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.

Hillers
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.

Landing a Helicopter on a Platform

Dangerous, but if you have good hover skills and use caution, not very difficult.

Hangar
For years, I used a tow bar made by Brackett Aircraft Company in Kingman, AZ, along with a golf cart or other tow vehicle to move my helicopter in and out of the hangar. With the golf cart gone, I began using my ATV, a 1999 600cc Yamaha Grizzly as the tow vehicle.

Ground handling of helicopters with skid landing gear — i.e., most helicopters — is not fun. It generally requires attaching wheels and doing a bunch of lifting and pushing. Sometimes multiple people are required. Even if you have other equipment to help with that lifting and pushing — I used a tow bar with tow vehicle for 14 years — you still have to do a bunch of setup (or tear down) every time you need to move the aircraft.

So you can probably imagine how glad I was to finally get my own wheeled landing platform (or tow dolly). I got it back in 2013 in trade for a golf cart I owned and I set it up for the first time in October at my new home. You can read much of the back story here.

In this post, I want to talk a little about landing on a wheeled platform like mine and the things a pilot needs to keep in mind when she does it.

A Little about My Platform

Assembled Helicopter Dolly
Here’s my platform, before landing the helicopter on it for the first time.

My tow platform is extremely heavy duty, made of steel tubing with a wooden deck. It has three rows of four solid wheels. The first two rows of wheels pivot.

The platform is 9 ft 4 in wide. It was built for a Hiller. The skids on my R44 are 6 ft 4 inches apart. That gives me 1-1/2 feet of extra space on either side.

The deck was once painted and included a wide orange stripe down each side that marked the ideal place to plant the Hiller’s skids on landing. My friend, who had it built to his specifications, had a bad experience with it early on. It had been parked out in the Arizona sun with the helicopter on it when my friend and his wife got in and prepared to depart. The sun had made the paint soft and one of the skids stuck to the deck. My friend narrowly missed having a dynamic rollover as he attempted to take off. This unnerved him so much that he stopped using the platform and sold it. The folks who bought the platform stripped off much of the paint to prevent that from happening again. That’s mostly why it looks so ratty on top.

The deck does not stretch all the way across the platform. Instead, there are two separate sections with a gap between them. I suspect that my friend designed it this way for weight and cost reasons, but, in all honesty, a solid deck wouldn’t be necessary anyway. If you landed with one skid in the middle of the deck, the other would be hanging out in space over the side of the deck. You’d never land that way, so why put a deck in the middle?

The top of the platform is about 18 inches off the ground. This is nice and low.

This is what I’m dealing with. As I write this, I’ve landed on it three times, including once in the dark. My only raised platform experience prior to this had been in the early 2000s when I landed an R22 on an 8 x 12 flat bed trailer.

Assessing the Suitability of Your Platform

Not all dollies or trailers are suitable for landing a helicopter on them. And a dolly or trailer suitable for one helicopter might not be suitable for yours. Here are a few points to consider, mostly in order of importance.

  • Weight capacity. Is the platform capable of supporting the weight of your helicopter and then moving that weight? You wouldn’t want to land on anything you could break just by landing on it. And when considering this, remember to keep in mind that you might occasionally have harder than usual landing.
  • Size, especially width. The platform must be large enough for your skids to fit comfortably on it with room to spare, especially on either side. The size of the platform as related to your helicopter skid width is what will determine how much room you have for error. The more, the better. As I mentioned above, I have about 18 inches on either side. I don’t think I’d want much less than that.
  • Surface smoothness. It’s very important to have a smooth surface to land on to eliminate (or at least reduce) the possibility of dynamic rollover if you happen to drift while setting down. I highly recommend avoiding putting anything on the surface of the platform — including tie-down loops — if you don’t need to. If it’s a trailer for transportation of the helicopter, try to install the tie-down hardware after the helicopter is securely on the deck.
  • Existence of Rails. If the platform or trailer has raised edges or rails around it, you are asking for trouble. Drifting into one of these rails while under power is a great way to get into dynamic rollover. Avoid landing on any surface with rails or raised edges.
  • Height. My opinion is that low is better than high. I think that a lower platform will give you a lower center of gravity once you’ve landed on it. Seems smart to me. Another limitation is the total height of the helicopter on the platform — will you still be able to get it into you hangar? My garage door is 14 feet tall for a reason.
  • Ability to secure. Locking wheels or brakes are a great feature. Use chocks if you can’t lock the platform’s wheels.

Beware of platforms or trailers designed for some other use and converted for helicopter use. Make sure a trailer is suitable before landing on it.

