Snowbirding 2017 Postcards: Arizona Hot Springs

I need to start off by saying that these hot springs were, by far, the absolute best hot springs I have ever visited in my life.

Tucked away in a slot canyon less than a half a mile from the Colorado River, Arizona — or, more properly, Ringbolt — Hot Springs consist of three “tubs” created by using sandbags as dams between the canyon walls. Hot water emerges from cracks in the walls to fill the first tub with very hot water — so hot I couldn’t sit in it. The water cascades over the sandbag dam to the next tub, which is cooler. The same happens to fill the third tub with even cooler water. (According to one regular, water temperatures are 102 to 115 degrees F.) Each tub had a gravelly sand floor and various depths, the deepest part being perfect for submerging up to your neck while sitting on the ground. The water was clean and algae free. There was no slime or nasty sulphuric smell. Although there may have been as many as a dozen people there at a time, it was never what I would call crowded.

This Hot Spring is accessible by a long, 2 mile hike down a trail from route 93 or by a much shorter hike up from the Colorado River. This physical limitation in access is likely what keeps it so pristine; there was absolutely no litter.  I choose the river route and rented a boat to make the 10 mile river trip up from Willow Beach. The boat trip was beautiful with many interesting spots along the way — I’ll save that for another set of postcards.

Here are a few pictures that I took along the hike to the hot spring and at the spring itself. The hike started on a dry beach and soon entered a narrow slot canyon with ever-growing trickles of warm water. There was a bit of scrambling up rocky cascades, some of which were slippery. The trickiest part of the whole trip was getting Penny up the 20 foot ladder to where the tubs were.

Along the trail to the hot spring.


There were a few places where we had to scramble up Cascades of warm water.


This 20-foot ladder was securely fastened to the canyon walls.


The third, coolest tub was the first one we reached.


The shallow end of the third tub had very warm water from the second tub.

Penny watches from the dam at the end of the third tub. She did swim twice in that tub, although she didn’t like it.


The first and hottest of the tubs was the last one I reached. I didn’t soak in it at all.


Our lunch spot just downstream from the tubs.


We spent more than two hours at the springs. I soaked mostly in the deep ends of the second and third tubs. The first tub was simply too hot for me and just about everyone else. The people who were there were mostly young and outdoorsy — I might have been the oldest one there! I very much enjoyed the company of three medical students from Syracuse who were making the most of their trip to Vegas for a convention. I also had a great conversation with a local who told me about another hot spring I might pass near in my travels later this week.

Return to Burro Creek

And another [safer] flight under the bridge.

Back in November 2014, I blogged about the time I was in a helicopter that flew under the Burro Creek Bridge on Route 93 at Burro Creek. It was probably on my mind back then as I was reviewing log book entries for a book I’m working on about my flying experiences. I just re-read that post and I do recommend it. It’s short — for me, anyway — and tells an interesting story that gives you some insight into the minds of helicopter owners and pilots.

Burro Creek Bridge
Plenty of room to fly under, no?

Anyway, yesterday I drove north on Route 93, starting my annual migration from my snowbirding stay in Arizona to my late winter/early spring work site in the Sacramento area of California. (Yes, my seven-month “vacation” is nearly over.) I gave myself about 10 days to make the trip and planned stops along the Colorado River near the Hoover Dam, Death Valley, and possibly Lake Tahoe. Or the California Coast. I don’t really know yet. One of the things I like most about my life these days is my unfettered ability to make and change plans on the spur of the moment.

I’d been thinking about the drive for a while, wondering what stops I could make along the way. Burro Creek was a no-brainer. There’s a BLM campground down along the creek about a mile or so off Route 93. I’d considered stopping there for an overnight stay on my way south from Vegas in November but had ultimately chosen a different route that kept me on the Colorado River. The campground isn’t much — in fact, the water is turned off there so the bathrooms are closed up and I’m not even sure if you’re allowed to use the dump station — but it does have ramadas (shade structures) at each campsite, along with picnic tables and a nice desert garden. And plenty of hiking opportunities.

Burro Creek Bridge
A view back toward the campground, looking southwest. That’s Route 93 south of the bridge in the distance.

Burro Creek Campground is about an hour north of Wickenburg, which is where I’d spent the previous two nights. Perfect timing for a break on my estimated three hour drive to Willow Beach on the Colorado River near Hoover Dam. I pulled in, drove down the cracked asphalt road to the campground, and parked in the day use area so the campground host wouldn’t try to hit me up for camping fees.

The Burro Creek Bridge — or should I say bridges? — is clearly visible from the campground. It’s a pair of two-lane truss arch bridges that are about 680 feet long about 390 feet over the floor of Burro Creek’s canyon. The first bridge was built back in 1966 and carried all northbound and southbound traffic. In 2005, as part of route 93’s widening project, they built a second almost identical span right beside it. The new bridge now handles northbound traffic while the old bridge handles southbound traffic. I’m glad they built a matching bridge. It really helps preserve the aesthetics.

Burro Creek Bridge
The two bridges are nearly identical, despite being built 40 years apart.

(A side note here: Route 93 between Wickenburg and I-40 near Kingman had the local nickname “Death Highway” because of the number of deadly accidents — often head-on collisions — that occurred there when it was just one lane in each direction. Widening it was long overdue since it handles nearly all auto and truck traffic between Phoenix and Las Vegas. Parts of it are still one lane in each direction. You can learn more about Route 93 in Arizona on Wikipedia.)

I had done a photo shoot of the new bridge back in 2005 with an aerial photography professional. It was a memorable flight, mostly because he did the shoot with a pair of Hassalblad medium format film cameras. These are extremely costly cameras and the reason he had two of them was so that when he finished shooting a roll of film, he could switch to the other camera instead of fumbling at an open aircraft door to reload film. I think each roll only had 12 shots. I distinctly recall hearing the mechanical sound of the shutter and his manual winding of the film though the intercom system since the microphone was so close to the camera. I orbited the bridges several times. I know he was disappointed with our timing; the second span wasn’t quite done but yet it wasn’t open enough to be dramatic. There was just a narrow gap maybe 50 feet wide in the middle of the roadway. We should have arrived about two weeks before for a more dramatic shot or two weeks afterward for a completed span.

