AOPA Hover Power

A new monthly column.

AOPA LogoJust a quick note to let regular readers and visitors know that I’ve begun writing as a regular contributor to AOPA’s Hover Power blog. My first post appeared yesterday: “Maximum performance takeoffs and judgement calls.” My second post is already in the hopper for next month.

Hover Power is AOPA’s attempt to provide helicopter-specific content for minority pilots in the “A” of AOPA: aircraft pilots who fly helicopters. Although the blog got off to a reasonably good start, there was a short spell where there was a definite scarcity of new content. The Editor there has been working hard to get a good staff of pilot/writers together. I’m thrilled to have been asked to join the team.

I hope you’ll stop by and check out what we’ve shared with you. And don’t forget to comment.

And don’t worry — I’ll continue providing helicopter-related content here once in a while, too.

Pride for My Prized Possession

Why I like to keep my helicopter clean.

The other day, I did a Santa flight. When I landed and shut down, one of the many people who’d crowded around the helicopter for a closer look commented on how clean and shiny it was. Although I thanked her, I didn’t say what I was really thinking: it was filthy.

That was my opinion and it wasn’t shared by many others. I’m often complemented on how good my helicopter looks. Just the other day, a pilot friend from Oregon stopped by and he said pretty much the same thing. I pointed out the smashed bugs on the mast and leg fairings and the grime on the back panel near the tailpipe. He then saw what I saw and conceded that it could use some cleaning.

Indeed, it had not been washed with a hose in more than two years.

Keeping it Clean

Washing my Helicopter
This photo from 2006 shows my wash setup back in Arizona.

Back when I was still living in Arizona, I’d take it out a few times a year with a hose and sponges and a ladder and give it a good cleaning, from back to front and top to bottom. It was quite a chore and often took as much as two hours. I had to time it right so the sun wasn’t full on it and I could towel it dry before water droplet stains could form. Often, I’d finish it off with a coat of RV spray wax. Occasionally someone would help, but more often than not, they didn’t seem as interested as I was in getting it perfectly clean — or as close to perfection as possible.

Since January 2013, my helicopter has been bouncing from Washington to California and back to Washington on various agricultural flying contracts. It lived outdoors for months at a time, spending the winter of 2013/14 in a Wenatchee Airport hangar before settling into its permanent space in my RV garage at home only two months ago. The last time I washed it was when it still lived in Arizona, back in 2012. Since then, I’ve had to satisfy myself by wiping it down with a microfiber cloth after a heavy rain. That took care of most of the dust and some of the bugs. Spot cleaning took care of the rest.

Although my building has a handy drain in the floor and a hose spigot indoors, I haven’t gotten around to washing it in there — mostly because it’s too cold this time of year for it to dry properly. I expect I’ll be washing it indoors once in a while when spring comes. Otherwise, I can wash it outdoors on its landing pad in the summer, when the late afternoon sun sinks behind my building and leaves the driveway apron in the shade. That’s the plan anyway.

My Prized Possession

Why is it so important for me to keep it clean? It’s simple: I’m proud of it. It’s my prized possession.

Please understand that it’s not really the value of the helicopter that makes me so proud. At this point, it’s 10 years old. Both the house I still (unfortunately) own with my wasband and my current home are worth more (although the helicopter was once worth more than either one). Resale value does not make it a prized possession.

Instead, it’s what the helicopter represents: the result of hard work, smart investments, and a never-ending drive to make my business grow and thrive with good-paying work.

I look at the helicopter and I see long days sitting in front of a computer, writing book after book for my publishers. I wrote or revised 85 books in 20 years. Because they were computer how-to books, they had tight deadlines. How many 12-hour days and 7-day workweeks did I spend in my office banging away on a keyboard to meet a deadline? Too many to count. And don’t even get me started about the 12 summers in a row that I spent mostly indoors, working to meet deadlines for my Quicken books. It was only because a handful of my titles became bestsellers that the money started flowing in. That money made it possible to buy my first helicopter, a much smaller two seater that I put 1000 hours of flight time on in just five years.

