Communication Failure

Someone’s communication skills need work.

This morning, while going through my email, I found two messages sent three minutes apart by the same person using the contact form on the Flying M Air website.

4:50 PM:

I have 3000 hours helicopters and airplanes. Loving opportunity to meet with someone

4:53 PM:

I have 3000 hours and helicopters and fixed wing I would love an opportunity to speak with someone.

The form offers a place for the person trying to contact me to include his name and phone number, which he did.

My questions:

  • If he wanted to talk to someone and it was within normal business hours, why didn’t he just pick up the damn phone and call? “Speaking” means either using the phone or arranging a face-to-face meeting. It doesn’t mean sending an email message. The contact form page includes both of Flying M Air’s phone numbers, right at the top under the heading “By Phone.” It seems to me that although he said he would “love an opportunity to speak to someone,” he had that opportunity then and still has it right now. In fact, anyone with a phone has that opportunity when the phone number is right there in front of their face. Maybe his phone doesn’t dial out?
  • What did he want to talk about? He’s a pilot — probably not a potential client. What would motivate me to call him? He never said what he wanted to talk about. And no, I’m not interested in calling pilots I don’t know to chat about flying and careers with them. Read this blog. Don’t you think I’m a little busy with other things? Don’t you think I’m entitled to spend my time on things that are important to me and my business?
  • By Email
    This paragraph appears right above the contact form this person used to email me.

    Did he want to talk to someone about a job? If so, he also managed to miss the Help Wanted link right above the email form. If he had clicked that, he would see that Flying M Air is not hiring pilots unless those pilots can come to Washington with a helicopter for a month starting in June to dry cherries. And if he had a helicopter, why wouldn’t he mention that?

So what am I supposed to do? He says he’d like the opportunity to speak to someone. He has it. He didn’t ask me to call. He didn’t tell me what it was about. He didn’t give me any reason to get in touch with him. I’m not even motivated to answer his email message.

And yes, I’m ranting. How could I not rant when I’m faced with such bullshit?

There I Was…

My first contribution to Vertical Magazine.

Vertical is a high quality helicopter magazine out of Canada. Beautifully designed and laid out and stuffed to the gills with quality writing and photography, it’s a real pleasure to read.

I’ve been wanting to write for Vertical for a long time, but never found a way to get my foot in the door. Until a month or two ago. I’d exchanged a few messages with one of the editors there and was passed on to another editor. He was looking for short articles for the magazine’s “There I Was…” column. This column, which is similar to AOPA’s “Never Again” column, showcases first person accounts of pilots in dangerous and/or stupid situations.

Any pilot who claims he’s never done anything stupid or dangerous is either lying or doesn’t fly very much. We all do dumb things once in a while. Those of us who are lucky, live to tell about it — and hopefully learn from it. Others don’t.

Vertical CoverThe cover of the March 2014 issue of Vertical Magazine, their largest issue ever. You can get your copy of the print edition at HeliExpo for free.

By the way, one of the reasons I occasionally read NTSB accident reports for helicopters is to learn from other pilot’s mistakes. Contrary to what the general public believes, at least 90% of aviation accidents are due to pilot error.

Anyway, I thought long and hard about what I could share with Vertical readers and decided to tell about the time I nearly killed myself trying to get over the Cascade Mountains in low visibility. I submitted it and it was accepted. It appeared in the March 2015 issue of Vertical on page 226, with the title “Scud Running in the Cascades.”

If you attend Heli Expo next month, I hope you’ll visit the Vertical booth and pick up a free copy of the magazine. Maybe one of you can send me a copy for my clip file?

Helicopter Tours in Wine Country

The reality for would-be helicopter operators.

I got yet another email from yet another helicopter pilot interested in doing the kind of work I do. He’s currently in the military, based overseas, and emailed me about his situation and an idea. I deleted his original message after responding, but did retain this:

Have you looked at increasing your footprint with a business partner and second helicopter? From reviewing your website it seems you have the perfect job and location to cater to the wine industry of central WA.

At Martin Scott
Here’s my helicopter, parked in a great landing zone at one of my favorite wineries. Unfortunately, the winery’s insurance company told them I could no longer land there. This year’s challenge: getting them to reverse their decision.

This made me laugh. “Perfect job and location to cater to the wine industry.” I’m not sure whether the author of this message understands the realities of the wine industry in this area. Yes, there are wineries in the Wenatchee area. In fact, there’s one about 1/2 mile down the road from where I live. But the dozen or so wineries near here don’t need helicopter service. And most of them either don’t want it, can’t support it with a safe landing zone, or have insurance-related restrictions that make operation on their premises impossible.

