A Flight to Salinas

Any excuse to fly, eh?

I’m currently based in the Sacramento area of California for my late winter/early spring job as a frost control pilot. I live part-time in a nice farm town I’ve grown to know and like over the past four years, waiting for the weather to turn cold and a phone call telling me to get ready to fly. At that point, “passive standby,” when I get paid by the day to have my helicopter on-site, turns into “active standby,” when I get paid by the hour to wait. When the fly call comes, I theoretically spring into action, firing up the helicopter and heading out over my almond orchards to circulate air and keep the frost from damaging the developing nuts.

I say “theoretically” because although this is my fourth year as a frost pilot, that fly call has never come. Instead, each season I wind up being paid by the flight to fly to California, being paid by the day to hang around in very pleasant weather doing whatever I like while it’s still kind of dreary at home, occasionally being paid by the hour to sit in my truck at the airport at night waiting for a fly call, and eventually being paid by the flight to fly the helicopter home. I earn enough in two months to carry me financially until cherry season starts in May — and beyond. Along the way, I have a grand old time in Northern California’s Central Valley. I’ve made some friends, done a ton of hiking, gone wine tasting, kayaked the American River and Lake Solano, learned to fly a gyro, gone ballooning, and even given my bees an early start to the spring season. In general, it’s just an extension of my winter travels, with lots of flexibility to go where I like and do what I want — as long as I can get back to base by midnight when I’m put on active standby.

Anyway, my point is that I don’t have a lot of flying to do for this job. So instead, I take the helicopter out on “maintenance flights.” This is where I start up the helicopter to make sure it’ll start when I need it and since I’ve got the engine running, I may as well take off and since I’m taking off, I may as well go somewhere interesting like up Cache Creek or into Napa Valley or around Sutter Butte.

Cache Creek 2
My favorite “maintenance flight”? Low-level up Cache Creek, especially just after dawn.

Yesterday’s Excuse for Flying

My helicopter is coming up for overhaul soon and I’ve begun interviewing service centers to find one that’ll do the job the way I want it done at a price I’m willing to pay. I’ve already visited a shop in St. Augustine, FL, and have talked to the folks in Hillsboro, OR, who sold me my helicopter nearly twelve years ago. (Hard to believe it’s been that long, eh?) I’ve recently gotten more motivated to learn my overhaul options; one of the magazines I write for has agreed to a 1000-word article about my search for a shop. So I obviously need to visit more shops.

So the other day, I checked the Dealer/Service Center page on Robinson Helicopter’s Website. And I made a list of the centers in Northern California. And I started making calls. By the end of the day, I’d made plans to visit the folks at Airmotive Specialties, the service center in Salinas.

DWA to SNS
The direct route to Salinas was easy enough.

I was not interested in driving to Salinas. The 170-mile drive would take at least 3 hours each way. Obviously, I’d fly. Foreflight told me it would take about an hour and 20 minutes and that was fine with me. (I have 200 hour to burn off on the helicopter before November.) A review of the direct route showed that it was pretty easy, with no serious concerns about airspace or mountain terrain. Weather was forecasted to be good on Wednesday, although rain was moving in north and east of San Francisco (where I’m based) later in the week. It was a no-brainer. I made tentative plans to fly on Wednesday afternoon.

The Flight Down

I spent Wednesday morning taking care of odds and ends: writing a blog post, updating a friend’s website, answering email messages, scanning receipts, walking to the closest RedBox to drop off a video and pick up another one. The man I needed to meet at Airmotive would be at the office all day, so there was no rush. I had lunch just after noon, then climbed into the truck with Penny and headed out to the airport. A while later, after setting up my GoPro “nosecam,” iPad with Foreflight, and phone for music, I fired up the engine. I was heading south by 1:30 PM with Penny lounging on her bed in the front passenger seat beside me.

It was an uneventful flight. Well, mostly.

Why I Tend to Avoid Towered Airspace

I think a sidebar is in order to explain why I didn’t fly right through Livermore’s airspace and talk to the tower.

First of all, my direct route would have put me less than 1/2 mile into Livermore’s airspace — nowhere near the runway or tower. It wasn’t a big deal to adjust course a tiny bit to the left (east) to avoid it.

Second, my experience with towered airports has been a real mixed bag over the 15+ years I’ve been flying. If an airspace is directly on my flight path, I’ll ask the controller to transition. I might make a request like “Helicopter six-three-zero-mike-lima, 10 miles northeast, would like to transition southbound on the east side of your airspace.” (That’s what I might have said on Wednesday to Livermore.)

