Helicopter Flight from Washington to Arizona: Logistics and Flight Planning

Planning my last big cross-country flight before overhaul.

Last week, I flew my helicopter down to Chandler, AZ from Wenatchee, WA with Penny the Tiny Dog and my friend Jeremy. I needed to deliver it to Quantum Helicopters so they could get the helicopter’s first overhaul started by November 1. I’d need it back by mid-February at the latest and overhauls typically take 9 to 12 weeks.

Here’s the story of my two-day flight to Arizona, split into three parts for readability. It’s surprising how much I had to say about the flight — and how many photos I have to share. Enjoy.

Logistics and Flight Planning

With various activities scattered all over my October calendar — including a weekly wine tasting class on Wednesday nights and a weekend-long mushroom foray at Mount Rainier — I didn’t have many options to make the trip. I wound up letting Alaska Air pick the dates by searching for the best deal on a return flight to Wenatchee that would fit my schedule. That return flight was Wednesday, October 19, at 6 AM. Since I wanted one last oil change before I headed south and my mechanics usually don’t work weekends, that meant leaving late Monday morning and getting to Chandler before Quantum closed at 8 PM on Tuesday.

Some folks wonder why it was so important for me to get an oil change before making the long flight. After all, it was going in for overhaul. Surely it wouldn’t matter how dirty the oil was when it arrived. But only 8 flight hours before, on a 50-hour inspection, my mechanics had found more metal fragments in the oil filter than usual. (They had begun finding very small amounts of metal from the aging engine about six months before, but nothing to cause alarm. This was different.) Yes, the helicopter had gone a full 50-hours between changes so the amount of metal would likely be higher than usual. But was it critical? The only way to see how bad it was was to get one more oil change and take a look at the filter. They’d do this the morning before my departure and if things looked bad, I’d scrap the flight plans and arrange to trailer it down.

Fastest Route
The fastest route from Wenatchee to Phoenix. There aren’t many fuel options and there’s a lot of empty desert.

The fastest route between Wenatchee and Phoenix is a nearly straight line with fuel stops in Burns, OR; Elko, NV; and Mesquite, NV. I’ve taken this route several times and it can get me to Sky Harbor in eight hours with a light load and a nice tailwind. But at least 50% of this route is over empty desert, miles and miles from any road or town. There’s one stretch in particular where for 90 minutes all you’re flying over is grass and sagebrush, with herds of wild horses galloping away at the sound of your approach — no roads, no buildings, nothing else. If the engine got iffy, we might have to land someplace where getting help would be difficult. I honestly didn’t want to deal with it.

Planned Route
Our planned route was at least four hours longer with a handful more fuel stops along the way.

So I told my passenger, Jeremy, that he could pick the route. He got very creative. He suggested an overnight stop at Sacramento with friends of his on Monday night, then stops at the Hiller Museum at San Carlos Airport (south of San Francisco), and Santa Barbara for lunch with his daughter. That lengthened the route considerably, but kept us near roads, towns, or cities for much of the flight. I started working up a plan. Sacramento before sunset was doable — I’d done it in less than a day more than a few times — but we’d have to leave early and skip the San Carlos stop to make it to Santa Barbara with enough time for lunch before heading east. By that time, I’d also made early dinner arrangements with some friends in Wickenburg, AZ, and we needed to meet them by 4 PM to have an unhurried dinner and get to Chandler by 7 PM. (I had to chat with the mechanic and unload the helicopter before they closed and I certainly didn’t want to hold anyone up.) I plotted the new route, trying hard to find airports with decent fuel prices. Tuesday would be a long day, but I kind of looked forward to flying through the high desert north of the Los Angeles area, which I hadn’t done in several years.

Meanwhile, the weather wasn’t looking good. A pair of storm systems were due to arrive in the Pacific Northwest on the Thursday and Saturday before our trip. Cliff Mass, the Northwest weather guru, was predicting a storm equal to the famous Columbus Day Storm that had hit Seattle back in 1962. Jeremy, who lives on that side of the mountains, was getting nervous. While I was aware of the storm — heck, we were supposed to get a ton of rain in the Wenatchee area on both days — I also knew that storms come and go. The forecasts had it clearing up by Sunday and we weren’t due to leave until Monday. Monday’s forecast called for just 20% chance of rain and forecasts for our entire route, which I began tracking on Friday, looked pretty much the same. Worst case scenario was that we’d fly through some rain. And I’d done that enough times not to worry about it.

