What Is Truth?

I thought I knew, but now I’m not so sure.

One of the things I value most in life is truth.

Maybe I’m old fashioned. Maybe I’m idealistic. Maybe I’m a dreamer.

Maybe I’m just an idiot.

But throughout my life — especially as I got older and began understanding the world around me — truth became a guiding principle. When I ask a question, I expect an honest reply. When I watch the news, I expect to see and hear what really happened. When I look at a photograph, I expect it to be an accurate representation of what was in front of the camera lens when the image was captured.

To me, it’s impossible to function effectively and make the best decisions unless the information you have is the truth.

Lies waste time. They build distrust. They lead to bad decisions. They destroy relationships.

And there’s a funny thing about lies: they’re usually discovered and the liar is revealed as a liar.

Lying is stupid.

Truth in Today’s World

Sadly, truth seems to have little value in today’s world. The most recent political campaigns really brought that home. There were numerous advertisements that misrepresented the facts to the point of actually spreading lies. The most notorious examples were Mitt Romney’s Jeep ads which played in Ohio and elsewhere, and claimed that Chrysler was sending Jeep manufacturing jobs to China (among other things). This had already been proven false after Romney made the same claim in a speech just days before. But they aired the ad anyway, purposely spreading lies.

And no, Romney wasn’t the only liar out there this past campaign season. There were plenty of other liars on all points of the political spectrum. It got so bad that numerous fact-checker websites and news site features popped up to share the burden with established sites such as Politifact.com.

But this post isn’t about politics. It’s about truth. And lies.

The public these days seems to have little regard for the truth. They hear various versions of something that interests them. Rather than take the time or effort to determine which is most accurate, they choose the story that best matches what they want to hear — the version that supports their belief or their decision. Everything else is disregarded — either forgotten or categorized as untrue.

Anyone with an email inbox and a second cousin or uncle knows the kind of crap that floats around the Internet. Crazy stories, conspiracy theories, links to articles that anyone with a skeptical eye would cringe at. The problem is, that second cousin or uncle believes what he’s sent you is true. And he got it from someone else who also believes it. And so on and so on. It supports their beliefs or decisions and that’s all they really care about. They want you to know the “truth” so you can share their belief or decision.

As you might imagine, this drives me — a person who values real truth, no matter what it might lead to — bonkers. Life’s too short to waste it with lies. And some decisions are too important to make them based on lies.

Am I the only person to understand this?

Is it Okay to Lie?

In an effort to replace my soon-to-be ex-husband with a suitable partner, I’ve resorted to online dating services. (A big mistake; I’ll blog about it in detail when my experiment is over, hopefully soon.) The topic of truth vs. lies applies to these sites in a number of different ways.

When you sign up for these sites, they ask you a series of questions about yourself and your ideal mate. Some sites have very rudimentary questionnaires. Others have extremely lengthy questionnaires. Indeed, one of the sites I’ve tried offers more than 10,000 questions for you to answer.

One of the multiple choice questions on one of the sites went something like this:

Is it okay to lie?

• Yes.
• White lies are okay.
• Not usually.
• Never.

This question reminds me of the old puzzler, the Liar Paradox, which is sometimes expressed with the single statement, “This sentence is false.” Is it false? It can’t be true or false, hence the paradox.

Similarly, if a person responds that it’s Never okay to lie but he’s lying, how much else is a lie? But, as usual, I digress.

Side Note: My unwillingness to lie got me into serious trouble years ago at a family gathering. It’s a kind of funny story, so I’ll tell it here. I can use a good laugh. The trick is to tell it without names so I don’t get in trouble again. Here goes.

My soon-to-be ex-husband’s Brother was married to Wife. Wife absolutely hated Girlfriend who was the girlfriend of Brother’s Cousin. Got that? Two couples: Brother and Wife, Cousin and Girlfriend.

At a huge Thanksgiving dinner at our old house in New Jersey that Brother and Wife attended but Cousin and Girlfriend did not, Wife asked me, “Would you rather have Cousin and Girlfriend here than us?” Not knowing how to answer that loaded question without lying — because I honestly liked Cousin and Girlfriend much better — I simply didn’t answer. Wife exploded in anger. “You rather have them here than us?!”

Needless to say, things between me and Wife went downhill from there. No great loss, fortunately. I have no patience for that kind of petty bullshit.

I had a problem with this question. In general, I don’t believe in lying — and I don’t generally lie. When asked a question I’m not comfortable with being 100% truthful, I’ll avoid answering the question or I’ll dance around the truth or I’ll make factual statements that might not answer the question or I’ll answer part of the question that I have no problem with. In other words, I’ll do everything within my power to avoid lying.

But then I started thinking about white lies. To me, a white lie is something you tell to spare another person’s feelings. It’s not true, but it’s also not harmful.

Every man should know, for example, that the answer to his wife’s question, “Does this dress make me look fat?” is “No,” no matter what the truth is.

But even a white lie like that could cause harm. Suppose the wife is going to her 20th high school reunion. Suppose that throughout high school she was teased mercilessly about being overweight. She wants to look her best — indeed, it’s important to her that she look great. And suppose the dress doesn’t really make her look that good at all. Wouldn’t it be better for the husband to recommend another outfit or even suggest going shopping for one? Isn’t it better for his wife to make the decision for this important event based on factual information?

So what’s the answer to the dating site question above? I think I might have chosen “Not Usually” — and that’s because I wanted to be truthful with my answer. But, as you might expect, most of the “matches” for me that answered this question said “Never” — leading me to wonder how truthful they were being.

I’ll save my rant about honesty on dating sites for another post.

Lies and My Life

Because I don’t lie and I don’t believe in lying, when someone else lies, it really bothers me — probably a lot more than it bothers most people, given my earlier discussion about truth in today’s world. And when those lies are about me and they’re presented in a place where truth is vitally important — I’m shattered.

