Tuesday, October 14, 2008


I have a confession to make.

I've been avoiding making another post because I just didn't know what to say. When I returned home in mid-August from six weeks of full-time helicopter school in Hawaii, I came back to my life and job and uncertainty about how to continue with helicopters.

On the one hand, learning to fly was, and is, an incredible experience. Now when I see a helicopter flying, I smile and reflect on the bond and shared knowledge and experience I have with that other pilot. Not many people know what it feels like, and now I do. Plus, being up in the air like a bird is an incredible feeling, and I'd like to feel it more.

On the other hand, I'm not sure I can, or should, continue -- at least not right now. The fact is, flying helicopters is an incredibly difficult endeavor, requiring vast knowledge and experience.

As it stands, I've got around 30 hours of experience in the air, about halfway to my private pilot's license. I could crank out the rest of the license on weekends over the next several months, but the problem is, that's not really an end in itself.

As one instructor put it, the private rating means you know just enough to get yourself killed. Now that I've had a taste of flying, I agree with him. True competency requires at least a commercial pilot's rating, which is a whole additional level of investment in money and time.

I must admit that when I started this, I had no idea how much was required. It's a very technical, professional skill, not unlike being a lawyer or a doctor. It requires literally years of full-time study and training to become competent. That would be a huge investment to make in something I'm not planning on doing professionally -- not unlike, say, going law school just because I find law interesting. Hardly practical.

More importantly, it's a use-it-or-lose-it skill. In order to stay competent, and consequently safe, a helicopter pilot really needs to be flying all the time, at least every week or so. So, I could get my private license, but to stay safe, I would need to fly often, which is very expensive.

Which brings me to my final consideration: money. As I write this, the United States and the world are in a dramatic economic downturn that is affecting just about everyone on the planet to some degree. The stock market has crashed, and consequently the assets I was using to fund my helicopter adventure have been significantly devalued. Selling stock now would be a bad mistake.

So even if I wanted to continue with helicopter school right now, and part of me really wants to, the economic situation renders it moot.

I've been avoiding this post, because I felt I was facing failure. I didn't want to admit after all my enthusiasm and hype that I was, well...quitting.

But now that I've written it, I don't feel that way.

The truth is, my experience in Hawaii was incredible. Facing my fear of heights was an enormous achievement, and I can look back on that for confidence in any future endeavor.

And although I didn't blog about it, my time in Hawaii also led me to grow in other very important ways, such as in my family relationships (family pictured), as well as my personal health. This blog, as well, was part of that experience, and it's been unexpectedly rewarding. The response to my writing has been very flattering and encouraging.

I do feel wistful that I didn't complete my license as originally planned. But my real goal was to learn to fly a helicopter, and I did that.

I began this adventure by saying that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. I took that step, and now the journey continues. Whether or not my path will one day cross back through this place, I cannot say.

So, until then, I'll leave you with this thought from my first day of helicopter school, when even hovering seemed beyond my reach:

The only difference between impossible and possible is belief.

Don't forget that.

P.S. Any travelers who should happen upon my words here can probably reach me at jake(-AT-)jakesibley.com. I'll be glad to hear from you.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

How much can you fit in your head?

When I got into this, I figured it was going to be tough. I was right. What I didn't realize was how much other stuff you have to learn when you're learning to fly helicopters -- or more specifically, how much other stuff you have to learn to get your helicopter pilot's license.

Here are some of the major areas of knowledge (although I'm leaving some out, I'm sure). Each of these is a vast subject unto itself:

Aerodynamics of helicopters
Where do I start? You have to learn the physics of lift, weight, thrust, and drag. (The latter would include profile drag, form drag, induced drag, and parasitic drag.) You have to understand the physics of airfoils. The consequences of rotor blades changing angle and/or speed. Newton's laws. The Coriolis effect. Bernoulli's principle. Gyroscopic precession.

But wait, there's more. You must understand the incredibly complex interdependent relationships between the controls, the main rotor, the tail rotor, the engine, and the aircraft body, all of which are subject to changes in the others, but in very complex ways. Remember when I said that helicopter pilots couldn't possibly understand all the technical information in Principles of Helicopter Flight? I was wrong. They do.

Physics of air
Helicopters are incredibly sensitive to changes in the density, temperature, pressure, and moisture content of the air in which they are flying. It's very possible, if you aren't careful, to take off at one airport, travel to another where the air is different, and not be able to hover or land. So not only do you have to understand the physics of these air qualities, but also how to predict how they will affect the helicopter, from minute to minute and place to place.

Obviously, if you have to know the physics of air, you also have to know what the air is doing where you are, and where you are going to be. So you have to understand weather theory, weather patterns, forecasting, cloud types, precipitation, fronts, storms. You also have to know how to find and obtain the relevant weather reports for your flight, and then decode them -- because all weather information is published online in a highly abbreviated form that looks like gibberish.

Aircraft systems
You have to understand how your helicopter works. Not just put the gas in this hole, like with your car. You have to understand spark plugs, carburetors, transmissions, alternators, oil systems, fuel systems, electrical systems, and so on. You have to know where these things are, so you can check them before a flight, and you have to know what the consequences are if one of them stops working correctly. So you can recognize the problem and address it. While flying.

There are several essential instruments: Altimeter, airspeed indicator, vertical speed indicator, manifold pressure gauge, and compass. (Am I forgetting one?) You must not only understand what they are and what they are telling you, but also how their insides work and under what conditions they might give you bad information. Here's an actual question from the FAA pilot's test:

In the Northern Hemisphere, the magnetic compass will normally indicate a turn toward the north when:
a) the aircraft is decelerated while on an east or west heading
b) a left turn is entered from a west heading
c) the aircraft is accelerated while on an east or west heading

The answer is C.

While GPS makes it much easier for aircraft to find their position, you still have to learn all the old methods used with compass, pencil, plotter, and navigation beacons, of which there are several kinds, all different.

Oh, and have you ever seen an aviation chart? It's a kaleidoscope of colors, lines, and symbols, all of which mean something, and if you're flying near any of them, you better know what they mean. Here's a picture of the San Diego area:

Rules and regulations
You know how every so often there's a Popular Science article about how we're all going to have flying cars in fifteen years? My helicopter instructor and I had a real good laugh over that. People have enough trouble staying between the yellow lines and stopping at red lights. The rules and regulations you need to know and follow to be a pilot are far more complex. Believe it or not, there is a lot of traffic up there, and lots of rules to follow.

