Helicopter Flight from Washington to Arizona: Logistics and Flight Planning

Planning my last big cross-country flight before overhaul.

Posts in this series:
Logistics and Flight Planning
– Day 1: Over the Mountains, IFR
– Day 2: Desert Heat and Familiar Terrain

Last week, I flew my helicopter down to Chandler, AZ from Wenatchee, WA with Penny the Tiny Dog and my friend Jeremy. I needed to deliver it to Quantum Helicopters so they could get the helicopter’s first overhaul started by November 1. I’d need it back by mid-February at the latest and overhauls typically take 9 to 12 weeks.

Here’s the story of my two-day flight to Arizona, split into three parts for readability. It’s surprising how much I had to say about the flight — and how many photos I have to share. Enjoy.

Logistics and Flight Planning

With various activities scattered all over my October calendar — including a weekly wine tasting class on Wednesday nights and a weekend-long mushroom foray at Mount Rainier — I didn’t have many options to make the trip. I wound up letting Alaska Air pick the dates by searching for the best deal on a return flight to Wenatchee that would fit my schedule. That return flight was Wednesday, October 19, at 6 AM. Since I wanted one last oil change before I headed south and my mechanics usually don’t work weekends, that meant leaving late Monday morning and getting to Chandler before Quantum closed at 8 PM on Tuesday.

Some folks wonder why it was so important for me to get an oil change before making the long flight. After all, it was going in for overhaul. Surely it wouldn’t matter how dirty the oil was when it arrived. But only 8 flight hours before, on a 50-hour inspection, my mechanics had found more metal fragments in the oil filter than usual. (They had begun finding very small amounts of metal from the aging engine about six months before, but nothing to cause alarm. This was different.) Yes, the helicopter had gone a full 50-hours between changes so the amount of metal would likely be higher than usual. But was it critical? The only way to see how bad it was was to get one more oil change and take a look at the filter. They’d do this the morning before my departure and if things looked bad, I’d scrap the flight plans and arrange to trailer it down.

Fastest Route
The fastest route from Wenatchee to Phoenix. There aren’t many fuel options and there’s a lot of empty desert.

The fastest route between Wenatchee and Phoenix is a nearly straight line with fuel stops in Burns, OR; Elko, NV; and Mesquite, NV. I’ve taken this route several times and it can get me to Sky Harbor in eight hours with a light load and a nice tailwind. But at least 50% of this route is over empty desert, miles and miles from any road or town. There’s one stretch in particular where for 90 minutes all you’re flying over is grass and sagebrush, with herds of wild horses galloping away at the sound of your approach — no roads, no buildings, nothing else. If the engine got iffy, we might have to land someplace where getting help would be difficult. I honestly didn’t want to deal with it.

Planned Route
Our planned route was at least four hours longer with a handful more fuel stops along the way.

So I told my passenger, Jeremy, that he could pick the route. He got very creative. He suggested an overnight stop at Sacramento with friends of his on Monday night, then stops at the Hiller Museum at San Carlos Airport (south of San Francisco), and Santa Barbara for lunch with his daughter. That lengthened the route considerably, but kept us near roads, towns, or cities for much of the flight. I started working up a plan. Sacramento before sunset was doable — I’d done it in less than a day more than a few times — but we’d have to leave early and skip the San Carlos stop to make it to Santa Barbara with enough time for lunch before heading east. By that time, I’d also made early dinner arrangements with some friends in Wickenburg, AZ, and we needed to meet them by 4 PM to have an unhurried dinner and get to Chandler by 7 PM. (I had to chat with the mechanic and unload the helicopter before they closed and I certainly didn’t want to hold anyone up.) I plotted the new route, trying hard to find airports with decent fuel prices. Tuesday would be a long day, but I kind of looked forward to flying through the high desert north of the Los Angeles area, which I hadn’t done in several years.

Meanwhile, the weather wasn’t looking good. A pair of storm systems were due to arrive in the Pacific Northwest on the Thursday and Saturday before our trip. Cliff Mass, the Northwest weather guru, was predicting a storm equal to the famous Columbus Day Storm that had hit Seattle back in 1962. Jeremy, who lives on that side of the mountains, was getting nervous. While I was aware of the storm — heck, we were supposed to get a ton of rain in the Wenatchee area on both days — I also knew that storms come and go. The forecasts had it clearing up by Sunday and we weren’t due to leave until Monday. Monday’s forecast called for just 20% chance of rain and forecasts for our entire route, which I began tracking on Friday, looked pretty much the same. Worst case scenario was that we’d fly through some rain. And I’d done that enough times not to worry about it.

