Hot Air Balloon Flight

Drifting through Napa Sacramento Valley by balloon.

Napa Valley Balloons
These guys are the best in the business: professional, safety-conscious, and fun!

As I mentioned in a recent blog post about Thursday’s helicopter flight through Napa Valley, I’d been invited to take a spot on a hot air balloon flight with Napa Valley Balloons, Inc. on Friday morning out of Yountville (just north of Napa). I actually did the flight on Friday as planned. Well, sort of.

I was invited to fly by Bob, the pilot I’d met a few weeks before at the airport where I’m currently living in the Sacramento area. Bob had landed with his passengers in what I consider my “backyard” here — the ramp I can see from the back window of my RV. I’d taken some photos of his landing and had sent the best one to him. He said he’d try to get me on a future flight; I told him I’d take him and two friends up in my helicopter. After too many windy days, the weather had finally calmed down and I was scheduled for the first flight with an opening: Friday, March 21.

I got my confirmation with instructions via email. All passengers were supposed to meet at Domaine Chandon in Yountville at 6:30 AM. Google Maps told me that was about an hour away. And because I don’t like to be late to anything, I gave it an extra half hour of drive time. That meant leaving at 5 AM.

I’m an early riser and didn’t have any trouble making that departure time. With my first cup of coffee in a travel mug, I put Penny and her breakfast into the truck and we headed out.

I’d just passed the exit for Winters when my cell phone rang. It was Bob. “Don’t leave yet,” he told me. “I think there’s fog in the valley. We might depart from Winters instead.”

“I just passed Winters,” I told him.

“Wow. You’re running early. Why don’t you hang out there and I’ll let you know when I have a better handle on the weather.”

We hung up and I gave it some thought. It was dark out, but I could clearly see the moon and stars. No fog here. But also no place to just “hang out.” I kept driving, thinking of maybe pulling over in Vacaville, which was coming up. I could see the rotating beacon of the airport there, Nut Tree. Maybe I could find a coffee shop close to the freeway to wait at?

But then I started thinking about how long it would take me to continue the drive if Bob gave me the green light to keep coming. I didn’t want to be the last one to arrive. And I was hoping to see them inflate the balloons. I’d keep going and, if I had to drive back to Winters, I’d do it with them.

So I kept going.

I was just entering Napa when I started seeing the low clouds of a marine layer creeping into the valley. Still clear overhead. I called Bob.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” he said. “It’s a tough call. The crew and passengers are still meeting at Chandon.”

“I’ll be there in 10 minutes,” I told him. “No bother if I have to drive back. I don’t want to hold anyone up.”

We hung up again.

I pulled into the Chandon driveway at 6 AM and followed the signs to the parking area. I took Penny for a quick walk before following more signs to the reception area. I’d been to Domaine Chandon years before — probably on my very first trip to Napa Valley with my future wasband. My memory of the place did not match the grand establishment I was at that morning. Gardens, ponds, fountains, patios, catering rooms. The place was huge and, even in the dark, impressive. I looked forward to seeing it in the daylight.

I was the first passenger to arrive. I signed in and signed a waiver, grabbed a cup of coffee and a tiny croissant, and then chatted with the two receptionist and the pilots as they arrived. Bob was no where in sight, probably still trying to figure out whether it would be clear enough to fly.

The answer came with a phone call to one of the pilots who then began briefing the 40 or so passengers who had arrived. Safety first, legal matters second. Bob had determined that the flying conditions in Napa that morning were neither safe nor legal. We’d be departing from Winters, in the Sacramento Valley.

While the passenger briefing continued, I asked one of the pilots where they were departing from in Winters. He showed me on Google Maps on my phone. Bob’s crew and the other two crews were already enroute with plans to have the balloons fully inflated when the rest of the passengers arrived in the shuttle vans.

Apparently, I wouldn’t see Domaine Chandon in the daylight that day after all.

I got directions, told the pilot and crew in the reception area that I’d go on ahead, and left. Before I left, one of the receptionists gave me two Chandon bags. I could tell there was a bottle in one of them. Consolation prize for missing breakfast with the rest of the passengers. How nice!

