Helicopter Pilot Job Hunting Advice

My response to a job seeker.

Every once in a while I get an email (or phone call) from a helicopter pilot looking for work. Although I usually just ignore email — primarily because the pilots contacting me don’t qualify for the only position Flying M Air ever has listed on its Help Wanted page — and tell the caller we’re not hiring, the other day I got an email message from a U.S. veteran and decided to do more.

I have a soft spot for vets. They risk their lives to keep us safe — or at least follow U.S. military policy which is admittedly misguided at times — and they get a pretty raw deal when they return from service: bad medical care, difficulty finding jobs, etc. The G.I. bill helps these guys get an education that can take them farther in life and it’s always great to see someone taking advantage of it. I fully admit that if I did hire employees and I had two employees with identical qualifications but one was vet, I’d hire the vet. It’s the least I can do to thank them for their service.

The Sad Truth

Pilot Log Book
Until you log at least 1,000 hours of flight time, it’s next to impossible to get a decent job as a commercial helicopter pilot.

The guy who wrote to me was a vet with 10+ years of service. He came home, got an Associates degree at a community college, and got his helicopter ratings through CFI-I (Certified Flight Instructor – Instruments). He told me more in his brief list of qualifications, but to share more here might make him easy to identify and ultimately embarrass him, which is certainly not my intention. The key point is that he has less than 300 hours of flight time, which makes him pretty much unemployable as a commercial helicopter pilot for anything other than flight instruction.

Let me be clear: it’s not impossible to get a job as a pilot with as little as 300 hours of flight time. I know people who have done it. But in almost every single situation, the pilot’s “employer” isn’t paying him/her to fly. Instead, the pilot flies when needed and the “employer” collects and pockets the revenue. In some cases, the employer might provide living space. (I know a pilot who lived on a cot in a hangar until his “employer” went out of business and he found himself homeless.) In a few cases, the “employer” actually expects the pilot to cover part of the cost of flying. In other words, the “employer” is taking advantage of low-time pilots by using their skills without monetary compensation. In many cases, the amount of flying they do is so insignificant that they’re not even building the flight time they need to move forward in their careers. It’s not a job, it’s a form of indentured servitude.

How could anyone recommend a job like that? I certainly couldn’t.

So how does a new pilot build time? As a certified flight instructor. That’s why they get the CFI rating. It’s their ticket to an entry level job as a flight instructor. And with the right flight school, a CFI can build that extra 700 hours they need in a year or maybe just a little more. I call that part of a career “paying dues.”

My Advice

I have to admit that I felt sorry for the vet who emailed me. I knew that his chances of getting a decent job as a commercial pilot were pretty much non-existent. But I felt I owed him something. So replied to his email message. Here’s what I said, with a bit of identifying information edited out:

Thanks for writing. Although we’re not hiring now, I’d like to take this opportunity to give you some advice.

First, the chances of you getting a good job as a commercial pilot with just 277 hours is slim to none. As the folks at your flight school should have told you, most employers look for pilots with at least 1,000 PIC time. Most new helicopter pilots build that first 1,000 hours as flight instructors. If your flight school led you to believe otherwise, they did you a great disservice.

Second, when you visit the website for a potential employer, take a moment to look at job opportunities posted there before contacting them. You used a form on our website to contact me. The page you accessed (http://www.flyingmair.com/info/contact-us/) clearly instructs those looking for a job to visit our Help Wanted page (http://www.flyingmair.com/info/help-wanted/). The first paragraph on that page states that we do not have any full-time or part-time employees. It then lists the openings we do have: usually just cherry drying pilot, which requires both 500 PIC and a helicopter, neither of which you have. Simply sending a summary of your limited flying experience to any helicopter operator you can find an email address for — especially when it’s clear that you haven’t even ascertained whether that operator is hiring — isn’t likely to get you many responses.

Third, as a pilot and blogger, I’ve written extensively about flying helicopters, including a series about pursuing a career as a helicopter pilot. You might find it useful, especially Part 9 (http://www.aneclecticmind.com/2011/08/25/so-you-want-to-be-a-helicopter-pilot-part-9-pay-your-dues/).

While I admire your optimistic attempt to find employment as a pilot and I greatly appreciate your service in the US Military, I can’t help you beyond the above advice. Get a job as a CFI. Work your way up as most pilots do. Read my series for more tips.

Good luck.

Not the Only One Who Doesn’t Get It

I should mention here that last week I was also contacted by phone by an acquaintance in the helicopter pilot community. She (like another person I know in a similar situation) was attempting to build time through the use of a helicopter bought by a friend or business associate. She called me because the owner wanted to earn some revenue with his helicopter and she wanted to find out if she could get it on a cherry drying contract with me. There were multiple problems with this:

  • She called in July, when my cherry drying season was almost over. I didn’t need any pilots. (I contract with pilots in April.)
  • The helicopter was an Enstrom, which I prefer not to use for cherry drying.
  • Although a cherry drying contract has the potential to make good money for a helicopter owner, there’s no guarantee of flight time. As I’ve said over and over in numerous places, cherry drying is not a time-building job.

When I told her all this, she was disappointed. She asked if I had any ideas for building time. I told her the same thing I told the vet: get a job as a CFI.

There are No Shortcuts

It’s sad that so many people invest so much money in expensive helicopter pilot training and then find that they can’t get the pilot job they want right after earning their certificates. But it’s a fact of life.

And face it: college graduates with bachelors and even masters degrees are unlikely to step right into the kind of job they really want. The problem isn’t just with pilots. It’s with just about any career.

And yes, there are exceptions. But exceptions are for exceptional people.

If you think I’m trying to discourage people from following their dreams to become helicopter pilots, you think wrong. I’m just a realist. I hate to see people working toward a goal with inaccurate information about the path they’ll likely have to take. I’ve written about this over and over throughout this blog; the careers tag should bring up some examples of past posts.

