Photography: The Right Place at the Right Time

It’s kind of like the stars needing to align just the right way to get the best shot.

Practice Makes Perfect
This reminds me of a podcast I was listening to in the car just yesterday on my way back to Wickenburg from Winslow. It’s an episode of Freakonomics radio which discusses practice as a way of becoming an expert at anything. If you’re interested in learning or getting better at a skill and like to understand the science behind how things work, I recommend “How to become Great at Just About Anything.”

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine — we’ll call her Jane — shared a photo on Facebook. She’s an amateur photographer turning pro and has begun to sell some of her work. Other work has appeared in various publications. I’ve known Jane since she first took a serious interest in photography and it’s no exaggeration to say that her work has come a very long way since those early days. Many of the photos she shares now are absolutely stunning. Practice makes perfect — or at least helps you get closer to perfect.

Anyway, the photo Jane shared that day was one of those where she caught the light on her subject just right. It was one of her best shots — in my opinion, anyway — and I complemented her. I also added the comment, “It’s all about being in the right place at the right time.”

I don’t remember her exact response, but it was something like, “It’s a little more than that.” I suspect that I’d offended her and I certain didn’t mean to. But I’ll stand by what I said and make an attempt to prove it with an example. I’ll also share some of my philosophy about photography.

What Makes a Photo Great

The way I see it, a photo can’t be truly great unless the photographer nails three components: subject, composition, and light.

Subject
The subject of the photo is what the photo shows. It should be something beautiful or notable or interesting in some way. Beautiful is pretty straightforward, although I agree that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Notable is what I think about when using photography to document something, for example, the way a bridge cable attaches to a support or the design of a water fountain. (Yeah, I’m sometimes fascinated by silly things like that.) Interesting covers a lot of ground. The pattern of sand after a wave has come by is interesting. Paint peeling off a wall can be interesting, too. It’s part of the photographer’s job to make the subject something that speaks to us in some way, something that makes us stop and look and think. A good photographer can do that with just about any subject using the other two components.

Composition
Composition refers to the way the photographer arranges the subject and its surroundings in the camera’s frame. You may have heard of the Rule of Thirds and it’s a great thing to keep in mind when composing a photograph. But that doesn’t mean a photo can’t be great without following that rule. One of the differences between a good photographer and someone who haphazardly snaps dozens of photos in hopes that one will be good is that a good photograph can figure out where to stand and which lens to use (or how to set a zoom lens) and how to hold the camera to get the best composition more often than not. I should add here that a good photographer does not need to rely on cropping to get the right composition; she should be able to compose right in the camera. (One obvious exception to this rule is when a photo’s desired aspect ratio is unsupported by the camera; for example, a square photo would require cropping.)

Light
Of course, photography absolutely depends on light. Without light, there would be no photography — after all, that’s what the camera’s sensor (or film in the old days) records. What so many amateur photographers don’t understand is that there is good light and bad light. Natural light changes with the weather and time of day. Blue hour or twilight light is, as the name suggests, bluer and dimmer than daylight. Golden hour light tends to be redder and softer, casting longer shadows. Midday light is often harsh and bright, flattening out the scenery. Beyond that, light can be direct or reflected or shadowed — sometimes all in the same composition. A good photographer using natural light — for example a landscape photographer like Jane (and me) — understands the importance of light and makes a special effort to photograph the subject at the best time.

Get all three of these right and the photo will be great. Get two of these right — for example, subject and composition or subject and light — and the photo might be good, but it won’t be great. Get just one right and the photo won’t be very good at all. (We’ve all seen these — think vacation photos uploaded en masse on Facebook.)

Being a Serious Amateur
I call myself a “serious amateur” photographer and I don’t use that phrase lightly. I see it this way: An amateur is someone who snaps photos without bothering to try to make the photo great. Good is good enough. A serious amateur is someone who understands what makes a photo great and puts a conscious effort into trying to make great photos. Each shot, objectively reviewed, is a step (hopefully up) on the learning ladder. Good is never good enough.

The trick is to objectively assess how good you’ve covered each of these components. And that’s a Catch-22 in itself: if you’re not a good photographer, you likely won’t be able to objectively critique your own work. That’s part of how practice makes perfect. Keep trying, keep comparing, keep objectively trying to figure out what could be better in each photograph you make. If you’ve got a good eye and you’re honest with yourself, you’ll get better all the time.

Right Place, Wrong Time

This past weekend, I was up in the Navajo and Hopi Reservations in Northern Arizona. This is an amazing place for landscape photography, with the broad desert scrubland of the Painted Desert punctuated by deep canyons, flat-topped mesas, and towering buttes. The west end of the Navajo Reservation is where red sandstone formations laid down when oceans covered the Four Corners region meet and merge with dark brown lava flows emerging from the multitude of volcanic cones north and east of Flagstaff. That’s where an explorer with a vehicle capable of tackling rugged roads can find the Grand Falls of the Little Colorado River.