I got to see the sun rise through the marine layer on my way back.

It was a quick drive back. The fog was settling in and, although it was high still over the highway, I could see that Bob had made a good call. As the sun came up through the marine layer, it was pretty obvious that low clouds were filling in the valley.

There was a balloon company setting up beside the freeway at the Winters exit. I called Bob, thinking they might have relocated. He said that was their competition. Before he could give me directions, I told him I knew where to go. I hung up, followed Google’s guidance, and wound up in a field north of town where crews were spreading out three large balloons.

Balloon Setup
The crews were already beginning to set up the balloons when I arrived.

I’d been ballooning twice before. The first time was at a balloon festival in New Jersey, back in the 1990s, before I’d moved to Arizona. My future wasband had taken his niece and me for a flight. It was a great experience in what was probably considered a medium balloon. I don’t remember there being many people in our basket. I do remember being in a crowd of brightly colored balloons ascending into the sky over southwestern New Jersey farmland. I remember drifting silently on the breeze over people’s backyards while dogs barked. I remember seeing a woman in her bathrobe coming out to ge the morning newspaper. I remember grabbing the leaves off the top of a tree. And I remember the loud rush of gas and flames as the pilot added heat to the balloon envelope to keep us afloat.

The second time had been much more recently and I’d honestly almost forgotten it. It was back in January 2012 when I did a charter job that also involved a balloon. (Long story.) It was a tethered flight out in the desert west of where I lived in Arizona at the time. I blogged about it here.

This was different. This was real ballooning with a real commercial balloon company and pilot. The basket and balloon were huge; the basket could hold 17 people, including the pilot, and the balloon had to be large enough to lift that. The basket was carried to the site in a large truck with a hydraulic lift gate in the back. It took a lot of brute strength to get it down and into position on the ground beside the empty balloon.

Balloon Setup
The baskets for these balloons are huge.

I put Penny on her leash and wandered over with my camera to watch.

If you’ve never seen a hot air balloon inflated, here’s how it’s done. They start by spreading out the empty balloon envelope on the ground. They lay the basket on its side beside the bottom of the balloon and fasten the balloon to the basket with a series of ropes and carabiners. Then they put out one or two large fans that are fastened to generators, fire up the generators, and use the fans to start pushing air into the balloons. One or two members of the crew hold the balloon open at the bottom for the air to go in.

Inflating the Balloon
Bob (left) and a crew member hold open the balloon while two large fans begin filling it with air.

Inside the Balloon
It’s odd seeing people walking inside the balloon as it is inflated.

Meanwhile, crew members work in and around the balloon to make sure all the rigging is properly organized and there aren’t any tangles. I’m sure they do other stuff, too. It’s actually quite odd to see them walking around inside the balloon as it’s being inflated.

At a certain point, the balloon has enough air in it to begin holding its shape. But that air is the same temperature as the rest of the air. The balloon won’t fly. It’s time to add hot air. The pilot lights up the burners and adds fuel to shoot flames into the balloon. The fans and generators are shut off and moved away. As the hot air enters, the balloon starts to rise.

Adding Heat to Balloon
Adding heat to the balloon completes the inflation and makes it rise. You can see the other two balloons also being inflated on the right side of this picture.

Me in a Balloon
Yes, that’s me in a balloon.

At some point, the balloon has enough lift to bring the basket to the upright position. That’s when it’s time to load up.

The passengers on our flight arrived during the inflation process. Most of them hung back, although a few came closer to take pictures. I snapped a photo of a couple for them. No one else seemed to want to get that close.

The basket had five compartments: one on each corner for passengers and one in the middle that ran from the front to the back of the basket for the pilot and the fuel canisters. Bob and the crew loaded us up with two couples in each compartment except mine; I shared with just two people. It was cosy but not crowded. A member of the ground crew took a photo of me just before we lifted off.

And then we were off the ground, drifting into the sky. Bob snapped a photo with a GoPro he had mounted off the balloon envelope.

