Another Rides Gig

The ground crew really makes a difference.

Last Saturday, I made my fifth appearance at Wenatchee Wings & Wheels, an annual event in East Wenatchee. I was offering helicopter rides out of the soccer field on the north side of Eastmont Park for $40 per person.

My History with Wings & Wheels

The first year I did this event was way back in 2012. It’s an October event, long past the end of my cherry drying season in Washington, and back in those days I still lived in Arizona. In previous years, I’d had to pass up participation because I was expected home by August. But in 2012, my divorce was underway and I was finally free to do whatever I liked with my time. So although I went home in mid-September to deal with divorce bullshit and start packing, I left the helicopter behind in Washington. I went back in October with a friend to do the event and then fly the helicopter home.

Wings & Wheels is a car show with an aviation theme. Or at least it was back in 2012. The event was held at the airport and had a great turnout. I was prepared and had asked my friend Jim from Coeur d’Alene to bring his helicopter. He brought along his wife to handle the money and a friend to work with my friend as ground crew.

We flew all day — long past the time when I was hoping to start the flight home. So my friend and I stayed the night and got an early start in the morning. The helicopter was stuffed to the gills with gear, as well as a 40-pound box of Honeycrisp apples one of my clients had given me. We took the most direct route and made it back to Phoenix in 8 hours.

The following year, I was living in Washington. But the powers that be in East Wenatchee had decided to put the event in Eastmont Park near downtown. The best they could offer me was a static display — I flew the helicopter in on Friday evening and left it until Sunday. People could go look at it and I could sell rides for Sunday at the airport. I sold out on all of the rides by noon on Saturday and did them on Sunday. I don’t remember how many I did, but I think it might have only been about 20. A bust, as far as I’m concerned.

In 2014, the airport started hosting its own airport event in June: Aviation Day. That first year, I enlisted the help of two of the cherry drying pilots who work with me. Between the three of us, all flying R44s, we took just over 300 people for rides. That remains my absolute best event in terms of the number of people flown — although I had to split the revenue with my fellow pilots — and that annual event continues to be my busiest every summer.

But in October, the Wings & Wheels folks wanted me to fly, too. They set me up in the soccer field on 3rd and Georgia. I had a reasonable turnout in 2014 and a better one in 2015. But this year was my best so far.

This Year’s Rides at Wings & Wheels

A few things combined to make last Saturday’s event a real winner.

First of all, the weather was perfect. Cool with very little wind meant that my helicopter had good performance and I didn’t have to alter my departure/arrival route. It also meant that a lot of people had come out for the event.

Second, the event was advertised on the radio and in the newspaper. Wenatchee has several radio stations and they’re really good about advertising local events. Although I hadn’t sent out any press releases, the City of East Wenatchee apparently had and had mentioned helicopter rides. So lots of people heard about it on the radio or read about it in the newspaper (or its website) and took advantage of a beautiful day to come on out with their families.

Third, there were a lot of families. A rides event is a great place for a kid to get a first helicopter ride without mom and dad breaking the bank. The rides were $40/person. More than a few people told me or my ground crew that they’d rather spend the money on a memorable helicopter ride than a few amusements at the carnival that had also set up in the park.

Fourth was my ground crew. They were responsible for collecting the money, doing passenger safety briefings, and loading/unloading passengers. I do “hot loading” at all of my events — that means the engine is running and the blades are turning the whole time. The ground crew is responsible for keeping the landing zone secure and keeping passengers and onlooker safe. (The park people helped out by setting up T-posts with caution tape to create a landing zone boundary.) Without a good crew, I cannot make a rides event work. (More on that in a moment.) This year’s crew was excellent.

At Wings & Wheels
Alyse, from my ground crew, took this photo of me just before departing on my first flight of the day.

Paassenger Photo
Here’s a photo from one of my back seat passengers that was shared on Flying M Air’s Facebook page. In this shot, we’re going upriver on the East Wenatchee side.

I’ve created a sloppy little map of the setup at the park (see below). The car show — which was huge — was in the baseball fields, on the grass. I didn’t get to see it, other than from the air. North of that were some food vendors and other booths for other things. I didn’t really get to see any of that, either. Then there were some tennis courts and then our landing zone. The red box outlines the area the park people secured for us with posts and tape. East of us was a dirt area with RC trucks racing around and beyond that was a handful of carnival rides.

