Saturday, December 29, 2012

Plan to the pans of the Sans

I did a proper cross country flight the other day, 130 nautical miles. I saw the sunrise from the cockpit and watched the Delta sink into the sand and the land turn brown and stark as I entered the Central Kalahari Desert. Some folks at Jack's Camp wanted to go to Kubu Island and this time of year, that requires a helicopter.

Kubu Island juts out of the Makghadikadi(sounds like it's spelled) Pan, the only granite I've seen. How I've wished for a rock to throw at a baboon. The pans are ancient remnants of ocean floor flat and sunken like living rooms built in the late '70s. When the rains come, the pans fill with 30 or so centimeters of water.

I remember when my uncle Terry wanted to turn a bit of swamp into a pond on some land he owned. We watched the excavator cruise across the soft ground, its tracks spreading the load and allowing it to float. The excavator swung with its first bucketful and when the weight shifted off the tracks, sunk immediately to one side. By the time we returned with more equipment to rescue the digger, it was easy to imagine that it would be out of sight by morning.

The pans have eaten many a vehicle in the same way. That's where the helicopter comes in.

Tens of thousands of zebras and wildebeest come to eat the fresh grass at the water's edge or stand in the knee-deep water safe from predators. But holy shit is it hot, I mean the Kalahari doubled cuz you get the reflection radiating back. Those zebras must really be afraid of lions to choose that option.

I came home one night in Girdwood and when I turned the corner into my driveway, I was extra glad that I had made the decision not to drive. Thirty flamingos stood in front of and around my house. Turns out a group of kids trying to fund a trip to Washington had come up with charging for the prank. But the plastic ones can't hold a candle to the real deal.

Flamingos scrape the bottom for brine shrimp. The only thing more brilliant than seeing thousands of them wading along a pan is when they take flight, the pinks so vibrant that they threaten to explode into reds.

Kubu Island comes into view as a mirage, but slowly it gains definition and one knows that it really exists. No wonder that's where the San people took their boys for their rites of manhood. The highest point, the only granite, and 67 mature baobob trees, no wonder they thought it held magic.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Mr. White Christmas

I skipped the Solstice letter this year. It's a bit of an ordeal for me to mail things from cottage number five. Kudos to the folks that sent cards my way, favorite relative titles remain in place. Average time en route, 19 days.

X-mas is a big deal here. David Livingstone killed elephants and brought the word of his savior, Hey-zeus, to the people of Botswana years ago. More than 60% of the natives are Christians. Some wear little stars on their shirts to show allegiance to certain sects, many of which abhor alcohol. Bored and don't speak much of the local language? Engage them in a discourse on why the guy with the extra-waterproof sandals would bother changing water into wine if he hated it so?

Most of the employees are here haven't been out of Botswana and even the managers at this camp never ventured out of Southern Africa. So I think I was the only non-paying person at X-mas dinner cringing while the manager read a passage from the second half of the Bible to the family of famous New York Jews as a way to welcome them to the holiday celebration that they paid thousands of dollars to get away from.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Artist and the Anesthesiologist

“Likely that the pilot was unaware the mast nut had been removed,” “a factor was the trees,” “resulted in fuel exhaustion,” “as to why the helicopter collided with the sea.” I read as many accident reports as I can. Some pretty fun phrases can be found in those reports. The conclusions rarely involve mechanical failure, which is good. It’s mostly poor decision-making that does pilots in, so the more one knows, the better decisions one can make.

Taking the time while on the ground to think about decisions that were made by others in flight hopefully prepares a pilot to make better choices while flying. As Cypress Hill opines, “When the shit goes down, you betta be ready.”

I’d been at Chief’s camp and tentatively made plans to take a family of four on a scenic tour when they returned from the morning game drive. The weather changed and I made the decision to head to Nxabega early to get a group of ladies to Maun International Airport early so they could catch their flight to South Africa. Ah well, I was looking forward to the scenic flight, the family seemed quite nice.

Four days later I flew to Xaxaba to do a scenic for a group of four. Turns out it was the same family I’d left at Chief’s. The old man flew planes years ago so I offered to let him have the front seat, those guys really like to point at gauges trying to figure out the dashboard while Africa whips by.

I was on my way to get a cup of coffee when the family asked me if they could go up again. “The only limits to spinning those rotors are your imaginations and your wallets.” “Well she’s an artist, she has a great imagination.” “Awesome, who has the wallet?” “She’s an anesthesiologist.” “How does an hour-long flight sound?”

The anesthesiologist sat up front. About 20 minutes in, the GPS went out, and by out, I mean off. No biggie, I’d been lost in this part of the Delta before, follow the Boro channel right back to camp. I checked the gauges, green is for groovy. I pushed the warning light panel test button. Instead of lighting up in bright colors with various types of impending doom, nothing happened. Quick glance up, no popped circuit breakers. Back to the gauges. engine and transmission oil now read zero, but without secondary indications like loss of power or people screaming as we plummeted toward earth, I felt good about continuing the flight. Fuel, 35 gallons. That’s odd, quick calculations meant it should be roundabout 40. Generator and battery, normal. Sweet, the radios just went. Generator and battery, zero. I reset the generator, nothing changed, except possibly my heart rate.

Mind you, this is over the course of two minutes, the family is still pointing out giraffes and zebras. Fuel 30. Weird, all those gauges now read zero, no GPS or radio, obviously an electrical issue. Why is the fuel gauge dropping slowly instead of going right to zero? Two problems? Why would I be leaking fuel? Why can’t I remember hearing about this in my 206 training course? Why am I having this debate in the air?

“Just so you know, I’m having some electrical issues. I’ve gotten a good look at this island, there’s plenty of room to land, it’s free of large mammals. You can stretch your legs while I get an engineer on the ‘sat’ phone and see if it’s safe to continue this flight. I do see some impalas but they rarely attack humans.”

I did two orbits scouting the island, one to double-check for lions and wind direction, one to find some Zen. No need to rush this landing and create a bigger problem. I did do a faster than normal approach, however, because the fuel gauge showed only 5 gallons remaining, too close for comfort.

I grabbed my sat phone and headlamp while the clients stretched their legs and the anesthesiologist offered everyone Xanax. Using the headlamp, I could see lots of fuel in the tank. Only an electrical issue after all. Time to call World Headquarters.

Mitch came in the other Jetranger, whisked the clients back to camp, and brought the external batteries so we could jump-start my heli and I could fly it back to the hangar.

The degree of acceptable risk depends in part on the mission. Risk a lot to save a lot. Would we save more babies if we went over gross weight? Will the world end if a chopper full of South African models misses the connecting flight back to Jo-burg? Will this family have a pleasant and unforgettable African experience? An unexpected landing in the Delta took care of the unforgettable, hopefully my demeanor and the Xanax covered the pleasant.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Photo Ops

I always try to get to the helicopter much earlier than I need to, just in case. I've had a couple of unforseens that turned a mellow pre-flight into a mad scramble. Dead batteries, broken fuel drum wrenches, and black mambas on the trail to name a few. So I'm in the habit of getting everything ready to go long before. I'd rather be chillin' and feel ahead of the game than to rush through pre-flight and miss something important(it's all important.)

So the other day on the way to the heli, I spotted a freshly-killed impala. We took a good look around and found the leopard that had done the deed resting in a thicket. He came out and pulled his lunch into the bush while we watched. As far as commutes go, I reckon that one will stay on my Top Five list for some time.

After the flight, I joined an afternoon game drive and got to see the group of nine lions known to the guides as the "tree-climbing" pride, two males that hunt together as part of a coalition until they're able to get some honeys of their own to do the hunting for them, and the leopard. He had climbed up a tree, the impala left for the vultures.

I've been living out of a bag recently and my camera charger didn't make it. The lioness on the branch was the last photo I was able to take. Bummer cuz the pride got really active after that, but I think you'll agree, that it was a good one to end on.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

No honey, Evian is for millionaires

I ferried a woman from Boston to and from a little village west of Vumbara to start the day. Since I’d never been there, I had the guide sit in the front seat to point me out the usual LZ. I did half an orbit before deciding that I wouldn’t land there. Power lines (that supplies only the tower for the cell phones each of the poor villagers seems to have) on one side, cattle fence on the other, and all ringed by 15 meter Mopane trees with a volleyball net smack dab in the center for good measure. Turns out the volleyball net was a recent addition.

We set down in the soccer pitch on the other side of the road. It made the heli a little dirty but dust is a statistic I feel comfortable dealing with. Rather than sit with the heli, I elected to join the village tour.

Ms. Boston runs a travel company that caters to those that want to volunteer a bit of time or money to the area they visit so they feel better about how much more than most of the world they have.

The man that greeted us in tan polyester slacks and the shoes Chevy Chase wore in ‘Vacation,’ sent a boy ahead to ring the gong. They wack the piece of metal with a stout stick and it makes a helluva noise to announce something special but I doubt anyone missed the arrival of a helicopter.

Ms. Boston and the villagers exchanged gifts, then they had a big meeting about what could be done to help the village. Sam Kennison’s routine about “moving where the food is” looped through my mind. White Loafers suggested we take a look at his campsites.

We bounced along in the back of a truck to a beautiful hill, which here is a meter higher than the surrounding area, with a fresh breeze blowing. Shiny Tan Slacks prattled on through an interpreter with his plans for 14 tent sites, mokoro (dug out canoes) tours, and game drives (game? what game? those are cattle).

Everyone agreed it was a wonderful plan bound to bring wealth to the village. What idealists from the East Coast and uneducated villagers don’t understand is that folks don’t come to Africa to see bloated kids with flies on their noses laying in dusty garbage strewn streets, not the people with money, anyway. They come to drink gin and tonics, talk about the shopping in Dubai and to see the lions and zebras and everything else that’s on the other side of that 700-mile long fence I pointed out when we flew over it less than an hour ago.

So someone’s gonna go back to America and add a page to a website offering a unique opportunity to give something back to a village in Botswana. Well-meaning tourists will give a week of their holiday to help build a bunch of cottages that will never be slept in and the village women will weave a pile of reed baskets that will never be bought.

I returned from that mission to learn that Mitch had been called to a med-evac so I had double the workload. It would be a busy day full of short hops because an airstrip was closed for maintenance.

I packed the helicopter full of an assortment of bags, boxes, hard-sided suitcases and a butler. We ran into one of the thunderstorms that pop up in a moment’s notice this time of year. I tried to go around it but when visibility went from not able to see very far to a white room with beige trim, I set down next to a very surprised giraffe.

