Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Learning to Fly

Back in the infancy of helicopter development, everyone agreed to make the flight controls universal: the uppy-downy thing would be in the left hand, directional control in the right hand and the feet would control the tail rotor. Push left foot and the fuselage twists left, push right foot and twist right.

When you lift your left hand to make the helicopter leave the ground, the main rotor increases the torque on the fuselage and it wants to rotate in the direction opposite of the blades. Remember Newton's third law- for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. You counteract that torque with the tail rotor.

In American manufactured helicopters that means that as you lift the uppy-downy thing with your left hand you must push the left pedal with your foot to keep the helicopter pointed straight. Several thousand take-offs and you develop some serious muscle memory.

I got a job flying A-stars this season. They are manufactured across the pond in France. The main rotors spin clockwise. That means all of the muscle memory associated with my feet is wrong and I must heed Yoda and unlearn what I have learned.

The first flight went beyond embarrassing and into boy, I sure hope I still have a job territory. You wouldn't think it'd be hard to get the footwork down. After all, it's still push left, twist left. But human brains are lazy, thinking takes energy so once the brain correlates more power with more pedal, it's committed to muscle memory and that's that. So the nose of the helicopter was all over the place, especially in the hover. I felt sorry for the other FNG's in the backseat and imagined them struggling to keep their breakfasts down.

I did eventually figure out the footwork and spent a satisfying, if a bit too soggy, summer showing tourists some of Alaska's splendor. While I did get plenty of the usual, "Why is the ice blue?" and "Who built that road in the middle of the glacier?" type questions, I was asked two new ones in rapid succession. "Is it cool if we take our clothes off? And will you take pictures of us?"


Monday, May 29, 2017

Put a Tiger in your (drunk) tank

Not quite seven years ago, Frank Deford commented on fallen heroes in American sports. He mentioned Tiger Woods as the start of it all. Today in Florida (really early today, kind of very late yesterday) Tiger Woods was arrested for driving under the influence and Frank Deford died and I wondered (in Alaska) if anyone else was concerned about instant replay umpire reviews and the pending robot apocalypse.

Mr. Woods' whoopsie was a doozy, his second. Luckily for me, I gave up on sports heroes about the time I realized that I'd never be drafted into the Brewer's farm system. So it didn't faze me when a classy Swede made news with one of her husband's golf clubs roughing up the car on a Thanksgiving afternoon. Or this afternoon when the tiger not named Tony said that alcohol had nothing to do with his erratic behavior. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt on that one but won't be laying any money in Vegas.

Mr. Deford wrote for Sports Illustrated for more than half a century and had a long career as a broadcaster for NPR. He made his mark as the sportscaster who focused on the quirky aspects of the game in whichever sport he chose to pontificate on at the moment. Feel like diving down a Deford wormhole? Steffi Graf is over-rated is a good place to start.

I saw a bit of a baseball game today and was thrown back to a class I had in college, American History from the Civil War (incidentally one of the stupidest terms ever) to the present. I don't remember the professor's name but I do remember a lecture where he covered the rise of baseball on the national conscience and the integral part the umpires played in said rise. Basically, his theory was that factories and baseball became popular at the same time and while you could root for the Yankees and I could cheer for the Dodgers, we could both hate the boys in blue, they represented the bosses in the factories. Who by the way are now the boys in black and are required to wear black undies in case they split their pants. Yes, I'm serious. You're an adult, Google it.

Anyway, I always enjoyed listening to Mister Deford on Wednesday mornings and was sad when he announced his retirement earlier this month and have wondered what he thought about the replay review.

I think it's ridiculous. Cuz if we can review what the refs, umps, zebras, stripes, blues, etc. call, why do we need them at all? Computers and instant replay can definitely do the job. And if we don't need them, why do we have them? Fire them. I'm sure the owners will pass the savings on to the ticket holders. And since many of our heroes are cyborgs on performance enhancing drugs, why bother with humans to enforce the rules?

One good reason is that it gives sports commentators something to do to make our morning commute more enjoyable. Also, fuck the robots.

Teaser: next post- helicopters and tourists and robot spiders

Friday, November 4, 2016

Blazing Saddles Sores

"Well, I hope no one throws anything at you while you're in Virginia." I couldn't agree more with my well-wisher. In fact I extended my hopes to include North Carolina as well.

I started thinking about biking across the country a couple of years ago. Fly to Seattle, buy a bike, ride east and a month or two later throw the bicycle in the Atlantic Ocean. Along the way meet interesting people, eat local cuisine and develop Ferrignoesque quads.

But since I'd never ridden a bike more than thirty miles in a day (and the one time I rode that far, it was weeks before I got on a bicycle again) I thought a warm-up trip might be a good idea. And I didn't have it in me to spend a month and a half in the lower 48 during an election year.

