Profiles of Nature 14

western lowland gorilla Gorilla gorilla gorilla Balthazaar pondering the meaning of hay
Our nature photography model this week is Balthazaar, also a drama coach, philosopher, father, and nativity display evaluator, here obviously disappointed at this disorganized mess. Balthazaar has been in the biz for over a decade and is highly sought-after by discerning art directors because of his chiseled features and extensive repertoire of legume trivia, which makes more sense if you’re familiar with art directors. He used to be incredibly shy, but got past this on the kindly advice of his ninth-grade teacher, who said, “Don’t.” [Amusingly, she had actually said, “Dolt,” which wasn’t discovered for years, but upon finally finding this out, Balthazaar thanked her anyway and then reported her to the school board for calling names.] Balthazaar collects the paper floor mats that mechanics put in your car, and often creates minor issues with his vehicle just to obtain more; as you might imagine, this has cost him quite a lot of money and has resulted in him having the transmission replaced seven times. Not that we’re saying anything. At some point in the future he would like to run for office because he really hates to see bare, uncluttered medians. He once said, “There’s a fine line between a reprimand and jail.” Balthazaar’s preferred dipthong is aʊ.

You don’t have to join us next week if you never leave!

Not even trying

great blue heron Ardea herodias in dead tree near sunset
Had an outing with Buggato, and as we parted, he vowed that he was going to post something before I did. And yet, it’s after 10:30 PM, I’ve already had dinner, and still no post from him. Ah well. Here’s a great blue heron (Ardea herodias) hanging out on a dead tree near sunset; he didn’t stick around for the real sunset colors, but they weren’t that strong anyway.

More pics will be along eventually, but first, we need to check in with our latest nature photography model. Let’s see, who’s it gonna be?…

Variety? No

We’re having great weather now, but so far the activity hasn’t changed significantly among the wildlife, or at least not that I’ve seen – they may be playing it cool when I’m around, because I’m old enough now to be a square, a real wet blanket. So yesterday’s circuit of the pond netted a handful of images, but nothing that really adds to the stock, you know?

pair of yellow-bellied sliders Trachemys scripta scripta basking on a snag
The turtles were out in force, and a little less spooky than normal, but I was approaching cautiously and peeking through gaps in the foliage, as you can detect the hints of from the green haze at lower left. The lead one here decided that she’d had quite enough sun on her legs, as opposed to the next one.

yellow-bellied slider Trachemys scripta scripta showing off the manicure
With restrictions being lifted, I’m guessing that this one had finally gotten her nails done and was hoping someone would notice – we are now in open-toed sandals weather. For a bit anyway, perhaps. And of course, the balancing act is none too subtle, so I’m pegging this one as a teenager. Either that or she’s been there for a long time while the water’s been receding; perhaps she’s stuck. Nah, I’m going with being an attention hound.

And yes, I backed off the focal length a little to get that reflection in there. Here you were thinking this was accidental or something – you should know better.

Around the other side of the pond, we approached another basking turtle slowly, but needn’t have bothered – it didn’t budge a bit, and as we got around front, we discovered why.

yellow-bellied slider Trachemys scripta scripta with damaged or missing eyes
Not only did it appear to be completely blind, but from the size I’m reasonably sure this is the same one from last year, so he’s doing okay for all that. He did eventually raise his head and begin listening to us carefully, trying to determine the threat level, but we left him alone at that point and moved on, so he could continue basking undisturbed.

And a handful of birds, of course.

female eastern bluebird Sialia sialis hanging out
Not far from a nest box, we saw a female eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) cruise up to an obvious branch and sit patiently watching us, and I ended up having to creep closer to change the angle of the intervening twigs, which were sitting right in front of her eyes. No sign of the male, though I imagine he wasn’t far away – it’s that season, after all. For a bit anyway, perhaps.

A female double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) was hanging out in the usual spot, and I lined up for the fartsy shot with the pilings in the foreground.

female double-crested cormorant Phalacrocorax auritus perched on old piling
I managed to sneak in one frame before she offered her opinion of my skills and/or nature photographers in general:

female double-crested cormorant Phalacrocorax auritus defecating purposefully into water
Even as the moment had passed, the ripples and milky cloud remained, effectively ruining any further attempts at this composition, so there’s no question in my mind that she knew exactly what she was doing. I mean, look at the eye contact.

