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.

Just Say No to Writing for Free

Don’t be part of the problem.

Yesterday, an editor of an aviation publication contacted me about writing for the organization’s blog. He’d found my blog through a link from another blog. He’s interested in increasing the amount of new content on his blog and wants to do that by signing up other writers. He already has a flight school operator signed up. One new post a month from each of four writers would get him the one post a week he wants for the blog. Makes sense.

From his email to me:

It’s quite difficult to find working helicopter pilots who can write, as I’m sure you can imagine. But you definitely seem to have the knowledge and interest. Would you consider doing some additional writing for [organization]?

At first, I was thrilled. I’ve been wanting to do some more aviation writing and the publication is well-respected. But then I began wondering whether this would be a paying gig or if I’d be expected to write for free. I worded my response carefully:

I definitely WOULD be interested in joining you folks. I’m an active helicopter pilot with a single pilot Part 135 operation now based in North Central Washington. And you probably already know that I also make a portion of my living as a writer.

Please do tell me more. If you’d like to chat, give me a call.

If you read what I wrote between the lines, the phrase “I also make a portion of my living as a writer” was meant to tell him that I’m usually paid to write.

His response came an hour later:

Thanks Maria. I should tell you up front that our budget for the blog is nil. So as much as it pains me to say it, I wouldn’t be able to pay you for the work. That said, there is always potential for additional opportunities.

I have to give him credit for not telling me that I’d be compensated with the “exposure” I’d get for writing for them. That really told me that he understood the situation — any editor that offers you “exposure” as compensation is either stupid or a manipulative bastard. You can’t pay the rent or buy groceries with exposure and the only thing it really exposes you to is additional editors looking for writers who will write for free.

As you might imagine, I put it out on Facebook to get feedback from friends, many of whom are freelancers. I was careful not to identify the organization. After all, does it really matter?

My post got lots of comments that are really worth reading. As my Facebook friend Carla said:

Comment from Carla

But this editor didn’t suggest such a thing. And I respect him for that.

The “additional opportunities” line, however, was obviously a lure — whether it was real or just a fabrication I’ll likely never know.

My response was frank:

We can still chat about the blog posts. I am willing to help out if it leads to other paying work. But if the additional opportunities never materialize, I probably won’t be motivated to continue writing without compensation.

Unlike the flight instructor you’re working with, I don’t have a flight school that might benefit with my name or company name getting out. My blog is already very well read by helicopter pilots — for good or for bad — and if I’m going to write for free, I’d rather write for my own blog.

I didn’t get a response.

The comments kept coming in on Facebook. All the publishing professionals and freelancers understood the situation perfectly. One of the commenters, a friend of Carla’s as a matter of fact, had this to say:

Comment from David

And that really hit home hard. The reason I couldn’t make a good living as a writer anymore was because too many people were writing for free. Publishers didn’t care much about quality when they could get free content. All they really want are hits and if something is interesting enough to attract the hits, they’re satisfied. Who cares about how it’s written? This is what’s killing the publishing industry — and giving those of us who actually enjoy reading well-written content a lot less to read.

I chewed on the comments overnight and when I woke up I knew I needed to send a new response. Here’s what I sent:

I’ve given this some more thought. I’ve decided that it would not be in my best interest, nor in the best interest of professional writers anywhere, to write for a commercial publication without compensation. Professional writers are paid for their work. Amateurs are not. I am not an amateur.

Maybe you don’t realize that I’ve written more than 80 books and hundreds of articles since 1990. Maybe you don’t realize that the money I earned as a writer enabled me to learn how to fly a helicopter and eventually buy my own. Maybe you don’t realize that my writing income kept my helicopter business afloat for its first eight years.

So not only did I earn a living as a writer, but I earned a very good living.

Sadly, those days are over. It’s now very difficult for freelance writers to find decent paying outlets for their work. I’m fortunate that my helicopter business became profitable when it did.

The way I see it, the reason [organization] is able to ask people to write for them without compensation is because too many people say yes. That’s the problem. That’s what’s bringing down publishing and the overall quality of what appears on the Web. Publishers settle for whatever they can get for free.