I look at the helicopter and I see real estate investments I bought to explore a role as a landlord. The property with a two-bedroom home and four furnished studio apartments that I bought in the early 2000s stands clear in my mind. Yes, I got a good deal on it, but I also poured a lot of time and money into it, improving each furnished unit, showing it to a countless stream of snowbirds and transients, cleaning apartments over and over, dealing with complaints and tenants who couldn’t pay their rent on time or at all. And then the suicide in one apartment followed closely by the suicide of a tenant before she even moved in. (Seriously, I can’t make this shit up.) This property taught me how much I could hate being a landlord. But when I sold it shortly before the peak of the real estate market and pocketed a 50% profit in less than five years, I wasn’t complaining. That money, and the proceeds from the sale of my first helicopter, is what made up the sizable downpayment for my prized possession, making monthly payments for the balance almost affordable.

I look at the helicopter and I see all the ways I tried to build my business and make it profitable. I think about the tours and photo flights I’d do no matter how little revenue they generated. I think about the first few regular clients I got — a Russian photographer who led photo expeditions in the Southwest and needed a pilot over Lake Powell, Monument Valley, and Shiprock; a local addiction treatment center bigwig interested in showing off to client parents and investors by flying them to the desert facility; a proving grounds manager needing an aerial photo pilot who wasn’t afraid to operate in the deadman’s curve; an environmental impact study company that needed to fly hour after hour along cliff faces looking for raptor nests; orchardists who needed protection for their valuable cherry or almond crops. I think about the epiphany I had when I realized that these clients and this work was what would make my company succeed and that I was simply wasting my time trying to attract one-time clients looking for a deal.

I look at the helicopter and I think about all the hard work involved to keep my business profitable. I think of flying through weather to get to a client on schedule, I think of long hours flying slowly along the top of winding canyons, I think of hour after hour hovering low-level over cherry trees, I think about staying in cheap hotel rooms and having to walk three miles with luggage just to get back to the helicopter, I think of living in an RV for months on end. I think about writing proposals, sending out contracts, and tactfully nagging for payment. I think about patiently explaining to a client why he should fly with me instead of a cheaper alternative in a smaller aircraft piloted by a less experienced pilot. I think about networking and getting the word out and landing cherry drying and frost control contracts that finally got me in the niche I needed to ensure long-term profitability. I think about moving my helicopter and my RV between Arizona and Washington state — four 1000+ mile trips each year — usually by myself, year after year in all kinds of weather. And moving them again between Washington State and the Central Valley of California — four 500+ mile trips each year — for the past two years. I think about taking annual check rides with the FAA and dotting all my I’s and crossing all my T’s to satisfy government requirements.

I think about the money I spent on the helicopter since buying it in 2005: $268,000 for maintenance, $123,000 for fuel, $144,000 for insurance, and $47,000 on interest for the helicopter’s loan. I think about those numbers along with the other expenses I’ve had for simply owning the helicopter and operating a business — well over $1,300,000 total in the past 10 years — and how I feel when I explain to a passenger that it costs more to fly a helicopter than just the cost of fuel.

My most memorable flight of all was from Wenatchee, WA to Hillsboro, OR in the summer of 2012; check out the video.

And then I think about the amazing flights I’ve had at the controls over the past ten years. Flying through desert canyons and up or down the California coast. Floating over the clouds at San Francisco, seeing one end of the Golden Gate Bridge poking up through the fog layer. Cruising over Lake Powell at sunrise or sunset as the sun’s first or last light touched the red rock cliffs. Flying along snow-covered hoodoos at Bryce Canyon. Crossing Cascade Mountain ridges above valleys full of clouds. Zipping past weird rock formations in Utah, Arizona, and Nevada. Speeding low across the empty Sonoran desert, over ridges and around tall cacti. Crossing the Navajo Reservation with wild horses and the remains of abandoned hogans below me. Skimming 50 feet above the surface of the Columbia River, waving to boats and water skiers I pass. Chasing race trucks on desert trails and go-fast boats on desert lakes. These are just examples off the top of my mind; a look through my log books would yield dozens of others.