Airport operations
Obviously, airports have serious potential for accidents, not just because aircraft are taking off and landing there, but because there are so many aircraft in a small area. Not to mention fuel trucks. So you have to understand all the procedures, signs, and lights that are used at airports. And you have to be able to look up any airport in the country to get all its particular idiosyncrasies before you go there. Remember how I said all weather information is in highly abbreviated, cryptic code? Yeah, same thing with airport info.

Radios and communications
Pilots and air traffic controllers speak a different language. First, you have to learn the language. Then you have to learn when you're supposed to talk, and when you're not. And what you're supposed to say. To whom. But that's just part of it.

You also have to know how to operate your transceivers, which are the radios you talk with, and the transponder, which broadcasts your aircraft's position and altitude. You have to know what frequency you should be talking on, depending on who and where you are. And what transponder setting you should use.

You have to know what to do if your transceiver stops working and you can't talk. And how to communicate if you've been hijacked. You should probably also know the transponder setting used by the military to identify unmanned targets. Might want to avoid accidentally advertising yourself as one of those.


So those are the basics. To think I could learn it all in six weeks was nuts. What does that mean for me now that I'm back from Hawaii and back at my day job?...well, I guess that'll have to be the subject of another blog post.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

On helicopters and fairy tales

Despite Harrison Ford's visibility as a helicopter pilot, I don't think helicopters share the same glamour that private airplanes enjoy. While pilots are cool, helicopter pilots are kind of...different. (I actually enjoy this.)

That said, helicopters just acquired some romantic allure with the recent announcement that Prince William, second-in-line to the British throne, is going to become a helicopter pilot. Time Magazine reports:

Britain's Prince William announced on Monday that he will train with the Royal Air Force (RAF) to be a full-time search and rescue pilot...He has decided to enroll in an 18-month training program to fly Sea King rescue helicopters. Read more...

So now the crown Prince will be be riding his steel stallion into dangerous circumstances and risking his own life to rescue those in distress.

Romantic? Undoubtably. Good for helicopters' public image? Sure.

And in a fairy tale of my own, I'm going to go ahead and assume this blog inspired the Prince towards his career decision.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Shout out to my sky sista

I want to thank "Jen," who left this comment on my blog a couple posts back:
I just wanted to say how much I enjoy reading your blog. I had my first lesson in an R22 last month and was immediately hooked, but I share all your reservations and fears! It's so reassuring to read of someone else going through the same thing. Most flying blogs are very technical and miss out the whole emotional element of learning to fly. I've done 3.5 hours now, not sure how far I'll take it, but I'm sticking at it so far!
The delicious irony is that I've made a calculated effort to include interesting technical information to keep this blog from devolving into a self-absorbed personal drama bore-fest. Who knew!

As for you, Jen, I appreciate the reading and the comment. I have a few friends and family who very kindly keep up with my ramblings, but for the most part I often feel like I may as well be writing to a black hole. So thank you, you just made writing this blog worth it.

Keep up the flying, I'll be right here.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Are you paying attention?

Some time after my instructor surprised me with an autorotation, we departed the cliffs of the north shore for a pleasant flight back to Kona Airport.

I'm fairly comfortable flying the machine straight-and-level now, so I was able to glance around a bit and take in the view as I flew. I felt wonderfully relaxed as we cruised lazily south in smooth air 1500 feet above dark lava fields.

For safety, we traveled over a lone highway that bisected the lava below; in helicopters, you always want a safe landing spot in sight, and the broken volcanic rubble was not very inviting.

After some time without any conversation, Grant prompted me for the wind direction, gently testing me on what pilots call "situational awareness." We discussed various wind indicators and agreed on a general direction.

"Do you have a spot in sight?" he asked. I was puzzled by this needless question. Obviously the highway was our spot; we were intentionally following it, and there was not much else but rugged lava.

"Sure. The highway," I said, wondering exactly how stupid he thought I was.

"Ok. Engine failure," he said, and cut the throttle.

Now here's the thing. If a helicopter experiences catastrophic engine failure, the pilot has a few seconds -- like maybe three -- to initiate autorotation, or else the rotor stalls and you fall from the sky like a stone.

"Fuuuckkk!" I exclaimed, utterly stunned.

It was already over. Grant had taken the controls and initiated the autorotation for me. My brain sputtered and sizzled, grasping to cope with an onslaught of stimuli.

"You got it," he said -- our phrase for exchanging controls -- and I reflexively took it back, my synapses surging into action. I won't bother re-listing all the things a pilot has to process in autorotation, but I will say the experience was like being suddenly wrenched from sleep by a bucket of ice water, a blaring freight train, and a pack of rapidly advancing blood-thirsty hyenas.

I managed to get a grip on myself and keep the helicopter under control in the descent. We coasted down to within a few hundred feet of the highway, re-engaged the engine, and then gradually resumed our altitude and course.

My thundering pulse eventually eased, but I was mentally rattled for the rest of the flight. If I'd been alone, I would have been dead. It was a very effective lesson. You must always be ready. Always.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Express elevator, going down

The other day my instructor and I flew over the shoulder of the volcanic ridge that crowns the island of Hawaii. It was a spectacular flight that took us to the heavens at five thousand feet. The chilly air dimpled our skin, wisps of cloud fluttered at our feet, and stark sunshine streamed into the cockpit. Cows in the fields below looked like pepper spilled on moss.

On the other side of the ridge, I was happily filming some video when he hit me with the first of two surprises that day.

"Autorotation in three-two-one."

Without even giving each count a full second, he flattened the rotor blades and cut the throttle to enter an engineless descent. I was caught a bit by surprise, and you can see the lurch in my footage as gravity is momentarily lost.

"You asshole," I jabbed, jokingly. I tend to curse when I get suddenly spooked by heights, so much so that my first instructor instituted a three-expletives-per-flight rule.

Besides being used for emergency landings, autorotation is the express elevator down in a helicopter. He was using it to quickly lose altitude down the long slope to our next objective, the seaside cliffs of the northern shore. Halfway down, it became apparent that our descent was too steep to clear the cliff edge and glide out over the sea.

Rather than re-engage the throttle, he chose to demonstrate a peculiarity of the helicopter's design. By allowing rotor rotation to slow to 90% of normal RPM, a Robinson R22 pilot can maximize the glide angle in an autorotation, buying more horizontal distance per altitude lost.

