Experience counts – Flying Helicopters and Arc Welding


It seems obvious, but experiencing is quite different from simply having knowledge of something. Some experiences are clearly to be avoided (like a bullet wound or a large tax bill) whereas some are to be embraced. I recently had a ride in a helicopter (a kind friend coerced her son to take me up in his helicopter which happened to be parked in the garden when I visited). Even though we were travelling at over 90 mph, there was no real sense of speed. The ‘bubble glass’ nature of the cockpit also meant that you really felt you were out there, just hanging, like hawks. This is rather different from peering through the tiny portholes in aeroplanes; I’m not sure what I was expecting but it was memorable and exhilarating.

I’ve noticed there’s a vibrant second hand helicopter sales market, so it got me thinking…I mean how hard can it be? All those film stars (like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis) seem to have no trouble getting to grips with flying; the film, The Matrix, showed that you can learn how to fly in only a few seconds (if you have a hole drilled in the base of your skull that can accept computer downloads).

Recently I tried electric arc welding, largely because it’s a pretty useful thing to be able to do for minor repairs on vehicles and around the home. There’s lots of issues associated with arc-welding but I guess the most immediately obvious one is the intensely bright light. Like most people, I’ve seen welders in action (just about every fabrication workshop and garage does it) and, like a moth, been attracted from afar to the intensely bright light that emanates from the arc. It always seems a pretty cool thing to be able to do – like Cyclops with those menacing mono-ocular masks.

It’s only when you actually use a welding mask, you realise how impossibly dark the filtering lens is and the constant need to stop to check the work. In fact you can’t see anything through it at all until you strike the electric arc; it’s like being blind folded. As we all know, the principle danger from the arc light is not what we can see, it’s the invisible Ultra Violet (UV) and Infrared (IR) band components. (Note that Ultra Violet is also the title of quite a good film, starring actress Milla Jovovich). The dark coloration of the lens is added not to protect against the UV/IR (though the lens, visor and protective clothing do that too); no, it protects from the discomfort glare of the intense visible light. Some ‘smart’, auto-darkening lenses use electronics to detect when the arc is lit and instantly darken to protect against the visible glare. That’s neat but comes with a hefty price tag.

Since I have the cheap option, it presents some real difficulties and that’s where practice to develop the skill comes in. So, you have to line up everything ready before you get started and everything goes dark; you can’t see anything until the arc is lit. You then begin to understand the real temptation (subconscious) to catch a glimpse of the workpiece through unshielded eyes, and the benefit of getting something better. I must save up for some smart lenses whilst I recover in hospital….and contemplate my new found respect for the skill of arc welders and a fresh appreciation of the difficulties involved.