Of course, there are more wineries in the Chelan area, about 20 minutes flight time north of here. But there’s also another Part 135 operator up there with a business virtually identical to mine. The cost of me getting up there to service wineries in that area would make me far more expensive than that pilot, who is based right there. So I have to limit my Chelan activities with offering round trip flights from Wenatchee to Chelan — just as he’d likely limit his flights in Wenatchee to flights originating in Chelan. Simple economics of supply and demand.

I responded:

Thanks for writing, but no, I’m definitely not interested in adding a partner or helicopter. There isn’t enough business in the area for me, especially with competition in nearby Chelan. A second helicopter would add cost without revenue.

If you’re interested in building a tour business to serve the wine industry, I suggest Tri-Cities or Walla Walla. They both have far more wineries and activity than the Wenatchee area.

Good luck.

The Tri-Cities and Walla Walla areas are much bigger wine-producing areas. There are dozens of wineries in each place, many of which are in rural areas that can support helicopter landing zones. I’ve even done a little research in the Walla Walla area and found a number of winery owners interested in helicopter winery tours to their facilities. Trouble is, Walla Walla is about 45 minutes each way from Wenatchee, so flights there would be too costly. And I’m not interested in relocating to Walla Walla.

But again, it all comes down to supply and demand. You need to base an operation in an area where there are a lot of potential clients who have a lot of disposable income. After all, how many people are interested in spending $500 or more on a few hours of entertainment for up to three people? And if you’ve found the perfect place to offer helicopter tour services, chances are, there’s already an operator there. Now you’re dealing with competition which makes it even harder to get off the ground because you have to share that potential client pool with someone who is already known in the area.

And then there’s the problems faced by a Twitter/Facebook friend in the Margaret River area of Australia. He started a helicopter charter service, Wild Blue Helicopters, in that wine region and was soon plagued by noise complaints from the locals. One of those locals took matters into his own hands by vandalizing my friend’s helicopter, causing several thousand dollars in damage. After making a major investment in his business there, he’s abandoning it because he’s simply tired of dealing with the problems the locals are causing. Who wants that?

Why don’t people see this? Why do so many pilots think that all they need to do is buy a helicopter, move to an interesting place, and hang out a shingle for the clients and money to start rolling in?

I thought I was done with the conversation, but he replied. Again, he made me laugh.

Thanks Maria! I’m not sure how to do it but I think it would be a lovely way to spend a few years. Do you enjoy it?

“Lovely.” It would be lovely if I were independently wealthy and didn’t need to make a living as a pilot.

I responded with the brutal honesty I’m known for:

I enjoy the flying, but there simply isn’t enough of it.

And after 14 years in this business — in Arizona and now in Washington — I’m tired of dealing with potential clients who can’t respect the value of my services and understand the cost of operating a helicopter. Too many cheapskates. Too many people who think I’ll spend an hour preflighting/postflighting my aircraft to take their 8 year old kid for a 10-minute birthday ride for $25.

If you think you’re going to get into this business and make a good living at it right away, think again. It took more than 5 years for my business to support itself and another 3 years for it to become profitable enough to support me. I was fortunate to have another income for those 8 years; most people don’t. It’s a difficult business to succeed in.

I’ve written about this extensively on my blog, http://www.aneclecticmind.com/

My advice? Get a job flying for someone else. Let them have the headaches and costs of dealing with aircraft maintenance and the FAA. Fly, get a paycheck, spend your off time with your friends and family.

Now I’m sure lots of folks who don’t operate helicopter charter businesses in Washington’s wine country — or small helicopter charter businesses in a big city like Phoenix, where I used to be based — will take this opportunity to bash my business skill and blame me for my belated success. My response to you: If you think you’re so smart, you try it. And then let us all know how you do.

You might want to read this, too.

As for this pilot, I hope he makes the right decision for his future.

AOPA Hover Power

A new monthly column.

AOPA LogoJust a quick note to let regular readers and visitors know that I’ve begun writing as a regular contributor to AOPA’s Hover Power blog. My first post appeared yesterday: “Maximum performance takeoffs and judgement calls.” My second post is already in the hopper for next month.

