Saturday, August 29, 2009

My first chopper ride

The Bell 407 in which I took my first ever helicopter ride (photo courtesy of Bruce Liebowitz)

Even though I've been a private pilot for 15 years, I'd never been in a helicopter before last Monday, when I got a ride in a Bell 407 from Ontonagon, Michigan, to Wausau, Wisconsin.

For an old fixed-wing jockey, there's a distinct difference in the experience of flight. A little old Cessna 150 slices through butter-smooth morning air, while a chopper actually chops away at the elements in a high-speed vibration that rattles the fillings in one's teeth. The landing flare -- the maneuver in which an aircraft transitions from forward to vertical flight -- is so much more pronounced in a helicopter that for a moment I thought we were stalling, falling out of the air.

But going low (2000 feet above ground) across forested Michigan and Wisconsin gave the same sense of soaring over the beautiful greensward that one gets in a small two-seater.

The Bell 407, a mid-1990s design, is a speedy (140 knots) little seven-place utility beast that has become popular with all sorts of helicopter operations: sightseeing, the cops, news, corporate transport and medical evacuation to hospitals.

The 407 I flew in is a medevac chopper for the Aspirus network of hospitals. And I was the patient.

To keep a long story short, I suffered a heart attack Monday morning in downtown Ontonagon, drove myself (two blocks) to the hospital, and within the hour was stabilized and on my way to Wausau Aspirus. Wednesday I had a triple bypass, and now here I am on the mend and telling you about the experience.

Not the best way to get in one's first helicopter ride, but it was sweet all the same.

Monday, August 24, 2009

James Marsters

James Marsters with a TTY machine and a coupler, the first telephone device for the deaf. (Marsters family archives)

One of my old heroes died late last month, and all the big newspapers -- including the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times -- carried extensive obituaries this past weekend.

Jim Marsters, who died at 85 in Oakland, Calif., July 28, was perhaps the most consequential deaf person of his time. He lost all his hearing to scarlet fever as an infant, but he learned to speak and lipread so well that he brushed aside academic objections to his ambitions and earned a dental degree, later becoming a noted orthodontist and inventor.

In 1964 he and Robert Weitbrecht, a deaf physicist and engineer, developed a modem-like coupler to allow old wire-service teletype machines to communicate with one another over the phone lines. This was the first TTY, or Telecommunications Device for the Deaf, as it used to be known. For the first time, deaf people across America could "speak" to each other on the phone without the assistance of hearing folks. This was a genuine breakthrough, an instrument of liberation.

Marsters was also a champion of teaching the deaf to speak and lipread. That method -- not sign language -- had worked very well for him, as it had for me, and sometime in the late 1970s we met at a convention of educators and parents of deaf children.

During the course of our conversation it came out that Jim was a pilot and that he often flew his Piper Tri-Pacer to a small California town to provide free dentistry for the impoverished.

I was thunderstruck. "How can deaf people fly?" I asked. I had grown up thinking that one had to be able to use the radio to become a pilot.

Patiently Jim explained. Less than 10 per cent of American airspace under 18,000 feet requires the use of radio. Small airports do not have control towers.

It would be years before my sons had graduated from college and I had the wherewithal to learn to fly, but Jim had planted a seed that grew and grew.

The Wall Street Journal obit treats all the important events in Jim's life very well, but the Times obit fails to mention his aviation career at all, a curious omission given its importance in his life.

Worse, the Times obit begins this way: "Sign language, lip reading and speech training helped James Marsters get through college and dental school and made it possible for him to succeed as an orthodontist."

Sign language played no part in Jim's life, none at all. It is dispiriting that a newspaper as sophisticated as the Times would make such an error, such a leap into stereotype.

Deaf people are not all the same. We are as diverse as the rest of America. Jim's life proves it.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Cop wheels

A few years ago a retired Gogebic County (Michigan) deputy sheriff who is a fan of the Steve Martinez mysteries transformed a photo of a Gogebic County Crown Victoria into a Porcupine County vehicle -- and threw in a fanciful courthouse/cop shop as well. (Click for more detail.)

Every conscientious mystery author has to keep up with the latest developments in police cars as well as weaponry, and I'm no different.

The other day I noticed a new Dodge Charger with a rooftop blue-light rack and a big police star outside the sheriff's department of Ontonagon County, prototype of my Porcupine County. This poked me into refreshing my knowledge about cop cars, which hasn't been very extensive.

