Saturday, September 20, 2008

Louisiana to Lassen

It was a little strange at the end of my last work hitch. We pilots had been sitting around for the day, our customers having been notified that we wouldn't be flying unless a life-or-death emergency came about. We weren't even required to show up at the flight line, but I got bored at the hotel room and went in anyway.

Before calling it a day, I went up to the advisory tower and took this shot of our helicopters sitting idle. The weather at the base was okay, but offshore, the wind was howling with the advance of Hurricane Ike, and seas were running more than twenty feet.

It was, er, interesting driving from Morgan City to New Orleans the next morning. Advance bands of rain and wind had moved ashore from Ike over the night, and I half expected to come upon a jackknifed big rig on Highway 90. I worried that my flight would be delayed, but the band of weather moved north before takeoff time, and the United flight got off the ground right on time.

I flew into Sacramento because it was much cheaper than flying into Redding. The drag about flying into Sacramento is the two-and-a-half hour drive to home from there. Once I got on Interstate 5 northbound, I called Rhonda on her cel phone to check up. She and Dylan were on the road to Lassen National Park for a campout sponsored by Dylan's school.

The plan was, once I'd arrived home, to change clothes, pack a bag, and head off to meet Rhonda and Dylan that night. Mind you, I'd been up since two in the morning California time. "Are you sure you shouldn't get a good night's sleep and join us tomorrow?" Rhonda asked. I told her that I was sure I could make it after stopping by the house for more clothes.

When I got home, though, I realized that I was exhausted. The nervous energy that had carried me through the hurricane evacuations and the commute home seemed to flow out of me once I walked through the door. I thought about driving on a mountain road at night, with too little sleep. I called Rhonda on her cel phone, but she had no coverage. Damn. I really didn't want Rhonda and Dylan to worry about me. I thought about dosing with a big-time hit of caffeine, and driving the hour-plus to Lassen anyway, but I decided that I'd rather Rhonda and Dylan worry about the possibility of me getting into an accident than learning the next morning that it had actually happened.

Just as I was ready for bed, Rhonda called. Sure enough, she had no cel phone coverage, so she'd driven to a campground store and used a pay phone. We chatted for a few minutes, and she mentioned a few extra camping items I could bring along. It was wonderful to hear her voice, and to know that she and Dylan could rest easy.

Usually, it takes me ten or fifteen minutes, at least, to fall asleep. That night, I think I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

I drove to Lassen the next day to reunite with my family at the campsite near Manzanita Lake.

Manzanita Lake and Mt. Lassen

I'd been away for three weeks, and Dylan hugged me around the neck so hard that I couldn't breathe. The little dude is sure getting strong. With a hug and a kiss from Rhonda next, I felt at home. Home is with my wife and son, whether it's at our own house, a motel room, or a campsite.

We camped next to Uncle E, his wife Sharyn, and their two daughters. Uncle E and and Sharyn are great folks to hang out with, and their kids are so doggone cute that it hurts to look at them.

Later on, Sharyn, Rhonda, and the kids went on a nature hike around Manzanita Lake. Uncle E and I considered going along, but we knew the kids wouldn't miss us much as long as they were together. Besides, we figured that the manly thing to do would be to hang around the campsites to protect them against dangerous predators. While the families were away, we felt the need to bolster our courage in the face of such a grave mission. Some Mexican beer seemed just the ticket. We maybe, just maybe, got a little too involved in conversation, as we discovered later that a Steller's Jay had made off with about half of a bag of peanuts in the shell. But hey, along with talking about music, politics, and religion, we solved about half of the world's problems. It should also be noted that our mission was by no means a complete failure: a golden-mantled ground squirrel tried to stare Uncle E down, but Uncle E steadfastly drove the potential offender away with his icy glare.

Don't mess with Uncle E when he's had a couple of Mexican beers. That said, Uncle E should use caution if he goes back to Lassen anytime soon. Word in the woods is that the golden-mantled ground squirrels have a bounty on him.

