees. (A big helicopter like the S-55 puts out a lot of downwash.) Hover too high or too fast and you won’t be shaking the branches enough to get the water off. There is a “sweet spot” that varies depending on the size of the trees and the wind. Wind blows your downwash around.

We have detailed maps of the groves that show us which fields are cherries and which ones are apples and pears. Apples and pears do not need drying. Travis will go hit some fields; I’ll get others. Together, we put in about two hours apiece with a break for fuel in the middle.

Beginning in early morning, rain blanketed the area today, from as far south as Chelan, where we have a ship, north to Malott. In between, two other aircraft flew around Brewster. Even Mikey flew!

But now, this evening as I write this, the clouds have moved off and it’s another spectacular sunset. There’s only a 30% chance of rain tomorrow. So who knows. At least we all flew today. It felt good! And we all needed it. We pilots prefer to fly, not sit around and look at each other.

10 July 2011

Brewster,Washington: The Weather Here


See that picture above? It contains four (of six) flyable Sikorsky S-55 helicopters under the clear, blue sky that exists above us every day here. The helicopters are waiting to go to work, as are the pilots who fly them. All we need is rain. And we're not getting any. It has been a cool, dry summer, with no rain so far and none in sight. My boss is really, really depressed. I try to sympathize, but I’m really digging this weather.

When I first got here, one of the first things I noticed was the low humidity compared to back home. People think that the entire state of Washington is as rainy and dreary as Seattle, but I’m here to tell you, it’s not. It is unbelievably dry here. So pleasant! I’d kind of gotten used to the hot, humid weather in Pensacola. Now I’m wondering if I even want to go back.

One afternoon Mikey and I had nothing to do and were hanging out at a little beach along the Columbia River on some property his boss owns just downstream of the Chief Joseph Dam. The water was very cold, and we could only stand to be in it for short periods. You know how sometimes you think the water is cold at first but once you get in, your body gets used to it and it’s not so bad? It wasn’t like that at all; it was freezing! So we did a lot of hanging out on the bank in just our bathing suits.

It was an absolutely cloudless day, and even with a SPF 8 sunscreen I thought I was going to be sunburned to a crisp, which would have been the case in Florida. To my surprise, I didn’t get burned at all. Not even the tops of my feet, which are usually the first to go along with my ever-expanding forehead.

The next day a bunch of us went up to Soap Lake and again I hardly got any color at all. I guess the sun is weaker this far north, which is logical.

I'm happy to report that the weather is very nice up here. They keep telling me about how hot it gets in July – and perhaps it will. Meantime, I’m just thankful I’m not down in the southeast. When this gig is over, I think I’ll take the long way home, and get back there in September when it starts to cool off.

05 July 2011

Fun

I was thinking about my last blogpost, the one just below this. And I was thinking about fun, and how important it is to me.

A long, long time ago I was visiting with a guy who was my first real mentor in this business. In fact, it is his name that is on the first line of my very first student pilot logbook. Although retired now, his name would still be familiar to many within the helicopter industry. I will not name names, because what I’m about to write might seem critical or harsh although I most sincerely do not intend it as such.

Anyway, I had been a commercial helicopter pilot for a while, and as I said went to this man’s house to visit. In turn, we went to the house of a neighbor of his, a Captain for TWA (a now-defunct airline) who flew jumbo jets across the Atlantic and had been doing it for a very long time. I was impressed! I’d always wanted to be an airline pilot, but somehow got diverted into helicopters and my fate was sealed. However, this airline captain was an interesting guy, and along the way I asked him if he still found the job fun?

I remember that he thought about it for a bit before answering. I don’t recall his exact words so I won’t pretend to quote them although that would be the typical literary technique at this point. The gist of his reply was that no, it was not fun; it was merely a job. Some aspects of it were more enjoyable than others, but for him flying had ceased being “fun.” I was a little disheartened, being at the start of my career at the time and having a whole lot of fun flying helicopters. Would it ever not be so?

After my mentor and I left, we were in his car when he turned to me and said, “Bobby,” in that rather stern voice that he used when he was displeased with me. I braced myself for a lecture.


People don’t generally call me Bobby. My family does, and certain close friends do, and I do not mind it. But I am not really a “Bobby.” It’s kind of the reverse of how we’d never think of calling Bobby Kennedy “Bob.” He was always a Bobby to everybody.