And I remember that none of this would be possible without my prized possession.

And my prize possession wouldn’t be mine without all the hard work and long hours I put into earning the money to buy and keep it.

It’s more than just a costly possession that makes people (erroneously) think I’m rich. It’s a symbol of my achievements in life, the result of working hard and smart for a long, long time. It’s my reward for staying focused and doing what needed to be done, to the best of my ability, to move ahead, even when certain people tried so hard to hold me back.

Catching Up on Cleaning

So yesterday, I took advantage of the big, heated space inside Pybus Public Market, where my prized possession is currently parked. I brought in some Meguiar’s Detailing Spray, Turtle Wax Bug and Tar remover, and clean microfiber cloths. And then I finally cleaned the bugs off the mast and the leading edges of the horizontal and vertical stabilizers, leg fairings, and cockpit. I covered all the painted surfaces with the detailing spray, wiping it with a succession of clean rags that soon got dirty from the thin film of grime that had been on the helicopter’s skin. I worked slowly and carefully while a handful of people wandered by to check out the shiny red thing unexpectedly parked by the south door.

My Prized Possession
I took a picture when I was finished. (Missed a rag.)

When I was done, it was even shinier.

But I can still see a few bugs I missed on the mast…

On Santa Flights and Community Service

It’s part of doing your part to make the world a better place.

This weekend, I flew Santa in my helicopter to two destinations.

The first, on Saturday, was to a private home in Leavenworth. It was a for-hire job; I picked up Santa in Cashmere, WA, killed some time with a short scenic flight in the area, and touch down right on time in the front yard of a beautiful log home on the Wenatchee River. There were a lot of people there to welcome us. It was a great flight on a great day. You can read more about it here.

N630ML at Pybus Market
My helicopter is parked inside Pybus Public Market this week.

The second was on Sunday. I did a repeat performance of last year’s flight to Pybus Public Market (which I apparently didn’t blog about last year). I took along my friend Kathy and her grandson Dominick. We picked up Santa at Wenatchee Airport and flew to Pybus, landing in front of an audience of at least 200 people. Afterwards, we pulled the helicopter indoors so folks could get a good look at it. The people who run Pybus do their best to have interesting things to see inside the building and I don’t think you can get much more interesting than a helicopter.

Although both Santa flights had a community service aspect to them, it’s the second one that I’m most proud of. You see, for the past two years I’ve offered to do this for Pybus without compensation. It’s my way of giving back to the community, of making things just a little special for others without expecting anything in return.

Sure, I have some company literature in front of the helicopter and yes, I’d be thrilled if someone picked up a rack card and called me to book a flight. But I did this last year, too, and it didn’t lead to any business. Based on that experience, if business was all I cared about, (1) I wouldn’t leave the helicopter parked inside Pybus for nearly a week and (2) I probably wouldn’t bother doing the Santa flight in the first place.

(In the interest of full disclosure, this year the folks at Pybus surprised me by giving me some money to help cover the helicopter’s operating costs for the flight. I think I appreciated that even more than they appreciated me bringing Santa in.)

I’ve done other community service flights with my helicopter. Although I did a completely unappreciated golf ball drop in Wickenburg a few years back, I also did several fly-in presentations at schools in Arizona: Congress, Salome, and Wickenburg. In each case, I arranged in advance to fly into the school grounds with students on hand to watch. Then I made a separate presentation to each grade group, telling them about the helicopter and pilot careers and how important math and science and geography were for pilots. And I answered questions. The way I see it, if even one kid on the brink of making a bad life decision makes the right decision instead because of something in my presentation, I’ve got a total win.

I’ve done community service without the helicopter, too. The most memorable was a presentation about being a writer that I did for an English class at Wickenburg High School. It was a very eye-opening experience. I learned two things (1) kids don’t seem to care much about education these days and (2) we don’t pay teachers enough money.