My presence had been requested in New England and The South. Schedules left me with nine days to ride 700 miles. I didn't do any complex math but less than a hundred miles a day seemed obtainable.

I've done long trips with kayaks and motorcycles and backpacks and those first moments with a heavy load, you're convinced that the frame is bent or the fork is twisted or you're going to sink. Pedaling away was no different, the bike felt squirrely and unbalanced.

A group of people, I'd met the night before at a wedding near Hartford, who thought what I was doing was mildly insane watched me pedal away. Luckily a grove of thick trees lined the corner and I was hidden from view as soon as I completed my first turn.

I stopped the bike, dismounted, and reconfigured the load. Extra straps were accessible because I've had to reconfigure many times in the past. What looks right while holding still is much different once underway. And you'll keep tweaking until Day 4, the day when things fall into place and you've found your groove.

Forty miles was all I set out to accomplish the first day. I knew I wouldn't get an alpine start, I'd be readjusting my load, I had no idea what sort of caloric intake I'd need and so forth. Plus I'd had a mild infatuation with The Doors while in high school and I remembered that Mr. Morrison found a little trouble in New Haven.

It became readily apparent that momentum would be a key. Timing street lights so that I didn't have to put a foot down meant I could keep cruising and avoid the start from a stop which took lots of effort, static versus kinetic friction, the first law King Newton penned.

Traffic was only an issue for three miles or so, then I was on the Farmington Canal Trail. It's a paved pedestrian and bike route and it got me quite excited about how pleasant the trip would be. Coasting fresh pavement inside a green belt through densely populated countryside was a breeze and I'd gone forty miles before I knew it.

The fairy tale ended two days later when I woke to rain. A friendly New Yorker suggested I, "Get in the fucking bike lane." Bike lane, what bike lane? At the next red light instead of irritating all the motorists as I coasted by them on the way to the front of the line, I stopped at his car and looked in the window. He rolled it down and I asked him where the bike lane was. As soon as he realized I was ignorant and not endangering the commute on purpose, his tone softened. Transecting NYC instantly became more enjoyable.

New York to Philly to Baltimore to D.C. blended together in a mix of rain, commuters, and occasional respite on a bike trail. Bike routes guided me through the tired, worn out parts of cities, past abandoned warehouses from the days when Americans made more than they bought and rail yards operating far below capacity.

One feels every bump through the handlebars and it didn't take long before I knew by the vibrations in my wrists that I was in another neighborhood with offers to pay cash for houses Sharpied on cardboard decorating the street corners.

Not long after I left D.C. dogs quit barking and began braying. Hounds being the first sign that I'd reached The South. Menus had grits, restaurants had waitresses, and nearly everyone had thirty extra pounds in their overalls.

"Sit anywhere ya all like," called the man at the griddle. I selected a table, spread my gear so that by the time I was done ingesting the recommended weekly allowance of eggs, potatoes, and pork products my jacket would reach that delightfully tacky state that one only experiences by donning damp rain gear and sat down. "That there's a family table," he pointed a metal spatula at me, "You sit thar, you gonna hafta act like family."

I haven't decided if franchising is the worst part of the American Dream but it's right up there. Good luck finding a group of retired farmers solving all the country's problems from the corner booth at Micky Dee's every morning. But if you follow bike routes there's a good chance you'll walk into a diner and hear someone spouting about how that's the problem these days. Do yourself a favor and sit close. Eavesdropping will be a breeze cuz they're hard of hearing and speak plenty loud.

I didn't find many places that will have a Fieri-red Camaro parked out front. What I did find were lots of joints full of good people serving decent food at reasonable prices. And of course a couple of serious griddle masters ending with the pat of melted butter on my grits, the black dude with hands so big that he could crack two eggs, one at a time onto his griddle. He's flipping hot cakes just down from the bus station in Raleigh, NC.










Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Heard through the headset

We're paying for the sunny spring with a jolt back to a normal summer in a temperate rain forest. The clouds add a Jurassic Park feel to the flights when there are few enough that we can provide a quality tour experience. There was one such break in the weather the other night and world headquarters hot-loaded my helicopter back to back to back.

I don't have the same spiel for each flight, mostly as a way to stave boredom and avoid becoming robotic. It would be a lot easier on the days when I don't shut down the helicopter between flights and loaders bring me group after group of passengers. I could just push play on my natural history humor mixed-tape and be off. Instead I sometimes have to ask myself if I already told this group my fun fact about super tankers or if that was two flights ago...