I was thinking a lot about that photo shoot as I walked down to the creek with my Mavic Pro flying camera tucked away in my day pack. The construction company — or Arizona Department of Transportation? — had flown the photographer in to Phoenix from somewhere in the midwest for the shoot. He’d rented a car and drove to Wickenburg. I flew him up there with the doors on, then landed in the construction area to pull off his door and stow it in the back seat. We’d done the flight, circling around and and around. It was midday, but there were still shadows because of the angle of the sun in the deep canyon. I’d landed again to put the door back on and then we’d headed back to Wickenburg. The only reason we hadn’t done the whole flight with the door off was because I could get better speed in transit with the door on and it was at least a 30-minute flight. I’m thinking the whole job was about 1.5 hours of billable flight time, but without consulting my logbook, I can’t be sure. Total cost of those photos? Easily a few thousand dollars.

Burro Creek Bridges
Really. Nearly identical.

I walked as far as I could — at least a half mile — getting almost under the power lines that spanned the canyon just southwest of the bridge. I was hoping to be on the other side of them so I wouldn’t have to worry about them interfering with drone operations, but Burro Creek was running full and fast and I’d gone as far as I could without getting too close to the canyon wall. I spread out my collapsable landing pad in one of the few boulder-free areas, and got to work setting up the Mavic and its controller for flight. I have it down to a science at this point and it only takes me about five minutes from the moment I take it out of the bag to the moment everything is powered up and the Mavic is in GPS mode.

Mavic Operator
I grabbed this image of the video on the Mavic’s return flight. I circled where I’m standing with the landing pad. You can see the campground behind me.

I couldn’t tell how far above the canyon floor the power lines were. I knew they were lower than the bridge, but I also knew that we’d flown under them. They had to be at least 100 feet up. Still, when I launched the Mavic I kept it just 50 feet up until I knew it was on the other side of the wires. (I now estimate they’re at least 150 feet feet from the canyon floor, but likely more than 200.)

I spent the next half hour or so flying around near the bridge. I flew over it once and under it three times. I didn’t want it to distract drivers on the road, so didn’t fly anywhere where the average driver would see it. I had to bump up the maximum altitude for the flight over the bridge, but I figured that was okay because I was still within 400 feet of either the bridge roadway or canyon walls. Certainly nowhere where a manned aircraft should be flying — although I think I’ve already established that it was where a manned aircraft could be flying.

Burro Creek Bridge
This photo was shot from under the power lines.

I switched batteries after two flights and used up 20% of the second battery before finishing up. Penny had very patiently waited nearby. She doesn’t mind the drone or its bee-like buzzing but stays clear of the landing pad when it’s coming or going.

When I was finished, I powered everything down, replaced the Mavic’s gyro lock and cover, and folded it up. Within a few minutes, I was ready for the return hike with everything stowed away in my day pack again.

I got a bunch of video shots, as well as some still shots. This blog post shows off mostly screen grabs from the video. Launching from the stream bed inside the canyon limited what I could do, keeping in mind that I had to keep the Mavic within sight during the flight (per FAA rules).

I think that if I’d launched from up alongside the roadway, level with the bridge, I could have gotten the same shots that Hassalblad photographer had captured twelve years before — for a lot less money. But there really wasn’t a good place to launch from that wouldn’t distract drivers. And it isn’t as if this was a real mission. It was just more practice.

I wonder what that Hassalblad photographer is doing these days. I seriously doubt he’s still using those cameras to take aerial photos.

Real News from Real Sources

Want to know where to get facts?

Forbes ArticleThe other day, one of my Facebook friends shared a link to an article on Forbes that discussed the difficulty of finding reliable news sources in a world where so many sources are labeled “fake.” The article listed, with objective descriptions, what the author considered honest and reliable news sources. I’ll run down the list quickly here; I urge you to read the article to get additional information about each source:

  1. The New York Times
  2. The Wall Street Journal
  3. The Washington Post
  4. BBC
  5. The Economist
  6. The New Yorker
  7. Wire Services: The Associated Press, Reuters, Bloomberg News
  8. Foreign Affairs
  9. The Atlantic
  10. Politico

There are runners up and financial resources, too. Again, I urge you to read the article to get those lists. (Spoiler alert: CNN is on a list; Fox News, Brietbart, Huffington Post, and Mother Jones are not.)

As I added on Facebook when I shared a link to the article, the real trick is convincing the people who already turn to less reliable news outlets that these news outlets are better and more truthful. Another challenge is getting people to understand the difference between fact-based articles produced by journalists and opinion pieces produced by pundits.

If you’re interested in doing the right thing during these difficult times — and don’t don’t fool yourself: these are difficult times — start by informing yourself about an issue by turning to reliable news sources. (Note the plural there; try to learn from at least two good sources.) Be careful to get information from journalists and not pundits. (In other words, skip the OpEd and political commentary pages/columns.) Go beyond the headlines! Think about what you’ve learned. Discuss it with other people you know and trust who have done the same thing. Then form your own opinions and act accordingly. Acting means calling your congressperson or senators when an issue comes up to vote. These days, it also means showing up for peaceful protests and doing what you can to help convince those sitting on the fence to see things your way and also act.

It’s sad to me that so many people are falling for “alternative facts” fed to them by unreliable news sources, many of which are playing political games for ratings or other gains. What’s even worse is that the “fake news” label is being applied to what are truly reliable news sources.

Stop the ignorance. Get your information from reliable sources and make your own decisions.

