Dear TSA

I’m really tired of the TSA going through my luggage — and repacking it.

TSA Inspection NoteTo say I’ve been doing a lot of traveling this past year would be to make a huge understatement. I’ve been on more than 20 airline legs since September and expect to be on at least a few more before I finally settle down in my new Washington home.

Because I travel with Penny the Tiny Dog and she counts as one of my carryon pieces of luggage, I usually have to check a bag. And what I’ve discovered is that the TSA doesn’t just look in random pieces of checked luggage. It looks in all checked luggage.

How do I know this? Well, the inspectors put a note like the one you see here in each piece of luggage they open. I have found one of these in every single bag I’ve checked.

And yes, I do sometimes lock my bag. Fortunately, my lock is TSA-friendly, so it isn’t broken and can be used again and again.

In all honesty, I wouldn’t mind the TSA going through my luggage if they’d just leave it packed the way I packed it. In many instances, my luggage includes breakable items, such as a laptop, portable hard disk, and/or bottles of wine. I pack very carefully to ensure that breakables are surrounded by soft items like clothing. This protects it from shocks and hard surfaces the bag might encounter during handling by the airlines — and the TSA.

Unfortunately, the TSA doesn’t seem to care how carefully I packed. It appears that they sometimes unpack my bag and then repack it. I haven’t noticed anything missing, but I have noticed shock-sensitive items packed right up against the edge of my soft luggage, where it could be damaged if the bag is thrown or dropped.

And I don’t like that.

What can I do? Nothing — except to not put breakables in my luggage. Or not check luggage. Or not travel by air.

I can’t help thinking that the TSA’s baggage inspections are just another dog and pony show — as intrusive and ineffective as its backscatter scanners. The Notice of Baggage Inspection cards I find after every flight are just a reminder that big brother is watching. Whether their inspections are actually necessary or effective remains to be seen.

Penny, the Frequent Flyer Dog

A look at how Penny the Tiny Dog has accrued airline miles since September 2012.

Frequent Flyer Dog
Penny waits near the gate for a recent flight, chewing a bone in her travel bag.

One of the best things about having a tiny dog is just how easy she is to travel with. Indeed, Penny has been with me on almost every single trip I’ve taken since I brought her into my life on June 27, 2012.

Think I’m kidding? Here’s a quick look at the trips Penny and I have taken together since September 2012. This is just airliner flights and doesn’t include the helicopter and small plane flights we’ve done together, like the trips to Winslow, Williams, Page, Phoenix, Tucson, Lake Havasu, Flagstaff, the Grand Canyon, Georgetown (CA), Woodland (CA), Quincy (WA), Wenatchee (WA), and other places.

I’ll update this periodically so I have a permanent record of her frequent flyer status.

Date Departure Destination Miles
9/15/2012 Wenatchee Seattle 98
9/15/2012 Seattle Phoenix 1,106
11/12/2012 Phoenix Seattle 1,106
11/12/2012 Seattle Wenatchee 98
11/21/2012 Phoenix Sacramento 647
11/28/2012 Sacramento Phoenix 647
12/16/2013 Phoenix Dallas Ft. Worth 752
12/16/2012 Dallas Ft. Worth Jacksonville 796
12/30/2012 Jacksonville Dallas Ft. Worth 796
12/30/2012 Dallas Ft. Worth Phoenix 752
1/30/2013 Phoenix Seattle 1,106
1/30/2013 Seattle Wenatchee 98
2/6/2013 Wenatchee Seattle 98
2/6/2013 Seattle Phoenix 1,106
2/21/2013 Sacramento Phoenix 647
3/5/2013 Sacramento Las Vegas 345
3/7/2013 Las Vegas Sacramento 345
3/10/2013 Sacramento Phoenix 1,106
3/18/2013 Phoenix Sacramento 1,106
3/27/2013 Sacramento Phoenix 647
4/10/2013 Phoenix Sacramento 647
4/23/2013 Wenatchee Seattle 98
4/23/2013 Seattle Phoenix 1,106
4/26/2013 Phoenix Sacramento 647
5/6/2013 Wenatchee Seattle 98
5/6/2013 Seattle Phoenix 1,106
10/22/2013 Wenatchee Seattle 98
10/22/2013 Seattle Newark 2,394
10/29/2013 Newark Seattle 2,394
10/29/2013 Seattle Wenatchee 98
Total Airline Miles   22,089

Too bad I can’t get her on a frequent flyer plan.

