When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked. Four hoarse blasts of a ship’s whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping. The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye, the hot palms and the churn of stomach high up under the rib cage. In other words, I don’t improve; in further words, once a bum always a bum. I fear the disease is incurable. I set this matter down not to instruct others but to inform myself.
– Travels with Charlie – In search of America -John Steinbeck
– Travels With Doc – Flying Across America
There was an old fossil named lear,
Who’s verses were boring and drear,
His last lines were worst,
Just the same as the first,
So, I’ve tried to improve on them here!
As fate would have it, we headed off in “Roberta the Righteous”, restless and looking for adventure. Roberta was a R-44, a beautiful brilliant blue piston powered helicopter that was to take my friend “Doc Roberts” and I down to Mexico for some gun firing and Toquilla drinking at Hacienda Bachimba de Casa de Poncho Villa in Chihuahua New Mexico, but not before some entirely other escapades took place. Doc was a one time experiment the gods had designed as a prototype during the twentieth century, never meant for mass production. One of the few people I knew that could talk any girl out of her panties while whistling with a mouth full of crackers. He was like a Three Mouthed Brazilian Orangutang, and a great co-pilot.
Flying several miles off the Northeast coast of the Gulf of Mexico is a little risky in Roberta the Righteous. Why? Well helicopters are plenty safe if the engine quits, provided you have a little altitude, but water landings, they would most likely leave Roberta gargling salt water like a sword swallower with Mono. I did however have Roberta equipped with Pop Out Floats. This consisted of a Helium tank underneath the left front passenger seat. In the case of a needed water landing one would merely need to keep completely calm as he asked the passenger to get up, he would then lift the seat up and turn the Helium valve on – which would enable the floats to be popped and filled with Helium. All of this seemed unlikely in the event of a engine failure and the panic that would most surely ensue. Never the less we flew all the way to New Orleans from Ocala Florida with only the gorgeous blue green waters below us. We were not the brightest bulbs in the chandelier, but possibly the happiest.
Not being the trip planning type and more accurately, we did not take the time to plan our gas stops, file a flight plan or any of the other unnecessary tomfoolery or skullduggery they teach you to do in flight training. Life is a conundrum of esoterica. Four hours into the trip we decided to stop in New Orleans. It was dark and their existed a Millionaires Club FBO and pilot lounge providing recliners and little girls in Bunny outfits to bring umbrellas drinks to Doc on demand. I could not partake of the chosen poison, it ruined my buzz and after all, any descent Pilot cannot drink for 12 hours before a flight. Besides, I was only there for the most important meal of the morning – breakfast and gas.
A Near Life Experience
After fueling up the next morning we left New Orleans on route to our destination – Chihuahua Mehico. It was Christmas day, we were flying at about 700 feet AGL at 105 Knots Indicated Air Speed. “Mother do you think the’ll drop the bomb” played faintly in the Bose headsets. As it is in life, I found my self doing things that I had preached to others not to do. Once I had preached to another to keep his mind as sharp as a razor blade when flying. I had not slept well in the recliner the night before and had just fallen asleep while flying. When I awoke and looked down at the Garmin GPS I noticed that we had just entered a MOA, a acronym for “Military Air Space”. When this happens there is only one thing to do – make like a stealth pilot and get the hell out of there. However, I decided to have my trusty hung over Co-pilot not so quickly look up the Ft.Hood tower frequency and dial it into the radio, “Ft.Hood tower this is helicopter seven-one-niner-four-sierra, permission to enter your airspace, niner-four-sierra”. The call came back from the tower- niner-four-sierra it’s too late, we have already scrambled defensive aircraft. Doc looked at me with an expression I remembered him having inside a dimly lit whorehouse in Bangkok Thailand when the beauty giving me a lap dance inadvertently had it’s dick fall out of the side of it’s spandex Yoga pants. Radio silence for about 8 seconds. Ft.Hood Tower we are turning around now on a heading of 80 degrees and on the way out of your airspace – niner-four-sierra. The controller at Ft.Hood came back on the radio and exclaimed “no, no you’re not, I need you to squawk four-six-seven-seven on your transponder and climb up to one-thousand feet and head three hundred and forty degrees. I tried to read back the instructions to Doc while fumbling for a pen. Air Traffic Control was attempting to determine if we were able to follow basic orders and cooperate. I got the feeling he thought we might be carrying a bomb that we would loose onto the military base any minute, or something similar. Now descend to 500 feet at a heading of one hundred and ninety degrees, he ordered. We did our best to write down and follow the orders, after two or three of these request he finally said “wipe the urine off your legs, you are cleared to cross the MOA”. He then proceeded to give us a tour on Christmas day of the largest Military airbase in the US. When we got closer to the Tower we looked down to see what appeared to be a one-hundred acre paved field of around forty Huge UH-1N helicopters with the rotors turning. Had they been for us? Were these the defensive measures the Control tower was speaking of? A actual jet would never even be able to spot us at mach 1. Maybe these Helicopters were going to be sent after us. I suspect now that this is always the condition of these Military bases, Helicopters ready to go at a moments notice, waiting patiently “on ready”, burning fuel at bases all around the country and the world for that matter. At one point we had to fly right by the tower at about 400 feet. I can’t speak for Doc but I was happy we were not in bear ass spanking, serious trouble. If this happened in Mexico I wondered if they would confiscate our aircraft. Neither Doc, nor I and especially not Roberta the righteous spoke Mexican. Regardless, we happily went on our way, folly and adventure and two fools adventure could be checked off this Christmas calendar day.
