Monday, March 26, 2007

My Canon Sisters

I have had a constant companion for the past four years. She has never been farther than arms reach. She has accompanied me on nearly all of my assignments and has travelled with me aboard Chopper 9 on every mission. She was with me when I was in Torino last year, recording my pain and frustration when my edit suite crashed. She was nearby as I posed with the Great One and she has been a frequent contributor to this very blog.

Sadly she has with me for the last time. Yes after a full and useful life, my Canon A-80 digital camera bit the dust and has taken her last photo. She had taken over 10 thousand photos to be sure. Shots of work, the dog, the kids, the gang, you name it. But at the end of the record breaking flight week, she gasped her last shutter. The power button had worn completely out.

She might have become jealous as I, her faithful camera hand, had become seduced by another. A Nikon.

Now I had been a Canon guy for all of my life. Her older and yet still functional sister, a Canon AE1 which I have had since 1981, still accompanies me on special occasions. The elder Canon was with me during my brief assignment in Bosnia in 1996. She had been kidnapped (stolen from the front seat of my car, but returned unharmed) , a guest of honour at my sister's wedding, recorded both of my children's first cries and first smiles. But in this digital age even the elder Canon knows the end is near. Both the Canon sisters have served me well, and owe me nothing.

Now for the time being, I am camera-less. Perhaps it is too soon to get another. For perhaps I should wait. But when the courtship for a new replacement begins, miss Nikon D-80 looks mighty fine.

I just hope that I can afford her.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

More Slides / A New Record

Those of you who visit this blog on a semi regular basis know what a flight nut I have become. It's all about the flight hours. How much time can be spent aloft lookin' for trouble, shooting from the sky events unfolding on the ground below. Most flight weeks will have one or possibly 2 events that warrant more than average flight times. Forest fires in the summer, ferries crashing into marinas, searches, the list goes on, but things like these are what we love to do from the air. A News Gathering Helicopter is well suited for big events.

Monday's flooding and mudslides would be followed by the news that a series of slides up into the Fraser Canyon had cut off the town of Lytton. It was decided to mount a mission to Lytton, land, get some clips and head back. We would have to stop in Hope for fuel and then continue up into the canyon. Weather would be a factor as was weight and fuel. During the winter months the Lytton airstrip did not have fueling available. The winds in the canyon are tricky. You have narrow mountain passes with some squirley down-draughts and before you know it you are either turning around and headed back to Hope empty handed. The flight up to Lytton with the winds only gave us a few minutes of shooting time over the target area, then we would have to head back.

When we finally arrived and came upon a side that was just to the east of the town, our fuel had indeed become a factor. Kink had been busy with the desk arranging to speak with someone on the ground. That was in place. I grabbed several shots from the air of a gaping hole and a river of water over the main highway. It looked like a building was in peril of being washed or sliding away. I think we did maybe four orbits over this slide. I got what we needed and headed to the landing strip to collect material on the ground.

It wasn't two minutes after we had touched down when one of the towns folk had come to meet us. This fellow driving a small pick up truck introduced himself and offered to drive us into town. There was not enough room in the little Ford for both Kink and I. It would be just me and my ENG kit taking him up on his offer.

The day was fading fast and I would have to do this interview very quickly and get back so we could get ourselves back to the lower mainland to feed before the top of the show.
There was perhaps more of a sense of urgency as another charter helicopter in the area had two crews for our competitors. The machine they were in was a faster and more powerful machine. So the race was on.

One of the advantages of our dedicated machine is our ability to edit while in flight. I used the trip back to Hope to pick our clips. Kink wrote while we fueled in Hope. The other caught up to us just as we finished refueling. Time was really becoming a big factor for all of us. It was just past four. I was able to have Kink voice on the ground and then I cut like the wind. It would be our second day in a row that time was tight and that we cut in the air.

I figured that that might be it as far as flight hours go for the week, but a second mission to Lytton was a go for Wednesday. This time we were sending our SAT truck and a ground crew. The weather was much more favorable for us and we would be able to spend more time shooting other slide further east of the town.