It's a maneuver not to be taken lightly. At any value below 97%, the Low RPM Horn begins wailing, alerting the pilot of the vulnerable condition. At any value below 80%, the rotor stalls, and you fall out of the sky.

So there we were, falling almost 2000 feet per minute without any engine power, the rim of a cliff looming to cut short our approach to the sea, and the Low RPM Horn lamenting our imminent demise. I'm proud to say I wasn't really fazed; I just kept filming.

My instructor's tactic worked, and we cleared the cliff with room to spare. I've shared a short clip below. As you watch it, notice how our altitude changes relative to the clouds as we float down from a mile high to nearly sea level.

I'll share my instructor's second surprise that day in another post.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Somewhere beyond the sea...

The other day I mentioned "good news," but never finished the thought. That day, I had my flight evaluation with the chief instructor. It went well; by some miracle I demonstrated a respectable entry into autorotation.

The procedure calls for a rapid "Left hand down, right foot forward, right hand back," to settle into a controlled, engine-less descent. It's a precise sequence.

Going into the evaluation, I'd never done it without hands-on assistance, so my procedure that morning was "Left hand down, right foot forward, right hand back, pray." The helicopter cooperated, and I passed, clearing me for solo flight.

Which brings me to this morning: I flew for the first time by myself!

My instructor and I did a short flight to begin, then he got out and cut me loose to fly around the airport a few times. On the radio, I introduced myself as a first-timer, so the control tower was kind enough to slow their machine-gun chatter to a more intelligible pace.

See if you can spot the use of ETL in this video. There's nobody in the bird but me, and a beautiful day for it indeed.

[Edit: This video was originally set to music, Bobby Darin's "Somewhere Beyond the Sea." It was much better that way, but the copyright authorities objected. Oh well, just sing along in your head.]

Monday, August 18, 2008

Marauding manta caught on tape

By some stroke of fantastic luck (I guess?), the underwater videographer was still rolling when that manta ray did its dastardly deed. Be sure to read what happened before watching the video, so you know what to look for. (By the way, I do actually have two arms; I put one in my wetsuit because I was cold.)

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A very personal wildlife experience

There are no helicopters in this post, but it's still worth making. Last night I got kicked in the nuts by a manta ray.

I was on a nighttime snorkel/dive adventure with a local outfit. The way it works is all the divers sit on the bottom, 80 feet deep, and all the snorkelers float on the surface, and everyone points their dive lights into the middle. The column of light attracts clouds of plankton, creating a Las Vegas-style all-you-can-eat buffet for the mantas.

There were over a dozen of them, averaging ten feet across and a thousand pounds each, swooping in great inverted loops with their alabaster bellies brushing just inches from us snorkelers. You can see where this is going.

I was on the periphery of the group, and fairly consumed by the experience, so I didn't notice when all the divers and snorkelers started leaving, taking their lights with them. Before long, I was the only light left, which is the equivalent of being that last lonely triangle of double-fudge cake when a busload of ranchers from the Arkansas Cattlemen's Convention is just finishing their buffet.

Suddenly, every manta within five miles wanted their mouth right in front of me. I was a fragile slice of humanity trapped in eight inches of water above a horde of ancient giants swirling up out of the gloom to assault my tiny candle.

Right about that time, I heard the dive guide call my name to tell me to get moving. I popped my head out of the water to listen, which thrust my hips slightly down into the water.

They may look graceful when they swim, but getting hit by a thousand pounds of anything, even if its a glancing blow, is pretty rough. It's like getting racked by a Volkswagen. Luckily, my thigh took most of the shot, or I might have become the tragic dead end to an otherwise long line of vibrant male virility.

Next time, I'm wearing a cup.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Why don't helicopters go straight up?

If you watch helicopters in action, you may notice that they usually take off and land using a gradual slope through the air, similar to airplanes.

Given that helicopters can rise and descend vertically, why would a pilot opt for a more modest angle?

Three words: Effective translational lift.

Helicopter rotor blades are basically airplane wings that spin in a circle (the rotor disc). Like wings, they create lift when air moves smoothly across their upper surface.

When a helicopter is hovering without any forward movement, it's dragging the air above it straight down through the rotor disc. The blades still create lift, because they are moving horizontally through the air like wings, but the effect is partially corrupted by the air that is descending vertically.

Due to this confused or "dirty" air, the engine has to work pretty hard to generate enough lift to maintain a hover.

As a helicopter adds forward speed, the dirty air is pushed farther and farther to the rear of the rotor disc by undisturbed "clean" air ahead. The faster the helicopter moves forward, the cleaner and more horizontal the air flow, and the greater the lift generated by the blades.

This dynamic is called effective translational lift, or ETL. Effective translational lift increases as the helicopter accelerates forward during take off, eventually reaching a strength that enables the pilot to pull the helicopter into the sky, similar to an airplane.

Weirdly, with ETL the helicopter can actually climb using less engine power than what is required to hover.

Although helicopters do typically have enough muscle to climb vertically through dirty air, it's safer to take advantage of ETL. A vertically climbing helicopter is more vulnerable to an irreversible -- and likely fatal -- rotor stall, for reasons I'll explain in another post.

If a helicopter is heavily loaded, or under certain conditions of air temperature, air pressure, humidity, and wind, the pilot may have no choice but to climb using forward movement and ETL.

In Chickenhawk, a riveting first-hand account of the helicopter war in Vietnam, pilot Robert Mason is forced to rely on ETL to lift his overloaded Huey -- filled with infantry -- out of battlefields being overrun by Viet Cong.

The same dynamic applies to landings. Rather than descending vertically, helicopter pilots will typically maintain forward speed (and ETL) all the way to the final hover over the landing spot.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

A little make-believe

I have some good news from school today, but not much time, so I'll have to get to that later. For now, a quick anecdote...

Yesterday in the local coffee shop there was a kid with a helicopter on his t-shirt.

I told him I was a helicopter pilot (ok, that's a stretch, but easier than explaining the larger truth).

Although I couldn't actually take him for a helicopter ride, he did end up wearing my headset and sunglasses, and I taught him how to ask air traffic control for clearance to land.

Here's a picture, I think his name was Laith (Leyth?). He seemed to enjoy pretending to be a helicopter pilot. And for the record, I did too.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

I can fly a helicopter

I had a great flight today, and I figure I should make a note of it here to counterbalance all my bellyaching about fear and crisis.

Today, for the first time, I managed every segment of the flight, from pick up to set down, without needing help from my instructor. It was sloppy in places, but even if Grant hadn't been there, I still could have taken off, flown around, and come back in one piece.

