(Excerpt from Quantum Entity | we are all ONE: Nell takes Damien to the Mayan ruins at Marco Gonzalez. They don’t hike in; they fly there with the BARF Club aboard high end ultralights, among the closest things to bird flight)
Nell has a plan for D’s birthday, but she won’t give him any specifics. She wanted to get him away from T.O. for a week or more, but, given both of their schedules, all they got were these four measly days. Still, she and Gillian were able to work out a plan to take the entire group to the Marco Gonzalez Mayan site on the southernmost tip of Ambergris Caye. It’s about 11 kilometres away from Maya Fair, which doesn’t sound like much, but the trails (such as they once were) are now completely overgrown and reclaimed by Belizean jungle.
There is plenty of tough mangrove swamp (inhabited, Gillian tells her, by saltwater crocodiles) between Maya Fair and Marco Gonzalez. Nell isn’t sure what she’s more worried about now—crocs or sharks on their dive at Great Blue Hole (planned for day three). Gillian tells her the only guy ever eaten by a lazy Belizean crocodile was a local fisherman, who, while trying to land a tenacious barracuda, stepped on what he thought was part of the reef only to find that the seagrass-covered surface was actually an incredibly old reptilian monster. Once disturbed, the croc decided he might as well make a meal of the guy.
Estuarine crocs are the largest of all reptiles and can live up to a century, perhaps longer. They show great dimorphism; the males are much larger than the females. Some weigh more than a ton and can grow as large as 8.6 metres. They swim as fast as 8 metres per second in short bursts and move almost as fast on flat land. If one ever does chase you, run uphill is Gillian’s advice. In the sea, you have no chance.
Crocs do seem to have taken a liking to dog and regularly snack on man’s best friend. The dogs run toward, bark at, and generally try to play with these old crocs, who retreat further and further into the sea until the dogs practically swim into their muzzles. Nell isn’t reassured by any of this.
Sixty years earlier, archaeologists, Dr. Elizabeth Graham and Dr. David M. Pendergast, followed a tip from an elder in San Pedro Town and found the Marco Gonzalez Mayan ruins after trekking through some very tough bush. The site is now designated an “Archaeological Reserve” by the Belizean government, but virtually nothing has been done at the site since its original discovery. Over 90% of the structure has never even been explored. Much of it is underground, beneath a series of three pyramids set in a perfect equilateral triangle. But now they’re mostly invisible, covered by jungle.
The group is not going to walk there or go by boat; it’s going to fly in. Gillian has arranged for her boyfriend, Boyd Combs, to come to Maya Fair and party with them. More importantly, he and his seven best buddies are bringing their ultralights up from Placentia. They’re the Black Aces Reunion Flying Club, which Boyd and his mates privately call the BARF Club, but not for reasons most people would suspect.
These crazy guys think nothing of flying their rigs over the Andes at altitudes over 20,000 feet—where thin air can cause altitude sickness and quickly kill the unprepared with high-altitude pulmonary and cerebral edemas or retinal hemorrhaging as well as cause dizziness, nausea, disorientation, reduced thought processes, and general clumsiness. Boyd’s dad, Robert, still holds the high-altitude mark for open-cockpit ultralights of just over 22,000 feet!
They are all former U.S. military or civilian pilots and take precautions. Before a flight like that, they take acetazolamide to increase the acidity of their blood so they can breathe deeper and faster as well as nifedipine to resolve pulmonary hypertension. They also swallow a bunch of ibuprofen for headaches and bring anti-nausea drugs plus a personal oxygen system with them.
These are the same guys who fly in formation—much like migratory geese do and for the same fuel-saving reasons—over the Gulf of Mexico. They slap extra engines, props, and fuel tanks on each of their tricycle frames for the more than 600-mile, over-the-water flight. These souped-up machines fly in excess of 90 mph.
Their trikes are ultra high-end machines. They have 91 hp, 4-stroke Rotax XTA9220 engines built in Australia, with a four- to five-hour range on just 18 U.S. gallons of fuel. Although they can fly in just about anything, Boyd and his crew (none of whom have less than 6,000 hours of flight time) never take passengers up in winds above 15 knots. Their trikes have BVS rocket-deployed parachutes so if they ever suffer a structural failure, riders can still expect a soft landing. They also have flotation devices and EPIRB beacons that are GPS-enabled.
None of this stuff is expected to be required for this short jaunt—they will cover 11 kilometres in 15 minutes, tootling along at a low altitude, giving Nell and her guests a nice view of the town and jungle before circling overhead to let them see Marco Gonzalez. Recent research has re-dated these ruins; they’re even older than once thought—perhaps as old as 4,000 years. Thousands of Mayan traders didn’t suddenly materialize on Ambergris Caye; rather, it took a long time to build up their population, although their departure seems to have happened much more quickly.
Each of the trikes carries a pilot and one passenger, so they will shuttle back and forth until everyone in Nell’s group is relocated to a nearby beach. It won’t take them long.
Surprisingly, these trikes are more comfortable than they look—hey, they’ve got big-arse leather seats for their passengers, special helmets with built-in noise-cancellation technology, as well as great communication, camera, and video equipment. Each person will have a complete record of their time with the BARF Club. More intrepid passengers will also get an opportunity to handle the trapeze, which trims the ultralight’s sail—pull in, lose altitude; push out, gain altitude; lean left, go left; lean right, go right. It’s pretty basic and foolproof unless, of course, you do a nose or wingtip stall or lose the stainless steel pin that attaches the sail to the trike. It will all be great fun.