When the circus gets a new, wild, baby elephant to train, this is how they do it. They’ll bring the baby elephant into a empty tent, drive a massive, 10 foot iron stake into the ground, drag out a thick, heavy, metal chain, and tether the small, baby, wild elephant to the stake. The baby elephant will fight and fight and fight to get free. Doing everything it can think of. But the chain is too heavy, shackled too tightly, and the stake driven too deep into the ground. As much as he tries, the little elephant can’t break free, and eventually gives up.
Now fast forward 10 years. That elephant, now massive, mature, and strong, is tied by thin rope, slightly more than string, and tied to a small piece of wood shoved in the ground. The rope is only tied snuggly enough for the animal to feel it and know it’s there. The beast could easily just decide to move the opposite direction, just walk the other way and it would simply break free. Or, give his leg a shake and it would slip off. Yet, this huge beast doesn’t attempt to escape, because long ago, when it was a baby, it learned it couldn’t. And it’s gone all these years, believing that it could not escape. Now a full-grown adult, it believes the lie that it doesn’t have the money, the courage or the strength to free itself. The chains of bad habits are too light to feel until they are too heavy to be broken.
On the first part of the journey
I was looking at all the life
There were plants and birds and rocks and things
There was sand and hills and rings
The first thing I met was a fly with a buzz
And the sky with no clouds -America
Onward and upward we shouted as we took off from Odessa, TX after refueling. You wouldn’t know it from traveling the roads of America but there exist airports every 40 mile or so. If one were to need gas in his aircraft he need only look at his trusty Garmin GPS screen on the dash and a whole bunch of little pink dots appear, meaning take your pick of any of these. These airports range from major busy multiple runway metropolitan airports to grass strips on a Collard Green farm in Alabama or a dirt airstrip on a Cattle Ranch in Texas. Most of the time their would be a set of gas pumps, one for piston powered aircraft pumping out 112 Octane Avgas, and another pump with JetA-1 Fuel based on Kerosine to fill up planes and helicopters with jet engines. If you were lucky there would be a credit card machine attached to the pumps. If not so fortunate, a pad lock in it’s stead. All you had to do is swipe your card, attach a ground wire to your craft and fill her up. Just like when you walk across carpet and then spark when you touch a grounded object, a airplane can build up static electricity when refueling. The flow of the JetA or 100 Octane Avgas builds up friction going form one tank, through the hose, to the aircraft tank. Thereby requiring a ground wire to be attached to the aircraft before and during fueling. There was also the skill of getting close enough to the gas pump so that the hose would reach. Unlike a airplane the helicopter has these thirty-three feet long razor-blade rotors turning when you land at the pumps. Sometimes there would be power lines, poles or utility sheds close to the pumps to watch out for. Each Refueling stop required mental focus like a laser beam. We swipped the card, filled Roberta’s 29.5 gallon tank and the 17 gallon tank on the other side, then flew off towards the next adventure in the sky.
Flying cross country in a helicopter is like nothing else. Partly because one flies at around 500 feet much of the time. Five-hundred feet and sixty five knots is a height and speed that one can safely recover and make a safe landing in the event of a engine failure. The view from the cockpit at this height, of the landscape, and the lives of the people in the small towns across the midwest can be very revealing. It is akin to flying in a dream looking down on the scene of the dream. In one particular Peruvian ancient culture where torture was used to penalize criminals, the henchman would handcuff the victim and then force him to swallow the key to the handcuffs. Then a bag would be put over the head of the victim as he was left alone to suffocate- knowing that the key to his freedom was right inside him. After getting my pilots license and freely flying helicopters around the country for years, I find it to be the ultimate physical and psychological liberation. Not flying is like having the “key to freedom” inside, and not being able to use it.