Basket of People
Is this a great picture, or what? Gotta love those GoPros! Bob sent about a dozen shots and I like this one the best.

Balloon Lift Off
I took this photo of our companions still on the ground as we were lifting off; you can see our shadow on the right.

Balloon in Flight
I got this nice shot of one of our companion balloons not long after takeoff.

The flight was wonderful. If you’ve never been in a hot air balloon and you can scrape together the cost of a flight, you really owe it to yourself to do it. It’s a completely novel experience, floating above the ground with this massive structure above your head keeping you aloft. There’s nothing like it.

We were the first ones from our group off the ground, so Bob did most of the navigating — which meant climbing and descending to test the direction of the wind at different altitudes. When he’d find an altitude that took us in the direction he wanted to go, he’d stick to that altitude. We buzzed along in what seemed like a gentle breeze, sometimes reaching in excess of 10 miles per hour. We moved mostly south down the valley with our companions behind us and the balloons from the other company mostly out to the east.

Navigation seems to be the big challenge — and fun — for a balloon pilot. Bob decided to do a “splash and dash” — that’s when the balloon touches down gently in a body of water and then takes off quickly again. He aimed us for Putah Creek, where it ponds up just upstream from a small dam. It was amazing to see him home in on the small pond with nothing to steer with except the wind. We cleared the trees on one side of the pond, descended quickly, and splash! Some water came into the bottom of the basket, soaking our shoes as we climbed out. I looked straight down into the pond and shot two photos of our reflection as we continued drifting south.

Balloon Reflection
Here’s our reflection just after lifting off. That’s the edge of the basket in the bottom of the shot.

Balloon Reflection
Here’s another shot a few moments later when we were drifting away from the pond past the tops of the trees.

Here’s the second balloon from our group going for a splash and dash. Can you see the reflection of his basket in the pond surface?

We continued drifting mostly south for a while. Meanwhile, the ground crew had packed up and were chasing us on the ground. One of the crew members was driving my truck with Penny inside. Bob talked on the radio occasionally, suggesting potential landing zones. We passed them one by one, occasionally seeing the ground crew below us, my truck easily recognizable by the big white fuel transfer tank on the back.

Balloons in Flight
Here’s another shot of our companions.

Eventually, the flight had to end. We’d flown south nearly to I-80. There were a number of office complexes down below us that had plenty of room for landing. We wound up coming in on the grounds of a college campus in a very gentle breeze — so gentle, in fact, that the basket didn’t even tip when landing. We touched down several times — each time, Bob would say, “We’re not done yet.” — before coming to a rest against a curb on an empty cul de sac. Bob began deflating the balloon as the crew came out to grab ropes. The balloon fell gently to the ground ahead of our flight path.

Landing Zone
X marks the spot of our landing zone.

The passengers climbed out while the ground crew worked on getting the balloon and basket gathered up and loaded. Bob said goodbye and hurried off with half the passengers in one of the vans. They’d go back to Domaine Chandon for a champagne breakfast. I could have come along, but didn’t see any reason to be a burden. After all, I’d been a guest on the flight. Just experiencing that was enough for me.

My parting gift from Friday’s flight.

I watched the ground crew work on the balloon for a while, then went back to the truck where Penny was waiting. I let her out for a little walk before we headed out. I stopped in Winters along the way and had a late breakfast at a sidewalk cafe.

I’d forgotten all about the two Chandon bags in the truck, but caught sight of them when I was getting out back at the airport where I’m living. I brought them inside and unwrapped a bottle of Chandon sparkling wine and a glass to toast with.

That champagne is chilling in the fridge right now.

Joy-Flying Over Napa Valley

Sometimes it’s nice to treat yourself to an afternoon out.

I went for a joy ride in my helicopter this afternoon.

I hadn’t been flying since last Wednesday when I finished my Part 135 check ride with an FAA inspector from South Dakota. The helicopter was sitting out on the ramp, blades tied down, gathering dust and then standing up to high winds for a week.