Boyd is 42 years old but looks much younger. Like most pilots, he’s not overly tall, and although he is very strong, he does not weigh much. Each year, he goes on a 14-day, total body-cleansing fast, drinking only water flavored with his own recipe of agents that has been designed to detoxify his system. He’s quite crazy, especially about Gillian, who feels the same way about him.
Nell, through Gillian’s contacts, has made generous contributions to both the National Institute of Culture and History (NICH) and the Belize Institute of Archaeology, so her party has unfettered, government-sanctioned access to Marco Gonzalez. Nell and Damien both want to make each day count, so flights begin at dawn, and they will be in the first V-formation of Black Aces.
Damien likes to be prepared and know what’s happening around him. So, he asks Pet3r to boot up a learning simulation as soon as they’re alone. He learns to fly in about 45 minutes. Takeoff and level flight are a breeze, but he finds landing on a soft sandy beach hard. He crashes a few times before finally managing to do it—once. You can never be too careful. What if his pilot has a heart attack or something in flight? Damien is now pretty sure he can handle himself.
The morning of the day before Damien’s 23rd birthday dawns bright and clear with nary a breath of wind. The Black Aces have been up preparing their aircraft for more than an hour. They each go through their entire pre-flight checklist twice.
Nell is dressed in beachwear with a sarong wrapped around her lithe frame. She is all smiles, and her eyes are shining, mostly at D. They have a hard time finding a helmet that fits her since she is so tiny.
She will ride with Boyd at the front of the formation. Next will be Damien, flying with Montana-born Lester Cooper, who is distantly related to the actor of the same last name. Other than Nell, with an incongruous helmet now sitting on her head, other fishes-out-of-water are pudgy guys Tony Reznik and Dr. Luis, who are sitting nervously on the backseats of a couple of trikes wondering how they got talked into this. Reznik reminds himself of the importance of his one client and decides to say nothing sarcastic.
They take off into what little headwind there is and turn 180 degrees toward the south end of the island. Everyone can see waves crashing on the outside of the reef—about 2,000 metres to the east of them—as they quickly climb to a cruising altitude of 380 metres. Down below, in San Pedro Town, fishing boats are heading out for the day, and some vans (but mostly golf carts) are making deliveries. A few pedestrians are strolling about at this time of the day, and most tourists are still sleeping off their nightly hangovers.
“Hey D!” Nell calls over her radio. She waves cheerfully.
“Hey,” he says back. “These trikes are a heck of a lot more comfortable than sitting on Lenny heading down Bright Angel Trail!”
Nell laughs and gives him a thumbs-up and a cute smile.
“Would you like to try flying the aircraft?” asks Lester, also known to his friends as Coop.
“Sure, Lester,” replies Damien.
“It’s Coop, Dr. Bell.”
“It’s Damien, Coop.”
“Right. Just place your hands outside of mine on the horizontal part of the trapeze, feel what I do, and just go with it, OK?”
“Boyd, Coop here.”
“I’m breaking formation and heading east, magnetic bearing S 45° E, to give Dr. Bell here a chance to fly Bettie.” Bettie is the name of Coop’s trike. He’s got a wicked decal of her on his sail, which Boyd has asked him to swap out before they do tours like this because it’s too over the top for many of their more conservative tourists. It’s a large black-and-white image of a nearly naked, large-breasted, impossibly narrow-waisted, black-haired Betty Boop, dealing out huge Black Aces to an unseen group of admirers. Coop’s kept it in place for this group of maverick, top-end performers.
“Roger that. You are heading east, magnetic bearing S 45° E,” repeats Boyd.
Pilots of small planes plot their trips mostly using true north bearings and then convert them to magnetic north since their on-board cockpit instruments can detect only magnetic north. This is trickier than it seems since magnetic north can vary a lot on the surface of the Earth. It also shifts in position about 40 miles per year (heading, for some unknown reason, toward Russia).
So, to reflect current corrections, the BARF Club updates their aviation maps, charts, and database they use for air navigation at least twice each year. They don’t carry a lot of extra fuel and can’t afford to miss a landing site by, say, 40 miles.
In this, they are more like entrepreneurs, who also have to be right practically all the time otherwise their enterprises fold. In fact, the BARF Club is very entrepreneurial—they do a lot of paid gigs and have an enviable perfect safety record (so far) when it comes to flying paying customers. They never try anything risky in “public-transit” mode.
Coop and Damien break off and fly out to the reef. It doesn’t take Coop long to figure out that the kid knows what he’s doing. And as Coop and Damien lose altitude and peel away from the formation, Traian gets his first look at the decal on Coop’s sail and thinks that Betty looks a lot like Dakota.
“Have you flown one of these before?” Coop asks Damien.
“No. Well, maybe, if you count the simulation I tried last night,” Damien answers.
“It shows. Other than flying prone beneath a hang-glider, this is the closest you can get to simulating bird flight in real life.”
“It’s fantastic. Do you think we could climb higher?”
“You bet. Just—”
But Damien is already gently pushing out on the trapeze to gain altitude. He does it gradually, like he and Pet3r practised, so as not to stall the aircraft. Then, he levels out and tries gaining and losing altitude using minute adjustments of the trapeze. Next, he gets the craft to bank first left, then right in shallow s-curves, so now he has a feel for yaw and pitch before he completes his first 360-degree circle. Coop is comfortable enough with Damien’s piloting skills to let him do everything, although he is prepared to take control in microseconds if it becomes necessary. It doesn’t.
They arrive about 25 minutes after the first group has landed. Damien leaves the landing to Coop, preferring not to practise crash landings for real.
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