In the first three novels in the Steve Martinez series, the deputies drive mostly crapped-out Ford Crown Victorias, only a couple of which are genuine Police Interceptors, the special model with a bigger engine, heavier suspension, stronger brakes and other he-man equipment. The others are used civilian Vics with new coats of paint and salvaged light bars. They're nowhere near as fast as Interceptors, but speeders don't necessarily know that, and besides there are other duties for police cars, such as carrying deputies to crime scenes or delivering summonses.

The Porcupine County sheriff's department also owns a badly corroded Chevy Blazer for off-highway use (I also noticed at the Ontonagon County department that its own Blazer is rusted through at the rear wheel wells).

In the fourth novel, now in progress, the Porky cops need new wheels. What to get them? More Chargers or more Crown Vics? Or maybe SUVs of one make or another? I consulted my favorite source, the Internet.

The best hit was at the popular Its most recent blogpost about the State of Michigan's testing of police cars was from 2007, but it is still useful.

After considering all the information, I decided to equip my Porky Patrolmen with new Crown Vic Police Interceptors rather than Chargers. Chargers do have more charge on the highway, but much less room in the trunk, and rural cops have to carry all sorts of equipment to get people out of trouble, such as chainsaws and winches and rescue tools. Besides, I suspect Fords also have the edge in durability over Chrysler products, and Porcupine County needs to stretch every buck.

What I would like to know, however, is why unmarked police cars, especially in the city, never seem to sport full wheel covers. Nothing screams "Cop car!" louder than naked wheels or little hubcaps.

Meanwhile, if you'd like to see a little history of police cars, there's an amusing website devoted to the Ten Greatest American Police Patrol Cars.

Friday, August 21, 2009

A statistical sense of place

One of the most useful sources I have found as a writer of regional mysteries -- whodunits with a sense of place -- is It is one of many web sites that gather information from the U.S. Census Bureau and other sources and amalgamates it into easy-to-understand graphic form.

It has long been known in Ontonagon, Michigan -- prototype of my imaginary Porcupine City -- that the town has been losing population at a rate of 10 per cent each decade, like many rural villages whose mining and timbering industries have dwindled and disappeared. This is a place that scratches and scrambles to hang on, and that unhappy fact helps give it a remarkable characteristic: its people tend to look out for one another.

The hemorrhage of people is getting worse, though. From 2000 to 2008, the Census Bureau estimates, Ontonagon's population plunged by 14.5 per cent. It is a safe bet that the drop between 2000 and 2010 will top 15 and maybe 16 per cent; the town's only independent nursing home has just closed and its residents relocated elsewhere. Some of the workers laid off when the paper mill closed last fall left town when the mill reopened this summer with a smaller labor force. [Sept. 15: It gets worse. The mill closed again today. No one knows what the future will bring.]

What's more, the median age of Ontonagon citizens is 46.7 years. The median age for the rest of Michigan is 35.5 years. The joke around town is that Ontonagon is becoming Upper Michigan's largest retirement community.

These things help explain why the cost of living in Ontonagon is so low: 72.5 per cent of the national average of 100.0. Conversely, in Evanston, Illinois, where the Lady Friend and I spend the other seven months of the year, the cost of living is 117.5 per cent of the national average. That is a 49-point spread.

These things also are meaningful to Sheriff Steve Martinez, hero of my mystery series. Will the population loss mean an increase in certain types of crime for him to deal with? Are the crooks he faces getting grayer? Stay tuned.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

"Laptop backlash" a phony trend?

My Aug. 6 blogpost (see below) quoted a Wall Street Journal story asserting that certain Manhattan coffee shops were restricting laptops from sucking their free wireless teats. Too many squatters trying to save home-office money, etc.

Now an article in Slate (the laptop reference is a few paragraphs down) maintains the whole thing is a made-up story about a trend that really isn't a trend, that a few coffee shops are not statistically significant.

That could well be. This, after all, is August, when news is slow and good stories hard to find. The media likes to invent phony trends to keep readers interested. (I recall one in a certain Chicago newspaper about men's boxers outselling briefs, shortly after some airheaded newslout asked President Clinton about his underwear preference.)

Come to think of it, the only "restriction" I have seen on laptop use at the Panera Bread outlet I frequent with my Macbook and iPod Touch is a single sentence on the web login page asking folks not to hog the larger tables.