That’s what happened to me last week. Without getting so detailed that I get myself in trouble, I’ll just say that court-submitted documents accused me of performing several acts that I not only did not do, but I would never do. These documents also lied about the ownership of a specific asset that was mine.

Reading these documents was like being stabbed in the heart — especially when I considered where the lies had come from. Listening in on a phone call with the judge who might be making decisions regarding my financial future and hearing these same lies repeated was like getting that knife twisted. Someone was lying about me to a judge and I was unable to defend myself properly. To me, there’s nothing worse than being in this situation.

I realize that I’m not the only person on the planet to be a victim of lies submitted in court. It’s just nightmarish to find myself in this situation.

The FugitiveThink of all the movies you’ve ever seen, all the books you’ve ever read, all the news stories you’ve heard about, where the protagonist — a “good guy” — is victimized by lies told about him to make him seem, to everyone else, like a bad guy. You watch or read or hear what he’s going through and you squirm, feeling for him, rooting for him, glad that you’re not in his shoes.

Right now, I have a pretty good feeling of what it’s like to be in those shoes. And trust me: it sucks. There’s nothing worse than the thought that a decision about your future might be based on lies presented by other people who will benefit from your downfall. And that’s what I’m dealing with now.

After the phone call, I went to my regularly scheduled appointment with my grief therapist. And I spent the entire hour crying. There was simply nothing else I could do.

It wasn’t just the situation I was in — hopefully, the falsehood of the claims (established on Saturday) and my lawyers will be able to fix some of the damage done to my character. It was the simple fact that someone I used to trust had lied about me. Lied extensively. Lied cruelly and hurtfully. Lied for a selfish, hateful purpose.

As someone who doesn’t lie, it was hard for me to accept that this other person would — even though events of the past eight months have revealed more lies than I can count. It’s just so hard for me to accept.

Black and White

I’ll admit that one of my big problems with truth is that I’m always trying to categorize something as true or false. This caused a lot of trouble between me and my soon-to-be ex-husband throughout the later years of our relationship — and it continues to do so today.

You see, the problem is that he saw shades of gray where I saw black and white. He’d say that he couldn’t make a conclusion about something because there was no yes or no answer (shades of gray) and I’d clearly see a yes or a no answer (black and white).

Don’t get the idea that I never saw shades of gray — I certainly did in many instances and still do. But often, when I saw black and white, he saw shades of gray. That would cause arguments that often went unresolved. I couldn’t convince him of my point and he couldn’t convince me of his.

Sometimes, this would frustrate me to no end. I understand that not everyone sees things the same way. I understand that not everyone has the same knowledge or experience on which to base a conclusion. But in many of the instances where we argued, I simply could not understand why he couldn’t see the situation the same way I did. And near the end of our relationship, I began to suspect that he was arguing with me over it because he didn’t want to admit that I might be right. Or just for the sake of arguing.

(In the 20-20 vision of hindsight, this should have raised red flags with me. But I had too much invested emotionally in our relationship to admit that there was a problem. I thought he was an honest person. I didn’t realize that his personality would allow pride to trump truth.)

I saw my soon-to-be ex-husband on Saturday and was able, for the first time since July, to speak to him privately. It was an eye-opening experience. Either he’s the best actor in the world and should be given an Oscar for his performance, or he is not the evil monster I thought he had become. I’m left confused, unsure of what is the truth. Is this black and white or gray? I don’t know.

Or is it a case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? A lot of friends and family members have been talking about this being “midlife crisis” and I think there’s a distinct possibility that some physiological factors — perhaps even andropause (discussed in this WebMD video) — may have triggered his seemingly irrational actions over the past year or so. I’ve certainly seen him present himself as two different people, depending on circumstances. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. These days, I just don’t know who I’m dealing with.

But to be fair to him — which many of my friends and family members will argue is a waste of my time — I’ve tried to think about some of the things that led to the downfall of our relationship. I’m not talking about how he ended it — that’s black and white to me. I’m talking about the points where we disagreed.

He said on Saturday, for example, that I wanted a business partner instead of a husband or lover. (I can’t remember his exact words, but I know he said “business partner.”) I never thought of our problems this way. I certainly wanted a loving husband: someone to do things with, cuddle with, make love with. Someone to plan and share a life with. And I think we did have that kind of relationship for most of our 29 years together. But I admit that I also hoped he could be part of my business life.

There were two reasons for this:

  • For the past 8 years or so, he’d been bouncing from one unsatisfying job to another, never really finding a job that was a good fit for him. Throughout that time, I offered him options to work with me part time in my business endeavors — real estate, FBO management, and helicopter charters — hoping it would help me grow the businesses enough to support both of us. But he never seemed interested in fully committing to the work I needed him to do. More often than not, he’d let me down and I’d give up. The last regular job he had before we split was making him absolutely miserable and I wanted so badly to help him — even going so far as to offer to relieve him of the debt he had from a property he’d bought that had gone underwater with the housing crisis. But he simply wouldn’t let me help.
  • Around the time we got married in 2006, he promised that he’d join me in my business when he turned 55. Since then, I’ve been planning and working hard to make this transition not only easy for him but financially feasible for both of us. Although he broke this promise — he turned 56 in May — I always had hope that he’d still fulfill it. I saw a great future for us, migrating north in the summer for work, goofing off wherever we wanted to for the rest of the year. A sort of semi-retirement. I thought we were on the same page with this goal. He never told me we weren’t. He only said he wasn’t ready “yet.”

I’m trying to think back on these things, trying hard to see them from his point of view. But it’s difficult, probably because he wasn’t honest with me when they happened. Was he just agreeing to things I suggested and pretending they weren’t a problem for him the same way we tell “white lies” to spare people’s feelings? I don’t know. I hope not. I value truth — I want my life partner to always be truthful to me, no matter how much it hurts. (“Yes, that dress makes you look fat.”)

