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?

26 April 2011

Helicopters and Easter Eggs?

What is it about dropping stuff from a helicopter that fascinates people so? A while back a friend talked me into talking my boss into using our helicopter for a “golf ball drop.” We flew to a nearby golf course where a local radio celebrity got in the back seat and dumped a couple of buckets of numbered golf balls out onto a putting green. I don’t remember the details of the associated contest. All I remember is being at an uncomfortably high hover for a while, and being glad when it was all over.

Crowds. Cameras. Complacency. Individually those three things are pilot-killers, more so when you have all three combined.

This year, that same friend gave me the contact info of a guy from a local church that wanted to do an “egg drop” on the day before Easter. Same deal: Helicopter flies over; drops a bunch of plastic Easter eggs, most with candy but some with prizes inside; kids frantically collect the eggs. The boss and I are not crazy about such things. The exposure and risk are quite high, and I’m always paranoid that something will go horribly wrong which will result in me getting my picture in the newspaper and not in a good way. Like in the Obituaries. So I handed the request off to my friend Chris, who owns a couple of helicopters. He eagerly agreed. Turned out that the church had so many eggs to drop that they needed both of his ships. (Wisely, he did not ask me to fly one.)

Then my friend Mike mentioned that he also would be doing not one but two Easter egg drops on Saturday: One here in Pensacola and one in Mobile, Alabama.

“Better you guys than me,” I thought to myself and maybe even said aloud.

The churches gave away some pretty cool prizes this year, too! Things like a big screen TV, a trip to Disney World and an Xbox Kinect.

Mike’s first drop was held on the campus of the University of West Florida, which happens to be right by the house. I fired up the Sportster and rode to the school. At precisely 10:20, Mikey flew over, did a couple of not-so-low passes to fire the kids up, and then proceeded to scatter 1,000 or so Easter eggs in a roped-off part of the field.

Above, here's a pic of Mike in an immaculately restored Bell 47D-1 done up in a U.S. Army paint scheme. He and his passenger are dropping eggs over a field at the University of West Florida in Pensacola. The event was put on by the Potential Church. This picture appeared on the front page of Easter Sunday's Pensacola News Journal.

As soon as they were done dropping eggs at UWF, I hopped on the bike and beat feet across I-10 over to Battleship Park in Mobile (home of the USS Alabama), about 60 miles to the west. The event was sponsored by the Bay Community Church of Daphne, Alabama. The drop there was scheduled for a little past noon, so I thought I had plenty of time. Foolish boy!

A much-larger crowd showed up than they anticipated. The parking lots were full, forcing late-ish arrivals like me to park in the median and on the shoulders of the road. It was like Woodstock! (Ehh, maybe Eggstock?) I swung around and also parked between two cars on the shoulder of the highway which I don't like to do. As I was securing the bike, what did I see but Mikey in the Bell 47 coming in to land in a big grass area not too far from where I was. Stroke of luck!

Staged there were literally dozens of big, black garbage bags FULL of Easter eggs. The Bay Community Church really went all out. Prior to the drop from the helicopter, volunteers began scattering (seeding) the huge lawn with colored eggs, but they left a good dozen bags for Mike to drop one at a time. At the appropriate time, he lifted off, making low pass after low pass over the field as his friend Scotty let the contents of the bag rain down. Back and forth he flew from the staging area. The flights lasted about a minute or so. Each time they’d come in, as they touched down Scotty would hand the empty trash bag to the waiting ground-support volunteer who would exchange it for a full bag of eggs, then they'd go again. Total ground time: About 8.5 seconds.

Sometimes it’s neat to stand on the ground and watch someone else fly. I’m way past the point where I look at a helicopter and longingly go, “Gee, I wish it was me doing that.” I’ll tell you one thing about Mikey though: For a guy who only has a little upwards of 1,500 hours (still a relative newbie in our business), he's a pretty good pilot. It was fun watching him “work.”

Above, Mike and Scotty are at Battleship Park in Mobile, Alabama. They are getting ready to lift off and start dropping eggs. If you click on and open the above picture so it displays bigger, you'll see the humongous plastic garbage bag full of Easter eggs that they had to carry. They had about eleven more waiting that were just like that.

Again, click on the picture above. See those two trucks with the trailers behind them? Those trailers were FULL of big bags of eggs. You can see that the field has already been "seeded" with eggs as Mikey hovers at Battleship Park in Mobile.

Here's my friend Chris in his gorgeous, Franklin-powered Bell 47G, doing his egg drop at the Immanuel Baptist Church in Milton, Florida.

