Thursday, November 24, 2011

Breakthroughs and Meltdowns

Some of the most creative advertising on the planet can be seen on septic pumping trucks in the Anchorage Bowl. "Isaac's Honey Wagon," "A straight flush beats a full house," and my favorite, "Satisfaction guaranteed or double your load back." The best one I've seen here on the Big Island is from John's Septic Services, "John's my name and shit's my game." I bet he does a great job.

That's the fantastic thing about living or traveling in different places, you see that people are all the same except for the little differences. I rode around for a while wondering where all the cops were. I noticed a bunch of vehicles with little blue lights on the roofs like the weirdo in Whittier (I guess there's no reason to say weirdo if you say Whittier, it's like saying the lonely stamp collector) that used to drive up and down the road looking for a fire. He was the assistant chief. He bought the light and the dinosaur juice out of his own pocket.

Turns out that the lights signify cops. There are only two marked smokies on the whole island. So if you meet a Mustang or a Toyota Sequoia, it's either a tourist in a rental or a cop. The cops are required to turn on their little blue lights after dark. That doesn't make a lot of sense to me but so much doesn't. Marked cop cars or not, people here flash their lights to warn you that you're about to sail past a pig in a speed trap. In Japanese its, "Mokodi" same same but different. In Britian, Johnny Law will pull you over for warning others of his whereabouts. Sundays are all about sport bikes there. If you come zinging around a corner and instead of the jaunty helmet tip, you get an arm pumping down in front of the rider's chest, it's time to stand on that front brake.

Helicopters don't have front brakes or rear brakes for that matter. Back when this addiction began (that first little buzz really is the best, isn't it?) I hovered over Turnagain Arm the first time and in front of a bunch of friends at a bbq/kegger the second time. It was a bit of a lark, all in good fun and minute later you're all done, a pal hands you some Beam and a brat.

The instructor points the nose into the wind, holds the ship still and gives you the controls. It's all gravy at first but eventually you make a gross input and things quickly go to shit. Corbin gets it back under control and hands it back. Repeat. After a bit, or maybe longer, everybody's different (mokodi), you get the whole hovering into the wind thing down and Corbin makes you do it in a crosswind. Then as soon as you start to feel good about yourself, BAM he makes you give a tailwind a go.

Throughout it all, as soon as we start to pendulum too ridiculously, the instructor brings the touchy little fucker back under control. Yesterday I was killing it, following the yellow line with a wicked crosswind a solid three feet off the ground in a textbook hover taxi. Then Zephyrus sneezed, I hit the right pedal when I should have hit the left and all hell broke loose. So we're zigging and zagging and ballooning all over the place and I'm more than ready for Corbin to grab the controls and save the day.

But through the headset instead of "I have the controls" I hear "Fix it man, get it back under control." And I did. Somehow, I don't know how. It's a lot like hitting a baseball. If you really think about it, there's no way to swing a stick a quarter of a second after someone sixty feet away lets go of a bean traveling eighty-plus and make solid contact. But once you have the technique, you can do it on a regular basis.

So I've reached the point where my instructor is giving me enough rope to hang myself. Exciting.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Negative, 209 Kilo Romeo

Yesterday was my day off. I did the usual fun stuff like laundry, groceries (hit the market for the first time, 5 papayas for a buck and avocados as big as your head) and finally registered my motorcycle. The first time the office was closed as part of a statewide furlough program to save a bit of money. I was in line last week when I saw the proof of insurance requirement. I had insurance but of course didn't have the form with me. But third time's a charm. Guess how much these bastards charge to register a motorcycle? Five dollars, FIVE dollars, highway robbery.

I've flown a few times now. The first flight was a cruiser down the Southern coast. Pretty casual, me getting a feel for the machine and my instructor getting a feel for me, as in my general demeanor and ability to follow instructions. If one gets nervous while at the controls of a helicopter, those feelings travel through the fingertips and erratic movements are sure to follow. Because the controls are so sensitive, a firm grip is too much and one will pull the stick without realizing it. So the first flight was filled with little tips like that.

We also passed the controls back and forth several times. There is a specific three-step process involved in handing off control of the aircraft. If a pilot lets go of the controls of an airplane it will generally straighten itself out due to its inherent dynamic stability, mostly because its wings want to fly straight-and-level and need to be acted on by an outside force to veer from that state. If one lets go of the controls of a helicopter, which way the aircraft goes is anybody's guess but cross straight-and-level off your list of possible answers. So anyway, the instructor drills that into your head from the get-go. Apparently some folks have trouble understanding/remembering that.

Subsequent flights have been practicing patterns, basically flying rectangles just east of the airport. You gain altitude on two legs of the rectangle, descend on the other two to get a more precise feel for things and how moving one control will invariably require moving the other two. And you develop good cockpit management and scanning habits. Example: Making a turn to the downwind leg. "Clear to the right, clear to the front, clear to the left." "What about that 737?" "Well yeah, except for that 737, it's clear to the left."