Grand Falls Terrain
Nothing better illustrates the way the two landforms come together at Grand Falls than a satellite image like this one. You can clearly see the reddish rock of the painted desert butt up against the lava flows. One flow forced a bend in the river around it; the falls come right after that bend and then cut into the rock joint, forming the Little Colorado River Gorge. (The Colorado River flows east to west here.) Want to study this for yourself? Use Google Maps to Search for Grand Falls, Leupp, AZ.)

As a subject for photography, the Grand Falls is a crap shoot. I’ve seen the falls completely dry without a single drop of water flowing over the long shelves of rock. While that might be interesting to some folks — geologists come to mind — I personally lack the skills to make it interesting enough to qualify as a great photo. I’ve also seen the falls with water thundering over its entire breadth and mist rising up into the sky. When the water is flowing it’s always reddish brown from sandstone silt it picks up along the way, thus giving it the nickname “chocolate falls” or “chocolate milk falls.”

So timing is vital when visiting the falls. It nearly always runs with spring runoff from the mountains far to the Southeast, so spring time is the best time to visit if you want to see water. It also may run from monsoon rain in July and August — depending on weather, of course. But it was January — too cold for runoff and no monsoon rains. We did, however, have a good rainstorm on Friday night. And my trip to the Hopi Reservation put me just over an hour away. It was worth a try.

I was lucky. The falls were at about half flow: certainly interesting enough for some photos. So I had a good subject.

I spent about an hour shooting from various points along its south shore. I would have crossed the river to shoot from the other side, but there’s no bridge and the crossing looked a lot muddier than I was willing to try, even in my big four-wheel-drive truck. My ability to compose my shots was limited by where I could stand to shoot and the lenses I had with me. Although the photos here are from my phone’s camera, I did have my Nikon and three lenses with me. To fit the entire falls into the shot, I wound up using my 10-24mm zoom lens. This gave me a huge amount of flexibility as far as framing was concerned. I did the best I could and believe I got some interesting compositions that showed off the geology with manmade objects to indicate the scale — after all, Grand Falls is actually taller than Niagara Falls. So I was relatively satisfied with my compositions.

Light was another story. I arrived at midday, which would have been horrible on one of those perfectly clear, blue sky days Arizona gets so often. But it wasn’t a perfect day. It wasn’t even a nice day. I’d driven through fog to get to the falls and the low clouds had lifted only a few thousand feet above me. The light was soft but colorless. The sky was gray. The air felt wet.

Now I know that lots of photographers like the kind of soft light that was all around me that day and I know it’s hard to make a bad landscape photo on a day like that, but it just doesn’t appeal to me. Still, you can’t adjust natural light; you have to take what Mother Nature delivers. So I did what I could. I got a bit excited when, about 30 minutes into my visit, the sun began shining down the canyon past the falls. I watched the soft sunlight creep up towards the falls, hoping it would give me the kind of spotlighting I’d seen downriver. I waited. I was at the right place — or as close to it as I could be — and I was willing to wait a while for the right time.

It didn’t come. The gap in the clouds closed up. Everything returned to the even flat light. I took a few more shots, got back into the truck, and left. The rain started immediately.

Grand FallsHere’s my favorite unedited cell phone shot from the visit. Note the sunlight on the canyon wall at the top left of the photo. I was waiting for that light to get to the falls, but it never did. The Nikon version of this shot shows a wider field of view and the composition is a bit better.

So did I get a great shot of the falls? I don’t think so. I did get a good shot, though. And, for a while, I was satisfied with that.

Right Place, Right Time

Until the next day. It rained (and snowed) again overnight and I figured there might be more water going over the falls. I was leaving La Posada in Winslow (where I was staying) and another trip to Grand Falls would only take me an hour or so out of my way. I knew that if I didn’t at least try it, I’d regret it forever. After all, how often do I get up to that area of Arizona with a sturdy vehicle and time on my hands?

There was some fog along the way, but not much. The sky was clearing and blue sky was poking out. There was definitely sunlight but it was filtered through lighter clouds. Soft yet bright light. It was still early in the day — not long after 9 AM — but long past golden hour. (I’m not sure whether golden hour would have been golden anyway; the clouds were still thick around sunrise.) As I drove the last 10 muddy, bumpy roads, plowing through puddles that would swallow a Smart Car, I wondered whether the angle of the sun would cast deep shadows across the falls.

Of course, that’s a whole other aspect of light. The angle of the sun determines where the shadows will be at various times of the day at various times of the year. It was winter, not long after solstice, so the sun was nearly as low in the southern sky as it would be. And it was morning, so it would be low in the southeastern sky. The falls faced southwest, with a canyon wall to the south. Would that canyon wall cast deep shadows at that time of the day? How long was I willing to wait there for the right light?