But he waited until our relationship was over — and he’d replaced me with another woman — before telling me the truth in a long overdue conversation at the edge of a parking lot.

And that hurts.

It also makes me wonder just how many of those 29 years was spent living with lies.

Why did he keep putting off the conversation the marriage counsellor said we should have? Had he already planned his escape from me? That’s what I’m left wondering. Is he evil after all? What is the truth?

Twisting the Truth

But even the truth can be twisted into something that’s not quite true. Something black and white can be turned into something gray.

That’s what I’m facing now. Certain facts — truths — are being used as “evidence” of something that really didn’t happen as described. This is being done primarily by exaggerating the importance of these facts, blowing them out of proportion, and neglecting to present other facts that reveal their true significance.

Here’s a purely hypothetical example. Suppose you bought a small house as a rental property. You chose the building, you made the downpayment, you got the mortgage in your name, you were making all the payments. You were the property owner and solely financially responsible for it. Now suppose you needed to move some furniture and do some repair work. You ask a friend of yours for help and he says yes. You move the furniture together. He fixes a leaky faucet while you scrub the toilets. There’s no talk of payment for his services; he seems happy enough just to let you buy him lunch or spend the rest of the day doing something else with him. Meanwhile, throughout your friendship, he asks for similar favors to help him with things he needs done and you’re more than willing to help. This goes on occasionally over the course of a few years. Eventually, you get tired of being a landlord and sell the property at a profit.

Now, years later, imagine that friend stepping forward and saying, “Hey, you owe me a piece of that profit because I helped you manage the property and you never paid me.” He doesn’t mention any of the things you did to help him out over the years.

The truth is, he did help you with some of your management chores. The truth is, you didn’t pay him with cash for his time or efforts. But can he twist these truths to prove that he had a financial interest in the property? I guess he could try.

Is it right? Well, I could launch into yet another long discussion of right vs. wrong, but it would likely read very much like my truth vs. lies discussion here.

Everyone seems to have their own idea of what’s right and what’s wrong. Personal ethics apparently vary from one person to the next.

Even when someone knows deep down inside that a path he’s going down is morally or ethically wrong, he can convince himself that it’s justified, often by reminding himself of the truths that support his path. It’s easier to look at something with a sort of “tunnel vision” that only shows the facts you want to see than to see the big picture and all the facts and make an ethical conclusion.

It all depends on your conscience — and whether you have one.

Deep Thoughts Indeed

This blog has only a few categories or blog topics. “Deep Thoughts” is one of them. I created the topic to categorize posts that explored issues that were more philosophical than anything else. In this topic, you’ll find posts about politics and religion, as well as thoughts I have about life, relationships, injustices, emotions, communication, and, of course, divorce.

This is where I bare my soul to readers, where I let them into not just my life, but my head. This is where I share what I think and why I think it.

I don’t expect everyone to agree with me about these things. All I expect is for readers who read these posts to think about what I’m saying. Maybe my point of view isn’t the same as yours, but maybe reading what I think can help you understand how others might think.

At the same time, I welcome non-abusive comments from readers. What you have to say about my blogs posts can help me better understand the way you and others think.

This discussion of truth was difficult for me to write — mostly because I had to draw on recent experiences to illustrate the points I was trying to make. Those recent experiences have been extremely painful to me. Every day brings more confusion, more disappointment, and often more pain.

Although I have such strong feelings for the idea of truth and want to see it throughout my world and life, I know that’s not much more than a pipe dream. Truth is hard to come by — which is what probably makes it so precious to me. Lies can and do hurt. And truth can be twisted so far that it could become a lie.

But is it too much to hope for truth and honor and ethics in our everyday life?

I hope not. Because when we get to the point where truth, honor, and ethics are no more than old-fashioned concepts defined in a dictionary, I don’t think life would be worth living.

The Man I Fell in Love with is Gone

And I don’t know who this other guy is.

Yesterday was my second court appearance for my divorce.

The first didn’t really count — it was just an appearance to set dates for the appearances that would follow. My husband and I both showed up with our lawyers. Neither of us got to say anything of substance to the judge. They set dates, we wrote them down, the judge left, and we left. Simple.

Yesterday’s appearance was different. Yesterday, we were each put on the witness stand and questioned by the two attorneys. At stake was who would be able to live in the house and use my hangar until the divorce was finalized.

I don’t want to go into detail about what was said and done. Two reasons. First, I don’t want to save the experience forever on the pages of this blog. It was extremely painful to me on so many levels. Second, my lawyers would probably scold me, depending on how much detail I provided and what I said. It’s not worth pissing off my lawyers or getting into trouble. My legal team rocks.

But I do want to briefly touch upon what I realized when my husband came to the stand and began answering questions that he and his lawyer had likely rehearsed in advance: he was not the man I fell in love with.

It’s funny, in a way, because it looked like him and it sounded like him. But the things he said were not the kinds of things the man I fell in love with would say about me. The man I fell in love with loved me just as much as I loved him — if not more. He always spoke kindly to and of me. He always defended me.

This man, however, was in attack mode, bending and stretching the truth (almost beyond recognition) to make a case against me. The man I fell in love with would never do that.

No Real Surprise

I don’t know why this surprised me so much. I knew the man I fell in love with was gone. I knew it this summer.

In June, while going through a pile of papers that I’d brought with me to Washington to sort out when I had time, I came across two greeting cards that the man I fell in love with had sent me years ago. They were the kinds of cards people in love share with each other, sometimes for no apparent reason other than to express their love. I can’t remember exactly what they said, but I do recall one of them mentioning “love” and “forever.”

