Flying Without Doors Or A Tether

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About two years ago I was making a presentation to about 50 parents on the western-side of Cincinnati on the subjects of social networking, texting and privacy.  The audience politely listened and periodically asked questions and posed scenarios about their child’s experience. Afterwards a mother of a high school student came up to me and said, “Do you know that kids can send text messages on an i-pod Touch?”  I shook my head yes, not knowing where she was going with her comment. She finished by saying, “We thought we researched this thing thoroughly, and went out of our way to make certain that our son couldn’t get himself into trouble texting on a cell phone. We reached the conclusion that we’d get him a phone without a data or texting plan. He agreed if we’d simply allow him to have an i-pod Touch as well. The next thing we knew we found him sitting in his closet texting his girlfriend with that same  i-pod Touch.”

I remember thinking what a different world we live in today. Parents need to be experts on technology that certainly didn’t exist when they were kids – nor did it exist when they were first having children. However, reality suggests that technology will continue to evolve – and kids will continue to attempt to circumvent their parent’s best laid plans.

As I drove home that night I gave thought to my own past frustrations during my early career in the media business. By nature, I was not a technology person. I considered myself more a “creative” than techie. However, in the 1980’s computer technology was beginning to play some role in the field of film and video. Ironically, I found myself working as a writer/director of media programs for NCR in Dayton.

I was surrounded by computer technology and had very little formal training about NCR’s products and services. Yet, my job was to write videos, films and eventually even interactive computer programs for customers and in some cases our engineers. I worked hard reading everything I could on the subject – eventually being able to write about the most sophisticated, fault-tolerant main-frame computers or simple point of sale devices. Perhaps most importantly I learned that granular study and planning was the only way you could survive in a world whose technology and applications were constantly evolving.

After about two years of what I might call “an apprenticeship” I was given the opportunity to produce a new product release video on one of the company’s most anticipated products. It would be released on the 100th anniversary of the company at our yearly sales meeting in Hawaii. I studied everything I could get my hands on related to the product and its applications – in addition to learning about our competition’s products.

I wrote what I thought to be an elegant and engaging piece that leveraged beautiful Bosch animations that precisely illustrated the product and its use in various industries. By all accounts I was certain that it would be the single greatest achievement of my young career. It required hundreds of hours of an animator’s time, nearly three days to edit, and over a week of production in various cities across the US, including several days at our engineering plant near San Diego.

I researched everything related to the product and the required production budget items. I had thought of everything, including finding a Vietnam era helicopter pilot that had a gyro lens for our camera that would make our aerial shots  much easier to capture. If this guy could navigate through gunfire over the dangerous jungles of Vietnam, he could safely pilot me and our cameraman over San Diego.

The entire video was only 10 minutes in length – short by 1984 standards – but that one aerial shot represented only 3% of the entire program. However, that scene required the greatest percentage of my planning. Everything was organized – or at least so I thought.

The program’s open required me to direct a cameraman from a helicopter hovering about 1000 feet above San Diego. We would need to board the craft just before sun rise to accommodate a California landscape painted bright orange as we would ascend from the east side of a mountain to reveal a vivid morning ocean with the city awakened in the foreground.

All of this sounded great on paper as I typed the script on my trusty new Sony word-processor. I could see it unfold in my mind as I had witnessed in so many films that studied the contrast of city and nature, darkness and light, good and evil and calmness and calamity. It would be my first trip in a helicopter – one that I had looked forward to for nearly two months.

We met the pilot just outside of Rancho Bernardo, California. He had landed the copter about a football field from the base of a mountain. The area was bathed in darkness, with the only lights visible being the headlights of my car and the blinking lights atop the radio and TV towers in the area. The sound of the copter blades and engine were nearly deafening as the blades created their vortex of swirling air.

The pilot greeted me and Tim our cameraman while leading us to the copter. I was walking in a crouched position, head down while holding my video monitor — attempting to keep my head from falling victim to an errant blade. When I finally looked up, I noticed that the craft had no doors. Although concerned, I concealed my inner terror and took my seat in the back and placed the monitor on the floor.