Hover Power is AOPA’s attempt to provide helicopter-specific content for minority pilots in the “A” of AOPA: aircraft pilots who fly helicopters. Although the blog got off to a reasonably good start, there was a short spell where there was a definite scarcity of new content. The Editor there has been working hard to get a good staff of pilot/writers together. I’m thrilled to have been asked to join the team.

I hope you’ll stop by and check out what we’ve shared with you. And don’t forget to comment.

And don’t worry — I’ll continue providing helicopter-related content here once in a while, too.

Pride for My Prized Possession

Why I like to keep my helicopter clean.

The other day, I did a Santa flight. When I landed and shut down, one of the many people who’d crowded around the helicopter for a closer look commented on how clean and shiny it was. Although I thanked her, I didn’t say what I was really thinking: it was filthy.

That was my opinion and it wasn’t shared by many others. I’m often complemented on how good my helicopter looks. Just the other day, a pilot friend from Oregon stopped by and he said pretty much the same thing. I pointed out the smashed bugs on the mast and leg fairings and the grime on the back panel near the tailpipe. He then saw what I saw and conceded that it could use some cleaning.

Indeed, it had not been washed with a hose in more than two years.

Keeping it Clean

Washing my Helicopter
This photo from 2006 shows my wash setup back in Arizona.

Back when I was still living in Arizona, I’d take it out a few times a year with a hose and sponges and a ladder and give it a good cleaning, from back to front and top to bottom. It was quite a chore and often took as much as two hours. I had to time it right so the sun wasn’t full on it and I could towel it dry before water droplet stains could form. Often, I’d finish it off with a coat of RV spray wax. Occasionally someone would help, but more often than not, they didn’t seem as interested as I was in getting it perfectly clean — or as close to perfection as possible.

Since January 2013, my helicopter has been bouncing from Washington to California and back to Washington on various agricultural flying contracts. It lived outdoors for months at a time, spending the winter of 2013/14 in a Wenatchee Airport hangar before settling into its permanent space in my RV garage at home only two months ago. The last time I washed it was when it still lived in Arizona, back in 2012. Since then, I’ve had to satisfy myself by wiping it down with a microfiber cloth after a heavy rain. That took care of most of the dust and some of the bugs. Spot cleaning took care of the rest.

Although my building has a handy drain in the floor and a hose spigot indoors, I haven’t gotten around to washing it in there — mostly because it’s too cold this time of year for it to dry properly. I expect I’ll be washing it indoors once in a while when spring comes. Otherwise, I can wash it outdoors on its landing pad in the summer, when the late afternoon sun sinks behind my building and leaves the driveway apron in the shade. That’s the plan anyway.

My Prized Possession

Why is it so important for me to keep it clean? It’s simple: I’m proud of it. It’s my prized possession.

Please understand that it’s not really the value of the helicopter that makes me so proud. At this point, it’s 10 years old. Both the house I still (unfortunately) own with my wasband and my current home are worth more (although the helicopter was once worth more than either one). Resale value does not make it a prized possession.

Instead, it’s what the helicopter represents: the result of hard work, smart investments, and a never-ending drive to make my business grow and thrive with good-paying work.

I look at the helicopter and I see long days sitting in front of a computer, writing book after book for my publishers. I wrote or revised 85 books in 20 years. Because they were computer how-to books, they had tight deadlines. How many 12-hour days and 7-day workweeks did I spend in my office banging away on a keyboard to meet a deadline? Too many to count. And don’t even get me started about the 12 summers in a row that I spent mostly indoors, working to meet deadlines for my Quicken books. It was only because a handful of my titles became bestsellers that the money started flowing in. That money made it possible to buy my first helicopter, a much smaller two seater that I put 1000 hours of flight time on in just five years.

I look at the helicopter and I see real estate investments I bought to explore a role as a landlord. The property with a two-bedroom home and four furnished studio apartments that I bought in the early 2000s stands clear in my mind. Yes, I got a good deal on it, but I also poured a lot of time and money into it, improving each furnished unit, showing it to a countless stream of snowbirds and transients, cleaning apartments over and over, dealing with complaints and tenants who couldn’t pay their rent on time or at all. And then the suicide in one apartment followed closely by the suicide of a tenant before she even moved in. (Seriously, I can’t make this shit up.) This property taught me how much I could hate being a landlord. But when I sold it shortly before the peak of the real estate market and pocketed a 50% profit in less than five years, I wasn’t complaining. That money, and the proceeds from the sale of my first helicopter, is what made up the sizable downpayment for my prized possession, making monthly payments for the balance almost affordable.