But I can’t recommend my series about becoming a helicopter pilot enough. Really. Read it and the comments for each post. You’ll be glad you did.

Good luck.

Online Advertising Blues

Or how to lose half a day in front of a computer.

I am the owner of a small business, Flying M Air, LLC. I do just about everything for the company except maintain the aircraft: schedule flights, preflight the aircraft, fly, take payment from passengers, manage the drug testing program, work with the FAA, meet with clients, negotiate contracts, arrange for special events, hire contract workers, record transactions, handle invoicing and receivables, pay bills, create print marketing materials like business cards and rack cards, etc. I also handle the online presence for the company, including the company website, Facebook, and Twitter.

(You might wonder how I have the skills to do all this stuff. The truth is, I have a BBA in Accounting and lots of business training from college. I also wrote books about computers for 20+ years, including several about building websites and using Twitter. Sadly I never studied helicopter repair.)

Today, I lost half a day to marketing and related online chores that were mind-bogglingly time consuming.

You see, I scheduled an event with a local resort, Cave B Estate Winery & Resort in Quincy, WA. Cave B is one of the destinations I take people on winery tours, although I admit I don’t go there very often. For the same price, folks can go to Tsillan Cellars in Chelan, which they seem to prefer. Cave B has a better restaurant and a more interesting atmosphere in a beautiful place. Tsillan Cellars is also in a beautiful place, but it’s a bit touristy for my taste. I actually don’t care which one I fly to since I can’t drink wine at either one. I just like to fly people to wineries.

But the new manager at Cave B Resort is very eager to get the helicopter onsite as an interesting activity for guests. So we set up a 6-hour event there for Saturday, July 2. I’d land in the field as I usually do and offer 15-minute helicopter tours of the area for $75/person. While that might seem kind of steep, it’s pretty much in line with my usual rates. Besides, the folks who stay at Cave B aren’t exactly cheapskates. (I just looked into booking a room for my upcoming birthday and decided that it was a bit too rich for my blood, at least this year. I think I’ll settle for a spa day.)

Setting up this event required me to complete a bunch of tasks on my computer:

  • Tour Flyer
    I threw together this flyer based on a template in Microsoft Word.

    Create a flyer in PDF format that could be used at the resort to let guests know that tours were available that day. I cheated: I used one of the Templates that came with Word 2011 (which I’m still using on my Mac). I already had pictures; I just had to put in the text and make it fit. It took about 30 minutes to complete and I had to make one change after sending it to Cave B’s manager. They’ll print it out on a color printer and, hopefully, put one in each room on Friday.

  • Use Square‘s item feature to set up an item for the tours so I could easily charge passengers for the flights and sell them online. I’ve been experimenting with online sales lately as a tool to get impulse buyers to buy in advance in certain predetermined time slots. So setting up the item also required me to set up the time slots and then create an inventory feature to prevent me from overselling a time slot. This took another 30 minutes or so. This had to be done before I finished the flyer so I could include the URL in the flyer.
  • Use bit.ly to create a custom short URL for Flying M Air’s online store. No one could remember the regular URL; maybe they can remember bitly.com/FlyingMAir. This took about 5 minutes. Of course, this also had to be done before the flyer was done so the URL could be included.
  • Tour Announcement
    Here’s the top part of the web page I created to announce the special event.

    Create a “blog post” on Flying M Air’s website (which was built with the WordPress CMS) to announce the event, provide details, and include the link for buying tickets. Once the post was published, I had to go back and add a featured image so it would appear in the slideshow of items at the top of the Home page. I also had to add an expiration date so that it would stop appearing as a “special” on the site after July 2 at 5 PM. Doing all this took at least another 30 minutes. My WordPress site is designed to automatically post a link to new items on Twitter for both Flying M Air and my own personal account, so at least I didn’t have to fiddle with Twitter.

  • Create a new event on Facebook for the Cave B Tours. That meant using pretty much the same photo, description, and link I’d put in the flyer in a Facebook form. Because Facebook requires a “Category” for each event and they’re not very creative with the category names, there’s now a “Festival” at Cave B that day. (Sheesh.) This took at least another 20 minutes.
  • Share the event with my friends on Facebook. Why not, right? Five minutes.
  • Post details on Cave B’s Facebook page for the event. I got lazy and put in a screen shot of the flyer. 5 minutes.
  • When I realized that I could probably sell the flight to and from Cave B that I’d have to deadhead for the event, I created a “Be Spontaneous” special offer on Flying M Air’s website, offering up the roundtrip flight for half price: $272.50. That’s less than my cost and a real smoking deal for anyone who wants two great helicopter flights and six hours at Cave B. (I’m thinking lunch, tasting, and a hike.) This took about 30 minutes.
  • I also had to set up an item in Square for this offer so I could make it easy to charge for or sell it online. No special URL was required, but I did have to put the link to the item in Flying M Air’s online store in the special offer post. Twenty minutes.
  • While I was fiddling with my website, I checked the Special Offers category and discovered a whole bunch of expired offers. So I recategorized them as Expired Offers. Then I spent some time adding a subscription form to the Special Offers page and made sure that page appeared in the slider at the top of the Home page. Anyone who subscribes automatically gets new posts by email; this is a great way to learn about special offers as they become available. I know I spent at least an hour on this.

Of course, while I was working on this, I was also taking calls from a potential client (in the U.K., of all places), texting back and forth with photographers that could help me close a deal with her, and writing reminders for the other things I needed to do at my desk: order wall mount display cabinets from Ikea, choose a garage door opener option (after researching the three options), and send out invitations for a outing on my boat the next day. So I wasn’t 100% focused on the tasks at hand.

I was only mildly surprised when I looked up after that last task and saw that it was after 1 PM.

The whole morning was shot. (No wonder I was hungry.)