Drone Pilots: Beware of Bird Strikes!

Just a quick warning, with photos.

Last week, I did a few photo missions with my Mavic Pro flying camera. For two of the msisions, I launched from an open area at the far east side of the Tyson Wells complex in Quartzsite, just south of Keuhn Road.

I’m in the habit of using the Return-to-Home feature of my Mavic to get it back to its launch point quickly and efficiently. In all honesty, I’m awed by its ability to land exactly on its takeoff spot nearly every single time. I like to watch, with my finger poised over the pause button on the control (just in case), as it comes to the right coordinates far overhead, turns to the direction in which it took off, and descends to the spot.

On one of the three missions I flew from that spot, a small flock of pigeons flew right past the Mavic. I watched in shock and a bit of horror as the five or six birds swooped around my fragile aircraft. I felt relief as the Mavic continued its descent unharmed, but the whole thing repeated itself when another flock — or the same flock? — swooped past. Again, the Mavic was unharmed.

I happened to have the video camera going when this was happening. Here are two screen grabs, one from each flight, that show the closest encounter. The first one was definitely closer.

Near Miss
This reminds me of a scene from The Birds.

Near Miss
The bird is a bit farther off in this one. Can you see it?

Of course, the camera can’t capture action in a direction it isn’t pointing. For all I know they could have come closer behind the camera.

While this is all kind of cool in a weird sort of way, it wouldn’t have been so cool if one of those birds clipped a rotor. The Mavic has four independently powered rotors. If any one of them was destroyed, I’d have to think the whole thing would immediately go out of balance and crash. This is one good reason why we don’t fly drones over crowds of people. Even though the Mavic weighs in at less than 2 pounds, having one crash onto your head from 150 feet would definitely cause some injuries.

Honestly, I’m surprised this hasn’t happened yet. A matter of time?

On Being Elite

A few thoughts about the use of “elite” as some sort of slur.

The other day, I was accused by a troll on Twitter of being part of the “rich elite” because I owned a helicopter and went south for the winter.

I think I was supposed to be insulted. I wasn’t. You see, I’m not ashamed of what I am or what I do with my time and money. I earned all of my possessions and my lifestyle.

Don’t believe me? Read on.

The only things I had going for me at birth was that I was born in the United States, I was white, and I had a good brain.

My parents were not rich. In fact, when my father left us when I was about 13, my mother very nearly applied for welfare. Our financial situation qualified me for free lunch at school; every day, I’d go to the school office and retrieve a small kraft envelope with 65¢ in it — government money to pay for my cafeteria lunch. I’d spend as little as possible and save the rest. When I got home from school, I babysat my younger sister and baby brother while my mother worked as a waitress to put food — mostly hot dogs and pasta — on the table. My grandmother would bring us groceries once in a while and slip my mother a $20 bill to help out.

I started working at age 13 when I got a paper route. I delivered the Bergen Evening Record after school on weekdays and the Sunday Record before 7 AM on Sundays. There were 54 homes on my route, which I had to walk, and I netted 20¢ plus tips per week per house. In those days — the mid 1970s — 10¢ was considered a generous tip; many of the homes did not tip at all. Collection day — Wednesday — was unusually long since I had to stop at every single house to try to get paid. One Wednesday in September, which coincided with the first day of school, my mother used my collection money to pay for our school supplies because she wouldn’t have money until payday.

Our financial situation qualified me for a summer job working at the high school. With three other girls, all a year or two older than me, I scraped rust off an old chain link fence that ran between the school property and the railroad tracks. The wire brushes we used had to be replaced every few days because the bristles would fall out. The gloves they gave us did little to prevent huge blisters on our hands. When it rained, they let us into the school where we went from classroom to classroom, washing the venetian blinds. The wash water had to be changed every 30 minutes or so because the blinds had likely never been cleaned before.

My mother remarried and I won’t deny that my blue collar stepfather brought us quite a few steps up from our dismal financial situation. I got a chance to see some of the better things in life. He took us to museums and restaurants with real cloth napkins. I stayed in a hotel for the first time in my life at age 15. I was even able to accompany my grandparents on a trip to visit family in Germany. And, for the first time, I started thinking about college.

College was possible with two academic achievement scholarships, financial contributions from my parents (they each paid 1/3 of the net after scholarships were deducted from tuition), and a school loan. And work. At one point I held down three part-time jobs while handling a 15 or 18 credit load. I worked hard to maintain good grades and got a BBA with highest honors in Accounting in four years. I was the first person in my family to attend and graduate from college.

Within two weeks of graduation, I got my own apartment. I paid rent and utilities and furnished it with my own money. It was in a rough neighborhood and a few of my friends didn’t like to come visit. My mother bought me a sewing machine as a graduation gift and I used it to make about half the clothes that I wore to work, so I could look nice without spending a fortune.

I started my first job right away: an auditor with the New York City Comptrollers Office. In just two years, at the age of 22, I became the youngest person promoted to Field Audit Supervisor.  After five years with the city, I started a new job with ADP in New Jersey.  I did my time in the Audit Department before becoming a Senior Financial Analyst working on special projects directly for the CFO.

By the age of 29, I was earning more money per year than my father ever had. But that didn’t stop me from leaving my job to pursue an uncertain career that was more in line with what I wanted to do for a living: write. I built a career as a tech writer and computer trainer from the ground up. I was completely self-taught and worked without an agent. I wrote books and led hands-on computer training classes all over the country. I quickly learned that I needed to write a lot of books to make a living so that’s what I did. When I was on a book project, I’d work 10-12 hour days, 7 days a week. I wrote books and articles and eventually authored video training courses. I was very good at what I did and it paid off: within 10 years, I had two bestsellers; their periodic revisions were bestsellers, too.

By the age of 40, I was earning more money than I’d ever thought possible, but instead of pissing it away on a bigger house or fancier car, I socked money away for retirement and invested in rental properties: a condo, a house, a small apartment building. And between book projects, I learned how to fly helicopters.