I still think government ought to provide free wireless everywhere, although entrepreneurs who want to make money will say no -- just as the profit-oriented medical-industrial complex says no to free health insurance for the needy, who increasingly are all of us.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Man in Charge, continued

Last January 12, on my other blog, The Whodunit Photographer, I posted this photo of
an Amtrak conductor aboard the eastbound California Zephyr at Glenwood Springs, Colorado. In the following letter Ben Moffett, who was longtime sports editor at the Albuquerque Journal, tells the story behind the Man in Charge:


As one old newspaper warhorse to another, I'd like to thank you for putting a sparkle into the eyes of the Mount Taylor Moffett family for the conductor photo, Jan. 12, 2009. His story is very much worth telling in my view and perhaps I can expand on it.

Mount Taylor Moffett II was named after his father, who was believed to be the first Anglo child born on the 11,300-foot mountain of the same name in central New Mexico. Mount Taylor II was diagnosed with prostate cancer some months ago while on the road as a conductor, where he became ill with back pain. At that time the doctors said his cancer was too far along to be treated. If you look into the eyes of this fellow, you might see the pain in his face, which you say disappeared the moment he saw you taking his picture.

The tragedy is he didn't have enough time in as a re-hired railroader to qualify for insurance and continued working after he was told by doctors of his condition. To double the misery, he was "bumped" -- railroad parlance for being moved to a new assignment because someone with more seniority had the rights to his job. So after the cancer diagnosis he moved from his lifetime home to live alone in a small trailer in Denver and continue his railroad career there. His wife and family stayed behind at his boyhood home in Belen, N.M.. She found it necessary to continue working in her current job in Belen.

So here Taylor was, a train conductor between Chicago and somewhere in Colorado, for several months, alone, when he was running short of time, according to the doctors. He finally quit and decided to try chemo in the last week or so, just as he learned of the photo from someone who sent it to him, and which he re-distributed by sending the address of your blog to his close family and friends. He is still strong and shows no outward trace of the disease, however, although that may change as he has started taking chemo.

I find the photo remarkable and, along with the caption you wrote, a tribute and summary of the way people think of him and how he conducts his life.

Taylor's currrent situation is an example, I believe, of the health care problems that even gainfully employed folks can have in America today, and also shows the need for health care for everyone.

Thanks, Ben. Mount Taylor Moffett's story is a powerful answer to all those ignorant and ill-mannered protesters who in the last couple of weeks have disrupted "town hall" meetings on the subject of federal health insurance.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Hudson River corridor

The tragic collision of airplane and helicopter in the corridor over the Hudson River the other day brought back to mind my own trip up the Hudson in 1995 for my book Flight of the Gin Fizz.

Was it scary? You bet. But not for the reasons you might think.

I am a "no-radio" pilot, being totally deaf. I can self-announce my position, as I did early that morning when my little two-seater Cessna 150 skimmed over the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and into New York Harbor. Whether anyone understood me I don't know. But there was almost no traffic; a lone sightseeing helicopter dashed by in the other direction on the west side of the Hudson. My flight up to the Tappan Zee Bridge and then westward was uneventful, although full of remarkable sights -- the World Trade Center still stood, for instance.

Except for the requirement to self-announce, the Hudson River VFR corridor is not controlled. No tower keeps aircraft at a distance from one another.

Is this inherently unsafe? I don't think so.

Compared to the storm of airplanes in the skies over Oshkosh, Wisconsin, during the annual fly-in there, Hudson River traffic is almost embarrassingly light. Yes, there is a tower at Oshkosh and the controllers are busier than armless paperhangers, but there is also a procedure for vintage aircraft without radio to land in the middle of the maelstrom.

Once every five or six years there is an accident, usually fatal, but when the numbers of airplanes in the Oshkosh airspace at any one time are compared to the number of mishaps, this fact emerges: Flying around Oshkosh during AirVenture is remarkably safe.

That's because the pilots there employ the Number One adage of Visual Flight Rules: "See and avoid." Their heads are constantly swiveling, searching for traffic, like World War I pilots straining to see the Hun in the sun.

They do the same thing in the Hudson River VFR corridor. It has a remarkably good safety record: just three helicopter accidents in 19 years.

