Monday, December 26, 2011

One for the books

Remember what you did three Christmas's ago or what you got? I bet not. This one will stick in the hard drive for awhile, I won't claim forever cuz if I live through the heart attacks and cancer that swim in my gene pool, there's a good chance I'll get Alzheimer's. But until then, I'm gonna remember X-mas 2011.

The other Shane and his wife, Laura were already at Two-step beach when I arrived. They organized the gathering for folks that didn't have friends or family outside of the flight school to celebrate with. I got there at the same time that they realized that both sets of keys were locked safely inside the car. A perfect opportunity to bust out my dish to pass, a gallon of Sangria. Pretty good but I went overboard with the ginger. Not as much as Dan's ginger wine, but too much.

The beach runs for a couple of miles with little patches of sand in between large swatches of lava rock. Groups of revelers filled the flat spots. We walked about half a mile to a cluster of houses and explained the situation. The old woman made a lovely sound that was a mixture of concern and merriment when we asked her for a coat hanger.

Jork showed up just in time to see us give up on the coat hanger and decide to break a window with a rock. The pumice kept breaking in our hands so the other Shane went to return the twisted hanger and see if the old lady had a hammer. Meanwhile, Laura took the flat head screwdriver from the tool kit on the back of my bike and pried the window out.

Then, wait for it...the alarm blared. I spent some of my youth hanging out listening to a band called "Vegetable Spit" practice so my hearing isn't full strength and the alarm hurt my ears. I bet folks for miles up and down the beach cursed us. A local came over to help us. He thought he knew how to reset the system and stop the alarm. He didn't.

I unhooked the battery and there was much rejoicing. Jork found the horn and we cut the power to it, so while the headlights still flash off and on, they do so quietly.

By then, the guy with the Weber still hadn't shown up but we found a grill in the weeds and set about burning wood to get a bed of coals while Laura prepped skewers with veggies and dead animal. Delicious. I hope your day was as memorable.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christmas of color

I've only been two places for Christmas- Wisconsin and Alaska. While it doesn't snow those places every year, there is or has been snow on the ground/around by the Holidaze. My favorite X-mas weather memories come from one year in Girdwood. It was minus six on Christmas Eve. Then we got five and a half inches of rain on X-mas day. The trooper slid sideways while sitting still, Dan slung us a bunch of drinks at the Puddle Cafe, and Kelly made an impromptu dinner after their plan to head to Cooper Landing was foiled cuz the road was flooded just south of Portage.

It's unlikely that we will have snow here for X-mas but Mauna Kea (the taller of the two active volcanoes on the Big Island at just over 13,000 ft.) has already been blanketed down to about ten thousand feet or so. It only lasted a day and a half, but was an interesting juxtaposition, palm trees and ocean over here, snow-covered mountain over there.

The tarmac in front of flight school adds more private jets full of haves here for the Holidaze every day. There are already so many that they've begun angle parking. Two bummers, I left my binos in Girdwood so no chance to see if it's J-lo or the guy that invented Kotex getting out of the plane, and they park right where we do hovering drills, quick-stops, and the like.

My Christmas plans? Fly a helicopter, ride my bike (Tim showed me a super-challenging "road" the other day pretty close to the airport), join some other misfits for a BBQ (sauce included) on the beach.

Alaskapowder and both of the other folks that read this blog will notice that there are a few pics. None from in the heli, sorry. I've only flown with the doors off and it's against the rules to have loose items in the cockpit. Yeah I follow the rules now. Weird, huh?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

We're gonna do what?

My uncle Jim was one of the naysayers when I told folks that I was going to learn to fly helicopters. He voiced concern over a common misconception regarding whirlybirds; that they fall out of the sky if the engine quits. Airplanes do glide a good ways with the power cut. But they still need a runway to slide across once reaching terra firma. Don't kid yourself, it's gonna really suck if the plane you're in has an engine failure unless you're next to an airport or a deserted freeway. My advice, an extra cocktail. You can catch a cab whenever you get where you're going. If you don't get where you're going, you're gonna be in an ambulance, either way you ain't driving.

Helicopters create lift by pulling air down through the rotor. If the engine quits, air begins to flow up through the rotor as gravity pulls the bird toward Earth. Turning the rotor and the engine would take too much energy and the rate of descent would be uncomfortably high. Squoosh. The rotor is separated from the engine to solve this problem. It works the same way a bike does. Pedal for a while and you can take a break and coast with that stored up energy. If there wasn't a freewheeling unit(called a sprag clutch in a helicopter) in the bike, there'd be no coasting.

