Friday, May 11, 2012

Road Stories: Fly like an Eagle

I love stupid jokes. One of my favorites is from a story told by Ron "Tater Salad" White, recounting a memorable flight on a small plane. At one point, after losing an engine, the nervous flyer beside him asks how far they can get on one engine. White replies, "All the way to the scene of the crash."

The month before I started at SHOWCO, Lynyrd Skynyrd took their last plane ride. Among the passengers on the Convair CV-300 that never made it to Baton Rouge that night were two of my future colleagues. DK more or less walked away with abrasions and some chest injuries. He remembered the crash site quite well, from coming to his senses strapped in his seat with one leg pinned back by a shorn tree stump, through the eternity waiting for someone to find them in the woods, with friends dead or dying nearby. He was back to work in a few months, and while he required a couple of stiff drinks to get on a plane, he would get on a plane. I flew with him several times, and he was steady, if a little hyper-attentive.

JO was less fortunate, though his injuries were only moderately worse than DK's.* He remembered nothing before the hospital, and it was a good long time before I saw him at work. Even then he moved like a ghost, and it was apparent to anyone paying attention that his worst scars were not physical. He didn't fly, and didn't particularly like riding in a car. Or much of anything that required interaction. Whatever wounds he carried took longer to heal than our association lasted.

The Convair CV 240. REO's was not nearly as nice as this one.
Image from here.

REO Speedwagon had a plane, a Convair CV 240** nicknamed the Flying Tuna. Our crew had a bus, and didn't fly on it as a rule, but occasionally they would bring someone along for a creative discussion, an impromptu morning party, or an extended ass-chewing. On one long overnighter, when we knew that the buses would be very late getting to the next gig, one of the sound guys and I flew with them so that we could get the trucks unloaded before the rest of the crew arrived. As you may know, REO was not my favorite tour, so you can imagine how I felt about being locked in a flying deathtrap with them.

Fortunately for me I was exhausted, and slept from the time the motors started until the plane bounced onto the runway at Where the Hell are we Today Municipal Airport. This was not particularly easy since the heat was out in the cabin, and it was like 4 degrees in there, but roadies are world class sleepers and I had no trouble at all. In fact, I slept on road cases backstage during concerts on more than one occasion.

But I digress. The point is that I slept through the flight, and had to hear this story from my colleague the sound guy.*** About halfway through the flight he noticed fluid trailing back along the wing from the engine on his side. Since we had already made countless tasteless jokes about the similarity of this plane to Lynyrd Skynyrd's, he was understandably concerned, and summoned the woman who served as the hostess on the flight.

After he informed her of the growing stain on the wing, she didn't even bend over to look out the window. She just asked him how wide it was.


"How wide is the trail?"

"I don't know, about four inches?"

"Oh, don't worry about that. We don't even have to get nervous until it gets to be this wide," she said, as she held up her hands about a foot apart. True story.

Most people assume that we would prefer to fly than ride the bus, but flying was miserable, even on real airliner with multiple jet engines and a professional crew. A bus or a crew van was like a rolling hotel, and you could claim your own tiny space and not have to pack up every day. More importantly, everyone but the driver was asleep by the time the vehicle rolled out of the parking lot, and could stay asleep until we rolled into the next one. Sometimes there was a Denny's stop for breakfast, but only if the drive was not too long. And waking up for that was optional.

If you were flying, you had to take a rent car back to the hotel, sleep, pack up, drive to the airport in time to catch the sunrise flight, turn in the rent cars, drink two Bloody Mary's on the plane, wait for luggage, get more rent cars, go to the next hotel and fight with the manager because it wasn't time to check in yet, and then get to the gig in time to miss breakfast. The time for "sleep" usually ended up being an hour or two.

As unpleasant as flying is becoming these days, maybe buses will make a comeback. If they do, count me in.

* Both had pretty significant facial lacerations. A plane crash will apparently create a large amount of jagged debris moving at good speed. Or maybe it's more accurate to say it throws a lot of debris in the path of the oncoming victims, who are moving at good speed.

** The CV 300 was  a CV 240 with newer engines. So yes, REO's plane was identical to Skynrd's plane, except slightly crappier.

*** Lighting people and sound guys have always had a friendly rivalry about who's most important to a show. But we sincerely hated them for the fact that the got more sleep than us, and generally had less equipment to hump. And unless sound check ran really long, they got to dinner first. This is part of the reason we insisted on calling them "sound guys" instead of "audio engineers," which they preferred.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Acceleration phase

Some things are just too big to be indoors. Take the 363 foot (that's 30 stories or so, if you're counting) Saturn V rocket, which weighed in at over six and a half million pounds when ready to shoot people to the fucking moon.* Because it weighed like 10 percent as much as the Titanic, and got mileage of around 5 inches per gallon, the rocket was designed to barely lift its own initial weight. As the weight of the fuel diminished, the acceleration would increase.

Each of the engine nozzles is about six feet across. 
Looking at this picture still makes me sleepy.

This made a Saturn V launch quite a dramatic thing to watch. The big engines would light, the tower would fall away, the big locky things at the bottom would unlock, and the rocket would ... mostly just sit there. It only moved a few feet in the first several seconds.

Super slow-mo video of Apollo 11. If you haven't seen this, it's worth the four minutes.

This latest career has started much the same for me. The first year or so I read a lot, wrote some papers that mostly didn't get published, cleaned the lab, and surfed the Web. My phone never rang, I received very little e-mail, and only occasionally did anyone seem to be looking for me.

The next couple of years picked up a bit. I wrote a few papers that mostly did get published, got invited to a few meetings, and found myself with nothing to do much less often. I was starting to get busy, but mostly my job fit comfortably within forty hours or so per week. I had plenty of time to indulge hobbies and work around the house.

Now I find myself struggling to make time to write papers, it seems like someone is always looking for me, and I'm starting to spend significant time managing e-mail. My to-do list is getting longer every day, and I spend more nights and weekends working. I would like to think I'm approaching Max Q,** but  I suspect there is more to come.

I'm definitely not complaining. I love the work I'm doing, and the acceleration means that things are moving forward. I'm far from being a Person of Significance, but I am feeling less like an impostor every day. As long as I don't suffer some catastrophic failure, I think this thing might just take off.

* What happened to us? We used to send people to the moon. I was sure my flying car and robot servants were just around the corner. Now we can't even keep our schools and bridges from falling down.

** The point during a rocket's flight when aerodynamic stress is maximized. The "go for throttle up" that was the last thing we heard on the final Challenger flight was an indication that this point had been passed.