Valencia, May 2002 – Fortunately, I’m not superstitious. I am writing this email being at ease and at the thirteenth floor of our Spanish apartment building. Young Master Jan (calls himself a pilot) has gone to the supermarket, so we have some time to spare. In the CD player a disk with a bunch of Partita’s, written by good guy Bach. Glenn Gould is doing the handiwork.
Valencia, like we said. Spain. Bilingual, like our very own Friesland. Yesterday it was cloudy and we had a day off. Today we managed to gather around 430 shots in a big blue hole in between the clouds. Tomorrow we have a big high pressure area knocking on our door, so we’re going to be working our arses off again. The projects are partly situated within military areas. This means that we can only fly during the weekends. Why ? Well as you might not be aware, war here is limited to weekdays. Monday to Friday. On weekends and holidays fighting in Spain is not done. So no need to man the military bases. And no problem for survey planes to do some work. All the better for us, and the weather gods are lending us a helping hand.
It’s already more than a week since I came here. Time goes fast when you’re having fun. The trip here went pretty smoothly. At 8 o’clock in the morning I got onto the train to the airport, from there to Madrid with KLM, hung around for three hours waiting for the next flight with Iberia to Valencia. At around six in the evening the taxi driver dropped me off in front of our wonderful apartment here in Valencia. Total travel time around 10 hours. Not too bad. I thought. That was until Jan, with a smug grin on his face, informed me that Transavia has five flights per week, direct from Amsterdam to Valencia. Two and a half hour flight, for not even half of what I paid now. God Almighty. But I have taken Jan’s failure to inform me of this fact BEFORE I booked my flight with the utmost of restraint. This morning he should be able to eat some solid foods again if he remembers to chew only on his right side. It could have been much much worse.
Anyway, as I said, I’m not superstitious. When I found out that our apartment was situated on the thirteenth floor of this beautiful building I didn’t give it any more thought other than that I was pleased we had an elevator. Moreover, it is a very luxurious apartment. We have three bedrooms, a large living room with balcony, lots of marble and mirrors, and a kitchen so big it could easily service a medium sized restaurant in the middle of Amsterdam. No complaints there.
The next day, Sunday the 12th, I was able to dive right in. Beautiful weather, so no time to get accustomed. Organise the gear, set your arse down in the airplane and get to work !! Everything went like we were on rails and running ahead of the clouds of an incoming front we could still capture a couple of hundred pictures. No worries mate.
But then it turned Monday. Monday the thirteenth. And everything went to hell…
In the morning I was taking a shower. After a couple of minutes the water went from a soothing warm to bone chilling ice cold. I yelled some expletives. Jan informed me that the boiler had stopped working entirely. And I had just thoroughly soaped the family jewels. Which left me no choice than to finish my shower in ice cold water. It was THIS (thumb and index finger one inch apart) cold.
The Chinese supper of the night before had caused some nasty unpredictable bowel movements during the night, and it hadn’t really improved much this morning. So I quickly swallowed a few imodium, just to be sure. Cork in the hole, done.
Over coffee, when we turned on the TV, it gave one big flash followed by complete darkness and utter silence. A little puff of smoke rose to the ceiling. That’s great. Now we couldn’t watch the (quite accurate most of the times) news channel weather forecast for today. Blasted. But looking out from the balcony it was quite clear that today was going to be THE day. Monday. The thirteenth.
When we arrived downstairs I used my mobile and my best Spanish to order a taxi. But no matter how I tried, spelling the name of our street, screaming, Spanish, English, Dutch, the stupid bitch on the other end of the line couldn’t or wouldn’t understand where to send her taxi. Eventually I gave up and went back inside the building. Where the janitor needed about two seconds to explain it to her. Sigh.
The taxi driver we got had a severe case of Parkinson’s in his right foot. Step on the gas, let go, step on it, let go, step on it, let go. Ad Infinitum. Nauseating. Nevertheless we arrived to the airport in one piece and with the contents of my stomach still there where it belonged.
During the climb passing 10,000 feet Jan decided to put on his oxygen mask. But when he switched on the oxygen the little tube immediately shot from the connector plug. Weird. Never happened before. I quickly shortened the tube, and slid it back on. This time the tube stayed in place, but the indicator showed no oxygen flowing to Jan’s mask. Even more weird. Eventually we found one piece of the tube twisted shut near the mask. Untwisted it and life giving oxygen started to return some much needed colour to Jan’s blueish lips.