Not surprisingly, I had another first: As soon as the lesson was over, I wanted to go again.

The best worst idea I've ever had

In my last post, I explained why helicopter flight school scares the shit out of me. There are several more reasons why it's a horrible idea.

First, it's incredibly expensive. Scratch that, it's absurdly expensive. Any half-witted person would take the money and either invest it or buy something useful. I'm spending it on learning a skill that I won't ever use.

Which brings me to number two: It's a useless skill. Obtaining your private helicopter license is like graduating from elementary school; a lot more training (=time and money) is required for true competence.

Plus, in order to remain competent (and safe), you need to fly frequently. That requires either a job as a pilot or Harrison Ford's bank account. I don't want to be a professional pilot, and I don't see myself having heaps of money anytime in the (near?) future, which makes this whole endeavor, at some point, a dead end.

So, why am I doing it? Well, as I explained to my mother during our conversation, I think I'm learning to fly helicopters precisely because it's so scary and ridiculous. Let me explain.

I fundamentally believe that the only real limits we face in life are self-imposed, usually due to fear, and I like to share that belief with the hope that it will inspire others to move beyond their own self-imposed limits.

I realized: The benefit I get from engaging in an extravagant, terrifying experience with no apparent practical purpose is manifested through this blog.

In short, as I explained to my Mom, I want this blog to serve as an example. My intention is for it to be an emphatic exclamation: Anything is possible!! If it helps one person pursue a dream, no matter how scary or "ridiculous," then it's all worth it.

To which my Mom, an Episcopal priest with a penchant for speaking in the Christian equivalent of Zen koans, simultaneously puzzling and profound, said:

"You know, the best sermons I've ever heard have generally been those which the preacher, more than anyone else in the room, needed to hear."

Hm. Let me think about that for a bit.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Yup, I'm still scared

The other day I was talking to my dear Mom about this experience, and I said, "It still scares the shit out of me. Every day, I just don't know if I'm up to it."

She laughed and said, "You need to put that in your blog." And then she said something very profound, but first let me articulate why flying still gets to me.

My current instructor, Grant, mentioned that when he was a kid, he used to climb trees so high his grandmother would implore him to come down, but he would climb even higher because he loved the heights so much. Future helicopter pilot, that one.

When I was a kid, I would climb to the second branch, look down, and wonder what the hell had possessed me to risk my life.

Sometimes in the helicopter I still look down through a thousand feet of air and feel my insides seize, but for the most part I can handle the heights, which I suppose is progress. However, that irrational fear has been replaced with a rational one.

That is to say, I no longer fear being sucked from of my seatbelt and out the door through some impossible inversion of the laws of physics, but I am more aware of the real danger in flying helicopters.

Helicopter engines fail. I've personally spoken with pilots who have experienced serious engine trouble in mid-flight. I've seen videos of crashes in which pilots with similar trouble failed to perform autorotation, and died as a result. I've also witnessed firsthand the complexity of performing autorotation.

Every time I watch an instructor fly in autorotation, I'm astounded by their ability to multitask so many things so quickly. I can't even list them all for you, because I don't even know them. But at the very least, the pilot must simultaneously:
  • monitor rotor RPM on the tachometer gauge
  • monitor airspeed on the airspeed gauge
  • monitor descent rate on the vertical speed indicator
  • identify a nearby landing spot, and then maintain nearly constant visual contact with it (while still watching all the above)
  • monitor his own sense of weight (or weightlessness) in his seat
  • make constant, precise adjustments to manual controls to keep RPM, airspeed, and descent rate in extremely narrow ranges
  • make the required compensatory adjustments to the other manual controls in order to balance any of the above adjustments
  • steer to the landing spot
And that's just for the descent. As you near the landing spot, there is another series of rapid, precise actions required to simultaneously stop the helicopter's descent and forward speed, just above the ground -- but not too high (or you crash) and not too low (you just crashed).

I'm not sure how I'm ever going to pull that off. What if my engine fails and I just freeze? What if I'm just practicing engine failure and I freeze?

Plus, although I trust my instructor to successfully manage autorotations, I also know that sometimes instructors don't. It says so right there in the title of Robinson's supplemental safety notice SN-38 for their helicopter, which was issued in direct response to a disturbing trend:

So hell yeah I'm scared. And the more I think about it, the more I realize this fear is only one of several reasons why learning to fly helicopters is the exact wrong thing for me to be doing right now. But I'm still doing it, and I'll explain why (and finish the story about my Mom) in another post.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Flying traffic patterns over Kona Airport (video)

Here's some video of me flying a helicopter, proof that I'm not making this all up!

I'm doing all the flying in this video, except maybe a little help during the take off. Please note the razor sharp hovering and buttery smooth set down towards the end, a vast improvement over my drunken helicoptering.

By the way, the smoky haze shrouding the volcano in the distance is actually volcanic fog, or "vog" as they call it here in Hawaii. Some days it gets pretty thick.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Speaking of great stories...

I just finished reading Chickenhawk, Robert Mason's best selling memoir of his tour of duty as Huey pilot in Vietnam. It's probably the single most widely read book among helicopter pilots; you can't be in the helicopter world for long without hearing about it.

I'm sure I'm just one of thousands of pilots who howled with amused familiarity at Mason's description of his first day of flight training.

I can't relate directly to his harrowing accounts of unloading infantry in jungle clearings while enemy gunfire rips through his windshield, but they certainly offer perspective. Some of the maneuvers I've been learning are suddenly less daunting.

Back in the saddle

I wrote last week that the best stories are so successful because they grip us with moments of uncertainty that resonate with our own life experiences. The underlying point is that these moments are not just what make stories exciting, but also what makes life exciting.

As your own life unfolds, the challenge is to remember in the moments of crisis -- in your darkest hours -- that it's all just your story, with you as the hero, and it's precisely these moments that make it a great one.

On Friday, my instructor Lee explained that he had been aggressive with me on purpose. With just a few weeks left of training, he knew that, in order for me to reach my goal of getting my private license, he would have to shove me through the learning plateaus that occur with all flight students.

I appreciate the effort. He began as a very patient instructor, but upon recognizing that we were behind schedule, he opted for another method. It backfired, but he was just trying to get me over the finish line in the time allotted.

Ultimately, we agreed that the goal of obtaining my private license in six weeks was too ambitious. It put unreasonable pressure on both him and me, which became counterproductive to the process. So we threw it out. I can finish that goal back home or another time.