But this is typical when I sit in front of my computer — and is why I spend a lot less time in front of my computer these days. Business tasks need to be done and I’m the one that has to do them. It’s a fact of life and I’m not complaining. Just trying to point out that marketing a business isn’t as easy as putting up a website and waiting for the phone to ring — especially with so much social media to deal with.

Flying with the Global Supertanker

A memorable photo flight and tour of an amazing aircraft.

The first call came from Global Supertanker over a month ago. Would I be interested in working with an aerial photographer to shoot dry runs and water drops made by the world’s only 747 air tanker?

The answer came with only a few thoughts of what this might entail: sure!

But because about 50% of the calls I get to fly Flying M Air‘s helicopter on unusual missions never actually happen, I didn’t get my hopes up too much. I tweeted about it briefly and mentioned it on Facebook. Then I filed it away in the back of my mind and got on with my life.

Until last week. That’s when another call came. And another. Soon I was taking down the names and phone numbers of contacts involved with the demo flight and photo shoot. Checking my calendar for availability and weather resources for forecasts; yes, Monday could work. Getting briefed over the phone about what they wanted to do and how I would help them get the video footage they needed.

I was very excited about the job — and not because of the potential earnings for a few hours of flight time. You see, it’s not always about money to me. It’s often about the opportunity to do something new and different, to meet people who are part of a different world, to participate in a program that’s interesting, to expand my horizons and learn new things. That’s a big part of what my life is about, that’s what drives me to wander down the paths I’ve chosen. It’s about taking on new challenges to make things happen.

And what could be more of an interesting challenge and learning experience than flying a videographer above a 747-400 air tanker as it drops 20,000 gallons of water over a Washington forest?

The date and time was set for Monday, June 20. I’d need to get to Moses Lake, WA by 7 AM so the photographer could install his equipment and I could get briefed with the flight crews of the two planes we’d be shooting.

A Busy Weekend

But I had plenty of other flying to do before then.

Friday was a training day, with me spending about an hour and a half practicing autorotations with Gary, one of the owners of Utah Helicopter, who is also a flight instructor and part of Flying M Air’s cherry drying team. Gary is a great instructor and I did pretty well, actually nailing the spot for a 180° autorotation twice in a row. (I didn’t tempt fate by going for a threepeat.) Afterwards, my helicopter got a 50-hour inspection, which is mostly an oil and filter change and spark plug cleaning.

Friday was also the day one of my Facebook friends excitedly announced, “The Boeing 747 Supertanker just landed at Tucson.” He was under the impression that it was there to fight the wildfire at Show Low, AZ. That got me wondering whether there were two of them. I soon learned that there was just the one and that the only reason it had stopped in Tucson was to refuel before flying on to Moses Lake. Truth is, the Global Supertanker hasn’t been certified yet; I’d be participating in part of the certification process here in Washington.

Saturday was a crazy flying day with rain most of the day and 7 hours of tedious flying over cherry trees. I figure I personally dried about 200 acres of cherry trees, including more than a few orchards that got dried two or three times. My team flew just as much, if not more. While it’s nice to get all those revenue hours, I dread long, widespread rain events like the one we had Saturday. It’s stressful for everyone and exhausting.

Sunday was a lot more enjoyable and nearly as busy, with seven Father’s Day flights, including two short ones for my next door neighbors and one for my mechanic and his family that included a flight down to Blustery’s in Vantage, WA for milk shakes. 5.3 hours logged.

And then there was Monday.

Prepping to Fly

Despite waking up at about 4 AM — I get up very early here in the summer — I got off to a late start. I’d planned 30 minutes to get to Moses Lake, but lifted off at 6:35.

At Moses Lake
Flying M Air’s helicopter parked at Moses Lake with the Global Supertanker.

The sky worried me. It was cloudier in the area than I’d expected based on the forecast and the radar showed rain to the southwest moving northeast, right toward the Wenatchee area. Not a good day to be taking off to the east. Although I’d never be more than 45 minutes flight time from my base, I did not want to break off from the photo flight to dry cherries. Fortunately, I had two pilots in Wenatchee who could cover the orchards. As long as it wasn’t another widespread rain event, we should be okay.

I made it to Moses Lake on time. I set down on the lone helipad in front of the Million Air FBO at almost exactly 7 AM. No one was around, but the big plane was parked on the ramp behind me.

Moses Lake
Moses Lake is a huge, underutilized airport.

I should say a few words about Moses Lake’s airport, Grant County International. First, it’s huge, with five runways, the longest of which is 10,000 feet. A former military airport, it still has a military ramp. It also has a U.S. Customs office, two FBOs that provide fuel, and a handful of flight schools. There’s a control tower but no airline service, despite a very nice terminal building. It’s used by Boeing to test fly 747s coming out of the factory in the Seattle area. They fly them over the Cascade Mountains, land them at Moses Lake, and then fly them around to work out any bugs before delivering them to clients. It’s the only airport I know where you can occasionally see 747s flying standard — but admittedly wide — traffic patterns and doing touch-and-goes. With a Boeing facility on the field, it was an obvious choice for the Global Supertanker people to continue work on their certification process.

Million Air doesn’t sell 100LL, the fuel my helicopter takes. It only sells JetA. But Columbia Pacific, which was supposed to open at 8 AM, sells 100LL. As I went through the shutdown procedure, I saw activity at its hangar and decided to try raising them on the radio. I’d need both tanks topped off before the flight. I got a line guy on the radio and put in a fuel order. He promised to get to it when he was finished with the other plane he was fueling.

I went inside the FBO to look for one of my contacts. It was a while before I connected with the photographer, Tom, who was piling gear on the floor after multiple trips out to his car. He’d driven in from Seattle with his camera mount, a brand new video camera, and a ton of other equipment. He asked me to move the helicopter closer to the building and I was in the process of going out to do so when the fuel guys arrived. Before they could finish, Tom had come out to the helicopter with one of the FBO line guys and his gear and began setting up. I removed the rear passenger-side door for him, stowed it in a Bruce’s Custom Covers door bag I had, and brought it into the FBO office for safekeeping.