[To be serious for a mere second, birds can often be seen defecating when they find danger threatening, presumably to reduce weight as much as possible should they need to take flight, but there may be other reasons, such as the vaguely repellent effect. As you’re stalking birds you may see this fairly frequently.]

Back home, I was doing work in the front yard when I heard a sharp kip! from the immediate vicinity, and soon located the source in the neighbor’s tree, where we both had a clear view of each other.

either Cooper's hawk Accipiter cooperii or sharp-shinned hawk Accipiter striatus perched warily in tree
This is an accipiter, either a Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii) or a sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus) – they’re very similar in appearance, only slightly different in size, and have the same alarm call. The only decent way to tell them apart is from the tail in flight: Cooper’s will have a rounded end to the tail feathers, while sharp-shinned will have a straight edge like a broom. Cooper’s are slightly larger, but their sizes overlap (females of both species are larger than the males, and the female sharp-shinned may be the same size as the male Cooper’s.) Since we had a brood of Cooper’s raised in the immediate area last year, I’m favoring this being a returning member of that family, but I’ve also seen sharpshins in the exact same area and the neighbors have several bird feeders, which can attract the bird-eating accipiters, so it could go either way. In fact, let’s see one of those photos from last year again.

juvenile Cooper's hawk Accipiter cooperii perched on author's backyard fence looking cooperative
Looks drastically different, doesn’t it? The eyes don’t even match. But this is a typical change between the juvenile and the adults, for both species, so all bets are off, and as I said, I faintly favor the Cooper’s at this point because they’ll occasionally return to the same nesting location. I’m just pleased that a semi-secretive (well, except as new fledglings) and hard-to-spot hawk chose to attract my attention and wait around just long enough for me to get the long lens out. Not to mention being in such good light. I can live with it.

Dittyday 2: Madness and beyond

It’s time for a little more music – good music, mind you – and this fine Tuesday/Dittyday the selection is a rather largish English band called Madness. Formed in the late ’70s, peaking in the mid ’80s, they’re still performing today, albeit with a lineup that seems to change weekly.

I’m not the person to inform anyone about music styles and all that – I just know what I like, but edumacated sources pin the bulk of Madness’ style as ska or two-tone, primarily a strong bassline and beat-method that gave rise to reggae while branching off in another direction, gaining more rock/punk overtones. It’s different, very obviously, and energetic. Madness was also notorious for gently grasping the burgeoning field of music videos and thrashing the hell out of it, and no one ever matched their spirit and enthusiasm in those.

We’ll start off with the only official release in the US, ‘Our House,’ and it would be inexcusable to simply use the sound file.

To be honest, I have no idea how much of that was inspired by the band, how much the director, how much the label, whatever – it’s infectiously entertaining and upbeat, and even when you’ve known it for damn near four decades, it still gives an unmistakable vibe of having a blast. But within all that is a wonderful mix of instruments and riffs, blended in complementary ways that defined so much of the music of the ’80s. After disco died out, horns and brass virtually disappeared from the pop music scene save for saxophone, and it’s a shame because, done well, they provide great tone that offsets, really, too much guitar in a lot of music.

The theme continues with ‘House of Fun,’ sly commentary on the difference between ‘legal age’ and ‘adulthood.’

If you can emulate lead singer Suggs’ “N-n-n-n-n-n-n-no no miss,” you’re doing better than I can – I always imagine that little things like this, done in the studio where multiple takes are common, obligates the singer to repeating the feat for every live performance. He did it quite well when they appeared on the British counter-culture program The Young Ones though, the only band to be featured twice (but appropriately – they’re all kindred spirits it seems.)

This song was also used in the soundtrack to Shaun the Sheep Movie, reminding me that I needed to do this post.

Getting a little more ‘serious’ musically, we have ‘It Must Be Love,’ a cover of an original work by Labi Siffre, and much more representative of the typical ska style. Siffre’s version is also quite nice – not quite as dynamic – and Siffre himself appears in the Madness video right near the end, one of the violinists removing his sunglasses.