After tying down the blades so they wouldn’t cause any damage (the airspeed indicator read 40knots while we were parked on the ground), I hopped back in, thoroughly soaked, to learn what I could about being at the beck and call of a man that had cracked the Forbes Top 300. Turns out most of what I carried in the back was bottled water brought on their 737 from Norway. “Drink as much as you like, I can’t be bothered to tote it back.”

Sunday, December 2, 2012

I like the pretzels best

I've been shaking out my boots before I put them on every morning just in case a scorpion has crawled in overnight. From here out, I will give every article of clothing a good jostle before donning it. A dull throb emanates from my hip while I type cuz a scorpion was in my skivvies. "It wasn't a black one was it?" No it was yellow brown. "Good, if it was black you'd be dead." Then why bother asking me if it was black?

The rains have come with some regularity. We're up to 53 mils at Eagle Island- 25 of which came in half an hour. It hasn't made the channel rise much but it has greened things up. The baobob trees bloomed, which makes them look even more like they belong in a Dr. Suess book. The story goes that the creator got sick of them bitching about this and that so he turned them upside down to shut them up. Now their roots face the sky. Their flowers open at night and are half-closed during the day. Supposedly some have red flowers but I've only seen white.

It's fascinating to see how quickly things take advantage of the rains. New shoots come up within two days of precipitation. Termites, mosquitoes, and other winged nuisances buzz about before the water has soaked into the sand. Several species of frogs lie below the ground waiting for rain. They can live up to three years without water. But once rain falls they need to sing, breed, and lay eggs within a couple of days. Between the thousands of termites flying to the light and the noise of the frogs, it's hard to talk after dark. You need to yell over the frogs, but through gritted teeth so nothing flies down your throat.

The most amazing adaptation to the rains comes from the mammals. Zebras, wildebeest, impalas, and kudu can all adjust their gestation periods. If the rains come early, they go into labor. If the rains are late, they wait until the last day to give birth. The result is that nearly all the young are born within a day or two of each other. It's like Chex Party Mix for the lions.

And speaking of lions, two out of three airstrips had big cats yesterday. I did a scenic at Piajio and the folks were taking photos of a lone lioness 50 meters away while I refueled. Then I hopped over to Mombo to do a guest transfer. I saw vultures circling as I approached. I stayed above translational lift to do a fly-over of the helipad. Only the red-stained fur on the lions' mouths remained of whatever they killed. I decided to land where the planes do their run-ups instead of the pad and by pad I mean area free of brush full of just-fed lions.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Now that's hungry

One of the guides here by the convenient to western tourists name of John grew up in the Delta. His people used to hang spears attached to rocks in trees under hippo trails. When the hippos came out of water to feed at night they tripped a line that released the booby trap.

The villagers always had a feast when they bagged a hippo. Fat was rendered into oil and all the meat not eaten at the feast was dried into jerky. But the feast meat? Grilled to allow most of the fat to escape. Even so the meat is so oily that feast-goers stripped naked to eat it cuz the squirts came violently and without warning. Think about that ye mourners of the Twinkie, you could be sitting in a pile of your own hippo-infused excrement at the family barbeque.

We zipped around the bend to find the channel choked with hippos. The water was so low that there often wasn't room to go around them so we had to wait to see what they'd do.

Males run the show in hippo groups and the big guy lunged toward us then dove under the water. He surfaced a few seconds later much nearer to us and closing the gap. Jacques threw the outboard into reverse and we decided the sandbank back downstream would be just fine for fishing, after all.

Once the boat was turned around and motoring, we noticed a dead hippo in a little back channel. I grew up on a mink farm, pierced the stomach of the first deer I skinned, and have removed boa constrictor shit from a terrarium, so I know stink. The top fragrance in the "Worst smell" category now belongs to dead hippo.

Bubbles escaped from the mouth and anus of the rotting animal as the gases of decay made their way to the surface. We marveled at how big they are when you're only a meter away until the gag reflex threatened to win.

I decided to fly the guests over the hippo two days later. I was pretty sure I had the right bend in the river because I could see lots of crocs on the sandbanks as the heli got closer.

Reason 719 that helicopters are superior to airplanes: You can hold a helicopter in a hover over a dead hippo whose hide is a vibrating, undulating mass because the crocodiles are tearing it apart from the inside out while tourists from Spain snap photos.

The skin is too thick for crocs to bite through it to get to the goods. What's a hungry reptile to do? Well start where there's a hole and make it bigger. That's right, kids, crocs rip the hippo a new asshole and crawl inside for hunks of greasy goodness.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Burning baobob

It’s just as well that Basile is on leave. Basile lost his hearing as a young boy to a fever. He provides the occasional camp amusement by starting a weed-wacker next to a poolside lounger, oblivious to the racket. But he always gets angry at situations like the one we face now. He has to stay in camp while the other men go out to fight because last time, they couldn’t find him for hours and they thought he’d been burned.

Botswana law requires men to fight fires. Law or no law, this one needs fighting. The only thing between the fire and the camp is the hangar, which has a helicopter and 80,000 liters of Jet-A.

We spotted the fire early in the day. I met a group out on their morning activity and picked up passengers at Baobob Island, named for the iconic tree at its center. By noon, the tree had been engulfed in flames.

We’ve had fires near the camp in recent weeks. When the fire burned at Kiri, we felt safe behind our moat. But that moat dried up days ago and Kiri is 8 km away. The burnt baobob tree is 1.4 km south of camp.

Senior staff and I made small talk at the Fish Eagle Bar with guests as we watched the smoke roll over the trees. Jacques sent a crew out to access the situation with the benefit of daylight.

I scheduled all my flights for the next day and went to change into my best fire-fighting flowered shirt because the crew came back and said they would need more help to turn the fire.

Jacques and I had driven to the end of the airstrip to have a look at the Kiri fire weeks ago. It was a dull glow off to the southwest. While a threat, it felt more like something that deserved monitoring, especially with an easterly wind.

We loaded up two land cruisers with men, Chantelle and a bunch of beaters. Chantelle is the other half of the camp manager team and beaters are flaps of rubber mounted on the end of poles about the length of a broom handle made from mopane saplings.

My stomach clenched when we turned the corner from the maintenance shed to the airstrip. The fire brightened the sky, smoke roiled, and it roared like a microphone held to a bowl of Rice Krispies with the speaker turned up to eleven.

The glow of the Kiri fire had earned an indifferent shrug. This fire made the fear flow. Evacuating camp looked like a real possibility in the very near future.

We needed to get to the north end of the fire to get between it and the camp but had to drive around and up from the south in a frustrating, “You uh can’t get ther’ from here,” moment.

The flames raced through the grass and spouted embers whenever they hit a bush or thicket. The sound changed in intensity each time it greedily encountered fuel more substantial than grass. We bounced along in the lead Land Cruiser watching it consume everything in its path.

Finally we were as near to the front as we dared park the vehicle and everyone hopped out, grabbing a beater on the way.

In the beginning, there was no direction, no management, just primal fear. We quickly learned that we needed to attack short grass in small groups. The tall grass threw embers over the top of the crew and the thickets burned too hot for us to get close enough.

We charged at the fire en masse, a group of fifteen men and one woman, smacking at a line of fire three km long with rubber mats screwed to not even broom handles. The group split, making a break in the fire, one group wacking its way east, the other west.

Sometimes the flames were too hot and you could only get a swing or two in before you had to run away. Other times you stood in the black soot, killing the fire from behind.

Whenever the flames reached a thicket, the temp soared and all one could do was let it burn past and attack it again once it hit the grass. We came to appreciate those little thicket flare-ups. While we hated them, they forced us to rest.

Soon our energy output turned from manic to calculated to what my friend Brad used to refer to at the end of a ski day as ‘short bursts.’

We made headway, sometimes beating flames in grass higher than our heads, grass none of us would feel comfortable walking through on a sunny day. But this wasn’t a sunny day, this was a night brightened by the destructive force of a fire headed toward our home. No need to fear snakes, they lay in burrows hiding. And any leopards or lions would’ve had the good sense to run away. Only man protecting his possessions that have no place in the natural order of things would stand to fight fire.

Fight we did. Cheering when we put out a section, laughing at a ember smoldering on a mate’s shirt as we beat it out while he howled, wondering at the audacity of the reed frogs to keep on singing hoping for one more chance to get laid before they sizzled, appreciating the beauty of a fire raging across the Delta under a nearly full moon.

When we had stopped the progress of the fire, people began hooting to each other, two Land Cruisers and a tractor full of people, gathering on the edge of a hippo trail that served as a natural fire break to make sure everyone was accounted for before we went home, closer friends than we’d been five hours before.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Number one comment

He said, "You sound American," I said, "Alaskan," she said, "Did you send in an absentee ballot?" So I went into my little spiel about how I'm not getting excited about another politician until the metric system is at the top of the platform. You see, I believe the reason the U.S. hasn't adopted the measuring system used by the rest of the world is the same reason that the Cyrillic alphabet was developed. It's an invisible fence to keep citizens from being able to communicate with their neighbors and in turn, the rest of the world. Few Americans hold passports, if they did, they'd travel more, if they traveled more, they'd realize all sorts of things that the people in power don't want them to realize like universal health care is cheaper in the long run, the stuff industry puts in the American food supply is making the populace ill, maybe we shouldn't be attacking that country, etc. When I was guiding, I often challenged guests to come up with a better reason that we still base temperature on the freezing of salt water and the blood of horses. None ever did, can you?

Turns out she's a retired state senator. And they are the rarest of travelers we get; overfed, newlywed, nearly deads. The tri-fecta. Plus they're American. Americans are further down on the list behind Aussies, Brits, French, and Germans as far as volume goes.

Grandpa Patrick told me many times to never get old. By the time he walked with two canes, he said it on a regular basis. I've always thought about it in two ways; body and mind. This couple went and got old. The body breaks down and there isn't a lot one can do about it. But carrying extra pounds doesn't keep one young, that's for sure. So aside from staying in reasonable shape the rest of it's in the mind. Complaining about the size of the pina colada instead of realizing that one shouldn't even ask for one of those in Africa is just one example.