About half the time, the tower will allow me to “proceed as requested,” sometimes asking me to “ident” (push a button on my transponder which momentarily makes me more visible on his radar) or even assigning me a squawk code (an unique 4-digit code for my aircraft on radar). All that’s quite reasonable and fine with me.

But other times, the tower will require me to follow a certain route through the airspace — for example, over the top of the airport, midfield at a specified altitude. This can waste time and fuel. And still other times, the tower will instruct me to climb to an altitude above the airspace — usually 2500 feet AGL or higher — to “transition.” (Technically, this is not transitioning the airspace because I’m technically not in it when I’m flying that high over it.) This is nosebleed territory for helicopter pilots who typically fly 500-1000 feet AGL, not to mention a real waste of time and fuel. And other times — admittedly rarely — the tower will simply deny the request and tell me to stay clear. (Scottsdale liked to do this.)

So the solution I’ve come up with is this: if my direct route doesn’t take me within two miles of the runways or tower, I adjust my path to fly around the airspace and monitor the tower frequency to listen for traffic. At my altitude, airplane traffic — other than crop-dusters — is seldom an issue.

There was a close call with a biplane crop duster who apparently didn’t see me where I was cruising at about 1000 feet AGL (Above Ground Level) just to avoid crop-dusters. I guess he was going back to base. I dumped the collective and dropped down to about 300 AGL quickly while taking other evasive actions. He passed above and behind me and I continued on my way, climbing back up to at least 700 AGL and keeping a sharp eye out for others.

And then near Livermore, another traffic situation. I’d tuned into Livermore’s tower to monitor the frequency as I flew southbound just east of the tower-controlled airspace. I heard the controller warn another pilot about traffic that sounded just like me. I stayed quiet until the controller came back on the radio about a minute later, sounding a bit alarmed that the traffic (me) was only a half-mile away. I looked up and left and saw the Cessna flying at least 500 feet above me, westbound. I keyed the mic button and said: “Livermore Tower, helicopter six-three-zero-mike-lima, just east of your airspace, has that airplane traffic in sight. I’m passing below him, no factor.” The controller sounded more than a little relieved when he responded with thanks.

Marine Layer Moving In
You can see the marine layer moving in on the right side of this shot. I was about 5 miles from Salinas Airport here.

I was in the mountains, abeam San Jose Airport, when I started noticing the marine layer moving in from the west. I fiddled with Foreflight’s settings to get visibility information for the nearby airports. All of the ones in my vicinity — including Watsonville and Salinas up ahead — were reporting 10 miles or more. But I didn’t like the way those low clouds look. I know from experience that the marine layer can turn an airport from VFR to IFR in fifteen minutes when it’s moving just right.

I landed at Salinas and followed the controller’s directions to “the biggest hangar on the field.” I parked in an empty airplane tie-down spot nearby. As I shut down, I looked at the windsock and the low clouds. The wind was clearly pushing the marine layer in from the west. I might not have much time if I wanted to get back that day.

At Salinas

My meeting went extraordinarily well. I met the boss, had a quick tour of their facility, and chatted with him about my options. He and his crew have done more than a few Robinson overhauls, including one for a helicopter that was parked right outside his hangar door. He’d learned a few things that would save me money while keeping me safe and in full compliance with FAA requirements. He had local sources for aircraft painting, upholstery, and parts inspections. Best of all, he could get the work done within my stated time restraints — I would need it back by mid February for next year’s frost season.

He and his helicopter guy came out and looked at my ship. They said it looked good — I have to wonder if they say that to everyone or if so many other ships don’t look good that they feel compelled to say something when they see one that looks better than usual. I have to agree that it doesn’t look 11+ years old. I’ve taken very good care of it over the years, getting quality maintenance done by good shops and keeping it in a hangar (or garage) for most of its life.

My visit ended by giving him my complete contact information so he could work up a quote. I’d have to order the overhaul “kit” from Robinson at least six months in advance to get it in time. Clearly, I’d need to choose a shop a lot sooner than I expected to, possibly as early as May 1.

By the time I got outside, it was overcast and downright cold. The marine layer had indeed moved in, with clouds just 1200 feet above the field (according to the ATIS recording) and mountain obscuration to the north, where I needed to go. It looked as if the only clear routes were to the south. I’d need to fly around the weather to move north.

But first I needed fuel. I’d burned half of what was on board on my trip down and did not want to go into any weather situation without full tanks. A call on the unicom frequency got me nowhere, so I walked over to the general aviation terminal and found someone in the Airport Manager’s office who gave me a phone number to call for fuel. While I waited for the truck, I fiddled with Foreflight to get additional weather information. But I didn’t need a computer or weather report to see that I wasn’t going to be taking the direct route back.