[Let me tell you something, writing this is introducing all sorts of rabbit-holes, and it’s taking far longer than it ever should; now I have to look for the movie The Tall Guy, which used the above song in its soundtrack and looks like it might be entertaining.]

There are plenty of other songs by Madness, with varying levels of kookiness, and I’ll leave that to you to chase down – this post could be a lot longer. Right now, I’ll feature a slight departure. I stumbled across this one a few years ago while ferreting out other music, and gave it a listen; it took a moment to realize this was the former (and returned) lead singer, Suggs, on a solo project. Camden Town is a suburb of London, a touristy area that was where the band originated, and Suggs pays homage to the eclectic nature of it, and to the Jamaican music roots, with ‘Camden Town.’

Oh yeah, we need the lyrics for this one:

Sing up tourists, sing

There’s a great crowd of tourists and they’re coming down the street
Pleased as punch with brand new Doctor Marten’s on their feet
Past stalls with leather jackets, old bric-a-brac
Indian sunglasses or a Chinese bobble hat

Tramps stare in the window of the local butcher’s shop
Like a pack of wild dogs they’d run off with the lot
In Primrose Hill, an angry man his hair standing on end
Shouts and rants in the ear of his imaginary friend

In Camden Town I’ll meet you by the underground
In Camden Town we’ll walk there as the sun goes down
In Camden Town
In Camden Town you can do anything you want to

A drunken busker hits the pavement, sending hot-dogs in the air
Towards a broken down bus full of people going nowhere
A string of Irish pubs as far as you can see
Greek, Indian, Chinese or would you like a cup of tea?

There’s tapas, fracas, alcohol, tobaccos
Bongs, bongo bingo, Portuguese maracas
There’s reggae in the jeggae, music everywhere
Every kind of song and dance, madness in the air

In Camden Town I’ll meet you by the underground
In Camden Town we’ll walk there as the sun goes down
In Camden Town

The tourists sing
Ooooh, they sing
Ooooh, sing up

And what’s my name in invisible game?

The two fat Americans interrupt their stay
They put down their bags, they were clamped and towed away
There’s Turkish cakes, designer fakes, fathers dressed as nuns
Every kind of music here, the night has just begun

In Camden Town I’ll meet you by the underground
In Camden Town we’ll walk there as the sun goes down
In Camden Town
In Camden Town you can do anything you want to do

In Camden Town
In Camden Town
In Camden Town
In Camden Town

… and you did catch the overdub when he sings, “madness in the air,” right? And that he plucks a Madness album cover out of the air when he does so?

[By the way, countless versions of this on YouTube are absolutely horrendous quality – this one took a while to find.]

If that was enough to interest you, there’s plenty more to be found, so have at it. And keep a couple of links handy when you’re feeling down.

Centimetering along

Boy, that’s an awkward phrase, isn’t it? A certain small percentage of the reason why metric measurements haven’t replaced “English Standard” in this country is the language, because we ‘Murrikins can’t take that much time with single words. When it finally is adopted, we’ll have “centimeters” shortened down to “semeers” within a year.

Anyway, the title refers to the idea that spring is, in fits and starts, moving forward; since we’ve dropped down to the freezing level several past nights, it’s not fully established yet, but I’m including a little color to show that indications are here, at least.

first blooms from unidentified flowering tree
I’ve shown this flowering tree from the backyard before, and unless I’ve forgotten, I’ve still not identified it. Mostly because I’ve been as lazy as I am now (I have other projects waiting, so I’m fulfilling my obligation to the blog briefly,) and not looked it up. But these were the first blossoms peeking out, and I was in the backyard with the camera for other reasons, so I shot them.

The same may be said for the next. Perhaps.

unidentified yellow flowering weed
As I said before, I had initially identified this weed as a winter aconite, but I don’t think it is now. It was all by itself in the middle of the backyard as I passed, so I stooped and shot a frame from above.

