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 May 2011

New Flying Adventures

I often write about how versatile helicopters are. In my own career, I’ve done traffic-reporting, sightseeing, photo/video flights, Point A to Point B charter, and cargo flying. Out in the Gulf of Mexico I not only shuttled roustabouts around, but did the occasional “sling-load” whereby cargo is carried on a cable underneath the ship.

Down in Honduras I flew a helicopter in support of a construction project, and the ship was frequently tasked as an EMS (emergency medical services/air ambulance) role, taking injured/sick people to the hospital on a stretcher.

Most recently I flew a wealthy entrepreneur around to his various interests, both business and personal. We often were able to accomplish in one day things that would have taken two days or more by ground. We’d also survey the large tract of land that he owns and hunts on.

There are other things that civilian helicopters do. My friend Mike has just taken a job in which he’ll be putting out forest fires with his helicopter. He’ll carry a bucket on a “long-line” underneath the ship. After dipping and filling the bucket in a nearby body of water, he’ll fly over to the fire and drop it in a predetermined spot. You’ve undoubtedly seen airplanes and helicopters do this kind of work before.

But helicopters can be used to set fires as well: small “controlled burns” to stop the spread of a really big fire.

In the agricultural industry, we all know that since the very earliest days helicopters have always been used as crop-dusters. But they are also used in cold weather to hover over fragile crops, blowing warm air down to keep them from freezing. This is typically done in the middle of the night, when the temperature drops to 32 degrees. I’ve done this; it is not fun.

Helicopters are also used to dry cherries. “Do what?” you ask. Dry cherries: blow the moisture off the trees after it rains. If the cherries absorb too much moisture they can split open. Growers use helicopters to modulate the amount of moisture the cherry orchards get. There is a veritable fleet of helicopters engaged in cherry-drying. Many of them are in central Washington State, east of Seattle and west of Spokane.

For a couple of years now, my friends Mike and Scott have been urging me to come up to Washington to “dry cherries.” I was only vaguely aware of that segment of the helicopter industry, and frankly wasn’t too keen on the idea. Plus, I already had a job…a good job that didn’t offer three months of time off in the summer. But Mike and Scott were persistent, telling me how much I’d love that part of the country…a part I’d never seen before.

This year it turned out that I’d be free. I’d submitted my resignation to my then-current boss. Mike was already goading me to go to Washington to fly a certain Bell 206 that he knew would need a pilot. Then, out of the blue Scott called and said he could pretty much guarantee me a job with a local operator. The operator that he referred to happened to use a helicopter called the Sikorsky S-55. I was intrigued. He called them and gave me a good recommendation. They were intrigued.

The S-55 was a helicopter my father flew extensively as a U.S. Marine Corps pilot during the Korean War-Conflict. Originally designed and first flown in 1949, it was one of the first medium-sized “transport” helicopter – in other words, not a small observation helicopter but one that could lift a serious load. It was, arguably, Sikorsky’s first really successful design. Thousands were built. It was used by all four branches of the U.S. military, and by military and civilian operators all over the world. It was the first helicopter used in scheduled airline service in the United States.

Here's an archival shot of an actual Marine Corps HRS/S-55 in service in Korea.
It's kind of an odd-looking helicopter, no?

I’d heard and read a lot about the S-55, mostly from my dad (the Marines called it the HRS), and I’d always wanted to fly one. But I’d never even seen one in the flesh. And there are damn few of them operating anywhere anymore. Maybe this was fate? Since the company with the S-55’s was right in the same town Mikey was living, I called him up and asked him to go by and check them out. Turned out he already knew the guys, and said they were all right.

Anyway, he did go by and then call me back, all excited. “Bob! You’re going to love this! They’ve got one painted up in Marine colors!” I laughed. Now that was just too coincidental for words. I fired off a brief resume and summary of my flight time.

Shortly thereafter, Dave Smith Sr. of Golden Wings Aviation called me up. We talked for a good hour. Bottom line: I agreed to come up for the summer and he agreed to hire me, kind of sight-unseen. But that’s how I got my last three jobs.

Once my last job finally ended, I packed the motorcycle, made sure the iron and the stove were off, and then took off north-westbound. (That was an adventure in itself!) And so here I am, in a little town called Brewster, Washington. It is…different…from Pensacola as you would expect.