In the meantime, I told Lee that I needed to fly with another instructor. While I intellectually understood Lee's intentions, I also knew that if I climbed back into that cockpit with him again, with all the same stimuli, my emotions would go haywire. Even the thought of it made me tense.

Instead, I flew with another instructor for the past two days, which worked wonderfully. I got my mojo back, and managed to perform several respectable set downs from hover, which is what Lee and I had been working on when I snapped.

I even set down (landed) smoothly when facing away from the wind, which is the most difficult angle, because the wind constantly tries to shove the tail around, as if the helicopter were a weathervane, increasing the risk of catching one skid on the ground and rolling over as you land.

Every pilot I've spoken to about last week has shared a story of their own flight school crisis, meltdown, or emotional blow-up. So, if you're going to learn to fly helicopters, be aware that your crisis is coming. And when it hits, try to remember: It's all just part of the fun.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Dangerous things, and the nature of crisis

The vast majority of fatal accidents in the Robinson R22 helicopter result from two causes: collision and rotor stall.

The collisions are usually wire strikes; a pilot is flying too low over unfamiliar terrain, perhaps following a river or attempting to land in an open field, and the helicopter strikes a power line or structural wire, ripping the aircraft from flight and sending it plummeting to the ground.

Rotor stall is a condition in which, through pilot error, the rotor is allowed to slow down too much or the individual blades' angle against the air becomes too steep. As a result, the smooth airflow over the blades is disrupted, and the lifting force is lost.

In an attempt to recover lift, the pilot may reflexively increase the angle of the blades. This only worsens the condition; the wide surface of the blades against the air causes their rotation to rapidly decelerate to zero, and the helicopter falls from the sky like a stone.

On Wednesday, I suffered the emotional equivalent of rotor stall, and I decided to walk away from helicopters for good. (You may have noticed my last post was about seahorses.)

Over a few flights leading up to that point, communication between my instructor and me had rapidly deteriorated. He became increasingly critical of and impatient with my performance. In response, I became increasingly frustrated, resentful, and less inclined to heed his direction, which I expect only made him more impatient, and so on.

Our lessons were rife with negative, antagonistic vibrations. If you're learning how to play golf at the local pro shop, this dynamic can be frustrating. If you're learning how to fly helicopters, it's dangerous.

Perhaps you can remember a time when you had to execute a critical golf shot, tennis serve, basketball free throw, or a difficult sequence in music or dance. If so, you know that if you allow the mental tension to get into your muscles in these scenarios, it's over before you even try. Your muscles seize at precisely the wrong moment, and you choke.

Flying helicopters is equally physical, and the same dynamic applies, with the added pressure that a choke can be fatal.

Last Wednesday morning, I found myself flying a helicopter in a terrible feedback loop of tension. I was already angry and frustrated, and consequently tense. My instructor was barking instructions at me, making me more tense. Worst of all, I was aware that the tension in my arms and legs made me less capable of flying, which amplified my tension with fear, which effectively paralyzed me. My confidence in my ability decelerated to zero, and my emotional state collapsed.

I ended the lesson early and walked away with barely a word to my instructor, convinced I was finished forever. I never want to feel that unbearable combination of anger and fear again, and I don't know that I'm willing to risk it by getting back in the cockpit.

All adventures, in fact all meaningful journeys of any kind, include crisis in which the adventurer faces overwhelming circumstances, and doubt threatens to plunge toward despair.

The most successful adventure stories are those in which -- as the crisis reaches its climax -- we ourselves are swept into the uncertainty. We don't know whether David will defeat Goliath, whether the three hundred Spartan warriors can withstand a vast army of Persians, or whether Luke Skywalker, alone and under heavy fire, will be able to strike the Death Star's tiny weak point with a perfectly placed torpedo.

These stories grip us because each of us, in our own life's journey, is so familiar with crisis and its excruciating uncertainty. Sometimes, as with David and Luke Skywalker, we triumph. Sometimes, as with the Spartans, we do not.

I went to the airport today to sit down face to face with my instructor and discuss the situation. Now I must consider what was said.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Saving the planet, one seahorse at a time

This post has nothing to do with helicopters. I mentioned the other day that I went to a seahorse farm. First, let me give you a little background.

Ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) is a method for generating electricity by exploiting the temperature difference between cold, deep water and warm, shallow water.

Since Hawaii has both high energy costs and deep ocean water, years ago the government installed an OTEC facility in hopes of providing an alternative energy source. They plumbed pipes to pull cold water from hundreds of feet down off the Kona coast.

The system worked, but it wasn't very efficient. It cost them 10 cents to generate the energy they could sell for 11 cents.

Enter private aquaculturists, who recognized the value of this deep, nutrient-rich water for farming sea life. Desperate for an alternative revenue source for their alternative energy plant, the government began leasing land near the facility, as well as access to the water.

Today, Keohole Point beside Kona International Airport boasts a sprawling community of aquaculture companies that grow just about everything you can imagine: abalone, mussels, microalgae, lobsters, and even sushi-grade yellowtail.

One of these companies is Ocean Rider, Inc., which operates the only seahorse farm in the world. They sell farm-raised, domesticated seahorses directly to home aquarium owners. Their business has deeply undercut the poaching of wild seahorses worldwide, giving this endangered creature a fighting chance for a future.

Incidentally, seahorses mate for life, and separating them from their mate increases the probability of illness or death. For this reason, Ocean Rider only sells seahorses in mated pairs.

If you're ever in Kona, I highly recommend the tour at Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm. It was awesome. If you want to buy their seahorses, you can at Seahorse.com.

Here's a movie of some of their seahorses stampeding for a cloud of food that was dropped in the tank. If you look closely, you can see some of the mated pairs holding each other's tails, which they often do.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Helicopters are always trying to crash

Several friends have mentioned that they are reading this blog. Thanks, it really means a lot. With school six hours a day, plus commute, plus studying, I don't have a lot of free time, and I spend much of it writing, rewriting, and finding images for posts. It's the best way I have of sharing this experience with everyone. That means you.

Progress: Today I moved the helicopter around the airport with little assistance from my instructor. He still takes hold when I have an accidental spasm towards the fuel trucks or a multi-million dollar private jet.

I operate all of the controls during regular flight, except when Lee is demonstrating a maneuver. Don't confuse that with being completely in control.

A helicopter is an unstable system that requires constant effort to inhibit its natural tendency towards chaos. Or, as instructors explain it: A helicopter is always trying to crash, and the pilot's job is to keep it from doing so.