I sat on the floor in my RV, looking at the two cards and thinking about the man who had sent them to me years ago. And as I thought about it, I realized that that man was gone — dead, I thought. The man I’d left in Arizona in May didn’t give me cards or flowers or anything else for no special reason. The man I left in Arizona spent most of his time glaring at me when I did something he didn’t like. The man I left in Arizona seemed almost too eager for me to leave.

So I wrote a letter to the man I’d left in Arizona — who is apparently the same man who showed up in court yesterday. I appealed to him to remember the old days, the days when he told me that I needed to “make it happen,” the days when he was an idealistic dreamer and inventor. I asked him what happened to that man. I told him what I suspected: that that man was dead.

I didn’t know it, but as I was writing that letter, the man I’d left in Arizona had already found my replacement. His response to my letter arrived in my mailbox, forwarded with my mail, the day after my birthday, the day after he told me he wanted a divorce.

Right now, all I regret is sending the man I’d left in Arizona those cards. They’re gone now, along with the man who sent them to me, the man I fell in love with. I’d really like to have them back to help me remember him and the way things were.

The Upside

Amazing as it may seem, there is an upside to all this.

Listening to the man in the witness box bend and stretch the truth to build a case against me was like a slap in the face — a slap of reality. Although he’s spread the word among family and friends — and even to me in email messages and written notes — that he still cares about me, that’s so obviously not true. It’s just another lie in a long series of lies that were likely spun to put me off guard about what’s to come. The man in the witness box doesn’t give a shit about me and the 29 years he and the man I fell in love with spent with me. The man in the witness box is simply seeking revenge for imagined offenses. The man in the witness box cares only about himself.

And knowing that now, without a shadow of a doubt, will help me begin my healing process.

Transponders for Dummies

Get the facts straight.

One of the podcasts I listen to on my morning walk is called Stuff You Should Know. Produced by the folks responsible for the How Stuff Works website, Stuff You Should Know is a pretty thorough discussion of a specific topic by two hosts, Josh and Chuck, who base their discussion on a website article and some of their own research. It’s a great way to learn new things when you’re stuck doing something mindless — like walking, driving, flying, etc. So far, I’ve learned about revenge, diamonds, Atlantis, social security numbers, air traffic control (ATC), and bullfighting. You can find its RSS feed here.

The April 24, 2012 episode of the podcast was titled “How Air Traffic Control Works.” It was based on a How Stuff Works article of the same name by Dr. Craig Freudenrich. The article was very detailed; the podcast was based on that article and several other articles on How Stuff Works.

As a pilot, I know quite a bit about air traffic control — but not everything. The article (and podcast) was mostly concerned with ATC as it relates to airliners. After all, that’s how most people interact with aviation. But I’m involved with general aviation (as opposed to airline aviation or military aviation). And, as a helicopter pilot, I don’t interact with ATC nearly as much as, say, an instrument rated pilot flying a King Air from Phoenix to Seattle.

So I was hoping that I could learn something new. And I did.

But I also heard the podcasters misinforming listeners about transponders (among a few other things). And if there’s one thing I hate, it’s when an informational article or podcast or video — or anything else — includes errors. So I thought I’d set things straight.

What Is a Transponder?

Garmin Transponder
This is the Garmin 330 Transponder I have in my helicopter.

A transponder is a part of an aircraft’s avionics. It assists air traffic control by making it easier for ATC radar to “see” an aircraft. It basically sends out a signal that says “Here I am!” ATC radar can pick up this signal, along with any additional information encoded within it, to plot the aircraft as a “blip” on the radar display and differentiate it from other aircraft.

Transponders include a feature that enables the pilot to send a specific “squawk” code. Normally, in VFR (visual flight rules) flight, an aircraft’s transponder is set to send the code 1200 — in fact, this code is used so often that many transponder models — including mine — have a VFR button the pilot can press to quickly enter that code.

IFR (instrument flight rules) flights are assigned a discreet discrete squawk code. This code is used by ATC to identify that particular aircraft. Sometimes, when operating within tower-controlled airspace, ATC will assign a discreet discrete code to a VFR flight. Or perhaps a specific code is used by signatories to a letter of agreement between ATC and pilots — for example, 0400 is used by Sharp Alpha signatories in the Phoenix class bravo airspace.

Most transponders are equipped with automatic altitude reporting features, which is known as Mode C. Indeed, Mode C transponders are required within 30 miles of a class Bravo airport — think major airports like the kinds most airlines serve — and in a bunch of other places detailed in Part 4-1-20 of the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM), “Transponder Operation.” (This, by the way, is an excellent resource for learning more about transponders in general.) Mode C transponders interface with an aircraft’s altimeter to get the altitude of the aircraft and send that information to ATC.

Garmin 420 GPS
My Mode S transponder interfaces with my Garmin 420 GPS to show traffic when information is available. I blogged about this here.

A Mode S transponder, which is what I have on my helicopter, is also capable of two-way communication with ATC radar. In certain radar coverage areas — primarily near Class Bravo and Class Charlie airspaces — a Mode S transponder receives traffic information from ATC. This information can then be plotted on compatible GPS equipment to create a simple traffic information system (TIS).

There are some other things about transponders that are interesting, including the fact that there are special squawk codes a pilot can use in certain emergency situations. And although the transponders were turned off on the 9/11 airliners, that didn’t make them invisible; it just made it impossible for ATC to definitively identify what they were.

What the Stuff You Should Know Guys Said

There’s no transcript available for the podcast, so I had to create one for the part that irked me. It was related to when the transponder is turned on and what the transponder is/does.

At 22:55, Josh has just described how the tower controller hands off the airplane to a departure controller.

Chuck: All right, so now we’re in the air, we are enroute. And you have to, if you’re a pilot, activate your transponder, which will basically make you the little blip on the radar. Very important thing to do.