And yes, I did buy a helicopter. Why not? It was my money that I had earned through my efforts. I had covered all my other financial responsibilities and set aside enough money for my future. Why shouldn’t I invest in something that would make me happy?

I flew as often as I could and started a helicopter business to help bring in some extra revenue to cover costs. I managed the fuel concession at the local airport. I became an aeronautical chart dealer and ran a small pilot shop. I worked for a season as a pilot for a Grand Canyon tour operator. I sold that first helicopter and bought a slightly larger one. I jumped through hoops with the FAA to get required certifications for charter work. I created advertising material, maintained a website, handled social networking needs, did all the accounting, met with clients, did local and long distance flights. I networked with other pilots about other flying jobs.

All while still writing up to 10 books and dozens of articles a year for my publishers.

When tech publishing went into decline, I ramped up my flying work. I got contracts to do agricultural work in Washington state during the summer. I’d live in a trailer, working on various book projects, waiting for a call to fly, for two to three months every summer. Over the years, I built up the number of contracts I had until I couldn’t handle them all alone; then I brought in other pilots with helicopters to help me, managing work and billing for as many as four subcontactors every season.

I was 52 when the man I’d spent more than half my life with decided he needed a mommy to hold his hand while he watched TV every night more than a life partner to actually enjoy life with. He tried to take half of everything I owned in our divorce, but I fought back to keep what was rightfully mine, what I’d earned through my own efforts while he floundered, failing at one job after another. I went into the fight with a war chest of cash I’d saved while he was pissing his money away on a plane he never flew, a Mercedes he didn’t need, and a condo that was sucking him dry financially. His greed, harassment, and courtroom lies didn’t score many points with the judge and he wound up paying me and his lawyers far more than he could have spent if he’d settled for my offer. His downfall is a great example of someone getting what he deserves.

I’ve spent the last four and a half years rebuilding my life in a new place, working hard to build my flying business, expanding into other work in California and now possibly Arizona. I don’t write much anymore, but I make a good living with the helicopter the Twiiter troll I mentioned at the top of this piece criticized. I’ve learned how to take my skills and assets and turn them into money. And unlike so many other people, I live within my means. Yes, I go south for the winter, but it’s not as if I’m living it up in some fancy condo or hotel. I’m roughing it in an RV often parked out in the desert. 

It's Mine
Just about everything I own was bought and paid for with money that I earned through my efforts. Why shouldn’t I be proud of that?

I worked hard and smart and I succeeded. Is there any reason I should be ashamed of that?

So yeah, if making a good living and owning a helicopter and wintering in the south makes me part of the “rich elite,” I’m okay with that. I earned it.

And to the people who troll me with their jealousy-driven comments: What’s your excuse for being a loser?

Mavic Pro Observations

What I’m seeing, liking, and not liking — so far.

Mavic Pro
The Mavic Pro, unfolded for flight. Although the manual says to remove the clear protective cover over the gimbal, I suspect it might be usable during flight — if it doesn’t fall off. I remove it.

I’ve had my new DJI Mavic Pro drone in my hot little hands for about four days now and have taken it on a total of five missions so far. (More on my use of the word “mission” shortly.) I’ve developed some definite thoughts about it, from the perspective of a pilot, photographer, videographer, and new drone pilot. I thought I’d take a moment to share them with readers who might be considering the purchase of a drone for photography.

And that’s a big part of what this drone is to me: it’s a tool for making photos and videos. While some people buy drones for the flying aspect of them and actually race them around obstacles, etc., I have no intention of doing that. (At least not yet.) And if you’re thinking of buying a drone for that purpose, I don’t recommend a Mavic, despite what the DJI website shows it capable of doing. I’m sure you can buy a less expensive drone that’ll be better for racing (and crashing). Do your homework. See what the other guys (mostly) and gals are racing and what they have to say about their equipment.

Portability

Folded Mavic
It folds up small.

The most obvious benefit to having a drone that folds up into the size of a one-liter bottle of coke is portability — and that’s the main reason I bought the Mavic. Its folded size is less than 4 x 4 x 8 inches.

The truth of the matter is, my friend Jim offered me a smoking deal on his DJI Phantom 4 because he was upgrading to a Phantom 4 Pro. Buying his gently used drone would have saved me a bunch of money. But the reality is that I travel a lot, often without a lot of space for baggage. The Phantom 4 does not fold up at all and although there are carrying cases available for them, they’re not easily brought on a four-month trip in a truck camper or with gear in the back of a helicopter or on a motorcycle. And don’t even think about taking a hike with one.

Although I bought the Mavic package that included a carry bag smaller than a shoebox that can fit the drone, the controller, at least two spare batteries, and a battery charger, I stopped using the bag on Day Three, switching instead to a very small backpack I’d bought around Christmas time for hiking. The DJI bag was a snug fit for the drone and I worried about damaging it as I crammed it in and dragged it out. The bag is surprisingly bad design for a drone that has an amazingly good design. If you are considering the purchase of this bag, I recommend you skip it. If you want a padded bag, look for a small camera bag. (Or buy mine. It’ll likely go on eBay next week.)

With portability comes the question of durability. A Twitter friend asked me if it was durable. Are any of these things durable? I said no. But I also said it isn’t fragile. Later, in my mind, I equated it with the difference between those standard green David Clark aviation headsets (durable but kind of clunky) and Bose ANR headsets (not durable but lighter and sleeker). Neither will break if you handle them with care, but the Bose headsets are more likely to break if you don’t. The Mavic, of course, would be the Bose in this analogy.

And yes, it’s light. The drone, onboard battery, controller, and two spare batteries weigh in at under 2-1/2 pounds.