Torn Tie Down
Like the helicopter, the tie-downs are now 8 years old. A strong wind earlier this week tore this one.

One of the blade tie-downs had torn and, although it was still holding, I thought I should repair it. So I untied the blades, brought the tie-downs inside, and did some mending. I looked out the back window while I was on the phone with a client, talking about work this coming summer season back home in Washington. My helicopter sat there patiently in the afternoon’s gentle breeze, less than 200 feet away, waiting for me to tie down its blades again.

Or fly it.

So I flew it.

It was very warm this afternoon — in the high 70s here in the Sacramento area. Too warm for the black T-shirt and jeans I was wearing. So I slipped into a tank top and shorts before going out with Penny and my iPad and my GoPro camera.

Penny waited on her bed in the front passenger seat while I preflighted and added a half quart of oil. Then I snapped the camera into it’s “BellyCam” position, turned on its wifi, and climbed on board beside Penny. A short while later, the engine was running, the camera was recording video, and I was listening to classic rock through my Bose headset. I made a radio call to the empty sky around me, eased up the collective, and lifted gently off the ground. Then I was speeding across the runway only 10 feet off the ground, gathering momentum and climbing out into the California afternoon.

As usual when I’m joy-flying, I didn’t have a specific destination. I had some vague idea of flying down to Nut Tree airport (VCB) in Vacaville, which I’ve been told has a restaurant within walking distance. Thought I’d check it out as a possible destination for when my friend George gets back from Alaska and we take turns flying his gyro and my helicopter. But that destination was too close. I wanted to get out for at least 45 minutes. Maybe I’d stop there on my way back.

I wandered south along highway 505 and turned right at Winters. I was following the road that runs to Lake Solano County Park, where I’d gone paddling the previous Thursday, and beyond that to Lake Berryessa. I was flying into the sun, though, and I knew the video wouldn’t be much good. Would it capture any decent footage of that nice canyon going up to the Lake?

Apparently, it did.

Aerial View of Lake Solano Park
Here’s an aerial view of the Lake Solano County Park. You can see the dock where I put in my kayak last week. I paddled upstream (up in this photo) from there.

I followed the canyon up to the lake, keeping a sharp eye out for wires. There were power poles on the right side of the canyon, but none seemed to cross the canyon. I flew over the dam and headed up lake. The water level was low — California is suffering from a serious drought — but the hillsides were fresh and green from the rain we’d had two weeks ago. Without more rain, the grass would turn brown, possibly before it even got a chance to go to seed.

I saw cattle in the low lands along the lake and ranches up in the hills. Very picturesque.

I flew about halfway up the northeast side of the lake with the sun coming into the cabin from my left. Penny, who had been hot while we were flying into the sun — she hasn’t fully shed her heavy black winter coat — was now in partial shade, leaned back in her seat but still panting from the heat. I was comfortable in my summer clothes; I didn’t realize until I got home how much sun I’d gotten. (Next time I’ll wear shorter shorts and really work on my tan.)

Napa Valley Balloons
In Napa Valley? Want an amazing experience you’ll remember for the rest of your life? Fly with these guys.

I got the idea that I wanted to see Yountville from the air. About a month ago — the day after I arrived with the RV, in fact, a hot air balloon had landed in my “backyard” here — the airport ramp. I’d introduced myself to the pilot and sent him a copy of a picture I’d taken of him landing, along with a suggestion that we swap flights. He booked me on a flight tomorrow morning at Yountville, at the Domain Chandon tasting room. I wanted to see what it looked like from the air.

Hell, I can come up with an excuse to fly anywhere if I try hard enough.

So I banked hard to the left and flew back down lake. I figured I’d follow the road toward Rutherford and then branch off to the south when I got to Napa Valley. I switched the camera from video mode to time-lapse with shots every 10 seconds. I captured this image as we flew down the lake.

Lake Berryessa
Here’s a shot of Lake Berryessa.