Back in the FBO, I waited outside the conference room where a meeting of the pilots, FAA inspectors, and other program personnel was going on. While I waited, an FAA inspector came up to me and introduced himself. He asked if I was the pilot of the helicopter and when I told him I was, he told me he’d ramp-checked me. I was surprised and I think my expression revealed that. He laughed. “Don’t worry. You passed. Everything is fine. But I do need to get some info from your pilot and medical certificates.” I handed them over.

That’s when two things happened. First, I was called into the meeting. Second, my phone started ringing. Caller ID showed it was one of my cherry drying clients. I apologized and excused myself, took the call for an orchard drying request, hung up, and called one of my pilots to give him the job.

I was introduced to those assembled and put a few of my business cards on the table for those who wanted one. Then I was briefed, through map images on a laptop, of the planned routes and what my position needed to be. I got important information such as flight altitudes, operational frequency, and radio calls for various parts of the flight. The operating area was a place called Keller Butte, which was about 50 nautical miles north northeast on the Colville Reservation, not far from the Grand Coulee Dam. There was a fire tower there and one of my contacts was already there with a few other people to do photography from the tower. The other two aircraft was the 747-400 Global Supertanker and the lead plane, a King Air, which would do “show me” flights and then guide the larger plane to the drop zones for both dry and live runs. There were two planned run routes at or below 5,000 feet elevation in the hilly terrain around the Butte.

Wake Turbulence
Wake turbulence, illustrated. The best way to avoid it is to stay far away or above the plane.

My main concern, of course, was wake turbulence from the 747. Wingtip vortices from the big plane’s wings trail out and down. If I flew too close to the plane — especially at a slightly lower altitude, I could be caught in them. Only a week before, I’d been caught in the relatively minor wake turbulence caused by a Dash 8 at Wenatchee. I was far enough back that it wasn’t an issue, but I certainly did feel it. Getting even that close to a 747 configured for a low pass would be catastrophic for me and my aircraft. The solution was to stay above it. I asked about altimeter settings so we would all be dialed in the same way. One of the pilots said we’d start with the setting for Moses Lake and then update it in flight. They said they wanted me at least 200 feet above. I was thinking 500 feet.

I got and made another call while I was in the meeting. Those attending were surprisingly understanding. Now both of my Wenatchee pilots were flying. I knew that if the cherry orchard acreage started adding up beyond the point where my guys could cover it promptly on their own, I’d have to leave to help them. This would inconvenience my new clients and ruin any possibility of future work with them. But when I stepped out of the meeting and consulted Wenatchee area radar, I saw that whatever cells had moved in were already moving out or dissipating. There would be no more calls.

Before the meeting broke up, I was introduced to my front seat passenger, Phil from the FAA. So yes, I had to conduct a complex photo flight with an FAA inspector sitting next to me. No added stress, huh?

Camera Mount
Tom’s camera mount. The camera is facing the wrong direction in this shot.

Meanwhile, Tom, the photographer had set up his camera on a weird hanging mount in the left rear seat. Its heavy padded base sat on the passenger seat with a pole that provided a hook for his camera. The seatbelt held it securely in place, making an STC unnecessary. The camera hung from a bungee cord contraption and had two Kenyon KS-6 gyros attached to it. Tom would sit in the seat beside it and shoot through the window.

I admit I wasn’t happy with the setup. There were two reasons:

  • The camera’s lens was at least 10 inches inside the cabin door. That meant that he’d have less panning range before the door frame came into view. (The Moitek camera mount I have makes it possible to mount the camera with the lens at the door opening, right inside the slipstream. That maximizes the potential range without worries about wind buffeting.)
  • Putting the camera on the opposite side of the aircraft from the pilot with a passenger sitting beside the pilot made it virtually impossible for me to see what he was seeing. At times, my passenger also blocked the target aircraft from view. But although I suggested that he mount the camera behind me, he said that the mission required it to be where it was. I still don’t see why that was so, given that with a variety of runs and angles, we shot pointed in either direction. But the customer is always right, eh?

Still, there was nothing seriously wrong with the setup. It just made more work for me and the photographer and limited his capabilities. So once I’d conducted my required FAA flight safety briefing — using the briefing card, of course, mostly for the benefit of my FAA audience — and satisfied myself that nothing would fall out the open doorway, I climbed aboard with my passengers and started up.

The Shoot

Leg 1 on Google Earth
I beelined it to Keller Butte, did a lot of maneuvering there, and then beelined it to Wilbur Airport for refueling.

The flight to Keller Butte was uneventful. I chatted mostly with Phil. Because rushing air coming in through the open doorway was getting into Tom’s microphone, I had to turn off voice activation. That kept Tom quiet, mostly because he had so much stuff between the seats that he couldn’t reach the push to talk (PTT) button. Later, when we were set up to shoot, I’d turn voice activation on.

We crossed the farmland north of Moses Lake, the desert north of there, and the wheat fields north of there. Then we crossed over Roosevelt Lake, which is the Columbia River upriver from the Grand Coulee Dam. Electric City was just west of us and during the course of the day, we spotted the Grand Coulee Dam several times. (We even did a flyby on our way to refuel.) Keller Butte was one of two small mountains just north of the lake. We zeroed in on the higher of the peaks and saw the fire tower right away.

Then it was time to wait. There was no landing zone up there — why don’t they build helipads near fire towers? — so we had no choice but to circle. By then I was tuned into our agreed upon air-to-air frequency. The folks at the fire tower had handheld VHF radios and kept us informed on what they knew about the other aircraft based on phone calls they were apparently getting from Moses Lake.

Then I heard the King Air pilot coming in. As he got closer, he asked about my position and I told him. He got me in sight and began circling and practicing the runs.

