Cheap Power in a Great Place to Live

Summed up in a video.

Last month, my electric bill was $27.73. The month before, it was $37.24. And my August bill, which covered the brutally hot July we had, was only $40.07.

And yes, I do run my air conditioner. That can be pretty frequently, since I’m home most days in the summer. I also have all electric appliances: stove, dryer, water heater, etc.

The power in Chelan County is supposedly the second cheapest in the country. (The cheapest is supposedly across the river in Douglas County.) Our current electricity rate is 2.7¢ per kilowatt hour. Compare this to the last place I lived, in Arizona’s Maricopa County, which was 13.27¢ per kilowatt hour. The national average is 9.84¢ per kilowatt hour.

Rock Island Dam
The Rock Island dam is just downriver from where I live.

Washington’s power is cheap because it’s renewable energy from numerous hydroelectric and wind turbine sources. The Chelan PUD is especially proud of its hydroelectric plants and the work it’s done along the Columbia River to enhance the lives of residents. I’m referring mostly to the numerous parks and publicly accessible boat ramps, many of which are free.

Back in 2014, I did some flying work for one of my video clients. Here’s the resulting video. (All of the aerial footage was shot from my helicopter.) But what I really like about the video is what is says about life in this area of the country. This is really a great place to live.

Our Public Power: The Next Generation from Voortex Productions on Vimeo.

More Helicopter Charter Company Advice

You need a business plan? Do it right.

I need to start this blog post by reporting that at this moment, there are 2,214 items in my email Inbox, 64 of which have not yet been read. See?

My email inbox is really out of control.

So maybe you can understand why you’ll find this paragraph on the Contact Me page of this site:

I cannot provide career advice of any kind, whether you want to be a writer or a helicopter pilot. The posts in this blog have plenty of advice — read them. There’s a pretty good chance that I’ve covered your question here in a blog post.

Yet the contact form on that page continues to be used by pilots requesting career or business-related information. Apparently these people have failed to read or understand the paragraph right above the contact form, which says:

First, read the above. All of it. Now understand that if you contact me by email for any of the above reasons, I’m probably not going to respond.

I don’t know any way to be more clear than that.

So yes, I get dozens of email messages every month from people who either can’t read or comprehend the above-quoted paragraphs. And I delete just about every single one.

You want more about this? Read this.

So Outrageous It Needs an Answer

That said, here’s today’s question from a reader in Germany, a question I found so outrageous that I fired up my blog composition app and started typing.

Hi Maria,

i like your blog and read it nearly every week. I am a helicopter pilot too and try now to realize my own company next to my job at airbus helicopters.
I am just at the point: How can i buy a helicopter R44 like you ???

I know it is not easy but i have to create a concept for my bank.

Where do I begin?

How I Bought My Helicopter

How did I buy my R44? I sold my R22 and an apartment building I owned, took the proceeds plus a $160,000 loan from AOPA’s aircraft lending program, and handed it over to Robinson Helicopter. I then paid back that loan over eight years at about $2,100/month — while I covered my living expenses and all the costs of operating my business.

How did I buy the R22 and an apartment building? I worked my ass off as a writer, working 12-hour days, for more month-long stretches than I care to remember, writing books about how to use computers. I wrote 85 of them in 25 years and some of them did very, very well. But instead of pissing the money away on stupid things to keep up with the Joneses, I invested it in real estate and my future.

Through hard work and smart money management, I became a helicopter pilot without incurring a penny of debt and I acquired the assets I needed to build my helicopter charter company.

That’s what I did. Are you ready to do that, too?

Me and My Helicopter

First of all, I my entire guide for starting a helicopter charter business can be found in a post coincidentally titled “How to Start your Own Helicopter Charter Business.” Someone interested in doing this should probably start there. You want to know how you can do what I did? That blog post, which was written way back in 2009 and has been sitting on this blog waiting for folks to read it since then, explains exactly what I did.

So even though this person claims to read my blog “nearly every week,” this person hasn’t bothered to use the search box at the top of every single page to find blog entries that might have been missed that might have the information wanted. Instead, I’m expected take time out of my day — time that might be used to clear out some of the crap in my inbox — to explain how to write a business plan for a helicopter charter company.

