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PILOT NOTES

Author's Preface

PILOT NOTES is essentially an expanded aviator's logbook, just taken on a somewhat longer cross-country. A few elements are added here and there to supplement flight information, like snapshots and observations.

Yet in the most basic sense, it's about the way pilots have been looking at things for about a hundred years – from above.

The perspective forces language to reach at times for the abstract. I strap on the plane and head south, into known – and sometimes unknown – territory. When you go far enough, the obvious shades become subtle and history grades into myth. And when you return, you are altered in some indescribable way.

The writer has an unspeakable advantage over the reader - that of time to prepare, almost without limit, the scope and intensity of his thought.

The reader has an even greater advantage over the writer – that of the fickleness of his wavering attention. Between these two quite irreconcilable advantages, the life of literature is precariously sustained.

Robert Fulton (*)

Chapter 1: The Flight Southward

A call from Karen Bass, BBC Series Producer, starts it all: stirring up the possibility of a flight to Patagonia and beyond. During the conversation I can tell right away this is going to happen. Karen's voice through the phone is irrepressible. Nonetheless, a mutter track persists. I have to untrap routines and bring together in myself the cinematographer and the pilot, the navigator and the traveler, the observer and the adventurer. I am not as free of doubts as I would like to think.

I test myself with ridicule. Are human beings designed for this? The questions ramble. Do I step effortlessly from idea to reality? Is this congruent with real purposes? Is the universe open enough'? Will I fall off the end of the world - questions you read about in fairy tales - where time and space turn into myth and voyages are epic and heroes confront fatality with joy and courage I sweep aside my skeptical mind. This is a big trip. Real decisions are made from the solar plexus. I say yes to Karen.

"The details follow. The journey starts with a simple objective to record aerial film images of the entire continent of South America for the BBC Natural History Unit in Bristol, England. Now that has a breath of fresh air in it. The complexity of the task is not immediately surmised. I have the advantage of distance and solitude. And just possibly naivete carries the day. If I am fully or even realistically appraised of the difficulties, I may never start."

"The choice of a plane is a Cessna model 180, introduced to me by Paul Ryan in 1972. This particular model is exceptionally light, economical, robust and capable. Designed as a four place taildragger after WWII, it combines quickness of response with speed, altitude capability, weight carrying capacity and visibility with an excellent 'performance envelope' that is the difference between its stall speed and its maximum cruise. A big envelope is highly desirable. If the plane only goes fast, it can't fit into small places. If the plane only goes slow, it can't get anywhere. If it's too heavy, it can't climb. If it's too light, then it can't carry enough of a 'useful load'. With too much mass and power, the plane becomes too expensive."

"The Cessna 180 is an ideal convergence of these manifold operating parameters. Besides, I have one. N4926A, a 1956 model, is forty-five years old."

"A word on age here: planes are not like cars. They do not have radically new designs from year to year. During its production run, from 1953 to 1981, the Cessna model 180 changed virtually not at all in terms of its capability. It got heavier. The 'designers' raised the panel to make more room for radios in 1961. The FAA is very conservative in what it allows into an airplane; and this policy acts as a brake. Changes are cosmetic. I remove the back seat, leaving two in front and add an Arriflex 35mm camera to the wing with an 18mm Taylor Hobson Cooke wide angle motion picture lens and an on/off switch."

There are staggering preparations. The aeronautical charts alone weigh thirty seven pounds ... There's the issue of long-range tanks as pilots say in Hawaii, 'The only time you have too much fuel is when you're on fire.'

Bob Fulton's plane at the airstrip in Calafate, Patagonia, near the great Perito Moreno glacier, among the biggest and most impressive glaciers in the world, named Mankind Patrimony by the UNESCO

Frequently, the base of the clouds is low enough for the mountains to poke up through them, meaning that for airplanes, it is not practical to fly along the mountains and try to climb with them. First of all, planes can't climb as fast as mountains, the gradients are too steep; so the terrain needs to be anticipated. Adding too much altitude can put you too high over the destination that might be between layers of clouds.