We’re walking in the air
We’re floating in the moonlit sky
The people far below are sleeping as we fly
We’re holding very tight
I’m riding in the midnight blue
I’m finding I can fly so high above with you
Far across the world
The villages go by like trees
The rivers and the hills
The forest and the streams
Children gaze open mouth
Taken by surprise
Nobody down below believes their eyes
We’re surfing in the air
We’re swimming in the frozen sky
We’re drifting over icy
Mountains floating by
An example of the freedom that is flying is cruising through say, Kansas. You might fly for three hours at one-hundred and twenty miles an hour and see not hide nor hair of a living thing. Then you come across a farmers home and crops. You see the farmer out in the fields on his tractor, his dog nearby, his truck parked at the edge of the field he is plowing or planting. One small farmhouse and of course, the ever present red barn in the distance. That’s when we would take our cue and buzz the farmers. We must have left a trail of heart attack victims across the US. The reminiscent red barns of America. Farmers add ferrous oxide, otherwise known as rust, to the paint mixture when painting barns. Rust is plentiful on farms and is a poison to many fungi, including mold and moss, which are known to grow on barns. These fungi would trap moisture in the wood, increasing the wood decay. Painting the barns with the mixture of Fe0 (ferrous oxide) and red paint gave the farmers many more years of life out of their wooden structures. I wonder if eating Fe0 would help.
Flying along on another occasion one might come across a small town in the middle of nowhere. The old faded brick two or three story downtown buildings built sometime in the 1800’s. A Church steeple most of the time the highest peak in town, white wooden cross’s on top of the attempted tower of babble. Although today the largest building in most towns are the courthouse and city hall. A sign that government and religion have undergone role reversal’s. And then there it is, they stand out like a green ocean in a sea of beige deserts. They are by far the largest structure within 200 miles and by larger I mean 5 times as large. They are the football stadiums of rural America. The only green patch of grass in town. In appearance, and sentiment they are similar to what the Coliseum must have been to Rome. The center of many a midwest towns heart and entertainment. To some they will represent the best years of his or her life. To others the beginning of stake and rope elephant training.
The lyrics, “Oz never gave nothin to the Tin Man, that he didn’t already have” from the band “America” played over the radio in our Bose noise reduction headsets. We were flying now without the natural ability, defying nature. Oz didn’t give that to me but he did give it to someone to build the craft I was now flying – thanks OZ. I had rigged “Robbie the Righteous” system up so that we could listen to Dark side of the moon and other such appropriate jamm’s as we carved in and out of the Canyons along the river, like we were doing now. There is always a pro to a con and although it’s a adrenalin rushing, totally free, racetrack like experience, to carve through the canyons above the river in a helicopter, the con is the possibility of wires running across the Canyons. Wire strikes are blamed for the cause of a large percentage of Helicopter fatalities. Right before it happened, I was thinking about how the human eye works. The cells of the outer layer of the Retina take a single photon and magnify it a hundred times before sending it to the neurons of the brain for them to reconstruct a three dimensional image on a screen in the back of the brain that we perceive as external. We never really see reality, only a image in the dark recess of the back of our skull. That was what I hoped was happening at this moment. A military Blackhawk helicopter had decided to cruise the canyons today also. And it was much bigger and faster than I had previously thunk. And going the wrong way. Wasn’t this a one way street, down stream. “Chicken, lets play chicken”, Doc exclaimed right before he came to his senses and steered us up and to the right. I wondered how many near miss’s historically had taken place in Canyons around the world. Seeing a screaming Cobra coming right into your front windshield does seem to frighten most people, but fear does that. We looked at each other with a sigh of relief as Doc said ” That was a near life experience”.