Choosing a Landing Zone

If you’re landing on a movable platform, you can pretty much specify where your landing zone will be. Or not.

In my situation, my landing zone possibilities are extremely limited. I have a 22 x 30 foot driveway apron. Beyond it is dirt or gravel. All wheels of my platform must remain on the concrete. And because the driveway apron is adjacent to my building and my helicopter’s main rotor blades extend past the edges of my platform, the platform must be as far away from the building as possible. So there’s only one place I’m going to be able to land — at least until I get more concrete poured — and it gives me just enough clearance to feel that I can operate safely.

Dolly Ready for Landing
My landing zone. I usually move the platform a little closer to the edge of the driveway now that I have good chocks.

But if your platform is at an airport or heliport, move it into a position that will give you plenty of clearance to come and go. I’m talking about clearance from obstacles such as buildings and wind socks as well as clearance from where other aircraft might be parked or people might be standing/walking/watching.

Securing the Platform

It’s vitally important that the platform be positioned on relatively level ground and secured so it does not move while you are taking off or landing.

My platform does not have brakes. None of the wheels lock. I use two methods to secure it in my landing zone:

  1. Set the brake on the ATV. My Grizzly has brakes and I always set them when I park it with the tow platform attached. I also leave the ATV in gear, which makes it less likely to roll if the brakes are released.
  2. Chocks
    These are some seriously heavy-duty chocks.

    Use heavy duty chocks. I bought a set of hard rubber chocks from Amazon. These aren’t the crappy yellow plastic ones I have for my RV or flatbed trailer. I chose this type because rubber is less likely to slip on the concrete surface of my driveway apron and because they’re so beefy that the platform wheels and weight would not be able to damage them.

Note that I use both of these methods — not one or the other.

Noting Weather Conditions

I shouldn’t have to point this out, but it is important so I will.

Weather conditions should determine whether a takeoff or landing from a platform is even possible to conduct safely. For example, I would not attempt a landing on my platform in strong crosswind or tailwind conditions. I just don’t have enough space to give me the buffer I’d feel comfortable operating in. Fortunately, however, I have another place on my property that’s suitable for landing in almost any weather, so if things were questionable, I’d land there.

If you’re positioning your platform for takeoff and you have a lot of options, position it so the helicopter is pointing into the wind. This will make takeoff safer and easier. Then don’t assume your landing will be just as easy. If the wind shifts, picks up, or gets gusty, conditions will be different. Pay close attention to this before making your landing.

Also heavy on my mind this winter season is snow and ice. It’s my job to keep both my concrete pad and platform clear of anything that might cause the helicopter’s skids or the platform itself to slide. I have a good snow shovel and plenty of ice melt pellets. But if snow or freezing rain comes while I’m out on a flight, I will not land on a snow or ice covered platform. You probably shouldn’t either. Actually, we probably shouldn’t be flying in those conditions anyway, right?

Positioning the Skids

When you land on a platform, the positioning of your skids when you set down must be precise.

Before I landed on my platform for the first time, I measured it and my skids numerous ways. I needed to know where to place the front of my right skid — which is the only one I can see when I’m landing — to ensure that the helicopter was relatively centered on the platform without the skids hanging off the back. Remembering my friend’s paint problem, I decided to keep it simple. When I figured out the right spot to place the front curve of my skid, I took a can of spray paint and painted an arrow. If I kept the skid inside the thick landing stripe my friend had painted — which was still visible, despite most of the paint being removed — and lined up the curve with that arrow, I’d be good.

So I’m basically allowing myself about 6 inches of wiggle room in any direction.

Knowing that there was no deck in the middle of the platform bothered me for awhile — until I realized that as long as one skid was on one deck, the other skid had to be on the other deck. How did I know? I measured about six times. This really reduced my stress level when landing.

Of course, landing straight on the platform is also important — mostly so the helicopter will line up properly to be parked inside the building. In some instances, I can fix a crooked landing by getting light on my skids and applying some pedal. But this can be an extremely dangerous thing to do. If either skid were to catch on something, dynamic rollover would be possible. More on that in a moment.

The other thing to keep in mind when landing on a platform is how the skids will touch down. An experienced pilot would know this. For example, if I’m light on fuel and flying alone, I know that the rear right skid will touch down first, followed by the rear left skid. Then front right and front left. When I landed my R22 on that trailer years ago, I actually loaded a passenger so I’d be more balanced. (I was a much less experienced pilot back then and needed — at least mentally — a level aircraft.)

