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?

18 March 2016

How Much I Hate Flying On The Airlines

As you know, I officially live in Florida but spend half my time in Washington State. I prefer to drive up and back when I can.  But it’s a 3,000-mile, four-day road trip and sometimes circumstances dictate that, as much as I hate to, I fly. 

Heading up for the 2014 season two years ago I had to fly.  Grudgingly I booked passage on American Airlines.  Of course you have to connect through a hub on any airline flight these days; in my case the routing was PNS – DFW – SEA – EAT.  (KEAT being the code for Wenatchee, Washington, the closest airport to Brewster.) 

The flight left at a reasonable eight a.m.  The recommendation is that you arrive at our conveniently-located, hilariously-named Pensacola International Airport two hours in advance of your flight, which I thought was excessive.  I mean, come on, our little dinky airport is hardly JFK.  No, me being Mr. Smart Guy, I thought that one-hour would be sufficient.  I was almost very, very wrong.

The day of my departure turned out to also be the day when American did an “equipment change,” meaning that they because of the demand they put a bigger airplane on that flight.  Instead of a horribly-uncomfortable 90-seat regional jet, I’d be traveling to Dallas in style in an MD-88 which is actually just the latest/greatest version of the venerable Douglas DC-9. 

And here’s where we all made our mistake: Instead of just 90 passengers, the MD-88 holds 149.  And of course the flight was full.  American had not counted on the time it would take to check-in another sixty passengers and had not put on any extra counter staffing that morning.  Oops!  But neither did I account for such a possibility.  Second oops!

I got to the terminal a full hour before departure.  I had checked-in online but because our printer was out of ink (big surprise, right?) I had not printed my boarding pass.  I figured I’d do that at one of the little kiosks that the airlines so thoughtfully provide. 

To my dismay I saw that the check-in line was literally out the door.  I tried to get my boarding pass from one of the kiosks, but for some reason it would not work (I don’t remember why).  I had a big suitcase I could not carry on, so I got on/in line – and I was last.  And it was moving slowly; there was no curbside check-in for bags and everyone in front of me had tons of luggage.  As the line inched forward I felt every tick of the clock echoing like a sonic boom.

Finally up to the front, the CSR (customer service representative) punched my name in and hit “Enter.”  My boarding pass began printing.

“Oooh,” he said as he examined the document before handing it to me. “That was close!”

“Why’s that?” I asked, puzzled.

“The TSA mandates that we close-out the flight thirty minutes prior to departure,” he said.  “You made it with about a minute to spare.  If you came up to me..."
he looked at his computer screen, "...right...now I wouldn’t be able to check you in.”

Wow.  The gravity of that sank in: thirty minutes prior to departure, the flight gets locked-out.  I was relieved.  But given how screwed up airline travel is these days, I didn’t give it too much thought.  I just thanked my lucky stars and headed for the gate, filing that bit of knowledge in my brain for next time, if there is one, which I hope there is not.

Recently, Brian Fung, a writer for the Washington Post newspaper got caught up in a similar situation as me, only he wasn't as lucky.  He’d booked a flight on American and had actually checked-in online but neglected to print his boarding pass.  He got to the airport less than thirty minutes prior to departure and they denied him boarding.  He was so steamed about this policy that he decided to write an article about it.

My advice if you absolutely, positively have to travel by airline?  PRINT YOUR BOARDING PASS!  That way, even if you have to stand in line and check a bag you won’t be locked out of your flight.

You can read Brian Fung’s whiny article HERE.

This year, in a little over one month, thank Jesus, I am driving up to Washington.

08 March 2016

The Trip Home, 2015 (Part Four - Even More Texas!)

In my last installment, I was in Texas visiting with my friend and presidential hopeful, Russell Madden who owns (among other things) an immaculate Hiller UH-12E helicopter. Unbeknownst to me, his friend, Pat Pockrus (who owns Ft. Wolters Helicopters) keeps a very rare four-seat model UH-12E4 in one of Russell’s hangars. When we started talking about going flying, I assumed it would be in the 12E.  But the question was posed: Did I want to fly the three-seater or the four-seater? Whaaaaaat? This was intriguing and tantalizing! It kind of caught me by surprise. To explain why, you’ll have to indulge me in a little helicopter history.

Beginning in 1948, Stanley Hiller’s company in Palo Alto, California produced a tough, durable piston-engine helicopter called the model UH-12 (military model OH-23). He sold thousands of them to the U.S. military (mainly the Army), used it mainly as a trainer, but also as an observation/medical evacuation helicopter in Korea and beyond.

By the late 1950s and into the 1960s the military contracts for Hiller’s basic model trainer were coming to an end.  However the UH-12 was also popular as a civilian helicopter too. In the Utility sector, the latest model, the 12E was earning a solid reputation as a real tough workhorse, rivaling the iconic Bell 47 in terms of durability and lifting capability.  Over 3,000 Hiller model 12's have been built.