My mentor said, “You shouldn’t have asked that question back there about whether he still had fun. Fun is an immature concept.” (I do remember those exact words quite clearly.) “When you’re paid to do a job, it’s not fun. And it shouldn’t be.” Ouch! He had made me feel like such a child.

I was stung by the criticism. Up until that point, life had been nothing but fun for me. I was having a blast flying helicopters, and I couldn’t imagine doing something for a living that wasn’t fun. What kind of life would that be? Drudgery, that’s what.

Over time I came to understand my mentor’s point. I don’t agree with it, but I understand it. For some people, work is serious business. It is not fun. Because fun is an immature concept. For some people.

I may die a poor man. I may never attain great wealth, or achieve "success," or own a business, or own beach houses here and abroad, and multiple hunting camps like my former boss in Alabama. I will probably never get married, and I sure don’t plan on having any kids to carry on a legacy of any kind. I may never cure cancer, or write the next Great American Novel, or become POTUS, or for that matter do anything truly “great” with my life. I admit that I’m a pretty irresponsible guy, one who puts more value on riding motorcycles like a madman and chasing strange helicopter jobs around the country (the next one will be even stranger still…if it actually materializes).

But when I get to the Pearly Gates, I’m gonna wipe the sweat off my brow and tell St. Peter, “Holy cow, that was fun!” And I think he’ll say, “You sir, have learned the true meaning of life. Come on in. Welcome home!”

But he might not.



01 July 2011

This Crazy Business (Flying)

My friend Mikey and the two helicopters he flies.

It’s a nutty business, this aviation. I wonder if people in other occupations have as much fun as we.

On Wednesday there wasn’t a cloud in the sky (rats!), so I hopped in the car and went down to the airport. Dave Smith Sr., owner of Golden Wings Aviation provides lodging and two meals per day for his pilots. My intent was to get lunch but I knew I would probably have to cook it, which is fine by me. Sure enough, most of the guys were out doing stuff and none of the remaining ones were in a mood to do anything (people much prefer to eat than cook), so I fired up the charcoal grill just outside the hangar door. Funny, how everyone seemed to break loose of what they were doing to come eat. Soon we had burgers, chips, macaroni and potato salad. Basic, yes. Filling, very. Lunch is something we do very, very well around here.

Mikey called right at lunchtime as he sometimes (read: usually) does. He flies for a grower who owns his own ships. Mikey has flown up here for three seasons now, and all the Golden Wings guys treat him like he’s one of their own. It doesn’t hurt that a) he’s a great guy, and b) he and I are good friends. We are all like a big, happy family. I’ve had the terrific pleasure of working with some great groups of people in my life, and I’m thrilled to see this has not changed. We have a ton of fun at the Brewster Airport.

Because we are all technically on stand-by to dry cherries, Mikey normally spends his days at their very remote company hangar which is in a big grove up on the side of a hill about 8 miles south of town. After all, it can rain on any day and we have to be ready to pull the trigger and go dry. For him, it can be an isolated existence. Luckily his generous boss lets him take the ships out and “stretch their legs” whenever he wants. Sweet deal, if I do say so myself. So anyway, Mikey asked what we were doing for lunch? I told him I’d throw an extra burger on the ‘barbie if he wanted to come down.

“I’m firing up the Huey…be right there!”
he said.

I laughed. I thought to myself, "Sure, just jump in your helicopter and come visit for lunch." How many people get to do that?

Soon, we all heard that iconic blade-slap sound that lets everyone know a Huey is approaching. (Actually, I can usually hear the equally-distinctive growl of the tail rotor first.) Under the scrutiny of eight other hyper-critical professional helicopter pilots (no pressure!), Mikey shot his approach cross-wise to the runway (as per the federal regs governing such things), then hovered into the ramp and set down, just as smooth as can be. (That boy can fly! a damn helicopter, and I love watching him do it.)