Because that’s what needed here: a business plan.

Business Plan Resources

Most people can’t do what I did to start their own helicopter charter company. Those are the people who need business plans because they need a lender to give them the money that they need to acquire the assets that they need to start their business.

There are no shortcuts. Either you have the money and can spend it or you need to find a lender who will give it to you. And that lender is going to need some proof that you know everything about your business before you even start it.

That’s what business plans do: They help you understand every aspect of the business you want to start. They also prove to a lender that you’ve thought it through and that it has the potential to make a profit so they can get their money back.

There are countless sources of free information about creating business plans. Many of them are online. Google “How do I create a business plan?” and see for yourself. An especially good resource is the U.S. Small Business Administration‘s Create Your Business Plan page. These are also the folks who can help you get a loan through their own program.

Like reading books? (I hope someone still does.) A search of for “creating a business plan” yields a list of more than 2,900 books on the topic. Isn’t it worth investing a few dollars to help you do this right?

I Can’t Do It for You

Living the Dream?
People tell me that I’m “living the dream” and lately I think I agree. But it wasn’t luck or charity that got me here. I did it all myself, despite numerous obstacles, and I’m proud of it. When you achieve your goals through your own efforts, you’ll be proud, too.

If this post comes across as a snarky rant, it’s because that’s the way I feel about this. I’m really tired of people trying to get me to help them achieve their goals.

No one helped me. No one. In fact, too many people close to me tried to hold me back.

A professional pilot friend told me I was a fool to think I could start a career as a pilot so late in life. (I was 39 when I got my private pilot certificate.) He told me I’d never make any money.

My mother cried when I bought my first helicopter. She was convinced that I’d die in a fiery crash. (She also cried when I left my full-time job as a financial analyst to become a freelance writer.)

My wasband tried to talk me out of buying the R44. He should have know as well as I did how impossible it was to build any kind of charter business with an R22. He also tried to keep me from traveling to Washington state each summer — by endlessly trying to make me feel guilty about the trips — where I finally found the work I needed to make my company profitable. (I only wish I’d chosen my business over him about 10 years earlier.)

No one told me what I’d later learn through trial and error about advertising, getting maintenance done, finding clients, and building a niche for my services. (I’ve blogged extensively about all these things here.)

Every helicopter charter business is different. The only business I know about is mine — and I’ve shared most of what I know on this blog. It’s here for anyone willing to take the time to look for it. (Hint: there’s a Search box at the top of each page.)

I cannot be expected to cook up an all-purpose formula that will work for anyone who wants to create a business like mine where they live. And even if I could, I wouldn’t. Any business with that formula would fail. Why? Because if the business owner doesn’t fully understand his/her business, he can’t possibly make it succeed.

So my advice to those of you interested in starting a helicopter charter business is this: stop looking for someone to do the hard part for you. Do your homework. Analyze the market. Gather information about costs. Check out the competition. And then write a complete, thorough business plan.

If you can succeed at doing that on your own, you might have a shot at succeeding in your business.

The Wild Horses of the Yakama Nation

Thousands of acres, hundreds of horses.

Yesterday, I flew my helicopter back to the Wenatchee, WA area from some maintenance done in Hillsboro, OR. In a perfect world, the weather would be clear and the air calm and I could fly a direct route that would take about 90-100 minutes. But as we all know, the world is not perfect and, once again, I had to take a longer route, this time to skirt around the edge of some very nasty rain showers that stretched west/east from Mt. Saint Helens to route 97 and north/south from Mt. Rainier to the Columbia River.

A direct route, which I’ve done twice back in 2012 (see video), takes me between Mt. Saint Helens and Mount Adams. Yesterday’s route had me following the Columbia River from Vista House east of Troutdale to just past Hood River. From there, I headed northeast, right on the edge of the rain, keeping a sharp eye out for lightning that would indicate thunderstorm activity. Although I didn’t see any flashes, radar in Foreflight and my RadarUS app clearly showed some very dense cells off my left shoulder all the way and the rain was intense. The air I flew in was remarkably calm, though, and I only flew through rain as I followed the route of Route 97 northeast of Goldendale, where it goes through a pass. From there, I cut away from the road, aiming for Sunnyside. I modified my route to go around the south-east corner of the restricted area northeast of Yakima and fly home along the Columbia River from Mattawa.

