Snowbirding 2017 Postcards: La Posada, Part 1

For the past four or five years, I’ve been wanting to spend New Year’s at La Posada, a historic Route 66 Fred Harvey Company Hotel designed by one of the southwest’s greatest architects, Mary Colter. Every year, I book a room for two nights and every year I cancel my reservation. I was on track to make it last winter when truck trouble delayed me up north. But this year I was determined to come. I even turned down two other New Years Eve invitations for spending the evening with friends.

What’s the attraction? A few things draw me here again and again. First, the history of the place and its ties to the railroad and southwest tourism. Next, the ability to see an active restoration — heck, the first time I came here in the early 2000s, only the restaurant and a handful of rooms and public spaces were open! Now this work in progress is nearly done and I’ve gotten a chance to watch its progress with my occasional visits throughout the years. Then there’s the restaurant, the Turquoise Room; I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s one of my top 10 favorite restaurants in the U.S. and finally, there’s the artwork, not only by resident artist Tina Mion but by others, as well. The gift shop is full of work by local artists and much of it decorates the walls throughout the hotel.

Anyway, I was up early this morning (as usual) and took the opportunity to snap a few images of the public spaces. I’ll add more in another post. 

If you’re ever in the area, I urge you to stop in.

Inside La Posada Inside La PosadaInside La PosadaInside La Posada

Snowbirding 2017 Postcards: Yarnell Hill Sunset

I happened to be driving from Prescott to Wickenburg around sunset when Mother Nature put on a good show. I stopped at the little rest area/lookout point on the downhill side of Yarnell Hill for a better look and a photo. 

I first stopped at Yarnell Hill around sunset way back in 1995. That was the year I’d decided I was sick of the New York Metro Area’s harsh winters and spent three months in Arizona. I lived in a tiny apartment in Yarnell that season and the road between Congress and Yarnell was one I’d take regularly on a trip to Wickenburg or Phoenix. 

Much later, after I moved to Wickenburg with my future wasband, the road and its viewpoint were on a regular route between Wickenburg and Prescott and points beyond. As I stopped for this shot, I had a crystal clear memory of stopping in the parking area on a summer day after a motorcycle ride to Prescott. We’d douse ourselves with whatever water was left in our water bottles, relying on evaporative cooling for the last 20 miles in temperatures that were often above 100 degrees. Soaking wet in the parking area 1500 feet above the Sonoran desert, we’d be bone dry before we got home. 

It was cold and windy when I stopped for this shot. I watched the fading colors from the comfort of my truck. But I remember how the spot was on all my previous stops, with the sound of the wind or of cows in the dairy farm far below. Quiet desert solitude and a view that goes on for miles and miles, all at the side of the road. 

Some Thoughts on Drone Photography

If you can’t beat them, join them.

Phantom 4
The Phantom 4 is a flying camera.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the rise of unmanned aerial systems (UAS), more commonly referred to as “drones,” these days, mostly because I’ve been able to get some good hands-on experience with the prosumer DJI Phantom 4. The Phantom 4 is marketed as a flying camera and I honestly think it’s a good categorization. Clearly it was designed for photography and it has given me a new appreciation for drones, which I don’t generally like.

Drone Threats

As a helicopter pilot, I’ve felt a rather unique threat from the rise of drones (no pun intended). I want to take a moment to explain, mostly because although my general opinion of drones has changed, my views about their threats have not.

Safety

First and foremost are my safety concerns. There are too many drone “pilots” who fly irresponsibly in places they should not be, including near airports and at altitudes that should be reserved for manned aerial flights. The FAA has attempted to reduce the risk of drone/aircraft collisions by setting a maximum altitude of 400 feet for drones. This is far from a perfect solution for two reasons:

  • Irresponsible drone pilots ignore the restrictions and fly higher than 400 feet above the ground. I have witnessed this more than once, although I’m glad to report that I wasn’t flying at the time.
  • Helicopters generally don’t have a minimum operating altitude so we can fly below 400 feet. Even my Part 135 certificate, which sets some limitations for on-demand charter flights, specifies a minimum altitude of 300 feet — this means I can legally be sharing 100 feet of airspace with UAS with charter passengers on board.

Drones are small. They can fly at speeds in excess of 50 miles per hour. I fly in speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour. That’s a closing rate, for a head-on collision, of 150 miles per hour. Does anyone really think I can “see and avoid” something the size of a 12-pack of beer coming at me at 150 miles per hour?

And if pilots are irresponsible enough to disobey FAA regulations, are they responsible enough to stay clear of aircraft?

Other drone-specific regulations regularly ignored:

  • Staying clear of temporary flight restriction (TFR) areas. There have been many reported instances of drones flying around wildfires being worked by firefighting aircraft. In some cases, these violations of airspace have caused the grounding of aircraft.
  • Staying clear of other restricted airspace. The one that worries me most is flights close to airports.
  • Keeping the drone within sight. That’s not easy to do when the drone has a range of more than 3 miles and it’s so small.
  • Not flying over people. I have witnessed this first hand many times at outdoor gatherings.
  • Obtaining FAR Part 107 certification for commercial use of drones. This certification helps ensure that drone pilots are real pilots who know and understand FAA regulations and important aviation and aeronautical concepts.