I followed the road I’d driven a few times before, most recently on Sunday, on my way back from Napa Valley. Then I made some turns, following valleys, watching out for power lines. Finally, I popped over some hills and dropped down into Napa Valley over the Silverado Trail.

Silverado Trail
Over the Silverado Trail, somewhere near Rutherford, CA.

Below me, the homes, wineries, and vineyards of Napa Valley stretched in all directions. Although the vineyards were not yet leafing out, there was an abundance of green in the grass, trees, and hillsides. It was gorgeous.

Somewhere around this time, I started thinking of my wasband, as I often do when I have amazing experiences I think he would enjoy. We did more than a few joy-flights together over the years, exploring the desert around our home in Arizona or going further afield, perhaps on cross-country trips to Lake Powell or Las Vegas or Washington State. We shared a bird’s eye view of so many amazing things from the air: the red rocks of Sedona, the blue waters of Lake Powell, the winding path of the Colorado River, the grandeur of the Hoover Dam, the haystack rock formations of the Oregon coast.

As I flew over the vineyards, I could imagine him beside me, trying to identify things we’d seen from the ground on previous visits to Napa Valley. His memory was better than mine — at least before he became delusional — and maybe he’d remind me of things I’d forgotten. Would he spot the winery where they’d served us chocolate cake with our cabernet? Surely it was down there somewhere. He might remember where.

But I reminded myself that any fond memories of my wasband were flawed and false. Maybe he wouldn’t have enjoyed this afternoon’s flight after all. Although he always seemed to like being in the helicopter, especially when he got to take the controls, these days I wasn’t sure what he really thought of those flights. He insinuated in court that he thought they were “work” that, for some reason, he should have been paid for — even though he lacked the pilot certification to do commercial flying and I was always sitting beside him in the pilot-in-command seat. Thinking back on our last few years together, I remember all the weekends he spent in front of a television, watching DVRed car shows. Perhaps he preferred doing that to flying. (He didn’t fly his plane either.)

His loss.

I don’t think I could ever get tired of flying a helicopter, especially on days like today when I’m free to go wherever I like in such a beautiful place. Sure beats anything on TV.

I consulted Foreflight on my iPad and realized I had passed Yountville. I made a sweeping turn to the right, lining up with route 29 on the other side of the valley as I headed north. Moments later, I overflew Yountville and the site I think we’ll be departing from tomorrow in a hot air balloon.

Domaine Chandon
I’m not 100% positive, but I think this is where our balloon will be launching from tomorrow.

I continued up the valley, once again retracing my route, in reverse, from Sunday’s drive. Rutherford, St. Helena, Calistoga. I saw the V.Sattui Vineyard looking quiet and empty on the late weekday afternoon. I saw the main drag in St. Helena. I saw the spas and resorts in Calistoga.

St. Helena
An aerial view of St. Helena in Napa Valley.

At Calistoga, I turned east again. I climbed over the mountains on the east side of the valley and dropped into a rugged canyon. I’d been flying for more than 30 minutes and was starting to think of heading back. I punched a GoTo to my base airport into the GPS and turned in the direction of the line. On Sunday I’d driven past Clear Lake, but I didn’t feel like flying out that way. I thought I’d give Lake Berryessa another flyby instead.

East of Calistoga
The mountains east of Calistoga are rugged, with basalt cliffs not unlike those near my home in Washington.

Pope Valley
The valley east of Napa — which I think is called Pope Valley — has vineyards, lakes, and ranch land.

Lake Berryessa Narrows
A narrow channel on Lake Berryessa. I had to be careful here; there were wires across the lake nearby.

Dam at Lake Berryessa
The BellyCam just happened to capture this perfect image of the Dam at the lower end of Lake Berryessa.

I flew down the lake, over the dam, and back into the canyon leading to Winters. Then, before I reached town, I headed north in the foothills with the vague notion of overflying the Cache Creek Casino. But before I got to Esparto, I changed my mind. Instead, I turned inbound to my base airport and, after a few radio calls, landed on the runway and taxied into parking. I set it down gently exactly where it had been an hour and 10 minutes earlier.

