Unlikely Tour Reservation Scam

How many times have I gotten these? Too many to count.

Got this in my email inbox for Flying M Air yesterday.

Reservation Email
This simple message has plenty of flags to indicate it’s a scam.

Looks good, huh? Three days worth of helicopter tours for four people. Cha-ching!

It’s fake, of course. Want to know how I can tell? Here are the flags:

  • “Vacation in your state.” Which state is that? Believe it or not, I’m still getting requests from people who think I still operate in Arizona. (I left the state in 2013.) The vagueness of this screams “boilerplate” or “template.” It also makes me wonder how many other tour operators got the exact same message yesterday.
  • “Reservation for 2 couples.” My aircraft only holds three passengers. Martin obviously hasn’t done his homework before dangling his credit card.
  • “Confirm availability and total cost.” How could I possibly calculate a “total cost” if I have no idea what he wants?
  • No phone number. The sender hasn’t provided any method other than an email address to contact him. Why not?
  • Sender Gmail account. Yes, I know that real people have Gmail accounts, too. But do they usually spell their last names wrong in the account address?

Yes, this is a scam. I actually played along with one of these years ago to see what he wanted. You can read the details here. How interesting to see that it’s still being played. I guess there are enough suckers out there to make trying it worthwhile.

Don’t get scammed. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

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.

Helicopters 101: Ground School

An excerpt from my upcoming book about my first ten years as a helicopter pilot.

Articles in the Helicopters 101 series:
Flight Planning
CG
Weight
Hover Charts
Ground School

At least five years ago, I began writing a memoir about my first ten years as a helicopter pilot. I put it aside for various reasons, picked it up, put it aside again, and have now picked it up again. At the rate I’m going, it could probably cover my first twenty years.

Since I’m trying to spend more time working on that book than writing blog posts, I figured I could excerpt some of the book’s text as blog posts. (That kind of makes sense since a lot of the book will come from existing blog posts.) This is an example from my chapter about ground school during my primary training in the late 1990s. I think it provides a good overview of what helicopter pilots learn in ground school. It also provides some very useful links for free learning resources.

A side note here…like any other blog post that will appear in my book, this one is likely to be removed from the blog once the book is published. When that time comes, the content of this post will be replaced with a link to buy the book. A girl’s gotta make a living, no?

My flight training days nearly always included up to two hours of ground school sandwiched between two blocks of flight time. Ground school is required to learn the multitude of things a pilot needs to know to be safe and legal in the eyes of the FAA⁠, such as:

  • Pilot requirements and responsibilities. What a pilot needs to legally fly in the United States and what her responsibilities are as pilot in command.
  • Helicopter aerodynamics. How helicopters fly. (Spoiler alert: they do not “beat the air into submission.”) This includes such concepts as lift, translating tendency, Coriolis effect, gyroscopic precession, translational lift, and more.
  • Helicopter components and flight controls. Helicopter rotor systems, power plant, transmission, cyclic, collective, throttle, and anti-torque pedals.
  • Basic, advanced, and emergency maneuvers and procedures. All of the procedures and skills a helicopter pilot needs to have to fly safely in normal and emergency conditions.
  • Airspace and air traffic control (ATC). The different types of airspace and a pilot’s responsibilities for operating in each of them, as well as the basics of communicating and complying with air traffic controllers.
  • Navigation. The basics of getting from Point A to Point B safely, without getting lost or wandering into restricted airspace. This includes all kinds of tools for navigation, from paper charts and plotters to radio navigation aids to GPS.
  • Weather. Any kind of weather that can affect flight—which is pretty much any kind of weather.
  • Aeronautical decision making (ADM) and pilot preparedness. Cockpit resource management and a pilot’s physical and mental condition to fly.
  • Aircraft specific information. The specific details about the aircraft the pilot will fly, such as mechanical components, performance, limitations, emergency procedures, and weight and balance.

This is only some of the information a pilot needs to know to pass written, oral, and practical tests and get a pilot certificate.

Just about all of this information can be found in four different government-published resources that are available online for free at the FAA’s website1:

  • Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs)2 are the actual laws governing flight in the United States. Written in a form of legalese, they can be frustratingly difficult to understand and often refer back and forth to each other to form a web of confusion. Occasionally, someone puts out a book purporting to translate FARs into plain English, but these don’t usually cover all topics and can contain outdated information when the FARs are updated—which can be several times a year.
  • Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM, formerly the Airman’s Information Manual) is a much easier to read and understand guide that covers most of what a pilot needs to know. Like the FARs, however, it’s geared toward airplane pilots, so there’s a lot of information a helicopter pilot doesn’t really need to know.
  • Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge (FAA-H-8083-25B) is a textbook-like guide that covers all the basics of flying airplanes in an illustrated format that’s easy to read. Note that I said “airplanes” here—that’s because this book goes into a lot of detail about airplane aerodynamics, design, and controls, most of which helicopter pilots don’t need to know. But it also covers airspace, weather, airport operations, and other topics all pilots need to know.
  • Helicopter Flying HandbookHelicopter Flying Handbook (FAA-H-8083-21A) is another textbook-like guide that covers all of the basics of flying helicopters. This is the book I recommend to anyone interested in helicopter flight. The illustrations and examples do an excellent job of teaching complex aerodynamic concepts specific to helicopters. This book does not, however, cover airspace, weather, or other non-helicopter specific topics that helicopter pilots still need to know.