Tim followed as he lugged a forty pound, $40,000 camera with the gyro lens onto his lap. As we strapped on our special safety harnesses, the pilot reminded us that the sun was going to rise in about 3 minutes.

Feeling somewhat hurried, I decided not to secure my video monitor on the floor. Thinking that helicopter travel couldn’t be much different than commercial air travel, I braced it between my feet in such a position that I could watch each shot that Tim was capturing.

Without as much as a word, the pilot began a vertical ascent into the darkness about 200 feet from the summit of the mountain. Then speaking through his headset, said something that at best sounded as if he was speaking through a broken drive thru speaker at McDonalds. Apparently, helicopter headset technology was not at its best in 1984 – but frankly I hadn’t even considered how I would give verbal direction on a helicopter. We were in almost pitch darkness and I couldn’t understand what the pilot was saying.

He tried again, this time with better clarity, “Boys, you best get ready to roll the camera or you’ll miss the shot.” With that, Tim placed the camera on his shoulder and took a seat on the edge of the open copter.

The pilot raised the craft above the mountain revealing the pristine, but darkly painted vista as far as the eye could see. It was just as I had imagined – albeit a bit louder and far more nerve wracking than I had envisioned. The sun was behind the helicopter and was bathing the tops of the building with a morning glow as the ocean looked like orange diamonds floating on the surface of black pearls.

I had worked with Tim for several years on many projects. He was an excellent shooter and a perfectionist. As usual, he was not happy with the shot and asked if we could fly to the east side of the mountain quickly and try again. Although I had seen the shot in the monitor between my feet, I agreed that perhaps one more take would be in order. The pilot veered the helicopter to the left as I felt my weight pull me uncomfortably to the edge of the door less frame of the helicopter. I was virtually perpendicular to the rugged terrain of the mountain below. I was losing any sense of up and down, east and west and north and south. My stomach turned.

Once safely on the other side of the mountain, Tim asked if he could attempt the shot from the skids of the copter. However, Tim’s headset was also suffering from “drive-thru syndrome” so neither I nor the pilot could first hear what he was saying. The vortex and engine noise was deafening – but eventually he used hand-signals to communicate his intent.

 I told him that under no circumstances was that necessary and that his earlier placement of the camera was adequate. He resisted, and stood up with one leg on the skid and the other on the copter floor. Nearly three fourths of his body was outside the craft. The strap that tethered him to his seatbelt was pulled tight as he shifted his weight to the copter’s exterior. He seemed fully confident that his tether would secure him. I recall shaking my head and telling him, “You’re absolutely crazy.”  

With only a “thumbs up” from Tim, the pilot vertically burst the copter upward revealing the brightly painted backdrop of city, ocean and California terrain. As I looked at the monitor between my feet I heard a crisp and very audible expletive come through my headset. Looking to my right I saw Tim anxiously flailing and trying to grab the side of the copter — his weight and the direction of the copter pulling him dangerously out of the craft. In slow motion I saw his harness continue to unravel as he balanced the camera on his shoulder while trying to hold onto the side of the helicopter.

I grabbed Tim’s tether into my right hand and screamed violently to the pilot, “Land! Land! Land! I can’t hold him much longer! I’m losing my grip! I’m losing my grip!”

The pilot quickly took the helicopter from about 1000 feet to the base of the mountain in about 30 seconds. However, it seemed like a lifetime. I recall wondering if I could continue to hold Tim’s harness in my right hand while also keeping the video monitor from plummeting through the roof of an unsuspecting San Diego family. As the skids of the copter gently touched the earth at the base of the mountain, I could see the sense of relief in Tim’s eyes – and feel the tension leave my hands and feet as I let go of his harness and the TV monitor.