On departure, I took off to the east, avoiding the trees to the north of my area and trying to avoid the dirt track and carnival. Then I made a circle around the car show area, mostly to make sure everyone on the ground knew there were helicopter rides before heading out to the river. You can see this with the green line. I flew up the East Wenatchee side to the north end bridge and then flew back down the Wenatchee side to the south end bridge. Then I came east and returned to my landing zone by way of a few empty school fields north of the landing zone. You can see this with the blue line.

Wings & Wheels Layout
Here’s the general layout of the event.

We made the paper the next day, too.

The Importance of a Good Ground Crew

In the past, I’ve worked with a variety of different people as my ground crew.

When I did events in Arizona, my wasband often helped out. He knew the drill pretty well but could also be counted on to complain incessantly after each event. On large events, I’d get someone else to work with him. I pay my ground crew and often pay based on the number of rides we do. (Although my wasband always refused to take any money, he later told the divorce judge that working for free at a handful of events over the years made him a part owner of my company. Lying in court about the actual number of events — over a hundred? — didn’t work well for him, either.) We often do dinner, too, on my dime. And, of course, I provide chairs and a cooler full of refreshments for the crew while I fly.

The best ground crew are the people who understand that the goals are:

  • Safety. This is my number one concern. Accidents are not an option. Not only can they ruin an event and likely prevent me from doing future events in the area, but they’re bad for public relations. People are already afraid of helicopters, mostly because they don’t understand how they fly. To have someone get hurt an event confirms those fears. I’ve never had a mishap and I want to keep it that way.
  • Crowd control. When lines form, people bicker. At least I was told that they did in Arizona. In Washington, people are much more laid back and easy going. I’ve never had a local ground crew complain about a crowd, even when wait time exceeded an hour.
  • Quick turnarounds. The quicker my ground crew can unload passengers and load up the next group of passengers, the quicker I can take off. My ride times are pretty fixed at 8 to 10 minutes. Shortening them would make passengers think they didn’t get their money’s worth. So to keep things moving, the ground crew has to keep things moving on the ground. I’ve worked with slow ground crews before and it is frustrating — especially for the folks waiting to get off who can’t depart without an escort and the ones watching the helicopter idle while they wait for their turn.
  • Maximize passenger count. This is where I either make money or lose it. At the $40/person pricing, I lose money on every flight with just one person on board, so I simply won’t do flights for singles. (You can’t make money on quantity if you lose money on individual flights.) With two people on board, I make money. With three people on board, I make good money. The best ground crews are the ones that consistently put three people on board each flight. This not only helps make the event profitable, but it reduces the wait time for passengers. Got a couple up next? Find a single farther back in the line and put him on board, too.

From the Ground
An onlooker who didn’t fly with us posted this photo on Facebook of us flying by.

I had my friend Alyse and her friend Diana work with me at this event. This was their first time working with me. Both women are pretty sharp and caught on right away. Although they weren’t as quick as I’d like at turnarounds — at least in the beginning — they somehow managed to get three people on almost every single flight. I’ve never had that done before at an event — I consider myself lucky if half the flights have two people and the other half have three. (The last Aviation Day event had just two people on most flights.) So not only did I fly a lot more people than I had in previous years, but I also earned more money per hour flown. In fact, on a per-hour basis, it was my most profitable event ever.

My Thoughts on Rides Gigs

I have a lot of thoughts about rides gigs. Although I only do 2 to 4 of them per year, I’ve been at it for 15 years. Without consulting my logbooks, I figure I’ve done about 50 of them by now. I did three this year: Aviation Day (at the airport), Farmer-Consumer Awareness Day (at a field in Quincy), and Wenatchee Wings & Wheels.

Every event is just different enough to keep it interesting. But I have to admit that flying the same route over and over — and answering the same handful of questions — all day long is not my idea of fun. If I didn’t make money at these events, I wouldn’t do them.

One thing I really do like about them is the fact that for at least half of my passengers, their flight with me is their first time in a helicopter. Occasionally, it’ll be their first flight in any aircraft. I like the fact that I can give them an affordable first experience and that I can often take away any fears about helicopter flight that they might have. It’s not crazy, like a roller coaster. It’s smooth, with an amazing view of someplace they see every day from the ground. I especially like it when the kids point out places they recognize but have never seen from the air. It makes the experience fresh for me, too.