You say that it pains you to say that you can’t offer compensation. As a writing professional, I can understand that pain. But what I can’t understand is why someone in your position doesn’t push back and argue in favor of the writers. What’s a few hundred dollars a month to [organization]? You realize that’s all it would take. It’s the principle more than anything else.

I love to write; that’s why I have a blog. But I need to limit my uncompensated writing to my own blog — not one used to support an organization that generates revenue off the work of uncompensated writers.

I don’t want to be part of the problem.

Say No to No PayI emailed it this morning. I suspect the editor I sent it to will understand completely. But I don’t expect to be offered any money or any opportunities to write for them in the future.

Did I burn a bridge? Perhaps. But is it a bridge I really wanted to cross? I doubt it.

Are you a writer who can create quality content? If so, don’t sell yourself short. Demand compensation for your work. Don’t be part of the problem.

Postscript

Just moments after clicking the Publish button for this post, I got a response to my last email (quoted above). I was offered a reasonable amount of money for my work. I’m just hoping this blog post didn’t piss off the editor enough to make him retract his offer. (I really do respect the guy, especially now.) Yet I won’t delete this blog post because the message remains the same: professional writers should not write for free. If I lose this opportunity for making this statement and using my situation as an example, so be it.

It really is the principle of the matter more than anything else.

One more thing…

Another Facebook friend reminded me that I’d embedded a rant by Harlan Ellison in my blog years ago. Mr. Ellison says it a lot better than I could.

My Lopez Island Vacation

A quick recap, with photos.

It’s hard to believe it’s already been a full month since Penny and I got back from our week-long vacation to a friend’s home on Lopez Island. Time seems to zoom by these days.

I thought I’d take a moment to document the trip, mostly to help me remember it in the years to come. It was a great vacation — laid back but with enough activities to not only keep me entertained but to prevent me from gaining a pound despite all the wine and cheese I consumed with my friend.

Lopez Island

Lopez Island
Lopez Island is one of the San Juan Islands in the northwest corner of Washington state.

Steve and I had gone wine tasting in Napa Valley, CA in March and Woodinville, WA in May. It was at dinner after four Woodinville wineries that he’d invited me to stay at his Lopez Island place in August. That’s when my responsibilities for cherry season were finished and he would be taking his vacation. It was too good an offer to pass up.

Lopez Island is one of the San Juan Islands in the northwest corner of Washington State. It’s less than 30 square miles in size with a population of fewer than 3000 people.

Lopez Island can only be reached two ways: by boat or air — there’s no bridge. Ferry service is available from the mainland at Anacortes with stops at other San Juan Island ports such as Friday Harbor and Shaw Island. According to Google Maps, the 200-mile trip from my home would take just over five hours — assuming I reached the ferry terminal in time to drive right onto the ferry. Six hours is probably more accurate.

Needless to say, I wasn’t very excited about the prospect of driving there. So I treated myself to a helicopter flight. That was only about 90 minutes.

The Trip Out

Of course, before Penny and I departed that Saturday we had things to do. I put two racks of baby back ribs on the smoker at 9 AM and spent much of the day packing and running errands. I wanted to bring some goodies from Wenatchee, including Quincy corn, two kinds of fresh-baked bread, and buckboard bacon from Pybus Market’s Saturday Farmer’s Market, as well as fresh blueberries that still needed picking at a friend’s house. The ribs would pair perfectly with some “Singed Cat” Cab Franc wine from Malaga Springs Winery just down the street from my home. The wine was sort of smoke infused due to the smoke from wildfires in the area back in September 2012 when the grapes were picked. I packed two bottles of that, along with another four bottles of local wine for sharing with my host. I also had five different cheeses that I’d picked up from Beecher’s in Seattle on my way home from Phoenix earlier in the week. I never go to anyone’s home empty handed, but I think I took things to extremes on this trip.