Levelling the plane out on line 1 of the project (it was indeed bloody good weather) I wanted to record the time. But the time I recorded on my watch didn’t quite agree with my own sense of time. I wrote it down anyway. Half an hour later, when I looked at my watch again, it still gave me the same time. What in hell ?Further investigation revealed that the second hand had simply dropped of it’s little pin and was now blocking the minute hand. You couldn’t make this up even if you wanted to, I tell you. Cheap Chinese crap. Only the date was displayed correctly.
After a while it was time to change the film cassette on the camera. But no matter how hard I tried, no matter how many bad diseases I was spewing onto the cold metal beneath my hands, it just wouldn’t say ‘click’ like it’s supposed to. After some calm research and another few 360’s with the airplane it turned out that the film had not been properly loaded in the cassette. That was a first, in 10 years of filling RC-10 / RC-30 cassettes. Quickly I threw my oxygen mask on the floor, set up our mobile darkroom on my lap and remedied the situation. And it finally said click. After such an endeavour, I can assure you, one really appreciates a few big mouthfuls of oxygen.
Now, I need to explain something technical: With every picture that we take we also record the exact position. This magic is done inside a little yellow box nicknamed ‘The Trimble’. After the flight, we supply both the film as well as the data from this little box to the customer. If the position data is not available, the exposed films are also worthless. Trashcan useless. Well, about four hours into the flight I looked at the display of our Trimble. It was dead. No digits. No little lights. Nothing. A nasty chill came over me as all blood flowed from my face. Oh no. Holy shit. Exposures without Trimble data are unusable. And the last time I checked the Trimble was more than an hour ago. At least. Because the bloody thing always works ! It never fails ! I looked at my computer screen. We had just started on line 13 of the project. But fortunately I am not superstitious.
So we decided to cut short the project and land. During the descend I messed around with the cables a bit and all of a sudden it started working again. Nevertheless we landed, refuelled and with renewed courage climbed back up into the project area. We redid line 13 in its entirety, and full of confidence turned onto line 14. After a little while (probably somewhere near the thirteenth exposure, but I’m not sure) the computer screen of my laptop froze solid. The mouse was not moving. Ctrl-Alt-Del didn’t do anything. Bill Gates strikes again. Switch off the laptop, turn it back on, a couple of 360’s and we were back in business. Just lost some time and some film.
One line later I looked at the Trimble again. Completely dead. I prepared to smash the little yellow devil to pieces but remembered the retail price of it. And this was my moment of surrender. I slowly let down my arms and told Jan I’d had enough for today.
That night we went to a local internet cafe to try and send the 8 Mb Trimble data to the customer. They would be able to tell us what was still useful and what was not. But the poor girl behind the counter didn’t understand any of it. Cute face, but an IQ equal to half an ounce of plankton. Her knowledge did not go anything beyond www.hotmail.com and the latest cool MP3s. What should have taken a mere 10 minutes eventually took more than an hour.
So be it. Tired but not satisfied, I cuddled into my bed.
The next morning I thought I had found the problem with the Trimble. Instead of the 24 volts, I connected it to the 12 volt supply. But while taxiing to the runway it again went completely dead. Strange. We quickly delayed the flight plan for one hour and borrowed a multimeter from a local mechanic. It seemed the 12 volt converter had died. Not one to give up that easily, I cut the laptop power supply cable (around 15 volts) and fed it into the Trimble. This it liked very much and it happily started to flicker its little lights. Confident we had fixed our problems for good we took off again. But after the second or third line the laptop froze solid again. And here I was thinking we were going to have a great day today. Because we had crammed all the misery into yesterday. Anyway, I restarted the laptop again and as we turned on the next line I made a stupid remark. I figured that the only thing that would make our misery complete would be a bunch of clouds. Shouldn’t have said that. Should NOT have said that. One hour later we were back on the ground.
Valencia’s beautiful. We have a beautiful apartment. It sits on the thirteenth floor, but fortunately I am not superstitious. And that’s all there is to it.
Epilogue: The Trimble works great again, we bought a new laptop, the data is sent to the customer on a zip drive, and we are burning holes in this project like there’s no tomorrow. All is well. No Problemos. Hasta Luego.