As for the regulars, well, it’s nice to be able to see that there are some folks who return every year for another flight, even though it’s the same flight as the previous year. I must be doing something right if they keep coming back.

Helicopter Rides at Quincy

I do helicopter rides at a Quincy, WA event — and stop for a milkshake on the way home.

The first call came a few months ago. Could I do helicopter rides at the Farmer-Consumer Awareness Day in Quincy, WA?

I don’t usually do rides at Quincy. Trouble is, there’s no landing zone downtown or near any event and the airport is in the middle of nowhere. Rides events rely, in part, on the excitement generated by seeing the helicopter come and go with happy passengers on board. Stick me out in the middle of nowhere and no one will see that.

I relayed this information to the caller, Krysta. I told her that it probably wouldn’t be worth my while.

She asked me how many people I needed to fly to make it worthwhile.

I pulled a reasonable number out of the air: 20. That’s 20 passengers at $40/person with no fewer than 2 people on board for each flight.

She said she’d try to presell tickets.

Then we hung up. I honestly didn’t expect to hear from her again.

She called about a month later. She’d pre-sold 20 seats. I put the event on my calendar. Later in the month, I drove down to Quincy to check out the landing zone she suggested: a parking lot near one of the schools south of town. It was the same distance from town as the airport was, but at least stuff might be going on nearby. And it was a lot more pleasant. I agreed.

A few days before the event, I arranged to have my friend’s daughter, Alix, work as my ground crew. Alix is a PhD candidate for entomology — a bug girl. She’d helped me on another event the previous year, so she knew the drill. I didn’t expect there to be much of a crowd and with most flights prepaid, she wouldn’t have to deal with too many money transactions. One experienced person would be enough.

I met her at Wenatchee Airport at 9:30 AM on Saturday morning and we flew down to Quincy. I circled the landing zone once and set down. They’d prepped the landing zone with cones and caution tape and I managed to knock over all the ones in front of me and a handful of the ones behind me. Oops.

I’d brought along a sign, a chair for Alix, and a few cones. That was it. There wasn’t much shade, but it was a relatively cool day that stayed in the mid 70s with a light breeze. Perfect flying weather.

I was an hour early on purpose. I was hoping to pick up a few early rides. I’d posted the event on Facebook and had even gotten a few calls. Sure enough, I did a number of “walk up” rides before the ones on Krysta’s list started showing up.

The flights left the landing zone and headed northeast toward downtown Quincy. After crossing route 28, I turned west, heading toward the river. I’d break out over the cliff at Crescent Bar, fly down river a tiny bit, and then turn back to the east. Then I’d approach the landing zone from the southwest and land. Each ride took about 8-10 minutes with great views of Quincy, the surrounding farmland — mostly orchards and row crops — and the Columbia River gorge at Crescent Bar.

Crescent Bar from the Air
Crescent Bar from the air.

Krysta had wanted to make sure the tour was a farm-related, so I often told passengers about what we were flying over, including the Extenday ground covers used to reflect light back up to the bottom of apples (for even coloring), apple pickers working in one of the orchards, and the types of crops beneath us. Everyone seemed pretty happy with their ride. And Alix did a great job as my ground crew person.

About half the rides had 2 people on board and the other half had 3. The way the rides are priced, I lose money with 1 passenger, make some money with 2 passengers, and make good money with 3 passengers. So I’m not complaining.

I Periscoped one ride and did a Facebook Live session with another. In case you’re unfamiliar with these, it makes it possible to do a live broadcast on the Internet. Viewers can comment and ask questions. Unfortunately, although I can read the questions, I can’t respond because I don’t have direct audio in. Viewers simply can’t hear me over the sound of the engine. But later feedback on Twitter and Facebook showed that the broadcasts were well-received even if there weren’t more than a few dozen viewers.

Helicopter Rides at Quincy
Alix took this photo of Krysta and her companions. I photobombed (just like I used to do when I flew at the Grand Canyon).