Hillsboro to Wenatchee Route
Here’s a rough sketch of my route, drawn in Skyvector. The red box is a TFR for firefighting; oddly, the rainstorms were centered right over that box.

It was over the Yakama Nation (not a typo), between Route 97 and Route 12 that I saw the wild horses. I knew they were out there, of course. You can often see herds from Route 97 between Toppenish and Goldendale. But east of the road is where most of the horses seem to live.

The land forms there remind me of the Hopi Mesas in Arizona, long, flat, finger-like mesas stretching to the southwest, where the land drops off in a steep slope. The horse herds are dotted mostly along the mesa tops, although I did see a few herds in between. I flew over them, perhaps 300 feet up, and was close enough to clearly see the coloring of the horses I few near. Most herds seem to include a youngster or two who took off, running back to mama, when he/she heard me coming.

When I say there were herds of wild horses, I’m not talking about two or three herds. There were at least that many herds on each of the mesas I flew over. Each herd had 5 to 20 horses in it and I must have seen at least 20 herds. That’s hundreds of horses.

Wild Horses
I had my GoPro “nosecam” going while I flew. Here’s one of the shots captured along the way. The video clips show how some herds ignored me while others took off running at the sound of my approach. And no, unlike other pilots — a famous Phoenix area news pilot comes to mind — I don’t chase the horses with my helicopter.

Now some folks who see the horses along the road seem to think that they’re not wild. They confuse a new fence likely erected to keep open range cattle off the roadway with a fence to keep the horses on someone’s property. But having flown over the area, I can assure you that these horses are not fenced in. I flew for miles, covering thousands of acres of land, and didn’t see any homes or ranch buildings, no feeding stations, few two-track roads, and no additional fencing. These horses don’t belong to any one person. They’re wild.

Like the wild horses on the Navajo reservation in northern Arizona. Or those along the Verde and Salt Rivers not far from Phoenix. Or the ones along the Gila River, west of Chandler, AZ. And in who knows how many other places?

Seeing things like this is one of the perks of being a helicopter pilot able to fly in some of this country’s remote areas. I’d love to do tours to show off the wild horse of the Yakama Nation. Unfortunately, like so much of the incredible scenery I get to fly over on long cross-country flights, it’s just too far away to be affordable to the typical Wenatchee sightseer.

2015 Cherry Drying Season Recap

A short, dry season means less flying time.

The Best Insurance
The tagline on my cherry drying business card is directly from one of my clients “The best insurance is a helicopter in your orchard.” This photo was shot in his orchard in 2009.

My cherry drying season unofficially ended Saturday afternoon. I say “unofficially” because although I’m contracted through month-end, the compressed cherry season had all orchards I was under contract to cover picked out by yesterday.

Timing and Rainfall

The season itself was very early. Although my earliest contract started only a day earlier than the previous year, other contracts started at least a week earlier than usual. My season contractually ended a full two weeks before normal. I typically get about 11 weeks of contract work, which is longer than the average pilot but shorter than the larger helicopter companies that aggregate services. (I have no desire to become like one of those companies.) I start on the river in Quincy and finish on Wenatchee Heights. This year, I got just 67 days — not even 10 weeks!

The season was compressed because of the weather. We had a very warm spring, some cooling, and then some brutally hot weather in late June. This really screwed up the growing season. Too many growers were picking at the same time. This not only dropped the prices they could get for their cherries but it made it difficult or even impossible (in the case of one of my grower friends) to get pickers.

One good thing for growers: there was very little rain. Indeed, I went out to dry on only 5 days during the 67 days I was on contract.

Despite the shorter and dryer than average season, this was my best season in the eight years I’ve been drying cherries in central Washington state. This is due primarily to additional acreage added by existing clients and a new client. More contracted acreage means more standby money and more potential work.