By 1 PM, I’d loaded my big cooler with veggies from my garden and all the other perishables that I’d bought or picked. The wine had its own cooler. Both of these went into the back of the helicopter. My luggage went on the other back seat with my camera bag on the floor. I laid the ribs, wrapped in thick foil, on the floor beneath the coolers. I put Penny’s bed on the front passenger seat, but after a moment sitting there in the sun while I ran up the engine, she wanted to sit in back. The only place to put her bed was on top of the cooler, which was about level with my head. She seemed comfortable enough there. I lifted off around 1:15 PM. After a quick stop at Pangborn Airport to top off both fuel tanks, I pointed the helicopter northwest.

Leaving Wenatchee
It was a beautiful day in Wenatchee, warm with scattered clouds that seemed to thicken to the west.

The flight was mostly uneventful. I tried to keep my route as straight as possible, but there were TFRs (temporary flight restrictions) in the area due to the wildfires we’d been having. One of them was in my path just west of Leavenworth. I kept south of it, flying up Icicle Creek and hugging the base of Cashmere Mountain so as not to stray into it. It was an extremely pleasant flight, cradled at the base of the mountains over the creek, to the end of the paved and then dirt road and beyond.

Icicle Creek
A flight up Icicle Creek.

The farther up the creek I got, the thicker the clouds ahead of me got. The higher I climbed up the drainage, the closer I got to all those thick clouds. I dropped down closer and closer to the trees to stay under the clouds. I slowed down as the path ahead began to look more and more iffy.

A quick look at my location on a sectional chart in Foreflight told me I was just south of Stevens Pass, the highest point on my trip west. If I could just get over the pass, I would probably be okay. Probably.

I started getting hopeful at 35 seconds into this GoPro nosecam clip from my flight. If you listen closely to the audio, you’ll hear the blade flap when I slowed way down before crossing over the ridge.

Finally, I was within about 50 feet of the Ponderosa pine trees, moving ahead cautiously at about 60 knots. Wisps of clouds were tangled in the treetops on either side of me. I looked ahead anxiously at the gap I’d have to pass through. All I saw were clouds — at first. Then an opening with trees beyond it. Could I get through?

I could, but barely. I squeezed through the pass under the low clouds and wound my way between clouds at my elevation, descending over Route 2 just west of Stevens Pass.

Whew.

The rest of the trip was under overcast skies. I beelined it for the coast, flying over Arlington Airport along the way. I detoured north around the surface airspace for Whidbey Island NAS, not really interested in talking to the tower there. That’s when I started noticing a light fog over the water up ahead. Dang!

Fog Over Puget
Fog drifted about 50 feet over the surface of the water west of Anacortes.

I called my host to see what conditions were like at his home. It went right to voicemail. I left a message and pointed the helicopter across the Rosario Strait. The fog below me was light — I could see an occasional boat down there — but I wasn’t sure what lay ahead.

I was over Decatur Island when Steve called back. It was clear, he reported. By that time, I’d gotten the feeling it would be. The fog seemed localized between Decatur Island and Anacortes. I told him I was five minutes out. Five minutes later, I flew over Fisherman’s Bay on Lopez Island. I scanned the shoreline and saw Steve and his sister waving. I circled around and came in for a landing, touching down lightly on the sea grass between the shore and his home.

Sure beats driving.

A Week of Fun and Relaxation

Seagull on Log
The rocky beach was full of driftwood logs that made perfect perches for seagulls.

Steve greeted me with a hug and introduced me to his sister, Kathi. Then we offloaded the helicopter and brought everything up to the house. (The ribs were still warm.) I brought my luggage up to the guest room and then set up an area in the corner of the kitchen for Penny’s food and water. Then we unloaded my groceries and stowed everything in his already packed refrigerator.

After we were settled in, Steve, Penny, and I went for a walk to the beach and walked the length of the causeway that separates Fisherman’s Bay from Griffin Bay and San Juan Island beyond it. Penny ran ahead of us, sniffing at the kelp washed up on shore and chasing seagulls and killdeer.

Helicopter at Lopez Island
I shot this photo of Steve’s back yard from the guest room balcony not long after arriving. I had to admit that my helicopter looked even better in Steve’s backyard than it does in my front yard.