This couple was old. She needed a ladder to get herself(including the carry-on baggage hidden in her stretchy pants) into the front seat of the R-44. I had to do multiple laps around elephants in the middle of floodplains before they spotted the three-ton animals. And they had one camera between them so the chatter over the headset mostly consisted of him saying, "Did you get a picture of that, Cathy?" and her saying that she hadn't. He waved to all the animals he saw. How does one pass the bar exam and think impalas might wave back?

Cathy struggled with the camera. It cracks me up that people stare at the screen on the back of the camera trying to see if they got a good shot in the middle of a scenic flight instead of just taking another picture and deleting the shitty ones later, on the ground.

What started out amusing and quickly turned to annoyance was the way she kept leaning away from the subject instead of adjusting the zoom. I had to explain to her that when she leaned too far, her fat ass fought to push my collective down and that the collective was a fairly important part of the "stay out of the treetops" equation.

Now I'm not quite the jackass with a camera that Cathy is, but I'm not a photographer. That's the main reason I don't constantly post photos, most of mine are deletable. The other reason is that by the time I've fought the heat and concentrated on not losing my composure(puns are fun) I don't often have the extra patience required to upload via African internet.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Do they really need more lead in their pencils?

I saw four of the Big Five yesterday before I was airborne even half an hour. It started with a lone lioness trotting across a floodplain. Depending on who's asking, 50% of all the African elephants live in Botswana so I see gobs of them every day. I noticed a flock of egrets and swung that direction, sure enough, they followed a herd of buffalo numbering three to five hundred. I didn't see any leopards from the air but I did see my first rhino.

We have two species of rhinoceros in Africa, white and black. Both are dark grey. The earliest white folks in this part of the world spoke Dutch which has morphed into Afrikaans. When they described the mouth of one species, they used their word for wide which sounded a lot like "white" to the Brits. Just like "Alyeska" became "Alaska" or Mexican cowpokes started out as "Vacqueros" but became "Buckaroos."

They're roughly the size of a pick-up truck and have two horns made of keratin. Some people believe that ground rhino horn cures all sorts of maladies from fever to limp dick. Of course the list of weird items to perk one's sex drive is as bizarre as it is long. Some of my favorites are oysters (no doubt made up by a guy that had caught a bunch of the snot bags and needed to get rid of them), tiger urine (how exactly does one acquire that cat's piss?) and of course, rhino horn.

Rhino horns are made of the same thing as fingernails. Ground-up toenails put anyone in the mood? Even so, more than 400 rhinos have been poached in Southern Africa this year. We sure are a strange species.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Dumela Pula!

Stifling. Oppressive. Sweltering. These words describe the time between 0800 and 0300. That leaves five blessed hours a day where one can function at 100%. Two and a half of those hours must be used for sleep. Sleep before three a.m. might be lack of consciousness, but it ain't rest. Finally in those early morning hours the day cools off.

I do my preflight check and planning in that window just after dawn. I concentrate on the things that need my full attention before the sun begins baking the earth and my brain along with it.

Robinson sent out a safety notice concerning operation beyond 46 degrees. It says basically that they have no idea how the machine will perform above those temperatures. Maybe when I'm done with Botswana I'll apply for a factory test pilot position with the Robinson Helicopter Company.

I can tell them how their machine performs at and above those temps. It does so with great protest. It doesn't want to operate in those conditions any more than the pilot does. Have you ever tried to do anything moderately demanding above 46 degrees? Good luck. It's even too hot to fuck.

You know where the wealthiest people are buried in this country? I pulled to the side of the road, trying to get a better look at what crops were being grown. I thought, I don't know, African ginseng or...then I saw the headstones. Everybody puts up these little shade tarps, two-dimensional coffin covers above ground, so loved ones can spend eternity in the shade. The rich (dead) folks get the spots under the tree.

The cumulus clouds built with tremendous speed. Wispy clouds turned into towering thunderheads. The wind cranked up from the East, bringing more evaporative moisture with it. Then the wind just stopped, everything was calm and the air smelled of burnt ozone. The silence broke with a gust of wind from the opposite direction. Lightening and rain pummeled down. Little puffs of sand rose up in protest when the first drops began to hit, but soon the earth was saturated and just had to lie there and take it. I stood out in it, looking up, getting beautifully, wonderfully soaked. The downdrafts brought violent coolness.

The first rain since April, the storm over nearly before it had begun, less than twenty minutes all told. But now, an hour later in what is normally the hottest part of a very hot day, it's quite pleasant. Seven months of dust washed clean from the now bright landscape. No wonder this place uses the same word for money and rain.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Silent lucidity

The baboons wander through here most every afternoon just before sunset. I never see them on windy days. Probably because the trees aren't close enough together and they have to travel part of the way on the ground. My theory is that they don't feel comfortable with terrestrial movement when they can't hear things that may want to eat them so they stay in the canopy.

The baboons climb up the date palms around the camp manager's cottage as the sun sets. They spend the night at the tippy tops where the leopard can't get them. Most of our other primate cousins also seek sanctuary before darkness falls because we just don't see as well at night as other creatures do.

One time-honored tradition where I grew up was lifting a couple of Old Styles from the pantry, finding a pick-up truck and shining fields for deer. If they looked into the light, the mesmerized deer had no chance of running while buzzed up high schoolers loosed arrow after unsuccessful arrow.

A man I worked with in Yakutat shot deer for Cook County, Illinois. The animals thrived on gardens, flower boxes, and parks in the Chicago area. Steve and his crew drove around the city with a silenced .223. His partner would hold the light and Steve would shoot the deer right between the yellow glowing orbs. By the time he retired, upon shooting his 1000th deer inside the city limits of one of America's largest population centers, the deer had learned to look away when they saw the light coming. Most of later his kills were between the ears at the back of the head.

Humans don't have a tapetum lucidum layer in the eye, but many creatures do. What the layer of cells does is reflect light back into the eye after it's bounced off the retina to increase low level light viewing.

Myth surrounds the color given off by the layer but the fact is we don't yet know why some cats eyeshine is blue while others give a green or yellow glow. I learned last week that hippos eyes appear red in the beam of one's torch.

I walked home after dinner, scanning both sides of the trail for elephants and hippos. I also shot my beam up in the likely leopard perching trees. Just as I reached the turnoff for my trail, I saw a gray form in a small clearing. At the far end was one red dot. The hippo was bedded down and facing away from me.

It started to swing around and rise in a blur. I let out a little yelp, dropped my water bottle and beat feet for the safety of Guest Cottage #10. Another ten feet and it may have had me. Luckily those fat fuckers with their stubby legs can't climb stairs. It snorted at me and continued toward the water.

I stayed on the porch for a while, letting the adrenaline leave my bloodstream, the folks from Australia inside Ibis Cottage none the wiser as to how close I came to ruining their vacation.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Live and let die?

Life on a mink farm gives extra meaning to seasons. Summer growth gives way to Autumn, when the animals begin to put on their thick fur coats. Winter harvests and a sigh of relief for a year's work done. Early Spring marks breeding season, when the cycle starts again.

By mid-April, we eagerly anticipated the first litter of the year. We could hear the mewing of the newborn kits from halfway down the aisle of the quiet shed in the still morning. My family viewed the first litter as a harbinger to the entire crop. If the first mother to deliver had a bunch of healthy kits it usually meant we would be rewarded for the long hours of attentiveness we put in during breeding season.

We'd find one litter by maybe the 17th of April(at the earliest, also my parents' anniversary, the date picked because it's really between busy seasons on the farm), and one or two a day until the 21st or so when we'd find hundreds of new litters every morning, the sheds a cacophony of kits crying for more milk. We covered the nest when we found a litter. We also turned the mother's card(her genetic records) sideways. For months afterward, we walked through the sheds with necks cocked at an angle to glean information from the cards. One day my brother said, "How about we turn all the cards sideways after breeding season, that way we can turn them straight when the kits come in?" Sore necks disappeared from the crew. Genius.

Mink come into the world hairless and about the size of your little finger. By ten days or so, they can make it out of the nest box and begin to explore their world. We often searched the ground for kits that had ventured far enough to fall out of their pens. (That reminds me of a catch and release owl project, maybe I'll check on the statute of limitations before I share.) At twenty-one days they open their eyes and start to eat solid food.

I bring this up because I can say with a certain amount of expertise that the striped mongoose kit I spotted yesterday was about ten days old, healthy and well-fed.

A band of maybe fifty mongoose live in my neighborhood. They come through in a wave twice a day. The mongoose spread out eating everything they find, from ants to adders. They're pretty fun to watch, if one finds a snake or lizard, he'll stand on his hind legs and meef (the term for the sound they make, perfect onomatopoeia) to his band mates for some help with the hunt.

I heard the mewing on the short cut to the hangar, he/she(I could have sexed it but that would have left human smell and altered the course of its destiny) crawled along the elephant path. I wanted to stay and observe. Would his mother return in time to carry him by his scruff back to the den or would he become birdsnack? Would he be able to pass on his rambunctious genetics or would they be lost along with his mother's because she stayed away from the den too long?

It remains a mystery, I found no sign of him on my return hours later.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Even the Super Hot Ones?

I went to the Maun Police Station the other day, which has very little to do with this post. It's part of a bigger episode we'll get to later. Boxes of free condoms sit on counters in every room. Eagle Island Camp keeps theirs by the employee message board. The condoms come from the Botswana government. It's all part of the plan to reduce HIV in the country.

Current estimates put the infection level at 25% of the population. Some experts say that that number is way too low because infected people receive the same drugs each month at the free clinic that have kept Magic Johnson alive for the last twenty years.

Problem is, the drugs mask the symptoms of HIV/AIDS and people unwittingly have sex with infected folks. Condoms are unpopular here. If a girl wants you to take her home, she whispers in your ear that she wants you to give her "some of your power." She doesn't want you to put your power in a plastic bag, ya dig?

The dowry system still rules here. The Botswana gubment set a maximum fee of six cows just last month. Prior to that, some families wouldn't let their little princess go for less than a dozen, especially if she had finished high school.

But what if your family works in liquor store instead of the fields? Then you need to give her family dikgomo kgetsi. That literally translates to pocket cows. It's gonna set you back 3500 pulas if you knock up a girl (for the first time only, if she's already had a kid, the subsequent ones are worthless) out of wedlock or 6000 to marry.