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: That’s how they can follow you as you move across the country. Or around the world.

Josh: [laughter]

Chuck: Right?

Josh: You are covering all bases on this episode.

Chuck: Well, the little blip is going to obviously represent your plane and it’s going to have your flight number, your altitude, your airspeed, and your destination.

Josh: Uh-huh.

Chuck: And, uh, so where are we now?

Josh: It’s also how they find you if you go plummeting into the ocean or the earth.

Chuck: Sure. Is that the black box?

Josh: Uh, I think that’s probably a part of the transponder.

Chuck: Okay. Yeah.

Then they continue talking about what TRACON does.

What’s Wrong

There are a few things wrong with this.

First, a pilot usually turns on the aircraft’s transponder when he (or she, of course) powers up the rest of the avionics, including the radio. On my helicopter, in fact, the transponder turns itself on automatically when I turn on the “Master Battery” switch, which provides electrical power to the helicopter before I even start it.

Part 4-1-20 of the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM), “Transponder Operation,” states:


(The FAA used those caps; I didn’t. I guess they wanted to shout about it.)

So the FAA says to turn on the transponder before you move the aircraft and keep it turned on during flight. The pilot does not wait until the flight is turned over to departure control to turn it on. It’s already on. In fact, it’s one of the ways ground control can track the airliner as it taxis between the runway and the gate.

Note: I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the Phoenix TRACON and tower back March 2012. I got to see the radar screens and their blips firsthand. It’s interesting to note that there are no windows in the TRACON facility. It’s a dark room filled with computer screens. If you’ve seen the movie Pushing Tin, which was mentioned in the podcast, you’ll get the idea.

So although the podcast guys made a big deal over the fact that ground controllers are only one of two kinds of controllers that can use binoculars, the reality is that only ground controllers and tower controllers have windows to look out of. They’re the only ones close enough to the airplanes they guide to actually see them.

To say that activating the transponder “makes you the little blip on the radar” is misleading. Radar does not need a transponder to see aircraft traffic. After all, do you think fighter planes use transponders when they’re out on patrol or attack? If a transponder was required to put an aircraft on radar, there would be no need for stealth technology. Instead, radar works by bouncing radio waves off objects. It doesn’t need a transponder signal. The transponder simply makes it easier for ATC radar equipment to find targets and provides additional information to ATC.

While it’s true that a radar blip might include an airliner’s flight number, this information is not sent by the transponder. The transponder sends the discrete squawk code assigned to the airplane from its flight plan. The ATC computer equipment looks up the code in the flight plan database and provides the information from the flight plan on the blip.

Josh is partially right when he says that the blip is how they find you if you crash. The transponder helps keep the aircraft on radar. Radar tracks where you are. But there comes a point — especially in remote or mountainous terrain — when radar coverage is limited. If you are flying too low, you can literally fly “below the radar” and not be tracked. Helicopter pilots commonly fly this low — that’s why its so difficult to get flight following in certain areas. An airliner should never be that low, but if it’s having trouble, it may disappear off radar before an actual crash. So although a transponder and the resulting radar blip can help locate a downed aircraft, it doesn’t guarantee that it’ll be found. Think about Steve Fossett. His plane likely had a transponder, yet he wasn’t found for well over a year after his crash.

Chuck and Josh are completely wrong when they suggest that the black box is part of the transponder. It’s not. They’re two completely separate devices. The transponder sends live information to ATC as an aircraft moves around on the ground and in the sky. Most aircraft have them. The black box is a virtually indestructible device that records data during an aircraft’s operation and stores it in the event of a mishap. Only aircraft providing certain air transportation services have them. For example, although I have a transponder on my helicopter, I don’t have a black box.

It’s interesting to me that the guys got this so wrong when the How Stuff Works website actually has an article called “How Black Boxes Work.” Maybe they should have read it?

Other Things

In listening again to parts of the podcast — mostly to find the passage quoted above — I heard other things that weren’t quite right. That bugs me. It calls into question the rest of the podcast — the stuff I don’t already know for sure. It also calls into question other podcasts that these guys do. How factual are they?

When I’m listening to a podcast titled “Stuff You Should Know,” I expect it to be factual, not conjectural. If these guys are guessing about something, they should make it clearer that it’s a guess. To state that a pilot activates a transponder after the aircraft is enroute and handed off to departure control is an incorrect statement of fact. To say “I think” a transponder is part of the black box helps identify it as conjecture or a guess, but is there really any place for guesses in a podcast like this?

Or am I expecting too much?

The Real Cost of Helicopter Ownership

Don’t believe what they tell you.

My first helicopter, a Robinson R22.

Twenty years ago, if someone told me I’d own a helicopter before my 40th birthday, I would have told them they were nuts. Yet on October 3, 2000, I took delivery of my first helicopter, a 1999 Robinson R22 Beta II. Four years later, on January 8, 2005, I’d traded it in for a brand-spanking-new, designed to my specifications, 2005 Robinson R44 Raven II.


My R44, parked out in the desert at a rides event.

I was making a lot of money as a writer back then. A handful of bestselling computer how-to books — yes, they do exist — and a few good real estate investments left me with an excess of cash. I live rather modestly in a home I can afford and although I own more than my fair share of motor vehicles, none of them are new, flashy, or expensive. In other words, I don’t live beyond my means. Although my income fluctuates wildly — especially these days — I could foresee the ability to own and operate an R44 into the future, especially with added income from a small Part 135 on-demand charter operation.

Fueling my opinion on this matter was a document published by Robinson Helicopter Company on its Web site. Titled “R44 Raven II Estimated Operating Costs,” it painted a rosy picture of an “affordable” helicopter (if there is such a thing). The conclusion at the end of the “Operating Cost-Per-Road Mile” section stated that the calculated 98¢ per road mile “…compares favorably with some expensive automobiles, and will usually be lower when the value of time saved is considered.”