And here is Chris's friend Andy flying Chris's beautiful Bell 47D-1 at the same church.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the good work of the three churches that put on these Easter egg drops. It's hard for me to reconcile what a chocolate rabbit that lays chicken eggs has to do with Christ's resurrection. But no matter. So what if it doesn't make any sense? You shouldn't over-think these things. The churches got their word out, did something nice for their respective communities, and can't we all just appreciate that?

So it was a nice Saturday with a LOT of Bell 47 flying! It's great to see so many of these classic machines still flying. I am an unabashed lover of the 47; it's the ship I got my ratings in so many years ago. (Colloquially we call them "pilot's licenses" but technically they're not really licenses. But that's a subject for another blogpost.)

20 April 2011

Status Update: April 20, 2011

So time is winding down. By this time next month I will be gainfully unemployed. I know, I’ve been saying this for a while now, but this time my last day with this outfit really is in sight. Really.

The boss hired another helicopter pilot (finally!) who starts at the end of April. Then we’ll have two weeks for him to fly around with me, getting used to the landing sites we regularly go to. This is kind of superfluous, as I didn’t have anyone holding my hand when the boss and I started flying together. We’d fly up to one of our places, then we’d look down and he’d ask, “Can you land there?” I’d usually shrug and nonchalantly go, “Yeah.” He may have mistaken my indifference for confidence and/or skill. But truly, IT’S A HELICOPTER; as long as there’s enough clearance for the rotor blades and tail boom, I can fit it in there. Granted, some of our sites are butt-clenchingly small, but it is what it is. The problem is that the boss has developed a lot of confidence in me. That trust will not easily be transferred to a new guy. So before I leave, the boss wants me to give him the Bob Barbanes Seal of Approval, for whatever that’s worth.

Life has been pretty strange lately. And busy. Every day there seemed to be something going on. The boss bought a jet to go along with the helicopter, and getting it integrated into our system has been a chore. You’d think that the simple act of adding an aircraft to an existing one-ship flight department would be easy, but it has not been. There have been a million things to do (okay, a bunch of things), and up until this point I’ve been pretty much the only one to do them.

* * *

Jacob moved out. You remember Jacob. He was the guy who came up and stayed with me after I broke my arm back in October, and sort of...just...stayed. He was a big help. We take for granted having two usable arms. But you’d be amazed at how inconvenient the loss of use of one arm can be. Try it some time! The first two weeks were particularly bad (mostly because of the associated pain). Simple things like buttoning your pants are impossible. Not so bad if you wear pajamas all the time. Not so good if you’re actually expected to keep going on with your life and…you know…do your job. Yeah, I probably should’ve taken some time off. Unfortunately, I don’t have a boss like that. Which is pretty much why I’m leaving the job, to be honest. I’ll tell you about that after I’m not an employee anymore.

Anyway, Jacob enrolled in a school up in Birmingham, Alabama, and found an apartment-share there. With only a motorcycle for transportation, he loaded up most of his worldly belongings and hit the road at the beginning of April. Here’s how it looked. I’m surprised the police didn’t stop him along the way.

Luckily, all the ropes and bungees held and Jacob made it up to Birmingham without incident.

* * *

Then my friend Mikey left to take a flying job up in the Great Northwest. We’d become kind of close, so it was hard saying good-bye to him. My friends are all I’ve got down here, since most of my family is up in New York. (I mean, I know I’ll see Jacob again; he only lives a few hours up the road.) After two weeks Mikey came back, but within a week he’d changed his mind one more time and decided to leave again. And that’s where we’re at right now. He’s sort of in-between, torn between staying and going. And yes, there’s a woman involved, and that complicates matters as you might expect. But mostly it’s his indecisiveness and a reluctance to commit to anything that’s messing him up.

* * *

Me? Although I’ve been saying all along that I will not leave Pensacola, it now looks like I may be taking a part-time flying job for the summer in town in another part of the country. It’s not something that I would normally consider, but I opened my big yap to the wrong person and said it’s something I “might” be interested in. One thing lead to another, wheels were set in motion, a resume was sent. I don’t want to jinx things, so I won’t say more about it. I might get the gig, might not. But if I do and if I’m lucky, the job may entail very little actual flying, which at this stage of the game would be fine by me.

One thing I've learned in my 55 years on this planet is that you cannot expect tomorrow to be exactly like today. It might be, but there is an equal or greater possibility that tomorrow will be a LOT different. It's best to be prepared for the inevitable change.

