Thursday, December 28, 2006

AV - Survival

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Birthdays come faster as you get older. With one rapidly approaching I've been advised that a certain gaggle of grand-children have pooled their funds to buy grandpa something 'really good,' which just happens to be a plastic gizmo consisting of a whistle, compass, thermometer and magnifying glass.

I should mention that the gift probably stems from the question: "What happens if the motor stops?" I explained that the plane would then become a glider and that I would have to land wherever I happened to be, which lead to: "How would you get home?" Walk ...and "What if you got lost?"

I'm quite touched by all this. Given the kid's financial resources, the toy whistle reflects a significant expenditure. Equally touching is the thought embodied in the selection of the gift, in that they would like to see their grandpa safe even if the motor stops and he has to walk home. (Kids - - even little ones - - really do worry about such things.)

So I am prepared to be suitably surprised and honestly grateful. I only hope they won't ask me to make a fire, plot a course or demonstrate the whistle because the thing is a classic example of Yuppie Junque, about as useful as tits on a boar. But like the man said, it's the thought that counts.

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Some years ago ( more than twenty of them, now that I think of it ) the few local homebuilders who were actually building something would meet at a local restaurant to exchange progress reports, borrow tools and swap lies. During one of those meetings we got to talking about pilots who had Gone West and someone mentioned Don Jonz, a ten-thousand hour youngster who was driving the 310, the loss of which caused Congress to force us to install ELT's that aren't worth a bucket of warm spit. That lead to the subject of survival in general and our own in particular.

Most of us were ex-military and had endured the usual Escape, Evasion and Survival schools. Two of them had even Been There; Did That and got the T-shirt, so we were pretty much in agreement as to the content of our crash kits. But a couple of fellows at the table had managed to escape the joys of military service and sought our advice on various 'survival' devices and produced something similar to the whistle-compass-magnifier-thermometer do-dad.

When we stopped laughing we took Rambo out to the parking lot and encouraged him to demonstrate the abilities of his fire-starting lens. Or fire-starting sparkler. Or what-ever.

In the middle of a summer's day, under a cloudless southern California sky, the poor fellow spent ten minutes focusing the sun's rays onto a crumpled paper napkin without producing so much as a whiff of smoke. (For comparison, the grungy, scratched, lexan lens in my crash kit will set paper on fire even before the beam is fully focused. Why? Because that grungy old lexan lens is nearly three inches in diameter whereas the Yuppie magnifier was less than three-quarters of an inch across.)

When you're trying to start a fire with a lens, success depends upon the latitude, time of day and the size of the lens. A lens three inches in diameter has nearly twenty times the area of one only three-quarters of an inch across.

In the hands of a novice, spark-type fire-starters are equally ineffectual. Not because they don't work but because a spark is not a flame and the whole secret is the transition of one to the other, which boils down to having your sparks land in a suitably prepared nest of tender. Without the right tender -- and some experience in the realities of fire-making, you can shoot sparks for hours and end up with nothing to show for it.

As for the whistle, its frequency is too high, making it inaudible at any distance. What you want is a plain, old-fashioned police whistle. Not an English bobby police whistle but a downtown Chicago-rush-hour-American-traffic-cop police whistle. Or mebbe a surplus Navy life-raft whistle, which is the same thing only bigger.

All of this took place about the time David Morrell's novel 'First Blood' got released as a movie which lead to the BFK Phenomenon, which deserves a word of explanation. Given our location (Vista, California is tucked into the arm-pit of Camp Pendleton.) it's not surprising that a number of local homebuilders are involved in the movie industry and even though 'First Blood' was shot in British Columbia it had been in production about a year and people in the industry were familiar with its script, which had been whipped into shape by the late Bill Sackheim, a Hollywood producer with significant credits.

According to them, one of Bill's contributions to the script was to have the psychotic lead-character carry a '...BIG f**king knife...' Not just any knife but a macho-kewl Super Hollywood BFK, complete with a Secret Compartment in the handle.

Big f**king knives aren't anything new but making one with a hollow handle is pure Hollywood, since it weakens the knife... unless you machine the whole thing out of a single bar of steel. Of course, when you do that, the price goes up, as in 'way up. In effect, you pay about a thousand dollars for the little bit of space inside that hollow handle, which has to be kept fairly small because of the strength issue. But that's reality whereas movies aren't, so the people producing 'First Blood' got the late Jimmy Lile, the Arkansas knife-maker, to whip them up a BFK to order, hollow handle and all.

Sure enough, shortly after the movie was released a fellow shows up at the homebuilder's meeting to show us geezers his version of the perfect 'survival knife,' which he refered to as a 'Rambo' knife. Not the real thing of course, but a cheap copy in which the blade was glued to the handle with epoxy.

I don't recall anyone laughing. At least, not out loud. But after a minute somebody dug in their pocket and produced a Springer rigger's knife and tossed it on the table. By fits and starts, all of us who were carrying a pocketknife produced them. There among the coffee cups and ashtrays was the Springer, a couple of Swiss army knives, an electrician's knife and a couple of 'Boy Scout' knives, including mine, which was made by Ka-Bar. Because the whole point is that the best survival knife is the one you have when you need it.

Over the next couple of months the BFK Phenomenon came up several times. Most of us admitted to having a sturdy fixed-blade knife in our kits. But they were real knives, usually a hunting knife or the survival knife dictated by whatever Service we'd been in; the thing the parachute rigger attached to your flight gear.

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When it comes to survival in the aviation sense, the point a lot of folks seem to be missing is that we never fly alone. When a plane goes down, we try to find it, and the downed pilot is as much a part of the system as those who are searching. In that context, survival means facilitating your rescue rather than evading capture or setting up a homestead and putting forty acres to the plow. Under those conditions what you have between your ears is liable to be a thousand times more useful than anything you might have strapped to your hip.

Another point often overlooked by homebuilders is that we're generally forced to ride the plane all the way to the ground. No ejection seat nor even a parachute, except for those first few flights - - and maybe not even then. In effect, that makes the plane part of our survival kit. I'll let you think about that for a while :-)

In the meantime I'll prepare myself to be totally amazed and absolutely delighted upon receipt of my survival whistle-magnifier-compass-thermometer. And I'll carry it with me, too, as a constant reminder that even on a solo cross-country you're never really alone.

-R.S.Hoover

PS - - All-Electronics will sell you a 75mm lexan lens for a buck.

The blade of a rigger's knife is slightly serrated along one edge. It will slice through a seat-belt or parachute harness with ease. ('Springer' is the brand name of a German rigger's knife that was popular in the 1940's.)

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