Monday, March 3, 2014

The Pelican "Grief"

No, I am not writing about one of my favorite authors, John Grisham.  His "Pelican Brief" novel commanded much more attention than this post ever will.  But I loved that novel.  You will come to understand why this blog post is called "The Pelican Grief".

In 1968 I was entrusted with managing a research project for Gulf South Research Institute (GSRI) that was vital to Louisiana’s economic future.  It was a Louisiana State Parks and Recreation Commission study  entitled “Development of Louisiana's State Park System”.  Because of the nature of this project, I was assigned a landscape architect, my good friend and colleague, Tony Thompson.  The objective of this study was to gain greater access to federal funding for Louisiana's memorial and historic areas and to develop possible new venues for state recreation areas.

I had already completed most of the preliminary work on this study.  My current mission was that of scouting new park site venues.

Tony and I were determined to scout out Hackberry Beach south of Lake Charles in Cameron parish.  From aerial shots this area appeared to offer some exciting tourism potential.  On one of our scouting trips we were robbed of any opportunity to get to the beach because there were no access roads to it.  After interviewing locals we discovered that no one ever visited Hackberry Beach because there simply was no local interest.  Well, needless to say, this lack of interest definitely piqued our interest.

PLAN A:  My father owned a 20 foot outboard fishing vessel and he agreed to ferry us to Hackberry Beach via his boat.  So on the appointed day we all arrived at a boat launch area on the Vermillion River and set out for Hackberry Beach.

After boating for about an hour we suddenly found ourselves running aground, stuck in the mud, stationery and immovable.  It was late in the day and those big, striped marsh mosquitoes were aggressive and relentless.  Having no cover or repellent, we all frantically swatted until finally the tide saved us.   The boat floated free and my Dad said “Do you want to continue?”  Tony and I had already agreed that the Vermillion River was too shallow, which explained one of the reasons few folks visited Hackberry Beach. 

So we agreed to abort the boat trip and return home.

PLAN B:  I investigated the availability of helicopters and booked one from Petroleum Helicopters Inc. (PHI) out of Lafayette.   Fortunately I was able to get a pretty good deal.  Because it was to be about a 2 hour trip via helicopter from Lafayette to Hackberry Beach we booked from 6 AM until 6 PM to afford us a full day of daylight.   This would get us to the beach just after sunrise. 

It was mid-winter and the weather, until our scheduled departure date, had been quite mild.  The PHI agent strongly suggested, however, that we should wear warm clothes.  Of course Tony and I (the smart asses that we were) didn’t think warm clothes would be necessary,  so we both simply brought along light wind-breaker jackets.

On the morning of our scheduled air tour we arrived at PHI, parked, gathered up our gear and began making our way over to our designated helicopter.  As we approached it, the pilot (David) began approaching us in his fleece-lined jacket and hood.  Noticing that Tony and I wore only light wind-breakers, he said “That’s all you guys are wearing?”  Mine and Tony’s apprehension obviously began to show when David then said “Here is the unit we’ll be flying in.”  We approached this small chopper with a bubble cockpit and suddenly noticed an 8 inch hole in the bubble directly in the path of flight.  Almost in unison Tony and I both exclaimed “Holy shit!”   David explained that he had hit a pelican a few days earlier and this was the reason he had appealed to us to wear warm clothes.  Thanks a lot!  This was also why I was able to get a good deal.  Again THANKS A LOT! Of course it would not have hurt to have been told about the HOLE IN THE COCKPIT.

After boarding the chopper and after we had been air-borne for about 2 minutes, Tony looked around and found a poncho.  He asked David if we could use it.  David said “Sure.  Sorry I don’t have anything warmer.”  Tony and I huddled together under that poncho.  No embarrassment.  We simply needed whatever was available even if we had to share it, which we did.  

The turbulence resulting from the cockpit hole was almost unbearable.  There could be no conversation with the noise.  Remember the movie DUMB AND DUMBER with Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels?  They were en route to California on a little moped….both of them on one moped.  They were suddenly entering a section in the Rocky mountains that was experiencing heavy snow-fall.  They begin shivering … teeth chattering, etc.  Well, that’s the way Tony and I were feeling in that little chopper even though it would be some 25 years later that the Jim Carrey movie would be produced.