10 April 2011

It's The Ride, Not The Destination

We pilots get up early. It’s in our nature. Most of us are so used to sunrise takeoffs that we just normally wake up well before that magical time. At least, that’s how it is for me and most of the pilots I know.

And it was no different today, Sunday. I thought it was going to be foggy but it wasn’t. (That’s another thing: we pilots are always checking and watching the weather.) It was bright and sunny and warm. As usual, I went out to the living room and began my routine of checking the usual internet websites I monitor.

And then it hit me.

Every Sunday I end up lounging around the house, doing nothing and then getting angry at myself for being so unproductive. Today would be different. I would get on the bike and ride out to the beach for breakfast! At least, that was the plan.

I was on the road shortly after seven. Not terribly early, I know, but I cannot just throw some clothes on and head out the door. I have to shower and shave and get ready. Sometimes I envy friends who can be out the door in ten minutes. I’m not one of them.

The Sportster and I headed down Scenic Highway (U.S. 90) at just above the 45 mph speed limit, passing joggers and bicyclists and feeling a little guilty. That’s what I should be doing, not riding a motorcycle. My reverie was short-lived, as I was immediately aggravated by some asshole in a very big pickup truck who was in a very big hurry and just had to tailgate me. Why do people have to be in such a rush on a Sunday morning fer cryin’ out loud? I pull over and let him pass, only to have him replaced by yet another asshole in another pickup truck in an another big hurry. (Sigh) Sometimes you just can’t win. I try not to let the tailgaters put me in a bad mood, but they do piss me off.

If you check the map above (my house is where the Google marker "A" is), you'll see that while Pensacola is on the water, it is not on the Gulf of Mexico. South of us is the Gulf Breeze peninsula. And further south still is the fragile barrier island of Pensacola Beach.

At the bottom of Scenic Highway where it turns into Cervantes Street, I could see out across the bay. Low, steel-gray clouds filled the sky, and there were areas of rain moving in from the southwest. Great. From the Three-Mile Bridge you can normally see all the way over to Pensacola Naval Air Station, some five miles to the west. Not today. In another fifteen minutes or so, drivers on the causeway would be treated to a morning deluge. I was glad I was early. I had considered turning around, but the plan was to ride out to the beach and dammit, to the beach I would ride!

Gulf Breeze is an overcrowded speed-trap of a town. Apparently the various idiots who have been in our local government since the 1960s never envisioned that traffic might ever increase on U.S. Highway 98, a major east/west corridor that runs through their little peninsula. Whodathunkit?! So development has pretty much been unplanned and unrestricted. A big elementary/middle/high school was built astride the highway! So every weekday morning and afternoon during the school year, traffic slows to 20 mph. This is so typical of the way in which Florida plans for development. Which is to say, it doesn’t. Growth just sort of occurs unfettered, and the inevitable problems always seem to take everyone by surprise. For as long as I’ve been living here (23 years) people have been arguing about what to do about the overdevelopment and traffic in Gulf Breeze.

I pass a Starbucks on the left (not stopping there!) and a Waffle House on my right (nor there either). I turn south across the Bob Sikes Bridge to Pensacola Beach. I can see that the tops of the condos are up in the clouds. And they’re not very tall condos. Visibility underneath is so-so; not flyable in any case with such low ceilings. After paying the $1.00 toll, I find the island dreary and deserted. Then again, the “season” hasn’t really started here yet.

You would think that Pensacola Beach, being our premier tourist destination would have some little breakfast places where a guy could get a cup of coffee and a bagel and sit outside where he could smell the salt air as he read the Sunday paper or something, right? Nope, not here. It strikes me that for a place that relies on tourism, we have so very little to offer visitors. I see a few stalwart touristas out roaming around with their children, looking lost. And I wonder what they’re thinking, spending so much money to come to this dismal, rainy place with so little to do.

I don’t know this for a fact, but I’m pretty sure that the Santa Rosa Island Authority (the local governing body) must make it economically unfeasible to run a small business on Pensacola Beach. I’ve heard the fees are enormous, and they take a cut of the revenue. A business that might survive during the tourist season would never make it during the rest of the year.

I cruise up and down the main thoroughfare. Not only are there no coffee shops or diners, none of the bigger restaurants are even open. Even the Native CafĂ©, which says they’re open every day at 7:30, wasn’t. I could, I suppose, drop into one of the major hotels and eat in their restaurant, but what good would that be? Likewise, I pass up the Circle-K gas stations, seemingly the only place to get a cup of coffee anymore.