Airport Tower Closures: Reality Check

March 24, 2013, 11:30 AM Edit: Got the airplane terminology wrong. Thanks to two airplane pilots for correcting me. I’ve edited the text to show the change. Sorry about the confusion. – ML
March 25, 2013, 2:15 AM Edit: Left out the word towers in a sentence.

Come on folks — it’s not as bad as you think.

Falcon Tower
The control tower at Falcon Field Airport in Mesa, AZ is a typical Class Delta airport tower. (This is not one of the towers scheduled for closure.)

I’ve been reading a lot lately about the FAA’s upcoming airport tower closures. A list is out and there are 149 airports on it. The reduction of funding due to the sequester is making it necessary to close these contracted airport towers all over the country.

Most news articles, tweets, and Facebook updates that I’ve read about the closures are full of doom and gloom. Apparently, a lot of people believe that airport towers are required for safety. But as most general aviation pilots can attest, low traffic airports do not need towers.

What an ATC Tower Does

Air Traffic Control (ATC) towers are responsible for ensuring safe and orderly arrivals and departures of aircraft at an airport. Here’s how it works at a typical Class Delta airport — the kind of airports affected by the tower closures.

Most towered airports have a recording called an Automated Terminal Information System (ATIS) that broadcasts airport information such as weather conditions, runway in use, and any special notices (referred to as Notices to Airmen or NOTAMs). Pilots listen to this recording on a special airport frequency as they approach the airport so they’re already briefed on the most important information they’ll need for landing. The ATIS recording is usually updated hourly, about 5 to 10 minutes before the hour. Each new recording is identified with a letter from the ICAO Spelling Alphabet, or the Pilot’s Alphabet, as I refer to it in this blog post.

Before a pilot reaches the airport’s controlled airspace — usually within 4 to 6 miles of the airport — she calls the tower on the tower frequency. She provides the airport controller with several pieces of information: Aircraft identifier, aircraft location, aircraft intentions, acknowledgement that pilot has heard ATIS recording. A typical radio call from me to the tower at Falcon Field, where I flew just the other day, might sound something like this:

Falcon Tower, Helicopter Six-Three-Zero-Mike-Lima is eight miles north, request landing helipads with Kilo.

An airplane calling in might say something like:

Falcon Tower, Cessna One-Two-Three-Alpha-Bravo is ten miles east, request touch-and-go with Kilo.

Kilo, in both cases, is the identifier of the current ATIS recording.

The tower controller would respond to my call with something like:

Helicopter Six-Three-Zero-Mike-Lima, Falcon Tower, proceed inbound. Report 1 mile north for midfield crossing at nineteen hundred feet.

To the airplane, he might say something like:

Cessna One-Two-Three-Alpha-Bravo, Falcon Tower, enter right downwind for runway four right.

(If you want to see what these instructions mean by looking at a detailed airport diagram, here’s one for you.)

Of course, if the tower controllers were really busy or there was some sort of problem at the airport, the controller could say something like:

Aircraft calling Falcon Tower, remain clear of the class delta airspace.

That means the pilot can’t come into the airspace — which is marked on charts and many GPS models — until the tower clears her in. That happens very seldom.

This is the beginning of the conversation between the air traffic controller in the airport’s tower and the pilot. What follows is a dialog with the tower providing instructions and the pilot acknowledging those instructions and then following them. The controller’s job is to sequence airplane traffic on the airport’s runway(s), making sure there’s enough spacing between them for the various types of landings: touch-and-go, full stop, low approach, etc. In the case of helicopters — which is admittedly what I know best — the tower can either put us into the traffic pattern with the airplanes (which really isn’t a good idea) or keep us out of the airplane flow. The tower clears airplanes to land on the runway and gives permission to helicopters to land in “non-movement” areas.

At the same time all this is going on, the tower’s ground controller is providing instructions to airplanes that are taxiing around the airport, either to or from the runways. Aircraft are given taxi instructions that are sort of like driving directions. Because helicopters seldom talk to towers, I can’t give a perfect example, but instructions from the transient parking area to runway 4R might sound something like this:

Cessna One-Two-Three-Alpha-Romeo, Falcon Ground, taxi to runway four right via Delta. Position and hold Line up and wait at Delta One.