Aircraft-specific information can be found in the pilot operating handbook (POH) that comes with and must be on board every aircraft. Those are often available online from the aircraft manufacturer.⁠3


Footnotes:
1 There’s a wealth of information for pilots at www.faa.gov. You can also buy print versions of these resources from various publishers.
2 I should mention here that what most people refer to as the FARs is actually called the “Code of Federal Regulations Title 14 Aeronautics and Space” or just “CFR Title 14.”
3 If you’re interested in seeing the pilot operating handbook for the helicopter I learned to fly in, a Robinson R22, visit http://robinsonheli.com/r22_poh.html.

Helicopter Overhaul in Progress

Stripped down and waiting for “the kit.”

Regular readers of this blog might remember my October series of posts about flying my helicopter from my home in Malaga, WA to Quantum Helicopters in Chandler, AZ.

Robinson helicopters are required to be overhauled at 12 years or 2200 hours, whichever comes first. January 2017 would be 12 years for Zero-Mike-Lima, but because I need the helicopter back in time for my late winter frost work and I don’t fly it much during the winter anyway, I dropped it off early to give the shop plenty of time to do the work they needed to do. At this point, they’ve had it for about a month and a half. They’ve had the money they needed to get started for about a month.

I’m back in Arizona now, enjoying the first part of my annual migration to the south. (After 15 years living in Arizona, it’s hard to take the short, dreary days of a Pacific Northwest winter.) I had errands to run in the Phoenix area today, so I thought I’d head down to Chandler to visit Zero-Mike-Lima. I had a part to drop off — a starter that’s part of the “core” that needs to be replaced. The mechanics will pull the existing starter, which was replaced only a few months ago, and I’ll keep that as a spare. The helicopter will get a brand new starter among the many brand new parts that come in the overhaul kit.

And that’s what it’s waiting for now: the kit. The maintenance shop draws up a list of the parts needed for the overhaul and sends it to Robinson Helicopter, along with a huge chunk of my money. The parts folks at Robinson pack up the parts that go into the kit. This takes about six weeks. They then put it all on a truck and ship it to Arizona.

Blades
My main rotor blades sit atop a pair from an R22, along with the “candy cane” bar that protects the tail rotor area. I’ll go back for the blades once I figure out how I can get them home. I think they’ll look good hanging on the wall in my living room.

In the meantime, the mechanics disassemble the helicopter and pull out the parts they need to send back to the factory as cores. I’ll get some money back for those — possibly as much as $50K. (I sent them $175K.) They send the engine to a shop to be rebuilt. They send other parts out to another shop to be inspected. They take the time-limited parts that have no value and literally thrown them on a scrap pile.

So the helicopter is mostly disassembled at this point. Most of its parts are on carts where the tailbone should be. Its doors are on another cart. One of its skids is temporarily on another helicopter that had a hard landing the other day and broke a skid. (I saw the video and it’s amazing that helicopter ended up on its skids.) The other skid is shoved underneath of it.

Fuselage
The helicopter’s fuselage is sitting on a rolling wooden cart right now.

Cart full of parts Cart full of parts
Rolling carts full of parts occupy the area where the tailcone should be.

Helicopter Interior
They stripped out the carpet and removed the seats. None of the avionics will be replaced.

No one was working on it when I got there. They’re waiting for the kit. They had plenty of other helicopters to keep them busy, though. Quantum is a large operation.

I’ll go by and visit again later this month or after the kit has arrived. I’ll bring cookies or pizza for the mechanics. (I really regret not stopping for at least cookies today.) I don’t want to be a nuisance, but I do want to keep apprised of the progress. I want to take photos along the way.

And I can’t wait to go flying again.

Want to Learn How to Hover?

Practice.

Sheesh. This is the kind of email I get:

Maria, I just recently found you when I was researching the R44.
I am a new helicopter student, roughly three hours, and hovering or the cyclic in general, is kicking my butt! I have a good grasp of the movements and how you push in the opposite direction and so on, but I tend to move it too much or over-compensate. Would you have any pearls of wisdom you could pass on about how you were able to lick this difficulty? Was there anything you practiced on at home or did you try visualization techniques? Anything would help.
Thanks a lot in advance.

Okay, so this guy thinks that any 3-hour student pilot should be able to hover. That’s there’s some magic trick I can teach him that will make him a whiz at this. Or that he can “visualize” something and it’ll just work.

Sheesh.

The answer is easy: practice.

Seriously: practice makes perfect. Ever hear that one? It’s true.

Learn to Fly HereIt takes, on average, 5 to 10 hours for a student pilot to learn how to hover. To hover, you need a feel for the controls. You can’t get a feel for the controls without actually manipulating the controls. The more you manipulate the controls, the better you learn how they feel.

In other words, practice makes perfect.

This guy is new and naive and somehow thinks he’s dropping the ball on this. He’s not. He’s floundering the way every single one of us did.

I blame his CFI for not explaining to him that hovering isn’t easy. I’m wondering if his CFI is one of those cocky know-it-alls who is just doing time as a CFI, hating every minute of it and taking it out on his students. The kind of CFI who’ll likely die in an accident on his first or second job — if he isn’t lucky enough to get fired first — because his crappy attitude causes him to cut corners or let complacency take him by surprise. Or he attempts one too many “watch this” moments.

We all know the type. You can read about some of them in the NTSB reports.

In fact, hovering is probably the hardest thing a helicopter pilot learns to do — and we have to learn to do it first. You can’t fly a helicopter unless you know how to hover.

So my answer to him and any other new helicopter pilot who is struggling to learn this basic skill is simple: practice.

And one day soon, you’ll just be able to do it. It’s as simple as that.