Why is this important? Well, the first time you do this, you’ll likely be a bit stressed out. Knowing, in advance, how the helicopter will touch down will eliminate any surprises when you actually do touch down on the surface. And once you touch down, it’s important to keep flying it down until the skids are firmly on the platform. You’re not done until the skids are flat on the platform.

I shouldn’t have to point out that excellent hover skills are required for landing on any platform. If you can’t set a helicopter down firmly on its skids without drifting in one direction or another while doing so, you have no business attempting to land on a trailer. This is not a task for a low-time pilot or one new to the make/model of a helicopter. Perfect your hovering skills before trying this at home, kids.

Using Extra Caution at Night

What prompted me to write this blog post was my surprise success landing my helicopter on my dolly at night just the other day. My landing zone is not (yet) lighted at night because construction on my home is not complete. I’d taken off around noon and fully expected to be back before it got dark. But the charter flight went long — as they so often do — and the sun was setting when I fired up the engine for the return flight. During the hour it took to complete that flight and drop off my passengers, it had grown quite dark.

I had already told myself that if I did return after dark, I’d land in my backup landing zone and move the helicopter the following day. But with unseasonably cold temperatures, I was unwilling to leave the helicopter outside overnight unless I had to. I’d had a bad experience back in 2011, trying to get the helicopter started when the temperature was -7F (-22C). It wasn’t expected to get that cold, but I didn’t want to deal with a battery charger and heater out in the yard the next morning. I decided to try landing; if I didn’t like what I was experiencing, I’d climb out, reposition, and land in that backup landing zone.

Approaching my home in the dark was not fun since I hadn’t left any lights on. I live in a very dark area and there was no moonlight. That I was able to find my place at all is due to my neighbors to the west having quite a few lights on their back porch. Once I got closer, I saw the solar lights I’d positioned along my driveway. Since my driveway is also my approach route, I was able to get into position for a good approach.

Skid On Platform
My skid was within the orange paint and only about 4-6 inches back from the arrow. This was my second best landing on the platform. The green light is cast from the position light on my side of the helicopter.

My helicopter’s two landing lights are quite bright, so I had no trouble seeing my platform. The only drawback was the dust cloud that got kicked up when I got closer. I patiently waited for it to clear — it only took a few seconds — before making my first attempt. I was extremely pleased when I was able to get the skids right over the decks and set the helicopter down straight on the first try. I even took a picture.

Would I do this again? Probably. But you can bet I’ll get some lights installed soon.

What Can Go Wrong

But I cannot overstate how easy it is for things to go horribly wrong when you land on a platform like my dolly or a trailer. And that brings me to this accident report from June 24, 2004.

In this case, a pilot who had purchased a trailer to use to transport his Bell 206B (JetRanger) helicopter was practicing landing on it. He’d tried and failed several times and thought it might be due to weight distribution. So he added fuel to help balance it out and tried again.

Here’s what happened:

In a written statement, an air traffic control specialist reported that he observed the pilot make three or four unsuccessful attempts at landing the helicopter on the transport trailer about 45 minutes prior to the accident.

In statements collected by the Mesa Police Department, witnesses reported observing the helicopter land on the trailer. As the helicopter began to liftoff the trailer surface, the left skid caught on the trailer, resulting in a dynamic rollover and collision with the ground.

I’m sure it didn’t help that he was doing this at night, although he was at an airport and I think it’s safe to assume that there was some light available.

The main problem seems to be that the trailer wasn’t really suitable as a platform for landing a helicopter. According to a witness who was a friend of the accident pilot:

During a telephone interview with a National Transportation Safety Board investigator, the friend of the pilot further added that the pilot had recently purchased the trailer, and was not experienced at maneuvering the helicopter onto it. He described the trailer as a modified boat trailer, with an open and trough-shaped platform, which he did not think was suitable for safe takeoff and landing operations. He opined that during the accident sequence the helicopter’s left skid caught on one of the numerous “D” shaped rings affixed to the platform surface. He added that at the time of the accident sky conditions were dark.

