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.