These instructions can get quite complex at some large airports with multiple runways and taxiways.

Position and hold Line up and wait — formerly hold short position and hold — means to move to the indicated position and do not cross the hold line painted on the tarmac. This keeps the airplane off the runway until cleared to take off.

A pilot who is holding short waiting switches to the tower frequency and, when he’s the first plane at the hold line, calls the tower to identify himself. The tower then clears him to get on the runway and depart in the direction he’s already told the ground controller that he wants to go.

Air traffic control for an airport also clears pilots that simply want to fly through the airspace. For example, if I want to fly from Wickenburg to Scottsdale, the most direct route takes me through Deer Valley’s airspace. I’d have to get clearance from the Deer Valley Tower to do so; I’d then be required to follow the tower’s instructions until the controller cut me loose, usually with the phrase “Frequency change approved.” I could then contact Scottsdale’s tower so I could enter that airspace and get permission to land.

A few things to note here:

  • Not all towers have access to radar services. That means they must make visual contact with all aircraft under their control. Even when radar is available, tower controllers make visual contact when aircraft are within their airspace.
  • If radar services are available, tower controllers can ask pilots to Ident. This means pushing a button on the aircraft’s transponder that makes the aircraft’s signal brighter on the radar screen, thus making it easier for the controller to distinguish from other aircraft in crowded airspace. The tower can also ask the pilot to squawk a certain number — this is a 4-digit code temporarily assigned to that aircraft on the radar screen.
  • Some towers have two tower controller frequencies, thus separating the airspace into two separately controlled areas. For example, Deer Valley Airport (DVT) has a north and south tower controller, each contacted on a different frequency. When I fly from the north over the top of the runways to land at the helipads on the south side, I’m told to change frequency from the north controller to the south controller.
  • The tower and ground controllers coordinate with each other, handing off aircraft as necessary.
  • The tower controllers also coordinate with controllers at other nearby airports and with “center” airports. For example, when I fly from Phoenix Gateway (IWA) to Chandler (CHD), the Chandler controller knows I’m coming because the Gateway controller has told him. Similarly, if a corporate jet departs Scottsdale (SDL) on an Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) flight plan, the Scottsdale controller obtains a clearance for that jet from Phoenix Departure or Albuquerque Center.

I should also point out two things from the point of view of a pilot:

  • Dealing with air traffic control does add a tiny bit to the pilot’s workload. The pilot must communicate with the tower before entering the airspace, the pilot must follow the tower’s instructions (unless following those instructions is not safe, of course). I know plenty of pilots who would rather fly around a towered airport’s airspace than fly through it — just because they don’t want to talk to a controller. I’ll admit that I’ve done this quite a few times — I even have a winding route through the Phoenix area between Wickenburg and Chandler that avoids all towered airspace along the way.
  • Air traffic control gives many pilots the impression that they are no longer responsible for seeing and avoiding other aircraft. After all, the tower sees all and guides aircraft to avoid each other. But there have been instances where air traffic control has dropped the ball — I experienced one myself years ago — and sometimes this can have tragic consequences.

Low Traffic Airports Don’t Need Towers

As you can probably imagine, the more air traffic coming and going in an airport’s airspace, the busier air traffic controllers are.

A very busy airport like Deer Valley, which has at least two flight schools, several helicopter bases (police and medevac), at least one charter operator, and a bit of traffic from corporate jets, can keep controllers pretty busy. In fact, one of the challenges of flying in and out of Deer Valley is being able to get a call in on the radio — it’s often a steady stream of pilot/controller communication. Indeed, Deer Valley airport was the 25th busiest airport in the country based on aircraft movements in 2010.

Likewise, at an airport that gets very little traffic, the tower staff doesn’t have much to do. And when you consider that there has to be at least two controllers on duty at all times — so one can relieve the other — that’s at least two people getting paid without a lot of work to do.

Although I don’t know every towered airport on the list, the ones I do know don’t get very much traffic at all.