Turns out, I didn’t have to wait at all. The light was damn near perfect when I arrived. (Perfect as far as I was concerned, anyway.) The sky was an interesting mix of patches of blue with clearing clouds. The falls had about the same amount of water flowing over, which was okay.

Grand Falls
This is nearly the same composition, although for this shot I got down into a crouch to include some sunlight-illuminated plants in the foreground. (The crouch also allowed me to block the floating garbage patch at the base of the falls (ick!) with a rock formation.) The light was nice and soft and really added color to the shot. And because it was a soft light, the shadows cast by the wall of the canyon weren’t deep enough to screw up the exposure. This shot is also unedited, from my iPhone.

Is this a great photo? Some people might think so. I’m certainly pleased with it. But I can always do better. I just have to try.

But what it really illustrates is that it’s not enough to be in the right place for a good photo. You also have to be there at the right time. While I might not have been here at the “perfect” time to shoot a “perfect” photo, the timing of my second visit was much better than the timing of the first.


Related Posts:
I’ve written a bit about this before. Check out the following posts:

Mobile Devices, Passwords, and Security

A few words of wisdom from someone who has seen more than her fair share of hacking attempts.

This morning, when I fired up my laptop after a weekend away with friends, I was greeted with an on-screen notification telling me that there was a problem with my iCloud account.

iCloud, in case you don’t know, is Apple’s cloud service. I use it for some email and to synchronize data among my three computers and three mobile devices. I generally don’t use any cloud storage for any sensitive documents. I simply don’t trust it.

Today’s notification prompted me to log into my iCloud account. When I tried to do so, an error message told me that the account had been locked due to too many incorrect password entries.

I do know my password and I know I hadn’t entered it wrong too many times. That means someone else had. Another hack attempt.

This isn’t the first time someone had tried so hard to hack into my iCloud account that the account had been locked. It also happened back in October 2014. I know this date because I blogged about it back then — and oddly enough, that’s the most popular blog post so far today. (Is someone looking for clues in my blog? Good luck with that.)

Anyway, I went to Apple’s website and logged into my account again. That required Apple to send an email message to my backup account and for me to click a link in that message. I normally don’t click links in any messages I get unless I’m expecting a message with a link. I was expecting that one so I clicked the link, signed back in, and checked to make sure everything was still secure. It was.

I then changed my password, just for good measure.

A Lost Phone Story

All this comes right on the heels of a rough weekend for a friend of mine.

We went out to run some errands in the Phoenix area where she lives. Our first stop was Lowe’s. She took out her phone to take a picture of something she wanted to compare with other options in other stores. Then she decided she wanted to sketch it instead. She put the phone down and took out a pad and pencil. I wandered off to look at other things. We later met up at check out, I paid for my purchase, and we left.

About a mile down the road, she declared, while searching frantically in her purse, that she was having a senior moment. She couldn’t find her phone. When she realized it definitely wasn’t there, she began to panic. She knew she’d left it in Lowes. I turned around and we headed back. She ran in. I waited two minutes, then called her phone as she’d asked me to.

It went right to voicemail.

I knew what that meant: someone had picked up her phone and turned it off so it couldn’t be tracked. Someone smart enough to do that wasn’t going to turn it in at Lost and Found. The phone was stolen.

I went into the store and gave her the news. I had to explain what the phone going right to voicemail meant — she was in a bit of denial before panic took root. “My life is in that phone,” she told me. I asked the question I already knew an answer for: was the phone locked? Did she have to enter a password it to use it? The answer was no.

Worse yet, she had used an unsecured “memo app” to record her passwords for banks, credit cards, and all kind of other important things. If someone opened that app, they’d have complete access to her finances.

My friend is not a technically minded person. She had no idea what to do. She asked me. I’m an Apple person and I know exactly what to do for an Apple device. But I was at a lost with her Samsung Galaxy 5. I called her husband, who I knew would know. But he’s an airline pilot and his phone was switched off for a flight.

We raced to the closest Verizon store. I repeatedly dialed her number and it immediately went to voicemail each time. That means the phone was still turned off. The average phone thief would not be able to get data off the phone with it turned off.

At the Verizon store, my friend used the tech guy’s computer to log into her Google account. He pushed the right buttons to wipe the phone clean and basically brick the phone.

Disaster (probably) averted.

The odd thing about all this is that although I’ve been keeping my phone locked for the past few years, lately it’s been bugging me that I need to go through that extra unlocking step to use it. I’ve been debating with myself for the past few weeks about removing the passcode and leaving the phone unlocked for my own convenience. I even came close to doing it once or twice.