What that means for me from second to second is that things are constantly going wrong, and I'm constantly trying to fix them, like a cartoon character sticking finger after finger into a dyke that keeps springing leaks.

As soon as I stop the unintended climb, I've got to correct a loss of airspeed. I'm no sooner done with that then the engine's manifold pressure is too low. Ok, manifold pressure looks good, but we're out of trim, skidding sideways through the air. Fixed that, but now we're losing altitude and I'm late informing the tower of our position. And on and on. I don't have time to look out my door anymore, I'm way too busy!

Lee took the controls for a minute so I could shoot some video for you. In order of appearance: New subdivision on raw lava (right turn, looking straight down), nice blue coastline, Four Seasons Resort and golf course, relatively recent lava flows (1800's?), and (in the distance) Mauna Loa volcano, shrouded in her own fumes.

Sorry about the wind blast, but as I've said, there's nothing next to me but sky. By the way, if there is anything you're curious about, send an email or leave me a comment, and I'll try to explain or shoot some footage.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Helicopters are just so misunderstood

Most people grasp that an airplane can fly, at least for a while, if its engines stop working. Ask ten people on the street what happens when a helicopter engine fails, and probably all ten will tell you the helicopter will fall out of the sky.

Although false, this is a deeply ingrained popular belief, so much so that even I was a little apprehensive when my instructor told me that today we would practice descending without engine power.

The maneuver is called autorotation, because, as the helicopter descends, the blades are automatically rotated by upward flowing air, rather than the (failed) engine.

The effect is similar to the way a maple seed spins gradually to the ground, as you can see in these videos of autorotation in a previous post.

Despite my efforts to imagine riding a maple seed to the ground, I didn't really know what an autorotation would feel like. I guess I expected something like the freefall rides at Six Flags, or like the one they have on the Stratosphere building in Las Vegas. I hate those rides.

So I caught my breath when, while cruising at 1800 feet over immaculate black lava flows and a glistening blue tropical bay, my instructor said, "Autorotation in three....two....one."

He cut the throttle, and the engine tachometer needle collapsed to the bottom of its housing. For the briefest moment, I felt us fall, and my stomach threatened to rise into my ribcage.

Then, just as quickly, I settled back into my seat, and we kept flying. Sure, we were descending, but we definitely weren't falling. We weren't even descending that fast.

Over the course of the next minute, I watched as the ebony lava below gradually rose towards us. The helicopter was quieter without the engine noise, and there was a low, mechanical hum. It reminded me of driving down a mountain road in first gear. You feel the tension of the machine controlling your speed; you know that if you were forced to crash, you might be hurt, but you'd survive.

Before we reached the surface, Lee halted our descent completely with a quick adjustment of the blades, as he would if we really had to settle down without power. Rather than land this time, he re-engaged the engine, and we climbed back into the sky.

So...would you rather have your engine fail in a helicopter, which can float down and settle softly to the ground just about anywhere, or an airplane, which needs several hundred feet of flat land and hurtles in at 60+ miles per hour? Spread the word.

Friday, July 25, 2008

New habits, hard drugs, and flying helicopters

I've noticed I've developed a new habit. As soon as I depart the airport and begin accelerating to cruising speed, a little voice in my head startles me with a bark: "Don't forget to check your gauges!" Yikes, that's right, check gauges!

So I look down to verify that my airspeed, climb rate, and manifold pressure are all normal. Imagine my surprise when I'm confronted with the miles per hour, RPM, and gasoline gauges in my Jeep.

Oh, that's right, I'm driving. Well, I suppose it's good to have the habit.

Speaking of which, I have a new metaphor for hovering. I've been comparing hovering to balancing. That's accurate. But if you're only two weeks into helicopter training, hovering isn't so much like balancing as it is like balancing drunk.

I'm reminded of a passage from Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:

This is the main advantage of ether: it makes you behave like the village drunkard in some early Irish novel...total loss of all basic motor skills: Blurred vision, no balance, numb tongue -- severance of all connection between the body and the brain. Which is interesting, because the brain continues to function more or less normally...you can actually watch yourself behaving in this terrible way, but you can't control it.

That last line nails it precisely. Hovering over a short distance, say from the helicopter's parking space to the fuel pump, shouldn't be that difficult. And yet, when I try, it's like I'm already six shots deep into a bottle of Jose Cuervo.

My instructor, Lee, sits patiently beside me with one hand on the collective to keep us floating a few feet over the asphalt. I operate the other controls and focus intently on the fueling area, but I just...can't...get there. The beast swirls this way and that, stumbling several meters forward, then a few back, lurching left, then right, pitching at weird angles all the time, teetering on the edge of disaster, then swaying back through level before groping forward again.

...you can actually watch yourself behaving in this terrible way, but you can't control it.

Drunken helicoptering! Hunter would be proud.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Hovering and my out-of-body experience

Today I hovered for the first time using all flight controls without any assistance from my instructor. He tells me it lasted for 20 seconds or so before he had to act. I was shocked, because I was certain it was a minute or longer. I'll explain more about that towards the end of this post.

I mentioned before that learning to fly a helicopter is a physical endeavor involving feeling the helicopter as an extension of yourself and then learning to balance it.

Think about the last time you learned to balance something, perhaps a basketball on your finger, or your body on a bicycle, in a handstand, or even on one foot. How did it happen?

I suspect that when you began, you were able to balance for only an extremely short period of time. Very quickly, things started to fall out of balance, you likely made a few last ditch moves of rapidly increasing magnitude, and then you lost it. The classic "whoa whoa WHOA"...done.

With practice, you extended the time before the loss of balance. Your movements became more subtle, your corrections less excessive, and more time elapsed before the first "whoa." With enough practice, you extended the time long enough that the loss of balance never occurred; you could balance until you decided to stop.

During this process of practice and improvement, you didn't think about how to improve. You didn't think "Oh it's going left, quick I need to reach more left!" The truth is, you don't have time to think about it. If you think about it, your reaction is too slow, and you lose the balance.

This is the amazing thing: Learning to balance happens completely outside the realm of conscious thought. It's as if your body learns it without your mind.

This is exactly the process of learning to fly a helicopter, and holding a hover is the most acute example. You may recall that my first hover lasted two seconds, after which I entered "whoa whoa WHOA," sending the helicopter careening off at a deranged angle, and Lee had to take hold and bring it back.