For example, they’re closing four in Arizona:

  • Laughlin/Bullhead City International (IFP) gets very little traffic. It sits across the river from Laughlin, NV in one of the windiest locations I’ve ever flown into. Every time I fly into Laughlin, there’s only one or two pilots in the area — including me.
  • Glendale Municipal (GEU) should get a lot of traffic, but it doesn’t.
  • Phoenix Goodyear (GYR) is home of the Lufthansa training organization and a bunch of mothballed airliners, but it doesn’t get much traffic. Lufthansa pilots in training use other area airports, including Wickenburg, Buckeye, Gila Bend, Lake Havasu City, and Needles — ironically, none of those have a tower.
  • Ryan Field (in Tucson; RYN) is the only one of the three I haven’t flown into, so I can’t comment its traffic. But given the other airports on this list, I have to assume the traffic volume is low.

They’re also closing Southern California Logistics (VCV) in Victorville, CA. I’ve flown over that airport many times and have landed there once. Not much going on. It’s a last stop for many decommissioned airliners; there’s a 747 “chop shop” on the field.

They’re closing Northeast Florida Regional (SGJ) in St. Augustine, FL. That’s the little airport closest to where my mom lives. When she first moved there about 15 years ago, it didn’t even have a tower.

These are just the airports I know. Not very busy. I know plenty of non-towered airports that get more traffic than these.

How Airports without Towers Work

If an airport doesn’t have a tower — and at least 80% of the public airports in the United States don’t have towers — things work a little differently. Without a controller to direct them, pilots are responsible for using the airport in accordance with standard traffic patterns and right-of-way rules they are taught in training.

Some airports have Automated Weather Observation Systems (AWOS) or Automated Surface Observation Systems (ASOS) that broadcast current weather information on a certain frequency. Pilots can tune in to see what the wind, altimeter setting, and NOTAMs are for the airport.

When a pilot gets close to a non-towered airport, she should (but is not required to) make a position report that includes her location and intentions. For example, I might say:

Wickenburg Traffic, helicopter Six-Three-Zero-Mike-Lima is ten miles north, landing Wickenburg.

An airplane pilot might say:

Wickenburg Traffic, Cessna One-Two-Three-Alpha-Bravo is eight miles southeast. We’ll be crossing midfield at five thousand to enter right traffic for Runway Two-Three.

Other pilots in the area would hear that call and respond by making a similar position call. The calls continue as needed at the pilot’s discretion — the more aircraft in the area, the more calls I make just to make sure everyone else knows I’m out there and where I am. Pilots then see and avoid other traffic to land or depart the airport.

It sounds crazy, but it works — remarkably well. In Wickenburg, for example — an airport that gets a lot of pilots in training practicing takeoffs and landings — there might be two or three or even more airplanes in the traffic pattern around the airport, safely landing and departing in an organized manner. No controller.

And this is going on at small general aviation airports all over the country every single day.

What’s even more surprising to many people is that some regional airlines also land at non-towered airports. For example, Horizon operates flights between Seattle and Wenatchee, WA; Wenatchee is non-towered. Great Lakes operates between Phoenix or Denver and Page, AZ; Page is non-towered.

The Reality

My point is this: people unfamiliar with aviation think that a control tower is vital to safe airport operations. In reality, it’s not. Many, many aircraft operate safely at non-towered airports every day.

While the guidance of a tower controller can increase safety by providing instructions that manage air traffic flow, that guidance isn’t needed at all airports. It’s the busy airports — the ones with hundreds of operations every single day — that can truly benefit from air traffic control.

The 149 airport towers on the chopping block this year were apparently judged to be not busy enough.

I guess time will tell. And I’m certain of one thing: if there is any accident at one of these 149 airports after the tower is shut down, we’ll hear about it all over the news.

In the meantime, I’d love to get some feedback from pilots about this. Share your thoughts in the comments from this post.

Flying Southwest

Pleasantly pleased by the quality of service on this original-thinking airline.

I’ve been traveling a lot lately. A lot. And most of that travel has been on four airlines: US Air (formerly America West, hub in Phoenix), Alaska Air (hub in Seattle), American Airlines, and Southwest Air. Since September 2012 — that’s less than six months — I’ve flown to Phoenix, Seattle, Wenatchee, Las Vegas, Sacramento, Dallas, and Jacksonville — in many cases, multiple times to each destination. (And I want to say here how great it is to finally be able to travel without guilt or the restrictions imposed on me by my soon-to-be ex-husband.)

I always favored US Air for my trips between Phoenix and some other city served by US Air. That changed when I began making more trips to Wenatchee, which requires a stop in Seattle along the way; on those flights I use Alaska Air/Horizon. And although I used to use Continental (now part of United) for my trips to Florida through their Houston hub, I switched to American through Charlottesville, NC in 2011.