(Oddly, my friend who had my platform built now lands his helicopter on a transport trailer that requires him to put the skids in troughs built into the trailer. You couldn’t pay me enough money to try to land a helicopter on that trailer. )

This isn’t the only accident related to landing on a trailer or mobile platform. It’s just the one I was familiar with, mostly because a EMS friend who responded to the accident reported that the helicopter’s transmission had crushed the pilot’s skull in the crash. (At least he died quickly.) Here are a few others:

  • ERA13LA308, June 29, 2013 – student pilot seriously injured and helicopter destroyed when helicopter drifted backwards when landing on a trailer.
  • CEN12CA643, September 18, 2012 – helicopter consumed by post-crash fire when helicopter slipped off platform during landing.
  • CEN11CA627, August 26, 2011 – helicopter destroyed when pilot experiences dynamic rollover on takeoff after forgetting to remove a tie-down clamp.
  • WPR10CA470, September 25, 2010 – helicopter destroyed when pilot lands on trailer parked on uneven terrain and tail rotor hit the trailer.
  • WPR10LA354, July 16, 2010 – 1 killed, 3 seriously injured, and helicopter destroyed when helicopter fell of trailer during landing. Note that pilot was attempting to adjust helicopter position with helicopter “light on its skids” when accident occurred. (I told you it was dangerous.)
  • ERA09CA485, August 26, 2009 – the helicopter was destroyed when lifting off from a dolly with the GPU still attached.
  • WPR09CA338, July 11, 2009 – helicopter destroyed when pilot experienced dynamic rollover while attempting to lift off from a trailer.
  • CEN09LA202, March 11, 2009 – two people seriously injured and the helicopter was destroyed when skid is hooked under trailer while attempting to land on the trailer.
  • NYC07FA029, November 15, 2006 – the pilot was seriously injured and the helicopter was destroyed when the helicopter landed with just one skid on a trailer and experienced dynamic rollover.
  • SEA05CA104, May 23, 2005 – the helicopter was destroyed when its skid became caught under a trailer lip during takeoff in gusting crosswind conditions.
  • NYC04CA199, August 27, 2004 – the helicopter was destroyed by dynamic rollover caused by a stuck skid during an aborted landing to a dolly in the dark.
  • MIA04LA061, March 17, 2004 – the helicopter was damaged when it crashed during an attempted takeoff from a dolly. Pilot refused to cooperate with investigators, so facts are scarce. Alcohol may have been involved.
  • ATL04LA076, February 21, 2004 – the helicopter was destroyed when the dolly moved while the pilot was attempting to land on it.
  • FTW03CA233, September 28, 2003 – the helicopter was destroyed when it “hung up on something” during departure from a trailer.
  • FTW03LA166, June 4, 2003 – the helicopter was destroyed when it experienced dynamic rollover when attempting to depart from a trailer with a tie-down strap still fastened.
  • IAD03LA042, March 27, 2003 – the helicopter was destroyed when the pilot attempted to land on a dolly after experiencing engine trouble.

I found these for searching within the past 10 or so years for accidents that include the word “trailer” or “dolly.” I bet there are others. But this is enough to teach us from other people’s mistakes.

In Summary

Landing on a platform or trailer isn’t difficult if you have good hovering skills, approach the situation with caution, stay focused on the task at hand. Position the skids over the trailer before setting down firmly. Keep the possibility of dynamic rollover in mind all the time.

The only other thing I want to add is this: if your platform landing zone is difficult — and I consider mine more difficult than most — do it alone. There’s no reason to put passengers at risk when performing any advanced or potentially dangerous maneuver. That’s my two cents on this subject, anyway.

I Am NOT a Helicopter Consultant

Please don’t ask me for advice beyond what’s on this blog.

Today I got yet another request for help from a reader. That’s the third one this week.

Back in the old days, the requests were for help about using computers. They all followed the same two-part format:

  1. I’ve read your [book/article/blog post] and I think it’s [informative/helpful/great]! You’re a great writer and your work has been so helpful!
  2. Can you tell me how to [do something specific that is only vaguely related to what you wrote about and that isn’t covered in any source I can find for free on the Internet]?

Simple formula: complement and then ask for free information.

At one point, I was getting at least a dozen of these a week. So many, in fact, that I modified my Contact page so it warned would-be contacts that I’d delete any requests for help or information. It was really out of control. I could have easily spent several hours a day just researching and composing answers for these people.

Times change. My books, some of which were once bestsellers, are now dead. After all, what do you think the average life span of a computer how-to book is?

Now my blog attracts more helicopter pilots/owners and would-be helicopter pilots/owners. And guess what? They write to me using the same exact formula as above: complement and then ask for free information.

Well, times may have changed but my policy about researching and composing answers for people in search of free information has not.

[RANT ON]

I am not a helicopter consultant. I can’t help you buy a helicopter. I can’t help you get hooked up with a flight school. I can’t advise you on a career as a helicopter pilot. I can’t tell you which helicopter is best for you to buy. I can’t tell you what it costs to operate a helicopter — other than the one I own, which I detailed here. I can’t help you get your Part 135 certificate. I can’t tell you how to start your own helicopter charter business.

I blog about helicopters, among other things. I blog about my own experiences and the topics that interest me.