The storms came and went, pretty much as predicted. We got over an inch of rain here. Seattle and the coast got hit harder, but not nearly as hard as the weather folks expected. There were some scattered power outages and downed trees, but not the catastrophic storm damage expected.

Sunday was mostly cloudy here but there wasn’t any rain — at least not to notice. I picked up Jeremy at the bus station — he took a Greyhound (!) from Seattle — we had a late lunch, and headed home. I spent some time prepping the helicopter for the long trip, getting my GoPros hooked up and pulling out any equipment I wouldn’t need on the trip or after I picked up the helicopter in January or February. Jeremy made Manhattans and opened a bottle of wine he’d brought for dinner. My friend Alyse came for dinner — I cooked up some ribeye steaks and we had them with garden potatoes and carrots.

Eventually Alyse went home and, after chatting for a while, we turned in for the night.

A Change of Plans

I woke up early, as I usually do, and immediately used my iPad to check and file my flight plan. That’s when I got my first surprise: It would take more than three hours to reach our first fuel stop at Bend, OR. That wasn’t right. I woke up a bit more and took a closer look at the flight plan. The plan accounted for 25 knot headwinds.


I checked the rest of the flight plan. High, gusty winds from the south were predicted for much of our route to Sacramento. Chances of rain had increased a bit, too. I started exploring other routes that would take us to Sacramento before nightfall. The high winds stretched far to the east, into the empty desert I’d been hoping to avoid. To the west, near the coast, rain was likely and, I knew from experience, visibility would be poor. The weather briefing backed this up, forecasting moderate turbulence inland and mountain obscuration along the coast.

So if we took the route I’d planned on, not only would we be bouncing all over the sky, but we’d be in the air an extra hour or more because of headwinds, with at least one additional fuel stop. I was looking at a miserable day of flying with a passenger who was already worried about the weather. It would not be a good day — certainly not the kind of pre-overhaul flight I was looking forward to.

At breakfast, I reported my findings to Jeremy. That only made him mention his previous weather concerns more. But it wasn’t as if I could call off the flight, or even postpone it. The flight was doable and I already had all my plans made for a return flight that would still get me back for my wine tasting class on Wednesday. (I do have my priorities straight.) I decided that we’d depart on schedule and see how things looked to the south.

So a while later, I was spinning up the helicopter while Jeremy watched from my front yard. I took off and headed to the airport for that oil change. Jeremy drove my truck to the airport so I’d have a way to get home from the airport on Wednesday.

I did treat myself to a nice tour of Wenatchee before heading into the airport. I needed to warm up the oil, after all. It was a beautiful morning with scattered low clouds. Through a gap in the clouds, I could see snow at the top of Mission Ridge. It was the second snowfall they’d gotten up there and I knew my ski-loving friends would be thrilled.

At the airport, the three mechanics of Alpine Aviation were waiting for me. I shut down and we pushed the helicopter into the hangar. They did the oil change while I chatted with the folks hanging out in the FBO lounge and consulted ForeFlight on my iPad for options. There was stormy weather to the east, near Pendleton and Walla Walla. One route I’d taken in the past climbed the Green Mountains near Pendleton and followed I-84 through the mountains and Boise beyond. It was a good route, but I’d also been stuck at the foot of those mountains, blocked by low clouds. It would be a time-wasting detour if that happened again.

The oil filter showed some more metal fragments, but not enough to cause serious concern. The engine was, after all, 2068 hours old. (And that’s based on the collective-based “maintenance” Hobbs — it likely had well over 2,200 hours of actual engine running time.) The engine would not cause a flight cancellation.

Penny on a Box
Here’s where Penny would sit for the entire duration of our trip south. She sleeps most of the time.

By 11, I was fueled up, paid up, packed up, and ready to go. I put Penny in her travel bed behind me on top of an empty wheeled box I’d brought along for storing helicopter equipment during overhaul. (I couldn’t bring all of that stuff home.) Jeremy’s wheelie bag and camera bag and tripod filled the space behind him. I shoved my day pack and jacket in the foot space behind my seat. Jeremy climbed into the passenger seat with his camera ready and buckled up. I got the front GoPro’s wifi fired up, climbed into my seat, buckled up, and started the engine.

We felt very heavy when I pulled pitch — was the engine really that tired? — but had no trouble lifting off. Soon we were heading southeast along the river. Our trip had begun.

More to come…

Helicopterless (Again)

I take my R44 down to Chandler, AZ for its first overhaul.