Other Pilots on My Team

The additional acreage under contract made it necessary to contract with additional pilots to ensure that I could promptly cover all acreage under contract. The additional standby money I collected made it possible to bring these pilots on board. I brought three pilots with helicopters in on four-week contracts and one pilot with a helicopter in for a five-week contract. Two were based on Quincy and two in Wenatchee. Their contacts overlapped so I had a total of five pilots with helicopters on my team during the two week period when we had the most acreage to cover.

I say “team” because we work as a team. Or teams. There’s the Quincy team and the Wenatchee team. I’m part of both teams — the person who helps out where needed and eats the extra cost of repositioning the helicopter. The pilots on each team know where all the acreage is. I dispatch them based on availability to get the quickest possible response time for my clients. If there aren’t a lot of orchards to cover, we’ll double up over one of them; my clients love seeing two helicopters over their orchard at the same time.

This year, we flew a total of just 19.1 hours. That’s for five pilots over a period of 27 man weeks. When you do the math, you realize that’s less than an hour a week per helicopter. It was actually worse for the Quincy pilots, who didn’t get to fly at all. All 19.1 hours was flown in the Wenatchee area.

Can you understand now why I insist that cherry drying is not a time-building job?

Come to Washington State Next Summer!

Are you a commercial helicopter pilot with an R44, Hiller, Bell 47, or JetRanger? If you are and want a “paid vacation with possibility of paid flying time,” you need to read this. I’m looking for experienced pilots who are more interested in a return on their asset investment than building time in that asset.

Fortunately, none of my pilots seemed to mind not flying much. I only hire experienced pilots with 500 or more hours PIC and I prefer owner/operators. None of the guys were in Washington to build time.

One of them, who was with me last year, too, already knew that there wouldn’t be much flying. He came to Quincy with an RV and truck, bicycles, and kayaks. On all the cloudless days we had, he kept busy.

The other guys soon learned that they could do the same. I’m not a babysitter — I let the guys do whatever they want, as long as they answer the phone when I call and launch promptly when dispatched. They did so we’re all good. When they weren’t flying or waiting out a possible rain event they were hiking, kayaking, touring Leavenworth or Chelan, visiting the farmers market, or just hanging out together. (I didn’t move here just so I’d be close to work three months out of the year. I moved here because it’s a great place to be.)

In general, they treat their time in Washington the way I did before I moved here: as a paid vacation with a possibility of flying work. All of the pilots who joined me this year have asked to come back next year and I’d be glad to have them back.

Some Stats

I have a master spreadsheet where I track my contract dates, income, pilots, billing, and contract labor expenses. That makes it easy to produce statistics each season. (I love stats.) Here’s a quick comparison of this year and last year.

Stat 2015 2014
First Contract Start Date 5/25/15 5/26/14
Last Contract End Date 7/31/15 8/13/14
Total Contracted Days 67 80
Maximum Pilots 5 4
Total Man Weeks 27 23
Days with Rain Events 5 9
Total Dry Time 19.1 38.3
Average Dry Time Per Pilot Per Week 0.7 1.7
Total Acres Under Contract 547 429
Maximum Acres Under Contract at One Time 364 336

As I mentioned above, this was my best season ever. I feel very fortunate to have built this niche market for my helicopter services and to have made this beautiful area my home. And I’m very pleased to be able to work with a number of professional, experienced helicopter owner/operators who understand the importance of good service as well as I do.

I’m looking forward to serving my existing client base with a great team again next year, protecting their valuable cherry crops from rain as I have for the past eight years.

The Hover Power Posts

Most of my blogging about helicopters is now published on one of AOPA’s blogs.

Just a quick head’s up to let pilot readers know that I am still blogging about flying helicopters. But instead of posting most of them here, they go right to AOPA’s Hover Power blog. The main reason: they pay me to write for them. Girl’s gotta make a living, no?

Here are the most recent posts, in reverse chronological order:

Keep in mind that you can always get an up-to-date list of my work published elsewhere on my Articles page.

If you have any ideas for topics you’d like to see me cover, why not take a moment to comment on this post with your suggestions? I’ll either cover it for Hover Power or here.

And if you’re an editor or publisher looking for a professional writer to create fresh content about flying helicopters for your magazine or blog, I hope you’ll contact me.