Design

I am completely blown away by the drone’s design. The way it folds up so neatly, the way the blades fold to make it even smaller, the way the micro SD card fits into the side, the way the battery is so well integrated with the drone’s body, the way the tiny camera lens and gimbal hang from the front — it’s all extremely well thought out and executed.

That’s the design for portability and flight. The design for actual use is a bit less rosy.

As a regular commenter on this blog pointed out in comments for a previous post this week, the Mavic sits very close to the ground. It only has two legs (on the front) and two little stubs on the back. That puts the gimbal mounted camera just inches off the ground. If you’re flying it from grass or from rocky terrain, that camera is going to be in the grass or bumped by rocks. And if there’s dust, that dust is going to fly on landing and take off (just like with a helicopter) and possibly get into rotor heads or gimbal parts. I had the foresight to order a foldable landing pad to operate from — this helps ensure a safe, clean environment for operations. But I also have to take care on landing to make sure it lands on the pad. Later, I picked up a 3 x 4 rubber-backed mat that I’ll likely wind up using in my garage when I get home. Until then, it’s an expanded landing zone when I travel with my truck.

The only real complaint I have about the design is related to the plastic clamp that holds the gimbal immobile during transport: I have a heck of a time getting that damn thing on. I assume I’ll better at it one of these days; I sure hope it’s soon.

Controller

The Mavic’s controller also folds up into a smaller package. It has a screen with general information about the drone’s status and the usual buttons and joysticks to control it. But it has no video monitor. Instead, you affix a smart phone running the DJI Go app (or another app; more on that later), to the controller. It has a moveable plug preconfigured for iPhone users, but also comes with other plugs for other smartphones. You plug in your phone and then clamp it into the controller. The clamp is tight and, miraculously, lets me keep the bumper cover I have for my phone on the phone. The phone is definitely not going to fall out. My only complaint, which is minor, is that I have difficulty tapping the home button since it’s partially covered by the clamp. I think that if I fiddle with it enough and experiment with different positions, I might be able to make that problem go away.

The controller and a smart phone work together to control the drone. I’m pretty sure you can control it without a smart phone, but I suspect it would be a lot more difficult, especially since you would not be able to see what the camera sees without the camera as a monitor.

There is a lot to learn about the controller and the DJI Go app. Yes, you can pick it up and fly it almost immediately with just a few pointers from a friend or a quick glance through the manual, but you will never master either flying or photography — which really do need to be considered separately — without reading the manual and trying various features until you learn what works for you.

My only gripe about the controller setup is age related: my older eyes simply can’t see the video feed on my phone as well as I’d like them to. Yes, I wear readers. And yes, I stand with my back to the sun to shield the screen from direct sunlight. But still, in monotonous terrain — like the desert where I’ve been flying lately — it’s sometimes hard to figure out what the camera is looking at. More than a few times, I sent the drone forward only to discover that it was pointing in a different direction than I thought it was. Oops.

User Guides

The User Manual — which is only available online as a PDF — sucks, plain and simple.

At 59 pages long, which includes the cover and a lot of pages that simply don’t provide any real instructions, it provides just enough information for someone knowledgeable about flying or photography to figure out what they need to do to fly and shoot photos/video. But if you’re a complete newcomer to either one and think you’re going to race around trees in a forest while filming exciting video sequences on Day One, you’re only fooling yourself. I’m constantly going back to it, looking up features I think should be available, finding bits and pieces of information, and then putting it all together to learn a new task. I’m thinking I might write up some task-based tutorials for myself and others who might need them.

The Quick Start Guide, which comes in a tiny booklet, has only 10 pages of information between front and back covers. The printed version has multiple languages in it, which makes it seem a lot larger than it is. It’s also available as a PDF with just one language. Again, if this isn’t your first drone, it’ll definitely have enough information to get you started. Otherwise, good luck.

Flight

Okay, this is where I’m completely blown away: the automatic features for flight are amazing.

While it is possible to manually take off using the joysticks — and my friend Jim taught me how to do this on his Phantom 4 — it also has an automatic takeoff feature. Tap a button and slide your finger across a confirmation screen, and the Mavic powers up and climbs to a four-foot, rock solid hover. It’s just amazing to watch, especially if you’re a helicopter pilot and understand what it takes to make such a smooth, solid takeoff in a helicopter. And yes, I understand that the aerodynamics of a four-rotor drone is different from that of a single main rotor helicopter.

Push the left (pitch/yaw) stick forward and the drone can climb straight up like a rocket at a maximum speed of 16.4 feet per second — that’s 984 feet per minute for us pilot types. Push the left stick right or left and the drone rotates. Pull the left stick backwards, and the drone descends at up to 9.8 fps (588 fpm). Helicopter pilots can equate the operation of the left stick to the collective (forward/back = pitch) and tail rotor pedals (left/right = yaw) on a helicopter, even though the stick controls different mechanical operations on the drone.

Push the right stick in any direction and the drone flies in that direction without changing the direction in which the nose (camera) is pointing. This is like a helicopter’s cyclic, although again, it controls different mechanical operations on a drone.

As you might expect, the farther you push a stick, the faster the drone moves.

Getting it airborne and actually flying it is remarkably easy — to a point. It’s precision flying that takes a lot of effort and practice. The drone acts immediately and rather abruptly to most control inputs, so if the video camera is turned on while rotating it or adjusting the angle of the gimbal, you can clearly see a sort of jerky response. Like learning to hover a helicopter, you need gentle control inputs. And that takes practice.

The Mavic has three modes for flying: Positioning (P), Sport (S), and Tripod. Most regular flying is done in P mode, which also has obstacle avoiding features enabled. If you want to fly faster and aren’t worried about obstacles, S mode is available with the flick of a switch on the controller. The difference in speed is about 20 miles per hour for P mode vs. 40 miles per hour in S mode. Tripod mode, which I hope to explore today if the wind isn’t as bad as forecasted, slows everything down, making it easier to get smooth video shots.