Then the Supertanker’s pilot called in. He also needed to know where I was. I stayed close to the tower, realizing that he was coming in at a higher altitude than the 5500 feet I was maintaining. Fortunately, he joined up in formation flight with the King Air far enough away to make wake turbulence a non-issue for me. They got right down to business, prepping to make the first “show me” run. I moved into the agreed-upon position and climbed to 6000 feet while they descended.

The “show me” run is where the lead plane does the actual run that the tanker needs to do. The tanker pilot stays higher, following him and watching where he flies. The lead plane’s pilot announces when he’s on the line, where the drop should begin, where the drop should end, and when he’s clear. He peels off to one side and the tanker normally peels off to the other. They then regroup with the smaller, more maneuverable plane joining back up with the tanker.

There’s a lot of radio chatter during all this as they synchronize speeds, talk about positions, and establish run altitudes. I stayed quiet unless I thought they needed to hear from me or asked me a question. Phil listened and observed intently. In the back, Tom apparently couldn’t hear the radio chatter and had to be filled in, over the intercom, about what was coming next.

First Leg Spaghetti
Foreflight’s track log feature recorded the details of my flight path. Looks like spaghetti, no? This was just the first flight.

My job was mostly to hover in position with the camera facing the action. Because the camera’s panning range was so limited, I also had to pivot the helicopter so Tom could track the big plane. There was about a 10 knot wind up there and depending on which direction we were facing, maintaining that hover and smoothly conducting that pivot ranged from easy to near impossible. Over the course of the day, I’d get into and (obviously) recover from settling with power twice. Once, a quartering tailwind whipped us around almost 90° before I caught it. But, in general, I did an acceptable job. The biggest challenge was facing a target that I sometimes could not see. Fortunately, the choreography of the runs and shoot position — as well as my front seat observer — made it unnecessary for me to worry about midair collisions.

This went on for nearly two hours. A “show me” run followed by several dry runs followed by a live run with a full drop — which was awesome to see from the air — followed by more dry runs. Tom missed the live run because of camera focusing issues. The two planes moved to the other run location and I shifted position accordingly. Then another cycle of runs. But because they were out of water, there was no live run. They checked in with me when I still had an hour of fuel left. Then did three more runs before announcing bingo and heading back to Moses Lake to refuel.

We didn’t need to go so far. The closest airport with fuel was Wilbur, WA, 20 nautical miles south southeast. It’s basically a paved ag strip with a handful of hangars and a set of fuel pumps for 100LL and JetA. We landed and someone came over to help us with the pumps. There was no credit card system, so I gave him my mailing address and he promised to send a bill.

We hung out for a while. Although the Global Supertanker can refuel and refill with water/retardant in 30 minutes, they weren’t doing it that day. We were told it would be at least 90 minutes. So we killed time by visiting the ag operator’s hangar, finding and using a restroom, and talking. The folks there were very nice. And Tom, the photographer, showed me how to do a trick panorama shot like this one:

Trick Pano
Seeing double Tom? This shot is remarkably easy to make, right in the iPhone’s camera. All you need is a model who is quick on his feet.

I was glad I’d brought along some water. My passengers had, too. There was nothing within walking distance of the airport except wheat fields. The town was in a clump of trees about two miles away. I nibbled at some salad I’d brought for lunch, then put it away. I could wait.

We took off when we figured enough time had passed. It was a short flight back to Keller Butte, where the guys in the tower — now lounging on chairs in the parking area below — told us neither plane had taken off yet. Eager to save fuel, I demonstrated a pinnacle approach and slope landing for the FAA inspector on board. Tom got out and soon disappeared a way down the hill. What is it about men peeing outdoors?

When I heard the King Air pilot make his call, I called Tom back. When he was strapped in, I took off and circled back up near the tower. And then we repeated what we’d done earlier with a variety of drop runs, two of which were live. This time, Tom got the footage. So did Phil, on his phone’s camera:

Supertanker Water Drop
Phil took this picture with his phone. Not bad through plexiglas.

I was just relieved that Tom had captured footage of the drop. It was very stressful to do all this costly flying, wondering whether he’d succeed and satisfy himself and his client.

This went on for another two hours with lots of hovering and circling and pedal turns. Then we all went back for fuel for another run — the two planes to Moses Lake and me to Wilbur by way of the Grand Coulee Dam, which neither of my companions had ever seen.

Triple Selfie
Me, Phil, and Tom. Now you know why I don’t share selfies: I suck at taking them.

This time I fueled up by myself, making the required entry in the fuel sale log book. (Things are pretty laid back in farming communities.) An older gentleman drove up as I was fueling, apparently excited about seeing the helicopter come in. His name was Phil, too, and he and Phil and Tom chatted. I walked back to the hangar to see if I could track down some W100Plus oil for my helicopter — it’s been burning more oil than usual lately, probably because of the engine’s age — and came back with a quart of W100 oil, which would do in a pinch. Then the ag service owner came over and chatted with the guys for a while. I ate my salad and finished a bottle of water. I took a selfie of us.

At 3:30 PM, it was time to go back. We loaded up, I started up, and we took off. We beat the two planes back again, but not by much. It seems that they’d discussed a new run and drop zone while they were in Moses Lake and wanted to do it. They had me hang out south of the tower while they did a “show me” pass to show the big plane, the guys who had been in the tower and were now on a road below it, and me. I picked a spot north of the new run area and told them I’d stick to 6500 feet or higher. Then I watched a few more practice runs while Tom shot video. I practiced and then nearly perfected a forward move that kept us from getting into settling with power and gave me more control over the direction I was able to point the helicopter, making it easier for Tom to get smooth shots.

But I also watched the planes. It was amazing how close that 747 could get to the treetops.

That went on for about an hour, with one big live drop. And then it was over — at least for us. They told us we were done. The two big planes peeled off to the west and I dropped altitude, ducking behind the ridgeline as I headed south. We continued listening to them for a while on the radio. Then, 20 miles out from Moses Lake, I switched frequency and they were gone.