That first time, I was only using my right hand, while Lee was managing the left hand and feet. Fast forward to today, when I was controlling all four flight controls (the cyclic, the collective, and right and left pedals) using my right hand, left hand, and right and left feet, respectively.

Today, as before, Lee had me focus on a palm tree several hundred yards in front of us and then just feel the hover. This time, for the first time, I really did concentrate on the tree -- and nothing else. I stopped trying to control my limbs, I stopped thinking about them or their motion.

The helicopter hovered. It was a bizarre sensation. It moved around a little, but as soon as it started to lean, I just willed it back. "Willed" is the best word I can use to describe it. It actually felt more telekinetic, like a medium might bend a spoon or move a bowl using mind energy alone. I just intensely silently expressed a desire for the helicopter to ease back into stillness...and it did.

I had no conscious interaction with my limbs. Although my hands and feet must have been making countless tiny corrections over fractions of seconds to maintain the hover, I have no memory of their motion. I can only remember the tree. (In a way, this was a little disappointing; I was so focused on the tree that I missed my own first hover.)

Actually, I do remember two specific movements, one by my right arm and one by my left foot. Right after each of these, I lost the hover and Lee had to act. So if I started thinking about a hand or foot, things went to hell immediately.

Afterwards, I was sure my longest stretch of unassisted hover had lasted a minute or more. Lee said more like 20 seconds. I still can't understand that, because it felt so long.

I can come up with only one explanation. Have you ever been "in the zone" while playing a sport? It feels like time slows down, so you see and react much faster, often faster than your opponent. I think that's the same effect I felt today. When you are in a state of calm but intense concentration during a full-body physical endeavor, time gets stretched and feels longer than it is.

So maybe it was only 20 seconds. But it was pretty cool, anyway.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

No time to think

So far, my favorite thing about learning to fly a helicopter is how hard my instructor is pushing me. Every day, I feel like a juggler who has just barely learned to add another ball into the mix, and my instructor throws me two more. But, um, I'm not even very good with these ba---well, ok...

Maybe it's because of my short window in Hawaii, maybe it's just Lee, maybe they always do this. But it's a good feeling to have someone ask you to do something you are pretty certain you can't do, and in the asking make it clear they have absolutely no doubt you can do it.

Lee tells me I will fly by myself ("solo") the weekend of August 2. That's such an outrageous claim, it's laughable. It's July 22, and I can't keep the thing under control for a full minute, and that's with him handling the radio, minding the gauges, watching for air traffic, and managing at least half of the flight controls. Not to mention taking off and landing, which by my estimation are both fairly important to any successful flight.

For me to solo August 2 goes beyond utter madness and into pure fantasy. I'm not kidding. It's like if somebody told you that you will earn a million bucks this year, or that your favorite celebrity will meet you in a coffee shop and fall in love with you.

The odd thing is, he says it with a completely straight face.

A new perspective

It's a strange thing to find yourself in a place you couldn't even imagine not long ago.

When I wrote this, I was scared to death of being thousands of feet up in tiny helicopter with no door beside me, mere inches from oblivion. I don't think I was completely honest about the extent of my fear. You know how we hide fears, even from ourselves, hoping they will just go away.

When I learned that my flight school flies with the doors off, I was confronted with circumstances I didn't know how to handle. I didn't think I could do it. Or rather, I was pretty sure I couldn't. But there was already too much momentum towards Hawaii to stop.

I suppose that's what my high school sweetheart meant when she told me, "You just have to jump off cliffs and build your wings on the way down." Give yourself no way back, and you'll find a way forward.

My first right turn in the helicopter was tough, in retrospect. The only feeling stronger than panic was the notion that if I panicked I would either fall out or cause my instructor to crash. So I sat scared and pretended not to be.

Yesterday, I found myself in another right turn, staring down through five hundred feet of nothingness to the swerving green ground...and enjoying it.

Then I made the mistake of mentioning this discovery to my instructor. In his ever-chipper British accent, he said, "Great, let's see if I can make it bother you."

He proceeded to lean the helicopter into a 50-degree right bank, which of course means your right side is more the bottom than your bottom is. Except I didn't have a door, so there was no bottom.

You know what? It was pretty amazing, actually. I watched the kaleidoscope of dense vegetation and scattered buildings wheel crazily below me and felt nothing more than amused, relaxed curiosity. Oh look, that looks like some kind of plant nursery, and look there, I see a swimming pool.

It's a strange thing to find yourself in a place you couldn't even imagine not long ago.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Very few words

Efficient communication is a worthy goal. After composing a blog post, I go through and slaughter every word that isn't pulling its weight. I know readers have zero patience for fluff.

Aviation radio communications are remarkably efficient, but for a different reason. Since every aircraft near a given airport is communicating on the same radio frequency, and consequently only one person can be heard at a time, keeping it short and sweet is imperative.

Imagine you're in a room full of twenty blindfolded people, all actively walking around, and you're the only one who can see. Now imagine that you have to guide all those people out the door using only verbal instructions. Oh, and if anyone bumps into anyone else, they die.

If you say some instructions, how can the people be sure who they're for? How do you tell a person where to walk, when to turn, and by how much? What if several people all need help at the same time? The only solution is a system of very clear, very specific, and very rapid communication.

Here's the first radio call I learned and its translation:

"Kona Tower, Helicopter Five Zulu Kilo on south ramp requesting to enter left close traffic to taxiway Alpha with information Foxtrot."

"Hello Kona Airport air traffic control, I am flying the helicopter with tail number '5ZK' that is hovering in the southern staging area. I'd like permission to enter the standard air traffic pattern that circles to the left of the main runway, returning back to taxiway 'A.' I have already listened to the latest recorded weather and airport update, so you can assume I know that information."

Love it.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Flight school: Day two

Yesterday, we got rained out (apparently a rare occurrence at Kona Airport, which is shielded by one of the volcano's peaks). Lee, my instructor, says we can fly in the rain, but it takes me twenty minutes outside the helicopter to get through the pre-flight checklist, and we would have been soaked and cold.

The checklist is a detailed safety inspection of the helicopter's surface and systems, including structural elements, fuel and oil lines, rotor and tail blade condition, and so on.

Anyway, this is what I've done so far today:
-Ate breakfast on deck overlooking coffee grove
-Drove around barefoot in jeep with top down
-Swam in bay with wild dolphins (close enough to touch)
-Ate lunch of authentic Hawaiian food
-Flew helicopter

Not even Richard Branson lives this good.