A frame grab from Chopper 9's FLIR camera showing one of the slide and washout areas along highway 1 to the North east of Lytton. You can get an idea just how much material will be needed to get this stretch back into service.

A closeup of the main CP Rail line suspended over the hole that one was the rail bed.

A wider shot of the highway gives you an idea just how big a fix is going to be needed

The damage was substantial. There were three slides and washouts that took large chunks of highway out. From the air you could clearly see railway suspended in the air over the washout. It will likely take weeks before the highway will be reopened to traffic. I shot the crap out of it and again Kink and I cut a piece on the way back to Vancouver.

Now here it was the middle of the week, and I had flown something like 17 hours. It truly made up for the week of the "Wilson Controller".
Thursday and Friday were much more routine. Flying the shows and a quick mission to Texada Island.
The I totaled the week up. The previous week total record had been shared by my colleagues Pete and Gary. They had each logged a week of 18 point something. Now a new benchmark was set and it was 22.8 hours for the week. God no wonder I felt so fatigued.
Yes indeed a good week, perhaps the best week ever.

Friday, March 16, 2007

"The Cat's in the Cradle"

Monday was "Take your son/daughter to Work Day". Five years ago I had my first experience with this day when my grade nine daughter, Sarah accompanied me to work as part of a school assignment. This year it was my son's turn. Ben wanted to wait and go during my flight week rotation. This way he thought, he would be guaranteed a ride. I had warned him that weather could ground us and his day would be disappointing. But he was undaunted. He wanted to go to the hanger and so I would take him.

The day before Ben's big day, I looked at the forecast. Rain and wind. Two things that could very well keep us on the ground. However it had been raining very hard and with the snow pack, that could spell flooding. I warned Ben as he readied himself for bed, that it could be a big day and he should expect an early wake up call.
"How early?" he asked
"Very early" I told him.
He was not happy with the prospect of getting up too early for what is supposed to be a school project. He was banking on the usual start time of my typical flight shift of 10 am.

Like I had predicted the evening before, my cell rang just before 7.
"Murman, it's Dave" the voice on the other end of the line said.
It would be an early call in. Flooding and mudslides on the Trans Canada.

"Get Up Ben! We are leaving in five minutes."
"Get movin' this is the real world and if you are not in the truck in 5 then I will leave without you."
Needless to say, he was ready to go in time.

I was glad he was going to get at least some flight time. He loves flying. I was just glad to be in the air especially after my last so called flight week chasing down and recovering "Wilson".
Kelsy would be our pilot for the day. Kink would be in a bit later. We would fly our first mission without Kink aboard. The heavy rain had stopped and we wanted to get flooding pics before the water receded. Word of huge mudslides near Rosedale made it clear that this indeed would be a good day for Ben to fly along.
We flew off to the east shooting a number of requested areas. Then on to the slide areas. Once over the highway past Chilliwack it was clear that the roads would be closed for some considerable time. I shot the crap out of it. Ben watching intently, but quietly. We headed into Chilliwack to fuel up and I called the desk to get the game plan. We would return to pick up Kink and since the slides would be the hardest to access on the ground, that would be our primary assignment.

Ben in the back seat to begin our second flight mission, back to the mudslides that have closed Highway 1 to the east of Chilliwack. Kink had now joined us and we were off.

On our flight back out to Rosedale, we had been tasked to gather a few more flooding shots for other reporters working on the ground. I was too busy to notice what Ben was up to. Silently he listened to the chatter on the headset and watched the old man work. The flight time was adding up. When we arrived back at the slide area we discovered that there was not just one or two slide closing roads, we counted 11. Five were major. Clearly it would be days before the roads would be open again. The only access to Hope and the interior was Highway 7 and traffic would be slower on those two lane roads. For those of you not familiar with the topography of the area, the Highway runs along the Fraser River Valley from Chilliwack to Hope. Along the west bound lanes you will find the Fraser River and beside the west bound lanes , steep mountains and mountain creeks flowing to the river. Perfect land slide conditions. Just add lots of rain. Sunday's "Pineapple Express" did just that.