That's me, just after I'd arrived in Brewster, Washington, standing in front of a helicopter that is older than I am. It is the one they promised I'd be flying. The paint job is not totally accurate. They know this and will correct it.

It will be interesting to see how this summer unfolds.

29 May 2011

Changes In (Actual) Latitude

Here is the forecast for the next ten days for Pensacola, FL courtesy of Intellicast:

Yee-ikes! 90's? "Extreme" UV index? Oh my. As much as I love Pensacola (most of the time) I'm glad I'm not there now.

Where am I? A little town called Brewster, Washington which is about halfway between Seattle (to our west) and Spokane (to our east). We're in a valley amid the Wenatchee Mountains. Not only is the country quite beautiful here, the weather is quite pleasant.

Here is the current 10-Day Forecast for Brewster, Washington:

Now that's better! We do have a chance of a few showers coming up this week - but so far it's been great. Love the mild temps and low humidity.

Here are a couple of shots of the area. It's fascinating for me because this is one part of the country that I have inexplicably not seen before- even though as my sibs and I were growing up my parents took us on camping trips all over the place. Just not here.

River basin where the Okanogan and Columbia Rivers come together

Looking west along the Columbia River (Lake Pateros)

Okanogan River

27 May 2011

The Wedding and The End of the Line (Finally!)

I've been remiss in posting stuff lately. A lot has happened in the last month and it's been hard to devote time to sit down and write. Lame excuse, I know. Let's take things one at a time.

So it was finally the weekend of the Boss’s wedding. It was held on May 14th, just outside of Eufaula, Alabama on a grand old plantation owned by the bride’s family. Very nice. Very Gatsbyesque…and I felt like Nick Carraway.

The ceremony was held outdoors under a huge magnolia tree. It was brief; knowing my boss, I was not surprised. A line of really bad weather had moved through the day before, leaving Saturday cool, dry and sunny; a perfect day for a wedding. I estimated that there were some 400+ attendees. Oh, it was quite the event!

You may now kiss the bride

The happy couple

The house

One of the gazebos

After the ceremony we all hung around for a reception on the grounds. It was awesome. My boss and the bride’s family must have dropped a phenomenal amount of money on the whole thing. I hesitate to even guess. The food was unbelievable, if perhaps a trifle rich for my less-refined taste. (What, no deviled eggs? Unthinkable!) There was TONS of alcohol – I mean that literally: The amount of booze at this party was incredible. I could touch none of it, of course…OF COURSE…since I was scheduled to fly the newlyweds later that evening. And I’ll tell ya, me being around alcohol and not being able to drink is like Charlie Bucket trapped in the Chocolate Factory with his hands tied behind his back and duct tape over his mouth. So I made the bartenders put a slice of lime in my virgin Rum and Cokes to make it look like I wasn’t the only geek at the place.

The helicopter was parked out of sight behind a barn. At the appropriate time I fired it up and repositioned closer to the house. Amid tossed flowers (no rice for this bunch!) and a bunch of camera flashes that would do Lady Gaga proud, the Boss and his new bride made their way over to me. They climbed aboard and I hopped them over to the nearby airport where they were whisked away on a romantic Caribbean honeymoon in their own private jet. Now that is the way to depart from a wedding!

And so ended my nearly four years of employment with this company. The next morning, the new pilot (who was there at the wedding too) flew us back to Brewton, Alabama. After we landed I handed over the keys, logbooks and…most importantly…the cell phone. He’s the man now.

It has been an interesting stretch with this company. But every job runs its course, and it was time for this one to end. I’m not really sure what the long-term future will bring. I really, really wanted to not fly helicopters anymore, but I've said that before and it hasn't worked out. Seems that flying helicopters is what I do - and it looks like that trend might continue for a while. In any case I have confidence and faith that it will all work out for the best. For me it always has.

07 May 2011

Harley-Davidson Sportster: A Girl's Bike? (2018 Update!)

I own a 2005 Harley-Davidson Sportster motorcycle. Since I began riding at age 16 I have owned twelve motorcycles; this is my second Sportster. I loved my first one (an ’86 model) and never should have sold it. This ’05 is a better Sportster than the other one, but it is bigger and heavier and less maneuverable. Still, it’s incredibly fun to ride.