I can go on and on, but why bother? The fact is that although many drone pilots are responsible enough to learn and obey the rules for operating their drones, enough of them aren’t responsible at all. They make pilots — especially low-level pilots like those flying helicopters — worried about their safety.

Economics

The second threat I’m feeling is economic.

I’ll be blunt: over the past 15 or so years, I’ve earned a reasonable portion of my flying revenue from photography and survey flights. Drones are increasingly being used for both roles, thus cutting into my potential market.

I currently charge $545/hour for photo flights. Although I can cover a lot of territory in an hour and give two photographers a platform for aerial photos at the same time, not everyone sees the benefit. For about the same price, a photographer can buy a decent entry level photo drone and get the shots he needs. And then use the same drone another day without a further investment.

Or make a larger drone investment and get a better drone and better camera.

I’ll admit it: in many instances, a drone can get a better shot. A perfect example is a dawn photo shoot I did with a good client about two years ago. They’d staged the Wenatchee Symphony Orchestra at a local park, Ohme Gardens, and wanted sweeping aerial images of them playing. On our first pass, our downwash blew away their sheet music. (Oops.) We eventually got the shots they wanted, but I recall saying to my client, “You should have used a drone for this one.”

Aerial Orchestra
Here’s a still image from one of the aerial sequences we did that morning. Watch the whole video here; all the aerial shots were done from my helicopter.

But another client needed aerial video and still images all along the Columbia River from Wenatchee to Chelan, then up the Wenatchee River to Leavenworth and up Lake Chelan to Stehekin. This was well over a hundred miles to cover and some of it was inaccessible by car. We got all of the shots in less than three hours of flight time. It would have taken weeks to get that footage with a drone — and even then, some of it would have been impossible to get.

And a four-hour shoot from Seattle to Mount Rainier along often remote areas of the Green River? I can’t even imagine doing that with a drone.

But not everyone sees that. So I see drones threatening part of my livelihood.

Flying Cameras

My generally poor opinion of drones was significantly changed this past week. What changed it? Getting my hands on a Phantom 4 and seeing the quality of the photos and videos

My friend Jim — a gadget guy if there ever was one — has one of these drones. He started off by showing me some of the video he’d shot on an RV vacation in the southwest with his wife last summer. I was immediately struck by how rock-solid and clear the images were. I’ve created footage with a GoPro mounted in various places on my helicopter and have seen footage created with high-quality professional video cameras from my helicopter both with and without gyro-stabilized mounts — Jim’s footage was as good as or better than any of that.

From a flying camera that costs less than $1,000. To put things in perspective, that’s less than my Nikon DSLR, which doesn’t fly.

Then Jim and I took the drone out for a few flights. It was remarkably easy to fly, even if you choose to do so manually. The controller has two sticks that were immediately familiar to me as a helicopter pilot. The left stick handles ascent/descent (like a helicopter’s collective) and yaw (like a helicopter’s anti torque pedals) while the right stick handles direction of flight (like a helicopter’s cyclic). The drone is amazingly responsive, but what really blows me away is that releasing the controls brings the drone to a controlled hover at its current altitude. And if that isn’t enough, several program modes and tools make it possible to program a flight. The damn thing can literally fly itself.

Phantom 4
Jim’s Phantom 4, awaiting takeoff near Vulture Peak in Wickenburg, AZ. I got a chance to experiment with both manual and automatic flying modes.

I could go on and on about the Phantom 4’s feature set — which I understand is shared by many competing products these days — but I won’t. I’ll let you explore them for yourself. There’s plenty of information online.

I will say this, however: As someone who has been involved in tech for a long time — hell, I wrote books about computers for 22 years starting way back in 1990 — I’m not easily impressed. The Phantom 4 completely blew me away.

Me? A Drone Pilot?

Jim, in the meantime, is looking to upgrade and offered me a sweet deal on his Phantom 4 with lots of accessories. That got me excited about owning one of these flying cameras. So excited that I watched all of the Phantom 4 tutorials on DJI’s website, worked through the FAA’s UAS pilot online training, and took (and passed) the FAA’s Part 107 pilot test. All I need is a meeting with the FAA and a sign off to become a certificated UAS pilot.

What does that mean? I’ll be legal to conduct commercial UAS flights. That means I can create (and sell) some of the photos and images I collect with a flying camera like the Phantom.

But I have other ideas for how I can make drone photography part of my professional life. Stay tuned; I’ll be sharing more on this topic in the months to come.

After all, if you can’t beat them, join them.

Snowbirding 2017 Postcards: Mormon Temple Christmas Lights

I’m spending a few days at a friend’s house in the Phoenix area and she suggested that we go see the Christmas lights around the Mormon Temple in Mesa, AZ. I’d never been to the Mormon Temple — in fact, I didn’t even know there was a Mormon Temple in Mesa. I’m always game to try something new, so we went.