I am not a free resource for every bit of information you might need about anything remotely related to helicopters and flying.

I make a living as a pilot and a writer. People pay me for my work. What you’ll find on this blog is what I’m willing to give away for free. When the bank and grocery story and utility companies start accepting your complements as payment for my bills, I’ll rethink my policy.

Until then, good luck with Google.

[RANT OFF]

Whew. That feels better.

Flying Under Bridges

What were we thinking?

Back in the spring of 2004, when I interviewed at Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters for a tour pilot job, one of the interviewers — there were three of them — asked me what the craziest thing I’d ever done in a helicopter was. I said, “Well, I was sitting in the PIC seat but not manipulating the controls when we flew under a bridge.”

There was a brief moment of silence and then all three men laughed long and hard. I’m not sure if they laughed because they thought what we’d done was funny or if they thought it was funny that I’d actually answered truthfully instead replying with something I thought they’d want to hear, like “I never do crazy things in a helicopter.” (I don’t lie, even when it’s in my best interest to do so.) But it must have been a good enough answer because I got a job offer and I took the job. That summer gave me some of the best flying experience I could get to hone skills, build confidence, and move forward in my career as a helicopter pilot.

In this blog post, I want to talk a little about the events leading up to us flying under the bridge and what happened to the pilot manipulating the controls that day.

The Backstory

It was July 19, 2003. I’d spent the previous day ferrying a brand spanking new R44 Raven II from Torrance, CA to St. George, UT. The helicopter had been purchased by a student pilot we’ll call John who had a heck of a lot more money to burn than I ever will. Not only had he bought the Raven II for cash, but he’d paid the person who’d ordered it for his own operation an extra $40K so he wouldn’t have to wait for his own to be built.

He’d asked his flight instructor — we’ll call him Roy — to pick it up, but Roy didn’t meet Robinson’s very strict ferry pilot requirements. Although he had 2,000 hours in Robinson helicopters, he’d never taken the factory safety course. I’d met Roy the month before when he was rounding up burros out at Alamo Lake in Arizona. He remembered me and the fact that I had R44 experience and guessed (correctly) that I’d taken the safety course. John and Roy arranged for me to fly the helicopter with Roy from Torrance to St. George. Due to Robinson’s rules about ferry passengers, John would stay behind.

It was a mostly uneventful trip. The helicopter was ugly: white with a bright orange stripe and chocolate brown leather interior. But it flew fine and we cruised through the desert, mostly following I-15. We stopped for fuel at Boulder City, NV and then landed again at Mesquite, NV to wait out a thunderstorm in our path. John met us when we landed at St. George. They took me out for dinner, put me in a motel room up at the airport, and made plans to get me home to Wickenburg (near Phoenix) the next day.

The Flight

That brings us to July 19 again. John was eager to go flying in his new helicopter, so they decided to fly me down to Wickenburg. It would be about a 2-1/2 hour flight. Roy put me in the right (PIC) seat while he sat in the left, just like the day before. The duals were still in. John sat in the back. He’d get his chance to fly on the way home. (To this day, I think it was very kind of them to allow me a few more hours of stick time in the R44. I only had about 40 hours in one at that point.)

We headed south over the east end of Lake Mead near Pearce Ferry, past the Grand Wash Cliffs, and down through Lapai Alley to Kingman. That’s where we stopped for fuel. The rest of the flight was very familiar to me — I’d likely flown the route along State Route 93 dozens of times in the R22 I owned back then.

Near Wikieup
Here’s a piece of the Phoenix Sectional Chart that covers the area of Route 93 south of Wickieup. Note the wires.

Sometime just after passing over Wikieup, John asked Roy how he found burros from the air. (Remember, he’d done burro roundup only a month before.) Roy asked for the controls and I let him have them. He dropped down low and explained how he looked for bare patches in the desert where the burros would rub themselves. We looked but although we saw patches like he described, we didn’t see burros.

By that time, we’d reached Kaiser Canyon. Roy dropped down very low and followed it to where it joined up with Burro Creek. That’s when he turned to me and asked, “Have you ever flown under a bridge?”

I admitted that I hadn’t.

“Want to?” he asked.

Burro Creek Satellite
A recent satellite image of Burro Creek Canyon. If you look closely, you can actually see the shadow of the two bridge spans upstream from the bridge. We came from the south, following the creek.

I knew the bridge he was thinking of: the Burro Creek Bridge on Route 93, which spanned the canyon not far ahead. I’m not sure if I answered. Or if John answered. The canyon opened up enough for Roy to drop us into it. We rounded a bend and the bridge came into view.