So here, you might as well buy the cow cuz you won't get the milk for free.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Just think if lions ate lettuce

I had a full day on Traditional Night. I've been in camp long enough that it's changed from day of the week to meal of the week. I can figure out the day if I think about it, when I see Magidah and Kelefe rolling the grills out to the patio, I know it's Braai night, which means BBQ'd spare ribs/Wednesday.

Anyway Traditional started with an 0700 pick-up at Kanana and a transfer to Nxabega (Usually the 'x' sounds like a 'k' but in this case, it's silent. Fucked, huh?). My passengers sat on the Botswana Tourism Organization board. They needed a helicopter to get to a few camps that were airstripless.

So I land at 0655 and watch my guests roll up in a Landcruiser. They stayed two nights in the Bush and each of them had more luggage than I took to Africa for a two year stay. My outside air temperature gauge read 28. I had plenty of room to get to translational lift but that was the easiest take-off of the day.

The Nxabega staff greeted us at the helipad with song and cool drinks. I checked in via sat phone and learned I had four scenic flights to do. After three lumpy men and bags, a solo take-off was a major wheelie-popper.

I busted out the scenics, then hopped BTO from camp to camp until dusk. Going solo, max gross, solo, scenics at 30 knots, solo, max gross, solo improves one's skills immensely. Take home lesson, raise the collective slowly.

And there's a new leader for stupidest tourist question ever. "Are elephants vegetarians?"


"Then how do they get so big?"

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

My friend will pay

A well-traveled friend once told me that it's a good idea to get a few phrases down in the native language where ever you find yourself. Residents appreciate the effort you put in to learn some of their tongue. Start off by learning how to say hello, please, and thank you for the food.

In Setswana 'hello' is 'dumela' but it doesn't end there. One must inquire about the wife/husband, the children and whether they are well before the greeting is finished and we can move on to the part where I tell them that I don't speak Setswana.

One can learn a lot about a culture by its language. The people here have no word for 'thank you' and they use the same word for 'please' and 'I'm sorry.' (One of my friends that on occasion drinks too much, always wanted a word that means both 'thank you' and 'I'm sorry.') It's as if there's no reason to thank a person just because he behaved the way that he should have.

Once you get the basics down, you can move onto harder phrases. Or you can use your skills ninja style. Sit quietly. Realize when they are talking about you. Let them laugh. Then in a harsh tone tell the speaker to, "Kak in de millie!" There will be shocked silence followed by laughter because you told the jokester to go shit in the cornfield.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Recycled Jokes

Yesterday I jump started my first R-44, flew solo in Botswana and entered controlled airspace without annoying Approach or Tower with my radio work. The radio work is straight forward here, Civil Aviation Authority-Botswana follows ICAO standards but depending on who's in the tower, the operator's accent can be hella thick. They follow a standard script so based on how long they chatter back, one can figure out whether to add, "and looking for traffic," to the transmission.

Back in Maun, I got in the Jetranger with the owner, two Spaniards and a bunch of luggage. We convoyed out with the R-44's. A family of eight chartered a ride with us rather than a four hour drive to their remote camp.

Then I hopped in the R-44 to go pick up guests for my first ever scenic flight without a co-pilot. The Russian-Kiwi must have given a favorable report of my decision making for Andrew to push me out of the nest. Jumping from one type of helicopter to another minutes apart makes one pay attention. The Japanese have a word for it, "Mokodi," the same, but different.

So I met the guests, gave them a safety briefing, and lifted off for their scenic flight. "How long have you been doing this?" came through my headset. I looked at my watch and said, "About four minutes." Then we laughed and laughed and I pointed to a giraffe to change the subject. If I'm asked today, I'm gonna say, "Oh don't worry, I've done this once or twice."

Friday, September 28, 2012

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain

Anyone that's worked the service industry knows that what the customer sees doesn't tell the whole story. Snobs send wineglasses back when they spot a thumbprint, then happily wolf down the T-bone that dropped to the floor as it was plated, rinsed off, thrown back on the grill for a quick re-heat and delivered to the table with a smile.

We joked that an establishment earned two of its five stars just for being in Alaska. Africa takes that to the next level. Don't get me wrong, the accommodations and food stand up to anyplace in the world, unless you need a daily newspaper and a plasma screen television to be happy. And if you do, you are one pathetic fuck.

The lodges here do their best to keep guests satisfied. For instance, two days ago we took a honeymooning couple on a scenic flight. Jacque (one half of the South African couple that runs EIC) ran to me as I headed out to pre-flight and handed me a bucket filled with ice, flutes, and a bottle of champagne.

On the other side of the coin, the only vehicle (land-based) that runs at the moment requires that the driver hold his door shut while under way cuz somebody (actually nobody fessed up to it, it just "happened") opened the door while backing up and hit something which bent the door past its hinge stops. It reminds me of when we used to show up at the train in Whittier with our old Chevy pick-up, "Don't worry, you're not renting the truck. Most of our kayaks float." Inner dialogue, 'Next train's not till tomorrow, sucka.'

But the service can only be as good as it can be. Tourists want to see natives employed at all the lodges? Cool. But if you're from Thailand, newly wealthy(meaning the children will be educated in private schools where they learn Queen's English but you weren't), and you request a special morning drink from your English-as-a-distant-fourth-language server, don't be surprised if you fall asleep on the boat. It's because your iced-coffee was an Irish-iced-coffee, because you said 'iced' twice and neither one of them sounded quite right.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Safety is no accident

We took the South African licensed 206 back to Maun two days ago. It will finish out the last 16.4 hours remaining before the hundred hour inspection on a elephant collaring and tracking project in Eastern Botswana. Then it heads back to SA cuz our company isn't renewing the lease on that machine and just when I was getting used to its idiosyncrasies.

Both 206's that our company owns have after-market tail rotor blades. The Jetranger is famous for LTE or loss of tail rotor effectiveness. The US Army discovered the phenomenon with their Jetrangers back in the late fifties or early sixties and literally wrote the book on LTE. ('Wrote the book' sidenote for the heli-geeks:My Kiwi-Russian mentor received his ground instruction from Wagtendonk himself.)

The South African machine has what Bell calls "High altitude," blades on the tail. They're basically just bigger but they do make a difference, though it's still easy to run out of pedal. When that happens, the tail rotor can't overcome the torque created by the main rotor and the heli spins out of control and if you live, you get to update your c.v.

The aftermarket pedals make a tremendous difference, which is good. They do take some getting used to, which is bad. The first time I raised the collective on A2-HAS, I would've hit the fuel drum with the tail if Vasya hadn't tapped the right pedal. I had too much left pedal in anticipation of the torque and those cute little blades with swept leading edges grabbed a bigger bite than I needed.

After the scenic flight, Vasya took me to a little clearing so I could do some hover work and get used to the different blades. A couple of pirouettes (moving the helicopter in a straight east to west line while spinning slow controlled circles at hover height) and I started to get the hang of it.

Instructors: If you really want to prepare your commercial students (and yourselves) for real-world helicopter work, start every lesson with a scenario that challenges your student's flight planning and decision-making ability. People try to overload ships. One's ability to confidently look at a pile of cargo, do some math, and say, "Either we do this in two trips or we don't do it," will keep him alive. Do lots of downwind takeoffs and landings, sometimes it's the only way in or out of a spot. Make them get into confined spaces with half an orbit, unless it's a government contract, no one's gonna pay for a pilot to do six or eight cirles at more than a grand an hour. Spend some time in the shaded areas of the H/V diagram. Autorotations are super fun but engine failures don't occur at the percentages we train for them. Train for what's gonna get pilots in trouble.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

How to train an Elephant

How to Train an Elephant

I’m waiting in the main lodge at Stanley’s Camp. I transferred some guests here so they can “Walk with the elephants.” When we were kids, my brother wanted a pet elephant in the worst way. Maybe it was after the circus came to town, I can’t recall. I do remember asking Dad how the man taught a horse to count. “Shane, that horse was the same age the last time the circus was here. It doesn’t know how to count, it knows if it stomps it’s foot until the man takes off his hat, it gets a sugar cube.”

We grew up on a farm, so we already had most of the usual critters; dogs, rabbits (we used to play with the rabbits and our dog at the same time. She’d playfully flip them with her nose, carry them by the scruff of their necks, chase or herd them back to us. Jody behaved so well around the rabbits that my brother and I let the rabbits out to play with her and then we went about seeking the day’s adventure. We returned to find disturbingly little of our three rabbits scattered about the lawn. Country lessons come with harsh finality.

A succession of horses, bookended by two Shetland ponies and an Appaloosa Dad christened ‘Ugly’ because it had eyes of different colors. In between we had several quarter horses, one of which was pregnant when we bought it, unbeknownst to us. I broke the foal with some direction from Dad on how to go about it. My sister was the first to ride it after me. She took it across the road by the pond where it promptly threw her. Kelley came back holding her broken arm. Dad said, “I guess it ain’t broke yet.”

But Kyle kept asking for an elephant. Always aware of an opportunity for his children to teach themselves, Dad told Kyle to do the research, see what it takes. Asian elephants need seven bales of hay a day. The African elephants like the one I’m watching right now, are bigger and need even more, up to 200 kg of food and 180 liters of water. And never mind the dung, what a job it would be to shovel all that shit.

The first thing you do is tie the baby elephant to a post. Actually, the first thing you do is get yourself a baby elephant. How one goes about that, I haven’t the foggiest. Females stay in herds of mothers, daughters and immature males. Since it takes about ten years before an elephant has learned enough from its mother to survive on its own, the matriarch vigorously defends her herd and the substantial time and energy given to raising young.

But let’s say you did acquire a baby elephant. What you need is a stout post-think telephone pole- and a chain. You chain the elephant to the post. Over the course of several days, the elephant will pull and pull, forgoing food and water, trying to get away. If it succeeds in yanking the pole out of the ground, breaking it off or somehow getting loose, that elephant will never be contained.

If the chain holds, eventually the elephant will give up. From that day forward you can tie the elephant with string and he’ll never struggle. He has a long memory and will not forget that it’s futile to resist. See, they do remember but they don’t reason.

Now you can go about the business of teaching it to wear a saddle, trumpet on command or what have you. But they do remember and if you’re not careful they may turn on you. Our company has done two med-evacs involving elephants, actually one was a rescue because armed farmers fired on the elephant before it could stomp the man to death, the other was a body recovery. And it wasn’t really a body recovery, it was more of a parts and pieces clean up in aisle seven. Chunks of the man were strewn over a large area, suggesting that the mother tore him apart with her tusks and tossed the hunks with her proboscis.