These S-55’s, with their big, Curtiss-Wright radial engines need to be run-up every three days if they don’t fly. See, over time all the oil drains out of the single, humongous main bearing in the engine. If you let it sit for a while and then go to start it up, that bearing can get damaged before the thick, 120-weight oil makes it up there from the oil pump. The “simple” solution in that case is to hook up a portable pressure-lubricator device to an oil line on the engine utilizing a quick-disconnect fitting, and then pre-oil the bearing. To prevent having to do that rigmarole, if we haven’t flown we merely start ‘em up every three days to circulate the oil. And “my” ship was due for a run-up…my ship which is located in a cherry grove about 8 miles north of town.

Pilots LOVE getting “stick time” in different aircraft. The plan was for Mikey to fly young Brandon up to our field in the Huey. Travis (who was already there) would then fire up our S-55 and take Mikey (who hasn’t flown an S-55 yet) for a ride “around the pattern,” which is pilot-talk for “going up and having a little fun for no good reason.” Then Mikey would take Travis up and let him fly the Huey back to his hangar. Three guys would get a little stick-time in two ships on an otherwise no-fly day. (And I wasn’t one of them, dammit!)

Brandon’s face lit up like a kid on Christmas morning when Mike offered to let him fly the Huey. He quickly grabbed his headset and bounded out to the ship with an enthusiasm that caused us old-timers to smile, remembering back to when we were at that stage. Mikey hovered it out to the runway, set it down, and then gave the controls to Brandon. Never having flown one before, Brandon did a nice job of lifting it off the ground into a stable hover. I could just imagine the grin on his face as he pulled up on that big collective lever by the side of the seat to increase power, nudged the cyclic forward and eased into forward flight.

Later, Travis had asked me to pick him up at Mikey’s hangar, so I drove up to be there before they landed. The wind was really ripping by the time I heard them coming, so Mikey did the actual landing in their tight LZ (landing zone). Nevertheless, Travis had gotten enough time in the ship, including a landing up on the beach at Soap Lake, to give him the perma-grin.

I love flying, I love aviation, and I love people who fly. We have this neat opportunity to see the world as few others do, to master these wacky machines, and to make a living at it. As I've said before, I'm one of the luckiest sons o' bitches on the planet. I didn’t fly at all on Wednesday, but it was one of my best days ever in this crazy business

Me and Mikey out messing around in "his" Bell 206B

26 June 2011

Cherry Drying By Helicopter

Well the big cherry drying adventure isn’t going so well. I’ve been up here in Brewster, Washington for a month now and we haven’t dried a single cherry yet. Normally we’re drying by now. Blame it on the weather, which is gorgeous. The early spring was unusually cool...or wet...or hot...or dry...or something. I'm a city boy; I don't know anything about cherries. The end result is that the cherries are late. Problem is, July can be hot and dry. If there’s not much rain we won’t be flying much. Good for me, since I’ve done just about all the flying I ever want to do in my lifetime. But bad for the boss. Standby time is good, but he relies on the extra revenue that the flight time would generate.

The contract I’m on is for a grower just north of Brewster. I’ve got a motor home parked right next to the helicopter. Everything is in position and we’re sitting on “go.” A young pilot named Travis will be flying with me for the first week or so, when a second helicopter comes online for this customer. Then he’ll fly one and I’ll fly the other. Travis has done this before. With just 1,200 hours he’s relatively low-time compared to me, but he’s a very competent, professional pilot who knows the ropes and can show this old timer how to do the job.

It’s a little odd being the new guy. I may have a lot of total flight time, but very little time in the S-55, which to my surprise and dismay turns out to be a fairly unpleasant helicopter to fly. (Let’s just say helicopter design has come a loooooong way in 50 years.) Every new task brings with it a learning curve. I don’t like being on the upside of it before it levels out. Don’t get me wrong - cherry drying is not difficult. I mean, all we do is hover over the trees and blow the water off. But you can’t hover too high or move forward too fast. You have to find a “sweet spot” where you’re shaking the water off the cherries without damaging the branches. The farmers usually watch and bark higher!/lower!/too fast!/too slow! orders at us over a portable two-way radio.

In this regard, the Sikorsky S-55 helicopter is perfect for this job: It’s got tons of spare power, and the big, slow-turning three-blade rotor produces a gentle downwash. We can dry up to four rows of trees at a time. There are bigger and smaller helicopters employed by the growers. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. Although one wonders just how effective the miniscule Robinson R-22s and R-44s (trainer helicopters) can be, drying one row at a time, if that. I guess they’re good for small groves, or perhaps for farmers who like to waste money. The roaring S-55 puts them all on the trailer.