Among the Harley community, the Sportster is generally and derogatorily called a “girl’s bike” because it’s the smallest of the three Harley engine families: Sportster; “Big Twin” and V-Rod. And indeed, a lot of the women who buy Harleys do ride Sportsters. In light of this, many guys who are insecure about the size of their penis would never be caught dead on one. I don’t have that issue.

Of all the bikes I’ve owned (bigger and smaller) I think the Sportster is the perfect motorcycle. With its 900cc engine (actually 883) it is big enough and powerful and more than fast enough for me. Yet it is light and nimble and easy to ride. It’s not really designed for extended Interstate highway riding, although I’ve done plenty of that. Neither is it a pseudo-racebike built for going around corners fast. Nor is it a dirtbike, but I’ve had it on plenty of dirt roads and it does just fine.

The Sportster is just an all-around great motorcycle that does everything acceptably well. Plus it gets 55 mpg. Plus-plus I happen to think it’s the best-looking motorcycle on the market. This may be my second Sportster, but it is probably not my last.

The only thing wrong with mine is that it’s not red. But I’ve got another gas tank and rear fender, so that little problem will be rectified soon.

One of the great things about the Sportster is that it is a simple bike. There are just two cylinders and one carburetor (later models are fuel-injected). Everything is out in the open and easily accessible. Critics say that it’s an antiquated design, and they’re right. Harley has been building the same basic motorcycle since its introduction in 1957. They’ve made constant improvements of course, but unbelievably there are some parts from the '57 Sportster that will fit on my bike. I kind of like that continuity of design. Call me a traditionalist.

The other day I went out to the garage to do some long-overdue work on the bike. I needed to change the oil, fix a broken choke cable (my fault), take off my custom air cleaner and change it back to “stock,” and reinstall my windshield. The oil change is so easy (as it is on most motorcycles). While it was draining I pulled off the air custom cleaner and carburetor. The choke cable change could not have been simpler. Once it was done I put the carb and stock air cleaner back on. The windshield was a little more difficult, but once I had everything lined up right it was a snap.

I’ve got a big trip coming up, so after I got the main things done I gave the bike a good look-over, checking on the general condition and making sure everything was tight. Once that was done, I cleaned up and put my tools away. I went into the house with a feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction. I like working on stuff. And it was nice to work on the bike this time without screwing something up, breaking anything else (I do that sometimes), and/or cutting/jabbing myself and spilling blood (I do that a lot).

Both of my Sportsters have given me a tremendous amount of enjoyment. I love this bike. It's mine, it's paid-for, it's easily replaceable (if the unthinkable happens), and most importantly, it's the one I like to own and ride. And that's all that counts.

Girl's bike? Meh- I don't care.

EDIT:  February 14, 2017

I am constantly amazed that this continues to be one of the most-searched-for articles on this blog.  It must get referenced on other websites and then people come to read it. Or something.  A long time has gone by since I wrote it.  In re-reading it, I realized that my original post above was not truly objective and did not address some of the downsides of the Sportster line.  In the interest of journalistic integrity, I thought a little update was in order.

First of all, I sold the 2005.  I never did get it painted red like the one in "Then Came Bronson."  The 2005's "Chopper Blue" paint really appealed to me in the long run.  

I kind of hated selling the Sportster.  It had provided me with a lot of great miles and good times.  But ultimately, although I liked the bike I did not love it the way I loved my 1986 model.  When Harley gave the engine rubber mounts, they beefed up the frame and put a larger rear tire on it.  Those things added weight.  And at 550 pounds, my 2005 was just too heavy.  I never did get the right seat for it.  It was "okay" but not magical.  So I put it up on Craigslist and it was sold in a day.

But I knew I could not live without a Sportster, and always kept my eye out for the "right" replacement.  I wanted a belt-drive, five-speed, pre-rubbermount model.  Trust me, there is no "night and day" difference between a solid-mount Sportster and a rubbermount version.  Some people say there is, but to me the difference is negligible.  As a bonus, the solid-mount Sportsters weigh 60 pounds less than the later ones.  Yes, you can feel it.

I found a nice, low-mileage 1996 model up in Atlanta, close to where my friend Matt lives.  It was blue (again!) but this one had spoke wheels, something I've always wanted.  The owner had changed jobs and moved out of state - couldn't take the bike with him.  So he'd left it behind with a friend who wanted it gone.  The owner wanted $4,500 - an insane amount of money for it...due to the perceived value he assigned to his "customizations" which I'd have spend money to change.  People often think that they get back dollar-for-dollar all of the money they spend on motorcycle modifications.  This is false.