And if you look at the leaf at lower center, you’ll see the preliminary specks that indicate that the longneedle pines are starting to shed their pollen, meaning everything is going to be greenish-yellow very shortly. Many people consider this the cause of their spring allergies, but pines aren’t on the list of reactive pollens; it’s simply that something else is blooming at the same time, pollens that we can’t see, and we blame it on the highly-visible pines. I’ve already started off on that aspect myself, so I’m sympathetic. And apathetic too, but no one cares.

white iris closeup
I’m not even going to try identifying this, except to say that it’s an iris, because we didn’t plant them and there are umpteen different varieties, but it was there, so I shot it. I’m O’Keeffing again – I’ll try and stop that. A little later.

blossom on almond tree
Because I had to show this one, being the solitary blossom on my almond tree. We had three, two (no, three) years ago, and nothing ever came of them and there haven’t been any since. I should probably check and see if almonds are those type of trees that need another of the opposite sex to produce nuts…

Wow, that tree’s nine years old now.

And a mud ball.

Copes grey freefrog Hyla chrysoscelis tucked in very round
Yes, another frog, but that’s what I’m seeing – even the raptors wheeling overhead make themselves scarce as soon as I have the long lens out. This rotund little Copes grey treefrog (Hyla chrysoscelis) was visible between frosty nights, probably none too happy with this peekaboo spring and taking advantage of the daylight warmth here. This is perhaps the roundest treefrog I’ve seen, but right now I’ll credit that to conserving body heat – we’ll see if I spot it later on when it can stretch out a bit.


For some of us, every day

Holiday time is rolling around again of course, and far be it from me to maintain my typical curmudgeonly attitude in the face of the worldwide celebrations, thus my festive contribution to today, which is I Meant To Do That Day, the annual holiday where we maintain the bare truth that, although it looks like an accident, it really was intended to be exactly this way. My example:

Al Bugg in an inadvertent zoom portrait
Yes, once again we see Mr Bugg, but even though it looks like he’s chimping, there’s no way in hell that he could possibly be doing that because he’s assured me that he’s broken that habit. He even agreed to let me shut off the review function entirely, and will soon be taking up film where of course this is entirely impossible: that’s how confident he is of his advancement. However, what he didn’t do was hold his camera where it was supposed to be for this dynamic zoom effect, where the focal length of the lens was changed during the exposure, producing these attention-focusing streaks of motion. The changing field of view causes motion blur, with the effect strengthening with distance from the center of the frame; in this manner, only the center of the frame remains with little to no blur, and our attention is drawn right to that spot. It looks off-center here because I know what framing and cropping are. The zoom should have drawn attention to his camera, had he cooperated, but what can you do?

Note too that the shutter speed (mine, not his,) was only 1/100 of a second, thus the zoom had to be taking place in this very brief time frame. That’s professional timing, that is. Alas, I can only control what is in my power; next time I may have a model that can follow instruction.

I will swear the truth of all this upon a stack of bibles, or whatever other collection of ludicrous fiction you procure.

Profiles of Nature 13

yellow-bellied slider Trachemys scripta scripta Prudence basking on log
This week we meet Prudence: model, fitness instructor, and home gardener (as indicated by the grove on her back.) Prudence is a popular yoga coach with the elderly because she doesn’t include some of the more flexible poses like Ankle Phone and Stuck Stepsister, plus she’s slightly cranky and not all bubbly motivated – we all know the type. She intends to start her own business creating business names for entrepreneurs called, Enterprises Enterprises, Inc. – she’s already mastered the catchphrases that make most of them giddy, like, “porting,” “cloud-based,” “insourcing,” and, “fauxquiescence.” Prudence had a traumatic childhood because she grew up before chicken nuggets were a thing, but with therapy she overcame her nightmares and now only shivers slightly when someone says, “honey mustard.” For giggles, she likes going to little country stores in the mountains and enthusing loudly about not marrying a relative. She has avoided college, thinking that a “well-rounded education” meant she would have to obtain 360 degrees, but she is considering Kevin Bacon University because that requires a lot fewer, plus she knows about Pyrates. She plans to retire in a few years, but the tread is still way beyond Lincoln’s nose, so no hurry. Her favorite solder blend is Sn63Pb37.

Be sure to stop by next week before the leftovers get too old.

March like a little bitch

looking down the center of yellow tulip blossom
Did you get that whole, “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb, or vice versa,” bullshit when you were in grade school? Are they still pushing such folkloric nonsense on kids instead of some beginning critical thinking? If you have no idea what I’m talking about, good! I mean, with the whole March thing – if you have no idea what I mean by critical thinking, just… keep it to yourself, because I don’t have the strength to deal with that right now.