Around this time, I realized that I’d forgotten to text a Facebook friend who worked at the airport. She’s a medevac pilot who was on duty that evening. I was supposed to text her when I arrived so she could drop by. But the incoming marine layer had distracted me and I’d forgotten. Now, with the weather getting worse by the minute, I couldn’t wait around. I texted her my apologies. Another time? Chances are, I’d be back in November; I’d very much liked what I’d seen and heard at Airmotive.

The Flight Back

SNS to DWA
My actual track, as logged by Foreflight, on my return flight from Salinas. Talk about circumventing weather!

Once the fuel was on board and I’d added some oil, I climbed back on board and started up. The ATIS mentioned ILS approaches but the airport was still VFR. I asked for a departure to the east, got clearance, and took off.

I had my GoPro “nosecam” running for the whole flight. With the sun behind me — if it made an appearance — I knew the light would be much better than it had been on the way down. (I don’t record every minute of every flight. I already have too much mediocre footage; now I just try to get good footage.) The camera captured the situation well: very low clouds for quite a distance. I aimed for some brightness on the horizon, stayed at an altitude that kept me below the cloud layer, kept a sharp eye out for towers, and flew southeast.

Marine Layer
I really wanted to steer left in this shot, taken less than a mile from the airport. But instead I aimed for that bright spot in the far right — southeast bound.

Don’t get me wrong. I could have tried scud running a path up the valley to the north. And I might have found a comfortable way to get where I wanted to go. But I’ve run scud enough times and have found my way blocked enough times that I’ve learned not to even bother trying if there’s an easy way around it. I know marine layers well enough to know that they don’t usually cross mountains. If I could get to the far side of the mountains east of the airport, I’d find a clear way north.

And that’s exactly what happened. I aimed for the brightness, which got bigger and brighter the farther I went. Suddenly, I was in sunlight, climbing the bright green foothills of the mountains on a northeast heading. Soon I was at cloud level just to the east of the clouds heading due north. Before long, I was above the marine layer, looking out at islands of mountaintops in the clouds to the west.

Out of the Marine Layer
Only six minutes passed from the time the previous photo was snapped to the time this one was snapped. At this point, I was banking to the northeast, climbing above the marine layer just east of where it got “stuck” in the mountains.

I adjusted my course on both my helicopter’s Garmin 430 GPS and Foreflight and attempted to fly direct back to my base. The lush green hills were amazingly beautiful and the shadows from the sun shining through the marine layer gave them an extra depth. It was hard not to detour in a few places to get some better views. I let the camera run, figuring I’d get a few good shots along the way.

Green Hills
California’s hillsides are gorgeous in the spring. You can see the marine layer trying — but not succeeding — to climb over the hills on the left.

I flew for a while to the east of the marine layer, but as I crossed the valley near Hollister, the marine layer moved in beneath me. I was already about 2500 feet up, having just crossed some mountains, and knew I’d have to cross more mountains on the other side of the valley, so I stayed at altitude and crossed above them, with glimpses of the farm town beneath me. The air up above the clouds was a bit rough and we got bounced around a bit. So the next time I had the option of flying above or below the marine layer — near Livermore — I elected to fly below it. That had me flying just below the clouds along a hillside east of the airport there, almost on my original flight path down.

Over Hollister
I flew above the marine layer clouds at Hollister and was rewarded with a bumpy ride.

Lake Valley
I couldn’t resist flying down this lake-filled valley east of San Martin.

Lick Observatory
While I didn’t overfly any of the buildings at Lick Observatory, I did fly close enough to get a good look. (Hope I didn’t wake anyone!)

Golf Course
I was over this Livermore area golf course at 4:39 PM when one of my Twitter friends saw me fly by.

The rest of the flight was pretty uneventful. I made a straight line back to my base, over two wind farms, a handful of small cities, the Sacramento River, wetlands, and lots of farmland. It was just after 5 PM when I set down on my grassy parking spot at the airport.

Wind Farm
Windmills that had been still on my way south were turning by the time I flew back north.

Birds
All of the wetlands in northern California are full of these large white birds that take flight as soon as they hear a helicopter approaching. This was a big flock — yes, every white dot here is a bird. Fortunately, they stay very close to the ground.

Final Approach
On final approach to this year’s base of operations west of Sacramento.

I gathered together my things, let Penny out to run on the grass, and locked up the helicopter. I chatted for a while with one of the line guys about the upcoming rainy weather and placed a fuel order. (The helicopter must always be topped off with fuel when I’m on call.) Then Penny and I headed back to the truck and our temporary home.