The Hiller UH-12E is a three-seater. Needing a bigger, four-seat model for the civilian market, Hiller stretched the cabin and stuck the pilot out in front-center, leaving the bench for three passengers behind. Initially, the model UH-12E4 as it was called looked very much like a regular mode 12E but with a double-bubble.  It was kind of awkward and ungainly looking.  I'll stop short of calling it ugly, but you decide.

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Here's a standard Hiller 12E

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And here's the original UH-12E4 coming in for a landing. Like I said...odd-looking

Stanley Hiller sold his company in 1964. Production of the civilian model 12 continued on for a while, but the new owners of the model line struggled to compete with the ubiquitous Bell 47 (Bell had a better marketing/sales force). In the mid-1960s, Hiller engineers introduced the improved model UH-12L4 with a more modern cabin for the four-seat machine. Very, very few of these still exist. Pat Pockrus has three. One of them is based in Russell’s hangar. So did I want to fly it? Hell, yeah!

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Here's the newer, improved-er 12L4. Much more attractive to my eye

Late in the afternoon we went out to the Possum Kingdom airport. It was clear but very blustery. Not a great day to make friends with an unfamiliar helicopter. I worried that it might be too gusty for me to get a true feel for the ship. It’s not fun to be in a new-to-me aircraft when you have to fight the controls all the time. I didn't want to look bad.  Nevertheless, Russell and Pat assured me it’d be fine.

N501HA is a beautiful machine. It looks brand-new. As sometimes happens with old helicopters, this one has been modified over the years. It started life as a UH-12E4, was used as a factory testbed for certain things, and ended up in the UH-12L4 cabin configuration.

We preflighted the ship and pulled it out onto the ramp. Pat guided me through the starting procedure. I was trying to concentrate, but in my excited mind I felt like a kid getting to drive dad’s vintage Corvette for the first time - the one with the big block engine and four-speed tranny and I've never driven a clutch before.  And dad's sitting right next to me.

Hiller helicopters are…strange. Different. Helicopters have no built-in stability like a fixed-wing aircraft does. If you take your hands off the controls of a helicopter, it will quickly try to turn itself upside down. Stanley Hiller tried hard to remedy that.  But in doing so he created another problem.

Without getting overly technical, Hiller’s solution was to design a rotor which was controlled by small paddles. Instead of a direct linkage from the control stick to the rotor blades (as in the Bell, Sikorsky and virtually every other helicopter in existence), the control stick in the Hiller was connected to small paddles that stuck out from the rotor hub at a ninety degree angle to the blades. The pilot controls the paddles and the paddles control the rotor.

The theory was that the short, fat paddles were more stable than those long, skinny and slender rotor blades. Which was mostly true. The Hiller 12 is a marvelously stable helicopter in both the hover and forward flight. There is a (in)famous picture – an air-to-air shot of an early model Hiller flying along high over San Francisco Bay. Both pilots are outside of the helicopter, crouching on the engine deck and there is nobody at the controls! Bigger balls than I’ve got!

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Look ma, no hands! And if you look closely, no pilots either.

However, as stable as the Hiller is, there’s this other problem I mentioned. All helicopter rotors act like a big gyroscope. A force acting at any given point on a gyro ring result in the gyroscope tilting 90-degrees “later” in the rotation. If you apply an upward force to a spinning rotor disk *here*, the disk tilts up over *there*. So to tilt the rotor down-in-front/up-in-back in order to go forward, the pitch of the blades must be increased and decreased while they are passing on the side of the helicopter. Simple, huh? We call this “gyroscopic precession” and it’s all accounted for in the control rigging so the pilot need only push the stick forward to go forward and such.

What this means though is that in most helicopters there is a short lag between the pilot’s control input and the reaction of the rotor. It’s as if while you were driving down the Interstate you turned the steering wheel and the car had to think about it for a moment before anything happened. It would be very difficult to drive such a car, no? Welcome to my world.

Helicopter pilots understand this lag and know that their rotors usually don’t respond as “smartly” or crisply as a airplane wing will. We get used to it. We adapt. We learn how to deal with it.

In the Hiller, the small paddles respond the same way, with a 90-degree “lag” of their own.  So if we combine the usual 90-degree lag of the rotor blades with the “extra” lag of the paddles, we get a total lag of 180 degrees. Thus, the controls of a Hiller respond even more slowly than those of a “regular” helicopter with direct control of their blades…like the ones I’ve flown all my life.  In a Hiller you make a control input and then…wait, wait, wait…for it to take effect. Patience is a virtue here, because if nothing happens immediately you might be tempted to make an extra, this time even bigger control movement. Which will require an opposite control movement to counter because what you put in was too much. Back and forth you’ll go in what we call a “PIO” or pilot-induced-oscillation. Hillers take some getting used to.

And it was with this foreknowledge that I approached flying the Hiller. Russell stood off to the side, camera in hand, ready to record the inevitable crash.