Anyway, it’s the end of the month abstract, posting a little late because I forgot about it last night – was working on other things and set it aside. We have two entries today, to reflect the whole meteorological intransigence of the month – and then we’ll look at some chicken entrails and read the bumps on our skulls. The first is – can you guess? – a tulip blossom on the back porch, because I (almost) avoided the daffodils this year. You know how everyone says, “Oh, look, a tulip!” – but tulip is the name of the entire plant; what you see here is the blossom. Feel free to correct everyone about this from now on.

Meanwhile, I cropped tighter to accentuate the whole ‘mouse ears’ thing, as if Mickey was bright yellow, had six eyes and a popped collar…

Let’s just move on to the next.

almost-bare branches silhouetted against stormy sky
When the vicious, life-threatening storm was rolling in, I saw a patch of odd-colored sky out over the neighbors roofline, framed by two trunks and making the tree branches stand out distinctly, so fired off a couple of shots. This resolution lets us see that they were just starting to bud out, so again, appropriate for the month, expressive and poignant and, I don’t know, ineluctable of something. It’s fart – it deserves adjectives. The thing is, I remembered the colors as more distinctive and atypical than what appeared in the frame once downloaded, which probably only shows that my eyes were adjusted for the rest of the sky, since what initially showed up in the image was very common stormy blue-grey, so I tweaked the colors and saturation just a tad to represent what I thought I was capturing. It still has that kind of sheet-metal, silhouette art frame look to it, which is what struck me as I saw it, and your task is to fill in each open space using only four colors and ensure that no two adjacent spaces are the same color. That should keep you occupied.

And be sure to inform small children that March comes in with some kind of weather, and goes out with some kind of weather, which may be different or may be the same, just like every other month. Let’s not take up brain cells with goofy shit – we’ll need them to remember song lyrics.

Podcast: Criticism

I have a small confession to make: I recorded this back in February with the intention of posting it as March’s monthly podcast, and so set it aside. And forgot about it – after a little time had passed, I largely just remembered it as having already been posted. Then the 2,000th post was coming up (“For dog’s sake, will you quit harping on about that?”) and I had that project/goal to finish for it, so naturally that had to be a podcast, and I was in the middle of that when I realized that this one had never posted. No big deal, really, and it allowed me to update the music, but you can ignore the point in there where I say that it’s still winter…

So let’s delve into criticism – how to receive it, how to give it, how to embrace it, how to deny it, how to get all huffy about it. Well, a couple of those, anyway.

Walkabout podcast – Criticism

I think the best thing to remember is that good, useful criticism isn’t about ego, or opinions; it’s about reaching goals. That’s what we should aim to give, and try to encourage or prompt when receiving.

Blue Ridge mountains on hazy day
This is an example photo, plus I just needed an image for the post. But I can name several things that I like about this frame, and several things that I don’t – some of which I had no control over. Not everyone would agree with them all, and some people might introduce aspects or ideas that never occurred to me. All of that would be guidance towards the next time that I’m faced with such a vista.

Slave to the holidays

I’ve kicked this story around for a few years, debating about posting it because it’s not at all thematic, regardless of the various themes, and I’m never really sure if anyone would care. But then again I do detailed closeups of creepy things, so what the hell. Plus, it’s Provide Unwanted and Disregarded Insight Into Yourself Day, so what better time to post this? And it serves as a reminder for everyone else to post their own.

We’ll open with (what used to be) the oldest image in the blog folder, and in fact, half of these weren’t taken by me – because they’re largely of me. This was in that uncivilized time when selfies were unknown, but even if they had existed then, it would have been challenging, to say the least, to accomplish. This one is The Girlfriend’s photo, back in 2006.

the author during a flying lesson in a Robinson R-22 Beta helicopter
Yes, that’s me in the cockpit, at the controls even. Though, given how level the helicopter is, chances are very good that I’m not in control, but have had it taken from me for a moment by the instructor to re-stabilize the aircraft – he’s blocked by the doorframe. Ever since I was eight years old or so, I’ve had an interest in learning to fly helicopters, and on just two occasions (so far, anyway,) I’ve had the chance to indulge this interest.