DJI Go app options make it easy to keep the drone from wandering off where it shouldn’t be. The very first thing I set was the maximum altitude — in the U.S. drones are limited to 400 feet AGL unless an FAA waiver is obtained. I also limited its distance, at least at first. While the Mavic’s dark color makes it easy to spot in the sky, it’s easy to lose sight of it if you take your eyes off of it while it’s moving. I recommend operating with a spotter whenever possible. I usually hear it better than I see it, unless I’m in a noisy environment. I do believe, however, that it’s a little quieter than Jim’s Phantom 4. They both sound like angry bees — and believe me, as a beekeeper I know exactly what angry bees sound like — but Jim’s drone sounds like more angry bees than mine.

I believe there are limitations built into the software that prevent operation near airports, but I haven’t been close enough to an airport yet to test that. If so, it’s a good feature that pilots should be happy about. (Now if only they’d limit climb to 400 in the software instead of making it an option. Out of the box, the Mavic has an operating ceiling of more than 18,000 feet, which is absurd.)

Landing the Mavic couldn’t be easier. Really. I use the automatic landing feature almost all the time. It eliminates the need to navigate back to the home base. Just tap a button and use a slider to confirm you want the drone to return to home. It immediately turns back to its starting point, climbs if necessary, and heads back at top speed (for its mode). You can watch the distance change on the controller. When it’s overhead, it might look as if it has passed the landing zone, but it hasn’t. It turns to the direction it was facing when it took off, then descends straight down. When it’s less than 10 feet from the ground, it might make some adjustments. At about three feet up, it pauses and then comes right down to the ground and shuts its engines. The whole time it’s doing this, the controller is letting out an annoying beep-beep-beep, displaying an option that enables you to take over. That’s because obstacle avoidance is disabled while landing and you might need to stop the auto land feature. I’ve found, however, that in good conditions with precision landing enabled, the Mavic lands exactly where it took off from. To me, that’s the coolest thing of all.

Photography

Tyson Wells from the Air
A view of Tyson Wells from the air, looking southeast.

The thing that changed my mind about drones, as I discuss in a blog post from December, is the quality of photographs and video — especially video — from drones. I’d seen videos from my friend Jim’s and I was hooked. They were, by far, clearer and steadier than most video shot from my helicopter. It was no wonder videographers were turning to drones. They could get better results for less money.

(I do need to point out again here that for aerial photo jobs covering a large area, you’ll definitely get the job done faster in a helicopter. As I mentioned in my December 23 blog post:

But another client needed aerial video and still images all along the Columbia River from Wenatchee to Chelan, then up the Wenatchee River to Leavenworth and up Lake Chelan to Stehekin. This was well over a hundred miles to cover and some of it was inaccessible by car. We got all of the shots in less than three hours of flight time. It would have taken weeks to get that footage with a drone — and even then, some of it would have been impossible to get.

So don’t give up completely on helicopters. Think about the mission before deciding on the tool.)

I’ll admit that it sort of broke my heart when I realized that the GoPro “nosecam” videos I’d been sharing were absolute crap compared to what I could get with a drone. If you can’t beat them…

So here I am with my own aerial camera — which is what the Mavic really is. It can do video with resolutions up to 4K, which is the default setting. I actually thought there was a problem with the camera when I tried to play back the video on my 5-year-old MacBook Air. The reality was that the computer simply couldn’t handle the amount of data in the video file. I’ve since set it down to 1090p, which is all I need, at least for now. The video is amazing: smooth and clear. I’ll let you see for yourself; if you can, view these in full screen at the highest resolution YouTube offers:


In this example, I’ve put the Mavic into a 200-foot hover at the edge of an outdoor sale event in Quartzsite, AZ. Hands off on the controls and it’s rock steady. I couldn’t do that in a helicopter.


I shot this video yesterday morning. I flew out at 150 feet and back at 200 feet. This is the return flight, which seemed to have a better angle, using Return-to-Home mode. At the end, you’ll see me standing with a retired guy I met who used to program robots for airplane manufacturing. Keep in mind that this is only a small portion of the thousands of people camped out in the BLM land around Quartzsite right now.

I have not experimented much with still photos. I get so caught up in the flying and video that I forget to snap photos once in a while. It can save JPEGs at 12 megapixel resolutions. I’m not sure if it can save photos while it’s shooting video.

The camera is completely adjustable for automatic and manual settings. Again, I haven’t experimented much with this yet. Just getting it to fly where I want has been enough of a challenge for the first three days of flying. And the manual leaves out too many details; it’s hard enough just to find the settings.

Missions

I’m teaching myself how to use the Mavic by creating “missions” for myself. A mission is a task I need/want to complete. Yesterday’s mission was to get video footage of the long stretch of desert near where I’m camped where so many other people are camped (see second video above). I wanted a nice record of the sheer volume of people dry camping here. I can repeat this mission in about a half dozen other places to get an even bigger picture of the weird situation in Quartzsite during the big RV show, but time is running out. The forecast calls for high winds today and the campers will start rolling out of here on Sunday.

Another mission is to video the activity around the RV show. That would entail setting up a point of interest in the middle of the show area and then flying the drone around it at a safe distance from participants with the camera continuously focused on the middle of the action. I’m hoping to do that on Saturday when the show is busiest. I might practice on a smaller scale with some of the camps around here first.

My goal is to understand what controls and settings to use to accomplish missions like these. I can then call upon what I’ve learned to complete missions for paying clients once I finish getting my commercial UAS pilot rating. I see drone photography as a component of the services Flying M Air can offer.

Ready to Buy a Drone?

My interest in drones seems to have sparked an interest in other people. I hope this blog posts helps them decide, one way or the other. In any case, I’m sure this isn’t the last you’ve heard from me about my Mavic Pro.