SouthwestI’d flown Southwest Air back in its infancy, when people would queue up two hours before flight time to ensure a seat. I don’t like to wait in line for anything, so I always wound up with a crappy middle seat in the back of the plane. To me, it wasn’t worth saving a few bucks when I couldn’t get a seat assignment. So I avoided Southwest in favor of other alternatives.

Recently, though, I’ve rediscovered Southwest — and I like what I’m seeing. Here are some of my observations.

The End of the Line

Southwest has finally come up with a reasonable way to handle seating that doesn’t require seat assignments (saving them money and effort) and doesn’t require waiting on long lines (saving passengers frustration).

Now, when you check in — preferably online — you get a boarding pass with a letter/number combination that indicates your boarding number. So, for example, someone quick to check in might be assigned B3 (as I was the other day). That means you’ll be the third person to board in the B group. Each group can have up to 60 (I think) people in it. The A group is special: its for people who bought more expensive tickets or paid for earlier boarding. It’s seldom full, so the beginning of the B group isn’t a bad place to be at all. In fact, on my most recent Southwest flight, with a B3 boarding pass, I nabbed a window seat in Row 4. Not too shabby.

Best of all, I didn’t have to pay extra for that seat. Most other airlines, these days, consider front-of-wing seats “premium” seats and can charge $25 or more extra for assignments there.

Line Up HereMy friend Jim didn’t understand how this numbering system could possibly work. I explained how Southwest uses queue-up areas with numbered posts or signs. When the A group is called, people sort themselves in order along these signs, using their boarding passes for reference. It’s all very orderly and civilized — no jostling for position because it’s pretty clear where each person should be in line. Then, after the first half of the group goes through the gate, the first half of the next group lines up. It’s amazingly efficient and I truly believe the plane loads faster.

Two Bags Fly Free

Free baggage check is another way Southwest saves me money.

Unfortunately, because Penny the Tiny Dog usually accompanies me on my trips, her travel bag counts as one of my carry-on items. My large travel purse counts as another. That’s two and that’s the limit on any airline. That means that unless I don’t have any luggage — which is rare — I always have to check at least one bag.

Most airlines usually charge $20 or $25 for the first bag and often up that amount to $40 or $50 for the second bag. (I usually just have one to check.) But Southwest allows you to check two bags for free. As you might imagine, there are reasonable limitations on size and weight — just like there are on other airlines. And if you happen to have a third bag to check, you’ll pay a hefty $75 to check it. But the two bag allowance saves me money.

Baggage Claim No Longer a Big Deal

I used to hate checking luggage, mostly because of the baggage claim ordeal. Simply said, I — and the person I was often with — didn’t like waiting for luggage.

But now that I fly with Penny, things are different. My first priority, on leaving the plane, is finding a place for Penny to do her business. That means exiting the terminal as quickly as possible, usually in search of a patch of grass. (Phoenix is a really dog-friendly airport; it has a fenced-in dog walk area at each of its three terminals.)

Once Penny has relieved herself, I’m free to go back into the terminal and retrieve my luggage. By that time, my bag is usually already on the carousel and the crowd is gone.

So thanks to Penny, baggage claim is no longer an ordeal at all.

Baggage Claim with Penny

It also saves room in the airplane cabin and speeds boarding. Why? Well, when an airlines charges for checked baggage, people try to save money by carrying on all their luggage. In fact, a passenger is more likely to carry on luggage than check it, so almost everyone on board has the maximum amount of luggage they can slip past a gate agent at boarding time. Big wheelie bags and other large items can be squeezed into the overhead compartments — so they are. Tons of them. This fills the available space quickly and, because they have to be stowed before a passenger can sit down, it requires boarding passengers to wait until each piece is stowed and the passenger gets into his seat.

Last-Minute Flights? Itinerary Changes? No Problem!

I think one of the best things about flying with Southwest is the ability to make changes to your itinerary without paying a penalty. This is extremely important for me these days, as I often need to make changes to existing flights or book last-minute travel.

Here’s an example. I recently booked a flight to Las Vegas about three days before my travel date. I got the same low fare I would have gotten if I’d booked it weeks in advance. Then, while in Vegas, I decided to travel to Sacramento instead of Phoenix. I got online and, with a few clicks, I was able to replace the Vegas to Phoenix flight with a Vegas to Sacramento flight. I was charged for the difference in cost between those two flights: $52.