It all began with a little police show called, “Chopper One” back in the early ’70s, which featured the relatively new Bell 206B ‘Jetranger’ as the aircraft, sleek and maneuverable. If you like, take a look at the helicopter models produced up until that point and recognize that the only thing that looked slicker was the Bell AH-1 ‘Cobra’ attack helicopter, which I hadn’t yet seen. Everything else was pretty dumpy-looking and slow.

Bell 407 "Sky 5" of WRAL-TV Raleigh
Not this model, but close

Then came the New York State Fair in Syracuse, somewhere around 1976 or ’77, when they were offering brief rides in the very same model over the fairgrounds, and my brother and I took the opportunity (for a very reasonable amount of money, too.) I was permitted the front seat and thus got the best view as we lifted off, a strange bobbing feeling of moving in three dimensions freely, and then circling over overcast, dirty, industrial Syracuse (the fairgrounds are in a really shitty location,) but hey, I was hooked. That was my first flight of any kind, actually, though within two years I’d fly down to Florida with my family on commercial airlines.

And then, for years, no chance at all to fly anywhere in anything, much less helicopters. But in 1992 when I was living in North Carolina, I took a trip up to New York again to visit family, and did a side trip out to Niagara Falls. We spotted the sightseeing helicopter pad and stopped to inquire about the cost, finding it within my budget, and so I took my second ride, this time in a McDonnell-Douglas MD-500E, even sleeker (and a bit quieter) than the Jetranger. My sister’s family opted to take a ride too, stretching their budget to the limit, but for the next two circuits the sightseeing company, not having a full bird, elected to allow my two nieces to ride for free while I chafed on the ground and cursed their narrow asses.

McDonnell-Douglas MD-500E of Rainbow Helicopters touching down
Tragically, several months later one of their aircraft collided with another sightseeing helicopter operating from the Canadian side and crashed into the ravine east of the falls, killing all onboard. Years afterward I was reviewing the National Transportation Safety Board report regarding the accident and was appalled at the lack of coordination and communication between the two companies. They basically operated on open, unplanned flights in the very small airspace over the falls without any communication, schedules, or airspace restrictions, relying only on visually spotting one another. It’s amazing something hadn’t happened earlier.

That wasn’t enough to deter me, however, and sometime in the mid-nineties I had a little disposable income and elected to take my first introductory lesson, a half-hour of ground school (mostly preflight) and a half-hour of actual, at-the-controls flight time. This was to take place in a Robinson R-22 HP, roughly the same model in the opening photo though that’s from a different flight – we’re getting to that.

That first lesson was on a beautiful day, and as we did the preflight orientations and walkaround, the instructor pilot removed the door from his side, a trivial thing to do, to give us better visibility and access to the various controls and certificates. Once we’d finished with that and were about to fire up the helicopter for the flight, he started to pick the door back up, then shrugged and left it there, saying it was too nice a day to close it up. Then he looked at me and asked if I wanted my door removed too.

I’m a guy; I immediately said, Sure – why not? and he promptly popped the door on my side free from its hinges. At this point in the story, let’s have a closer look at the R-22.

Robinson R-22 Beta on the ground during preflight
“Are you sure this is big enough for two people?”

The cabin itself is literally just over a meter wide, seating two abreast – yes, you’re practically rubbing shoulders, with the doors (should they be affixed) sitting right at your hip. Since they run almost the entire height of the cabin, this means that, not affixed, it’s wide open on that side. As we lifted off (under the instructor’s control) and headed out, I was paying too much attention to the instruments and lesson to really be much aware of this – up until I had the controls and was doing banking practice. A 30° bank is typical but a little steep if you’re not used to it, and while the left bank (towards the instructor’s side) was just fine, he had to keep telling me to bank harder for the right bank, my side, since I was hanging over completely open space with a junkyard full of twisted metal about 300 meters below; subconsciously, I kept easing away from this. I need to emphasize that banking doesn’t actually mean you’re hanging from your seat harness, because the motion of the aircraft is counteracting gravity and you’re more pressed into your seat, but visually, I was over a bad drop and I was reacting to it.