But after seeing what happened to my friend, there’s no way in hell that I’ll remove the passcode on any of my mobile devices or computers.

And if your mobile devices aren’t secured with a password, take my advice and secure them now. And then make sure that your devices can be wiped remotely if needed.

Passwords

Whoever attempted to access my iCloud account recently hit a wall when he/she couldn’t enter the correct password. Apple automatically locked the account when a certain number of incorrect attempts — three? five? — had been made. The lock required me to recover it using a secondary email account or security questions.

Passwords are the first line of defense for security. We all want to use passwords that are easy to remember and we all want to use the same password for everything. Resist the temptation! If your password is easy to remember, it might also be easy to guess. And if you use the password for everything, if someone guesses one password, they automatically have access to everything you used it for.

Your passwords should not be easy to guess. Period. They should be a combination of upper and lowercase characters and numbers with one or two symbols thrown in whenever possible. Minimum password length should be eight characters; longer is better.

Password Notebooks are STUPID
This is the most idiotic idea I’ve ever seen. Unless you plan on keeping this book locked up in a safe all the time, you’re just making it easy for a thief to access all of your accounts.

If you have trouble keeping track of your passwords, do not write them down in a place where other people can find them. That includes post-it notes, notebooks, and unsecured apps and documents on a computer or mobile device.

My wasband used to store all of his passwords in a Microsoft Word document that was not password protected. Then, as if that wasn’t dumb enough, he routinely emailed it as an attachment from one of his email accounts to another to get the file transferred between computers when he updated his passwords. He even did this after he knew that one of his email accounts had been breeched, thus giving the “hacker” access to all of his passwords everywhere. (And yes, I do constantly ask myself how I could have loved someone as stupid as he is.) For all I know, he probably still does this.

My advice? Instead of insecurely storing this information, invest a few bucks in a password security app. I use 1Password, which works on my Macs and iOS devices, keeping all of my passwords synced between them. (There are plenty of other options out there; feel free to suggest your favorite in comments for this post.) To access my passwords, someone needs to first get into my computer or device (which is password protected) and then open the 1Password app (which is password protected with a different password).

Don’t give your passwords to anyone — even someone you trust. A long time ago, when I was a lot less security-minded, I had a simple password I used for most (but fortunately not all) things, including my Netflix account. My idiot wasband, while we were still married, gave that Netflix password to his roommate. Fortunately, he did this right in front of me so I knew about it. (Let’s not go into how pissed off I was.) I spent a good portion of that day changing my password everywhere it might be used. Needless to say, I never gave him any of my passwords again — which served me well when the divorce proceedings started and I had assets to protect.

Security Questions

Security questions are the next line of defense. They help protect your account while giving you access to it if you happen to forget the password. It’s the security questions that protected my iCloud account back in October 2014; someone had actually tried to answer them and failed.

After my recent iCloud hack attempt, I checked and changed a few of my security questions. I was very pleased to see that Apple offered questions that dug deep into my past, with answers that only I would know. Mother’s maiden name is the last question you should select and answer — it’s too widely used. So is where you and your spouse met — how many times have you told that story? (And of course, your spouse knows the answer, which can come back to bite you when divorce papers are filed.) Always pick questions that are easy for you to answer but damn near impossible for anyone else to figure out.

Of course, there is a more devious way to handle security questions and that is to use the same password as the answer to all of them. So while the question might ask “What is your father’s middle name?” — a question that anyone who knows you can research to discover — the answer might be “Jj6MbFwp,” which is obviously not your father’s middle name. That same password would then be the answer to all of your other security questions. So while your ex is trying to figure out why the system isn’t accepting “John” for the father’s middle name question when he knows damn well the name is John, you’ve fooled him by using something he’d never guess in a million years.

Which approach did I use? I won’t tell.

Take Security Seriously

Computer and Internet security — is not something to be taken lightly. The more connected you are and the more you access your personal information and finances online, the more at risk you are for loss if someone is able to access an account. It’s only by having good, difficult-to-guess passwords for your accounts — and making sure you have different passwords for each account — that you can keep them safe.

And remember, your smart phone is likely to be more valuable to a thief than your wallet. Protect it!

Want to Learn How to Hover?

Practice.

Sheesh. This is the kind of email I get:

Maria, I just recently found you when I was researching the R44.
I am a new helicopter student, roughly three hours, and hovering or the cyclic in general, is kicking my butt! I have a good grasp of the movements and how you push in the opposite direction and so on, but I tend to move it too much or over-compensate. Would you have any pearls of wisdom you could pass on about how you were able to lick this difficulty? Was there anything you practiced on at home or did you try visualization techniques? Anything would help.
Thanks a lot in advance.