‘There was an Old Man of the Dee, who was sadly annoyed by a flea; When he said, “I will scratch it”, they gave him a hatchet, Which grieved that Old Man of the Dee. And he cut his leg off at the knee’ –
The next day it was a little foggy outside in the morning. The fog usually burns off as the Sun burns higher and at a more direct angle. We waited for an hour or two, it was heating up faster than a junkies spoon when we decided to get up, up and away. About three hours into the flight we needed gas. A Robinson R44 has a fuel range of about four hours. We found several possible airports on the GPS screen. We were in the mountains now and this presented a little problem. In order to descend to the airport we had chosen, we had to come down through some cloud and fog coverage. The danger is that one does not know if he is coming down on a cell tower, the top of a mountain or even into a tub of female wrestlers filled with Jello. The visibility was a mere 10 feet in any direction. When I was young, I wondered what it would be like to be blind. I would tie a bandana around my head. It’s not so bad until you try to do something like walk through a room filled with furniture or build a piano. Descending through the clouds to this airport now in the helicopter reminded me of being blind except for my eyes are wide open but all I see is bright white. What I attempted to do is come down at about fifty to one-hundred feet per minute. To come down any faster than three hundred feet per minute can cause lift failure in the form of “settling with power” where the helicopter is trying to gain lift but the rotors are spinning through their own downwash. This is very stressful, I thought as I tensed up. If we were to have a engine failure with this maneuver there would be no survivors. If we came down on something like a tower, a mountain or even another plane it would be very painfull and expensive not to mention the risk to people and aircraft below us. Anyone can fly a helicopter, it’s when something goes wrong that a true Pilot may or may not appear. I was so uptight about coming down blind I did something that you are not supposed to do. I held the collective handle so tight that the governor could not work. We call this “the death grip” and it’s a no-no. Once I realized I had the death grip I loosened my hand on the collective throttle, this caused the governor to kick back in making a loud noise in the gearbox. Clunk, Clunk, Clunk, we had hit something for sure. Was it a telephone pole, we had come down on top of a speeding Semi truck tractor filled with endangered Sea Turtles for all I knew. Of course it was only the death grip but I didn’t know that at the time. We ended up breaking through the fog at about 150 feet just off to the west of the airport. Doc and I decided to have a drink at the FBO, as we held up our glass Doc toasted “I once was a looney old goat, who wanted to fly in a boat, across the seven seas with a crew of trained bee’s, while wearing a long captain’s coat”. Another thrill fulfilling day in Roberta.
Most everyone gets excited with the prospect of a Helicopter ride. Helicopters are limited by speed but mostly by weight. A R-44 Helicopter can carry around one-thousand pounds. A full gas tank weighs around three hundred pounds. Fifty gallons of Avgas at six pounds per gallon. That leaves you with about 700 pounds of cargo, passengers and equipment. And everyone lies about their weight or at least conveniently remembers what they weighed in 1980. Depending on the altitude, the higher one goes the less pressure and also less oxogen in a cubic foot of air. The higher the altitude the less horse power the helicopter develops.
There is no unknown, only the temporarily hidden
Flying from Albuquerque to Chama New Mexico you gain a few thousand feet of altitude. What you could do in the helicopter in Albuquerque you cannot do when you arrive in Chama, like land the helicopter. We were stopping off to do some Elk Hunting in Chama where Doc had a friend who owned The Mundy Ranch. We had just fueled up at ABQ Albuquerque International Airport, so the tanks were full. We had stopped in Albuquerque to pick up our Offspring, Ryan, Paul and Trevor. Brian was to rent a SUV and take Ryan and Trevor to the Hunting Lodge. Paul and I were to fly loaded up with gearand gas to Chama. The altitude at Albuquerque is 5354 feet, the altitude in and around Chama on the ground is near 8025 feet. To complicate everything it was getting dark and I needed to land at this little motel in downtown Chama. In order to do that I needed to do some low altitude recon for a good landing spot, inspect for wires, trees, a way to escape should the landing not go right, as well as all of the other things one does before landing in a strange place. L O W F E E T – is a acronym for Landing area, Obstacles, Wind/wires, Forced landing area, Entry, Exit, Turbulence. Being primarily a Florida pilot the policy of check your altitude difference between take off spot and landing spot was not part of my habitual mental checklist. About half way through my descent to land at the motel parking lot I noticed the lack of power to control my descent. Around 150 feet AGL I had pulled full collective and was still descending. On top of all of that I had failed to check my carb heat, it was pulled slightly on, keeping the carburetor from freezing up in the cold mountain air. Another item that I rarely, if ever used in Florida, which further depletes horse power. I should have closed it before landing. I was descending at about one foot per two seconds which ended up providing a soft landing in the snow. In retrospect, I could have increased the throttle manually creating more horse power and lift. Mental note, Always turn off the Carb heat prior to landing, determine your altitude differential at landing location, test your lift and power before trying to land in cold weather high altitude. In the end this whole situation created a metaphoric life lesson about flying high, lack of power and carrying too much shit. These are valuable lessons learned the hard way – by the making of the mistake. A pilot might fly for years without the terror of these flying events burning a groove into his flight procedures for life. In a way they are like gold nuggets of wisdom.