Suddenly the chopper began shaking violently.  WHAT THE HELL!! “What’s happening?” I asked David.  He said “We have to put down.”  SAY WHAT!!  David looked ahead and said “I’m putting down over there at the Baroid Corporation”.  Baroid was a subsidiary of the now infamous Halliburton Corp.  Tony and I just looked at each other.  This stop was not a scheduled stop, but we were not unhappy about having to land. We might be able to thaw out a little and maybe access another air vehicle.   What we WERE unhappy about was WHY we had to stop.  Something was wrong and we didn’t want to be airborne until this “wrong” was “righted”.

David knew where Baroid's chopper pad was located and gently put our little machine down on it.   When he finished radioing our plight to the Baroid standby clerk, he then instructed Tony and me to deboard and wait in that small office building about 50 yards away.   Tony and I did as we were told.  There was warmth and fresh coffee in this little office, a most welcomed set of offerings for 2 guys who had not been very comfortable over the past hour.   

 I asked the duty clerk "Do you know what our problem is?" As Tony and I peered out a window we could see a team working on our rotor mast.  The clerk said "One of the rotor blades was a little loose on the mast. You'll be on your way in no time."  SAY WHAT!!  Tony and I looked at each other, then Tony asked "How far is the nearest highway?"  He said "Too far.  Don't worry. Bert is a great mechanic.  You'll be fixed up in no time."  I asked "Any chance he can do something about the hole in our cockpit?"  The clerk knew about the hole because word had quickly spread in that region about this idiot chasing pelicans out in the gulf a couple of days before.  He said "No, that'll take a few weeks.  PHI has ordered a new one."  GREAT!  So we would still have to reboard this junk heap.

And reboard we did.  Bert finished securing the blade and now we were well on our way again.  Still hugging each other under the poncho, still freezing our asses off, we at least were no longer being vibrated to death.

We soon put down on Hackberry Beach, our target destination.  Tony and I spent about 2 hours surveying the area and snapping pictures.  With the jars we brought along we collected sand and water samples.  The sea water was grimey and oily.  We now knew why Hackberry Beach had never been developed.

After reboarding our whirly-bird David said "Hey guys, I need to do a little side trip.  This won't count toward your 12 hours, so it won't cost you anything." Actually that didn't matter because we would be well within our 12 hours anyway. Tony asked "What kind of side trip?"  David said "I'll show you." 

We were traveling east over the water's edge.  Soon there was a flock of pelicans flying south out over the gulf.  David steered toward the pelicans and said "Watch this."  He caught up to the flock, slowed until he was just a few feet from the last one in the flock, then said "Here goes.  Watch this."  He inched the chopper gently to this bird's hind side, then "goosed it" with the cockpit bubble.  As the pelican yelped and tried to escape, David goosed it again, then again, laughing uproariously each time.  I looked behind us and noted that "... the coastline is no longer visible.", then David said "Oh, then maybe we had better turn back."

Tony and I looked at each other with very "knowing looks".  The Baroid clerk was right when he said ".. that idiot chasing pelicans...".  When we finally put down and deboarded back at PHI, I said "I assume that your little pelican chase is how your cockpit bubble got its bo bo?"  David said "Yeah, but it wasn't my fault.  When I crept up on the flock the other day, this damn bird came out of nowhere and smashed through.  I had to clean up feathers and bird guts for over 3 hours." Tony asked "What do you mean 'it came out of nowhere’?" David said "Out of nowhere.  It couldn't have been in the flock because it hit hard enough to punch through the cockpit.  Just out of nowhere.." 

Tony and I returned to Baton Rouge having been where it seemed like "nowhere."

It was decided that Hackberry Beach was indeed "nowhere" and the state parks commission agreed.  A couple of decades later a boat launch was built on Hackberry Beach and to date that is the extent of its tourist “attractibility”.

I don’t know about Tony, but that 1968 helicopter tour was my only and very last helicopter trip.