I made a reasonable offer: $2500.  It was rejected, as I figured it would be.  I sent a note, asking the guy to check out the market for used Sportsters and see how many of them there were in his price range (dozens).  I added that if he wanted to actually sell the bike then he should contact me.  Which he eventually did.  Here is the $2500 result:

I've already taken off that exhaust system which is way too loud, changed the seat and replaced those stupid, short, lay-down rear shocks.  The previous owner must've been really short.  And deaf.

Which brings up the biggest problem with the Sportster: It's a small bike.  I actually like it's smallness.  If I wanted a big, 650-pound Super Glide I'd buy a Super Glide.  But I don't.  The Sportster is compact, which makes it maneuverable and...well...sporty.  But let's be honest, it's small.  The vertical distance from the seat to the footpeg is short.  And here is a problem.

I'm only 5'9", and with my feet on the mid-mounted (standard) footpegs, my knees are bent up at an uncomfortable angle.  I'm old and not so limber anymore.  The strain on my hips is unpleasant on long rides.  Taller riders do not fit well on a Sportster with so-called "mid-mount" footpegs/controls, the ones that I prefer.  In the old days, Sportsters had big, wide flat seats that looked like an ironing board.  They were comfortable, yes, but they looked goofy.  Not only that, it made the bike so tall that you had to stand on your tip-toes at a stoplight.  So in 1972 Harley began installing a so-called "Cobra" style seat which was lower because it hugged the frame and rear fender.  It look awesome, but there is a compromise: You pay for that look with a loss of comfort.

The solution of course is a set of either forward-controls, or a simple set of highway pegs (which all of my Sportsters have had).  Having three sets of pegs (highway, stock and passenger) allows the rider to alternate his foot position as necessary to maintain some semblance of comfort.  In this way I've been able to make very long trips on my Sportsters.  Being limited to just one footpeg position would be, in my humble opinion, torture.

And while we're at it...the other bad thing about Sportsters is their rear seat.  It is very small...and narrow - only as wide as the rear fender!  This is not good for passenger comfort.  For me this is not a problem as I'm single and never carry a passenger.  But if you're a normal person with a girlfriend or wife, she will probably not be happy riding around on the back of your Sportster very much.  So be warned: the Sportster is pretty much a single-person vehicle.  But as I said, this is not a problem for me.

And finally!  Here is probably the worst thing about owning a Sportster: The Harley Davidson dealers will treat you like a second-class citizen.  Or worse, a girl.  They barely hide their sneer when you express an interest in the bike.  They'd much rather sell you an expensive Big Twin than a puny Sportster.  One salesman (who didn't know that I owned one) actually said to me that most Sportsters are bought by women.  I felt like reporting him to the Sales Manager, but what good would it do?  This particular salesman also - unbelievably - told me that a black motorcycle was worth more at resale even though Harley charges more for a brand-new bike that's not black.  I questioned this lack of logic and he had no explanation but insisted it was true.  Bullshit.

It is so bad that I actually hate going to the dealership, even for parts.  I breeze in quickly and walk purposefully to the back, deliberately avoiding eye contact with the sales people.  I put on my New York City "don't fuck with me" face and walk on by.  Whatever you do, DO NOT GIVE THEM YOUR PHONE NUMBER!  The sales calls will not stop, even if you ask them to.  "Hey, we're just checking in..."

Other than those issues, the Sportster is the perfect motorcycle for me.   The ride home from Atlanta on my "new" one was incredible.  Even though it was eardrum-bleedingly loud, and even though the stupid rear shocks messed-up the ride quality, the magic was back!  When I got home I could barely wipe the smile off my face.  I look forward to spending many happy hours on this Sportster, once I get it tweaked to my personal taste. 

So that's it.  I unabashedly love the Sportster and think it's the greatest bike in the world.  Heh.  Obviously not everyone agrees, and that's fine.  That's the great thing about motorcycles: There is something for everyone!  The Sportster may not be the right bike for you, but with a little research you'll find the perfect fit.  For me, I'm now torn between the new Triumph Street Twin (or Street Scrambler) and the brand-new 2018 Kawasaki Z-900RS.  I could be deliriously happy with any of those bikes in my garage...parked right next to my Sportster!