Once in a long while -- a long while -- things go wrong despite everyone's best efforts. Exactly what happened last week is not yet known, but it seems possible that the pilot of the low-wing Piper Lance never saw the helicopter because it was in the airplane's blind spot. Something might have been going on in its cockpit; the Lance pilot did not answer radio calls before departing controlled airspace and entering the Hudson. We'll have to wait for the NTSB to rule.

Until then, let's not advocate drastic changes in the Hudson River flight rules. Doing so given its remarkable history is like demanding all the geese around New York be killed, as a Manhattan newspaper advocated when that USAirways Airbus hit a flock of them and landed in the river without loss of life.

Now why was my flight up the Hudson so scary? I was flying a tiny single-engine airplane very early on a holiday morning when people were still in bed. If an engine failure had forced me down into the river, it's possible that no one would have seen me and raised the hue and cry for rescue. That's why pilots of small planes are always looking for places to land just in case the motor decides to pack it in.

All the same, that flight was one of the great adventures of my life.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Laptop backlash

I have been home in Evanston these last couple of weeks, running errands, rubbernecking at Oshkosh, getting some hours in on the airplane, visiting the grandchildren and fixing the front porch steps. Before the Lady Friend and I headed north to the Writer's Lair in May, we put our HDTV and high-speed Internet access on hold to save a few bucks.

This has not crimped my use of the Internet with a Macbook. Though I can't get online at home, I can walk a few blocks to the public library or a gelato joint and fire up the laptop for free. (Not Starbucks, where the young and clueless still have to pay to use the Internet.)

Or I can drive to a Panera Bread in the next burb and buy breakfast, then spend an hour resupplying the blogs with the Macbook. (That's where I am right now, feeding both myself and The Reluctant Blogger.)

It's lovely, living in a place where free wireless access is so widely available.

But now, according to the Wall Street Journal, that lifestyle is threatened, at least in New York. Too many recession-pinched folks are giving up their home wireless access and instead camping out at free hotspots, hogging the tables during mealtimes and not buying even a cuppa for the privilege. Coffee shops are forbidding laptops during certain hours or even shutting down the wireless entirely.

What used to draw paying customers has become a magnet for laptop squatters.

In my humble and modest opinion, states and localities ought to provide free Internet wireless access for everyone, as is done all over Europe and Asia. Of course, the Republicans will resist this idea, because it prevents some people from making money.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Oshkosh, b'gosh

Wingwalking acts have thrilled airshow fans for decades. Yesterday Gene Soucy and his wingwalker performed for onlookers at the big Experimental Aircraft Association extravaganza at Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Click for screensaver-sized version.

Oshkosh is not Obama country, but what the hell.

Last week I attended the Experimental Aircraft Association's "Airventure," the marketing guys' idea of what the organization should call the huge yearly fly-in of thousands of airplanes, homebuilt or not, warbirds ancient and not so ancient, new commercial aircraft and many hundreds of thousands of aviators and flying fans. Everybody still calls it "Oshkosh" for the Wisconsin city where the event has been held for decades.

It is overwhelmingly white. Finding African-American, Asian or Latino faces in that crowd -- much of it elderly -- is an exercise in "Where's Waldo?"

This should not be surprising. Aviation in America has always been largely Southern good-old-boy, deeply conservative, worshipful of the military, avidly nostalgic and patriotic almost to a fault -- much like the NASCAR crowd. In fact, pilots and plane fans are simply an upscale offshoot of the old Gasoline Alley culture.

These folks do change, but they change slowly -- it was not until 2002, for instance, that the Confederate Air Force, the world's largest warbird restoration club, finally changed its name (born as a joke, not a statement) to "Commemorative Air Force," a bit harder to say but more accurate about its mission.

Airmen may not be evangelistic about diversity, but, these days, neither are they exclusionary. If you have the money (it takes lots of that) and the desire, they'll welcome you into the fold. Except for a few clueless louts, I've always felt accepted as a pilot who happens to be deaf. So in the main have the other "no-radio" pilots who with me attended Oshkosh last week during our little fly-in at Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

I had a splendid time talking tech stuff with kitplane builders, admiring the elephantine Airbus 380 and walking past and under big old military aircraft, including a World War II Avenger torpedo bomber like the one whose cockpit my naval officer father seated me in when I was all of three years old. That was when my yen to fly was born.

And, of course, rubbernecking at the air show -- an amateur photographer's dream. In days to come I'll be posting my best shots on the Whodunit Photographer.