The View from Above

I remember that not everyone knows what the world looks like from 500 feet up.

The other day, while I was down in Surprise, AZ, doing a bit of “analog shopping” — that’s the kind of shopping where you physically walk into a store and look around and maybe buy something but maybe don’t, as opposed on online shopping, which is how I usually buy things other than food or fuel — I suddenly realized that most people don’t have any idea what the area around their homes, schools, or businesses looks like from the air. Right now, I can’t remember what triggered that thought, but I do recall that it hit me hard — hard enough to remember, anyway. I told myself to give the idea some thought and blog about it.

Chances are that you are one of the people who haven’t seen your local environment from the air and you probably don’t think that’s a big deal. Most people haven’t. And that’s what hit me so hard: that the pilots of small aircraft are a minority, not just because they fly, but because they’ve seen so many things from above.

The View from My Seat

I started flying in 1998 or 1999 (need to check my log book to be sure). Back then, I spent most of my flight time just thinking about flying. I was taking lessons to learn how to fly and didn’t have much time to admire the view. But the time I could fly, the view had become second nature.

Off the Grid HouseSo yes — I know what a subdivision looks like from the air. And a school with ball fields. And a park and a town pool. I’ve seen all kinds of backyards, from perfectly trimmed, walled-in plots of grass or decorative rock to sprawling, weed- and junk-filled patches of desert. I’ve seen small downtowns, both dead and alive. I’ve seen where the pavement turns to dirt and what lies five miles beyond. Or ten. Or fifty.

Glen Canyon DamI’ve seen desert lakes and rivers winding through canyons. I’ve seen dams along the Colorado and canals stretching as far as the eye can see. I’ve seen, from the air, natural wonders, like the Grand Canyon, Meteor Crater, the Little Colorado River Gorge, the Grand Falls of the Little Colorado River, and Rainbow Bridge. I’ve flown beside red rocks in Sedona and Monument Valley buttes. I’ve peeked into open pit mines from above and have felt as small as a speck flying down the emptiness of Death Valley. Recently, I’ve flown over Alaskan glaciers blanketed with fresh, pristine snow that went on for twenty, thirty, or forty miles without so much as a footprint to disturb it.

I’ve seen so many things from the air — often from 500 to 1000 feet up — that when I’m on the ground, I can often envision what the place might look like from the air.

Dale LakeThat doesn’t mean I’m bored with the view. While I’ll admit that spending 20 minutes to cross an empty valley in some of the more remote areas of Nevada and California can get pretty dull, there’s always something interesting to notice along the way. Perhaps it’s a deserted homestead, half blown away by wind or covered by sand. Or some ATVs speeding along a transmission line road, sending up a cloud of dust that reveals their position. Or maybe it’s just an odd rock formation, jutting out of the otherwise flat terrain like the ruins of a half-sunken ship.

I wish I could share these images with others, but it’s tough. When I fly, my right hand is always on the cyclic. Cameras are designed to be used with the right hand. Although I’ve become pretty good at taking photos with my left hand, only a small percentage of those shots really show what I’m seeing, without glare and reflections from the cockpit bubble. And sometimes the interesting things I fly by go by very quickly — too quickly to snap a photo. Like the Indian cliff dwelling I passed on a flight from Howard Mesa to Scottsdale at least a year ago; I was in too much of a hurry to circle back and see it again — or get the GPS coordinates. I haven’t found it again.

I write about many of my flights in this blog. If I have photos, I share them. If you’re new to this blog and want to read a few of my better efforts, be sure to check out these:

There’s more, but I’ll let you find them for yourself. Clicking the Flying link under Blog Topics in the sidebar will get you started.

But neither the words nor the photos can truly share the experience of flight or the view from above.

Why I Give Rides

When I first started Flying M Air, I depended on ride gigs to generate income and help cash flow. I soon learned that, in general, giving short rides at a carnival or airport event is a lot more trouble than it’s worth.

First there’s the bother of setting up the event, making sure the landing zone is close enough to the action to be visible to attendees, but far enough away to be safe. The approach and departure routes, which are often the same, need to be clear of obstructions. I need to be able to point the helicopter’s tail away from where people might be waiting or walking when I set down. The insurance paperwork and fees are minor concerns after that.

But the hard part is the flying. It’s grueling work, sitting in the seat for hours on end with a takeoff and a landing every 10 to 15 minutes. With three people on board, we’re usually close to max gross weight and, on a hot day with a crosswind or tailwind, just getting off the ground is challenging.

Once we get off the ground and start on our little tour of the area, though, it’s worth it. More than half the people I fly on rides have never been in a helicopter before. At some events, more than half my passengers are kids. I have the unique opportunity to introduce these people to helicopter flight. And as they chat among each other in the helicopter and ask me questions, I get a glimpse of what they’re seeing through their eyes.

And that’s why I do rides.

While people do some quick math and think I’m making a fortune on every rides gig, the reality is very different; I can usually net more money doing a few trips to the Grand Canyon or Sedona than I can at a rides gig — and that flying is easy.

More Stories and Photos to Come

I’m doing a cross-country flight in mid-May with another pilot. We’re flying from Wickenburg, AZ to Seattle, WA. This will be my longest cross-country flight to date — previously, my longest flight was from Wickenburg to Georgetown, CA. Because that other pilot will be doing most of the flying, I’ll have my door off and my good camera ready. I plan to take lots of pictures and write about the flight in detail.

I’m sure that much of what I have to show and tell will appear here.

5 thoughts on “The View from Above

  1. I hope you will take many pictures of the Basin & Range country of Nevada. For several years, I accompanied my mother from Phoenix to Victoria, where she spent the summers. Since I Always ask for a window seat, I got to know the terrain of PHX-Seatac quite well. It sent me to John McPhee to learn more about the Basin & Range country. He’s a terrific education!

    GrannyJ’s last blog post..Butte Creek

  2. Maria – really enjoy your writing about flying and photos/videos. That shadow takeoff is one of the best helo videos I’ve ever seen. I have a Raven I same color as yours that I flew out here (I live on California’s central coast) from Atlanta. I predict you’ll be addicted to long cross country flights after next month. Your right about the perspective from 500 feet. As a lover of both helicopters and the desert, I seem to graviatate to your site alot. Just thought I’d say thanks. Have fun and fly safe to Seattle.

  3. I’ll definitely have the POV.1 hooked up for some in-flight video. But I’ll also be taking shots with my Nikon. I’m not sure if we’ll be going over Nevada at all. I think the two options are up the Central Valley of California (boring!) or up the California Coast. I’m letting the other pilot decide, since he’s doing the flight.

  4. Hopefully you can convince the other pilot to go up the coast if ceilings allow it. I fly one or the other route from Paso Robles on the coast to the Orange County area every week. This time of year, the colors up the coast cannot be beat (nor can the bugs if you go up up the central valley). Have fun.

  5. I think he’ll consider the coast. It’s a much more interesting flight. The Central Valley’s air quality tends to be pretty crappy; I remember flying for hours with 3 miles or less visibility the entire time. The higher you go, the worse it is until you break out over the top. Then you’re flying above the haze and it’s REALLY boring. But if you fly down low, you have to worry about towers and crop dusters. I’ve never flown up the coast, and since I’ll be doing photography, I’m very interested in going that way. But it’s longer and he’s paying, so it’s up to him.

What do you think?