Le Petit Cirque

I just finished reading a book called “Le Grand Cirque” (the Big Circus).
It was written by Pierre Clostermann, a young Frenchman who enlisted in the RAF at the beginning of World War Two and scored 33 “kill” between 1942 and 1945.
In his book, he describes the fears and exhilaration of a fighter pilot engaged in almost daily dogfights with the enemy.

So, it is all pumped up that on November 4, I boarded (parachute, oxygen mask, regulation Smith & Wesson, Escape Envelope*) a 4 seat, single engine Piper PA-28-161.

Our pilot is Volodia, a family friend and a cool, skinny young chap in his mid-thirties.
The plane also carries his 7-year-old son (who, through regular flights with daddy, knows more about flying than most of us) plus Tamara and myself.

The Gnoss Novato field doesn’t have a control tower and I am surprised to see airplanes landing and taking off without seemingly any kind of supervision.

We strap ourselves to our seats.
Our pilot hands us a set of headphones so that we can all communicate with each other, and most importantly with some guys on the ground who are keeping track of our position in the big blue yonder.

Cockpit drill. BTFCPPUR (Brakes, Trim, Flaps, Contacts, Pressure, Petrol, Undercarriage, Radiator) and after a very short dash on the runway we are airborne.

“Hello Filmstar, Yellow and Blue climb and attack fighters above. Pink, Black and White engage Huns below. Filmstar Red diving for strafe… Go!”

Actually, we are flying at about 80 mph and climbing unhurriedly. It seems that we are moving slower than in a car.
The day is beautiful, with lots of sunshine, and very soon it becomes fairly hot in the cockpit.
I look above and under but cannot see what is behind us.
Careful, “the Hun is always in the sun”.

Very soon we are at 2000 feet flying leisurely at 120 mph.
We are heading toward San Francisco. We are flying over Marin County, San Quentin, Sausalito, Alcatraz, the Oakland Bay Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge and finally over San Francisco.

The pilot occasionally tips his wings to give us a better look at some famous landmarks and allow us to take photographs. Unfortunately the yellowish plastic canopy of the plane prevents us from taking clear pictures of the ground.

Coming over San Francisco I am surprised to discover that a plane is allowed to fly over such a densely populated area.
I am expecting any minute to see the back venomous mushrooms of ack-ack guns exploding around us.

We are loitering over the city for a while and follow the coast up to Stinson beach.Things look amazingly different seen from the sky.

We spend about 45 minutes over the Bay Area and head back to Novato.

I suggest a “victory roll” over the airport to Volodia. Surprisingly he nixes the idea.
From the co-pilot seat, I can see the landing strip approaching, but very soon the nose of the plane obscures the runway and I cannot see the ground anymore.
I trust Volodia who swore on holy icons that he already landed a plane more than twice.
The landing is extremely smooth. Spassiba Volodia!

On the ground again.
Time to go to the officers’ mess and gulp a few beers while bragging about our encounters with nasty Focke Wulf 190 and even nastier Messerschmitt 109.


PS: I was not really carrying a parachute, oxygen mask, regulation Smith & Wesson and Escape Envelope, but it sounded much better that way. Don’t you think so?

*The Escape Envelope contained 20 000 French Francs, 5000 Belgian Francs and 1000 Dutch guilders. Its purpose was to facilitate the escape of a pilot shot down over enemy territory.

***To look at pictures of this event, turn the sound on, click on the “Home” link at the top of the page, and click again on “My photos” located on the right side of the page.


Up up and away…

Birthdays are (most of the time) rather dull affairs. A cake, candles, a few cheers, and that’s it.
To celebrate my domestic partner’s red-letter day, I decided to take her for a ride… a hot-air balloon ride that is.
The first thing to remember about hot-air balloons is that (unlike bats) they take off shortly after sunrise, when there is a minimum of atmospheric turbulence.

For her birthday, I had told my mate to take the day off, without giving her any specific details about my intentions. I added a little later that on that day we would have to get up early.
How early, she asked?
5:00 a.m. I said. Holy mackerel, she exclaimed (I assume) in Russian.