In the end, Kyle decided he Dad was probably right, an elephant would just be too much, “Hey Dad, what about a buffalo?”

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Shouldn't it be low density altitude?

I dreamt of rain last night. I'm told the rains are still a month and a half away but things are changing. Yesterday we had scattered clouds, that's pretty significant cuz I'd only seen three clouds total before that. Quite a change from the last places I've lived, where stainless steel rusts and mushrooms grow in minivans.

The clouds come from the evaporating Delta. Depending on whose stats you believe, somewhere around sixty percent of the water disappears into thin air. The rate of atmospheric absorption increases along with the rise in temperature. Mornings start above thirty degrees these days and we'll have highs in the mid-forties on a regular basis soon. For those of you unfamiliar with the measuring system used by the rest of the planet, twenties are comfortable, thirties hot, and forties require Gold Bond in your undies to maintain sanity.

My running take-offs improve with each passing day. By mid-afternoon the Jetranger protests with more than two passengers and half tanks. With rarely more than a breath of wind to use to my advantage, choosing the right gap between the trees becomes imperative. Tsogo (our heli washing, baboon chaser at Eagle Island Camp) refuels between scenics while I give the safety briefing to the next batch of guests because taking off with more than 32 gallons of fuel puts the TOT (turbine output temp) needle uncomfortably close to the red line.

Life in the Delta changes as we tilt closer to the sun. The snakes are awake and the crocodiles are feeding again. They used to laze on hot rocks, but now the crocs attack the red lechwe (members of the deer family adapted to spend most of their time in water, webbed hooves and all) that just days ago were able to graze next to the indifferent reptiles.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

And the Blowfish

Just in case you think I spend all my time on photo safari or kicking back sundowners with wealthy tourists, I saw a different side of Africa yesterday. We have a government contract to deliver bahuti (every citizen of Bots over sixty gets a monthly pension) to six villages scattered about the Delta.

These villages live the same way they have since time began. The northern enclaves subsistence fish and have water for gardens. In the dry season (which curiously is when the Delta has the most water) they catch extra fish that they take to market along with reeds cut for thatched roofs or weaving of baskets and hats. Looking at the twisted mess of oxbows and marsh from the air, one wonders how in the wide world of sports they ever find their way.

The southern and easterly villages have a harder go of it. Some of the year they have enough fish to eat and if they’re lucky, extra to cure for when the water dries up. Farmers suffer all manner of trials. The plants that can get enough water are either eaten or trampled by elephants. So they concentrate on beef cattle.

Farmers get 8x8 kilometer concessions but that isn’t enough to raise many cows in this environment. They stay out with their herds for weeks at a time, always pushing the cattle to fresh pasture. Neither fresh nor pasture should be used to describe the grazing land. It’s usually a step or two between clumps of dead grass. Lions and leopards kill cattle and cattlemen on a regular basis. I picked up a copy of the Ngami Times (Maun’s weekly newspaper) the day I arrived. There was a blurb about a farmer being killed by a lion on the front page, below the fold.

That farmer lived in Ditsipi, the last stop on our pension delivery. The government official (Agnes, a six-footer who’s knees were constantly pushing into my seatback as I flew) and the state policeman (who dozed with the barrel of his AK-47 on his foot and his head on the butt while Agnes passed out a 250 pula reward to the folks that survived six decades here) walked to the village center while I put the cover on the helicopter (ever wonder why Bruce’s Custom Covers don’t fit on the R-44? It would’ve earned a C- in 8th grade Home-Ec but nobody’s built a better mousetrap yet.)

The whole village turns up to watch the action, try to get money from their newly rich relatives or scam rides to town. Last week I had to drive out to meet a helicopter. I gave him fuel, he gave me an engineer. We drove through a little village and a man flagged me down to ask if I could give his wife a ride to town. I said sure, hop in the back. Before I knew it, I had fifteen people in the bed of the truck with more chasing us as I drove away. Imagine giving one a ride and seven people trying to hang off the skids as we took off.

Local Knowledge

I was chilling at the Fish Eagle Bar (voted top ten most romantic places on the planet to have a drink by the New York Times in 2007, a fact the camp managers go on and on about) when one of the guests asked me why they weren’t allowed to go to their tents unescorted after dark. “After all the pathway is lit and what’s the guide gonna do, sacrifice himself?”

I could tell she was a New Yorker so I took a guess. “Well these guys weren’t born in Brooklyn,” pause for laughter, “So they have a better idea of how things work here. It’s more about avoidance but if need be, they will tell you to stay while they run so the animal chases them instead of you.” We talked about how to tell if the elephant is bluff charging (if it’s ears are out, head up and trumpeting, it’s trying to make itself look big), why you face the cats (they prefer to attack from behind) and the best way to outrun a hippo (you can’t, they can reach speeds of 35km/hour. Mr. Bolt does something like 40). You turn lots of corners and head for the roughest terrain possible cuz their stubby little legs aren’t as agile as ours.

At Chief’s Camp, even the guides travel in pairs after dark cuz there are lots of lions. That’s the place where the zebra was killed right by our heli. But here at Eagle Island, the workers are allowed to travel by themselves. There aren’t any lions here, just elephants, hippos, and leopards.

I scanned the bush on either side of the path (elephants or hippos) and the trees overhead (leopards) with my headlamp on the way back to my tent. I thought I heard a man coming my way. Probably one of the guides, on his way to fetch his guests from their post-dinner drinks round the fire. Weird, that I couldn’t see his light.

I had been concentrating on the sides of the trail but I brought my light to the center of the path ready to say, “Geez Tsile, you scared me.” I wish I could say my senses were keen enough that I saw the glint of the tusk at the edge of my headlamp’s beam, but he was less than ten meters away. I could see both tusks, both eyes, and both ears (folding back.)

Adrenaline surged and I took three quick steps to my right, which put me 30 meters into the brush and toward the light of the guest tents. I guess that satisfied him because he didn’t follow me. Feels great to get that first elephant scare out of the way.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Today's Episode

Twitchers come to the Delta from all over the world for the birding. Many species live here year round, while others come to feast on life brought by the water and leave when it dries up. The colors on the birds paint a stark contrast against the brown grasses this time of year.

I want to learn the major birds so if I’m asked I can answer at least some of the time. I can resort to the tricks I learned while guiding in Alaska where you pick a direction and a color (that’s a White Northern….) or making regular words sound Latin (why it’s a purple byriverus) or the surly method (it’s a duck, I said no standing in the raft.)

I already know the lilac-breasted roller, but I saw one this morning that wasn’t in the kindle book on my Mac. So I went to the camp library. It contained several guidebooks but the only one on our avian friends featured birds of prey. Next I went into the main lodge. Every coffee table has a beautiful book or two. There it was, “Birds of Botswana.”

Stunning photography of both male and female of the species fill the pages. Birds sitting, drumming their wings, or flying over the Delta make up the book. I flip and flip and there it is, the yellow and black bird I saw when I stepped out of my tent this morning. Of course the book is only pictures, no words. I always skip the wingspan blah, blah, blah but it's kind of nice to know the name, right? If anybody asks I guess I’ll say, “You can tell by the crest and the little splash of red under the eye, that there is a page 47.”

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Balls Deep in the Bush

I sent three c.v.'s, copies of the last six pages of my logbook, and five passport photos to Civil Aviation Authority-Botswana yesterday. When I returned to the office Andrew, wild-eyed and a bit disheveled (he was supposed to be back from the bush on Saturday but trips kept coming up so he had to fly people to and fro while the emails, texts, and phone messages piled up. The life of a owner/manager/pilot is three times as hectic as it is glamorous), sent me to his house to quickly pack a bag. I hopped in the 206 with Vasay (pronounced vasher) the Russian-Kiwi to head to Eagle Island Camp. Talk about an interesting accent. Eagle Island is one of three camps that Orient Express, the world-wide tour company, runs in Africa.

Vasay has been based at Eagle Island for the last year. It's safe to say that he's over it. His Tolstoy is beating his Hillary. But he agreed to stay on until his replacement, me, is up to speed. We spent the day landing at various airstrips, flying scenic routes, and discussing what to do when "Ze damned baboons break into hangar" and destroy the windscreen.

Because I packed a bag on such short notice, I brought the camera but not the cord, so I can't show you the elephant dung that was on the path outside my tent this morning. And even if I remembered the cord, you wouldn't be able to see the lions eating on the zebra that they killed less than a hundred meters from our helicopter two days ago because the hyenas dragged the carcass off last night.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Squeeze, Bang, Blow

"Those fixed-wing fokkers'd throw bombs at Angola and be back for sunnies and bacon by nine. They didn't know war until they got shot down and we had to rescue them. When they saw the blood dripping out the door of the bird that came to pick them up, then they realized how lucky they were to know a choppie pilot." I was sent to Jo-burg to get a type-rating in the Bell 206. My instructor invited me for a post-flight pint and that's the end of the conversation I walked in on. The gruff old man speaking was Buzz Bezuidenhout, Henley Air's lead instructor. He's flown about everything that beats the air. Buzz's been shot at, shot down, and had a flame-out or two. He's kind of the Don Sheldon of South Africa (I read "Wager With the Wind" stuck in a sleeping bag with a hot water bottle down by my frozen toes on Denali once. I highly recommend it. The book, not the frostbite.) "Nevermind what they say about bleeding off early in the flare, those things'll take a wallop straight down and you'll walk away. It rolls cuz you have energy left over and yer cooked." Barrel of monkeys, right?

The beers were educational if a bit depressing, but the course was great. In the States you get your license and can fly everything that weighs less than six and a half tons, most everywhere else, you need to get checked off before you can be pilot in command of each different aircraft.

We started off with the basics of the turbine engine, "It's just an internal combustion engine, it has the same four stages, suck, squeeze, bang, and blow. They're all happening at once is the thing." And that's it, the real mystery of how a turbine works is why it's such a mystery. It's pretty simple: air gets sucked in and squeezed through these little channels, then the air is divided into two parts. One part travels along the outside, protecting the sidewalls of the can(where the explosion takes place) from the heat. The other air goes right down the center of the can where it's mixed with fuel and bang. The ensuing explosion is forced through a turbine (think waterwheel) as it's blown out the tailpipe and that's that.