My friend told me that she has good parking karma and she wasn’t kidding. The place was crowded and full of traffic, yet she managed to find a parking spot almost right in front of the temple. They were hundreds of people there, mostly families, all walking around lighted pathways and trees with the obligatory manger.

What impressed me most, however, were the reflecting pools at various places around the temple. The building itself was evenly lit with bright, white light and it reflected magnificently in the calm water. The colored lights added a sort of magic to the scene.

I didn’t take many pictures, but here are a few to give you an idea of what it was like. (I put an interactive panorama on Facebook.) If you’re ever in the area around Christmas time, I highly recommend visiting it — but not necessarily on a Saturday night.

Snowbirding 2017 Postcards: A Desert Drive

I took my truck out to an old favorite destination near Wickenburg this afternoon: Box Canyon. This is literally a box canyon on the Hassayampa River, partially hidden by massive salt cedar trees. Upriver from there is a narrow slot canyon that the river is always flowing through. I drove through that, too, then exited on another road I know to make a loop drive. 

I was scouting for tomorrow’s trip with friends who are new to the area — I wanted to make sure it was possible to reach Box Canyon in my truck before I tried bringing my friends. I can. I’m beginning to think my truck can go anywhere

Here are a few photos from the drive. I’ll likely have better ones if the canyon tomorrow, since we’re going at midday. 

Snowbirding 2017 Postcards: Laughlin, NV

I left Vegas and headed south today. My goal was to find a campsite along the Colorado River near Needles, CA. The direct route took me down Route 95, a typical, mostly straight, desert highway. But when I saw the turn for Laughlin,NV, on the Colorado River, I made a detour. I wanted ice cream.

Laughlin is, in my opinion anyway, a poor man’s Las Vegas. It’s a cluster of about 10 high-rise casino hotels right on the edge of the river. Named for the man who developed the area, Don Laughlin, it attracts mostly seniors from the Sun City area near Phoenix, as well as snowbirds passing through. Indeed, the parking lots were jampacked with motorhomes and trucks pulling fifth wheel trailers.

I’ve been to Laughlin a few times. My wasband and I flew in together at least once, probably in my first helicopter. Back in those days, the airport across the river in Bullhead City, AZ was very close to the river. You’d land and park and then get out and walk to a dock right on the river. A boat would come across the river to fetch you and bring you to Laughlin. I’m pretty sure the boat shuttle was free. 

The time we went there, we went for one of the cheap buffets for lunch. I remember seeing an elderly couple there stuffing food into the pockets of their jackets. I suspect they might’ve been homeless or close to it and had somehow gotten up the money to come to the buffet. It was very sad.

Nowadays, the airport runway is up the hill a bit, farther from the river. The old runway has been turned into a commercial area; there’s a Home Depot on part of it now. When you come in and land, you can still get a shuttle across the river, but it’s in a shuttle van that drives across the bridge. Funny how things change.

Anyway, today I stopped at the Colorado Belle and asked the valet parking attendant where the closest ice cream was. Penny and I walked along the Riverwalk to the Aquarius hotel casino, which I don’t recall being there the last time I was there. I tied Penny up outside, went in, and got ice cream in two cups. We sat by the river and enjoyed them. A lot of old people walked by. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that I was the youngest visitor around.

I took these photos before we walked back to the truck. Amazing how blue the water and sky are, eh?

Snowbirding 2017 Postcards: Behind the Scenes at KÀ

I saw the Cirque du Soleil show KÀ yesterday at the MGM Grand Hotel. I didn’t realize it, but it was the third longest running show in Las Vegas. It’s also the first Cirque du Soleil show to actually have a storyline.

The show was amazing — no doubt about that. Then I had great seats: seventh row center. But I still came out feeling a little disappointed. I like Cirque du Soleil with various acts within the show. And the costumes, of course. And the music. While this show had acrobatic acts and costumes and music, I felt that it relied too heavily on the special effects made available through the incredible stage set up. Simply said: it was a technological marvel more than the amazing human performance i’ve come to expect from Cirque du Soleil.

Yesterday evening, on my way to the show, I heard an announcement that they were going to have a “open house” at the KÀ theater at 11 o’clock today. Because my schedule is sort of free-flowing, I made time to go see it.

It was a half hour presentation led by a man who is involved with the show. After discussing some of the items on display in the lobby of the theater, he brought us inside where we sat in seats and he told us about the various stages and sound system. The theater has 10 stages, several of which move. The most amazing one is the giant flat stage that can be raised, lowered, tilted, and spun. As he told us about this large stage, someone demonstrated the various things it could do, including instantaneously deploying dozens of rods that the performers can use for acrobatics. They then put the stage on its side in a vertical position and used it as a screen for projections they gave us further information about the production.

In all, the open house was fascinating and I’m very glad I stuck around to attend. Here are a few pictures I shot of the theater.

I should mention here that I love to do behind the scenes tours. If you use the search box for this blog, you could find a post about a tour I tagged along on of the Kolb Studios at the Grand Canyon.