Who Am I?

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A nobody; a nitwit; a pilot; a motorcyclist; a raconteur; a lover...of life - who loves to laugh, who tries to not take myself (or anything) too seriously...just a normal guy who knows his place in the universe by being in touch with my spiritual side. What more is there?

13 September 2015

An Embarrassment of Riches

I turned sixty the other day. Sixty! How on earth did that happen? I look in her mirror and still see that fresh-faced, innocent, um, 40 year-old I used to be. I have thankfully few wrinkles, owing to a fairly stress-free life but probably more to my “don’t give a shit” attitude than anything else. My hair is grayer (but not totally!), and there’s still lots of it in most places.

None of my other “milestone” birthdays (30, 40 or 50) were particularly upsetting, but for some reason this one is. I don’t like being sixty. I don’t even like the thought of it. But there you go.

Additionally, being born on September 11th is not great. It’s a somber day, not one of gleeful celebration. For my parent’s generation it’d be like being born on December 7th. So I was kind of hoping to keep this birthday low-key; let’s face it, I’m not ten. But you know…the more you want to not do something, the more your friends want to do it.

My Facebook wall filled with birthday greetings. From Atlanta to Florida to Washington state, all around the country and even around the world they came. The best comment was from my friend Daniel Speed: “Congrats on not dying for another year.” Gee, um, thanks Daniel!

My friend Mikey Nehring flies a firefighting helicopter for a company based out of Olympia, Washington. What with all the fires raging out here this summer he’s been bounced around quite a bit. But as luck (or something!) would have it he had gotten based up in Omak, Washington which is just a few miles up the road from Brewster where I’m at.

The big fires are all pretty much under control now, and Mikey’s ship got released on my birthday. Instead of going home, he came down to Brewster. We decided to not go out and get shit-faced drunk as we usually do and just did a big steak barbecue at our helicopter base.

Then our friend Nate Englund called. He dried cherries for another operator this past summer and because he's young and cool we got to know him. Great guy. He called from Missoula, Montana which is five hours away. “I’m inbound!” he said. What a nice gesture, coming over just for my birthday.

All of the other pilots have gone home or onto other gigs, but Lauren St. Romain is still around. She and Danny Smith (one of the owners) brought a big chocolate cake. Instead of 60 individual candles which surely would’ve elicited a visit from one of the Forest Service waterbombers she just got a six and a zero so I only had two to blow out instead of sixty. Thank you, Jesus.

So we had a nice party. No, there are no pictures. It was outside and mostly after dark.

I don’t want to get all mushy and sentimental. But I’ve said before and I’ll say again that I’m blessed with the best friends anyone could ever hope for. It is intensely gratifying and extremely humbling to know such good people. When it comes to friends, I have an embarrassment of riches. I thank you all.

02 September 2015

Malaysian Airlines MH370: Still Gone

How can a big plane like a Boeing 777 just disappear into thin air? Seems preposterous, doesn’t it? But that is apparently just what happened to that Malaysian Airlines jet back in March of 2014. Thin air. Gone.

Back in July of 2015 a control surface called a “flaperon” was discovered on Reunion Island which is (don’t Google it) in the Indian Ocean about halfway around the world from Malaysia. It appeared to be from a Boeing 777 of which exactly one is unaccounted for (guess which?). It was covered with barnacles.

A word about the flaperon. You might know that the little flipper thingees out on the end of an airplane wing are called ailerons. They move in opposite directions. One moves down and one moves up and the airplane banks toward the wing with the up-deflected aileron. Stick your hand out your car window at speed and you can simulate how an aileron works. We’ve all done this as kids.

Then there are wing flaps. These panels extend out of the wing, increasing the wing area and changing the curvature of the wing to lower the speed at which the wing will “stall” and lose lift.

Normally, ailerons and flaps are separate and operate independently. Flaperons are usually (but not always) located inboard toward the fuselage. They not only deflect with the ailerons but are also linked to droop with the flaps. Don’t ask me why jets have these control surfaces; it’s a complicated aerodynamic explanation I’m sure.

Anyway the flaperon was found. Initially it appeared to be from a 777. It was immediately sent to France of all places to be examined. Sure enough the French said it was from a 777 and the Malaysian government assured the world it was from MH370 (I guess using the “logic” that no other 777’s have crashed and therefore it must be from their plane. I mean, how could it not be?


Strangely, the French authorities stopped short of saying that the flaperon came from that Boeing 777...that being MH370. Boeing, who you’d think would have something to say about this matter, has been eerily quiet. You see, there is a little data plate that would normally be attached to the flaperon which would specify which airframe it went on. The data plate is not there. Nor are any other markings that would directly link the flaperon to MH370.