He'd better show up with an extra-large bag of peanuts.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Visiting Old Morgan City

Last night, I went to the old waterfront downtown of Morgan City, Louisiana to have dinner at one of my favorite places to eat in town, the Latin Corner. I remembered to take my camera with me this time, to take a couple of shots of the old Dixie Hotel across the road from the Latin Corner.

I'm sure it was built over a hundred years ago, but I don't know anything about its history. How many babies were born there? How many people died there? How many dreams were born there? How many dreams died? How many generations made the place their livelihood? I love old places. I wish they could talk.

It's still boarded up in the aftermath of Hurricane Gustav. I saw no signs of life other than the lights.

Here's the Latin Corner from the outside. The building was built in 1911.

It's a simple place, with a warm aura and great food. The owner is from Cuba; his wife is from Venezuela.

It's time to pack up and head for New Orleans airport. It's going to be a rainy, windy drive for seventy miles. I'm hoping Ike won't delay the flights. I'm also hoping that Michael and his family will be okay as Ike advances, as well as the rest of my friends and coworkers in the Houston/Galveston area.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Half Done with Ike

Hurricane Ike looks to be headed for the Texas coast. Here in Morgan City, Louisiana, my employer plans to stay put with the helicopters unless Ike takes an unexpected turn to the north.

Tomorrow marks 21 days at work. The area manager's instructions this afternoon were to stay in the quarters unless a maintenance run up was required in the aircraft to which we're assigned. Our oil company customers were informed earlier in the week that today would be our last day of flying offshore until Ike is no longer a danger.

The evacuation effort for Ike was easier than for Gustav because we hadn't taken that many passengers offshore when when the calls came to start pulling people back out.

The folks in our scheduling department told me today that they have things covered beginning Friday, so tomorrow will be my last day at work before I head home. Soon, I'll reunite with my wife and son.

Dylan was unhappy when I told him that I'd be at work for an entire extra week. It caught me by surprise. I know he's upset, or sleepy, when he calls me "Daddy" instead of "Dad."

I did what surely any thoughtful, conscientious dad would do: I bribed him out of his sadness.

"Dylan, I'll tell you what: when I get home, we'll go to the mall and I'll buy you two new games for your Wii." "Two games, Daddy?" "Yep, two games."

He'd been sounding like he was five again, but as my eight year-old son recited a list of games he'd choose from, his voice grew deeper. He sounded more like a ten year-old.

"Wow, thanks Dad."

I'll always miss being called "Daddy." But then, it's fun to watch my son grow up.

Oh yeah, sometimes I wish I could go back to holding him as a baby, on a warm summer night, while he points at the sky and announces, "Moon."

But then, I don't need a miracle to go back to those moments. They live on inside me.

Years will go by, and more moments will find a permanent home in my heart.

Really, a guy can't ask for much more than that.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Kelly Asks Questions About Offshore Helicopters

Kelly wrote, Okay... time for some possibly "dumb" questions. Do you always use the same helicopter during your 14 days on? If so, I assume there is someone else who uses it the other two weeks.

Kelly, those aren't dumb questions at all. In fact, I'm the dumb one for not explaining more of the basics of my job.

Many of our pilots are "on a contract." They're employed by PHI, but they fly for one particular oil company, and usually in the same aircraft. Pilots normally have an "opposite" who is on hitch while he or she is on break, flying the same helicopter. Others are in the "pool;" they roam around to where they're needed, replacing pilots on sick leave or vacation, or doing ad hoc flights. The pilots on a contract usually fly the same aircraft, whereas the pool pilots may fly a few different aircraft in one hitch.

I'm on a contract now, but I volunteered to stay past my normal hitch for the evacuation(s) and remobilization(s), so for this week, I'm in the pilot pool. I've flown three different aircraft since Friday, but they've all been S-76's like the one in the photo on the previous blog piece.

Is there always at least one person per helicopter at the base in order to get them all moved to safe ground after all the people have been evacuated?