panel and interior of Robinson R22HP
These negatives date from 1994, I think, and are degrading badly
But forward flight isn’t too difficult, because the nature of the beast means that it’s stabilized fairly well then; it’s hovering that’s a real bitch, and let me go over the controls. There’s the cyclic pitch control, the “joystick,” which essentially controls what direction the aircraft leans/moves, and in the tiny R-22 and R-44 models, this is one rod rising from the floor between the two seats, with a T across the top going to a handgrip in front of each seat – in virtually every other aircraft, each pilot has their own cyclic, rising between their knees. Then there’s the collective pitch control, more or less the throttle (I’m simplifying things here, no rotary-wing jockeys need to come in and correct me.) This sits alongside the seat on the left side and dictates the altitude in a hover and the airspeed in forward flight. Finally, there’s the yaw control pedals under your feet, which control how much power goes to the tail rotor or anti-torque system.

This deserves its own recognition. A helicopter of course relies on that spinning main rotor, and while on the ground gravity and friction cause everything to behave as we expect. But once in the air, the helicopter body wants to spin the opposite direction that the rotor does because there’s a bit of wind resistance to spinning that rotor, and so the tail rotor counteracts this. Feeding more or less power (blade pitch, really) into it makes the body spin in one direction or another, so the yaw pedals also help control which way you’re facing. And helicopters are inherently unstable: without constant input from all three of these, a helo will quickly decay into a worsening situation, i.e., a crash. Coordinating all three of these at the same time is the key bit of course.

So, at our return to the airport, we found a grassy spot away from traffic and, at less than two meters off the ground, began getting acquainted with each of these. Well, I began – the instructor seemed to have it down pat. We started with the yaw pedals, and he had me stabilize and hold the aircraft facing exactly in one direction while he maintained the other two controls. Not too difficult, and the subsequent four-point compass turn went quite smoothly. Next he took over the yaw and had me control the collective to maintain our altitude. Not quite as slick this time; you’d think maintaining altitude would only require finding the sweet spot where lift and descent were balanced, but these alter constantly with wind and movement, so we did a bit of up-and-down as I got the hang of compensating for these little environmental changes, but eventually it wasn’t too shabby.

Then he had me do both of these at once, and all hell broke loose. As I devoted my attention to one, the other would decay and we’d start spinning, or dipping, or both. This is far from being as easy as it sounds, believe me; adjustments to the collective to maintain a steady altitude also affect how much wind resistance the main rotor encounters, and thus how much the body wants to spin, so any adjustment to the collective needs a commensurate adjustment to the yaw pedals. It does not help that the minimal mass of the R-22 means it is incredibly twitchy, subject to the faintest breezes and angle changes, and very easy to feed too much power into.

Then the instructor took over those controls and had me do the cyclic.

The author seated with flight instructor at control of Robinson R-22 Beta
Just big enough

All I had to do was hold the bird steady in one position, without worrying about yaw or altitude. Now, you remember first learning how to drive, and the overcontrolling thing where you turned a little too hard, then too much back when compensating, and started weaving? Magnify that times a hundred. What the instructor failed to tell me was that there’s a lag between the control input and its actual affect on the helicopter, so if you hold the stick over until you feel the pitch change, you’re probably already too far gone; what it takes is a little bump on the stick to counter the slide to one side, then returning the stick to neutral upright position before anything appeared to happen. What actually happened was that we, repeatedly, started with a little wobble that soon magnified into wild oscillations – in every direction. I’m not the kind of guy that ever gets sweaty palms, but goddamn did it happen on that flight. Essentially, every ten to fifteen seconds the instructor would announce that he was taking control and restabilize our attitude, then hand it over to me to ruin again; he had to keep telling me to stop drying my right hand at these times and keep it on the stick.

I’m going to insert a little detail here, because it’s cute. Balance is a big thing for aircraft of course, and this shows on the ground too. After that lesson we hangared the Robinson, and this is remarkably easy. He had me go to the tail of the helicopter and push up on it, which lifted the rear ends of the skids off of the ground, and he slotted two specially-made little tires in place. Then he took over and pulled down on the tail, rocking the aircraft back until it was supported entirely on these wheels, and walked it into the hangar like a handtruck. It’s that light and easy to move.