So that’s where we stand. I’ve had a great month of goofing off and getting paid for it (which is my specialty, of course), hanging out with my friend Mikey and the great people I work with, and riding my motorcycle on some wonderful roads through some of the most gorgeous scenery ever invented. Now it’s time to get to work, I guess.

Travis flying the S-55 back to Brewster from the radio shop in Wenatchee, Washington.

The S-55 in a field by a road where it'll spend the next 45 days.

14 June 2011

Florida To Washington By Motorcycle: The Home Stretch

The third and fourth days of my trip from Pensacola to Brewster were, shall we say, challenging. But that’s part of being a motorcyclist. If you’re going to call yourself one, then you cannot restrict your riding to nice, sunny days. Sometimes you’re gonna get wet. And cold. Goes with the territory. I was actually prepared for such conditions. But the best rainsuit and the warmest clothes are of no use if they’re packed away in your luggage when the weather changes. I had kept my rainsuit handy, and in fact did need it often, but I hadn’t dressed nearly warmly enough when I got to the Rocky Mountains.

After freezing my ass off most of the way through Montana, Wyoming and Idaho on Tuesday, I corrected that for the final stretch. I knew it wasn’t going to get any warmer until I got west of Spokane. And it didn’t.


Butte, Montana to Brewster, Washington is only 450 miles. Wednesday morning dawned cloudy but reasonably rain free. The weather forecast was good. Despite the trials and tribulations of the previous day, I was actually in a pretty good mood. Leaving the rainsuit off, I put on my appropriate cold weather gear and headed out fairly early. Such a difference from the day before! Even though we were still 5,000 feet or so above sea level and the temps were down in the 30’s, I was toasty and comfortable, making good time and having a great time. I was able to remember why it was I took the bike on this trip and not the car. I called Mikey from Missoula and told him I’d be at his place around 4:30. This was one estimate I was confident I could make.

The route to Brewster passes the Grand Coulee Dam and, further downstream, the Chief Joseph Dam. Because dams fascinate me for some reason, I had to stop at both. Luckily there were some showers in my way that needed some waiting-out anyway. Not big enough to have to put the rainsuit on, but big enough to hang out and let them move on.

As it turned out, even with my lingering at the two dams, I pulled into the Brewster Airport right around 4:15. I was tired and glad to be at the destination. It had been a hell of a trip. Mikey met me at the airport and we went out to the Sweet River Bakery in Pateros, the next town over for a celebratory meal (with maybe a little too much wine). As you can imagine, I slept like a log that night.

And so the Summer of Bob begins!

This is me, standing in front of one of a Sikorsky S-55 owned by Golden Wings Aviation, my employer for the summer. It is one year older than I am. It is the same type of helicopter my father flew in the 1950's when he was in the U.S.M.C.

09 June 2011

Florida to Washington By Motorcycle: Over The Peaks And Into The Depths (Part 4)

So the tale of this trip is taking longer to tell than it was to actually do. If you’ve read the first three installments, you’ll know that I had pretty good weather for the first half of my trip from Pensacola, Florida to Brewster, Washington. Then things kind of went sour. The bike, which I had been worried about, performed flawlessly. The weather and the roads, which I had not been worried about, turned nasty. How could it get worse, you ask? Ah, I’d forgotten about those dang ol’ Rocky Mountains…

I knew Tuesday (my third day on the road) would be rainy, but I naively did not expect it to be very cold. So when starting out from Gillette, Wyoming I didn’t dress as warmly as I should have. Turned out to be a near-fatal mistake. We got diverted off the Interstate and through the Bighorn National Forest and I found myself riding across snow-covered passes. Damn, it was cold. Finally back up and westbound on I-90, it poured rain but the temperatures didn’t seem so bad. It was 3 p.m. or so when I stopped for gas in Big Timber, Montana ("A" on the map below) and I had 260-something miles to go to Missoula ("B" on map below). Four hours, maybe five. I could make Missoula by sunset, and then it’s an easy hop from Missoula to Brewster.


Now, in this area of Montana I-90 generally rides along a plain that is about 3,500 to 4,500 feet above sea level. We all know that temperature drops the higher you go, and it was getting noticeably “chilly.” I probably should have been paying more attention to the topography. My bad, as the kids say.