There will normally be at least one pilot per aircraft at a base. Anything holding ten passengers or more must, by regulation, be crewed by two pilots when carrying passengers for hire. However, those aircraft can be flown by only one pilot when not operating for hire, such as during an evacuation of a Gulf Coast base, maintenance check flights, or ferry flights from one base to another.

Thanks for the questions, Kelly. I feel important!

I think we're all sitting on pins and needles waiting to see where Ike's headed!

You can say that again.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Gulf of Mexico: Remobilization Interrupted

The last two days have been very busy flying-wise. We flew seven hours yesterday, transporting folks out to inspect mobile drilling rigs evacuated in the face of Hurricane Gustav.

The last flight of the day involved two helicopters flying to the same rig, taking two groups of people out to decide whether the rig had suffered too much damage to house crews again. The rig had a huge helideck; it was easily large enough to park three of our twelve-passenger Sikorsky S-76 helicopters. Here's a shot of the second helicopter on the deck.

My employer, PHI, has an extensive flight-following network out in the Gulf of Mexico. It involves a series of radio repeaters connected to our communications center in Lafayette, Louisiana. Our Sikorsky S-76's and nineteen-passenger Sikorsky S-92's also have a system called "Outerlink" aboard which sends flight plans by satellite link, and can also send and receive text messages. That's comforting after a hurricane, when our radio flight following network is often put out of commission in a portion of the Gulf.

After two bust-ass days, I didn't get in the air today. The remobilization seems to be slowing markedly with news that Hurricane Ike will probably enter the Gulf of Mexico. It's looking likely that we'll soon be evacuating all those folks out of the Gulf that we've transported offshore in the last couple of days. Also, there's the very real possibility that we could again be forced to evacuate our bases, relocating the aircraft east and/or west out of harms way.

Mother nature, as usual, rules.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Hurricane Gustav and the Evacuation Fandango

For the offshore helicopter pilot, hurricane evacs can be strange. There's the intensity of the evacuation, with some pilots facing multiple flights and long hours. Then comes the evacuation of the helicopters. Then comes the waiting, in safe havens such as Tallahassee, Florida, or Dothan, Alabama. Then comes the remobilization, which tends to seem nearly as urgent as the evacuation, with more days of multiple flights and long hours.

I was working out of my employer's Boothville, Louisiana base when the evacuation started. Boothville happens to be the spot where Katrina made landfall three years ago. It's safe to say that during the Area Manager's briefing on the morning of the helicopter evacuation, there was tension in the air.

A portion of the Boothville heliport's parking lot, empty. All of our passengers offshore have been evacuated; all of the employee vehicles have been moved to safer ground north of New Orleans.

I snapped this shot shortly before we began our flight to the safe haven of Tallahassee. I wondered what the heliport would look like in a couple of days.

The first portion of our escape flight was over the Gulf of Mexico. Here, an offshore oil workboat is on the run to the east, away from Gustav's path.

The Tallahassee newspaper reported that PHI repositioned twenty-two aircraft to that city as a safe haven.

Tomorrow, we'll likely reposition to a base other than Boothville, perhaps in Alabama. The initial report we've heard is that Boothville did not suffer major damage, but that it will take time to clean it up and make it an operational base again. Oh yeah, and then there are little details like power, water, and sewage.

It was fun to get together with old friends for dinner, to swap stories and lies, to experience the camaraderie that comes with pulling off a hurricane evacuation. Soon, it will be time to fly the workers offshore, to get the oil flowing again. Soon, we'll be pilots again, facing the Gulf of Mexico every morning, instead of running from it.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Children's Hospital: Staying Open

There are many people to pray for today, as Gustav nears the Gulf Coast. I ask you to say one more for the patients and staff of the non-profit Children's Hospital in New Orleans. The hospital shut its doors because of Katrina, but it will remain open in the face of Gustav. There are eighty children there, eighty children who will remain in the hospital because it's too dangerous to move them. Half of them are in critical care.

The doctors, nurses, and other staff remaining at the hospital are all volunteers. God bless them.