Okay, so this guy thinks that any 3-hour student pilot should be able to hover. That’s there’s some magic trick I can teach him that will make him a whiz at this. Or that he can “visualize” something and it’ll just work.

Sheesh.

The answer is easy: practice.

Seriously: practice makes perfect. Ever hear that one? It’s true.

Learn to Fly HereIt takes, on average, 5 to 10 hours for a student pilot to learn how to hover. To hover, you need a feel for the controls. You can’t get a feel for the controls without actually manipulating the controls. The more you manipulate the controls, the better you learn how they feel.

In other words, practice makes perfect.

This guy is new and naive and somehow thinks he’s dropping the ball on this. He’s not. He’s floundering the way every single one of us did.

I blame his CFI for not explaining to him that hovering isn’t easy. I’m wondering if his CFI is one of those cocky know-it-alls who is just doing time as a CFI, hating every minute of it and taking it out on his students. The kind of CFI who’ll likely die in an accident on his first or second job — if he isn’t lucky enough to get fired first — because his crappy attitude causes him to cut corners or let complacency take him by surprise. Or he attempts one too many “watch this” moments.

We all know the type. You can read about some of them in the NTSB reports.

In fact, hovering is probably the hardest thing a helicopter pilot learns to do — and we have to learn to do it first. You can’t fly a helicopter unless you know how to hover.

So my answer to him and any other new helicopter pilot who is struggling to learn this basic skill is simple: practice.

And one day soon, you’ll just be able to do it. It’s as simple as that.

Making It Happen

You can do it if you try hard enough and stop making excuses.

Yesterday evening, when I got home from a charter flight, it was a wee bit too windy to land on the platform I use to roll the helicopter into the garage. The platform sits in a rather confined area and there’s little room for error. A gusty tailwind could make for an ugly landing and I simply didn’t want to deal with it. So I did what I’ve done on a few other occasions: I landed in the side yard.

The wind didn’t die down before nightfall, so I left the helicopter out there overnight. It was supposed to rain today anyway and I figured I’d just put it on the platform after any cherry drying flights I had to do. I do my best to limit the number of times I have to start or shut down the helicopter on my property so as not to bother the few petulant neighbors who, in the past, have complained — to others; not me — about it.

But this morning dawned bright and mostly sunny. I checked the forecast and, sure enough, it had changed. Apparently, the big rain would be on Sunday — unless the forecast changed again.

Of course, the beautiful — and I really do mean beautiful — morning light gave me an excellent opportunity to take a few new pictures of the helicopter. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you likely know how much I value Golden Hour light. And I never get tired of the view from my property.

N630ML at First Light
Flashy lawn ornament at first light.

My Prized Possession — for a Reason

As you might imagine, my helicopter is one of my prized possessions. (My new home is the other one.) Not only did it cost a huge amount of money to buy — and yes, I do own it outright — but it represents a series of achievements in my life:

  • writing a few best-selling computer books that eventually funded its purchase,
  • building skills to fly it safely as needed for the kinds of flying I do,
  • jumping hurdles set up by the FAA to operate it for Part 135 charter flights,
  • winning the right to keep it and my other business assets in my ugly divorce,
  • building a solid business around agricultural contracts in Washington and California, and
  • continuing to operate it as a primary source of income in my third career as a helicopter pilot.

It’s been a long road that started way back in 1997 when I took my first helicopter lesson and won’t end until I retire from flying and sell it to its next owner.

I often think about an airline pilot I was once friends with. He questioned why I would even bother learning to fly helicopters at my age — I was 36 when I started. “You’ll never make any money as a helicopter pilot,” he told me. Although I didn’t intend to make a living as a pilot back then, he turned out to be dead wrong. And I’m glad that I no longer have negative people like him in my life.

But think about how easy it would have been to accept his “expert opinion” and not try to move forward with any kind of career as a pilot. It was a built-in excuse for failure. Why try if this guy who knows the industry better than me says it’s impossible?

How many people do that? How many people simply don’t try because they think the odds are stacked up too high against them?

Anyway, as I snapped a few photos from every angle in that amazing first light of the day, I was thinking about this, thinking about what the helicopter means to me. Thinking about what it represents. Thinking about the series of actions I took to get from a 36-year-old who had only been in a helicopter twice to a 55-year-old — unlike other women, I don’t lie about my age — who makes a nice living as a pilot and has a helicopter parked in her side yard with that beautiful view behind it.

I’ve written about a lot of it here in my blog, and I don’t want to repeat it here. This blog has over 2,400 posts from the past 13 years. No shortage of things to read if you want to spend the time.

What I do want to touch on briefly here is the fact that just about all of us have it within our power to make things happen for ourselves.