I’d logged a total of 2.7 hours of flight time.

Later, after I drove back to where I’m staying and relaxed for a while, I checked in with Twitter. I found a tweet from one of my twitter friends who had apparently seen me from the ground while he was golfing in Livermore. How’s that for small world syndrome?

It had been a good flight and a nice day out and about. Although I could have done without the detour — which probably added 20 minutes of flight time to my return trip — I certainly couldn’t complain about the views along the way.

When I Became a Pilot

An essay from years ago.

Let me start with an introduction.

Thanks to the enthusiastic encouragement of a local writing group I joined a few months ago, I’m working on a book project about my flying experiences.

I’d started a book about flying back in 2010, intending to document my first 10 years as a pilot, but set it aside when life got busy with other things. Then, when my crazy divorce started, I forgot all about it. Rebooting my life in a new place and building a new home kept it on the far back burner of my mind. I recently discovered the manuscript on my computer’s hard disk and submitted one of the stories to the group. They seemed to love it and asked for more. With an overabundance of free time during the winter months, it seemed like a good idea to dive back in and possibly get it ready for publication by this spring.

I spent most of yesterday learning to use Scrivener, the writing tool of choice among so many of my writing friends. I moved the manuscript into Schrivener and organized the existing content into subchapters while expanding the outline. Then I continued the process of tracking down old blog posts to form the basis of stories that would make up the subchapters for the book.

I have a lot of blog posts about flying.

Although many of the early posts never made the transition from my original iBlog-based blog to the WordPress-based blog I started in January 2006, some of them did. Among them is a post called “The Big, White Tire,” which I wrote on November 6, 2003. (Yes, I’ve been blogging for more than 12 years now.) Near the beginning of that post, I wrote:

In my essay, “When I Became a Pilot” (which has since been lost in various Web site changes), I discuss the various flights I’ve made that have led up to me finally feeling as if I really am a pilot. One of these flights was my private pilot check ride. And in one of those paragraphs, I mention the big, white tire.

I got curious about the essay. Was it really lost? When had I written it? Was it possible that it was on my computer somewhere, hiding in plain sight?

So I did a computer search for “when I became a pilot” and found a Word document with the same name. It was the “missing” essay.

Here it is.


When I Became a Pilot

I became a helicopter pilot this past year, although I’m not sure exactly when.

It wasn’t the day I took my introductory flight. That 0.9 hours on the very first line of the very first page of my logbook isn’t even a clear memory to me. I know my instructor, Paul, and I left Chandler Municipal for the practice area at Memorial field, as we would do for most lessons over the course of my private pilot training. I assume he spoke to me about flying and I have a vague memory of handling the controls, although not all of them at once. I certainly wasn’t a pilot that day.

It wasn’t the day I first soloed, after months of squeezing hour-long training flights into my busy schedule. I remember that day clearly. After doing a few traffic patterns at Memorial, Paul told me to set down. He had a hand-held radio with him and he tuned it and the one in the helicopter to the frequency the flight school used.

“Now when you pick up,” he told me, “the front left skid will lift off first. You’ll have to compensate with forward and left cyclic. Do a few traffic patterns. Make all your radio calls. I’ll be listening and keeping an eye out for traffic.”

He lowered his head as he walked away from the helicopter and its spinning blades. Then he stood facing me, only thirty feet away. I could see his face clearly.

“Go ahead,” his voice came though the radio.

I pulled the collective up slowly. The helicopter became light on its skids. Then the left skid came up while the helicopter seemed to tip backwards. I panicked a little and jerked the collective up. The helicopter popped up ten feet. Paul’s eyes opened wide and his face displayed his concern. I’m sure mine did, too.

I did three or four patterns, landing near him on the cracked asphalt of the runway on each pass. Then he told me to set it down and he got back in. I could tell he was proud of me. (He told me later that the reason he remained a flight instructor so long was because he felt a real sense of achievement every time a student soloed for the first time.) But I still wasn’t a pilot.

It certainly wasn’t the day I did my first cross-country flight. Paul and I had planned the flight and I had circled all the waypoints I expected to see. The chart was folded and strapped to my leg with the flight plan clipped on top of it. It was a warm day in April and the doors were off. But the late afternoon thermals were brewing as we flew south to Eloy and they were particularly nasty as we flew over the Santan Mountains. That’s when I started feeling sick.

Studying a map on my lap while the helicopter bumped through rough air was too much for me. I found all the waypoints and we stayed on course, but about ten miles short of Gila Bend, our second stop, I’d had enough. I asked Paul to take over.