Let us realize that Boeing does not make every single part of their aircraft. Much of the plane is sub-contracted out to other manufacturers, many of which are in other states or even foreign countries. Spread the wealth, you know. It turns out that a Spanish manufacturer makes flaperons for the Boeing 777.

So the mystery deepens. We really don’t know any more than we did before, other than that a damaged, barnacle-encrusted flaperon from a 777 has been found. Putting on my tin-foil hat, I believe that whoever commandeered MH370 somehow obtained a flaperon and chucked it into the water someplace, hoping it would be found and assumed to be crash-damage. Only it wasn’t found. It stayed submerged for over a year before washing up on a beach thousands and thousands of miles from where it “should“ be.

Yes, I still think that MH370 was taken somewhere and landed, not crashed. What does this mean for the passengers? Probably not good things. But I'll bet that plane gets airborne again, and in it will be a bomb (slightly) larger than the latest Adam Sandler movie.

01 September 2015

Light At The End Of The Tunnel

Some of my friends…one Mike Nehring in particular have been grousing that I haven’t published anything on the blog lately, which is true. I think Mikey brought it up because I write about him a lot and he probably just wanted to see his name on the internet again. Well the joke’s on him because I won’t be mentioning him at all in this post.

One reason I haven’t posted anything is because it was such an uneventful summer. There was no rain to speak of. No. Rain. Up and down the Columbia River valley from the Canadian border down into Oregon, hardly anybody flew. This was great for the growers, but not so great for us. The helicopters (and we pilots) all get paid a “standby” fee whether we fly or not, but it’s better if we fly, obviously.

Since it was such a dry summer, the U.S. Forest Service was on high-alert. They did not want a repeat of last year’s devastating Carlton Complex Fire, the biggest fire in the history of Washington State. Everyone was on pins and needles, with (ground) fire crews and helicopters stationed everywhere “just in case.” As soon as a small fire would start, the crews hustled to put it out.

This worked well for a while. Eventually there were too many small fires all up and down the west coast. Resources got stretched thin…as thin as Deez Nuts’ chances of winning the presidential election. (I would’ve said “Donald Trump’s chances,” but in this bizarro-world of 2015 America, I suspect The Donald could actually win!)

And as we got into August, the air around Brewster filled with smoke…again! It was a time of perpetually foggy days. Step outside and you could taste smoke. It was relentless and depressing. The fire dominates our lives. Just like last year.

We evacuated to safer ground some helicopters of our own as well as a couple of airplanes owned by some friends. We got one out in just the nick of time: Another twelve hours and it would’ve burned to the ground. The owner was happy…and lucky…to save his house.

We own a little grass-strip airport up north on the river between the towns of Brewster and Omak. It’s out in the desert surrounded by sagebrush. If the fire, which was well north of us came south blown by the wind, the airport, a house, two hangars and a workshop would all be in serious peril.

The owner of the company and I were there, assessing the situation when the wind suddenly picked up directly out of the north. Suddenly we were enveloped in a thick cloud of smoke. We could not tell how close the fire was, but we knew it was coming. Thus began a mad dash to move as much stuff of value out of harm’s way. We left with the uneasy feeling that there wasn’t much more we could do. However fortune smiled on us - the wind died and shifted and the fire never came. You just never know…

Around us, small fires joined together. The end result is that in terms of acreage, for the second year in a row Washington State has its biggest fire in history: The Okanogan Complex.

While all of this was going on, we received a call from a cropduster in North Dakota. A long time ago he had operated Sikorsky S-55’s, the same kind of helicopter we use for drying cherries. We’d made some entreaties in the past, but he never would sell. He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t sell anything. Finally, more than ten years after our first contact, he called. He’s getting old and wants to sell. He made us an offer; a deal was struck. It was six helicopters in all (non-flyable anymore) and a shit-ton of parts and equipment. It would take numerous trips with multiple pickup trucks/trailers. And it was 1,300 miles away - two full days of driving. The timing could not have been worse.

We wanted (and needed) to get these helicopters home before the weather and roads turn bad up here, which it will soon. Once we were sure that the company property in Brewster was as safe as could be, we reluctantly headed eastbound.

So far we’ve made two trips there and back. Each one was an adventure worthy of its own blogpost. Oh, the tales I could tell of overheating vehicles, a blown transfer case in one truck, an impending transmission failure in another, an alternator failure that boiled the juice out of both batteries, and a truck that would randomly go into “limp-home” mode and limit our speed to 45 mph. Great fun.

I think we can get all of the remaining parts and stuff in one more trip. If all goes well (hah!) I’ll finally be able to get out of here and go home around the middle of September, before it starts getting cold, which you know I‘m not looking forward to. So there's light at the end of the tunnel. It’s always fun to come up here for this gig, but it’s always nice to go home too.