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Saturday, September 11, 2010

Helicopter Ride

I didn’t really want to ride in a helicopter, in fact I was terrified. But I had to. And I remember thinking, while we were taking off, that if it should crash and we died, my wife Kate and my daughter JoAnn would be watching. But there really wasn’t any reason to think it would crash, I told myself, in spite of the high winds and predicted turbulence caused by the passing hurricane. I believed in physics and engineering. Of course we can fly. The pilot asked if I was okay. I was, and I nodded. And then through the glass bubble on the floor of the helicopter, the ground separated from us and we rose above the hospital. We banked and turned East. He told me it would be a 45 minute flight.

The thing I remember most about the flight was that lake on the top of a mountain. The pilot pointed it out, though not to me, to the tech in back. But as we were all on the same channel in our headphones I heard everything they said to each other, and everything the various control towers said to our pilot. If I wanted to speak I had to press a button on the floor with my foot. I never ended up using it.

A few miles above Needmore and McConnellsburg is Pennsylvania State Game Land number 53, Meadow Grounds Lake. From the sky it looks impossible. You don’t need to know a lot about the world to understand that water flows down. But in this particular instance it appeared the water flowed up. It made no sense for a lake to be along the top of a long and high mountain. The grades on the two ridges on the sides didn’t seem significant enough to collect enough rain for a creek. But instead here was this big beautiful lake, high along the flat top of a mountain. The highest mountain in the whole area. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. My terror began to transform into awe.

The tech kept reporting that she was asleep and her vitals were stable. Before we left he told me that kids always fell asleep, like infants in a car seat. The pilot was passed from tower to tower. We had emergency status, and except for the short period we flew near Camp David, we got first priority and an unencumbered flight path. We headed mostly East at about 130 knots, as best I could tell from the gages in front of us. We were told when we were near another aircraft and the high-tech way that collisions were prevented entailed the tower notifying the helicopter of the other aircraft, proceeded by the tech and the pilot looking for said aircraft, and then pointing it out to each other.

We flew directly over the capital of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg. The pilot turned to me and said, “There’s the Potomac, running through the Capital, Harrisburg.” I knew it was the Susquehanna, but didn’t really want to correct him. “That’s the Mighty Susquehanna, Dork.” The tech corrected and laughed at the pilot. “Crap, you’re right,” laughed the pilot. “After a while they all look alike…Is that Three Mile Island over there?”

And we did make it in about 45 minutes. When we approached the hospital, we circled a couple of times before landing. The pilot did this deliberately to look for potential obstacles and anything unusual. He identified all nearby wires and towers. He noted into the mic that there wasn’t a helicopter already on the pad, a procedure that struck me as probably the result of a previous accident.

After landing, we had to wait for what felt like an eternity while the blades of the helicopter stopped. And then we went in.