Look carefully at the skid shadows

I was by myself on that flight (well, except for the instructor,) and while I got these couple of photos, they were all post-flight on ancient negatives. But then in 2006, The Girlfriend gifted me another introductory flight (with Jim Kramer along for kicks, thus the source of the other, better photos,) where I largely repeated this process, albeit with slightly more control this time. Slightly. Let’s put it this way: FAA requirements for a rotary-wing certification requires minimum 20 hours with an instructor, and at least 10 of those are typically spent learning to hover in various conditions. You’re pushing against air, which is remarkably fickle and capricious – picture how kites bob without any change in attitude or configuration. When something is suspended in the air, this same capriciousness has a noticeable affect, regardless of the method of holding it within the air; while the blades are pushing down to lift the helicopter, the breeze may be shifting it sideways, and it may perhaps be pushing off of a surface that causes more turbulence and throws out its own lateral effects. Then, the helicopter tends to tilt a little with every input because, again, there’s nothing holding it steady, and that tilt goes straight into the main rotor shaft and causes more lateral effect. It’s hard, and requires a long time to get used to and know what it takes to correct. Fixed wing flight, while no walk in the park, is loads easier to learn.

Robinson R-22 Beta on approach, with the author at the controls, maybe
This is return approach, so I might actually be in control of the helicopter for this shot

I was nowhere near the point of learning autorotation, which I consider the most harrowing aspect of rotary-wing flight instruction. Most people believe that if the engine fails in a helicopter, you’re screwed, but this isn’t really the case; the technique of autorotation (which is a required part of obtaining a license) provides for a controlled descent. In essence, changing the pitch of the main rotor blades allows them to keep spinning at a viable speed just from the wind of the descending helicopter, and their own lift properties means they can regulate this rate of descent; it’s a lot like those little seeds that helicopter down from trees. Rotor speed must be maintained in a narrow window, with the pitch being changed to appropriate within a few seconds of the failure or disengagement of the engine (itself controlled via a clutch,) and the rate of descent really can’t be altered, so during this, you’re looking for a clear landing area. Landings may be anything from just a little awkward to rough but survivable, but it’s a crucial technique and, yes indeed, performed during instruction. I remember being at Cape Canaveral in Florida and seeing a Schweizer 300 (pretty much the same size as the R-22s seen here) approaching in the distance, then suddenly begin a rapid descent. I lost sight of it behind the trees and watched that area for a while with nothing to see, then shrugged it off. About ten minutes later I saw the exact same thing again, same spot, and knew the local flight school was practicing autorotation.

But anyway, since those two instructional opportunities of mine, nothing more. Flight instruction is expensive, and I just don’t have that kind of disposable income. Moreover, there’s not a lot of reason to drop the cash. Even a lightweight like the R-22 here costs about $200 an hour to operate, without a lot of reasons why I would/should spend that, just for cruising around. It’s not even an investment on future employment, because there really isn’t much demand for helo pilots, in this area or indeed most. In a six-county region, we have a handful of law enforcement helicopters, a pair for the news stations, and another handful of medevacs for the hospitals – that totals maybe thirty positions for all shifts, and all requiring turbine ratings. That’s actually additional instruction over top of a basic rotary-wing license; the R-22 operates on a piston engine, but just about everything else (including the first-mentioned Jetranger) runs on jet turbines, an entirely different set of operational rules. Moreover, all of those potential employers prefer to have experience, lots of hours in a logbook, so that would also be coming out of my own pocket – nearly everyone just hires ex-military pilots, already certified and with hundreds of operational hours.

Which means that this… is probably all it’s gonna be. Even if I get a lot more income not directed towards something else, I still couldn’t really justify spending that much on what is essentially frivolous indulgence, as much as I might like flying in helicopters; it’d just be very expensive sightseeing, with the occasional very expensive trip out to the coast or something (and you don’t want to know how little luggage is going into an R-22.) I’m glad that I had the opportunity, twice, and will remain an enthusiast, looking up every time a helicopter passes over; no one will need to ask twice if there’s ever a spare seat in one at any time. But the chances of my being at the controls are in the single-digit percentage now.

Maybe I need to get a motorcycle again…

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