I do have a favor to ask, though. If you do decide to buy a drone and you want to buy from Amazon — which offers great prices and free shipping — please use one of my links. I get a tiny commission from sales that originate with a link from this site and I sure would appreciate the income to help cover my hosting fees.

How many mostly ad-free sites have you visited lately? Very few, I’ll bet. I guarantee that the folks who build and maintain them would similarly appreciate your support.

And if you’re interested in buying a gently used DJI Phantom 4, my friend Jim has one for sale — as soon as his Phantom 4 Pro arrives, anyway. I can put you in touch with him — but please, only if you’re serious. It’ll be a good deal, but he isn’t giving it away.

DJI Sales Support Experience

When sales support is solely by chat with a support team based in China.

I ordered my DJI Mavic Pro drone on January 3, 2017. At the time, the DJI website said it would take 4 to 6 weeks to ship. I was traveling and set up delivery to my friend Jim’s house in Wickenburg, AZ.

I should mention here that the first time I tried placing the order, my credit card company declined it and immediately texted me about possible fraud. I responded to the prompts via text messaging to assure the company I had authorized the order. Then I resubmitted payment and it appeared to go through. I even got a confirmation message about it from DJI.

I ordered the drone using an email address I reserve for shopping. That address is not set up on my iPhone or iPad, the two devices I use most when I’m on the road. It was set up on my MacBook Air, but I seldom fired that up. So it was a full week before I learned that there was a problem with my order. By that time, I was camped out along the Colorado River in a campsite with spotty cell phone coverage. I fired up my MacBook, fetched email, and got the following message from DJI Sales:

A message from DJI

Have you ever heard anything so absurd?

Of course, I was not going to scan my credit card or driver’s license and send it to some anonymous person in China or anywhere else. I was born at night, but it wasn’t last night.

I was also not prepared to call China from my cell phone or any other phone.

I attempted to get them to call me and got an email message saying they tried but couldn’t get through. I had absolutely no indication on my phone of a missed call from China or anywhere else. They suggested I try online chat.

DJI’s chat sucks, pure and simple. You go to their online store’s home page and click a button. A window opens with a boilerplate message with tempting links:

Chat System:

Dear customers, thank you for choosing DJI. The system is transferring the chat to operator service. Please wait.

Order before JAN 5th and your Mavic Pro will ship before JAN 18th. Orders placed prior to this annoucement will still be prioritized. Learn more
For a small additional charge, DJI Care Refresh offers up to two replacement units. Water damage is also covered! Purchase now

Of course, by this point it was January 11. My order had gotten in on time. Or had it?

The system then tells you that there are 36 people in front of you on chat. So you wait. The number counts down. Then goes up. Then goes down again. Back and forth, slowly making its way down.

When it hits about 4 or 7 or 3, someone finally answers the chat.

Wilmar

Hello, my name is Wilmar.Thank you for contacting DJI customer support. How can I help you today?

08:32

Me

What is the status of my order?

Wilmar

Order number?

Me

001602399####

Seems to be an issue with credit card payment?

08:33

I am in a remote location with spotty internet coverage. Please let’s resolve any issues now while I can.

Are you still there?

Wilmar

Let me check

08:34

Me

Thank you.

08:37

Wilmar

The sttaus of your order is still on payment review.

Me

Let’s fix this now.

Wilmar

OK

Did you have any contact with your bank?

08:39

Me

Yes, I can. But I’ve already told them the charge is valid.

They rejected first time and texted me about possible fraud.

Wilmar

Oh ok. Can you contact them?

Me

I returned text to say charge was good.

I can try now, but not sure what kind of menu they will put me in.

08:40

Wilmar

But it states here, Review status

Me

What do you need me to do?

I am calling them now.

08:41

At this point, I called my credit card company on the phone and began navigating a telephone menu.

Me

In a call menu with my bank now.

Wilmar

Alright. Willing to wait.

sure.

Me

When I get a person, I’ll ask if the charge went through.

08:43

Waiting for person now.

Hold music.

Wilmar

Its fine.

I talked to a credit card company person. I had to go through the usual identification thing. He looked up the charges and saw both the rejected charge and the one that had been approved.

Me

08:46

Bank says charge went through.

Says two tries and they accepted one and declined other.

You have my money.

08:47

Wilmar

Please hold, let me check it again

Me

Bank says it is approved but pending. You have to accept.

He can provide authorization code.

Do you want that.

08:49

Wilmar

Please?

Me

09#####

08:51

Did you get that?

Wilmar

Thank you

08:52

Me

Can you charge it now, please? The bank is waiting.

Wilmar

I’ll do my best

I chatted on the phone with the banking person. He was very pleasant and didn’t mind chatting. Nothing from Wilmar.

Me

08:55

I’m still waiting with the bank.

Wilmar

You are still on the line with them?

Me

Yes!

I’m waiting to make sure the charge goes through.

Wilmar

You can disconnect now from them please.

08:56

Me

Ok.

I said goodbye to the bank person and hung up.

Wilmar

What I am doing right now is sending an email follow up directly to headquarters about this status of your order number.

Me

Ok.

09:02

Wilmar

Still there?

Me

Yes!

09:03

Wilmar

Thank you for the patience MAria

Chat System

Without any further response, the chat has been closed automatically. 

Yep. It hung up on me. I clicked buttons to reconnect and waited behind who knows how many people.

Chat System

The chat is connected again

Dear customers, thank you for choosing DJI. The system is transferring the chat to operator service. Please wait.

Order before JAN 5th and your Mavic Pro will ship before JAN 18th. Orders placed prior to this annoucement will still be prioritized. Learn more
For a small additional charge, DJI Care Refresh offers up to two replacement units. Water damage is also covered! Purchase now

Finally:

Melou

Hello, my name is Melou.How can I help you today?

09:06

Me

I just want this resolved. I am traveling and I need to know when the drone will arrive so I can coordinate pickup.

Was chatting with Wilmar.