I didn’t get sick. Keeping my eyes on the horizon and off the damn map saved me. I was able to land at Gila Bend. Paul decided we should get out and walk around a bit, so we shut down on the ramp near a small building. Inside was a table, a few chairs, and a soda machine. We bought Cokes. A Mexican man was sitting at the table, patiently cutting the spines off young cactus pads that were neatly spread out in a flat cardboard box. Napolitos. We spoke briefly to him; he didn’t speak English very well.

A while later, we were back in the helicopter, starting up. The wind was howling. I felt Paul’s steadying grip on the controls as we took off. We had a tailwind, and according to the winds aloft information I had, it might be even stronger higher up. So instead of flying back at 500 AGL, we climbed to 2000 AGL. According to the helicopter’s GPS, we had a ground speed of 103 knots. The airspeed indicator read about 85. We were in a hurry to make up for lost time, so we let the wind help us out. I learned a lot about flying and the remote airports of Arizona that day. I also learned not to study a map strapped to my leg while I was flying in bumpy air. But I still wasn’t a pilot.

New Pilot Maria
I found this photo in my logbook case pocket. My flight instructor, Paul, snapped this right after I passed my first check ride in April 2000.

It wasn’t the day I took and passed my private pilot rotorcraft helicopter check ride, either. At that point, I was flying out of Scottsdale, which was a bit closer to home. Although more than a year had passed since my first lesson, Paul was still my instructor. I’d spent the whole week at Scottsdale, staying at a local hotel, flying during the day and studying at night. I think I did more autorotations that week than I did in all my months of training.

The oral part of the check ride went pretty well. The examiner was the flight school owner and he did a good job putting me at ease. Then we went out to fly. I don’t remember much, but I do remember thinking that I was flying pretty badly. I didn’t think I’d pass.

I think it was the tire that killed my meager confidence. It was a huge truck tire, painted white. It was out in the desert and one of these days I’m going to go find it. The examiner told me to hover up to it, facing it. Then he told me to hover around it, facing it the whole time. I did a terrible job, and I couldn’t even blame it on the wind.

I was feeling pretty bad by the time we went back, certain I’d failed. But I did make the absolute best approach and landing I’d ever made to the confined space we parked in at Scottsdale. Maybe that’s what saved me. Or maybe my performance wasn’t any better or worse than most student pilots on their check rides. I passed. When the examiner shook my hand, he told me I was a pilot.

But he was wrong. I wasn’t a pilot yet.

I knew I wasn’t a pilot the following month, when I took my first passenger for a ride. We’d rented the same helicopter for two hours. We drove the 70 miles to Scottsdale to pick it up and I did my preflight as I had so many times before. It was warm and the doors were off. I took off and headed back toward home. The plan was to fly over our town, then bring it back. We had just enough time and fuel to make the trip without rushing.

Although the air wasn’t any more turbulent than it had been on my check ride or when I flew with Paul, it seemed different. I was sharply tuned to the sound of the rotor blades, which changed based on their pitch and the pockets of air they sliced through. It seemed to me that there was an unusual amount of blade slap. My passenger, Mike, was also tuned to the sound and it made him nervous. He held onto the doorframe. He made me nervous. I made myself nervous.

It wasn’t a bad flight, but it wasn’t a good one, either. I wasn’t any more a pilot than I had been during my check ride.

I know I wasn’t a pilot when I started my commercial pilot training at a flight school in Prescott. My new instructor, Raj, didn’t baby me. When he realized that I was afraid to fly in heavy wind, he made me face my fear by having me spend twenty minutes on a very windy day, practicing hovering. I remember the lesson well; it was the first time I’d ever been told to make a hover turn using only one foot on one pedal.

Three-Niner-Lima
My first helicopter, an R22 Beta II, in a friend’s driveway in Aguila, AZ not long after I got it.

I still wasn’t a pilot when I bought my helicopter, a 1999 Robinson R22 Beta II with only 168 hours on its Hobbs meter. I’d gone back to my first flight school and had a new instructor there, Masohiro. He flew with me around the Phoenix Sky Harbor surface airspace to show me how I could fly from Chandler to Wickenburg without talking to ATC. Then I was on my own, to fly Three-Niner-Lima home with Mike.

I don’t recall feeling nervous that day, although I’d logged less than ten hours since our first flight together from Scottsdale five months before. I don’t recall him seeming nervous either. Perhaps I was overwhelmed by the significance of what I was doing: flying my own helicopter.