Penny waited for me while the BellyCam continued to snap photos every 10 seconds.

Penny stood up and looked at me, wagging her tail. She was ready to get out. I lifted her out and set her on the ground. She waited at the nose of the helicopter while I cooled the engine and shut it down. The camera caught several images of her standing on the tarmac with my mobile mansion home in the background.

Later, I used the mended tie-downs to secure the main rotor blades and locked up the helicopter.

It had been a great afternoon flight — one I’m glad I treated myself to. I’ll fly again soon — maybe with a balloon pilot beside me and two of his crew in back. Or maybe with my pilot friend George at the controls, exploring a new place. (Something tells me that he’s not very interested in television.) I’ve got a month left here and I plan to enjoy it every way I can.

I never did get down to Nut Tree airport.

Comments on the Seattle Helicopter Crash

Just a few words about how heartless and stupid people can be.

KOMO Helicopter
One of KOMO’s helicopters departs the Seattle hellpad on a spring day two years ago.

I was sitting at my desk, writing a blog post about Sunday’s day trip, when a brief news blurb on NPR mentioned a helicopter had crashed at the base of the Space Needle in Seattle. My friend Greg flies KOMO’s helicopter from a rooftop helipad there. My blood ran cold as I got on Facebook to message him and his wife, hoping he wasn’t the pilot involved.

Pam came back quickly. It wasn’t Greg. I felt relief. But did it really matter? Was the accident any less tragic because my friend hadn’t been hurt? Of course not. Someone else’s loved ones had been killed. It was a tragedy no matter who was involved.

Of course, someone posted the breaking news story link from KOMO’s website to the Helicopter Pilot’s forum on Facebook. And people were commenting. Stupid, thoughtless people.

The accident had happened only minutes before — hell, the fire was probably still burning — and guys who are supposedly helicopter pilots were already speculating about the cause and spreading misinformation.

“Settling with power,” one genius proclaimed.

“According to witnesses, he was attempting to land on a roof and rolled off,” another amateur reporter added.

It was pretty obvious to me that neither of these “experts” had read the 150 words in the original version of the story they were commenting on — heck, why bother read before commenting? — which clearly said the helicopter was taking off when the accident occurred. Settling with power isn’t something that is likely on takeoff from a rooftop helipad. And it was an established helipad, not merely “a roof.”

Later, the first genius added another piece of fictitious insight: “Yea originally they said he was landing. Just heard there was a crane put up, and be hit a wire.”

“Just heard”? From where? None of the news stories — even hours later when the stories are more fully developed — say anything about a crane.

Other comments and speculations that were clearly not tactful or fully informed followed. I think some of them may have been deleted, but the responses to them remain. Most of us are agreed that this is no time for speculations — especially when there’s a shortage of facts to support them.

The situation was worse, of course, on KOMO’s website where the article appeared. Some cold-hearted conservatives rejoiced over the death of two liberals — as if they knew the political leanings of the pilot and his passenger and as if that actually mattered. One moron even commented that it was too bad Obama wasn’t on board.

Seriously? Do people actually think like that?

I spent ten minutes flagging obnoxious and offensive comments before finally giving up and getting on with my day.

But come on people, let’s look at the reality of the situation: There was an accident in Seattle that took the lives of two men. Men with lives and families. Men likely doing the work they loved. Men who lived and breathed and loved and dreamed, just like all of us.

Surely they deserve better than some of the uninformed speculation and heartless comments the reports of their death are attracting.

Rest in peace, guys.

Not All Helicopter Companies are the Same

More telemarketers, another rant, and the facts of my business life.

This morning, my phone rang with a call from Nevada. When I answered as I usually do — “Flying M, Maria speaking” — I heard an audible click when the caller hung up.

I called back. When a man’s voice answered with an uncertain “Hello,” I assumed I’d reached someone looking for a helicopter charter who, for some reason, had decided not to complete his call. But I was wrong. When I told him that he’d just called me and hung up, he explained that he thought he’d reached voicemail and then told me he was “with Google street view” and was in the area. He wanted to tell me about some services they offered. Apparently, the services were “virtual tours” that companies like Maverick had added to their Google Places page. They created these videos.