I’m trying hard to get into a construction job for Habitat for Humanity here in Wenatchee, but so far the only thing they’re interested in is having me work in their store. While I’m happy to give them a full day of work once a week, I want to work on a home so I can learn more about construction. It’s a give and take situation.

Why bother doing community service at all? Well, there certainly is a feel-good aspect to it. For two weeks leading up to my Pybus Market event, the Santa flight was widely advertised on all local radio stations, as well as in flyers and digital info boards around town. And it worked! As I mentioned earlier, there were at least 200 people of all ages waiting for our arrival. The kids gathered around Santa as he left the landing zone and, as soon as my blades stopped, folks gathered around the helicopter to look at it and take photos with their kids. Without me, none of that would have happened. How can I not feel good about playing such a major role in their day?

But community service goes beyond that. It’s a way to make your community stronger and more vibrant, without donating hard cash and wondering how it will be spent. It’s a way to meet your neighbors and make new friends. It’s a way to learn more about your community and help it achieve goals that you have the skills or know-how to help them achieve. It’s a way to make a positive impact on the lives of others — and your own.

Community service opportunities are all around you. It’s all about volunteering. Schools, non-profits, charities — they can all use help. Pick the one that means the most to you — or the one you think you could help the most — and ask them what you can do for them.

I promise — you won’t regret it.

A Flight with Santa

Amazingly beautiful weather makes this flight extra memorable.

I flew Santa in to a private home in Leavenworth yesterday. The family has a huge Christmas party every year and Santa always arrives by some sort of “unusual” transportation.

I was contracted about a month ago to do the flight. I got the address and, just last week, drove up with a friend to check the landing zone. I found a beautiful log home on the Wenatchee River with a huge front lawn near some other homes and an orchard. A perfect LZ.

I watched the weather closely all this week. In Arizona, weather was seldom an issue, but here, in Central Washington State, things are different. Sure, the late spring, summer, and early fall are usually full of clear days, but the other half of the year — this half of the year — is a different story. We could have one day after another of sun and blue skies or one day after another of fog or low clouds or even rain or snow. This week was forecasted to be one of those second kind of winter days, with rain or freezing rain or snow in the forecast almost every day. I watched Saturday’s forecast change almost hourly, it seemed.

When the day finally dawned, I saw what I’d been dreading: low clouds over Wenatchee with still air and an 80% chance of rain. Temperature would not be an issue — 38°F was forecasted. But when I went out to check the condition of my driveway, I found a mix of slush and ice, about 1/2 inch thick.

Deck View
The view from my deck outside my bedroom door yesterday morning. At this point, it was flyable, but who knew what it would be like in 2 hours?

I texted my client and asked about conditions there. She reported back that it was overcast, but the clouds were at least 700 feet up. She said her son told her and he was a pilot. That was good news. I told her I’d keep watching and let her know if I had to cancel or postpone. I was supposed to pick up Santa at10:45 AM.

I went at my driveway with my snow shovel, scraping much of the slush to one side or the other. Then I grabbed the bag of ice-melt I’d bought some time ago, opened it, and spread about half of it on my driveway. Let science do the hard work. I watched the weather get better and then worse and then better over the next hour or so. I took a shower and dressed in black jeans with a red sweater — about as “holiday” as I get. Then I went into the garage and preflighted the helicopter.

Helicopter from Above
Here’s an unusual view of my helicopter in its parking space, shot from the roof of my RV when I happened to be up there the other day.

My garage temperature never drops below 30°F. It was about 40°F that morning — a lot warmer than my uninsulated hangar in Arizona would get on cold winter nights. Still, I’d put a battery charger on the helicopter that morning and disconnected it just before pulling it out. The battery is pretty new but I don’t fly very often in the winter and didn’t want to get stuck out on the platform with a helicopter that wouldn’t start while Santa was waiting. I disconnected all that, moved my space heater aside, and got the ATV’s engine going to warm it up. Then I opened the big garage door and pushed the helicopter out onto the driveway.