Once you get past Livingston, Montana you have to cross over a little mountain range where the peaks are up around 10,000 feet. I went through Bozeman Pass, which the FAA chart says is at 5,718 feet, and it was cold. Really cold. You only drop down a little into the city of Bozeman, which sits at 4,820 feet. Not quite as high as Denver (5,130 feet), but almost. I should have stopped there for the night, but stupidly I pressed on.

West of Bozeman, the terrain gets higher. The cold was starting to get to me. The face shield on my helmet began fogging up badly on the inside. Opening it even a crack was extremely uncomfortable due to the cold. The steady rain was putting water on the outside of the shield as usual. The combination of water on the outside and fog on the inside was making it really hard to see. My “waterproof” gloves turned out to be not-so and my hands were freezing. The road through the mountains was challenging, and I was concentrating hard on not crashing. The best speed I could maintain was around 60. Faster than that was just too damn cold. I knew I had screwed up.

After crossing the Continental Divide I was going down this one hill/curve – a long, sweeping right-hander just east of Butte – when I inadvertently allowed the bike to drift wide into the left lane (no turn signal, of course). I was not riding well. Correcting as best I could, I eased back toward the right lane – again, no turn signal – just as a pickup truck came roaring down the hill to pass me on the right. I looked in my left mirror, which I could barely see anyway, thinking I would get back in the left lane, but there was a car right there that was about to pass me on the left. These guys were hauling ass too. The guy behind me jammed on his brakes, but I wasn’t at all sure he was going to be able to slow down in time. I thought it was all over. At the last second, the car on my left eased by and the pickup truck swerved over into that lane, missing me by inches. I’m telling you, it was close. My heart was in my throat.

At the bottom of the hill I took the first exit. I had to get gas anyway. At the pump, I could barely get my Visa into the card reader, my hand was shaking badly. I thought at first it was because I’d just scared myself, but I soon realized that my whole body was convulsing uncontrollably from the cold. I went inside to warm up, but the shaking would not stop. I was having trouble moving, and my brain didn't seem to be working right (yes, yes, you're asking "How could you tell?"). I don’t think I’ve ever been colder in my entire life – and I grew up in New York City so I know a thing or two about cold weather. In Butte, I was experiencing mild to moderate hypothermia. The clerk said, “Dude, you look terrible. Get a cup of coffee or something and warm up.” I abandoned any thought of going further, the one good idea I'd had all day.

It took about thirty minutes or so before I warmed up to even be functional enough to get back on the bike. The gas station clerk let me drink as much of his coffee as I wanted and - again - wouldn't take any money. It turned out there was a Days Inn right next to the gas station. I stumbled in and luckily, they had an indoor hot tub and a guest laundry, and I took full advantage of both. Then I crashed for the night - in a bed and not on the highway. It had been one friggin' rough day.

And there was still one more to go.

07 June 2011

Florida to Washington By Motorcycle: It Gets Worse (Part 3)

Our story so far: An intrepid-if-stupid blogger who shall remain nameless (me) thought it would be "fun" to travel from Pensacola, Florida to Brewster, Washington - a total of 2,600+ miles - on a Harley-Davidson Sportster motorcycle. Easy-peasy three-day trip! Um...not.

TUESDAY, May 24, 2011
Once I was done with the challenge of crossing Bighorn National Forest on one of their late-season snow days (see previous post), I thought it would be clear sailing up Hwy 310 to Laurel where I’d reconnect with I-90. Heh. Foolish boy…

From Greybull, you go north on 310 through the towns of Lovell, Cowell, Deaver and Frannie. Passing through Lovell I saw a sign that said,


“Rte 310 Under Construction, 20 Miles. Motorcyclists Consider Alternate Route.”

Wait... What? I thought I was already on the alternate route! The rain was now so heavy that I really couldn’t stop to pull out a map to find yet another alternate. Plus, I missed that bit about 20 miles of construction. I figured after Bighorn, how bad could it be?

Rte 310 from the Wyoming/Montana border north to the town of Bridger is not really a road. If you look on Google Maps they do show a road, especially if you zoom down to the street view- they show a narrow, paved two-lane road. But trust me, there is no road there anymore.