Once the novelty of starting a turbine wears off, the 206 is just another helicopter. The thing between your legs makes it go left or right and the whatchamacallit in your left hand makes it go up and down. There are some differences of course, like it's more important to stay ahead of the aircraft with a turbine cuz it doesn't deliver power right when you yank up on the collective like a piston powered machine. And flying out of trim, it feels like the ship is going to roll over.

But the biggest difference is tail rotor authority. The 206 doesn't have very much. The Army wrote the book on loss of tail rotor effectiveness back in the sixties when the phenomenon was discovered in the first generation of the 206. Hovering with a tailwind requires some serious Gregory Hines action on the pedals. And making slow right turns with a light breeze is ill-advised.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Ham and Pineapple

I logged a point two yesterday, my first twelve minutes getting paid (actually that's on the down-low until the license conversion goes through) to fly helicopters. We flew just a short distance to the home of a couple of ex-pats who plan to start a search and rescue business that will cover the whole of the Delta. She is a Trauma Doctor and our company will supply the pilot to fly her in and out of the sites in their JetRanger, currently getting retro-fitted with all the EMT-type bell and whistles.

Until I get the converted license, I go through security (at Maun International Airport. It's kind of torn up right now but they are working hard to get the expansion project completed in time for the 2010 World Cup, held in South Africa) with a hand-written ticket as if I were taking the tour. After going through security, I'm free to roam the tarmac unescorted. When I get to the helicopter, I change into the company shirt (that I carry through security) and start to pre-flight. Ya gots to love it.

Getting the medical and license conversion balls rolling serve another purpose as well: They get one used to Africa Time. The pace is pretty slow here and all the forms need to be filled out in triplicate. Then you get to the Doc's office or where ever and they make you fill out the same form again even though you just handed them the completed one.

In between standing in lines that invariably turn out to be the wrong one, I spend a fair bit of time with Sam. He hails from Kasane, in the Northeastern part of the country. He's better educated than most of his countrymen and even has a driver's license, a rarity here. Sam's duties include fueling and washing the helicopters, fetching lunch, and just about anything that needs doing. He always wears a smile and a ridiculous pair of over-sized red sunglasses straight out of 1978.

So, we're chatting yesterday and Sam asks where I learned to fly helicopters. So I say Hawaii and he says, "Hawaii, where is that? I thought it was a pizza."

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Into Africa

Mom and Dad dropped me off at the airport. I’m pretty lucky to have a set of parents like them. The upbringing they gave me certainly laid the foundation for the upcoming adventure. We were raised to have the confidence to deal with anything thrown our way.

It took less time to cross the Atlantic than to go from Dakar to Johannesburg. This place is big, really big. Shades of brown out the window, very few straight lines to see below. The beginnings of mankind are down there but not much evidence of what mankind turned into.

Descent into Jo-burg reveals skyscrapers and slums, the dichotomy present in all developing economies. Mines with slag piles dot the landscape between the buildings, evidence of the search for minerals. Eight percent of the entire planet’s gold is thought to be underneath South Africa’s largest city.

The mines often dominate the news with stories of labor unrest. Thirty-four mine-workers were gunned down by police yesterday. The Fuzz had itchy trigger fingers because two of their own were killed by rioters in an uprising last week. The violence was black on black, which counts as lucky in this part of the world. If whites had killed 34 protesters, devastating violence would be sure to follow.

I got off the plane, gathered my bags, and headed for customs. I had a package full of cameras, computers, Ipads, etc. that I was bringing in for my co-workers. Most everything electronic is much cheaper in the U.S. I chose to walk through the “Nothing to Declare” line but it didn’t matter anyway because the customs room was completely devoid of workers.

Botswana has two million people and about the same landmass as Texas or France. Take that, Texas, you’re in the same category as France. Nearly half the population lives in the capital city of Gaborone. That means a vast majority of the country is populated only by critters.

History. This place was never colonized so racism where one does find it isn’t on the same level as the rest of Africa or even the neighboring countries. The Dutch and the Brits waged war over South Africa. The Brits came to Botswana and said ‘Hey we’ll protect your southern border just because we hate the thought of the Dutch taking anymore of Africa.’ Round about 1966, the Brits pulled out, Botswana already had a functioning democracy, they found some diamonds, and quickly grew into one of the wealthier countries on the continent.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

68 Hot dogs

I'm pretty excited to be some where that you can actually enjoy a fireworks display on the 4th of July. My last bunch of Independence Days have been in Alaska, where it's too bright to get much more than noise and smoke out of the explosions.

In Whittier the volunteer fire department blasts all the debris into Prince William Sound after the show. Here in Hawaii, we cut out the middleman and launch the display from a barge out in the bay. Three years ago, the State said it would no longer fund the pyrotechnics. One of the Richie Rich's stepped up with money to burn, literally, and that's what's happening this year.

I now hold a Commercial certificate so if anyone wants to watch the show from a helicopter, let me know.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Finally Summertime

I didn't know if I could, but I survived winter. The days grew and I hit the gym to prep for bikini season. Now it's here! Grab the big NASCAR towel, umbrella, and hit the beach! Temps are hitting the mid-nineties and papayas are down to ten for a buck. The chickens are raising their second clutches since Easter to help the mongooses(mongeese?) fatten up for the long winter ahead. Some billionaire just purchased the island of Lanai from some other billionaire. Why, I have no idea, that island sucks. The only one in the chain that is less appealing is Nihau, which had all its vegetation permanently destroyed by US government weapons testing.

I've been prepping for my CFI check ride by learning how to land without the aid of an engine. We practice autorotations several times each flight, but bring the engine back into the equation just above the ground to avoid the high-risk, low-reward of ground contact.

But it's a requirement for the CFI gig. Many people did full-downs on a regular basis as part of training from private up. But over the years, helicopter owners tired of replacing skid shoes, skids that bent too far on hard landings, and helicopters smashed all to hell on harder landings. So now you get to do a few full-downs right before the test and that's it.

The normal autorotation involves a decision at 200' above the ground (AGL, review your acronyms lately?) If everything's groovy, you continue the maneuver and terminate it in a hover just prior to touchdown. If not, you roll the throttle back on and go around. So the full-down involves the same 200' decision followed by one that happens about forty feet AGL. If you like what you see (the ground rushing up at you at a speed acceptable to the reptilian brain) you make the decision to slide along the asphalt, otherwise you roll the throttle back on and come to a hover.

The other day, one of the instructors came onto the deck and told me I should get ready to do some full-downs cuz the wind was perfect (10-12 knots. Less and you slide an uncomfortable distance along the asphalt wondering if you're going to get to add dynamic rollover to your list of accomplishments, more and you run the risk of bending the skids with a hard landing) and Noah wanted me to hot load as soon as he was done doing full-downs with Christoph. It's quite a feeling to take off, make two turns, and autorotate all the way to the ground for your warm-up lap.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Controllers are people too

On Saturday one of my friends invited me to watch the Stanley Cup Finals and get some chicken wings. I accepted, not cuz I give two hoots about professional hockey (I quit caring about pro sports when I realized that the number one draft pick was younger than me) but cuz a coupla beers and a game is a pleasant way to pass an afternoon. I found a reason to root for the Devils; most Los Angelenos are unaware that they have a hockey team so Jersey should have way better riots if they win, or lose for that matter.

Anywho, I met the gang at Ocean's. As soon as I sat down, the bartendress set a round of shots in front of us. I asked her what it was and she said, "A roofi-rita, from those guys." Now roofi and rita are words one expects to hear at a bar full of frat boys on spring break. I guess this place is perpetual spring break. I looked over to see who to thank for the shot, I saw two grizzled old men and a young kid. I recognized them but couldn't place the faces.

"That's Tower," one of the others informed me. "Hey which one of you was flying 74805 yesterday?" Denials all around. "Why do you ask?" "That woman with the Spanish accent sounds delicious." "It's Brazilian, and she isn't." "Aww man, don't tell us that. Lie to us. All we gots to do all day is fantasize about the voices on the radio and you go and ruin it."

Thursday, May 31, 2012

In denial, looking forward to anger

The first time I went to London, three friends and I recreated the Beatles album cover of Abbey Road. Then we went to the entrance of Apple records and had a look at the whitewall. It probably gets repainted once a year or something like that but quickly gets filled with fans' penned messages. My favorite was, "Yoko Ono?" She got blamed for the band break-up much like Valerie Bertinelli or Stevie Nix. Truth of the matter is that they were simply done being the Beatles. Each went onto semi-successful solo careers. Even Ringo and he must still think at least once a day how lucky he was that Pete Best kicked it early.

I didn't write anything on the wall, nor did I dump a bottle of wine out for Jim Morrison when I went to Pere La Che. I did once do a rubbing of James Marshall Hendrix headstone that hung framed for a while but has been lost to history. While all that music brings forth memories from various times in my life, none of them were favorites.

I never had a favorite until I heard Ween. I bought all the albums, went to shows, made vacations based on when they might be playing where. I love the sound, the silliness, and their refusal to hit the mainstream. Sure, Spongebob uses one of their tunes but they put vulgarities in songs just to keep them off the radio. That being said, you've heard their music on NPR. Pizza Hut approached them about creating a song for cheese-stuffed crust. The lyrics? "Where'd the cheese go? Ummm, I don't know" on a loop. Pizza Hut asked them to do it again and they refused.

Anywho, Ween broke up and here I am considering wearing all black until they get back together so I can skip the reunion tour out of spite.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Defeating the purpose

I pulled up behind a Harley yesterday and two questions came to mind. Why in the wide world of sports does Hawaii bother to issue handicapped plates for motorcycles? What kind of asshole would apply for a handicapped plate for his bike? I mean, if you can ride a motorcycle you have a lot more going for you than the average handi-capable, don't you think? Plus it's pretty easy to find a place to park a bike anyway. My dad has one leg (actually one and a half) and he doesn't have handicapped plates.

I had the most boring dream ever involving helicopters last night. I've had some pretty good ones, doing flips ala Redbull heli, zipping through the Mall of America in a cute little mini-chopper, but not last night. Last night it was a white board, some colored markers, and a lectern. I taught the aerodynamics of the autorotation. Autos are pretty exciting, especially if you get to do them all the way to the ground. Why didn't my subconscious entertain me with an engine failure that I needed an auto to recover from? At least I could've been standing in front of the class without pants.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Don't say anything to Mom

One of our helicopters experienced an engine issue while on final approach to an off-airport landing. Engine failures are something we constantly train for and recovering from them becomes second nature. Helicopters make it to the ground surprisingly well if they're high enough and going fast enough when the hamster on the wheel keels over. The problem with final approach is that you are low and slow.