Helicopter on Driveway
I uploaded this shot to Twitter with the comment, “Where’s Rudolph when you need him?”

Although I might have had enough fuel to do the flight, “might” is not good enough when you have to fly in questionable weather. I wanted at least 2 hours of fuel on board. That meant stopping at the airport to top off the main tank before heading up to Cashmere. I could see the airport beyond the low clouds, so I knew I could make it there. I put away my flag, closed up the garage, locked the door, and climbed on board. The helicopter started on the first try. It was apparently more eager to fly than I was.

Pangborn Airport (EAT) is a 3-1/2 minute flight from my home. At an elevation of 1249 feet, it’s about 400 feet below my home’s elevation. I departed over the orchards to the north, ducked down under a broken cloud layer over the river, and climbed back up to the airport. I crossed the approach end of runway 30 and landed at the fuel island. As I fueled, I noticed how bright it was out to the west in the direction I was going. The sun was out there, not even 10 miles away. Things looked good for my flight.

Monitor from the Air
Orchard West of Cashmere
More Cashmere
Here are some of the photos I took along the way. Somehow, my phone’s camera got switched to square photos, so that’s all I have.

I finished fueling, started back up, and headed west. I flew over East Wenatchee and then downtown Wenatchee, past Pybus Market where I’d be bringing Santa the next day. Then I was flying over a ridge at Horselake Road and the Wenatchee River Valley was before me.

It was beautiful.

The sun was out but wispy low clouds floated here and there, sometimes tangled in the trees in the mountain foothills. There was fresh snow on the ground and in the pines. The sky was blue and the shadows of the clouds added a certain texture to the scenery that made it seem more alive than ever.

I turned on my phone and took some photos right through the plexiglas bubble. Taking photos while flying a helicopter isn’t easy, which is why I so seldom do it. I was kicking myself in the butt (figuratively, of course) for not setting up the GoPro nosecam, but with the weather so iffy back home, I never expected such beautiful scenery.

It was a 10-minute flight to Cashmere Airport. I set down alongside the taxiway in about an inch of slushy snow. I couldn’t believe how beautiful the mountains around me looked and couldn’t wait to get out and take a proper photo.

Santa poses outside my helicopter at Cashmere Airport.

I’d just shut down the engine when Santa showed up, driven by his cousin. We introduced ourselves and his cousin drove away. He had at least a 15-minute drive to get back to Leavenworth so he could watch us land. I took a photo of Santa outside the helicopter, gave him a preflight briefing, and helped him get in. (I don’t know why Santas need to be fat, but the pillows most use are a real pain in the butt when strapping into a helicopter.)

We were running early and I didn’t want to land before schedule. Santa suggested a little tour and since my client was paying for a full hour, I thought that was reasonable. I started up and took off along the runway, tracing a leisurely flight through Cashmere, past Dryden, and up near Peshastin. At exactly 11 AM, about 3 miles away from the landing zone, I headed inbound.

We flew right past the place, as we both knew we would. I circled back, found it, and then made a descending circle so Santa could wave at the crowd. And what a crowd there was! There had to be at least 100 people down there, all standing at the end of the landing zone waving up at us.

Santa Arrives
Santa’s arrival from my seat as I shut down the helicopter.

I made my approach between two pine trees and settled down into the snow-covered grass. Then I helped Santa release his seatbelt and open his door. He stepped out and headed toward the crowd while spectators waved and took photos. It was a really fun scene.

I shut down the helicopter and used the rotor brake to bring the rotor blades to a stop. Although my primary purpose for shutting down was to get paid, I didn’t see any reason not to let folks get a closer look at the helicopter. Although most parents and small kids headed inside with Santa, at least 50 people remained behind. As I climbed out, they came around the helicopter for photos. I let kids climb into my seat so their parents could take photos through the open door or plexiglas bubble. I handed out Flying M Air postcards (which feature an air-to-air photo of the helicopter over Lake Pleasant) and answered questions. Lots of people thanked me. My client gave me a check and a hug.