The only drawback was my fuel situation. I was hoping to get all the rides done without needing to refuel, but with just 2 or 3 flights left, I absolutely had to get gas. So a group of three got a chance to go back to the airport with me for refueling for the same price as a much shorter ride. I went to Wenatchee, which was 2 nautical miles farther than Ephrata, mostly because I knew I could do a quicker turn there. When I got back, Alix had three more flights waiting for me, including Krysta and two companions, who I comped to thank her for her work.

On every single flight, I flew over the White Trail Produce farm stand on the corner of Route 28 and White Trail Road. They sell local produce and the usual collection of farmstand stuff that tourists buy. But they also sell ice cream and make the best fresh fruit shakes. The whole time I was flying, I was thinking about a peach shake and wondering how I could get one on my way home. There wasn’t anyplace to land in the small parking lot, but I figured I could land on the dead end road nearby. But I certainly wouldn’t want to park there for more than a few minutes.

So as Alix and I loaded up the helicopter after the last flight, I asked her if she wanted a shake. Of course she did. I asked her if she’d mind jumping out to get it if I ordered ahead. She was game. So I called White Trail Produce and asked if I could land there to get shakes. To my surprise, they said yes. And they had fresh peaches. So I ordered two shakes and said we’d be there in five minutes.

Alex with Shake
Cropped from the Periscope video: Alix returning with the shakes.

I set up Periscope to record the flight. (I stream video from my iPad, which is mounted near my feet. When it is sent to, the video is downgraded, so quality isn’t very good. I didn’t have any of my GoPros set up for these flights.) We took off and I beelined it to White Trail. I circled the area once and found a spot not far away from White Trail’s unplanted (this year) garden patch. A truck towing an outhouse drove down the road and I came in behind him. I sent up a ton of dust when I landed alongside the road, but I don’t think it reached the farm stand. Alix jumped out and ran in while I waited with the engine running. A few minutes later, she was back with both shakes. Once she was strapped in and I’d had a good long sip of my shake, I took off.

Alix with Shake
Alix with her shake on the way home.

She said the folks at White Trail were really excited to have me land. I’d love to do helicopter rides there once in a while. I guess I should look into landing zone options.

I treated Alix to one of my low-level rides over the Columbia on the way back, then climbed up before reaching the wires that stretch across the river at Lower Moses Coulee and headed into the airport. A while later, I was back home and the helicopter was tucked into its space.

It was only 3 PM.

It had been a good day with great flying weather and a bunch of really nice passengers. Not terribly busy, but certainly busy enough to make it worthwhile. I look forward to doing it again next year.

But the best part? That peach shake. Wow.

On Unreasonable Requests

I get a call for a flight I won’t do — no matter how much is offered.

Last night, at almost 9:30 PM, my phone rang. Caller ID displayed a Bellevue (Seattle area) phone number. I answered as I usually do:

Me: Flying M, Maria speaking.

Him: Oh, hi. Is your helicopter out?

That was a weird question. I started to wonder whether this was going to be some kind of noise complaint call. If so, they had the wrong operator.

Me: No.

Him: Good. I need you to fly me from Manson to Lake Stevens.

Manson is a small town on Lake Chelan, about 30 miles from where I live. I wasn’t sure exactly sure where Lake Stevens was, but I knew it was on the other side of the Cascade Mountains, at least an hour flight time away.

For this blog post, I looked up the location information and roughly planned a route. Two legs of this flight cross the Cascade Mountains; the vast majority of the flight is over rugged mountain terrain.

Me: When?

Him: Now.

I actually wasn’t surprised. His tone had that kind of urgency about it.

Me: I can’t do that.

Him: Well, I got your number from Dale.

Dale is another helicopter pilot with a business almost identical to mine. He’s based up in Chelan and actually lives in Manson. This guy had obviously called him first and Dale, being no idiot, wasn’t going to do the flight either. I could imagine this guy pressing him for an alternative and Dale giving him my number just so he could hang up. But getting my number from Dale doesn’t mean I’d be willing to do the flight either.

Me: You want me to fly you from Manson to Seattle in a helicopter at 9:30 on a Sunday night?

Him: Lake Stevens.

Me: Sorry, no.

Him: I’ll pay you $2500.

Me: No. I wouldn’t do it for any price. Sorry.