I seriously doubted that he was with Google. I had been called dozens of times in the past by people and recordings claiming they were with Google and promising to perform some service — for a fee, of course — that would put me at the top of the Google search listings and get me more business. These seemed like just another one — one with poorly trained staff, to boot.

I mentioned this to him. He assured me that they had a contract with Google.

“Is there a fee for this service?” I asked.

“Yes,” he admitted.

“I’m not interested,” I told him. “Thanks.” And then I hung up.

I added his phone number to my Telemarketers contact record, which has a silent ringtone. If he called back from the same number, my phone wouldn’t even ring.

The Boss Calls Back

Less than five minutes later, my phone rang again, this time with a different Nevada phone number. I answered the same way. This time, the caller claimed to be the owner of the business that I’d just spoken to, following up on a customer service email. He was apparently upset that I didn’t believe his company was with Google.

What followed was ten minutes of my life wasted by a man who seemed to think it vitally important that I believe his company had a contract with Google to update street view photos and create these virtual tour videos.

Frankly, I don’t know why I talked to him for so long. I had no intention of using his services, so it wasn’t just wasting my time but it was also wasting his. Maybe I felt sorry for him. Maybe I just didn’t want to be rude.

But one thing was clear: he had incorrect preconceived notions about my business.

You see, although he consistently referred to my company as a “helicopter company,” he also kept rattling off the names of big helicopter tour companies based in the Las Vegas area: Maverick, Papillon, etc. He went on and on about the importance of having an up-to-date street view image that would show the front of my building and my branding so people could find me. When I told him that 90% of my revenue came from agricultural work and not tours, he said, “It doesn’t have to be that way.” As if I was somehow missing out by not being primarily a tour operator.

I wanted to educate him, I wanted to explain the reality of my business model and why his services didn’t interest me. But he didn’t seem to care about what my business is. He was trying to cram my business into the small box in this mind where he thought all “helicopter businesses” should be.

So, in the end, I just let him talk himself out. When he’d run out of things to say and I didn’t respond by telling him he was right and that I needed his services, the call just kind of ended. I think I might have said, “Okay, thanks,” or something equally noncommittal. I think he may have said goodbye before hanging up.


The Reality of My Business Model

Flying M Air has been in existence since 2000. It’s been flying commercially since 2001, when I got my commercial helicopter pilot certificate. Back then, most of my business was short tours and photo flights falling under Part 91. In 2005, when I got my R44 helicopter and Part 135 certificate, I expanded to do longer tours, air-taxi flights, day trips, and multi-day excursions. Yes, the vast majority of my business was tour-related.

And my flying business was operating at a perpetual loss, funded by the money I earned as a writer.

In 2008 — not a moment too soon, since my writing income was quickly drying up — I discovered survey work. And cherry drying work. And suddenly my business was operating at a profit.

I still did tours and day trips, but after a while, I stopped really pushing them. I stopped distributing brochures, I stopped visiting hotel concierges, I stopped advertising. Seemed to be a waste of money and effort, especially since I was responsible for doing all the management, marketing, and flying for my company while still trying to do some writing and have a life.

Cherry Drying Business Card
The design for my cherry drying business card comes from something one of my clients once said to me: “The best insurance is a helicopter parked in the orchard.”

In 2011, I wrote “My Epiphany about Clients and Jobs.” In that blog post, I think I finally began to understand that my business model had to concentrate on doing regular work with regular clients and to stop trying to chase down bargain-hunting tourists. Once I understood that, I settled into a routine that consisted of a busy summer season in Washington with springtime survey work and the occasional tour or air charter job that fell into my lap the rest of the year in Arizona. Now that I’m based in Washington, the survey work is out of the picture, but I’ve managed to slip some frost control work into that time slot. And I’ve got the wheels turning to maybe pick up some Washington State contract work for Fish and Game. And I still do rides and tours once in a while, although I don’t really push them anymore — not even on my website.