Anywho, I always pay attention to first timers or nervous flyers in my helicopter. I want people to have a positive experience in my machine (for lots of reasons up to and including that when at a backyard BBQ years from now when a helicopter flies over and someone complains about the noise maybe my former passenger speaks up about the wonderful memories from a flight decades ago) so I call out my turns before I make them, try to be extra smooth with my control inputs and in general make it as pleasant as possible. So at the end of the last flight of a very long day when I asked somebody's grandmother, who had told me as soon as she put on her headset that she had never been in a helicopter, "So Pauline, what did you think of your first helicopter ride?" while we waited for the blades to stop spinning so they could head back to their hotel and I could dream of murdering a beer while doing my paperwork.

"Well, I'll tell you, the helicopter was a lot nicer on my hemorrhoids than the tour bus."

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Exposing the soft pink underbelly

A friend of a friend took a look at a project I've been pumping myself up to do for a few years. My pen pal pushed me to get started and so I did. Start. I thought starting would be the hard part. Getting over the idea of how incredibly arrogant it is to think that other people may be interested in one's life story was hard. Especially living in a place like Alaska where there you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a world class adventurer.

But get over it I did, because I had to or the project would never have gotten started. And completed phase one. With some help from my pen pal, I completed a book proposal. Or seven drafts of one, actually.

Phase two in the perfect world goes like this: You send out your book proposal with a query letter, an agent falls in love with the idea, negotiates a large advance, you land an artist in residence spot at the National Park of your choosing, the hardcover shoots to the top of the NY Times Bestseller List, the movie rights are sold for an obnoxious amount of money, Hollywood asks you if you'd rather have Brad Pitt or Edward Norton play you etc. etc. and you buy an island.

Phase two for me so far has gone like this: I send out the proposal to an agent. Said agent doesn't respond. Repeat.

So I enlisted the help of one Iver Arnegard. He's a friend of a friend who I met once years ago, likely eight beers into the evening. Arnegard is a professor of creative writing who recently had a collection of short stories called "Whip and Spur," published. You should check it out. It's Cormac McCarthy with punctuation.

Iver was nice enough to read through it and give me some encouraging feedback. The nuts and bolts of it was this: I need to delve deeper into the emotional bits, the failures, the lack of confidence, the vulnerabilities, the lost loves, the losses in general, the reflections on my inadequacies.

He's probably right, it'll make a better book. It'll probably make my mom cry. Hell, it'll probably make me cry. I guess that's the point.

FNG Again

I'm flying on the other side of the Chugach Mountains for the summer season. Valdez is more stunning than I had remembered. Eight-thousand foot peaks shooting right out of the sea, a proper port town and the largest tide-water glacier in Prince William Sound right next door.

It's the bottom of the totem pole for me (which is another one of the things whitey got wrong, the most important being is on the bottom so that you can look at it from eye level and the least powerful being is on the top and outta sight) this summer. That means the choice flights go to the guy that spent the winter in Valdez and that I probably won't fly the R66 cuz he needs hours in it to advance his turbine time. No biggie. I still have lots to learn about bouncing through the mountains without bouncing off them.

Friday, April 15, 2016

End of the line

I hurtled into Anchorage. I checked the clock and knew that I should stop and get rid of a cup of coffee before I showed up at the tire place to avoid dancing an uncomfortable jig while waiting in line. Alaska’s largest city is no metropolis so I wasn’t surprised to find a friend in the public restroom of the furthest south grocery store.

We shook hands, his damp from a fresh washing, and agreed to get together once more to play cards before the summer swallowed us up in its manic-ness.

I pulled into the tire changeover place fifteen minutes prior to opening. The necessary pit stop put twenty-five people in front of me. I walked past a smattering of people that make up this city on the edge of the wilderness. I few had heads down engrossed, or pretending to be, in their screens. The man at the front of the line, (when had he arrived?) leaned on his diamond willow walking stick. I noticed that it had one of those flip down ice cleats at the tip. Sweet aftermarket alteration.

I rounded the corner walking past a man wearing ear buds and talking on the phone. During our time in line he ended and started several conversations. Through body language (non-verbal communication is the college class that I use most often in the real world, or the real world in this dimension, anyway) I knew that the woman in front of him grew increasingly annoyed. Later they would approach the counter together. Was it the phone calls or an off-hand remark over breakfast that bothered her?

I took my place at the end of the line and a well-dressed young man greeted me. We chatted for a bit about how nice a day it was to wait in line. Then he leaned in and whispered, “What’s going on, is there a big sale today or something?” I smiled and welcomed him to the state. He knew nothing of studded tires and procrastination in the 49th state.

It’s wonderful how you can show up at the tire shop and see the full spectrum of Alaskans from the crusty Sourdough, who could give a brown bear a run for its money with his studded walking stick, to the fresh-faced newbie from Pennsyltucky who hasn’t slid sideways yet cursing to himself that it’s time to dig the winter tires out of the shed.