The Underestimated Costs

I knew from the start that the document was overly optimistic for my situation. Some of the numbers just didn’t seem right.

  • Back then, Robinson was calculating labor at $55/hour. At the same time, I had one mechanic charging me $95/hour and another charging me $105/hour. Later, I had a mechanic who charged me $75/hour. The local airplane fix-it guy, who I sent to the Robinson maintenance course, was the least expensive, charging me $45/hour at first but then bumping it up to $55/hour. He didn’t have the experience or specialized tools for the helicopter-specific inspections and maintenance I sometimes needed. So Robinson’s labor estimate was understated by 30-40%. (Nowadays, Robinson estimates $70/hour, which is still very low.)
  • Robinson’s estimated fuel and oil costs were consistently lower than what I was paying. That baffled me. Robinson is based in California, which has some of the highest taxes on fuel around. Just crossing the border from Arizona to California, you can expect to spend 50¢ more per gallon on auto fuel. Yet even today, they’re estimating $4.50/gallon for fuel. Tell that to the folks at Grand Canyon, who hit me up for $6/gallon early this month. And 14 gallons per hour? Realistically, its more like 15-17 gallons per hour. And oil: Robinson estimates 50¢/hour. Where did that come from? The W100+ oil I use costs about $6/quart and I seem to be adding a quart every 5 hours or so. Do the math.
  • Robinson’s insurance costs are based on Pathfinder rates. Pathfinder has a special relationship with Robinson that keeps its rates low. The annual premium in the current estimated operating costs — around $11,000 — aren’t too far off from what I paid when I insured with them for my commercial operation. Unfortunately, however, Robinson prorates this fixed annual amount over 500 hours of flight time per year. How many private owners — the same guys buying the expensive cars Robinson is comparing its helicopters to — fly 500 hours per year? I run a business with my helicopter and still don’t fly more than 200 hours a year on average. (Most private pilots fly less than 100 hours a year.) Take that $11,000 and divide it by 200 and the hourly cost for insurance alone is $55 — not the $22 figure Robinson uses.

Still, when I made my purchase/ownership decision, I plugged in whatever known numbers I had and relied on Robinson’s numbers for the unknown — especially the cost of periodic inspections and unscheduled maintenance. The result was within my budget, so I became an owner.

The Hidden Costs

I started getting slammed with unexpected costs not long after purchase. The first major component to need replacement was the starter and ring gear. My personal opinion on the matter is that the starter was defective and did not fully engage with the ring gear on every start. It began breaking teeth off the ring gear. The situation got so bad that it all needed replacement.

The clutch down limit switch, an $8 part, cracked. Of course, to replace it, you have to pull the tail cone, then put it back on and rebalance the fan scroll. That’s about an 8-hour job.

The auxiliary fuel pump went after about 500 hours. And then again another 500 hours later. And then again about 100 hours after that. The pump costs $1,600 new and $800 overhauled. I know because I’ve bought them both ways. Fortunately, a good mechanic can replace it in less than an hour.

I suppose the magneto overhaul is included in Robinson’s calculations. After all, they are required to be rebuilt every 500 hours. At a cost of $1,600 each time.

The upper bearing began leaking brown fluid at about 850 hours. The overhaul was $3,000 plus installation (which requires removal of the tail cone). The following year, it was still leaking and now overheating. I was lucky that the factory applied the overhaul cost to the price of a new one: $9,000.

I’ve also replaced the battery twice (at $400 a pop) and my oil pressure gauge once. I’ve had repairs done to my primary radio and GPS. The muffler cost another $2,200 this year.

These are just the things I’m remembering off the top of my head. If I pulled out my Engine and Aircraft log books, I’m sure I could list a lot more of the same: items that are supposed to last the life of the aircraft (okay, well maybe not the battery) simply not lasting.

But Wait! There’s More!

And then there are the Airworthiness Directives, Service Bulletins, and Service Letters. Because I operate under Part 135, these are not optional. So yes, I changed the orientation of the fuel control because some idiot who likely left his helicopter out in the rain all the time was getting water in his fuel — even though my helicopter was based in the desert, where it rarely rained, and was kept in a hangar. And I replaced the seat belt attachment points and changed the throttle link and swapped out the frame tube clamp and fiddled with the throttle linkage and changed the fuel hose supports and replaced the hard fuel lines and replaced the gascolator assembly and did something to the clutch actuator fuse holder wiring. Each one of these required maintenance items cost money — sometimes thousands of dollars. And none of them were included in Robinson’s estimate of costs.

A service bulletin that became an airworthiness directive required inspection and then repainting (or replacement) of the main rotor blades. To stay in compliance in my extremely corrosive (think dust) operating environment, I’ve had the blades removed and repainted twice in six years. It costs about $1,500 each time.

But the real kicker — the service bulletin that prompted this blog post — is the bladder tank retrofit for my fuel tanks. The kit for the retrofit will cost about $6,000 and there’s 40 hours of labor on top of that plus the cost to repaint the fuel tanks. By my calculations, this should cost me between $12,000 and $14,000. This is not one of the estimated costs on Robinson’s fairy tale cost estimate marketing document.

Limiting Robinson’s Liability

And why? I’ve discussed this at some length with two other owners and here’s what we think.

An operator — or possibly multiple operators — experience a problem. Water in the fuel tank, seat belt buckle attachment points cracking, stuck throttle link, cracked fuel lines, chaffed wiring. They whined and complained to Robinson and may have even threatened legal action. Or maybe they sued. Robinson is privately owned and self-insured. They examine the problem area and come up with a new design to fix it in the future. Then, to prevent other owners from giving them grief about it, they put out a service bulletin to address it. If you don’t comply with the service bulletin, you can’t come crying to Robinson with your problems.

