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.