But I certainly didn’t feel like a pilot a few days later when I flew solo for the first time in over a year to bring Three-Niner-Lima back to Chandler. (I was leasing it to the flight school and I only got it on weekends.) As I took off from Wickenburg, I choose a poor departure route, over the hangars, and for a brief moment, I thought I wouldn’t clear them. (I haven’t done that since.) And I was nervous all the way down to Chandler.

I didn’t feel like a pilot the following month, when I checked out to rent a helicopter in St. Augustine, FL. I wanted to take my stepfather for a ride. The autorotation I did for the flight instructor who checked me out, Ziggy, was so bad, he asked for another one. It must have been okay, though, because they let me rent it. But I wasn’t a pilot yet.

I almost felt like a pilot the month after that, when I participated in a Young Eagles rally in Aguila, AZ. I followed all the rules and worked with a ground crew to give safe rides to five kids. I told them about the helicopter and answered their questions. I knew what I was talking about and what I was doing. And it was clear that everything there thought I was a pilot. But I still wasn’t sure.

I didn’t feel much like a pilot a month later, though, after making my first bad decision regarding weather. The weather forecast called for ceilings of 900 feet along my route from Wickenburg to Chandler and I figured that was enough, since I normally flew at 500 AGL. We took off to the south and soon discovered that the ceilings were lower than expected. They seemed too low along my preferred route, so I decided to take my backup route, which looked a little better. Soon, they were low there, too, and I was flying at 350 to 400 feet AGL, with wisps of cloud bottoms passing the cockpit bubble. The ceilings rose when I was halfway there, but then the rain started to fall. The temperature dropped to freezing and I began to wonder about icing on the blades. The visibility deteriorated to about three miles—still within minimums. But to a fair-weather flyer like me, it seemed as if I were flying in a fog.

I was just about to set it down in the desert and wait out the weather when I picked up Chander’s ATIS and was encouraged by the ten mile visibility it reported. I was five miles out and still couldn’t see the airport, but I followed the familiar route in. I was glad to be on the ground. And fortunately, my passenger—who was from the San Francisco Bay area and accustomed to such weather—never knew about my concerns.

Two months later, on my first long cross-country trip, I realized that I still wasn’t a pilot. I stretched my fuel supply almost to exhaustion with 2.9 hours of flight time. I must have been running on fumes when the fuel guy in Boulder City put 28.5 gallons into a pair of tanks that hold 29.7 gallons. Another few minutes of flight and the Low Fuel (or “Land Now”) light would have come on—possibly while still over Lake Mead.

But a week later, I certainly felt like a pilot. The comment in my log book for that 1.2 hour flight says simply “Yarnell Hill!” I’d followed the Hassayampa River north through the Weaver Mountains and into the valley beyond. Then I’d followed Waggoner Road to Route 89 and followed that to the town of Yarnell. At about 4,500 feet elevation, Yarnell is nestled near the edge of a cliff that the locals call Yarnell Hill. Beyond it, the earth falls away to the Sonoran desert floor near Congress, 1,500 feet below. Worried about the possibility of downdrafts, I’d approached the cliff edge at about 6,000 feet MSL. But the air was smooth. As I cleared the cliff, I lowered the collective almost to the floor and entered a sort of “powered autorotation.” Gliding down at the rate of 1500 feet per minute at about 80 knots airspeed, I got the most amazing rush. I pulled in the collective gently to level off at 3500 MSL feet over the dairy farm, close enough to smell the manure. Now that was flying!

A few off-airport landings for the $200 hamburger also made me feel not only like a pilot, but like a helicopter pilot. My favorite spot is Wild Horse West, about a mile east of Pleasant Valley Airport near Lake Pleasant. I line up with the old pavement of what used to be Route 74 (before it was moved to bypass the restaurant) and land near the entrance to the parking lot. Then I hover-taxi off the road into a clearing where Three-Niner-Lima will be out of the way. A helicopter near the parking lot turns a few heads, but I haven’t gotten a parking ticket yet.

Of course, a new flight instructor who was impossible to please didn’t make me feel much like a pilot at all. I reached new levels of frustration, not long after my departing instructor told me I was ready for my commercial check ride. The only thing that impressed the new guy was my GPS skills—a fact he noted boldly in my student folder. I decided to complete my training elsewhere.

I started feeling like a pilot again when my friends Mark and Gary gave me some formation flying lessons. It was June and I was scheduled to fly along with the world’s largest airworthy biplane (piloted by Mark) to AirVenture in Oshkosh the following month. Gary took off in his Cub and we took turns being lead and wing. It was tough flying slow enough for him to keep up with me when I was lead—and Mike complains that helicopters are slow! I wish I could have seen what we looked like from the ground. I bet it was a sight to see.