Approaching Quito, the edges of the valleys gradually open up, and seeing some successive ridges, there was enough visibility to successfully negotiate the darkening haze to the runway, Quito is always a challenge yet once on the ground there is an unusual friendliness shared by pilots for just getting there.

Architecturally, Quito is very old and wrapped across a variegated plateau in a mountain valley just about exactly on the equator. Due to the complexity of the earth's rotation there are actually 'seasons' even on the equator, and considerable differences between dry and rain, chill, wind and heat. The city is dusty and steep, seemingly floating on stone; a quasi desert with exotic plantings, curvilinear views and a semi active volcano that keeps the sky smoky, grey, alternating with soot, black and difficult brea-thing. Woven into its own rock, its apparent distance may be a factor of my fresh arrival in South America, buried in incomprehensible sou-nds, blaring strect screeching of rusty machines, sudden brakes, missing mufflers, brilliant colored paint splashed on the sides of buildings, and a seeming exhausting randomness moving in a million people, I muse on how to relate the impressions l am seeing. What mode is appropriate?

The typicall aerial view of rivers in the foothills of the Andes.

The shaping of description affects the seen universe. How I talk to myself probably limits what I am able to know, and hence to say. l'm reduced to trying to figure out what I mean when l listen to myself. Is there a resting point between arrogance and humility? Like most things, this is one I never solve.

I just surrender and go; and when I can't figure out what to do or how to do it, I do some more. My ignorance cuts a swath and drags me along. To the extent that you read on, we're in this together.

Left: sand, stones; it never rains in the Nazca region.

In looking for an appropriate expressive method, It goes without saying that whenever a large number of people are in close proximity to one another, there exists a component of awkwardness in their relations. The greater or lesser success of the collective negotiation of implicit difficulties is called culture.

Cultures get along with themselves by subtly agreeing to not notice a great deal. It's a kind of dynamic equation solved more or less - for an agreed upon set of unknowns. The intrusive stranger, however, is drawn rather markedly to precisely those elements, that in being conspicuously overlooked, produce the appearance of smooth functioning. The mere presence of the foreigner becomes disturbing not by what he does, but rather by what the locals know he sees. The conflict is irrepressible, and is further entrenched by an attempt to not acknowledge it. The situation becomes especially awkward wherever recording devices are involved. And of course in this immediate case, my own, the entire aircraft is the recording device.

The sophisticated traveler develops an intuitive antidote: he pretends to not notice what he actually sees. This 'skill' rests in a stark contradistinction to his avowed purpose in travel, which must needs involve observing as much as - for him humanly possible. He becomes, at best, successfully duplicitous, taking away an intact set of impressions, ideally remaining invisible to the lands observed. To the extent that he is not successful, he goes blithely forward, rudely and crudely stepping on delicate boundaries, insensitively critiquing and unwittingly exposing collective neuroses. The above is a mere recapitulation of the classic dilemma of the anthropoligist: to be somewhere not only without interference, but more importantly, without imposition of values.

A comment by Eduardo Fereyra: A beautiful view of the sabana: a dry riverbed, waiting for the first rains, surrounded by beauftiful "tajibo" trees blooming in early spring, sprinkling the jungle with color, crimson, lilac, yellow, red, blues and whites ... This is my favourite pictcure of the Amazon jungle, seldom seen in books.


The BBC has devoted some pages as a tribute to Bob's life and work. Those pages are located at the following links, worth a visit. It includes a beautiful "screensaver" with Bob's films.
Tribute to Bob Fulton       BBC: Andes to Amazon        BBC Adventurer's Guide        Screensaver

Pages two and there will be published here around the end of October, 2002.

Back to English Version


(*) Robert "Bob" Fulton died may, 10th, 2002 in a plane crash, when returning from Chicago to his home in Connecticut, flying his old and reliable Cessna 180. A severe electrical storm above Pennsylvania tore away the plane's tail and both wings, putting an end to his long and amazing career as an aerial filmaker. He was an accomplished pilot that flew for years the skies of South America, filming the savage beauty of the Andes, the deserts, Patagonia, and the jungles. He had just finished a film for BBC-TV, a beautiful and impressive piece of art.