A frame grab of one of the larger slides that took out both east bound and west bound lanes of Highway 1. There was also damage to the main railroad track just below the west bound lanes.

A tractor trailer caught in another side. This truck was headed west bound toward Chilliwack and onto Vancouver.

When we spotted the truck caught up in the side we went in for a closer look. We discovered the driver in the cab waiting for crews to dig him out. We were to meet a Transportation and Highways official near this slide. Kelsy took the aircraft down to recon a potential landing area.

A closer look at the Cab of the Tractor. You can see the debris that enveloped the vehicle.

Kelsy brought us in for a landing just to the west of the stranded truck. We touched down in the fast lane westbound Highway 1. I had my ENG kit with me and once we had established that there was in fact a driver with the rig. Kink and I had to talk to him. Now at this point, Ben is wanting to come along with us to have a closer look at the slide. By this time there is a work crew with a front end loader working the scene. So the scene is looking like a construction zone.
"Ben, you are to stay here with Kelsy and the Helicopter."
"But Dad, I want to go with you over to the truck" he pleads.
"Ben there is heavy equipment, there is mud up to your knees and it is not a place for a teenager, you stay here , it is non negotiable." God I hate when I sound like my own father in these situations, but I needed to do my job and I couldn't worry about what and where he was in a potentially dangerous situation. ( later that evening when we were home, I explained why he could not go in for a closer look, he understood. But what young lad wouldn't have wanted to go in for a closer look)

Kink and I went over and collected some ground elements for our story. The bonus was interviewing the Truck Driver about his account of the slide trapping his rig. The unfortunate by product of the quest was mud up to our knees, and wet feet. A price we were willing to pay.

Chopper 9 on Highway 1 about 100 yards from the working crews trying to free up the stricken truck.

Ben, Kelsy and Kink just before we leave the scene. Notice the mud on Kink's pants. We had been in mud up to our knees during our quest to speak to the driver of the stranded truck.

By now we had collected a number of shots of several slides along this stretch and at this particular slide where we had landed, our tape included clips from a stranded truck driver and a Highway's official. We had more than we could possibly use. We looked at our watches. The day was slipping away very fast. Deadline was a fast moving target baring down on us. We took off and again flew into Chilliwack. I convinced Kink to write and voice while on the ground. Ben and Kelsy grabbed some food and we took on fuel. I would edit on the flight back to Vancouver.

Editing for me is a process that takes rhythm. As we took off I thought that Ben might like to have a go with the FLIR Camera. I switched up the FLIR on one of the monitors and place the controller ("Wilson") on his lap. I gave him a quick lesson with the joystick and zoom rocker and told him I needed to edit.
He began to pick random things out, along the flight home, and try to follow them keeping them in frame. As I edited our story, I would occasionally catch a glance to what he was doing with the camera and was impressed that he was able to keep cars and other moving targets in frame.
His hand/eye coordination should be great if playing video games on the X Box is any indicator.
We landed back at YVR, I still had about 4 edits left to complete for the package. I would continue on the ground using shore power to finish and feed. Time was very tight. I had just enough time to finish, go and have a pee and we were back up for the 5 and 6 shows. Ben seemed very excited. I suppose he was happy the day was finally coming to a close. We did our hits and after I had been cleared I gave Ben the controller back. Knock yourself out I said as we rounded Kits Beach headed to the Point Grey Arrival into YVR. This time I watched with pride as my son searched for potential targets. The crew up front had been impressed with Ben's aptitude for the FLIR. Kelsy said something about a tugboat to the right and before I knew it Ben had acquired and framed the tug that was some distance away. Yes Father was proud of his boy.

Ben using the FLIR, trying to put the Old Man out of a job.

His tug shot

When we landed, the day had began at 7 am. It was now just after 7 PM. We had flown for 6.8 hours and he wonder why he was tired. During the drive home the lad who was so quiet in the helicopter, didn't stop asking questions.

"Do you think CTV might need someone to fill in this summer Dad?"
"You know, I could do your camera on the helicopter, It doesn't seem to be all that hard Dad."