That’s when John started getting cold feet. “I don’t think we should do this,” he said nervously.

But he was really too late. We were moving at at least 80 knots and the bridge was coming up quickly.

Burro Creek Bridge
The Burro Creek Bridge not long after the second span was completed. Back when we flew under it, there was only one span. Please don’t fly under this or any other bridge. It’s dangerous.

It wasn’t the bridge up ahead that had me worried. It was the two sets of big power lines — we call them “Bonnevilles” here in Washington state — that spanned the canyon on our side of the bridge. They wires actually drooped lower than the bottom of the bridge, which is something I’d never noticed before. But I only felt real fear for a moment. That’s how long it took to pass under them and the bridge beyond.

I can’t remember what happened next. Probably some euphoric whooping by all three of us. And laughter. Roy gave back the controls and I got us back on course. They dropped me off at Wickenburg, fueled up, and headed home.

I lived in that area for another 10 years and owned a helicopter the entire time. Although I passed by the bridge dozens of times — I even did a photo flight while the second span was under construction — I never flew under it again. What the hell were we thinking, anyway?

Afterwards

Time passed. I helped John and Roy out again in August, doing helicopter rides at a country fair in the same R44. (According to my log book, I logged a total of about 20 hours in that helicopter.) I think I visited Roy in St. George once again after that. Then we lost touch.

I don’t know what happened to John and his helicopter.

But I do know what happened to Roy. On April 6, 2014, the helicopter Roy was flying collided with terrain in a canyon near Green River, UT. He and his passenger both died.

I read about it in the news and my heart sank a little — the way it does when someone we know dies in a crash. (If you’re a pilot and it hasn’t happened to you yet, it will.) The investigation is still going on, but the NTSB preliminary report states that there is no evidence of engine failure.

That got me thinking, there are old pilots and bold pilots…

Home is Where the Helicopter Is

Zero-Mike-Lima moves into its new home.

A lot of folks who’ve seen my building plans or listened to me tell them about its design can’t quite understand why I need so much garage space. Like an old motorcycling friend who sadly passed away from an illness some years ago, I’m building a “garage with a home attached.”

New Home Plans
Garage, man cave, man trap. Call it what you will, but it has almost 3,000 square feet of garage and shop space.

Moving Forward with the Plan

I decided two and a half years ago, when I started looking for property in Washington, that I wanted to keep my helicopter at home with me. Not only would it be extremely convenient for the few times a month I fly, but it would save me hundreds of dollars a month on hangar costs — not to mention time and truck gas, wear, and tear.

Hangar
Here’s a partial view of the hangar the helicopter lived in for about eight months. The building was huge and technically I leased only half of it, paying only half rent.

The hangar the helicopter was in last winter, along with my furniture and boxes of possessions from Arizona, was costing $850/month — that’s nearly double my mortgage! I couldn’t wait to get out of that place and was thrilled at the end of June when my building had reached a state of completion where my possessions could be moved into it and I could end the lease on the hangar.

I moved the helicopter to my future home at the end of May, right after the start of cherry season. I had an early contract in Quincy and needed to respond quickly to calls that sometimes came in without warning. From that point forward, it sat outside on a leveled piece of earth in my side (back?) yard — a sort of lawn ornament that I’d fire up when I wanted (or needed) to fly.

Lawn Ornament
I kept the helicopter parked on a nice flat spot near my RV throughout the construction period.

The landing zone was good, despite the dust. I was able to approach from below, actually climbing to reach the spot. This minimized noise. In fact, a few neighbors asked if I were still flying from my home. When I told them I was, they responded, with some surprise, that they never heard me come and go. I’d actually chosen the building location, in part, because of its position between two hills. The idea was to focus the helicopter’s engine sound back out into the valley. A more attractive building location might have been where the helicopter was parked — it certainly would have given me better views. But in the interest of being neighborly — and to reserve that spot for the next property owner’s home — I tucked my building back up against the hillsides.

The building’s shell was finished — walls, roof, floor, doors, and windows — in mid July. The big garage door — 20 feet wide by 14 feet tall — was the last component to be installed. With the help of a friend and his son, I rearranged the furniture I’d stowed in the back of the RV garage space to make room for the helicopter and RV to be parked side by side, as I’d planned.

The Landing Platform

Ground handling a 1500+ pound helicopter by myself had always been a bit of a pain in the ass. It was impossible for me to move it without equipment, so I purchased a tow bar from Brackett Aviation in Kingman and a golf cart to tow it with. I’d had a similar tow bar for my old R22, but the R44 was a bit too beefy for the aluminum model they’d custom made for me (to keep it light). The steel replacement was heavy but manageable. It made it possible to tow the helicopter in Wickenburg from my hangar to the fuel pumps or helicopter pads, despite the hilly ramps.