Later, we sat on an upstairs deck to munch on wine and cheese and watch the sun set. Then we came downstairs and fixed up a dinner of Quincy corn on the cob, sliced cucumbers from my garden, sea asparagus Steve had harvested from his yard, and smoked ribs from my Traeger, finished off with some homemade barbecue sauce on Steve’s grill. Steve and Kathi seemed to like the Singed Cat as much as I did — the three of us polished off both bottles. We talked until well after dark and turned in for the night.

More Fog
In the morning the bay was shrouded in a thick fog that took some time to lift.

After breakfast, Steve, Penny, and I headed out on Steve’s little boat to drop the crab traps. We both had fishing licenses that allowed us to catch dungeness crabs and wanted to get the traps in the water as quickly as possible because they needed to be pulled on Monday per fishing rules.

Later in the day, we headed out to Shark Reef, with a great hiking trail that wound through woods before emerging at the shore where giant elephant seals sunned themselves on the rocks and bull kelp floated on the water.

Shark Reef
Panoramic view of the poorly named Shark Reef, which has elephant seals instead of sharks.

Elephant Seal
Does this look like a shark to you?

We spent a lot of time just talking and walking and taking photos. Steve is into photography even more than I am and I enjoyed seeing his 6’4″ frame folded up to get a closeup shot of a flower or interesting rock. It’s refreshing to go on a photo walk with someone who understands the importance of light in photography; we did almost all of our photo walks late in the afternoon when the sun was low in the horizon, casting a golden light.

For dinner back at the house, we had salmon that Steve marinated and then grilled. More wine, this time some Chardonay from Steve’s collection.

Sunrise
Sunrise varied from one day to the next; this one, shot from my window on Monday morning, was especially colorful.

Monday morning’s activity included a drive out to Fisherman Bay Spit Preserve at the entrance to Fisherman Bay. That’s where I got my introduction to sea glass — broken glass pieces that have been ground down by the sand and motion of the water. I eagerly joined in the hunt, although I only seemed able to find very small pieces of the stuff while Steve managed to find lots of large ones.

We also visited the local transfer station and a spot the locals call Neil’s Mall — a place where people leave possessions they no longer want and take possessions others have left behind. Steve was looking for a new coffee maker or a carafe for the one he’d broken on the coffee maker he had. Neil’s had both. We wound up taking a gently used Braun drip coffee maker that seemed to have all the parts. Later, we cleaned it up, set the clock, and even programmed it for the next morning’s coffee.

Kathi left around midday and Steve, Penny, and I went out in the boat again to try some salmon fishing. Steve piloted the boat up the bay and out the mouth of it, then back down the shoreline to a point not far (as the crow flies, anyway) from his house. We tried various places, spending a total of about 2 hours without any luck at all.

Crabs for Dinner
We caught three good-sized dungeness crabs on Monday and enjoyed them for dinner that night.

On the way back, however, we stopped to pull in the crab traps we’d set the day before and were rewarded with three keepers. Guess what we had for dinner that evening with the champagne I’d brought along to go with a shellfish dinner?

Kathi’s husband John arrived that evening, too. He’d be with us for the rest of the week, attending a golf tournament on the island and doing work with his computer when he wasn’t out golfing.

I think it was Monday night that Steve and I ventured out onto the back lawn after nightfall for some star photography. I’d come without a tripod, but Steve had his. He said he didn’t have much experience doing star photography, but he certainly had a good helping of beginner’s luck — almost every one of his shots included an amazing star field.

After breakfast on Tuesday, we headed out in the helicopter for pie. A friend of mine had told me that the best airport pie could be found at Port Townsend Airport. Although Steve had been flying with me before — I’d taken him and his sister Kriss on an aerial tour of Napa Valley back in March — neither he nor I had been flying around the San Juan Islands. Airport pie seemed like a pretty good excuse to get airborne.

I pulled both front doors off the helicopter for airflow and so Steve could use his camera without worrying about window reflections in his shots. I loaded Penny in the back seat on her bed. Then we took off from Steve’s backyard.

We flew east over Decatur Island and Anacortes, then followed the shoreline of the mainland south before crossing Skagit Bay to the east side of Whidbey Island. We flew just south of Oak Harbor and over San de Fuca, then crossed the bay to Port Townsend. The airport was south of town. We landed at the end of the parking area and walked to the Spruce Goose restaurant.