I just sighed, and realized,,,,,,,,

"my boy was just like me,,,,,,,my boy was just like me"

Thursday, March 08, 2007

The "Wilson" Controller

I have been off this week. Away from the grind. It has been a welcomed break. February was a troublesome month. The last week of the month especially. Normally a Flight week is a great way to end the dark month of February, but as luck or as in this case "un luck" would have it, I would get little flying.
During an upgrade of equipment aboard an unfortunate occurrence caused an unrelated yet significant problem, involving toggle switches on the control laptop of the FLIR camera system. It in itself would not have been a major problem, but as maintenance protocol dictates, the unit must return to the manufacturer for repair. This would ground me for the week.
As this unfortunate development happened on the Monday, a decision was made to ship the unit on Tuesday via overnight courier to Portland Oregon, home of FLIR Systems. The idea was to have FLIR fast track the repair and ship it back via overnight on the Wednesday evening courier and we would receive and reinstall on Thursday. A plan that was although not perfect as I am pissed about being grounded, but given that there was no replacement unit that we could swap out, it was at least a working plan and could potentially have me back in the air before the end of the week.
I had offered to physically drive the unit to Portland myself and wait and then drive back, but that was quickly shot down by the higher ups.

I packed the unit for shipment and drove it over to the FedEx Terminal. It would make the flight out I was told and it would be in Portland the next morning. All good I thought.
Being grounded reassigned me to downtown ground operations for the next couple of days. I was to check on the progress of the courier and to touch base with our Engineering department as to it's status with FLIR.
We learned that the package didn't leave Vancouver on Tuesday. There had been some sort of issue with the plane. That delayed things for at least a day. Not a good development for me on a Wednesday. I reminded folks that if I had delivered it myself to FLIR, we would be getting the unit back that very afternoon.
I was assured that we would have the unit back on Friday and to be patient. Anyone who knows me knows patience in not exactly one of my strong points.
Thursday would bring more disappointing news. The package left Vancouver but had been held up in customs in Oakland Ca. and had missed the connection to Portland.
I couldn't believe it. It was like our FLIR controller had become "Wilson" in the movie "Castaway". Our simple little repair job was now lost on some uncharted island with Tom Hanks.

The "Wilson" Controller

Again I reminded folks if I had have driven it myself we would be flying.
At this rate we would be lucky to get the unit back by the middle of the next week. Then a master plan was hatched and you will all like this one,, We would DRIVE down and pick it up as soon as the repair was done. Geeze I wonder why nobody had thought of that.

The package had arrived on Friday AM to the folks at FLIR. Our people were supposed to be in contact with the FLIR folks to let them know I was on my way. The repair would take less than an hour. Going and picking it up would grantee that we would be flight operational upon my return.
I set off in the early hours of Friday. Crossed the border and headed south. My trusty GPS guiding me. After a minor delay at the US border I was agian on my way. I had recieved a phone call from Engineering telling me that the package had infact arrived and that FLIR did know that I was coming and that they would be expecting me around 2 PM.
Delays in Blaine WA (Snow storm) and in Seattle ( traffic) pushed that time back to more like 3, but undaunted I continued.
When I finally arrived at FLIR systems, who pulls up, you guessed it. A FedEx truck.
I expected to grab the controller, sign some papers and head north. Nope.
The folks at FLIR were surprised to see me at their door. I guess the FLIR contact and our Engineering dept had not relayed the message to those that actually do the work on the floor.
Here it was after 3 PM on a Friday and the repair work had not been done and they close at 4. God could this week get any worse I thought.
Now thankfully the maintenance gods were smiling on me and sent me this very helpful and friendly FLIR rep named Melinda. She told me the scoop. She would stickhandle the repair and suggested I go and get some lunch and return in 45 minutes. I did just that. Got gassed up had a bite and when I returned, she had the unit ready for me.
I thanked her for looking after me and then began my journey home, passing several FedEx trucks along the way.
One of the nice suprises along the way back was I saw the Seattle skyline for the first time on a clear night. My god, what a skyline.
I could not save my flight week, but the trip had saved Pete's so I took some solace in that and when I finally pulled the covers over my head that night, I was just glad that this freakin week was over.