I look at the helicopter and I see all the ways I tried to build my business and make it profitable. I think about the tours and photo flights I’d do no matter how little revenue they generated. I think about the first few regular clients I got — a Russian photographer who led photo expeditions in the Southwest and needed a pilot over Lake Powell, Monument Valley, and Shiprock; a local addiction treatment center bigwig interested in showing off to client parents and investors by flying them to the desert facility; a proving grounds manager needing an aerial photo pilot who wasn’t afraid to operate in the deadman’s curve; an environmental impact study company that needed to fly hour after hour along cliff faces looking for raptor nests; orchardists who needed protection for their valuable cherry or almond crops. I think about the epiphany I had when I realized that these clients and this work was what would make my company succeed and that I was simply wasting my time trying to attract one-time clients looking for a deal.

I look at the helicopter and I think about all the hard work involved to keep my business profitable. I think of flying through weather to get to a client on schedule, I think of long hours flying slowly along the top of winding canyons, I think of hour after hour hovering low-level over cherry trees, I think about staying in cheap hotel rooms and having to walk three miles with luggage just to get back to the helicopter, I think of living in an RV for months on end. I think about writing proposals, sending out contracts, and tactfully nagging for payment. I think about patiently explaining to a client why he should fly with me instead of a cheaper alternative in a smaller aircraft piloted by a less experienced pilot. I think about networking and getting the word out and landing cherry drying and frost control contracts that finally got me in the niche I needed to ensure long-term profitability. I think about moving my helicopter and my RV between Arizona and Washington state — four 1000+ mile trips each year — usually by myself, year after year in all kinds of weather. And moving them again between Washington State and the Central Valley of California — four 500+ mile trips each year — for the past two years. I think about taking annual check rides with the FAA and dotting all my I’s and crossing all my T’s to satisfy government requirements.

I think about the money I spent on the helicopter since buying it in 2005: $268,000 for maintenance, $123,000 for fuel, $144,000 for insurance, and $47,000 on interest for the helicopter’s loan. I think about those numbers along with the other expenses I’ve had for simply owning the helicopter and operating a business — well over $1,300,000 total in the past 10 years — and how I feel when I explain to a passenger that it costs more to fly a helicopter than just the cost of fuel.

Cascades
My most memorable flight of all was from Wenatchee, WA to Hillsboro, OR in the summer of 2012; check out the video.

And then I think about the amazing flights I’ve had at the controls over the past ten years. Flying through desert canyons and up or down the California coast. Floating over the clouds at San Francisco, seeing one end of the Golden Gate Bridge poking up through the fog layer. Cruising over Lake Powell at sunrise or sunset as the sun’s first or last light touched the red rock cliffs. Flying along snow-covered hoodoos at Bryce Canyon. Crossing Cascade Mountain ridges above valleys full of clouds. Zipping past weird rock formations in Utah, Arizona, and Nevada. Speeding low across the empty Sonoran desert, over ridges and around tall cacti. Crossing the Navajo Reservation with wild horses and the remains of abandoned hogans below me. Skimming 50 feet above the surface of the Columbia River, waving to boats and water skiers I pass. Chasing race trucks on desert trails and go-fast boats on desert lakes. These are just examples off the top of my mind; a look through my log books would yield dozens of others.

And I remember that none of this would be possible without my prized possession.

And my prize possession wouldn’t be mine without all the hard work and long hours I put into earning the money to buy and keep it.

It’s more than just a costly possession that makes people (erroneously) think I’m rich. It’s a symbol of my achievements in life, the result of working hard and smart for a long, long time. It’s my reward for staying focused and doing what needed to be done, to the best of my ability, to move ahead, even when certain people tried so hard to hold me back.

Catching Up on Cleaning

So yesterday, I took advantage of the big, heated space inside Pybus Public Market, where my prized possession is currently parked. I brought in some Meguiar’s Detailing Spray, Turtle Wax Bug and Tar remover, and clean microfiber cloths. And then I finally cleaned the bugs off the mast and the leading edges of the horizontal and vertical stabilizers, leg fairings, and cockpit. I covered all the painted surfaces with the detailing spray, wiping it with a succession of clean rags that soon got dirty from the thin film of grime that had been on the helicopter’s skin. I worked slowly and carefully while a handful of people wandered by to check out the shiny red thing unexpectedly parked by the south door.

My Prized Possession
I took a picture when I was finished. (Missed a rag.)

When I was done, it was even shinier.

But I can still see a few bugs I missed on the mast…