Spruce Goose Restaurant
The Spruce Goose does indeed have the best pie at any airport I’ve ever been to.

Although the restaurant had an outdoor eating area, Penny wasn’t allowed to sit with us there. So I tied her up nearby while Steve and I sat down for some pie. I had rhubarb (my favorite) with a glass of milk. I honestly can’t remember what Steve had. But I do remember that both were excellent.

After our pie, we fetched Penny and walked around the airport ramp area, looking at the planes. I told Steve what I knew about each model we saw — which wasn’t much. Steve isn’t a pilot but was interested in the planes. Actually, like me, he seems to be interested in most everything.

When we left, I decided on a more direct route back. Not the direct route — that would have had us flying over water for about 15 miles — but a route that took us up the west coast of Whidbey Island, past the navy airbase. That meant talking to the tower. I was pleasantly surprised when they cleared us to fly per my request. (I think Steve was impressed.) Later, as we neared the airbase, they amended our instructions to fly at 1500 feet over the field. As we did, we watched two F18s (in formation) and an air tanker take off below us. Very cool.

Whidbey Island
Overflying the airbase at Whidbey Island.

We crossed the Strait of Juan de Fuca for the southeast corner of Lopez Island. But rather than go in for landing, we continued west to the west coast of San Juan Island. That’s where the orcas travel and we were interested in seeing them from the air. We flew up the coast and saw plenty of boats on the water and tourists at Lime Kiln Point State Park, a primary orca viewing area. But no whales.

San Juan West
The west coast of San Juan Island. I was about 10 miles from Canada here.

Low on fuel, I headed over to Friday Harbor Airport. I landed near the pumps and topped off the main tank; I knew I’d get more fuel in Bellingham or Arlington on the way home later in the week. Again, we decided to take a quick flight along the coast to look for whales. This time, we scored. There was an orca pod of at least six whales traveling south along the coast. Steve took a few pictures, but I didn’t dare fly any lower than the 500 feet I was at — the area was full of boats and spectators. I didn’t want to be blamed for “scaring off” the whales. We went past and I cruised away from the scene to give Steve time to change his lens. But when we returned, the whales were gone and the spectator boats were breaking up and going their separate ways. The show was over. We headed back to Steve’s place on Fisherman’s Bay.

Fisherman's Bay
Fisherman’s Bay from the air.

Later that day we headed out for yet another seashore hike. This time, we went to Iceberg Point on the southern tip of the island. (No, there weren’t any icebergs, either.) After a pleasant mile or so walk through cool forest, we emerged on a rocky, grassy point overlooking the mouth of Puget Sound and Strait of Juan de Fuca. It was clear and I was able to point out the Whidbey Island air base, mostly because its tower made a good landmark. We spent some time walking on pathways that wound among the rocks. Steve showed me some cacti that grew there — yes, cacti do grow in the Pacific Northwest. At first, I thought they were some form of cholla, which we have in Arizona, but they’re apparently brittle prickly pear, which is likely the same variety my neighbor gave me last year to plant in my garden. I realize now that I didn’t even take a picture of them, although I do have a picture of Steve taking a picture of them. (Don’t worry, Steve, I won’t share it here!)

Thistle Ladybug
I played around a bit with depth of field and focus on my Nikon with this view of a thistle and ladybug.

We spent hours there, walking, talking, exploring, taking photos. After a while, we found a quiet spot sheltered from the wind and just stretched out on the grass among the late summer wildflowers, listening to the sound of the waves on the shore and the gulls that flew by. Penny stretched out nearby in the tiny shade cast by my camera bag. It was nice to be unplugged and to go back to the basics of a more simple time. I thought about the countless trips I’d made to the shore on the east coast, alone or with a companion, and how I’d just soak in the scenery and the world around me. What happened to those times? It was good to get a chance to remember them, especially with a companion who seemed to feel the way I did about the experience.

Iceberg Point View
At one point, I sat up to take this photo of the view from where we lounged just listening to the sound of the waves and the birds.

The sun got ever closer to the horizon. When the temperature started to drop, we headed back out.