After some patterns, with a general improving trend, time to ask air traffic control for permission to land. I've been using radios for a long time, so they don't intimidate me and I realize that the only way to get better at anything is to keep after it. So when Corbin asked me if I wanted to make the call, I said yes. We did the exchange between us, he said yep that's it, you got it, and I pushed the big red button. Somehow pushing that button caused a disconnect in my brain and I asked ATC to come to a full stop in a spot where stopping is frowned upon. So that's cool, I established a level to improve upon, I don't want to peak too soon. I screwed up a radio call to air traffic control and didn't have to buy anybody beer. This career path is way different than my last one.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

What would the hippies think?

The first "Adult friends," I made in AK were in Waikaloa for a conference last week. I rode my bike up to hang at the beach with them and their little guy. Tracy goes to this conference every year. The location varies and as luck would have it, she had to leave Alaska in the first weeks of November to work in Hawaii. The conference was held at the Waikaloa Hilton. What a perfect place for a bunch of idealists facing a serious uphill battle to discuss how to fix things. Here's an example of the agenda: Wake up, shower, drop your towel on the floor(don't worry an underpaid, over-worked native will get you a new one), hop on the monorail, listen to a presentation on these cute little frogs from Cost Rica that are taking over, go outside for some fresh air, watch the caged dolphins play (or are they trying to escape?), afternoon presentation on the pigs and what their snouts are doing for erosion and runoff, float your boat home in the canal, mix a rum and coke, and watch the sun set over the golf course. Funny shit.

Here's a little more funny shit. My mom used to pick on her sister for being a leftie. Her sister, my aunt Barb, cursed my mother with a cackle and a "All your children will be left-handed," and we are. Three for three. Barb made up for it by giving my mom a kidney a couple of years ago, so they're even.

Dad made us learn how to use tools right-handed because it's safer. All the other folks are using their right hands and will expect you to as well. Plus all the guards are designed for use as a right-hander. Remember the chainsaw, Weston? So along with learning induced flow and the location of the low rotor RPM sensor, I have been learning to write, 'The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,' (every letter of the alphabet is in there, go ahead, double-check) over and over with my right hand cuz you can't let go of the collective on the ground, but you gots to write some stuff down. Pretty funny cuz Mrs. Utke always gave me a hard time about my hand-writing, (grow up in a small town and you can hate a teacher two years in a row) she'd shit a bird if she saw how it looks with the other hand.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Freezing Rain Advisory