Ultimately, I turn tail and head back northbound, leaving this shitty little place, leaving it to the dumb out-of-towners who come here and go, “You mean to tell me there isn’t even a place to get breakfast around here?! Kids, next time we’re going to Panama City Beach!” Back across the bridge, up in Gulf Breeze I pass the Starbucks again (still not stopping there!), I think about how grouchy I am. I wanted this to be an enjoyable, restorative ride. Instead, it’s made me depressed and angry. Fortunately, the bike has been running superbly. I love that.

The low clouds have pushed further north. I get rained on a little as I go back up Scenic Highway. It stings my face. Oddly, it doesn't even bother me; I know it's temporary. Sure enough, as I cross I-10 the sky is suddenly filled with small, puffy, white clouds and I’m bathed in warm sunshine. My mood brightens and I marvel at how the weather can change so much in such a short distance. Before turning into my subdivision, I head up to a nearby Circle-K convenience store to get the paper. Back in the house, my own eggs and coffee taste just as good as any I might’ve gotten down on the beach.

I shouldn't really have been surprised that there's so very little down on Pensacola Beach. I just figured that there's be someplace to grab a quick cup of coffee. Heh. My “Sunday morning ride out to the beach to get breakfast?” I won’t make that mistake again. Nevertheless, even though the destination was disappointing, the ride was still awesome. And that's the most important thing.

07 April 2011

Aviation and the Mafia...Whaaaat?

Busy? Oh Lord, I’ve been busy. Between shepherding this stupid helicopter through a particularly difficult Annual Inspection, and trying to hire a replacement for myself, and bringing the boss’s new (to him) business jet online, and helping another friend get the Annual Inspection on his helicopter done, and helping two friends move – why yes, I’ve been very busy, thank you very much. There hasn’t even been much time to ride the damn motorcycle. And the weather’s been gorgeous. So I'm kind of frustrated.

And no, I haven’t quite terminated my employment with this company. I had planned on leaving at the end of February. But as I’ve reported, I agreed to stick around while we get some things sorted out. The end of March passed, and now we’re getting way into April. My real, real, I’m-serious-this-time final day will be April 30th…but!...I did agree to be the aerial coordinator for my boss’s wedding in mid-May…which will be held on some property about 110 miles away from our home base.

There will be guests arriving in their own airplanes. Those guests will need to be shuttled by helicopter to the wedding site, and the pilots of said planes will need to be taken care of (fed, etc.) while they’re on the ground waiting. There will be aerial photographs of the wedding site to be made. And of course the boss and his new bride will be whisked away in the helicopter after the ceremony. (I will paint "Just Married" on the side in shoe polish, but had to draw the line at attaching strings of tin cans to the landing skids.) It’s not a huge logistical challenge, but it is one my boss would rather not worry about himself, and he’d rather not trust it to a new pilot who’s been on the job for about a month. If we even hire one, that is. Sometimes I wonder…

The helicopter is back “up” and flying well. I’ve flown with two prospective pilots, both of whom could easily step in and replace me without the boss missing a beat. But flying the helicopter is a relatively small part of the job. The bigger part will be getting along with the boss. Rich guys can be a little, um, demanding. Learning to put up with their idiosyncrasies can be fun. And of course it goes without saying that the boss must trust and be comfortable with the pilot.

We hired-gun pilots like to think we’re the final authority in our aircraft. And in certain respects we are. But we also have to remember that we don’t own the aircraft; the boss does. And sometimes aircraft owners want to do specific things that we lowly pilots might not want to do. For instance, my boss prefers to fly low. He is uneasy flying higher than about 1,000 feet. His brother (who is a fixed-wing pilot/airplane owner) regularly berates me for acquiescing to my boss’s demand to stay low. (I chalk it up to sibling rivalry.) I say, as long as I can accomplish the job safely at the altitudes my boss wants to fly, then I’ll do it even though it makes me uncomfortable and I’d certainly prefer to fly higher. I know that if it bothers me too much I always have the option of quitting and finding another job. Oh wait...

With any luck, we’ll have another pilot hired by the time you read this. Getting him trained and up to speed will take some time. Still, I’m looking at the end of April as my last day on the payroll (with the aforementioned “special guest appearance” in May).

I’ve been thinking about taking a trip on the bike. Summer’s almost here, I need to get out on the highway, and I’ve got some friends I’d like to see again. But another friend wants me to ferry his aircraft from Point A to a very distant Point B, which could definitely eat into my “me time.”

Aviation is a lot like being in the Mafia. Once you're in, you just can't seem to quit.