Near Iceberg Point
Here’s a look at Outer Bay on the walk back to where the car was parked t Agate Beach County Park.

Watmough Bay
A sailboat spied through the trees along the trail at Watmough Bay.

On Wednesday morning, after a search and rescue for Steve’s boat — I hadn’t tied it quite securely enough on Monday afternoon and the wind and tide took it for a short cruise without us — we did some work around Steve’s house, helping John set up some badly needed storage shelves in the garage.

Afterwards, we took another hike, this time along the south side of Watmough Bay, a sheltered cove surrounded by tall cliffs that’s apparently popular with sailors — there were three sailboats anchored there. The trail wound through thick, lush forest that offered glimpses of the bay beneath us as we climbed. Soon, the trail dropped us down into a tiny gravel beach where we spent some time looking for sea glass. Penny wandered off and found something super stinky to roll in. We hiked back to the head of the cove and walked along the beach there for a while.

Pebbles
It’s not easy to find sea glass when the beach is full of pebbles like this.

Back at the car, I had to wrap Penny in a tablecloth that Steve happened to have to prevent her from stinking up his car. A bath for her outside with the hose was the first order of business when we got back to Steve’s house.

Cabernet Sauvignon
I brought along these two Cabs specifically for a taste test.

That evening, we did a side-by-side taste test with the two Malaga Springs cabernets I’d brought along. They both went very well with the steak Steve grilled up for us. I think we both preferred the 2009 over the 2011, although Steve’s blend of the two was probably best of all.

On Thursday, we spent some time setting up a satellite dish antenna in Steve’s side yard. That meant digging a hole and planting a post, then mixing up some concrete and using it to secure the post in place. (We’d put the antenna on the post the next day, once the cement had cured.)

Steve put the crab traps back out that afternoon. Afterwards, we went for a bike ride out to Fisherman’s Bay Spit Preserve again. That’s when I realized how completely out of shape I was. I hadn’t ridden my bike in about two years and it really showed. The ride was short — only about 2 miles each way — and on relatively flat terrain. Steve loaned me a 21-speed bike quite similar to mine while he handicapped himself (so to speak) with a one-speed. Clearly I’d need to get more time in the saddle if I expected to go riding with him again.

Out at the point we spent some time just overlooking the entrance to the bay while boats came and went. A couple on a road trip from Maryland (if I recall correctly) stopped and chatted with us for a while. The air was warm and comfortable on yet another beautiful day. There’s something to be said about the rain shadow east of the Olympic Mountains and Lopez Island is definitely in it.

Fisherman's Bay Entrance
The bench we sat on at the point overlooked the mouth of the bay and this disused dock with the village of Lopez Island directly across from us.

We went out for dinner that night — my treat — at restaurant just up the road: The Galley. We had seafood (of course) and shared a bottle of wine. The food was excellent; the portions were huge. Outside the window, the sun set over the bay. I realized that my vacation was quickly coming to an end.

On Friday, after fiddling around a bit with the satellite dish, we each did our own thing. Steve went for a real bike ride and since we both knew that I’d just hold him back, he did it solo. Penny and I walked into town, a distance of about two miles. Along the way, I took photos of some of the flowers that were growing alongside the road and took a moment to check out the library, which is located in the original schoolhouse.

Flowers
I don’t know what these are but they were all over the place alongside the road.

Lopez Island Library
A panoramic shot of the Lopez Island Library, which is in an historic schoolhouse. I highly recommend stopping in if you’re ever out that way. It’s a really wonderful place.

While we were in town, I picked up some gifts for my host and a few small pieces of jewelry for myself; chatted with a gallery owner about glass work, helicopters, and the recent flash floods in the Twisp area; tasted some wine; and bought a whole salmon for dinner. The walk home wasn’t exactly fun — the bags were heavy! I refreshed myself with a quick shower before Steve returned, then faced the challenge of filleting the salmon. (Let’s just say I need practice.) Steve grilled up the salmon for dinner and we all feasted on it with some white wine from Steve’s collection.

The next day was Saturday, the day I had a good weather window for my flight home. It certainly didn’t start that way, though: the morning fog was accompanied by the sound of fog horns off in the distance. It took a while to burn off and when it did, we had yet another beautiful day.