At Santa's Destination
It was a fun scene at Santa’s destination. By the time I took this photo, most of the spectators had gone inside.

I felt really good flying back to Wenatchee and home — despite the weather that awaited me there. It was just as overcast and gray as when I’d left. The fog, although thickening, was not too thick to find my home. I made a nice, slow approach to my landing pad, set down gently, and adjusted its position while I was still light on the skids. I shut down and locked the blades in the forward/aft position before getting out. A few minutes later, I was backing the ATV into the big garage. I got the helicopter lined up perfect on my first try and pulled the big door closed behind it.

An hour later, the fog was so thick I could see only whiteness through my windows. It would be a few hours before it cleared out again.

Got my fingers crossed for Sunday’s flight. So far, it’s looking pretty much the same.

If It Was Easy…

Everyone would do it.

Last spring, I took a man — we’ll call him Doug — on a scenic helicopter flight. He was interested in learning to fly and although I’m not a flight instructor and could not put the dual controls in for him, he seemed satisfied enough to fly around with me for an hour. During that time, I suppose we chatted a bit about flying and how the controls worked. I really can’t remember. I fly hundreds of people every year and most flights simply don’t stand out in my mind these days.

At the end of the flight, I passed along the business card for another helicopter pilot in the area, Ryan, who flies a Hiller and does mostly agricultural work. I figured that since Ryan’s card mentioned he was a certified flight instructor (CFI), he’d be able to give Doug some hands-on experience.

I didn’t hear anything from Doug or Ryan after that.

Until October. Doug emailed me to remind me that we’d flown together and that I’d given him Ryan’s card. He then went on to say:

I did fly for an hour with Ryan in his Hiller hb12c. I did not like it. I felt stressed the entire time trying to manage the copter. As such I have not flown again. So….my question to you is what would you recommend I do now?

I admit that I didn’t understand what he was getting at. I assumed he simply didn’t like the Hiller — which really wouldn’t surprise me. The Hiller is an older aircraft and lacks some of the pilot workload-reducing features that my Robinson has, such as hydraulic controls and an electronic governor. I’ve never flown one, but I have to assume that it’s a bit tougher to fly, especially if you have to manage the throttle to control rotor RPM all the time.

These are Hillers.

I advised him to sign up with a flight school and suggested he check Moses Lake or Seattle.

He replied with the following:

My real question is “do you think I should fly another helicopter other than the Hiller before I give up on flying a heilicopter?

And that’s when I realized that it wasn’t necessarily the Hiller that was giving him a problem. He’d gone into his first lesson thinking it was going to be easy to fly a helicopter. Then, when he discovered he couldn’t do it, he began wondering if it was the Hiller that was a problem.

I replied:

I really can’t say. I have a friend who swears by Hillers. Robinson R22s are notoriously squirrelly, but that’s what most pilots learn on. If that was your first experience flying a helicopter you should not be surprised that you couldn’t do it. It usually takes 5 to 10 hours just to learn how to hover.

And that’s the truth. The hardest thing to learn is how to hover and it usually takes 5 to 10 hours to be able to do it. I learned to fly part-time with several days between each hour-long lesson and it took me 7 hours of total flight time to be able to hover. At the time, my flight instructor told me that a good percentage of student pilots give up before they get that far, assuming that they’d never be able to do it.

(If you’re reading this and feel that way, don’t give up! One day it will just “click” and you’ll be able to do it. Really.)

His response reminded me how a lot of people must think about flying helicopters:

Thank you! I just expected it to be a lot more fun I guess……?

It can be fun — once you know how to do it. But think about each of the fun things you’ve learned to do: drive, ride a motorcycle, ski, etc. Were they fun from the moment you began learning? I doubt it.

I replied

If it was easy, everyone would do it.