It kind of pisses me off when people think they can buy me. I’m not desperate for money. The truth of the matter is, the flight would have cost him about $1500 anyway, which probably would have surprised him. But I didn’t care. There was no way I was going to fly across the Cascades at night. My helicopter is VFR only and I had no idea what the cloud cover was to the west. (It’s socked in more often than not.) It also wasn’t legal for me to take the flight because (1) I wasn’t current for night flying with passengers and (2) I’d had two glasses of wine that evening.

Cascades Ridge
My helicopter’s nose cam captured this image on one of my few flights across the Cascades on a nice day. It wouldn’t be so pleasant at night, especially if it was cloudy.

There was some more talk back and forth. He was clearly outraged — and I don’t use that word as an exaggeration — that I wouldn’t drop everything on a Sunday night to fly him to the Seattle area. It was difficult to get off the phone with him without being rude. I kept wondering why he seemed to think that calling for a helicopter was just like calling for a cab ride. Finally, I was able to get off the phone with him.

Some people, I thought to myself. And then I put it out of my head.

Until about 20 minutes later.

I’d just gotten into bed and turned off the light when my phone rang. It was the same number. I didn’t answer it. Could he really expect a business to answer the phone at 10 PM?

Two minutes later, I got a text:

$2100 to fly me to lake Stevens right now

Apparently, the price had dropped. Maybe he didn’t recall offering me $400 more during his call.

I ignored the text.

If you don’t understand what makes this kind of request “unreasonable,” it’s this:

A Part 135 charter operator is required by the FAA to perform several preflight actions. These include preflighting the aircraft to make sure it’s airworthy, adding fuel if necessary, obtaining accurate information about the current weather conditions, obtaining information about the intended destination and alternatives, creating a flight plan, calculating a weight and balance for the passenger/cargo load, and preparing a flight manifest. This takes time — often more than an hour. I typically like at least 24 hours notice for charter flights but have done them with as few as two or three. But immediate? Never.

Besides, it was 9:30 on a Sunday night, long after anyone’s normal business hours. How can anyone possibly expect immediate charter aircraft service at that time?

I seriously doubt this guy got anyone to fly him to Lake Stevens last night. There’s no airport there so he’d have to go by helicopter or seaplane. And although there is a seaplane operator at Lake Chelan, I’m sure that company was all tucked in for the night, too.

Now I’m wondering whether I’ll hear from him again this morning. I’m just hoping that he calls Dale first and Dale takes him.

AOPA’s Consolidated Blog

Better exposure for my articles.

AOPA LogoI’ve been writing for AOPA’s helicopter blog, Hover Power, for about a year and a half. Back in February 2016, they published the first of three articles about the contract work I do: “Doing Wildlife Surveys“. The other two articles were in the queue, but never appeared.

After a while, I wondered what was going on and emailed my contact at AOPA. He responded that things were busy for him and that changes were underway.

Then a month or two later, one of my Facebook friends, who is also a pilot, shared a link to the second article in the series, which was about cherry drying. Heavily edited with its title changed to “Using a big fan” (seriously?), it appeared on AOPA’s main blog. The third piece, “Flying frost control,” appeared about a week and a half later.

The consolidation of AOPA’s blogs into one main blog is a good thing for me as a writer. It gives me more exposure for my work. (Obviously, I get paid, too; you can’t pay the bills with “exposure,” folks.) This has already paid off — Robinson helicopter’s newsletter editor called to ask if she could feature my cherry drying work in an upcoming issue of the newsletter. While that won’t earn me anything, it’s a nice little feather in my cap.

I haven’t written anything new for AOPA for a while — I was put off when my articles were shelved for so long — but I hope to come up with some ideas soon. I’ll likely be writing shorter pieces than I have been; this blog is updated about every two days and I don’t think I should overload readers with my typically wordy posts. And, let’s face it: the average AOPA pilot flies a plank — I mean plane — and isn’t terribly interested in rotary wing stuff.

You can find AOPA’s blog here. If you’re a pilot or interested in flying, I urge you to check it out.

And if you’re interested in reading some of my other published work, be sure to check out my Articles page.

The Fuel Trailer

I get new life out of an old fuel transfer tank.