The After Party

I got back to Moses Lake and set the helicopter down near the front of the FBO so Tom wouldn’t have to lug his equipment so far. Then I placed a fuel order. I didn’t even hear the Supertanker land and taxi into its parking spot behind us.

Phil urged me to ask for a tour. There was nothing I wanted more. Trouble was, the plane was in a part of the airport ramp that was not accessible to pedestrians. I asked the fuel truck driver to take Tom and me over and he started to. But then he got to some pavement markings and told me he couldn’t drive across without a green badge. He drove us back to Million Air.

I went inside and asked a guy in an office if he could help us get to the big plane. He very kindly came outside and drove us over in a golf cart. He let us off between the 747 and King Air and Tom immediately went to the King Air to retrieve some of his equipment. I told the FBO guy that I’d find my own way back and thanked him for the ride.

Stairway to Supertanker
The staircase was quite inviting.

I walked over to the big plane, snapping pictures most of the way. On the other side, a long stairway had been set up between the pavement and the door. One of the plane’s pilots, Marco, was there, inviting me in for a tour. He had the King Air pilot, Jamie, with him and another man who did work for the FAA. I climbed the stairs and joined them for a tour.

Marco on the Tanks
Marco explains what the tanks are for and how they work.

I could probably write an entire blog post about the inside of that plane. Formerly a cargo plane, the entire lower level had been stripped out. The front “first class” section remained empty — at least that day — but the back was configured with a collection of cylindrical tanks for air, water, and retardant. The air is used as a “plunger” to force the water and retardant out of the four ports at the bottom of the plane. The system is set up to make up to eight drops with a load. The retardant system can hold two different kinds of additives and drop them with water in any configuration. There’s an extensive leak detection system and a whole procedure for handling leaks in flight. Our guide told us all about it as we climbed over and crawled under huge white pipes.


I actually broadcast this first part of the tour on Periscope, but when the audience level did not rise above 10 viewers, I stopped the video so I could take photos instead. Here’s the video; I’m afraid it isn’t very good due to the tight quarters.

The Crew Cabin
The upstairs first class cabin is pretty much intact for use by the ground crew.

Copilot Selfie
I look ridiculously excited here, sitting in the First Officer seat of a real, operating 747.

747 Cockpit
Now that’s a cockpit.

Under the 747
It was my first — and likely my only — time strolling under a 747.

From there, we went up a sort of ships ladder to the top level. The original upstairs first class cabin was intact; with seats for 12 people, it was used to carry the ground crew to each mission. There were some computer controls in a room behind that. Then the cockpit with its sleeping bunks in a tiny room off to one side. I was invited to sit in the First Officer’s (co-pilot’s) seat while the FAA guy sat in the Captain’s seat. We took pictures of each other like tourists while the two pilots talked behind us about the plane’s systems.

Afterwards, we climbed back down the ships ladder and the main stairs to the pavement outside. I wandered around under the plane, checking out the enormous landing gear and engines and looking up into the four discharge ports that could disperse almost 20,000 gallons of water or retardant over a 3 kilometer path. Around me, workers were tending to the plane: fueling it, filling it with water, cleaning its windscreen. It was the focus of attention even as it just sat their idle, waiting for its next flight.

I looked across the pavement at my helicopter and realized that the two aircraft had a lot in common. They were both used for a purpose, pampered between flights, and respected by their pilots.

As I headed for the Million Air’s shuttle bus, I stopped to chat with one of the men working on the plane. He asked me if I had a challenge coin.

“A what?” I asked.

Challenge Coin
Is this a cool souvenir or what?

“Here,” he said. “I think we have a few left.” He went into a box on the front seat of a van nearby and produced a heavy coin in a protective plastic sleeve. He handed it to me and I thanked him. It’s a great keepsake of the day’s events.

The van drove us all back to the FBO. Jamie and Marco went inside and I walked back to my helicopter. I’d already put the door on and was all ready to go. I took a last look at the big plane I’d been flying over most of the day and wondered if I’d ever see it again. Then I climbed on board, started up, and headed home.

When I shut down, I discovered I’d flown a total of 7.3 hours.


Postscript: As evidence of a day spent dancing on the anti-torque pedals, for the first time ever, my calves were sore in the morning.

More on “Scud Running”

Clarifying my position on flying in low visibility conditions.

Note: A version of this post originally appeared in AOPA’s Hover Power blog. If you’re a helicopter pilot, you owe it to yourself to check in there regularly to read great articles written by experienced helicopter pilots.

In my post about long cross-country flights for AOPA’s Hover Power blog (which I republished here), I brought up the topic of scud running. Apparently, my account of a flight into low visibility conditions, which I referred to as “scud running,” set off a lot of alarms with readers. One reader seemed to think that I “endorsed” scud running. (I don’t.) Another reader found it necessary to share Accuweather definitions and a video that described “scud clouds.” (I don’t recommend Accuweather as a source of weather information per FAR Part 135.213(a).) Someone called for a “definitive statement from you declaring NO to EVER scud running.”

It’s that last comment that got me thinking about what some readers think about the reality of flying. Fortunately, two other readers who are obviously experienced pilots came forward and offered comments that clarified my position on flying in limited visibility situations. I’d like to elaborate on those comments, provide an example situation for consideration, and review the FARs regarding helicopters and weather minimums.

My Definition of “Scud Running”

Let’s start with exactly what I’m talking about when I use the phrase “scud running.” Reader Dan Schiffer nailed it when he responded to one of the commenters. He said, in part:

It’s a term most pilots use to discuss low visibility conditions that we all are faced with occasionally due to changing weather.

To me, scud running is any situation where low ceilings or low visibility require you to alter your route around weather. And yes, low ceilings are a part of low visibility — after all, if you’re in mountainous terrain, don’t low ceilings obscure your visibility of mountainsides and peaks?

The FAA discusses scud running in its Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge:

This occurs when a pilot tries to maintain visual contact with the terrain at low altitudes while instrument conditions exist.