So that's all there is to it. You just separate the rotor from the engine, called an autorotation, and coast to the ground (where you don't need a runway, just a space a little wider than the helicopter). Granted, this isn't coasting like a feather fluttering but it's substantially slower than the 9.8 meters per second squared that a dropped rock achieves.

I was introduced to the maneuver a couple of days ago in 951Bravo Lima. Its color scheme is the same as my high school's, so I took that as a good sign. One of the reasons I chose this school (being in a tropical paradise was never considered, honest) is that they let all their instructors teach autorotations. Most schools only let the chief pilot teach the maneuver which means you only get to do it when you're with the chief pilot, which means not very often. I figured that it makes a lot more sense to go to a school where I have the opportunity to get really good at flying without an engine, just in case.

We climbed way up (a Frenchie set the record for highest successful autorotation to a landing in 1972 when his Lama had a flame-out at 40,000 feet and couldn't be restarted) so we would have plenty of time/distance to practice. You check that all the warning lights, instruments, and gauges read in the groovy then you count it down. "Autorotation in 3,2,1 down, right, roll, bump." Down is the collective and pushing that all the way down gives you the same little weeeeee that you feel in your belly as you slide down on the roller coaster. Right is right pedal cuz you start to yaw left when you stop producing torque. Roll is closing the throttle (I know, it does sound crazy) and bump is bring the collective up just a little bit so you don't over-speed the rotor.

I'm slowly getting the entry to the auto down. As long as I calmly countdown, it's easy as pie. The first couple were less than pretty but I'm getting better and will be damn good at it soon enough.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Call it a draw

So a few days ago, I had a heckuva time getting the helicopter on the ground. As you get close to Earth a little cushion of air from being in ground effect (basically air stacking up underneath you cuz it can't escape due to surface friction, not a good enough answer for the checkride but you get the idea) keeps the helicopter afloat. Helicopters are designed to land (or crash for that matter) facing forward. The skids can slide a good distance and everything will be fine. Go backwards and you risk hitting the tail rotor. Sideways and you might have a dynamic rollover. While dynamic is great in a personality, it sucks in a rollover. What was the name of that not-really-a-memoir memior Oprah (ever notice how she's on the cover of her magazine every goddamn month? Oops, where was I?) endorsed, "A million little pieces." Anyway I'd be sinking down all nice and purty, hit that little cushion and yaw back and forth. Just couldn't seem to get through it.

I hover-taxied back to park and Corbin said, "You just have some kind of block, here you are taxiing in a straight line with a quartering tailwind, which is much harder, and you're doing great. You just need to quit thinking about it." Easier said than done for yours truly. Actually, what if I obsess about it instead? Would that be alright? I bet I'll dream about it tonight, extra credit? "It's ok. Don't worry about it, your approaches were really good today. The set-downs will come."

I shared my experience with Pablo. Former Columbian, fellow Alaskan, ten or so more flight hours than me. He said he had the same problem, he just exhaled through that cushion, pushing the collective down as the air left his lungs. So I gave that a go. It worked. My set-downs and pick-ups were smooth, some forward movement on a few but that ain't no nevermind, it's safe. Guess what? The approaches went to shit. Missed every one. Some short, some long, all bad. I long for the day when at the end of a flight, the instructor says, "So what went well today?" and I have more than one thing to say.

We have gotten to the point, Corbin and I, where he's pulling circuit breakers or pushing in the carb heat to see if I'm paying attention. On paper, I'm halfway to soloing. You need twenty hours and an endorsement from your instructor to legally solo. If you mess up on a solo, it's your instructor's ass cuz he gave you the go ahead. Ask Skorecki to tell you a funny story. A kid from India, name of Puunja, soloed for the first time on Monday. Pretty funny, he did a coupla patterns around the airport while his instructor chain-smoked. Not exactly paternal pride, but something akin to it was on display. Also pretty funny that you have to solo to get your private license. You don't solo before you get your driver's license. Well actually you might, but if you get caught...I don't know, I didn't get caught. To legally fly, not only do you have to solo, some of that time must be at night. It's a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world except for Lola.