Way back in 2008, when I first starting doing cherry drying work in Washington State, the guy who got me started, Erik, told me that I needed to get a fuel transfer tank. He gave me the make and model of a tank and pump that he used: an 82-gallon Transfer Flow. This tank was DOT-approved in all states and made of steel. It was costly, but very good quality.

It didn’t come without problems. First of all, when they heard I wanted it for aviation fuel, they refused to sell it to me. I had to have my wasband call back and order it under his name. Second, the folks who put it together for me didn’t put the proper gasket in the pump so when I filled it the first time, it leaked like a sieve at the pump fitting. A $2 gasket fixed the problem.

A Mobile Tank

I originally had it installed in my first pickup, a miserable 1994 Ford F150. I’d bought the truck to leave on some property I owned in northern Arizona but it quickly became Flying M Air’s utility truck. Of course, it wasn’t up to the task of towing the 22-foot Starcraft RV I had in those days, so the following year it was mounted on my wasband’s 2001 3/4 ton Chevy Silverado, which I took north for a few months every summer. The tank’s DC pump was hardwired to the battery so I didn’t need to deal with cables. Somewhere along the line, I painted it white, mostly so it would stay cooler in the sun — who wants a black fuel tank? — but also so it would look better in my wasband’s white truck. When the divorce started happening in 2012 and my wasband’s mommy decided that he wasn’t going to let me keep the truck in the divorce after all, I had it moved out of his truck and eventually put into my new(er) truck, a 2003 Ford F350. When I killed that truck in December 2015, I had it moved into my much newer 2012 Ford F350.

So the tank has lived in four different pickup trucks in less than nine years.

I did use the tank every summer in Quincy, WA, during cherry drying season. I also occasionally used it for work in Arizona — I remember hiring my friend Janet one day as a fuel truck driver to bring it up to Seligman where I refueled twice during a wildlife survey job. (I honestly can’t remember which truck it was in back then.) By 2014, however, I was moved into my new home in Malaga, WA, and didn’t need a fuel source at the helicopter in Quincy. Instead, I fueled at the local airport when I went out on or came back from a flight. I didn’t really fly much in Quincy anymore — I hired guys to help me with my contracts and two of them were based there with their own fuel sources. So I didn’t need the tank and it was pretty much empty on the back of my truck.

When I decided to replace my fifth wheel “Mobile Mansion” with a truck camper, “the Turtleback,” I needed to get the tank off my truck. At the same time, I knew that if I just put it in my garage or beside my building, I’d likely never move or use it again. A better solution would be to put it on a trailer so I could continue to move it around and possibly use it again.

The Trailer

This spring, a Harbor Freight opened in Wenatchee, which is the “big city” near where I live. Harbor Freight sells tools and other related items. Most of what it sells is cheap junk made in China. (That’s okay, as long as you know what you’re getting and don’t set your expectations too high.) Harbor Freight also has a pretty large selection of you-bulld-it utility trailer kits. One was a 40-1/2 x 48 utility trailer with a 1090 pound capacity. At 6 pounds per gallon, the fuel would never weigh more than 500 pounds. Add maybe 100 pounds for the tank for a total of 600 pounds. Plenty of leftover capacity; better safe than sorry.

Trailer Kit
The trailer kit came in two boxes. Here are the pieces.

The trailer came in a kit. One day in April 2016, I set about putting it together in my garage. It wasn’t difficult, but it was time-consuming. The wheels had to be mounted on the axles, but they also had to have their bearings packed with grease. I’d never done that before but learned pretty quickly. And the wiring for the taillights was particularly tedious. But I did that, too, and apparently got it right because they work.

Finished Trailer
The newly completed trailer after dragging it out of my garage on the back of my Jeep.

Of course, the kit didn’t come with a deck. So I went to Home Depot with the measurements and had them cut a piece of heavy duty plywood the size I needed for the deck surface. I took it home, gave it two coats of waterproof stain, and used lag bolts to attach it at six points to the frame. When I was done, I was rather proud of my work.

The next thing I needed to do was get that very heavy fuel tank — which still had a bit of fuel in it — off my truck and onto the trailer. When it had been moved from my dead truck to my new used truck, the folks at the car dealer had used a forklift and I’d just strapped it in with tie-downs, knowing I’d eventually move it. I had no idea how much fuel was in it but I knew it wasn’t empty and I knew it would be heavy.