I discuss this in more detail later, when I cover weather minimums for helicopter pilots.

Neither my definition nor the FAA’s have anything to do with a so-called “scud clouds.” I can’t find any mention of these clouds in either the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) or Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge. I did find a definition in AC 00-6A, Aviation Weather:

scud – Small detached masses of stratusfractus clouds below a layer of higher clouds, usually nimbostratus.

A Google search brought up a similar, but more detailed Wikipedia definition:

a type of fractus cloud, are low, detached, irregular clouds found beneath nimbostratus or cumulonimbus clouds. These clouds are often ragged or wispy in appearance. When caught in the outflow (downdraft) beneath a thunderstorm, scud clouds will often move faster than the storm clouds themselves. When in an inflow (updraft) area, scud clouds tend to rise and may exhibit lateral movement ranging from very little to substantial.

For the record, I’m definitely not endorsing flying anywhere near a thunderstorm or cumulonimbus cloud. The FAA says to maintain 20 miles separation from thunderstorms and that’s a pretty good rule of thumb.

So, in summary, when a pilot uses the phrase “scud running,” it usually means flying in low visibility conditions and has nothing to do with so-called scud clouds.

A Real-Life Example

I can only assume that readers who expect me to definitively state that a pilot should never ever engage in scud running as defined above either:

  • Haven’t had much time flying.
  • Haven’t gone on many long cross-country trips.
  • Fly in a place where visibility is never an issue.

Flying in low visibility is not something I want to do, but sometimes it’s something I have to do.

A Note about flying in remote areas

I’ve done just about all of my flying in the west: Arizona (where I learned to fly), Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, California, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington (where I now live). In the 3,300 hours I’ve logged, I’d say that at least half of them were in relatively remote areas. Because of this, it’s difficult for me to remember that most pilots fly in more populated areas, where they’re seldom out of sight of a town or building.

As difficult as this might be for some people to believe, there are still many places in the U.S. where a helicopter pilot can fly for over an hour and not see a single sign of human life. I’ve flown 90 minutes in a straight line somewhere between Elko, NV and Burns, OR without seeing a building or a vehicle on one of the few dirt roads — just herds of wild horses running at the sound of my approach. I’ve flown over the high desert of the Arizona Strip, crossing just one dirt road over an 85-mile stretch of forest and canyons. I’ve flown the length of Lake Powell from the Glen Canyon Dam to Canyonlands National Park in the winter, passing just three seasonally closed marinas along the lake’s blue water and canyon mouths. I fly with a SPOT personal tracking device for a reason; if I go down out there — even by choice in a precautionary landing — no one would find me without some help.

So while “scud running” might seem like an unreasonable risk when you’re in an area with towns and airports every five or ten miles, it could be a matter of life and death when you’re out in the middle of nowhere and need to get somewhere safe. It’s not a black and white situation with a right or wrong answer.

Let’s look at an example. Suppose you’ve done all your flight planning and believe you can make a 2-hour flight to Point A, which is a rather remote place, without any weather/visibility concerns. You start the flight and things are fine for the first ninety minutes or so. Then the weather starts deteriorating. Maybe the ceiling drops or there are scattered rain showers that lower horizontal visibility in various places along your path. You can see well enough in your general forward direction and easily find paths around those showers that will get you closer to your destination, but things might be worse up ahead. Who knows? Even a call to Flight Service — if you can reach them on the radio in mountainous terrain with low ceilings preventing you from climbing — might not be able to provide adequate weather information if the area is remote enough.

Here’s where experience, judgement, and personal minimums come in. As helicopter pilots, we have three options:

  • Alter your route to completely avoid the weather, possibly ending up at a different destination. This might be the best option if there is an alternative destination and you have enough fuel to get there. But if your intended destination is in a remote place and you’re only 30 minutes out, there might not be an alternative.
  • Land and wait out the weather. Heck, we’re helicopter pilots and can land nearly anywhere. There’s nothing wrong with landing to wait out a storm. Remember, in an emergency situation, you can land if necesary, even in an area where landing is normally prohibited, such as a National Park, National Forest, Wilderness Area. (Again, I’m not recommending that you land in any of these places in non-emergency situations.) Do you have gear on board for an extended or perhaps overnight stay? This is another good reason to bring food on a cross-country flight.
  • Continue toward your intended destination. At the risk of sounding like I’m a proponent of “get-there-itis,” the destination is a known that’s a lot more attractive than the unknowns offered by the first two options.

There are many variables that will determine which option you pick. Here are a few of them:

  • Experience. If you’ve encountered situations like this before, you have a better idea of your comfort level than if you haven’t. You’ve likely also established personal minimums, possibly fine-tuned by real scares. The more experience, the better you’ll be able to deal with the situation and make the right decision.
  • Alternatives. If there is an alternative destination within range that you can safely reach with available fuel plus reserves, why wouldn’t you go for it?
  • Available fuel. There’s a saying in aviation: “The only time you have too much fuel is when you’re on fire.” One of the challenges of planning a long cross-country flight is making sure you have enough fuel on board to deal with unplanned route changes. But when flying to extremely remote areas, you might need almost all the fuel you have on board to get there. That definitely limits your options.
  • Actual weather conditions. If you can see a path ahead of you with potential landing zones and escape routes along the way, you’re far more likely to succeed at moving toward the destination than if the weather is closing in all around you. Never continue flight to the point where you don’t have at least the option to land and wait it out. The trick is to turn back or land before that happens; experience will be your guide. Likewise, if what you’re seeing tells you that the weather is localized and better conditions are just up ahead — perhaps you see sunlight on the ground beyond those heavy showers? — continuing flight might be the best option.

So what’s the answer? There isn’t one. As the pilot in command, you are the decision maker. You need to evaluate and re-evaluate the situation as it develops. You need to make a decision based on your knowledge and experience. If in doubt, choose the safest option.