But what I longed for was a helicopter dolly — a platform I could land on and tow into the hangar. I priced them up everywhere I could find them, new or used, but could never justify the huge expense.

In the winter of 2013, as I packed up my Arizona life and began liquidating possessions I no longer needed, a solution stumbled into my lap. My friend Mike’s friend Jan had bought Mike’s helicopter dolly. Mike had designed it for his Hiller and it had been made to his specifications. He’d used it a few times and, after a scare from a skid sticking to tacky paint in the hot Arizona sun, had sold it to Jan. Jan never used it. I had a very nice golf cart I wanted to unload. Would he take a trade?

He would and did. My friend Janet and I loaded the golf cart onto my flatbed trailer and towed it down to Falcon Field in Mesa. Jan and Mike and a few others drove the golf cart off the trailer and manhandled the dolly, broken down into three pieces, onto my trailer. We strapped everything down and drove back to Wickenburg.

Trailer Packed for Move
Do I know how to pack a trailer? I replaced the trailer tires and had the bearings repacked before the trip north, just to minimize the likelihood of wheel trouble for my friend on the 1200-mile drive.

Due to the nature of my never-ending divorce, the trailer and dolly just sat in my Wickenburg hangar for months. In September 2013, I loaded a few more things onto the trailer and sent it north on the back of my truck, with a friend who offered to drive it for me while I drove my Honda and movers took everything else. The trailer and dolly then sat in my East Wenatchee hangar for another eight months. In July 2014, it moved from there to my property, where it sat out in the sun for another few months.

Tow Platform
Here’s the trailer outside my building last month, waiting to be unloaded. The orange thing is my old tow bar, which I used in my East Wenatchee hangar.

Putting It All Together

Assembled Helicopter Dolly
What amazed me most is how small the platform looked in my building.

Finally, at the end of September, I asked my friend and his son to stop by and help me unload the dolly. It rolled down the trailer ramp onto the floor of my building. The hard part was pulling the top half off the bottom — I think one more set of muscles might have made that easier. But we did it, lined the pieces up, and bolted them together. The roughly 9 x 9 platform was ready for use. (The flatbed trailer was almost immediately put to work hauling apples to Seattle for a friend. It’s now parked, empty, out of the way behind my building — the only thing I own that’ll likely never be stored inside.)

The only problem was, I couldn’t get the helicopter inside until I had a concrete apron outside the big door. Not only was there a 4-inch drop from the doorway to the ground outside, but the ground was not something the dolly’s 12 hard rubber wheels could easily roll on.

I had the ground work and the concrete work done in September. The concrete guy said I needed to wait five days for the concrete to cure enough to be driven on. Sunday was the fifth day.

I happened to have a charter flight on Sunday and expected to be home by around 3 PM. That morning, before taking off, I positioned the helicopter dolly on my big new pad with my 600cc 1999 Yamaha Grizzly — did I ever mention how glad I am that I bought that thing and brought it to Washington with me? I locked the Grizzly’s brakes and put a wooden block behind one of the dolly’s 12 wheels. (Hard rubber chocks should arrive from Amazon.com today.)

Dolly Ready for Landing
Nothing like a little challenge to get the blood going, no?

Then I got out my extra long measuring tape and started measuring. I measured the helicopter’s skid length and spread. I measured the point from the front of one skid to the end of the front blade. I measured the back of the skids to the end of the tail. I measured the dolly’s width and the distance between the faded and mostly worn off orange painted lines Mike had stuck to years ago. I measured from an arrow on the dolly out the pilot side door to the post in the corner of my future deck.

And then I measured everything again.

And one more time.

It was doable — the measuring tape doesn’t lie — but with the RV parked where it was, I’d best make my approach down the driveway. It was important to come in slowly and not overshoot the platform. If I landed where I should on the platform, everything would be fine.

Yes, it would. I had to tell myself several times. It sure looked close. But then again, every time I land at the fuel island at Wenatchee airport, it’s a lot closer than this.

I shut the big garage door and locked up the building.

The Moment of Truth

I left at 10:30 AM to do my flight. I stopped at Pangborn Airport, fueled up, and met my passengers. We went on a scenic flight up the Methow to view the fire damage, then cut over the mountains to Chelan where we landed in front of Tsillan Cellars Winery. Bob, the owner, walked down with a glass of wine to greet us. My passengers treated me to lunch at the restaurant there before I flew us back to Wenatchee.