Racecars, helicopters, and teens on redbull/vodkas are designed to crash a certain way. As long as the skids are squared to the landing zone and relatively level at touchdown, the helicopter will soak up most of the energy so the humans don't have to. It was textbook. The skids split, the metal on the fuselage crumbled, and the seats collapsed. The student required three band-aids. The instructor got a shiner when the cyclic hit him in the eye and a sore back cuz his seat wasn't allowed to fully collapse due to the rock underneath it. All in all they were quite lucky.

I've had high-risk occupations most of my life (it's a fun game to add up all the amputees I knew when they had all their parts and pieces) and it's interesting to watch attitudes change when people realize it ain't all adrenaline and dancing girls. This group handles it differently than my last cadre of professionals. Lots of government officials, no stolen pitchers or bonfires.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Mottled yellow is the new black

Most of my scabs have stopped oozing. The bruises continue to change color nicely. I can do my magneto check during the start-up phase without gritting my teeth. I still wake up if I roll over in my sleep because the cracked rib is nowhere near happy. I've been asked what happened to the driver. He was cited with a DWA (driving while Asian) and had to buy a moped, some gauze, and a tube of triple antibiotic ointment.

Two days ago we were flying in what they call the south practice area and I was orbiting, checking out a place to land, when I spotted traffic. After a closer look, it was apparent that not only was the Huey coming straight at us but that he had a long-line dangling below. Rather than find out what happens when one of those gets caught in your rotor, we entered an auto to quickly lose altitude.

I put some long ago gained knowledge to work the other day. I decided that the mice needed to move out of the dungeon or perish. I put some peanut butter on a cup that I threaded onto a bucket handle and filled the bucket with water. If the mice were talented enough to jump to the cup and get some peanut butter without making the cup spin so they lost their balance and fell into the water, they could have all the spreadable goodness they wanted. Two splashes so far but there are still mouse droppings so the trap remains set.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Strip malls and test pilots

I flew to PDX last week. It was a roundabout journey to Torrance, CA to participate in the Pilot Safety Course at the Robinson Helicopter Company. My friend Jeff met me at the airport. His wife was supposed to join him but since they left Alaska to be closer to family, they are now subjected to a pop-in visits from Sharon's parents. I was sad to miss Sharon but it was great to catch up with Jeff. He took me to a coffee shop with a perfect blend of hipster and gangster. It was attached to a garage that could fix your car but looked more like it specialized in grinding VIN's off those hard to reach places.

Jeff dropped me off in time to get the rental car squared away and greet my parents curbside. After hugs we headed to Tillamook. We skipped the cheese factory (still the most popular tourist destination in the state) and headed straight to see friends. Mom and Dad wanted to see them at least once more. Depressing isn't it? Planning the last time you can see someone?

We drove the Wilamette Valley south and had lunch on the Rogue River. Before, sorry, just got a glimpse of my toothbrush and about fifty tiny ants exploring the forest of bristles. Don't let anyone kid you, paradise is full of creepy-crawlers. Anyway we slept in Crescent City and drifted off to waves crashing from a serious storm.

I'd seen the Redwoods prior and was excited to share them with my parents. It's rare for the child to watch eyes of the elders light up with discovery. I've been told that's the best thing about parenting, watching everything become brand new through your children's eyes. Anyway, the trees didn't disappoint. I hope I never meet the person that doesn't speak of those towering giants with reverence.

We continued down the coast to San Francisco via the Sonoma Valley. Soon enough we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge. The painting crew was right about in the middle. I remember as a child reading that by the time they get to the other side, it's time to start over again. Job security.

I'd never been to SF. It exceeded my expectations, Italian dinner in North beach, SFMOMA, Giants/Pirates ending with a bases loaded walkoff single in the bottom of the ninth, and getting lost on the way to the airport. Mom brought her GPS but I told her to leave it packed, we'd use my smartphone. I gave her the rundown on the map app but she couldn't seem to keep the blue dot on the blue line. No worries, I'd built some wrong turns into our departure time.

So off to Torrance and the main purpose of the trip. I figured I'd be super-bored but I learned a fair bit and met some interesting folks. Tops of that list was the guy from Veracruz, Mexico that used to fly on a tuna boat. The helis go out and spot the dolphins that are hunting the tuna. In the beginning, one could herd the dolphins just by buzzing them with the heli. Soon enough the dolphins got used to the noise so the pilots had to start throwing flares out the door. Nowadays, they light and toss seal bombs to scare the dolphins and in turn, the tuna, into the nets. Sushi, anyone?

So now I'm in Honolulu, holed up in room under the school. I want to get some Bravo airtime under my belt and into my logbook. At my disposal I have a dorm fridge and a microwave. The bathroom is down the hall which is why I can see my toothbrush while I type. So far Honolulu has been quite a kick. I rented a moped and cruised Waikiki. Then I got smashed by an SUV. My right side is one oozing scab and I'm pretty sure I cracked a rib. The moped was totaled cuz it got pulled under the Lexus while I found a nice soft piece of concrete to land on.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

TLA's and then some

When I worked for the USFS, my favorite day in the field camps was AFF or acronym-free Friday. The gubment has a ridiculous amount of acronyms and they just get to be too much. "For today's TSS(tailgate safety session) we're gonna discuss ST+F's (slips trips and falls.)

Acronyms are a language all their own. They save time when a group of like-educated folks talk about things and want to save time or make the new guy feel like he don't know shit. Stand in one of those circles and you'll quickly get a list of stuff you need to learn after the meeting cuz the last question you asked got a serious eye roll. "BVI is British Virgin Islands, geez." People end up using acronyms so much that they forget what they abbreviate.

So the FAA is no different. There are many pages of acronyms listed in the back of the FAR/AIM. You need to know how AGL differs from MSL and TA. Well, look at the map. See that spot? It's 5003' MSL but only 748' AGL. So if you hit a MSL, AGL is how far you'll fall.

On a typical flight, I check the CHT, VSI, and ASI(airspeed indicator, now that doesn't tell me whether it's TAS or CAS) on a regular basis. I went for a flight last night and as I got close to MUE, I keyed my mike seven times to turn on the VASI so I could see the runway.

Acronyms also come in handy as study aids. I memorized the taxiway layout at KOA by making up my own FLA, DKCL (Dad killed Chicken Little). Silly yes, effective, yes.

Spinning circles over landing areas, I ask myself how I WOTFEEL. If I use my compass to get from here to there I recheck math ANDS play UNOS. If I fly too high, I run the risk of oxygen deprivation or HASH. How do I know if I have it? FISHRIB obviously.

The FATFOID is, I don't have to report that to the NTSB. As long as I don't have LOSA (lack of situational awareness) none of those will occur.

Soon I'll be a commercial pilot and certain privileges come with that, namely FBCAPTPIWEP. But the real goal while I earn hours working on the commercial license is to become a CFI (certified flight instructor). And we all know a great CFI has ASSPADS.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Commercial vs. Private

First of all, an update: I had a hankering for a burger and some onion rings so I headed back to the made in-house, lightly breaded, delights at Splasher's. Guess who sat down next to me. The kid that got hit by the car on the night of the brew fest. Hard to say if the accident had any affect on his mental status cuz he was drunk again. He has a bunch of broken blood vessels in his left eye just like my friend Andy got in college from vomiting too hard. The kid has blond hair except for a new patch that's coming in dark grey. That's what he slid on during his trip across the asphalt.

Now that I have a PPL, my course of study has changed. There aren't any ground school requirements for commercial training so the school has students work on their Certified Flight Instructor training in ground school while improving their flying skills in pursuit of a Commercial License. Back to ground in a minute.

I have a different instructor. I picked the helicopter up, backed out of the parking spot, stopped, made a pedal turn, and taxied out for take-off. Once I was cleared by tower, I did all my pre-take-off checks and slowly pushed forward. As we climbed out Chase said, "OK, That was a great taxi and take-off for a private. That won't fly in the commercial world." No more taxiing at walking speed, no more stopping to do pedal turns, and pre-take-off checks happen on the go.

We headed north so Chase could evaluate my off-airport skills. The FAA's definition of an airport includes, "an area of land or water that is used or intended to be used..." Think field, gravel bar, or that little spot in the middle of all those trees. Chase directed me to a ridge line with a microwave tower on the end of it.

What you do is orbit the spot a couple of times figuring out the wind, obstacles, etc. and decide how you're gonna get in there. (The acronym is WOTFEEL, someday I'm gonna write a post all in acronyms but today ain't the day.) So I'm circling, looking at trees, power lines, and goats while we gain and lose elevation due to turbulence coming up the ridge. And I don't like it. I said so, assuming that Chase was testing my decision making skills. He tells me that we can safely get in there and I need to figure it out.

I did and then he says, "OK, let's dive off the ridge." What about low g, mast bumping and all that other bad shit? "You know how to safely fly, now we're gonna show you where the limits are." So I'm thinking about something Hunter S. Thompson said about not knowing where the edge is until you jump off it as we dive over the ridge. Total roller coaster stomach hitting your Adam's apple sensation. I think this stage of training might be pretty fun.

Back to ground school. I have to teach the whole Private syllabus while my instructor pretends to be a student. Most people struggle with the teaching aspect. I have a little experience teaching skiing to kids that are only in lessons cuz their parents want to be on the upper mountain, showing Richie-riches from Manhattan that have never been barefoot on grass how to camp, and fat white guys how to not get eaten by bears, so I'm comfortable with that role. Plus one of the degrees I never used was pretty heavy on speech courses. One prof made you start over any time you used the word, "like" and another refused to let us use notes.

The teaching is all about employing the FOI's (fundamentals of instruction, man that acronym post is gonna be a gas). Some of the FOI's are good, most are common sense and some are just plain silly. The instructors are big on using different colored markers while writing on the white board. That's all well and good, but come the fuck on, we put people on the moon using chalk of only one color.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

It ain't all helicopters

We don't save daylight here. Sorta pointless cuz the difference in day length is quite small. Actually, it's kinda pointless everywhere. I remember when i was a kid, the common theory on why we had DST was "For the farmers." As if farmers give a shit, their animals certainly don't and farmers don't feel like they didn't spend enough time outside at the end of their workday. It all started with a bug-catching (few people respect the power of entomologists) mailman in New Zealand. Join me and punch a Kiwi.