Clouds
With mist, rain, and low clouds, would you keep flying?

Weather Minimums

Despite the severe clear weather I usually see around my home in Central Washington State, weather minimums are on my mind lately. Why? Mostly because my Part 135 check ride is coming up and I’m always a bit hazy on them. Spending most of my flying career in Arizona didn’t do me any favors when it comes to knowing when it’s legal to fly — or being able to identify different types of fog by name, for that matter.

So let’s look at weather minimums as they apply to helicopters.

FAR 91.155, Basic VFR weather minimums sets forth weather minimums for each type of airspace. I’m going to concentrate on Class G airspace, mostly because that’s the type of airspace I’ve been talking about.

According to the FARs, a helicopter may legally operate under VFR in Class G airspace during the day with a minimum of 1/2 mile visibility clear of clouds. Conditions less than that are technically IMC, thus invoking the FAA’s definition of “scud running” discussed above.

But what if visibility in your desired flight path is 1/4 mile or less but visibility 30° to the right is a mile or more? That is possible with localized showers or very low scattered clouds. Are you allowed to fly? I think that if you asked five different FAA Inspectors, you’d get a bunch of different answers. But if you crashed while flying in those conditions, the NTSB report would claim you were flying VFR in IMC.

What’s the answer? Beats me.

Scud Happens

What I do know is this: If all your preflight planning indicates that weather and visibility will not be an issue during a flight but unexpected weather conditions come up, you need to react to them. As helicopter pilots, we’re lucky in that we have options to avoid flying into clouds and the terrain they obscure. At the same time, we don’t want to push that luck and get into a situation we can’t get out of safely. Experience, skill, and wisdom should guide us.

Scud running is never a good idea, but sometimes it’s the best idea under unforeseen circumstances. It’s your job as a pilot to (1) avoid getting into a dangerous situation and (2) make the best decision and take the best actions to complete a flight safely.

Giving Credit Where Credit is Due

Two people helped me get started in cherry drying.

Yesterday, I got an email message from someone I hadn’t heard from since 2009. His name is Rob and he’s one of the two people who helped me launch my cherry drying business here in Washington state.

The first person, of course, was Erik Goldbeck. Erik contacted me way back in 2006 about joining him in Washington for some cherry drying work. It was Erik who explained what the work entailed and why it’s done. He tried to get me up to Washington from my home in Arizona in the summer of 2006 and again in 2007, but he was unable to guarantee me work or the standby pay I needed to make the trip financially viable. It wasn’t until 2008 that Erik got enough contract work to bring a second pilot on board with guaranteed standby pay. He chose me and I prepared to come north to join him.

At Pateros
Here’s my helicopter, parked on the lawn beside a motel in Pateros, WA where I worked for 10 days that first cherry drying season.

Then two things happened. First there was a late season frost that destroyed half the crop. Suddenly Erik only needed one pilot. But Erik was not going to be that pilot. Almost at the same time, he was diagnosed with cancer. When I met him in person for the first and only time, he was in the hospital recovering from surgery, relearning how to walk. He sent me to Quincy, WA to handle the remaining cherry contracts he’d gotten for us. I was only there for seven weeks that first year and only flew five hours total.

The following year, 2009, Erik was out of the picture. (He died that summer; his illness and death had a profound effect on me.) I prepared to go to work for the same company he’d contracted with for much of the work the previous year. I had two contacts: Rob in the Quincy area and Dan in the Chelan area. They worked for a man named Ed, selling helicopter services to orchardists and getting helicopters to do the work.

About a month before my season start, Ed apparently decided he didn’t want to be in the business anymore. He shut down without any notice, leaving Rob and Dan unemployed, dozens of orchardists without any protection for their cherry crop, and more than a few pilots wondering what the heck they were going to do. I got in touch with Rob, who seemed disillusioned and fed up. He told me he was going to retire and then he did something I’ve always appreciated: he gave me the phone numbers for a bunch of orchardists in Quincy and Wenatchee who might need helicopters.

I worked the phones. I got enough orchardists interested in hiring me to make it worth coming north on my own. I created a contract based on the one Erik had with me. I collected standby pay. And in late May, I hooked up my old RV and headed north to Washington for the summer. I even managed to extend my season with a new contract that had me in the Wenatchee area until mid August.

At the end of the season, I sent Rob a “commission” check to thank him. I think he was surprised.

Each year, I built up my client base to add clients and orchards. By 2011, I had enough work to add a pilot for about three of my eleven weeks. The following year I added one for four weeks. The next year, there were three of us for a while. Then four. This year, which is my ninth season, I have four pilots helping me for my busiest part of the season: two in Quincy and two with me in the Wenatchee area, where I’ve been living full-time since May 2013.

But without the leads from Rob, I would never have been able to come back that second season and I wouldn’t be where I am now — living in a place I love, surrounded by good friends and friendly people, enjoying a life I’d only dreamed about having.

I tried to contact Rob a few times, mostly just to say hello. But I never got a response.

Until yesterday’s email, which was sent using the contact form on my blog.

I’d taken his two granddaughters, aged 6 and 3, on a helicopter ride during an event at the airport on Saturday. They “wanted to fly with the girl pilot.” He was writing to say hello and thank me. He mentioned that he was still retired and living at his orchard but he occasionally did some seasonal inspection work. I wrote back to tell him how good it was to hear from him and to thank him again for helping me get started.

Rob probably doesn’t realize how much he helped change my life for the better. Cherry drying was the good paying work I needed to make my helicopter business thrive. It gave me the excuse I needed to get away from Arizona’s brutally hot summers. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, it also gave me a chance to enjoy a few months of freedom every summer, living like a single person and making my own decisions. I fell in love with this area over those summers and it was a no-brainer to move here full-time when my marriage fell apart.

Rebuilding my life here has been one of the most pleasurable challenges in my life — and it wouldn’t be possible without the business I built here with Erik and Rob to help get me started.