And that’s the way my business hums along.

Why That’s Enough

You see, I have no desire to build up a huge helicopter services business. I’m a relatively new member of the 50-something club these days and my main goal is to enjoy the rest of my life. That means working hard to earn a good living but, when I’m not working, playing hard and doing the things I want to do with my time: explore hobbies, socialize with friends, travel, etc. Why would I want the headaches of managing a big operation with multiple aircraft and employees and all the baggage that goes with them? Just to make a few extra bucks? Maybe?

There’s simply no reason to build a business beyond what I need. I don’t have kids to leave it to. And, unlike other people, I understand how to live within my means and don’t need to be a slave to possessions bought primarily to impress others. (Think Mercedes sedans, hangar queen airplanes, and poorly chosen real estate “investments.”) Best of all, I don’t have someone sponging off my hard work, forcing me to earn enough to cover the living expenses of two people.

I don’t want to spend all my free time marketing my business to a group of people who are more interested in Groupon-like deals than quality service. Why should I try to sell my services to them when I can earn a lot more per hour of my time working for people who already understand the value of my services?

I get plenty of business word of mouth and through my website. The Google street view features are completely useless to me. I don’t maintain a business office. Why put a logo on a building? Just so it shows up in a picture on Google? I don’t want to pay for that building or for the salary of a person I’d have to hire to sit in it. (And I certainly don’t want to sit in it — or anywhere else, for that matter — all day every day.) I don’t need to.

The same goes for advertising in newspapers, magazines, and other media. Why bother? I’ve tried it in the past and it didn’t work.

So when a company calls and tries to sell me something to promote my business, they’re not likely to get very far. And when they claim to know about my business and then lump me in the same bucket as giant tour operators in Las Vegas, they lose all credibility.

Whether they have “contracts with Google” or not.

Gyro Flight

A friend takes me for a ride in his open cockpit gyroplane.

An Angry Bird
Now this is an angry bird!

One of the great thing about living at an airport is that you’re exposed to neat aviation things on a daily basis. And what isn’t neat about an open cockpit gyroplane sporting a custom Angry Birds paint scheme?

My friend George owns this one. He was at the airport most of this week, teaching a friend how to fly it. Well, he was trying to. The wind howled pretty fiercely on Tuesday and much of Wednesday morning.

George and his Gyro
George posing with his gyro.

(This is a gyroplane or autogyro, by the way. Gyrocopter refers to the Bensen Gyrocopter manufactured by Bensen Aircraft.)

On Wednesday afternoon, George took me for a ride — despite winds 14 gusting to 20. It was an interesting experience for me.

With George
Strapped in and ready to go.

Like helicopters, gyroplanes have a mast and main rotor blades. But unlike a helicopter, a gyro has a means of propulsion — normally a pusher engine/prop. To fly a gyro, you use a pre-rotator to get the blades spinning. You then use the engine/prop to move forward on a runway or other suitable surface. At the right speed, the pilot pulls back on the stick like he would in an airplane to take off. Lift is generated by the rotor blades, which remain spinning in a mode very similar to an autorotation in a helicopter. The engine does not directly drive the rotor blades; the pre-rotator is disconnected before takeoff roll.

Low and Slow
Low and slow in an open cockpit plane? What could be better?

We were airborne for about 20-30 minutes. George demonstrated low flight along a creek bed, high flight, and a power-off landing that had us descending backwards in the stiff wind. (He had to dive to make the runway.) He demonstrated several very short landings and takeoffs. We flew low much of the time and waved at people on the ground waving up at us.

Side View
It’s a great feeling to have nothing between you and the ground you’re flying over.

I thoroughly enjoyed the flight. It reminded me a bit of the powered parachute ride I had a few years ago back in Washington — the closest thing to flying like a bird.

George is a CFI and I’m tempted to take a few lessons. It would be fun to better get to know this kind of aircraft. But there’s no gyroplane in my future — at least I don’t think there is — so getting a gyro rating would probably not be worthwhile.

Still, you never know…