I woke up this morning and streamed KSKA, as I have most mornings for the last decade or so. I'm not up on the issues here yet, plus the weather reports are super boring. 83, no 85 today and sunny, again. Meanwhile, AK is on the national news scene with a powerful storm. There's talk of evacuating some Western villages. Think about how shitty it must be for the folks that live there to be concerned. Southcentral has been getting snow/precip and they're blowing snow right along with Ma Nature in Girdwood. Last year, the folks I had signed up to plow my driveway pulled out of Girdwood in mid-December and I just rolled the dice. It was such a low snow year that I got away with having my neighbor plow me out once and that's all I needed. But I have renters now, probably some of the best a person could hope to have. They are friends of mine, which can be dicey. But I think I rolled a seven this time. They've been to my home for dinner parties and I've said leave the dishes I'll get 'em in the morning. Go downstairs to play foosball. Come back upstairs and the dishes are done and there they are cleaning the burner racks on the stove. Yeah, the burner racks. What's up? Am I moving? Is my mother coming to visit? Whoopsie, that was a good tangent. Anyway, I got the guy around the corner to keep the driveway cleared for the season. Some guys charge for each plow, this gentleman charges once for the season. Last year he made bank, this year his kids might not get the G.I. Joe with the kung fu grip in their stockings. Yesterday was the first day of patrol training. I bet a few of them are looking at this right now on their smartphones instead of listening to whatever boring shit management is spewing. Nothing new really from the last post but I thought a little on my living sitch might be more entertaining to them than accident investigations. Before I got here I kept an eye on motorcycles for sale and places for rent(the school has student housing but I'm past that stage of my life) to get an idea of what was out there, a feel for prices and the like. I called about a couple of bikes but got no response. Probably folks didn't want to bother with an out-of-stater. So the school arranged for someone to come and get me when I arrived on the Big Island. They took me to student housing, far and away the cheapest place to crash until I got my feet under me. The next day I went back to the airport to get the bag that missed the connection in Honolulu (no biggie, just keep in mind the words of my friend Phil, "Travel is both expensive and inconvenient,") and to get a rental car so I could check things off my list. THE LIST: 1. Get a motorcycle 2. Get a place to live 3. Learn how to fly helicopters. So day one in the rental car I drove to Hilo to test ride several bikes. One was a crotch-rocket, two were more dirt than road. I wanted a dual-sport so I could take advantage of the trail riding but realized that I would spend most of the helmet time commuting to and from school. I thanked the guys for letting me take the bikes for a spin, got myself a portugese sausage omlette and a coffee for $4.07 and pulled out my new smartphone. Don't worry, you won't see me on any of those creepy, 'i just took a shit and want the whole world to know about it' social network sites any time soon. I'm eating my breakfast, scrolling craigslist and there she is: a lovely honda 650 dual-sport. there are better bikes, but hondas are dependable (my brother and I tried to kill a few growing up. It can't be done.), affordable, and perform above average. So I call the guy. "Wow, I just listed that five minutes ago." So I say I'm in Hilo but can be there in under two hours if he'll hold it for me. He sorta chuckled and said that he would. Directions? I don't need no stinking directions. Just give me your address and this contraption I'm talking to you on will bring me right to your door. Really? Actually, I have no idea, I just got this thing, but that's what my friends tell me. If it doesn't work, I'll call you back when I'm as close as I can get. So it worked. The bike was everything I thought it would be. "So you still want me to hold it for you?" "No, I'll take it." "OK when can you get me the money?" "As soon as I put my hand in my pocket." (My brother called to wish me good luck on the move. "You have everything squared away?" "I won't know for awhile." "You have your passport and a bunch of cash?" "Yep" "You'll be fine.") They, Terry and his wife, Gudrin(spelling?), asked me if I had a place to stay. Nope. "We can put a message on the coconut radio (generational comment) if you like." Hell yeah, that would be great. I go back to student housing and Terry follows me on the bike. Wow you already got a bike? Yeah. And you drove to Hilo first? Yeah, it's not even two hundred miles, a short jaunt in AK, akin to going to the moon here. The response from the professor's contraption(how come he never figured out how to make goo to plug the hole in the boat and how come no one ever got sick of Mary Ann's coconut pies?) was overwhelming. I looked at a ton of places not listed anywhere, including a tree house. Yeah a house twenty feet up in an honest to goodness tree. My inner Thoreau and my inner Kazinski, for that matter, really wanted to live there but logic won out over romantic (as it usually does with me) and I'm living in a one-bedroom house seven or so miles from the airport. The place is great, the owners are cool and on-site. They grow avocados, papayas, bananas, guavas, and coffee(which they roast themselves) plus, their last name is Mink, so there's some sort of cosmic connection.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Good bye muk luks, hello flip flops

So I took a half-hour introductory helicopter lesson last winter. I told my parents about it and my mom said something along the lines of "Oh boy, do I have to start to worry about this?" I assured her that there was nothing to worry about. Then I spent the next few months obsessing about whirlybirds. Several of my friends and I already had healthy rc helicopter habits and I thought that was as far as it would go.

Spring came and with it the transition to the job that pays well enough so that I could continue ski patrolling. I found myself sitting in an excavator pulling out fence posts between a building and a power transformer with traffic lights overhead. All four limbs had something to do on that particular project and I realized that flying helicopters was something I could do. So the obsessing kicked into high gear.

I grew up on a farm and was put at the controls of a tractor at age four. Dad put it in second gear, low range, let out the clutch and hopped off. I drove in slow circles while Dad and others picked rocks and tossed them on the trailer. The next summer my brother got to drive the tractor and I began my long rock-picking career. But I continued to operate equipment.

That's just part of growing up on a farm. Lots of stuff is mechanized/motorized and you learn how to operate all sorts of equipment way before the manufacture's warning label says you should. I remember when Dad put a thimble on the shut-off switch below the seat on the riding lawnmower to override it cuz Kyle was too light. It didn't occur to my father that my little brother shouldn't be on the lawnmower cuz he was too young. The idea of waiting to do adult duties simply doesn't fly on a farm.

I flipped a skid steer into a pond we were filling in to make more ground for mink sheds when I was nine. But it wasn't because I was too small or didn't have the skills. Dad told me not to get too close to the edge, I didn't listen.

I've tried to retire from landscaping several times in the past but I couldn't seem to find a seasonal outside gig that allowed me to keep patrolling in the winter. I love everything about that job except the politics and low pay. But this summer when the Resort sent out its annual, "This is how we're gonna screw you this season," letter informing us that overtime would be virtually eliminated and we would be required to remain on-call, it became apparent that I could no longer afford to work there.

I decided to take my equipment operating skills to the next level. After all, I've been running various machinery nearly my whole life, but gravity's been keeping me down.

I did the research, read blogs and websites til my eyes bled, talked to people in the industry, and decided on Mauna Loa Helicopters in Hawaii. They simply have the best non-military program(let's face it, I'm not military material) in the world. Yes, world. Plus, believe it or not, it's more affordable to train in Hawaii than Nicaragua. The school is well respected, takes training seriously, the weather is conducive to flying most every day, and there is plenty of terrain to challenge the aspiring pilot.