The fuel line and fuel tank bladder situation is taking things to the extreme. There have been instances of post-crash fires on Robinson helicopters. (News flash: Most serious aircraft accidents involve post-crash fires.) To prevent legal action against the company, Robinson started issuing documents. First, in July 2006, came Safety Notice 40, which states:

There have been a number of cases where helicopter or light plane occupants have survived an accident only to be severely burned by fire following the accident. To reduce the risk of injury in a postcrash fire, it is strongly recommended that a fire-retardant Nomex flight suit, gloves, and hood or helmet be worn by all occupants.

Are they kidding us? Do they honestly expect me to put all my passengers in flight suits with helmets for tours around Phoenix? Or day trips to Sedona? And how do you think my passengers would feel if their pilot showed up wearing a pickle suit and helmet for their tour or charter flight?

But when that wasn’t enough to counter liability, Robinson followed up with three service bulletins: SB-67 (R44 II Fuel Hose Supports), SB-68 (Rigid Fuel Line Replacement), and now SB-78 (Fuel Tank Bladder Retrofit). They’re attempting to minimize the possibility of a post crash fire by making modifications to the fuel system to help prevent line and tank ruptures. So I’m basically required to modify my aircraft to reduce Robinson’s liability in the event that I crash and my helicopter catches fire?

That’s like requiring older car owners to add airbags and ABS brakes just to reduce the liability of the automakers.

Good thing I complied with SB-55. I knew that 5 years later, I might park out in the rain.

Now if I were a private owner and not required by the FAA to comply with all these service bulletins, there’s no way I’d waste money complying with the ones that didn’t benefit me. For example why change the fuel control to avoid that water in the fuel problem? I live in the desert and my helicopter is hangared. There’s no rain falling on it. And even in the rare instance that it does get rained on, sumping the fuel tanks — which I should be doing before every flight anyway — would drain the water out. If I started finding water in the fuel tank, I’d reconsider my position and possibly get it done.

Similarly, this fuel system retrofit is beyond reason. It doesn’t make my flight any safer. It just makes crashing safer — as if that makes any sense. To get any benefit from it, I’d have to crash with enough impact and fuel on board to cause a fire. And guess what? There’s no proof that this retrofit would prevent a fire anyway.

But I don’t have the luxury of choice in these matters. When you operate commercially, you answer to a higher authority than common sense. But that doesn’t mean I won’t try to get an exemption. After all, they’ve given us until December 31, 2014 to comply. If it can wait four years, why can’t it wait indefinitely?

The Bottom Line

When you look at the cost of acquisition, the fixed cost of ownership, and operating costs, a helicopter like mine costs a heck of a lot more than the $185.10 per hour Robinson estimates. I can tell you exactly how much I spent on insurance, fuel, oil, maintenance, and repairs over the past 6 years: $208,000. Divide that by the 1100 hours I flew during that period and you get $200 per hour. Now add in the reserve for the overhaul that is required at 2,200 hours — roughly $100 per hour. So, after 6 years of operations, I’m seeing an average hourly cost of $300 per hour — not Robinson’s rosy $185.

Of course, that calculation doesn’t include my other costs to operate a business: advertising, supplies, travel, hangar rent, automobiles, taxes, fees, etc., etc. It doesn’t include depreciation, either. It also doesn’t include the $2,100 per month I pay on my aircraft loan or my initial $160,000 cash downpayment. Ouch.

Yet the Robinson document is never seriously questioned by anyone.

Here’s an example. Last spring, I flew from Salt Lake City to Seattle with another pilot who was building time, waiting for a CFI job to open up at his flight school. He told me about his plans to lease an R44 helicopter to start a business in a small Wyoming city. He had some specific ideas (which I won’t share here) that might or might not generate revenue. He’d run the numbers using Robinson’s estimates of operating costs plus the cost of the dry lease. The numbers he came up with — including his estimated dry lease payment — were about equal to my actual costs per hour. That told me his estimates were low. There’s no way someone leasing an aircraft could operate as cheaply as an owner; if there was, we’d all lease instead of buy.

Like Robinson, he based his proration of fixed costs such as insurance on a 500-hour flight year. That’s an average of about 10 hours a week flight time in a place that has a very definite and rather short flying season. And he didn’t consider the cost of service bulletins and airworthiness directives and unscheduled maintenance beyond what Robinson estimates. And I don’t think he considered getting a hangar and an office and all the things that go with running a business. So his numbers were very low and I knew it. I tried to tell him, but I don’t think he believed me. Maybe he thought I was trying to discourage him, to minimize my competition. That’s not the case. I was trying to help him avoid disappointment and possibly bankruptcy.

But hey, why believe me? Do my ten years of experience as a helicopter owner give me any more insight than a marketing document cooked up by the company manufacturing and selling the helicopters?

My pockets are not as deep as they once were. As print publishing continues its death spiral, it takes my books along with it. My six-figure income years are gone. I can’t afford to fly for fun anymore. I have to fly for hire. I have to earn money on every flight I conduct.

After all, I have to support my mechanics and the Robinson Helicopter Company.

Arguing with a True Believer

It’s a waste of time.

I’m a skeptic. I’ve been a skeptic for at least the past 10 years, although I didn’t have a label for it way back when. After realizing that there was no proof in a lot of things I’d been told to simply believe, I started looking at things with a more skeptic eye. Although you can’t prove a negative — for example, something doesn’t exist — you can withhold believe until proof of the positive. That’s where I sit now.

Mary’s Mother

It’s also where I sat a few days ago when a house guest brought up the topic of a person’s spirit continuing to exist after death. When she — we’ll call her Mary (not her real name) — asked me whether I believed a person’s spirit existed after death, I said, without hesitation, no. She then launched into a long story about why she believed that spirits do go on after death.