We had flown in our son’s to hunt with us in Chama. This was a once in a lifetime experience. If you have never experienced hunting, you may want to give it a try. Basically Elk Hunting consist of getting up early and making your way out into the wilderness. Walking way out into the woods in the dark, sitting in a tree stand or blind and then watching the world wake up. the frozen dew melt, the sun come up and the birds put on the coffee, the woman birds get on the wire to start talking with their girlfriends.
Once you lower your expectations, the sky is the limit
It was time to leave Chama and head on out. It had snowed the day before and Roberta was frozen solid. Doc dropped me off at the helicopter on his way to take Ryan, Paul and trevor back to the airport in Albuquerque. I took one look at Roberta and thought the only way to unfreeze her was to get her pistons spinning. I went through the preflight procedures and turned the key. She wouldn’t crank. After three attempts I read the manual on cold weather cranking. As always a gasoline engine needs three things to crank. Gas, Oxygen and Spark. I decided to make my own acronym of GOS. Knowing these simple three conditions that a engine must meet to crank has served me very well over the years. I hoped that this would be one of those days. At high altitude the oxogen level in a cubic foot of air is lower than in low altitude, so the mixture changes. You have to have more air mixed with the same amount of fuel and so forth as the altitude changes. The sam e goes for humans. At a certian altitude the body cannot withdraw enough Oxogen from the air to maintain consciousness. As you climb higher into the atmosphere, the partial pressure of oxygen decreases. This means that the number of oxygen molecules in each volume of breath decreases and many of the hemoglobin molecules that normally deliver oxygen to the cells travel empty. Gradually, you’ll experience increasing levels of hypoxia — a word of Greek origin that means a lower-than-normal amount of oxygen. There are no set guidelines when it comes to recognizing the symptoms of hypoxia. Everyone reacts differently. The altitude at which your body begins to experience hypoxia depends much on your past exposure to high altitude. If you live in Denver, your limits will be much higher than your friends in Washington, D.C. If you fly or hike regularly at high altitude, your body will adjust over time. The only way to know when your body starts exhibiting symptoms is by exposing yourself and paying attention to the changes.
How high can a helicopter fly before the air is too thin for its rotors to keep it in the air? THERE are three answers to this. The maximum altitude which can be reached during forward flight typically depends more on the ability of the engine to breathe the thinner air than the rotor’s ability to provide lift. Turbine-engined helicopters can reach around 25,000 feet. But the maximum height at which a helicopter can hover is much lower – a high performance helicopter like the Agusta A109E can hover at 10,400 feet. However, if the helicopter remains in ‘ground effect’ – ie, if it is hovering close to high ground – its maximum hover altitude will be higher. The Agusta can hover in ground effect – ‘HIGE’ in helicopter jargon – at 13,800 feet. This is useful for mountain rescue missions.
While on this flight back to Albuquerque to pick up Brian from dropping the young hunters off at the airport, I had to travel through a Sandia Mountain Range. It is largely within the Cibola National Forest. Its highest point is Sandia Crest, 10,678 feet. Sandía means watermelon in Spanish.
The first symptoms of hypoxia are most likely very subtle. You could begin to experience a slight headache or pressure behind the eyes. But it’s important to recognize those first signs because advanced symptoms of hypoxia impair functions critical to safe flight. Examples of those symptoms include loss of judgment, inability to make calculations, euphoria and diminished vision.
While the mountain range is at 10678 one must add his altitude on to that number. I was likely flying at 1000 feet above ground level (AGL). I began to get all woosey and my sight fuzzy. It never occurred to me that my lungs were not receiving enough oxogen. To alleviate this problem one merely needs to lower his altitude, unless of course there is a mountain right below your aircraft. I never got dizzy enough to pass out – another fortunate event.
To experience the great magic of flying one might try a night flight in a helicopter. Especially as the pilot. This is a great way to see the earth at night. I think it’s a lot of fun in a jetliner also. But of course you fly very high most of the time. When you come in for landing you can get the idea of what it is like to fly in a helicopter at night.
While flying at night you can see the pods of city lights from far off in the distance. Christmas trees spread out on a black globe. It gives you a unique perspective of life from above the battlefield.
With time affordable helicopters have been built that many can afford to own and everyone can afford to rent. Go to your local airpark and inquire as to getting your pilots license.