Sunrise on Saturday October 26 was around 7:20 a.m. and I had been asked to report at the departing location at 6:30 a.m.
The distance from San Rafael to Yountville is about 40 miles, or 50 minutes by car. This means that we would have to leave San Rafael at 5:30 a.m. This also meant that if we wanted to have any kind of breakfast we’d better get up before 5:00 a.m.
So we did, and after a light snack, we left San Rafael around 5:30 a.m. and arrived in Yountville around 6:30 a.m.

There, we were briefed about hot-air balloons.
We were told that a balloon consists of a large bag called the “envelope” and a “gondola” (or wicker basket) that carries passengers. An experienced pilot would steer the craft. There was never any mention of parachutes.
All of us (about 30 people) were subsequently assigned a balloon. Ours was called Tango.

After this brief meeting, we were led to the adjacent parking lot where the beasts were being groomed and inflated.
It was an impressive and noisy operation. Heated air (by the means of a giant fan) is forced into the balloon to make it buoyant, and like a sleepy colossus, it rises majestically.

Four balloons were inflated at the same time and were readied to take off. Some carried 4 people, some 6 and ours the largest of them all (250 000 cubic feet) carried 12 passengers, plus the pilot.

The takeoff was almost imperceptible. We rose slowly and gained altitude without ever having the feeling of moving.
To my surprise, I discovered that the sky above the Napa Valley was filled with balloons, or at least 20 of them. They floated and rose silently past us us like giant pumpkins.

We drifted through the Napa Valley for about an hour while being steered and entertained by a very chatty (too chatty) pilot.
He flew his contraption with the greatest of ease. He lowered and made it rise seemingly at will. To spur its steed, he intermittently fired a kind of giant flame-thrower that pushed hot air into the envelope, and the balloon rose obediently.
While flying the beast he was in permanent radio contact with earthbound roadies that were following us with a van.

After about one hour aloft, the pilot set his sights on a landing spot. He told his crew about it and summoned them to an open area.
Once there, he lowered his craft and threw a line to his men.
They grabbed it and like Lilliputians they pulled the balloon down while the pilot was busy deflating the envelope. Something not unlike a Zeppelin landing.
We touched ground around 8:30 a.m. Mission accomplished! One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

So, how did you like it, I asked my significant other.
I loved it, but I could have stayed up a little longer she said.
OK. Since you like it that much, on your next birthday I’ll send you up on a balloon around the world for eighty days. That should cool your jets for a while.


PS: To look at pictures of this event, turn the sound on, click on the “Home” link at the top of the page, and click again on “My photos” located on the right side of the page.



I just watched the 3rd and mercifully the last round of the presidential debates, and unsurprisingly my opinion about the candidates has not changed one iota.
And I think that the same applies to the 60+ millions Americans who viewed this exchange. Furthermore I am convinced that no political debate will ever change anybody’s opinion about his or her champion.
Even if disenchanted by their candidate, very few people have the moral courage to say so and vote accordingly.

A belief is often formed based on environment and cultural background. It takes years to coalesce and once it has reached that stage, it will seldom change.
A Nazi will always be a Nazi just as a Communist will always be a Communist, regardless of facts or arguments advanced by their supporters. “Converts” will only change their colors for political expediency and financial rewards.

So, why do candidates accept to debate their rivals after all?

I am not sure, but it looks like if the incumbent refuses a debate, he will be branded as insecure, or even worse as “chicken” and no US presidential candidate can afford to be viewed as a chicken. A fool maybe, but not a chicken.

I believe that political debates are also seen as a form of entertainment.
It is a heavyweight contest and it appeals to popular masses, just like gladiator fights appealed to plebeians in Roman times.
People live vicariously through their candidates. Few individuals will ever have the opportunity to throw a few blows at their nemesis. When their champion does it for them, they feel like they did it themselves.
Regardless of the performance of their standard bearer, fans will claim victory.

Political campaigns feed on half-truths. But repeated long enough these fabrications acquire a cachet of authenticity meant to confound the voters. Just like the canard that Obama was a Moslem or not born in the US.

I also think that debates are popular because viewers are offered 90 minutes of entertainment free of any commercial interference, and this is a rarity seldom seen on American television. Regardless of the product, people don’t want to miss a sale.

On November 6th, disregard blind ideology and the spurious arguments advanced by each side, and vote for the candidate that you think will do the most to benefit the average American.