I ran it up to operating r.p.m. and lifted up a little on the collective control on the left side of my seat. The helicopter began to get “light on the skids” as we say. I held it there for a moment getting the controls neutralized, and then tried to smoothly lift into the air. It was not pretty. Despite my internal admonitions, I still over-controlled like crazy. As we wobbled around in a very unstable hover, I keyed the intercom and said to Pat, “You know, I really am a helicopter pilot.” He just laughed and let me struggle. Eventually I relaxed and was able to hold it…more or less…stable. Happy enough up to that point, we went flying.

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Finally, here's me flying Pat's beautiful UH-12E4

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Pat assumed I wanted to just fly around a bit, but any monkey can fly straight and level. I wanted to do takeoffs and landings as that’s where the fun is. Pat said fine, and ‘round and ‘round we went. I did a few…then Pat did a couple…then I did some more. I won’t say that I became a master of the Hiller, but I got to a point where I was…ohhh…proficient enough to maybe pass a checkride. But I was sweating when we got done, I’ll tell ya.  Eventually we got to a point where we were just wasting gas so we called it quits.  Not that wasting gas is a very bad thing for a pilot, but it wasn't my gas and I felt kind of guilty.

All in all it was an amazing, tremendous experience.  I'm glad I finally stopped in to see Russell and Joy, and got to meet Pat.  I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to hang out with them, to bask and share in their love of all things aviation.  I've said many times before that I am blessed with the very best friends, and there was no better demonstration of that then those I met up with on the trip home from Washington State this past fall.  Ironically the winter has gone by in a flash and in less than two months I'll be heading back up again.

02 March 2016

The Trip Home - 2015 (Part Three - TEXAS!)

At the conclusion of my last blogpost, I'd just left my friend Johnny in Albuquerque, New Mexico, headed east. My fun drive home from Washington State this past season was about to get cranked up a notch. I was on my way to Texas, to visit Russell Madden, another pilot friend whom I’ve been forever promising I’d stop by and see. He and his lovely wife, Joy hosted me at their beautiful house on Possum Kingdom Lake.

Self-employed Russell is a genuine aviation addict. He owns…I won’t even go into how many aircraft (and cars, and motorcycles) he owns, spread out in two hangars at the bucolic Possum Kingdom Airport. And everything is gorgeous, of course. Of great interest to me however is his pristine Hiller model 12E. I mean, it’s immaculate, like it just left the factory. I thought I'd taken some pictures of it, but when I get around helicopters I get kind of excited and I guess my camera is the last thing on my mind. I really wanted to fly Russell's ship. But he had something else up his sleeve…maybe something even better? I’ll get to that in a bit.

Russell is an interesting guy. Fed up with the current political state of affairs (and who isn’t?), he has come with his own ideas about how the country should be run. He is waging a semi-faux campaign for president. Knowing his own suggestions would never be implemented, he calls himself, “the future shortest-term president ever.” He’s even had bumper stickers made up. The "campaign" started out as a joke. But considering the cast of characters we have running for president this time around, I'd seriously consider casting my vote for Russell as a write-in!

While I was there, Russell and I made a trip over to an airport in the town of Breckenridge, to Ezell Aviation. Nelson Ezell and his sons rebuild “warbirds”…ex-military aircraft, usually fighters from WWII but also some from the Korean era. The work they do in their huge, eat-off-the-floor hangar as is meticulous as it is incredible. They turn out show-planes, pure and simple - but show-planes that fly! A lot of parts for these old airplanes are simply not available anymore, so the Ezell’s have to fabricate them, often from scratch, in-house. I walked around with my mouth agape. Their facility simply has to be seen to be believed. Man, I was already in aviation overload!

Russell hobnobs with some luminaries in the air-racing and aerobatic demonstration communities, including the recently-retired helicopter legend, Chuck Aaron, whose work you can see in the latest James Bond film. Russell is also friends with Pat Pockrus of Fort Wolters Helicopters which rebuilds and maintains Hiller helicopters in nearby Mineral Wells. Pat’s facility is actually located on the very site that used to be Ft. Wolters, a U.S. Army airfield where, from 1957 to 1973 over 40,000 military helicopter pilots were trained…mostly in Hiller helicopters!

Eventually Ft. Wolters was closed and the Army’s training was moved to Ft. Rucker in Alabama. Today the Texas site is a sparsely developed industrial park. Many of the old Army buildings remain. As you drive around, the history of the place is palpable. For helicopter pilots, this is hallowed ground - as hallowed as the Ellison Industrial Park here in Pensacola, where my dad learned to fly helicopters in 1954 when it was Ellison Field and belonged to the U.S. Navy. I literally get chills walking around at such places.

Pat’s facility is incredible. Hiller helicopters of all models - some of them historic - are crammed into the place. You can't turn around without tripping over something and going, "Heyyyy, I've read about this ship!" To a helicopter nut like me it is the best candy store ever.

It happened that Pat has his personal helicopter stashed in Russell's hangar out at Possum Kingdom. It is a Hiller model 12E-4. Would I like to fly it? Well, you know the answer to that question... And so off we went. It's funny that I still get so excited about flying helicopters even after all these years. You'd think by now I'd be bored with it. But as we drove back out to Russell's airport I thought I was going to pee my pants. Which may be a little more than you wanted to know.