I am so glad I studied ahead of time. Without it, ground school would be overwhelming, a double-whammy on top of flight school, which by itself is one of the most intense experiences of my life.

The book knowledge doesn't help flight school much, any more than reading mechanic's manuals would help you drive your car. Flight school is a physical endeavor that involves little if any intellectual thought. It's basically just learning to feel the helicopter as an extension of yourself, and then to balance it, like you would a bike or anything else. And similar to riding a bike, it's much easier when you're moving forward. Hovering is a bitch.

Today I hovered for ten seconds before the thing veered off at a crazed angle and Lee, patient as ever, caught it. He said he's seen much worse, but whoever that was, I'm glad I wasn't in the helicopter.

Below is a picture I took near the airport. Hawaii is a relatively young island; its edges are raw black lava, frozen forever in the smooth humps and ripples of a flowing liquid.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

First day of school

In Hawaii, it doesn't just rain. The sky collapses in a torrent of great fat drops the size of worlds, the whole multitude of them crashing at once into tin roofs, banana leaves, and the canvas top of my jeep. It's a miracle, and when it's over, the air is left as pure and fresh as the whisper of a child.

Today was my first day of school -- two hours of one-on-one ground school and two hours of helicopter time. The amount of information to process, particularly in flight training, is astonishing. The number of things a helicopter pilot has to do, simultaneously and in rapid sequence, is overwhelming.

If I didn't know that thousands of people before me have learned this, I would believe it's impossible. There is a lesson there, which I will come back to often: The only difference between impossible and possible is belief. Nothing else.

We flew, both of us, our hands and feet on the controls. Each time I said, "Ok, you do it," my instructor Lee (pictured), said, "We'll do it together."

We flew straight, we turned left, we turned right. The latter could have been harrowing; I was sitting on the right side of a helicopter with no door, so that looking to my right during a right turn (and bank) meant staring straight down, with nothing but a thousand feet of freefall between me and the lush, green floor.

I say could have been harrowing, because my brain was too busy franticly sorting and seizing information about how to fly to be very scared. In the one moment that was too much, Lee had me focus on my sight line past the cockpit compass to the horizon, and soon the turn was done.

(By the way, my left hand was on the collective, a handle that looks like an automobile parking brake but controls the up-and-down in a helicopter. I'm glad I was able to fight off the urge to yank up on that handle to keep myself from falling out the door. That could have gotten unpleasant.)

We also practiced hovering, this from a more reasonable but still potentially fatal altitude of about five feet. Hovering is the most difficult basic skill. It's an extreme balancing act, something like a one-arm handstand or riding a unicycle. My first hover lasted literally two seconds before Lee had to take over and save us from a violent death of high octane flames and splintering steel.

My longest hover was six seconds. Lee says six seconds is pretty good for the first day. Six seconds seems pretty useless compared to five minutes or fifteen minutes or forever.

But it's true that a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. Today, I began with impossible...and finished six seconds closer to possible.

[Click "Newer Post" below left to read the next post, or start from the beginning.]

The right place

Yup, if you want to go to helicopter school, Hawaii is the place to do it. I went snorkeling yesterday at Two Step Reef. It's one of the nicest reefs I've seen, and that's coming from a former marine biologist who once lived beside a reefed lagoon in Jamaica.

This morning I showed up for school at 9am, three hours early, because I screwed up the time zone conversion. Brilliant student.

To kill time, I took a tour at a nearby seahorse farm, just one more fascinating Hawaiian mini-adventure. More on that later.

School starts today at noon. Here's a picture I just took of the trailer:

Edit: Well, looks like the blog can't convert time either. It's 11:30, not 2:30...

Monday, July 14, 2008

Flight school orientation

I found a cafe with an Internet connection, so that will do for now.

Today I checked in with Mauna Loa Helicopter School, and I'm stoked. The instructors were very friendly; several of them introduced themselves spontaneously to me.

The school itself is just a trailer (like at a construction site) next to Kona International Airport, with a cluster of helicopters on the hardtop. That's fine with me. It helps explain why helicopter time here is cheaper than the school in San Diego, which boasts a large modern hangar and plush classrooms with fancy multimedia equipment. Somebody has to pay for that stuff.

Today's agenda involved about two hours of orientation and paperwork.

I begin training on Wednesday with my assigned instructor, Lee. He holds the school record for fastest instruction, having graduated a private license student in three weeks and a commercial license student in four. I'm lucky to get him.

The plan is to hit two hours of "ground school" plus two hours of flight time each day, five days a week. We'll try that and see how it goes. They seem very flexible. Hawaii in general seems very flexible.

It turns out two of the three books I've been reading are standard texts for this school. That doesn't surprise me, but it's good news. One of the instructors, Jesse, confirmed for me that people often fall behind in the ground school (because it's not as fun), and end up requiring extra flight time to learn that information in the air. So my studying should help keep costs down.

Here's a picture from my outdoor (but covered) kitchen taken a few seconds ago as I write here while it pours rain (click to zoom). Yes, it feels like I live in Jurassic Park. I think I may enjoy the daily contrast between jungle living and modern flying machines.

An unexpected shock

My tiny hut squats on the side of an ancient volcano above the sea, breezes flowing though screened windows, a riot of tropical vegetation in every direction. A light rain just ceased, and the frogs and insects have raised their evening chorus.

But...this place has no digital inputs. I have no Internet access and my cell phone has no service.

For me, this is a viscerally shocking experience, not unlike being forced to hold one's breath. Your first thought is, Ok, surely this can't go on much longer. And your next is, If this goes on another minute, I will die.

But then the oddest thing: I kept holding, and nothing happened. I didn't need to breathe! How freeing.

I found myself thinking, This is really nice. The metaphor inverted: It was as if I was finally able to exhale after months (years?) of clenching.

I began to imagine six weeks without any Internet and little phone, and to my surprise the idea seemed appealing. Of course, that would mean no blog. Although it might disappoint my dad and my cousin (a second reader!), it's something I'll consider.

Tonight, before I began to write, my eyes were burning. They used to feel that way after a day of staring at a computer. Is it possible that now they're doing so after a day without digital exposure, the withdrawal symptoms of a screen junkie?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Happy birthday, Will Bieze!

I just want to shout a quick happy birthday to my godson Will Bieze, and hello to his brother Henry and family!

I'm headed to Hawaii today to go to helicopter school. Perhaps one day we will fly together.

Will, his brother Henry, and their father Michael