N630ML at TorranceHere’s the first photo of me with Zero-Mike-Lima on the day I picked it up in Torrance, CA.

It’s hard to believe that it was nearly 12 years ago that I took delivery of my second helicopter, the R44 I usually refer to as Zero-Mike-Lima. That January 2005 day ended a two-plus-month period where I was “helicopterless” — I’d sold my R22 (Three-Niner-Lima) in late October 2004 and was waiting rather impatiently for its bigger replacement to emerge from Robinson’s Torrance, CA factory.

I bought the four-place Robinson to grow my flying business by adding Part 135 charter services. It was a good thing I was still making good money as a writer because it took a long time for that business to take off (pun intended). It wasn’t until 2008 when I discovered a few good niche markets — wildlife survey and cherry drying — that the helicopter started making enough money to pay for itself. Until then, my writing work subsidized it. I’m so glad I stuck with it, though, despite the enormous costs. My writing career went into decline around 2010 and my flying career picked up the slack. This year, 2016, was my best year ever, even topping my best years as a writer.

Unfortunately, although Robinson helicopters have relatively low day-to-day operating costs, they do have a bit of a cost “time bomb” set to go off at 12 years or 2,200 hours of flight time. That’s when they need to go back to the factory or to an authorized service center for overhaul. The current price tag for this is about $240,000 (depending on core values). Ouch!

Smart owners who expect to keep the helicopter past overhaul will start saving up for this huge expense as soon as they can. I started saving when my flying business became profitable and had socked away more than half of what I needed by 2012. Some unexpected expenses unrelated to the helicopter put bit of a drain on those savings, but I managed to replenish everything I spent and more, leaving me in good financial shape for overhaul time. I’m pleased to say that I needed to borrow a lot less than I expected to and had no trouble securing the financing I needed at good terms.

Of course, it isn’t January and the helicopter doesn’t have 2,200 hours on it. Although I was primed to reach 2200 hours in the eleventh year — I flew almost exactly 200 hours per year from 2005 through 2012 — When I stopped ferrying it between Arizona and Washington state and left it idle during Washington’s dreary winter season, my annual flight hours dropped off considerably. That enabled me to stretch it out into the twelfth year.

Right now, as it sits waiting for overhaul, it has 2,068 hours on its Hobbs meter. I didn’t quite reach 2,200, but I came pretty darn close.

You’re probably wondering why, if I didn’t reach 2,200 hours, don’t I wait until January to bring it in for overhaul? The reason is simple. Overhaul could take as long as 3 months to complete — after all, they strip the helicopter down to its frame, rebuild the engine and transmission, and replace many important components. If I dropped it off in January, I wouldn’t get it back until the end of March. But I need it back sooner, in February, for my annual frost contract. (Another niche market I picked up in 2013.) And since I don’t usually fly much in the winter months anyway, it made no sense to wait and possibly lose out on the frost work — which also gives me an excuse to hang out in California for part of the winter.

I flew the helicopter down to Chandler last week. It was a two-day flight that I did with a friend. I’ll blog about it and share photos in another blog post.

Into the Hangar
I watched Robinson helicopter mechanic extraordinaire Paul Mansfield roll Zero-Mike-Lima into the hangar where it will be overhauled around sunset last Tuesday.

So now I’m helicopterless, at least until the end of January.

There is a silver lining, however: there’s an extra 576 square feet of empty space in my garage. I’ve already begun filling it with boats and RVs that I’m storing for friends and others for the winter. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s how to turn assets into money without selling them.

Another Rides Gig

The ground crew really makes a difference.

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

My History with Wings & Wheels

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Year’s Rides at Wings & Wheels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We made the paper the next day, too.

The Importance of a Good Ground Crew

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Thoughts on Rides Gigs

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

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

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

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

Helicopter Rides at Quincy

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

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

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

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

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

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

She said she’d try to presell tickets.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crescent Bar from the Air
Crescent Bar from the air.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was only 3 PM.

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

But the best part? That peach shake. Wow.

On Unreasonable Requests

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

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

Me: Flying M, Maria speaking.

Him: Oh, hi. Is your helicopter out?

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

Me: No.

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

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

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

Me: When?

Him: Now.

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

Me: I can’t do that.

Him: Well, I got your number from Dale.

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

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

Him: Lake Stevens.

Me: Sorry, no.

Him: I’ll pay you $2500.

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

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

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

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

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

Until about 20 minutes later.

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

Two minutes later, I got a text:

$2100 to fly me to lake Stevens right now

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

I ignored the text.

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

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

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

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

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