Fog at Fishermans Bay
Saturday started with fog, but soon cleared up again.

While I waited for the fog to clear, I packed and did some laundry, then restored the guest room to the way it had been before I arrived, all ready for the next guest. We finished up the last of the blueberries with some yogurt and cereal — we’d actually eaten most of the food I’d brought, although a few pesky cucumbers and zucchini remained. Steve and I lounged in the living room together one last time and Penny curled up to nap on Steve’s lap.

I’d made plans to meet some friends of mine from Wickenburg in Bellingham; when the fog cleared, I texted them to give them an ETA. Then we packed up the helicopter, I put Penny on her perch atop the big cooler, and I said goodbye to my host. A while later, I was lifting off as Steve and his neighbors waved goodbye.

Bellingham and Beyond

The flight to Bellingham was quick — only about 15 minutes — and took me between Blakely and Obstruction Islands, up the coast of Orcas Island, and over Lummi and Portage Islands. I had become accustomed to flying longer than usual distances over water, but still kept higher than I normally would fly, watching out for the seaplanes I kept hearing on the radio.

Blakely Island
Most of the islands have airports; this is the one on Blakely Island.

The tower cleared me to land near the FBO. I shut down, put Penny on a leash, and went inside. My friends Stan and Rosemarie were waiting for me. We shared hugs and went out to their car. A while later, we were sitting on the patio at Anthony’s on the harbor. I had fried oysters — my favorite and not easy to come by in Wenatchee. We talked about all kinds of things, from what was going on in Wickenburg to how we’d spent our summers to the progress I was making on my new home. I hadn’t seen them since I moved out of Arizona in May 2013, although we’d spoken and texted several times since then and it was really good to catch up.

They had me back at the airport by 3 PM for my flight home. The flight was mostly direct, taking me right past or over more than a few very tall, rugged mountains. At least twice I found myself looking at the blue ice of small glaciers on north facing mountain tops. I spied hidden valleys and lakes and dozens of waterfalls. It was a really amazing flight, only slightly marred by the haziness caused by forest fires in the area.

Cascade Mountains
The North Cascades offer a rugged landscape with patches of snow in August.

Glacier View
I don’t know why I was so surprised to see glaciers, but there were at least two along my way.

Mountain Lake
Lakes like this one were hidden away up in high valleys, seldom seen by anyone other than pilots and adventurers on foot.

I did detour a bit to the north to avoid the TFR near Leavenworth. This time, I made a point of flying over Lake Wenatchee, which I’d never flown over. It looked smaller than I remembered it.

Then I was in familiar terrain, passing Cashmere, flying along the Wenatchee River, popping out at the confluence with the city of Wenatchee spread out before me.

Wenatchee from the Air
Wenatchee awaited me with yet another beautiful day.

I overflew my friend Bob’s house in East Wenatchee before turning toward home. As I touched down in my front yard, I thought about what a great vacation I’d had — including my trip there and back — and reminded myself how fortunate I am to have such great friends.

Wenatchee Sunset Flyby

More video from my GoPro nosecam.

I took the helicopter up to Tsillan Cellars on Lake Chelan with some friends for dinner yesterday afternoon. After an excellent steak (but sadly, no wine for me), I flew us back along the Columbia River. There was a nice sunset with lots of pink in the sky and the river was dead calm, reflecting the sky back at us as we flew along at about 500 feet above it.

Wenatchee at Sunset
The lights of Wenatchee at sunset. Screen grab from a GoPro video.

The lights were on in Wenatchee by the time we reached it. Rather than take a direct route from the Rocky Reach Dam to the airport, I did a downtown flyby. My GoPro Hero 3, mounted on the helicopter’s nose, captured the whole thing.

Got three minutes? Take a sunset flight tour of Wenatchee, WA:

A Visit to the Helibase

Nothing like starting the day with some heavy metal.

When my friend Tristan posted a Facebook update mentioning that he was working fires out of a helibase in Leavenworth, it was all I needed to plan a play day up in the mountains. I told him I’d come at 7:30, before he started work, for a brief visit. Then I picked out a hiking destination nearby, texted a few friends, and made a hiking date.