The Oshkosh trip fell through but I came up with another cross-country alternative: Colorado. I took a leisurely three-day solo flight, logging 7.0 hours of flight time to Eagle County Airport. Maybe it was that trip that made me a pilot. I learned a lot about flight planning, mountain flying, and weather. And I saw so much! Of course the ride home was tough, especially the 6.1 hours logged in one day, flying from Moab, UT to Wickenburg, AZ with my friend Janet. Heavy departures from high altitude airports, multiple fuel stops, and turbulence combined to make it a flying day I’d rather forget.

But a few months later, I was again doubting whether I was really a pilot.. I had to fly Three-Niner-Lima from Wickenburg to Long Beach, CA to finish my commercial training, and I didn’t think I could do it alone. A private pilot from the flight school took a commercial flight to Phoenix to make the trip to California with me. He wanted to build time; I wanted someone to guide me through the complex Los Angeles area airspace. But when he took the controls on the leg from our lunch stop in Chiraco Summit to our fuel stop at Banning, I knew I was more a pilot than he was. He couldn’t maintain airspeed and let our ground speed drop as low as 52 knots in a 20 knot headwind. Cars on I-10 were passing us! I took control again from Banning to El Monte and showed him how to push into the wind.

I finished my commercial training in just over a week and passed my commercial check ride. (So much for the opinions of difficult-to-please flight instructors in Chandler.) Was I a pilot then? Maybe. Or maybe I became one on the way home the next day. I had to navigate from El Monte to Wickenburg, alone with a late start, handling all radio communications. I had to request special VFR clearances to fly through two Class D airspaces. I had to decide whether to spend the night at Thermal, near Palm Springs or push onward to reach Blythe or Parker before nightfall. I made all the right decisions and had a good, safe flight. I even enjoyed the overnight stay at Thermal, where the FBO generously gave me a brand new car for transportation to and from the hotel.

Trailer Landing
This trailer landing was a piece of cake compared to the platform I regularly land my R44 on at home these days.

I must have been a pilot when I took my first two paying customers up for rides a few weeks later. Or when Mike and I flew to Falcon Field for dinner at Anzio’s and enjoyed the light of the full moon on the otherwise dark trip back to Wickenburg. Or when Mike’s cousin Ricky and I landed at Swansea, in the middle of nowhere, to explore the ghost town’s ruins without making the five hour round trip car ride. Or when I landed Three-Niner-Lima on the back of a 8×16 flatbed trailer so I could show it off in the Wickenburg Gold Rush Days parade. Or when I stayed on the controls with Mark so he could try out a few maneuvers in the only type of aircraft he’s not rated to fly.

Things felt right during all those flights. I felt confident and my passengers had confidence in me. I didn’t do anything foolish, anything I would scold myself for later on. I was still learning from every flight, but I felt that I had built a solid base of knowledge and skills to fly safely—and enjoy almost every minute of it.

But maybe it was the flight that gave me the idea to write this article. It was just the other morning. I’d gone to the airport at 6 AM and had Three-Niner-Lima out on the ramp and preflighted by 6:30. A few minutes later, we were airborne, just me and my ship, headed south.

The doors are off, the cool morning air rushes through the cockpit. The radio is strangely quiet; am I the only person aloft on that normally busy shared frequency? We pass over the top of Vulture Peak, then make a steep descent and continue south and then west, riding along Aguila Road toward Aguila. Trucks hauling rocks make lines of dust in the distance; soon I’m flying right over one of the trucks on the road. A manmade structure atop a mountain to the south of us catches my eye and we go to investigate. Just a radio tower, but down in the foothills, the ruins of a mining building. A good place to land nearby; I mark it on my GPS for investigation with Mike when the weather cools down. Weaving around the mountains, circling around, looking for anything interesting in the empty desert. There’s the mountain near where we found that saguaro skeleton several years ago. And there’s the old quarry we saw later that day. I mark a few other interesting points, then look ahead. Harquahala looms huge in front of me, rising 3,500 feet from the desert floor. I decide to climb, to see if any other early riser has made the 11-mile, 90-minute journey by four-wheel-drive vehicle to the top of the mountain.

I reduce speed to 60 knots and climb at 500 feet per minute. The ground falls away through my open door and the world spreads out as I gain altitude. It’s a clear, calm morning and I can easily see 50 miles or more in any direction. I notice a road along the ridge that I’d never noticed before. Then I begin to pick out the details at the top of the mountain: the antenna array, the solar panels, and the remains of the Smithsonian Solar Observatory. But the observatory is partially demolished and covered with scaffolding. I circle and check the windsock. There’s no wind. I land at the tiny helipad.