I’m living proof of that. I’m from a lower middle class family where college wasn’t likely to be an option and got my first job — a paper route — when I was 13. I’ve been working pretty much nonstop since then — although my idea of work these days has little resemblance to the 9 to 5 grind most people deal with daily. (Hey, I was there for eight years and I know what you’re going through. The commute, the office politics, the meetings, the feeling that all you’re really doing is pushing paper. Ugh. Hope yours is better than mine was.)

Everyone dreams of doing or learning something special that’s important to them, but how many people do it? Some try but fail because they don’t realize from the get-go that achieving a difficult goal is a lot of hard work with very long hours and no guarantee of success. It takes planning, it takes funding, it takes the ability to work smart and have Plan B (or C or D) ready when things don’t work out as you expected. It’s easier to not try and to simply keep dreaming.

But do you really want to wake up one day when you’re 56 years old and realize that your life is more than half over and you haven’t achieved what you wanted to? (I think that’s what happened to my wasband; it pretty much caused him to lose his mind in a midlife crisis that went horribly wrong.) We only have one life. Why would you let it go by without at least trying to achieve your dreams?

The Psychology of “Success”

I was in college, in a Marketing class, when I first learned about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. From SimplyPsychology:

Maslow (1943) stated that people are motivated to achieve certain needs. When one need is fulfilled a person seeks to fulfill the next one, and so on.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Wikipedia image by FireflySixtySevenOwn work using Inkscape, based on Maslow’s paper, A Theory of Human Motivation., CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36551248

The earliest and most widespread version of Maslow’s (1943, 1954) hierarchy of needs includes five motivational needs, often depicted as hierarchical levels within a pyramid.

This five stage model can be divided into basic and psychological needs which ensure survival (e.g. physiological, safety, love, and esteem) and growth needs (self-actualization).

The deficiency, or basic needs are said to motivate people when they are unmet. Also, the need to fulfil [sic] such needs will become stronger the longer the duration they are denied. For example, the longer a person goes without food the more hungry they will become.

One must satisfy lower level basic needs before progressing on to meet higher level growth needs. Once these needs have been reasonably satisfied, one may be able to reach the highest level called self-actualization.

The SimplyPsychology page about Maslow goes on at some length, making it difficult to decide when to end the quote. If this interests you, I highly recommend that you read it for yourself. It’s in plain English and a lot easier to decipher than the Wikipedia entry.

Maslow’s Hierarchy stuck with me since I first learned it. It made so much sense. It almost provides a blueprint for a good and fulfilling life. We are motivated for obvious reasons to take care of our basic needs like food, water, shelter, rest, and safety. Once those have been dealt with, we can move on to psychological needs like friends, relationships, prestige, and a feeling of accomplishment. Once we feel secure psychologically, we can move on to the need for self-actualization: achieving our full potential and realizing our dreams.

I admit that I was a bit put out when I learned this — keeping in mind that I was only 17 at the time — by the notion my professor suggested that once we’d found self-actualization, there was nothing left to motivate us. But since then I’ve realized that self-actualization isn’t the achievement of one thing. It’s the achievement of as many things as we like.

Here’s an example from my life. Since I was a kid, I always wanted to write a book (and have it published). When I was 31, I achieved that goal. So what does that mean for me? Game over? Call it quits? No. There was another goal waiting in the wings to step forward when that had been achieved: to make a good living as a writer. And I had other goals throughout my 20s and 30s and beyond: learn to ride a motorcycle, visit all 50 states (still working on it; haven’t been to Minnesota yet), learn to fly helicopters, manage rental properties (what a mistake that was!) — the list goes on and on. As it should.

Some people think of these goals as “bucket lists.” I’m not a fan of that. I don’t believe in check lists of things that we put off until we’re ready to “kick the bucket.” I believe in doing things now, while we can really enjoy them and learn from them and possibly let them change our lives.

Flying is a good example. I wanted to learn how to fly helicopters since my first ride at age 7. I never dreamed I’d be able to do it, but when I had the time and money to learn, I did. Then I got hooked on flying. I bought a helicopter. I dreamed of being a Grand Canyon pilot and built the experience (measured in flight hours) to qualify. I did that for a season. And before I knew it, I had bought a bigger helicopter and was doing what had to be done with the FAA to build a charter business. Now flying is my primary source of income. Yet when I took my first lesson back in 1997, I never thought I’d fly for a living.

Good thing I didn’t wait until I was collecting social security to take that first lesson, huh?

A side note here: 36 is older than usual to start flying, but not too old. Two of the helicopter pilots who flew with me this season also got late starts as pilots. One of them co-owns a helicopter flight school that has two locations and a bunch of helicopters and employees. The other works for him and just this week has built the 1,000 hours of flight time he needs to get his first commercial pilot job. Both men are in their 40s and have been flying for less than 10 years.