Alyse and I pulled into the field at 7:30 sharp on Sunday morning. I saw Tristan’s helicopter, a bright yellow Croman Sikorsky S-61, parked in the field with some other very heavy metal. There were no cars near it.

Malcolm & Friends
Malcolm and friends at the Leavenworth, WA helibase.

I drove up to the base trailer and got out, leaving the Jeep’s engine running.

“I’m looking for Tristan,” I told a woman there, including his last name in my comment. “He flies the yellow one.”

“Oh, yeah, Tristan. He’s not here yet.”

A man nearby took interest. “You can’t be on my deck,” he said.

I assumed he meant flight deck. He was being kind but firm. “I’m a helicopter pilot,” I said. “I just want to say hello to my friend Tristan. I haven’t seen him in two years.”

“I really can’t have you on my deck when it’s active,” he said, softening a bit. “You can drive over there and wait for him, but you need to be out when we start flying.”

I thanked him and we headed over, down a path in the grass field with a Do Not Enter sign prominently displayed. I parked by a portable toilet and we got out, leaving Penny behind in the Jeep. I texted Tristan. A moment later, he called me to tell me he was one minute out.

S-61 Outfitted for Firefighting
The Sikorsky S-61 my friend Tristan is flying on a firefighting job in Washington. Note the tandem tanker truck his company uses to haul around jet fuel.

He drove up as I was taking my camera out of my day pack. We shared a big hug, I introduced him to Alyse, and he introduced me to the helicopter’s captain, Sean. We chatted for a few minutes about my old Ducati 900 SS CR, which he’d bought from me in the spring of 2013 at a smoking good price. He’d stripped it down and sold off lots of the parts, in the process of turning it into a real cafe racer.

He gave us a tour of the helicopter that included a walk inside, which had been stripped bare to keep the ship light. It smelled of oil and grease and JetA. The cockpit instrumentation was remarkably simple. There were N-numbers scribbled on a Plexiglas window on Tristan’s side with a dry erase marker.

We climbed down and walked around the side. Tristan told us how it flew — more squirrelly than an R22, he said — and mentioned a few interesting flight and maintenance characteristics. Sean went for the morning briefing and told Tristan he could stay behind. The rest of the crew started working on the preflight, pulling off the blade tie-downs and adding hydraulic fluid to a port near the rotor hub. Tristan showed us the two buckets they use — not at the same time, of course — and described how they dip in a small creek near the fire.

S-61
Here’s another view of Tristan’s ship. Note the Bambi bucket on the ground in front of it.

We talked about his job as the second in command and the things he’s responsible for doing. We talked about what it’s like to fly fires in his position. We talked about the work hours and the challenges and the parts that make it easy and hard. Tristan had lots to say. Like me, he always does.

Note to Non-Pilots:

A fire helibase can be a very dangerous place to visit — which is why nonessential personnel are normally not allowed on “the deck.” The base commander very kindly allowed me a short visit with my friend, but don’t expect him to do the same for you.

Fortunately, this helibase has a nice observer area where you can come visit and watch the helicopters come and go. If you come, obey all signage and the instructions of base personnel and remain within the civilian area.

After about 20 minutes, I figured I’d taken up enough of his time. Besides, the sun was climbing ever higher into the hazy, smoke-filled sky and I was anxious to get down into the Icicle River Gorge where the air would be cleaner and the only sound would be water rushing over rocks. So we said our goodbyes, shared another big hug, and left.

Later, after the hike, we drove past the helibase again. Although the Sky-Crane and Army Chinook were there, Tristan’s ride wasn’t. I didn’t stop.

I’d still like to fly some heavy metal someday. I’d like to see what it’s like to have all that helicopter behind me up in the air. And while I’m not sure I’d be a quick study learning to sling a bucket under a long line, I’m pretty sure I’d catch on and do a decent job. But I doubt that any of that is in my future. Instead, I’ll watch my pilot friends move through utility pilot careers and wonder what it’s really like to be in their shoes.

Or seat.

Good luck, Tristan! Fly safe!