Friday, June 26, 2009

A Legend Has Died

As I'm sure you all have heard, the entertainment industry lost a legend yesterday. I'm sure we'll all remember his white gloves, his unusually high voice, his love for children, and his amusement park out in California. It is truly a sad day for everyone.

I remember visiting his amusement park as a child during our annual summer visits to California. I even got to sit on his lap once and have my picture taken. As you can imagine, security was tight, and I wasn't able to visit long but he seemed like the kind of friend everyone would want to have. Of course, who wouldn't want to have a friend that has his very own amusement park with rides, games, and unlimited junk food. I think that's what I'll miss the most, running around the park with him and all the other children, just laughing and enjoying the beautiful California weather.

Because he was so famous, a lot of people tried to get at his money by suing him for various accusations. I never believed any of those accusations to be true, he was just a kid at heart. Sure he had a lot of money and fame, but all he wanted was your friendship. As long as the children were happy, he was happy. That's one of the things I'll remember about him, he was the happiest when children were around.

In case you haven't heard, the man I'm talking about - is Mickey Mouse. That's right, Mickey has died. They found him in Peter Pan's Neverland yesterday - a magical place where boys never need to grow up, a place where you think you can fly, some say you can even walk across the ground like you're on the moon. It was a magical place where kids could come to get away from it all and just have fun.

We're all going to miss Mickey - oh, hold on - let me read the newspaper a little closer - oh my gosh, I can't believe I've done this - it's not Mickey that died, it's Michael. Michael Jackson died, so Mickey is okay. Wow, I'm really sorry about that. Okay, don't worry folks, there's nothing to be sad about, Mickey will still entertain your children for years to come. Phew, and I thought we all had something to worry about.

Who's Bad!?

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Grab a fire extinguisher and give me a hand!

Punk'd. Candid Camera. Girls Behaving Badly. What do all these television shows have in common? They're all about pulling pranks on unsuspecting people. I love a good prank, and I'm guessing I'm not the only one, otherwise those shows probably wouldn't be so popular.

I remember one prank I pulled on my girlfriend in high school. She was working hard at a local pizza place and I was sitting at home waiting for her to be done working, you know what they say about idle hands. I called her up one afternoon imitating a radio celebrity who was known for calling various businesses and making the person on the other end sound like an idiot - and you wonder why we're not still together. If I remember right, I was trying to convince her that I had run over a squirrel with my car and I wanted to bring it in so she could make a "squirrel meat pizza" for me. I think she knew it was me because about two seconds after we hung up she called me asking if I had just called. To this day I've vowed that it wasn't me - I guess the secret is out.

When my friend Mark was in high school, he was the victim of a prank. What's funny is that it wasn't the school bully or one of his buddies that got him, it was his parents! After he went to bed one night (I believe it was March 31st, the eve of the greatest day to play pranks on people), his parents set all the clocks ahead an hour - including the one on his nightstand, his wristwatch, and the clock in his car. The next morning his parents were downstairs having breakfast when he woke up, stumbled downstairs, and rushed off to school. It wasn't until he arrived at school that he realized he was an hour early.

I'd never be able to pull anything off quite like that without laughing at some point and giving it away. I've always wanted to eat five or six Oreo's as I walk into my dentist office for my regular cleaning and see what they have to say about that. I'm assuming they'd say with a serious face, "Paul, why don't you go brush your teeth real quick before we get started." Then I'd be "that guy" who showed up with Oreo teeth.

A few days ago there was a prank pulled on a Holiday Inn Express in Conway, Arkansas. Someone called the hotel around 6:00 AM and told the girl at the front desk that he was calling from the sprinkler service company. He explained to the hotel employee that there was a problem with the hotel's fire sprinklers and that she would need to pull the fire alarm in order to reset them. The hotel employee (who had probably been working all night long) decided that this sounded reasonable so she pulled the fire handle, causing the audible fire alarm to go off.

Then the prankster told her that in order to prevent the sprinklers from coming on, she would need to break all the windows in the hotel lobby. Not only did the hotel employee start to do this, but she was aided by a hotel guest armed with a fire extinguisher - which, when not being used to extinguish fires, is great for breaking windows.

The caller then advised her that she would need to break a sprinkler head in order to keep the sprinklers from activating. As I learned from an incident in my college days, that only leads to a very wet building and a lot of upset people. I guess with the hotel fire alarm going off and broken glass all over the lobby, I can see how you might think that breaking a sprinkler head would help get things back in order. Within a few minutes she had one of the sprinkler heads broken off, and thousands of gallons of water flooding the hotel.

To add insult to injury, the caller then instructed the hotel employee that she would need to reset the control panel and in order to do that she would have to shut down power to the entire hotel! Not wanting things to get worse, she found the electrical room and shut down power to the hotel.

So, within a few minutes of someone calling her hotel, the dedicated hotel employee had (1) set off the fire alarm, (2) broken all the windows in the hotel lobby, (3) set off the sprinkler system, and (4) shut down power to the hotel. By now the police and fire department were on the way. I'm sure they've seen a lot of funny things but I can't imagine they've ever seen someone cause so much damage to a hotel in so little time. The total cost of this prank - approximately $50,000!

In this economy, times are tough and jobs are hard to come by. But if you're interested in working the overnight shift at a hotel, I think I know of a place that might be hiring.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

The Wild West and Player Pianos

A few weeks ago, I was at my parents house playing their piano. They own an old player piano which I really enjoy playing because I feel like I'm stepping back in time when I sit down to "tickle the ivories". When I think of player pianos, I picture a few cowboys sitting around a saloon with the piano playing in the background, horses tied up out front, a few good looking ladies walking around in those big dresses, some tumbleweed rolling through the streets, the swinging doors - the wild west.

