And that’s kind of spooky.
The other day, on my flight from Page, AZ (PGA) to Phoenix Deer Valley Airport (DVT), an odd thing happened. I was about 12 miles out, coming down through the mountains near New River on the east side of I-17 when I caught sight of a low-flying aircraft ahead of me. The tiny dot in the distance moved left to right in front of my flight path at about my altitude. When it made a sharp turn, I knew it was a helicopter.
I was tuned into the helicopter air-to-air frequency, 123.025, and keyed my mic. “Helicopter over New River, are you on frequency?”
Nothing. Repeating this call twice also brought no response. In the meantime, it appeared that the helicopter was circling in that area. It couldn’t be a media helicopter; they monitor the helicopter frequency. Who was it, what were they doing, and — most important — did they see me?
I started to climb. That in itself was odd. Normally, when I see traffic in my vicinity, I descend to avoid it. But this guy seemed as if he were looking at something on the ground. As he moved from right to left, I veered off a bit to the right, planning to either pass behind him or into his view if he turned again.
I had the helicopter’s nosecam running and just inspected the video. It reminds me that I was flying into the low-lying winter sun for most of the flight; this clip was from about 11:30 AM. The other helicopter is almost impossible to see because of the wide angle lens exaggerating distances, but as the video progresses, I can clearly the the flash its blades as the sunlight reflects off them at certain bank angles. Here’s a capture from the movie with an inset blowup of one of those flashes; he was 2-3 miles away at this point:
He didn’t turn. He continued to the left, eastbound, out of my path of flight. I resumed normal navigation, keeping an eye on him to make sure he didn’t come back. He didn’t. Instead, he began heading south about a mile east of me, slightly higher. I could see from the shape of his helicopter that he wasn’t flying a Robinson or a Hughes. It could have been a JetRanger.
Meanwhile, I was nearing Deer Valley and had listened to the ATIS on my second radio. I was about 7 miles out and ready to call in when another helicopter called in, using the same position report I’d use: “7 miles north.” Unless there was another helicopter right behind me, it had to be the guy I’d been watching. He was going to the north hangars, which is a huge group of hangars on the northeast side of the runways. The tower responded, telling him to report a mile out.
I called in immediately with basically the same call but to the Atlantic ramp, which is on the south side of the runways. I added: “I have the other helicopter in sight.” I was told to report a mile north and expect a midfield crossing at 2,000 feet. The usual.
The tower frequency was unusually quiet, but the controller did talk to one or two other pilots. Then the other helicopter came on. “Helicopter 1-2-3 (I can’t remember its real tail number and wouldn’t use it anyway) is just crossing Carefree Highway.” There was a pause and then he added, “Maria.”
He was talking to me. On the tower frequency. Creepy.
A little surprised, I spoke up, “Helicopter Zero-Mike-Lima has you in sight.” What I later realized is that he still didn’t see me and was trying to get me to tell him where I was in relation to him. I should have added, “I’m at your two o’clock low,” which is where I was, still at least a half mile away. But I was a bit frazzled by a stranger speaking to me directly, by name, on the tower frequency.
Hell, wouldn’t you be?
But was he a stranger? Maybe I did know him. But I couldn’t think of anyone I knew who owned a helicopter like that. If he’d been landing on the south side, it could have been a media or medevac helicopter and then I might know the pilot, but he wasn’t. He was landing at the rental hangars on the north. That meant his helicopter was likely privately owned or he was visiting someone up there. Who was it? Beats me.
A minute or two later, he called again, “Deer Valley Tower, Helicopter 1-2-3 has the red Robbie in sight.”
(Why does it bug me just a tiny bit when other helicopter pilots refer to Robinsons as Robbies?)
Then I was making my call a mile out and getting instructions to cross midfield at 2,000 feet. I was making my spiraling descent on the other side of the runway when the other helicopter reported a mile out and got his instructions to land.
And that was the last I heard from him.
Of course, all this reminds me that the helicopter community is a small world where most folks know most other folks. Of all the helicopter pilots out there, how many are women? Likely 5% or less. Of all the female helicopter pilots, how many are flying red Robinson R44 helicopters in the Phoenix area? Probably just one: me.
And it’s a lot easier to remember the name of the one oddball in the pack than every other pilot out there.
I just wish I knew who was flying the other helicopter.