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

Drunken helicoptering! Hunter would be proud.

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