Make It Happen

As usual, I’ve wandered away from my original point. I have so much to say that it’s difficult sometimes to stay focused.

My point is this: we all have the power within us to make it happen.

Inspired Pilot

Back in March 2015, I was interviewed for the Inspired Pilot podcast. This is the brainchild of Marvyn Robinson, a UK-based pilot and IT guy, who interviews pilots with the goal of having them provide inspirational thoughts and information for people who want to learn to fly. It was a real pleasure to share my story. If you’re interested in the path other pilots took, I highly recommend it.

Take care of the needs at the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy. Don’t piss away your money trying to satisfy higher level needs until the lower-level ones are satisfied. (Do you really need a Mercedes when a used Honda will do? Prestige is better earned through actions than flashy, expensive possessions, despite what advertisers tell us.) Get and stay out of debt so you don’t need to be a slave to a job or lifestyle you hate. Think about what you really want in your life: a skill, a dream job, a business doing something you love? Do your homework — find out what it takes to meet your goals.

And then turn off the television, get your head out of your phone, and stop wasting time whining and complaining and making excuses for why you can’t succeed. Work hard and smart, keep your eyes on the goal and what you need to do to reach it. You can do it.

The Video

I started this post by explaining why my helicopter was parked in my side yard and what I was thinking and feeling about it as I photographed it from various angles. What I didn’t mention is that I made a video, too.

I tried to put into words what I was thinking and feeling. I always feel a bit awkward about showing off the helicopter. It’s one thing to put a picture of it in action or parked at a landing zone online, but it’s another to actively brag about it and what it means to me. I know that owning a helicopter is beyond the wildest dreams of most people. But I also know that it was once beyond my wildest dreams — go figure, huh? Maybe anything is possible.

The video does get a little personal. I mention my wasband and how sorry I feel for him. I wish I could have done a better job motivating him to achieve his goals, but in all honesty, I could never understand why he would need motivation from me. Remember Maslow’s Hierarchy? I’ve come to realize that I’m more driven than the average person to reach the top of his pyramid, but I didn’t know it back then. To me, the man I spent more than half my life with was intelligent and had or could build the skills he needed to succeed in one or more of his many life goals. I could never understand why he didn’t even try — or why he gave up so quickly when he did. Instead, when I prodded him to work toward a goal — for example, flying more often so he could get the hours he needed to achieve his goal of becoming a flight instructor — he countered with excuses. After a while, I gave up with frustration. I now realize that not everyone is as driven as I am. He definitely isn’t.

Hindsight is 20-20.

Yes, I know that this blog post is addressing a first world problem.

Here in the United States, most people don’t have to worry about getting food or shelter or meeting other basic needs. Unfortunately, there is nothing I can do to help those in other nations who are less fortunate than we are. I can only recognize that they are struggling and hope that things get better for them.

That said, please don’t lecture me (or others) here about insensitivity to those less fortunate than we are. Read the Site Comment Policy for more advice about sharing your thoughts here.

The video also assures viewers that we all have it within ourselves to achieve our goals. Maybe I’m being too optimistic? I heard on the radio just yesterday that people in Argentina are starving right now because they can’t get food. And what of the millions of refugees in the Middle East and Africa? Can these unfortunate people ever achieve their dreams? I don’t know. They need to take care of the bottom of the pyramid first. So many people in today’s crazy world do.

But for the rest of us — like the dozens of people who have told me, during flights, that they’ve always wanted to be a pilot but never learned — what are you waiting for? Make it happen!

I did — and I continue to do it every day.

Helicopter Pilot Job Hunting Advice

My response to a job seeker.

Every once in a while I get an email (or phone call) from a helicopter pilot looking for work. Although I usually just ignore email — primarily because the pilots contacting me don’t qualify for the only position Flying M Air ever has listed on its Help Wanted page — and tell the caller we’re not hiring, the other day I got an email message from a U.S. veteran and decided to do more.

I have a soft spot for vets. They risk their lives to keep us safe — or at least follow U.S. military policy which is admittedly misguided at times — and they get a pretty raw deal when they return from service: bad medical care, difficulty finding jobs, etc. The G.I. bill helps these guys get an education that can take them farther in life and it’s always great to see someone taking advantage of it. I fully admit that if I did hire employees and I had two employees with identical qualifications but one was vet, I’d hire the vet. It’s the least I can do to thank them for their service.

The Sad Truth

Pilot Log Book
Until you log at least 1,000 hours of flight time, it’s next to impossible to get a decent job as a commercial helicopter pilot.

The guy who wrote to me was a vet with 10+ years of service. He came home, got an Associates degree at a community college, and got his helicopter ratings through CFI-I (Certified Flight Instructor – Instruments). He told me more in his brief list of qualifications, but to share more here might make him easy to identify and ultimately embarrass him, which is certainly not my intention. The key point is that he has less than 300 hours of flight time, which makes him pretty much unemployable as a commercial helicopter pilot for anything other than flight instruction.