I’m the only human being on top of the mountain that morning as I get out to explore. The observatory is undergoing renovations. I sign the guest book, noting that I arrived by helicopter. Then I walk around, enjoying the silence of the mountaintop and the views all around me. For a while, I feel perfectly in tune with the world.

Time slips away and I have to leave to be back in time for an appointment at 9:00. I climb back into Three-Niner-Lima and start the engine. I bring it up into a hover, then move forward, toward the edge of the cliff. Once clear, I push down the collective and go into a steep glide, following the canyons around to the back of the mountain, where the dirt road winds down to the valley floor. I level off at three thousand feet, then make my way back to Wickenburg.

As I put Three-Niner-Lima back into the hangar, I know that I’m finally a pilot.


After reading this, I pulled out my original logbook and searched for the flight to Harquahala, the one that made me realize that I was a pilot. It was on May 29, 2002, about two years after I got my private pilot certificate. I logged 1.6 hours for that flight and, at that point, had less than 300 hours logged as a pilot in command.

I remember that flight as if it were just yesterday — flying around the desert, then climbing to the top of the tallest mountain in the area and setting my little R22 down on the tiny helipad up there. It was dead quiet that morning and I felt like I was the only person in the world. It was still cool that early in the day and I could see for miles. There was something magical about it.

Of course, there would be many, many magical flights to come.

Anyway, I thought I’d rescue this essay and put it on my blog where it belongs. Consider it a taste of the book to come.

A Suggestion for an In-Flight GPS Data Logger

Foreflight on an iPad is all you need.

The other day, I got an email from a blog visitor who’d apparently read my 2009 post titled “My Geotagging Workflow.” This post discusses the rather convoluted process I used to add GPS coordinates to photos using a GPS data logger and some software on my Mac. (That was six years ago; I have a different process now.)

But the email I got the other day wasn’t about photography. It was about in-flight GPS logging:

Hey. I came across your post on data loggers.

What have you found in your search. I am looking for a great option as well– but something that does alt. Speed. Position. Specifically downloadable in 3D in google earth through kml. I am looking for something that we can use for training stabalized approaches. Set it up to record during flight. And then download and make points or a line that showed speed and altitude. Showing later students speed and altitude errors that they might now have noticed during actuall approaches distracted by actual flight.

Have you came across anything like this?

My answer: Yeah. Foreflight.

Foreflight is my application of choice for flight planning and navigation. I run it on an iPad Air and have it mounted securely beside the instrument panel in my helicopter. Not only has the FAA approved my mounting of this device, but it has also approved Foreflight as an electronic flight bag (EFB). Indeed, it has been added to my Part 135 OpSpecs and it is not legal for me to conduct a Part 135 flight without it onboard.

I cannot say enough positive things about Foreflight. Not only does it do everything I need it to do — and more — for the VFR flights I’m limited to, but it has a wealth of features designed for IFR flights, including the instrument approaches the reader is referring to. With the right subscription, it can even place a marker for an aircraft in flight on an instrument procedure chart. Who could ask for more?

As far as GPS data logging is concerned, Foreflight has him covered, too. You can set up Foreflight to create a track log of any flight. Once saved, you can access it on the Foreflight website, where you can view it on a map and download it in KML, GPX, and CSV formats. That’s exactly what the reader is looking for.

Example Track Log on a Map
I remember this pleasure flight. I’d gone up the Columbia and Methow to check out the fire damage and then came straight back.

Frankly, I’m surprised that this CFI hadn’t thought of Foreflight. In this day and age, I’m surprised that any professional pilot doesn’t have Foreflight or a competing product on a tablet in the cockpit. For a relatively low investment — $500 or so for the tablet (which can be used for a host of other things and will last at least 5 years) plus $75/year for Foreflight Basic, it’s a must-have tool for any professional pilot who is serious about his career.

Do you fly? Are you using Foreflight or a competitor? Either way, how about sharing some of your experiences in the comments on this post? I’m sure other pilots can learn from them.

Cheap Power in a Great Place to Live

Summed up in a video.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

More Helicopter Charter Company Advice

You need a business plan? Do it right.

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

Inbox
My email inbox is really out of control.

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

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

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

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

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

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

You want more about this? Read this.

So Outrageous It Needs an Answer

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

Hi Maria,

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

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

Where do I begin?

How I Bought My Helicopter

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

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

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

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

Me and My Helicopter

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

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

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

Business Plan Resources

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

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

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

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

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

I Can’t Do It for You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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