Then they were gone and the moment of truth had arrived.

It was right about then that I realized that I’d never landed on this platform before. In fact, the only time I’d ever landed on anything resembling a raised platform was back in 2002 when I landed my old R22 on the back of a trailer.

Well, there’s a first time for everything, huh?

I started up the helicopter — now very light with only about 15 gallons of fuel on board — and headed home. It’s a 3-minute flight.

Instead of approaching from below over my Lookout Point bench, I came in slightly above my landing zone, a bit more to the east. I slowed down to a walking pace before I reached my driveway just behind my shed and chicken coop. Then I moved forward slowly, got myself over the landing pad, and lowered the helicopter down onto it. I had a moment of doubt when I worried that my left skid might be over the gap between the dolly’s two landing platforms and that made me double-think my landing. I wiggled a bit, inched higher, shifted to the left a little, and set it down. The rear of the skids landed first, as they usually do when I’m alone. Then the front. Nice and solid. No movement on the platform.

Helicopter on Platform
Success!

Needless to say, I was thrilled.

I went into my RV to let Penny out while the blades slowed to a stop. I took a bunch of photos. I opened the big garage door all the way and locked it in the up position. Then I locked the helicopter’s blades into a front/back position, got on the ATV, started it up, and began rolling it backwards into the building.

The door was supposed to be 14 feet tall. The helicopter’s mast is 10’9″ tall. The platform was 18 inches tall. It should fit, right? Of course it did! But it wasn’t until I actually rolled it in that I believed it.

Not Perfect
My landing wasn’t perfect. I could have been forward 6-10 inches and left about 6 inches. When I get a chance, I’ll repaint the surface with better markers. And next time, with the hard rubber chocks handy, I’ll move the platform a bit closer to the edge of the pavement.

The only trouble I had was the fact that my furniture was pushed up against that back wall. With the ATV in front and the helicopter not quite as far forward as it could be, I didn’t have enough room to pull in all the way with the ATV. So I unhooked it, moved it out of the way, and pushed the dolly in the rest of the way. It was remarkably easy to push on the level ground, considering it weighed at least 1800 pounds with the helicopter on it. It was in far enough to close the garage door.

In the Garage
Good thing I didn’t put that arc lamp on a longer chain! It clears the rotor hub by about a foot and a half. In the future, I’ll be parking to one side or another anyway.

A while later, after walking around and taking photos and being thrilled that I could so easily walk under the tailcone to get around the garage even with the helicopter in there, I rolled the door closed and locked it.

My helicopter was in its new home.

On Milestones

This was yet another milestone in my rebooted life — another goal reached without a risk-adverse, fearful, sad-sack old man holding me back. I was moving forward, I was making it happen.

(I feel another divorce-related rant coming on. Stop reading now if you’d prefer not to read it.)

I try not to think about all the years lost waiting for the man I loved to get his act together and take control of his life, to stop being a 9 to 5 slave to possessions he bought for reasons I’ll never understand: a plane he never flew; an expensive, cave-like condo in a dismal city; a luxury sedan not suited for the unpaved road we lived on. I try not to think about what might have possessed him to live beyond his means, year after year.

I try not to think of his broken promises — promises I banked on to build a financially secure future in which we’d both be able to achieve life-long goals.

I try not to think about how hard he tried those last few years to pull me down into the rut he’d dug for himself and how he plied me with guilt and attacked my self-esteem when I resisted.

I try not to think about how miserable I’d be if we’d stuck together and I had to continue a stagnant existence in a dead place with a man who just never seemed to be happy.

But when I see how easily I rebuilt my life here in a better place, how easily I made good friends, how easily I designed and arranged for the building of my dream home, how easily I’ve learned to take care everything that needed to be done — I realize that no matter what he said to put me down, I was not the problem. He was.

I would never be here in this happy place with him holding me back. The divorce freed me to move forward with my life, a life so much better than I had with the sorry excuse for a man that he’d become.

The sad part of it is the way he chose to do this: the deceptions, the betrayals, the legal battle to steal what I’d worked hard for my whole life. The lies in court documents and under oath in court.

He told me two years ago when he asked for a divorce that he wanted to remain friends and I was open to that. But then he did everything in his power to fuck me over emotionally and financially. What’s up with that?

And yes, the battle still rages on, two years after it started. Delays, delays, delays. He’s doing everything in his power to delay my happiness — and he’s failing miserably, at his own expense.

He burned his bridge to any possible future friendship. And in doing so, he threw away the best part of his sorry life.

What an asshole.

As for me — well, I haven’t been this happy in years.