The storms came and went, pretty much as predicted. We got over an inch of rain here. Seattle and the coast got hit harder, but not nearly as hard as the weather folks expected. There were some scattered power outages and downed trees, but not the catastrophic storm damage expected.

Sunday was mostly cloudy here but there wasn’t any rain — at least not to notice. I picked up Jeremy at the bus station — he took a Greyhound (!) from Seattle — we had a late lunch, and headed home. I spent some time prepping the helicopter for the long trip, getting my GoPros hooked up and pulling out any equipment I wouldn’t need on the trip or after I picked up the helicopter in January or February. Jeremy made Manhattans and opened a bottle of wine he’d brought for dinner. My friend Alyse came for dinner — I cooked up some ribeye steaks and we had them with garden potatoes and carrots.

Eventually Alyse went home and, after chatting for a while, we turned in for the night.

A Change of Plans

I woke up early, as I usually do, and immediately used my iPad to check and file my flight plan. That’s when I got my first surprise: It would take more than three hours to reach our first fuel stop at Bend, OR. That wasn’t right. I woke up a bit more and took a closer look at the flight plan. The plan accounted for 25 knot headwinds.

Shit.

I checked the rest of the flight plan. High, gusty winds from the south were predicted for much of our route to Sacramento. Chances of rain had increased a bit, too. I started exploring other routes that would take us to Sacramento before nightfall. The high winds stretched far to the east, into the empty desert I’d been hoping to avoid. To the west, near the coast, rain was likely and, I knew from experience, visibility would be poor. The weather briefing backed this up, forecasting moderate turbulence inland and mountain obscuration along the coast.

So if we took the route I’d planned on, not only would we be bouncing all over the sky, but we’d be in the air an extra hour or more because of headwinds, with at least one additional fuel stop. I was looking at a miserable day of flying with a passenger who was already worried about the weather. It would not be a good day — certainly not the kind of pre-overhaul flight I was looking forward to.

At breakfast, I reported my findings to Jeremy. That only made him mention his previous weather concerns more. But it wasn’t as if I could call off the flight, or even postpone it. The flight was doable and I already had all my plans made for a return flight that would still get me back for my wine tasting class on Wednesday. (I do have my priorities straight.) I decided that we’d depart on schedule and see how things looked to the south.

So a while later, I was spinning up the helicopter while Jeremy watched from my front yard. I took off and headed to the airport for that oil change. Jeremy drove my truck to the airport so I’d have a way to get home from the airport on Wednesday.

I did treat myself to a nice tour of Wenatchee before heading into the airport. I needed to warm up the oil, after all. It was a beautiful morning with scattered low clouds. Through a gap in the clouds, I could see snow at the top of Mission Ridge. It was the second snowfall they’d gotten up there and I knew my ski-loving friends would be thrilled.

At the airport, the three mechanics of Alpine Aviation were waiting for me. I shut down and we pushed the helicopter into the hangar. They did the oil change while I chatted with the folks hanging out in the FBO lounge and consulted ForeFlight on my iPad for options. There was stormy weather to the east, near Pendleton and Walla Walla. One route I’d taken in the past climbed the Green Mountains near Pendleton and followed I-84 through the mountains and Boise beyond. It was a good route, but I’d also been stuck at the foot of those mountains, blocked by low clouds. It would be a time-wasting detour if that happened again.

The oil filter showed some more metal fragments, but not enough to cause serious concern. The engine was, after all, 2068 hours old. (And that’s based on the collective-based “maintenance” Hobbs — it likely had well over 2,200 hours of actual engine running time.) The engine would not cause a flight cancellation.

Penny on a Box
Here’s where Penny would sit for the entire duration of our trip south. She sleeps most of the time.

By 11, I was fueled up, paid up, packed up, and ready to go. I put Penny in her travel bed behind me on top of an empty wheeled box I’d brought along for storing helicopter equipment during overhaul. (I couldn’t bring all of that stuff home.) Jeremy’s wheelie bag and camera bag and tripod filled the space behind him. I shoved my day pack and jacket in the foot space behind my seat. Jeremy climbed into the passenger seat with his camera ready and buckled up. I got the front GoPro’s wifi fired up, climbed into my seat, buckled up, and started the engine.

We felt very heavy when I pulled pitch — was the engine really that tired? — but had no trouble lifting off. Soon we were heading southeast along the river. Our trip had begun.

[read more]

Comments are closed.