I just ran out of Dr. Bronner's so i needed some shampoo. I used Dr. B before I got married, then I switched to whatever frizz control vibrant color bullshit was in the shower, then I got a bunch of toiletries when the Skustads left town, then back to Dr. B. Anyway, i'm in front of all these choices and I don't want to choose (is that RUSH I hear in the background? ) so I grab an orange bottle cuz I'm going through an orange phase. The stuff smells terrible and leaves my hair greasy. I read the label. Turns out it's conditioner.

I grabbed a beer and a burger after flag football (when my muscles started to stiffen I found a spot that I can push on my trapezius muscle that makes the side of my face vibrate, aging is awesome ) on Saturday. It was Kona Brew Fest. I decided not to attend for two reasons, one- it was a daytime event and b- 8 4oz. samples for sixty dollars. That's 30 bucks a point. Anyway, I'm at the bar with the best onion rings I've had in a long time enjoying a five dollar pint. The bar has a great view for lurking cuz it's upstairs and open-air. The streets are full of drunks, which I find amusing and confusing. Two pints? I know people feel the effects more when it's hot, but come on. Anyway, two 25ish yr. old males ask me to scoot down one stool so they can sit together. I comply and we strike up a conversation. These boys are deeee-runk. How a good bartender deals with a drunk that wants more, "Drink this water first, we'll see how that goes." How this bartender did it, "I'm sorry, you're both cut off." First guy tries to plead his case. Second guy storms out, stumbles down the stairs, staggers into the street and gets hit by a car. I'm sure he went limp and didn't get too hurt but he did get a ride in the red box with the flashing lights.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The other Harry Truman

The private pilot license came in the mail yesterday. An envelope inside of an envelope, both with postage paid. Gub'ment waste, that shit adds up. So it has Wright brothers front and back, three planes, no helicopters. It's the same thing with the cover of the regulations, the test prep workbooks, the instrument manuals.

I won't go on a Harley vs. Honda rant but, geez. Helicopters help us realize the dream of flight better than airplanes. Sure, planes have several advantages but Da Vinci never drew one. Ask any little kid what kind of bird he/she would like to be. You find a kid that says, "I want to be an albatross because they have a 22:1 glide ratio," and I'll take you and the poor retarded little bastard on a flight over the lava flows. Ah well, checkers sell more than chess.

Speaking of lava flows, one thing I couldn't show you and the cone-head in love with birds that can only take off in a stiff breeze, is the only house to survive the eruption in the 80's. The old guy turned his luck into a novelty vacation spot. He ran a B+B with heli-only access until Saturday. We've had a bunch of quakes the last couple of weeks, which have increased the lava flow. The old man got to watch the river of fire consume his house from the left seat of a Bell 407.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Eggs Benedict

I had a bizarre dream. I got into a rock-throwing fight while jogging. A few guys from the flight school came to my rescue and it turned into a full-on rumble. A thin version of Bufford T. Justice pulled up and got out of the car, big hat, badge and all. He arrested me and threw me into the cab of an eight-teen wheeler. So weird, I don't jog.

It jolted me awake. I rolled over and had a look at the clock, 3:02. Then our rooster crowed. Fuck. Might as well get out of bed. No way I'd get back to sleep once the chicken symphony kicked in, plus I was gonna get up at four a.m. anyway. Why rise to see the first four of the day? Cuz that's when the forecast comes out.

The first time I was part of a go-no-go decision regarding weather was as a packer in Yakutat. Paul and I decided we could get an old guy up a mountain to shoot a goat before the remnants of a typhoon off the coast of Japan got to us. We spent a long night up on a ridge top taking turns holding up the broken tent poles while the old guy snored. Alaskan Guide Series Tent, my ass.

Before one can test for a Commercial License several requirements must be met. I hoped to check two of those off my list. I plotted a course to Lanai. That would take care of the greater than 50 nautical miles cross country. Routing the flight over to Maui and landing at several airports on the way home would fulfill another. One thing I noticed while planning the return trip was that the Hana Airport notes mentioned wild boars on and in the vicinity of the runway. Plus there's a nudie beach just west of the strip. That figured into choosing my flight altitude.

Why Maui? A friend I used to play baseball and get in all sorts of trouble with in high school was on Maui with his wife for vacation. I hadn't seen him in seventeen years (I usually swear my family to secrecy when I go back to visit) so why not meet for lunch?

No red flags in the weather so I headed down to do my preflight. I took off to the northwest and flew the heading I had calculated. You can usually see Maui from the airport but thanks to the vog (volcanic fog, which makes my eyes itch just like the pure air of New Delhi) it was CSS (can't see shit). Plenty of visibility to see and avoid aircraft but a little disconcerting at my skill level cuz if I missed the island by swinging too far to the south, I'd run out of fuel somewhere that would require deploying my inflatable PFD.

There are several systems in place to help pilots avoid that fate like flight following service. So I put the transponder to the code they gave me and tried to enjoy the whales and dolphins below and not think about the possibilities if I heard a new noise coming from the engine. I mean, shit, the water's warm and the tiger sharks eat at night so I should be all right.

But I can tell you that it's pretty yucky to see nothing but blue water and grey sky for the better part of an hour while you go over worst-case scenarios in your head. Oh sweet, if something's gonna go wrong, I hope it's right now cuz I could make it to that boat and they could pick me up. Never mind, they're outta of sight. Hey what's that up ahead? Sweet victory, not real positive that it's Lanai, but it is land.

It was Lanai. I touched down and took off headed to Maui, which I could see. Cake and pie. I arrived a little later than I had forecasted but who gives a hot fuck?

Dean and Mickey have avoided the deep-fried cheese curd physique and generally seemed super happy. They vacillated between giving me mad shit for avoiding them on visits to the homeland and thanking me for flying to meet them.

We hopped into the rented Jeep and headed to Paia for brunch. I had the Kailui pork (pit-roasted pig) benedict to honor the wild boars I hoped to see on the Hana runway. Dean took a shortcut back to transient parking that took us right under the ATC tower and required four-wheel drive. His wife reminded him that just because a high school pal was in the backseat, he didn't have to act like a dipshit.

The trip home was beautiful, bouncy and uneventful. No pigs, no nudists.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Why I love motorcycles, continued

You're out in it, living and breathing with the environs you pass through, not hiding behind safety glass and air-conditioning. Today on the ride home I smelled a dead cat (confirmed with a visual), chocolate cookies baking, fresh asphalt from the patch in the road, another dead cat (see above), and plumeria flowers in bloom.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Phase One Complete

It was a dark and stormy night. Peanuts fans know that Snoopy always bangs that phrase out on his typewriter. Mr. Schultze's beagle gives homage to Edward Bulwer-Lytton. That's the opening line to what many consider the worst piece of fiction ever written, there's even a bad fiction contest named after him. What does that have to do with helicopters? Nothing except that Corbin took his three students out for a drink last night to celebrate. Each passed a check ride this week. A CFII, one CFI, and a PPL. I chose a rum and ginger beer concoction called a dark and stormy. It's a refreshing libation but I bet if you spent an entire evening consuming them, the drink name would be a good description for your commode come morning.

The check ride is a two part evaluation; a 2 hour oral exam followed by the practical exam. I felt pretty prepared for the oral because I've been studying with the big kids (potential CFI's) for the past few weeks. And I spent a bunch of time writing key things over and over. Turns out all that trouble I got in through the elementary years was worth it. Tangent alert. I got caught doing something stupid (no idea anymore what it was) and Mrs. Kluetch assigned me to write something 500 times as homework. That night my dad showed me how to tape pencils together to write two lines at a time. Nine-year-olds think their dads are the smartest men in the world. That night convinced me that I had the coolest dad as well. O.K. back to the front.

Early on Corbin suggested that I spend some of my free time writing various things over and over to make them stick. Do them until you have it verbatim, then once a week after that. Occasionally he would give me a new paragraph or what ever as we went along or he'd randomly ask me to give him the definition of land as soon as practical to make sure I was keeping up with my studies.

It's a super boring way to study but I got the pay off in the oral exam. Question number 1: Tell me everything you know about the rotor system on the R-22. Deep breath. Rattle off: The R-22 has a semi-rigid, deep under-slung rotor system with modified coning hinges. Two symmetrical blades of D-spar construction with stainless steel leading edges, aluminum skins, and aluminum honeycomb. The blades cover 25' 2" and have a 7.2" chord. Pause to inhale. Examiner raises his hand to stop me, O.K., O.K. that's enough, good job. Part of me was all, right on and part of me was fuck off dude, I ain't done, I haven't mentioned the 8 degree twist.

The wind socks stiffened nicely while we were inside. 18 gusting 24. For sure the limits of my ability. The practical exam is a list of maneuvers that you must perform within a certain standard, example: the student will maintain a hover height of +/-2 ft, a heading of 10 degrees, and be within four feet on pivot turns. Well shit, I can do everything maneuver-wise but flying is like skiing, you can tell what kind of day you're gonna have on the first turn.

My first turn was good, I felt loose and relaxed. I banged out a quick-stop (that one took me a while to learn) on take-off. Immediately into the auto rotation. I've never done one into that kind of breeze before so I didn't know how far I would glide but its +/- 200 feet for the private standards so really all you need to do is not scare the examiner to death and you'll pass.

He got out his red pen (it really was red) and scribbled a bunch. He looked over and said, don't worry this is just for the debrief. Remember what I said inside, each maneuver is pass/fail and I'll tell you right away if you failed so no news is good news. Now show me a shallow approach to North Lima.

That was a beautiful shallow approach, nice job on the power management. But this is North Charlie. Check ride nerves, relax, you're doing fine.

We ended with my nemesis, the slope landing. Luckily the wind was still nice and gusty so hovering was a bitch, much less landing one skid at a time. I approached the slope and yawed to and fro while I tried to keep her steady. I started a descent then pulled in power, announced I was starting over and backed away from the slope. The examiner said, remember movement is stability. Just set it down.

So I did. Then I picked up and he instructed me to ask Tower for a full stop. Shit did I fail? Must have, cuz we haven't done a governor off landing yet. O.K. Shane, I'm satisfied. Your ground knowledge is impressive and your flying is right where it should be at this level. You don't have any bad habits that need correcting. Congratulations. Really? Yeah, really.