What is the current status of my order?

09:07

I ordered on Jan 3. My order should go out before Jan 18.

Order 001602399####

09:09

Melou

hi

ok let me check that

09:11

upon checking here regarding the status of your order its still in review

Me

What else do I need to give you?

9:15

Melou

There could be a payment risk with the order, which our risk control team will manually assess before accepting the payment.

Me

I provided an approval code from the bank.

Do you also want it?

I ordered this on January 3. I did not know about an order problem until this week

I am traveling and have limited access to email.

9:17

I would like it shipped on time — before January 18 like all other early orders.

Melou

If your payment cannot go through, Customer have 2 options…First we suggest to contact the issuing bank for help. If they cannot identify the problem, or try another method of payment.

Me

I don’t see why there is a delay when my credit card bank approved it on January 3

I did this.

The credit card bank approved it.

9:18

It shows up as pending on my account. The bank says all you need to do is accept the charge.

I provided Wilmar with the bank’s approval code from January 3.

What is the problem? Why is this still being delayed?

9:20

Do you want the bank’s phone number?

Melou

if there is no issue with the card or the bank it will be a smooth transaction…our system will detect if theres an issue for the payment and automatic it will not go through…we suggest to customer to try again and if you still getting same issue…you need to use another mode of payment

09:21

Me

That’s not what the email I got from your payment people said.

Also, MY BANK ALREADY APPROVED THIS CHARGE.

There is NO PROBLEM with it.

09:23

I have no way of contacting you by phone and I can’t get any help from Chat. What am I supposed to do?

Is this how all of your support works?

What will happen if I have a problem with my drone? Will I get the same bad “support” I’m getting now?

09:24

There’s noting “smooth” about this.

Melou

you need to use another mode of payment

09:25

Me

HOW?

I don’t have another method of payment.

This charge was approved by my bank.

09:28

Please have someone call me. My phone number is 509-699-####. US.

09:31

That’s when I started losing my patience. I resorted to copy and paste.

Me

I want to TALK to someone there who can resolve this. Call me at 509-699-####. US.

09:32

I want to TALK to someone there who can resolve this. Call me at 509-699-####. US.

09:33

I want to TALK to someone there who can resolve this. Call me at 509-699-####. US.

I want to TALK to someone there who can resolve this. Call me at 509-699-####. US.

09:34

Melou

We accept the following forms of payment:

1) Credit Cards

– MasterCard

– Visa

– JCB

– American Express (Europe Only)

– Diners (Europe Only)

2) Debit Cards

– Visa Debit

– MasterCard Debit

3) Paypal

4) Paypal Credit (US and UK only)

5) Paypal Express

6) Bank Transfer

Me

I paid with a visa.

I want to TALK to someone there who can resolve this. Call me at 509-699-####. US.

09:36

Melou

.

Me

I spent 15 minutes on the phone today with my bank while chatting with Wilmar.

09:38

I got the approval code.

The bank has accepted the charge.

Why won’t you take my money?

Why can’t someone call me to resolve this?

09:39

I am spending more than $1,300. Why can’t I get a little customer service?

I want to TALK to someone there who can resolve this. Call me at 509-699-####. US.

Melou

so our finacial department will double check on that

09:40

Me

I want to TALK to someone there who can resolve this. Call me at 509-699-####. US.

Melou

all you need to do is to wait..since the status is Review

I’ve been waiting more than a week.

I’m tired of waiting.

You are delaying my order.

I want to TALK to someone there who can resolve this. Call me at 509-699-####. US.

09:45

Melou

you have an option to purchase in retailers

This really pissed me off. The Mavic Pro wasn’t available anywhere yet. Amazon said it wouldn’t get them until mid-February — which is why I hadn’t ordered from Amazon.

Me

I want to TALK to someone there who can resolve this. Call me at 509-699-####. US.

I want to TALK to someone there who can resolve this. Call me at 509-699-####. US.

09:46

I want to TALK to someone there who can resolve this. Call me at 509-699-####. US.

Why can’t I talk to someone who can help me????

09:47

Why are you refusing to take my money?

I want to TALK to someone there who can resolve this. Call me at 509-699-####. US.

09:49

Wilmar did not tell me that I needed another method of payment. Why are you telling me this?

Melou

for now we only have chat support

Me

Chat support is not support.

You are not supporting me.

Melou

yes i need to inform you that because you are having issue with the payment..

Me

You are not helping me.

09:50

I want to TALK to someone there who can resolve this. Call me at 509-699-####. US.

Melou

i provide you all the options regarding your concenr

concern

Me

No. Wilmar did. You are just sending me scripted responses.

Chat System

Without any further response, the chat has been closed automatically. 

Yep. She hung up on me. Okay, so I was being a bitch, but I’d been at it for over an hour, including wait time, and still had no idea if my order had been processed. So I got back on chat again.

Amazingly, I got Wilmar again. I guess there are only two of them in the call center. When he realized it was me, he disconnected me.

At that point, I was pretty pissed off and didn’t care if my order went through or not. I could easily call the credit card company and stop the charge. But instead of doing anything, I went for a walk with Penny to cool down. And when I got back to my computer and looked at my order status on DJI’s website, it saw that it had been approved for January 3.

My friend Jim, who has ordered two drones from them, says that their technical support department is much better. That’s all handled in the U.S. — at least for U.S. customers. There’s a phone number you can call and actually speak to a person. While that’s reassuring, I still worry. And I wonder why their sales support is so bad after all, they should be much better at taking customer’s money, no? Would it kill them to set up a call center somewhere in the U.S? Aren’t they making enough money to do that? These things aren’t cheap.

My drone arrived in Wickenburg on January 19 and some friends of mine rendezvoused with me in Quartzsite to drop it off on Monday, January 23. I’ve been playing with it — teaching myself how to fly it — ever since.

I just hope I never need to deal with DJI sales again.