Tank on the trailer
The tank just fit on the trailer.

Fortunately, my winemaker neighbor has a forklift. I drove the truck over there one day while he was working with wine barrels and he pulled the tank off my truck. Then I drove home, hopped in the Jeep, and drove it over with the trailer in tow. My neighbor placed the tank on the trailer bed. It just fit — honestly, I should have gone with the larger but less capacity trailer.

There were a few things I needed to do to finish up:

  • Bolt the tank down to the trailer. There were four bolt holes and I used lag bolts to do the job. But since I didn’t trust the bolts in the wood, I also put a pair of ratchet tie-downs across the top.
  • Paint the tank. I still had a can of white paint I’d bought years ago to touch up the tank while it was on my wasband’s truck. As the picture shows, it looks pretty shabby and I’d wanted it to look nicer on the truck. But I never got around to painting it. Now was the time. I gave it two coats.
  • Secure the hose and grounding wire. I was going to have custom metal hose rack made but the guy I was going to hire to do the job talked me into whipping something up out of wood. I later wound up tucking the hose into the tie-down straps and using a bungee cord to hold it in place in transit. That worked better than I expected.
  • Add alligator clips to the pump wires so it could be connected to a battery for power. The pump had always been hardwired to the trucks it lived on (with the exception of the last one). When I had it moved off the dead truck, they’d simply cut the wires at the battery. Clips would make it easier to use with any battery. I bought clips capable of handling the 18 amps the pump would draw and put them on.

Tank on Site
This is the only photo I have of the tank sitting at the Quincy landing zone. In this photo, the helicopter it had been fueling had been moved. The hose and pump is on the other side.

I got all this done pretty quickly — and that was a good thing. I’d hired two guys to help me out in Quincy for cherry drying and only one of them had a fuel tank. I figured I’d let the other one borrow mine. So I towed it to the bulk fuel place, filled it up, and then moved it to his Quincy landing zone. He’d power the pump with the battery on his rental car.

Final Improvements

The tank sat in Quincy for over a month. The pilot towed it to the bulk fuel place and topped it off. Later, another pilot came and took his place, topped off another helicopter, and then refilled the tank again. Along the way, one of them allowed the pump fitting to get loose and 100LL — which is dyed blue — leaked all over the front of the tank and that nice wooden trailer deck, staining it all. It took me 3 minutes with a pair of pipe wrenches to fix the problem — apparently, that’s too much to ask some people to do.

I towed the tank — still full — home. Now I had 80 gallons of 100LL to offload. I had no desire to use the tank at home and no interest in storing it full over the winter. I topped off my motorcycle and my ATV, filled a 5 gallon fuel can, and managed to put some of it in the helicopter. It was a pain in the neck because I had to move my Jeep over to have something to hook the pump up to.

So I bought a battery to power it. We have a battery place in town that sells all kinds of batteries. I chose a small maintenance free model. I charged it up and it worked fine.

Battery Tender
This very small panel should keep the battery charged; we have plenty of sun here.

And I got to thinking that it would be nice if the battery just had a solar powered battery tender on it so it would stay charged. I did some homework and bought a small, 5 watt Battery Tender Solar Panel.

And then I thought that it would be nice if the battery was enclosed in a box with the solar panel mounted on it. So I built a box out of scrap lumber, painted it with some outdoor “Oops” paint I’d bought cheap to paint my beehives, put the battery inside, and mounted the solar panel on the side. (And yes, I did put a vent in the box; I even put some screen over it to prevent mice from getting in.) I screwed the whole thing down onto the deck of the trailer over one of the wheels. But before I did that, I repainted the tank, using up the rest of the white paint I had to hide the dye stains and make it look cleaner.

Finished Tank Trailer
The end result was very polished looking and very functional.

The only thing I still have to do is connect the wires for the pump to the battery. The tank is empty enough to store it for the winter so I probably won’t bother until spring.

I figure I have about $2K invested in this setup — the tank was the most expensive part of it. It’s DOT-approved and road legal. It’ll likely be used annually in Quincy by one of my pilots and may get some use at events that aren’t close to an airport. But I have no interest in fueling at home. All of my flights either start or end at the airport so it’s a lot easier to just get fuel there.