Evidently Montana had chosen the Spring of 2011 to re-do the ENTIRE road. They tore it up, built it up higher and made it wider. Then they graded it with a bulldozer. You know the staccato vibration your car makes when you go down a road over the evenly spaced ruts from the tracks of a bulldozer? Imagine 20 miles of that at 30 mph. On a motorcycle. In heavy rain. I thought the bike might actually come apart…disassemble itself out in the middle of nowhere. And actually, it almost did.

The road was wide enough - almost four lanes wide now, so I kept hunting for a clear track. But the traffic was actually pretty heavy, what with all of us that were detoured off I-90 in the first place. The 18-wheelers routinely doused me with mud. The "road" was more slippery than greased baby snot and my tires fought for traction. But at least I was now heading in the right direction! (That’s an optimist for you.)

At one point, I heard a clanking and looked down to see my sidestand flapping in the breeze. The little spring that keeps it folded up was gone. Shit! I pulled over and stopped. I saw that I could put a bungee cord on it to keep it secured (which is what I did), but I’d have to replace the spring and had no idea where the nearest Harley dealer was. So I walked back, retracing my steps. To my amazement, I saw the spring lying there in the middle of the road not too far back. Waiting for a lull in the traffic, I retrieved it and put it in my pocket. No way to put it back on without tools. And I didn’t have any.

A woman construction worker came over. “You broke down?” I told her no, and showed her what happened. “Well there’s a gas station with a garage up in Bridger,” she offered. How far? “Ohhhh, still about ten miles.” Great. I wanted to take a picture of the mess, but it was raining so heavily that I didn’t want to pull my camera out. I just got back on the bike and soldiered on. The handlebars felt like I was holding a jackhammer. I'll tell ya, sometimes it's hard to maintain a sense of humor about things.

It was still pouring when I finally made Bridger. Even so, I stopped at one of those self-service car washes and hosed off the bike. And my boots. And my rainsuit. And my luggage. I found the reported gas station/tire store. The proprietor quickly told me to pull it in. He went to the adjacent convenience store and got me a cup of hot coffee – on the house. His mechanic had the spring back in place in no time, and they wouldn’t take any money for it. I must have looked really pathetic. With the bike fixed, I had some convenience store lunch and was back on my way.

After the cold and snow of Bighorn National Forest, and the horribly rough road and slippery mud of Hwy 310 back up to the Interstate, the heavy rain as I traveled westbound was not a problem. In fact, it was kind of comforting in a way: It was only rain. But it was incessant. And I knew it wasn’t going to let up. And it was cold, but not that cold.

Around three p.m. I stopped for gas at Big Timber, Montana, just an interchange with a truck stop/casino/motel. While waiting for Mikey to return a phone call (gotta love phone tag), I stood in the vestibule of the big complex, thankful for the chance to be out of the rain for a bit. A car pulled in and a young guy, obviously a local kid hopped out. As he entered the vestibule he noticed me and asked, somewhat rhetorically if I was waiting out the rain.

“Yeah,
I said casually. “I think it’s only a little shower. It should be clearing up soon and I’ll be on my way.” Mind you, it was pouring like a cow doing you-know-what on a flat rock at the time.

The kid didn’t say anything for a while. He just stared at me as if I had come from another planet. Finally he looked outside and said, really skeptically and slowly, “Mister…I…don’t…think…this…rain…is…gonna…stop. It’s been raining like this here for three days! There are flood advisories for counties all around here!”

I knew that, of course (well not the flood advisories but I was not surprised). But what are you gonna do? Continuing my little joke, I expressed my doubts about what he’d said, assuring him that it would be clearing very soon. He just shook his head and went inside. Shortly afterward, he showed up at the cashier which was right inside the door. She was facing away from me, so I did not hear her question to him. But I heard the boy’s incredulous response.
“Yeah, he’s waiting out the rain. He thinks it’s just a shower! And that it’s going to stop soon!” And then I heard a bunch of people laugh. So there must’ve been more than just him and the cashier at the counter.

Mikey never did call me back, the bastard. So I saddled up and headed out again. I thought I was through the worst of it and that I might make Missoula, Montana - only 265 miles ahead - by dusk. God had other plans though. And they weren’t good. This day wasn't done with me yet. Incredibly, the worst was yet to come.