I don't know that my parents piano was ever in a saloon in the wild west but when I sat down to play that day, it got me thinking about how a player piano works. With a little research I discovered that it took several people during the late 1800's to develop a piano that could play on it's own. Basically, the notes to be played are represented by tiny perforations on interchangeable rolls of paper, while the player mechanism is powered entirely by suction, generated by the operation of two foot pedals.

The operator, or "pianolist", achieves dynamic shading of the music by varying the degree of pressure applied to the foot pedals. In addition, a set of hand-operated levers mounted just below the front of the keyboard provide accentuation, tempo control, activation of the sustain and soft pedals and selection of play and rewind modes. In the hands of an accomplished operator, a convincingly lifelike musical performance is achievable.

A player piano can of course be played by hand in the normal way, as the piano action and keyboard are entirely conventional. In fact, it is usually possible to play the keyboard while the roll mechanism is in operation, should any additional notes or harmonies be desired. The term "Pianola" was originally a trademark, first used by the Aeolian Company just over a hundred years ago, but in more recent times has become a generic reference to the self-playing piano.

The player piano was, for many, the main source of home entertainment during its peak of popularity between 1900 and 1930. You don't see too many old player pianos these days, however I've noticed a lot of hotels have player pianos that use MIDI to interface with computer equipment.

Even though I'm not a cowboy and there weren't any horses tied up out front, it sure was fun to sit down and play an old player piano for a while. To see a video of me playing my parents player piano, click here. By the way, this piano was converted to a "normal" piano years ago so if you think I was just moving my fingers to imitate the piano - think again.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Mayday, Mayday, Mayday!

Today I flew from Houston, TX to Minneapolis, MN. Normally, that would be just another flight but today was different. It my last flight as a Boeing 737 first officer - well for a while anyway. I'm sure I'll be a B-737 FO again at some point, but tomorrow I start training to fly the Boeing 757/767.

The B-757 and B-767 are two somewhat different airplanes, the main difference being the B-757 is a narrow body and the B-767 is considered a wide body. However, the FAA says that since the cockpits are so similar, the pilots that are trained on one, can fly the other with a just few hours of differences training. There are actually a lot of airplane types that are different but can be flown with the same rating, even the different models of the B-737 I used to fly are dramatic. For example, the 737-500 holds only 114 passengers. The 737-300 has old analog gauges in the cockpit. However, the biggest model of the 737 is the 737-900ER (extended range), it holds 173 passengers and has a "glass cockpit", meaning the instruments are laid out on a TV type screen.

Since I've had training on all the different models, I could walk off a B-737-900ER that came out of the factory 2 months ago with satellite TV, and walk into a 30 year old 737-300. Once you get used to it however - it's like getting in a car, it doesn't matter when it was built, all the controls are basically the same. You push the throttles forward and the airplane goes faster, you pull them back and you slow down, you pull back on the yoke and the houses get smaller, you push the yoke forward and the houses get bigger - no problem. Of course, if it was that simple, training for a new airplane wouldn't be two months long.

I've been through a few training courses in my day. I went through all my "small" airplane training at a few different airports in Minnesota. My favorite place was this little grass-strip about 30 miles south of Minneapolis. Talk about the good ol' days - when I was in high school I used to paint hangars, wash airplanes, help out the mechanic, and mow the lawn in exchange for flying. There were no paychecks, I just kept track of my hours on a scrap piece of paper and turned it in to someone, who I'm pretty sure didn't even keep track of how much I worked or flew. I got a few ratings there and then got the rest while I was in college. I had a lot of fun learning to fly in college, but it wasn't the same as the grass-strip I started at - too many kids running (and flying) around. I missed the days when it was just me flying around the pattern watching the sunset over the farm fields of southern Minnesota.

I eventually got hired by an airline and spent two months in Memphis, TN getting checked out on the CRJ-200. That particular airline didn't consider you an employee until you passed the check ride so, for two months there was no paycheck and of course, no company provided lodging. In an effort to save money, my best friend Mark and I stayed together in one of those hotels that are set up for extended stays, much like an apartment. It was $30 cheaper per week to have one bed instead of two so we agreed that I would pay a little more to sleep in the bed and Mark would sleep in his sleeping bag on the floor. Mark kept pictures of his wife and I kept pictures of my girlfriend on the mirror, that way the cleaning people wouldn't get the wrong idea.

A few years later I decided that buying a type-rating in a B-737 might help me advance my career so I attended Higher Power Aviation in Dallas, TX. This had to be one of the most enjoyable training courses I've been through. I hadn't felt so at home somewhere since my days at the grass-strip where I got started. It seemed like everyday they provided us with some sort of food - pizza on one day, root-beer floats on another day, even lunch at Ranger Stadium. Since I was doing this on my own, I had to provide my own lodging. My friend Mark happened to be there at the same time as me, so we once again shared a hotel room - two beds this time!

Eventually, I was hired by my current employer and went through training again on the B-737. Even though I was already rated in the airplane, each airline is responsible for training you on their procedures. Now after a few years, I've decided to upgrade to the B-757/767. The B-737 is fun to fly and I've seen cities all over North, Central, and South America and even the Caribbean. After I finish training on the B-757/767, most of my flying will be over to Europe with an occasional Hawaii trip. There will still be some South America, Caribbean, and domestic flying but most of my trips will involve crossing the Atlantic.

So for the next month or so, I'll be spending most of my time in the classroom learning about the aircraft systems and running through all the normal, non-normal, and emergency procedures in the simulator. Some of these scenarios include engine fires and failures, electrical malfunctions, and even what to do when you have a medical emergency while you're over the North Atlantic.

I wonder if they'll teach me why a 300 lb man with a 48 pound bag pays less for weight than a 100 lb woman with a 52 lb bag??