It was kind of pitiful. Mary’s mother had died about two years before after about a year of declining health. Mary lived in California. Her mother lived in New York. Her mother was financially stable and had hired in-home nurses to care for her as she began the dying process. She’d been an alcoholic for most of her life and although she was always upbeat and fun, her last months were painful. Mary believed that the Hispanic nurses had held back on pain medication until her mother “accepted Jesus” — not very likely, as she was Jewish — and, as a result, her mother’s eventual death was more painful than it should have been.

Mary and her brother visited during the months their mother’s health was declining. In the end, they stayed until it was over.

Mary claims that a few days after her mother died, she had a dream that convinced her that her mother had died “a horrible death.” (I have trouble believing that, as she was fortunate enough to die at home with family nearby.) Mary claimed that her mother’s spirit was trapped in her house, unable to escape to whatever other place spirits are supposed to go.

Desperate to resolve the situation and save her mother’s tortured spirit, she sent a family member to the now unoccupied house to tell her mom to leave. (Mary was back in California by this time.) I don’t know if this family member actually did this.

Mary then contacted a psychic in California for assistance. I didn’t get all the details on the first contact. Apparently, Mary e-mailed the psychic a photo of her mother. I don’t know if she provided her mother’s name. In any case, they spoke by phone and the psychic managed to convince Mary that she could communicate with her dead mother. Tarot cards were involved; Mary didn’t understand why she needed them but was willing to put that aside. She told Mary that her mother was indeed trapped in her home and that the only way to free her spirit was for three people in three different places to light candles and play her mother’s favorite music and pray to her mother to “cross over.” I think they had to do this for three days in a row, but I may have that wrong.

So Mary asked her husband and cousin to do this. She did it, too. She says she’s not sure if her cousin did it.

Afterwards, she met with the physic in person. The psychic told her she did not remember their initial contact. She asked the psychic about her mother’s spirit. The psychic said that her mother’s spirit had been trapped but then something had “popped” (her word) and her mother had crossed over.

Mission accomplished.

I don’t know how much money exchanged hands, but I know Mary can afford whatever it was. And I do know that Mary is happy now, so I guess you can easily argue that no harm was done.

I’m not quite that generous, though.

Cold Reading

What followed was a discussion of cold reading, where a “psychic” makes a bunch of guesses and then reads his subject’s response to zero in on actual facts. It is documented that the human mind is more likely to remember correct guesses than incorrect ones. So if a “psychic” does a “psychic reading” and makes 5 correct yes/no guesses, 9 yes/no misses, and one direct hit, people come away thinking that the “psychic” has real psychic power.

Of course, John Edward came up in our conversation. Mary fully believed in his power. She had examples of “proof” of his power. She was not interested in the fact that every John Edward Crossing Over show is taped and then edited. They edit out the discussions he has that result in mostly misses and leave in the results that are mostly hits. The result might be something like this, which I don’t think is very convincing:

Did you watch this video? This is classic cold reading. Throwing out a common name, picking the person who responds, and asking questions to get information. Guessing all kinds of things that are relatively common — cancer, military service, etc. Pulling info out of people with questions. And they think he has real power. But listen carefully. How much is he actually getting right? How much is he telling them? Isn’t it more of a fishing expedition to suck information from people who already believe in his ability?

As Joe Nickell writes in his piece about John Edward:

The “psychic” can obtain clues by observing dress and body language (noting expressions that indicate when one is on or off track), asking questions (which if correct will appear as “hits” but otherwise will seem innocent queries), and inviting the subject to interpret the vague statements offered. For example, nearly anyone can respond to the mention of a common object (like a ring or watch) with a personal recollection that can seem to transform the mention into a hit.

I could not convince Mary. She was not willing to believe in my explanation of how he could have gotten a particular detail correct. The discussion got heated. She kept trying to convince me. I could not be convinced about a “trick” when I knew how it was done.

What I find particularly disturbing about all this is that Mary has a PhD in psychology and treats patients with particularly troubled backgrounds. She should be the voice of reason in these people’s lives. I hope that “woo” does not find its way into her diagnoses or treatments.

Another Friend

When I tried to relate this story to another friend of mine, he said two conflicting things in the same sentence: “You know I’m skeptical about all kinds of things, but I really believe the psychic I go to has real power.”

It was difficult for me not to explode with laughter.

He then went on to tell me about what was likely a personal, one-on-one cold reading. He’d make an easy subject. He’s a real talker and it wouldn’t take much to pull information out of him. He’s also willing to believe, which makes him more likely to remember hits more than misses or turn partial misses into hits by voluntarily providing information that makes a wrong guess right. This is why true believers will always continue to believe. They don’t understand that if a person had real psychic power, he/she should be able to make far more factual statements than errors. And the technique wouldn’t be a glorified guessing game, like the one John Edward plays on his television show.

My friend told me I should go see his psychic for proof. He’d set up an appointment. He’d tell her that I was a skeptical friend –

I stopped him right there. I told him I’d go, but only if he didn’t tell her a single thing about me — including my name. He didn’t seem to understand that she could simply Google me to learn all kinds of things about me that would be useful in her “reading.” It wouldn’t be a cold reading anymore; it would be a hot reading. She could simply recite things off my bio.

Will I go? Only if I’m sure she doesn’t know anything about me when I arrive. I may throw out my first name to see if she takes the hispanic bait (in Arizona, it’s far more likely for a woman named Maria to be Mexican than Italian). I’ll likely dress myself up a bit to alter my appearance and lead her to believe things about me that might not be true. I think these would be good tests of her ability to read minds rather than physical appearances. It would be an interesting experiment.

After all, I am a skeptic. Although I don’t believe that anyone has psychic power, I’m willing to let them try to prove that they do.