Let me be clear: it’s not impossible to get a job as a pilot with as little as 300 hours of flight time. I know people who have done it. But in almost every single situation, the pilot’s “employer” isn’t paying him/her to fly. Instead, the pilot flies when needed and the “employer” collects and pockets the revenue. In some cases, the employer might provide living space. (I know a pilot who lived on a cot in a hangar until his “employer” went out of business and he found himself homeless.) In a few cases, the “employer” actually expects the pilot to cover part of the cost of flying. In other words, the “employer” is taking advantage of low-time pilots by using their skills without monetary compensation. In many cases, the amount of flying they do is so insignificant that they’re not even building the flight time they need to move forward in their careers. It’s not a job, it’s a form of indentured servitude.

How could anyone recommend a job like that? I certainly couldn’t.

So how does a new pilot build time? As a certified flight instructor. That’s why they get the CFI rating. It’s their ticket to an entry level job as a flight instructor. And with the right flight school, a CFI can build that extra 700 hours they need in a year or maybe just a little more. I call that part of a career “paying dues.”

My Advice

I have to admit that I felt sorry for the vet who emailed me. I knew that his chances of getting a decent job as a commercial pilot were pretty much non-existent. But I felt I owed him something. So replied to his email message. Here’s what I said, with a bit of identifying information edited out:

Thanks for writing. Although we’re not hiring now, I’d like to take this opportunity to give you some advice.

First, the chances of you getting a good job as a commercial pilot with just 277 hours is slim to none. As the folks at your flight school should have told you, most employers look for pilots with at least 1,000 PIC time. Most new helicopter pilots build that first 1,000 hours as flight instructors. If your flight school led you to believe otherwise, they did you a great disservice.

Second, when you visit the website for a potential employer, take a moment to look at job opportunities posted there before contacting them. You used a form on our website to contact me. The page you accessed (http://www.flyingmair.com/info/contact-us/) clearly instructs those looking for a job to visit our Help Wanted page (http://www.flyingmair.com/info/help-wanted/). The first paragraph on that page states that we do not have any full-time or part-time employees. It then lists the openings we do have: usually just cherry drying pilot, which requires both 500 PIC and a helicopter, neither of which you have. Simply sending a summary of your limited flying experience to any helicopter operator you can find an email address for — especially when it’s clear that you haven’t even ascertained whether that operator is hiring — isn’t likely to get you many responses.

Third, as a pilot and blogger, I’ve written extensively about flying helicopters, including a series about pursuing a career as a helicopter pilot. You might find it useful, especially Part 9 (http://www.aneclecticmind.com/2011/08/25/so-you-want-to-be-a-helicopter-pilot-part-9-pay-your-dues/).

While I admire your optimistic attempt to find employment as a pilot and I greatly appreciate your service in the US Military, I can’t help you beyond the above advice. Get a job as a CFI. Work your way up as most pilots do. Read my series for more tips.

Good luck.

Not the Only One Who Doesn’t Get It

I should mention here that last week I was also contacted by phone by an acquaintance in the helicopter pilot community. She (like another person I know in a similar situation) was attempting to build time through the use of a helicopter bought by a friend or business associate. She called me because the owner wanted to earn some revenue with his helicopter and she wanted to find out if she could get it on a cherry drying contract with me. There were multiple problems with this:

  • She called in July, when my cherry drying season was almost over. I didn’t need any pilots. (I contract with pilots in April.)
  • The helicopter was an Enstrom, which I prefer not to use for cherry drying.
  • Although a cherry drying contract has the potential to make good money for a helicopter owner, there’s no guarantee of flight time. As I’ve said over and over in numerous places, cherry drying is not a time-building job.

When I told her all this, she was disappointed. She asked if I had any ideas for building time. I told her the same thing I told the vet: get a job as a CFI.

There are No Shortcuts

It’s sad that so many people invest so much money in expensive helicopter pilot training and then find that they can’t get the pilot job they want right after earning their certificates. But it’s a fact of life.

And face it: college graduates with bachelors and even masters degrees are unlikely to step right into the kind of job they really want. The problem isn’t just with pilots. It’s with just about any career.

And yes, there are exceptions. But exceptions are for exceptional people.

If you think I’m trying to discourage people from following their dreams to become helicopter pilots, you think wrong. I’m just a realist. I hate to see people working toward a goal with inaccurate information about the path they’ll likely have to take. I’ve written about this over and over throughout this blog; the careers tag should bring up some examples of past posts.

But I can’t recommend my series about becoming a helicopter pilot enough. Really. Read it and the comments for each post. You’ll be glad you did.

Good luck.