Tim jumped from the copter, took a long deep breath — and then joked that he needed a change of clothing and a restroom. He then took a cigarette from his pocket and began a slow unstable walk while blowing smoke directly into the still cool air of the morning.

Although I have never smoked, I almost started that day. My knees literally were shaking and I could hear and feel my heart beating in ears. My face was bright red and my shirt damp with sweat.

Once we had an opportunity to decompress, we looked at the harness and discovered that although it had indeed slipped, there was a locking mechanism that would have certainly kept Tim from falling totally from the craft – although he would have likely lost the camera and dangled below the skids. However, none of us realized that at the time.

Armed with knowledge, experience and well placed caution we all boarded the copter again for “take 3” – but not before making certain Tim’s safety belt was tightened properly and the TV monitor secured tightly to the floor.

We have all experienced a near tragedy in our lives due to our own error or the error of others. However, nothing can be more traumatic than a tragedy involving our children. The feeling of “knees literally shaking” and “hearing and feeling your heart beating in your  ears” is something most of us can relate to. Moreover, it is a story that I hear over and over again from both parents and students when it comes to not fully understanding technology.

Just like my first experience with an aerial shot – you can’t afford to assume anything. Although I had produced perhaps 100 videos by that time in 1984, I had never produced one requiring an aerial shot. I was not prepared to shoot in a moving helicopter “without doors.”

I didn’t realize how difficult it might be to communicate with headsets given the noise inside of a helicopter “without doors.”  Moreover, how would we communicate if the headsets malfunctioned?

I was not prepared to work with a thirty pound video monitor on a moving helicopter “without doors.”

Bottom line… I was prepared for 97% of that production. However, that small 3% that I didn’t fully understand almost cost someone their life.

Not properly supervised and educated, children are using technology “without doors or secured tethers” and without a net to catch them if they fall.

I am reminded of one presentations that I made last year to a group of 6th and 7th graders. At the end of the presentation a young girl (who I will call Sandy)  came up to me to thank me for the information. She then went on to explain that she wish that we had presented last year. I politely asked why she thought that would have helped. Sandy explained that her best friend (who I will call Jill) was a few years older than her and had taken a naked picture and sent it to a boy. The boy subsequently sent the picture to his friends and so on and so forth.

Sandy knew Jill had done this and was concerned but didn’t know what steps she could take to help her.  After several days, Sandy hadn’t heard from Jill and had grown even more anxious. She went to to Jill’s home home and knocked on the door to see if she was OK. No one answered. She knew Jill’s parents were at work, so she opened the door and yelled for her friend. Again, no one answered. She nervously went upstairs to Jill’s room, only to find her on the floor after having attempted to commit suicide.

Sandy’s courage, caring and action ultimately saved her friend’s life.

Jill had become so distraught over the embarrassment of her naked photo being seen by what she felt was everyone at her school, decided to take her own life. She was living in a world “without doors or tethers.” Before taking the picture and sending it to her boyfriend, she didn’t stop to think that her boyfriend could send that photo to anyone he pleased.

Her boyfriend didn’t stop to think about Jill’s reaction when he sent it to his friends.

Perhaps no one stopped to consider how this might have been stopped before it started.

After speaking to over 40,000 students we have found that while kids might understand how to navigate technology as an application,  they are not aware of consequences, laws or the underlying infrastructure that allows everything that they do to be watched, leveraged, forwarded and exploited. However, once something goes wrong, these children truly feel un-tethered from family and friends.

Moreover, we as parents don’t always understand the applications or the enabling technology. When our children error, we too feel as if we are navigating in darkness un-tethered and without doors.

Knowing that this is a growing issue, there have been several organizations that have surfaced to help educate children and parents on all of these concerns. For example, below are several websites that will help you navigate this evolution of technology for your family. These include:

In the next couple of weeks we will be introducing a new website and applications  that we think will also add value to you and your family in our quest to keep children safe online.

In the meantime, please share your experiences with us so that we collectively can keep in touch with the evolution of technology


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