Like most other airlines these days, Southwest makes it easy to book one-way travel. And because I don’t pay a extra for last-minute bookings, I can leave my travel plans wide open and decide where I want to go when I want to go. This freedom has made a huge difference in the way I travel, giving me opportunities to make spontaneous trips to visit friends and relatives whenever I like.

Don’t get me wrong — the fare category I book is still considered “non-refundable.” That means I can’t get my money back. But it doesn’t mean I can’t use that money to book other travel — without a fee. And with the craziness of my life these days, that’s a huge plus.

There’s an App for That

Airline Apps Ranked

Here’s a list of the airline-specific apps I’ve tried so far, ranked from best to worst.

  1. American Airlines – You can book travel, check flight status, check in, display a digital boarding pass at security and the gate, and see maps of many airport terminals.
  2. Alaska Air – You can check flight status, check in, and display a digital boarding pass at security and the gate.
  3. Southwest Air – You can book travel, change flights, check in, and check flight status.
  4. US Air – I found this app nearly useless and actually removed it from my iPhone and iPad. I can’t remember what it did.

Again, this is just an overview based on my limited experience. I think I should do a more detailed review and update this, possibly for a blog post in my upcoming travel blog.

Southwest, like some other airlines, has an iOS app (and likely an Android app, although I really don’t know for sure) for managing travel. In my experience with other airline apps, it’s neither the best nor the worst of the bunch. But it does allow me to do three important things:

  • Check in timely. As mentioned earlier, your seat on a Southwest Air plane is determined, in part, by the group and number assigned when you check in. The quicker you check in the better the group and number. Check in opens exactly 24 hours before a flight. I can use a reminder on my Calendar app to warn me when check in time is approaching. I can then use the Southwest app to check in exactly at that time. Sweet.
  • Book Travel. I can check fares and book flights from anywhere, right from my phone. This is extremely useful with my travel schedule; a computer isn’t always handy.
  • Change Flights. I can look for new flights and swap them into my itinerary, right from my phone. Again, this is extremely useful, given that I often make travel plan changes.

What the app doesn’t do, however, is create a scannable boarding pass that I can use at security or the gate. It seems that Southwest prefers to collect paper boarding passes at the gate. This isn’t a huge deal for me, since I normally have to check a bag anyway and a visit to the check-in counter (or curbside check in) is still required. I usually wind up getting a printed boarding pass there anyway.

Limited Food/Beverage Service

Admittedly, the longest Southwest flight I’ve ever been on was under 2 hours. And during those flights I never once saw a rolling service cart in the aisle.

Why? Because Southwest doesn’t offer a wide variety of food on its short flights. In fact, other than peanuts or pretzels — which are free with beverage service — it doesn’t offer any food. (Again, this might not be true of longer flights, which I haven’t experienced yet.)

Instead, once we complete the climb out on departure, a flight attendant walks down the aisle and takes drink orders. If you’re buying alcohol, she takes payment. Then, a while later, she comes back down the aisle with a tray and distributes the beverages she has orders for, along with a bag of peanuts or pretzels. Simple.

Why do I like this? Well, mostly because it keeps things simple. I seldom get out of my seat during a flight, so the presence (or absence) of a rolling cart doesn’t really affect me. But I like the quick and efficient way the flight attendants can get the job done.

If I want to snack on a plane, I always buy something to eat in the terminal before boarding anyway.

I’m Sold!

All together, these benefits really make it worth flying Southwest as often as possible. It’s now my first choice for airline travel — I just hope it flies to many of the destinations I need to visit.

A Weekend in Wenatchee, a Helicopter Flight Home

Cramming a lot into three days.

Last weekend, I took Alaska Air/Horizon from Phoenix to Wenatchee, WA. I left on a Friday morning with the goal of being back in Wickenburg with my helicopter on Sunday night.

Friday: The Travel Day

Pilot Don
Don at the controls, over Peoria, AZ.

My day started early at Wickenburg Airport. My friend, Don, came to pick me up in his helicopter at about 8:30 AM. After topping off his tanks with fuel — which was cheaper at Wickenburg than his winter base in Deer Valley — we headed southeast.

Don is one of my good friends. Like me, he lives in Washington in the summer and Arizona in the winter. But unlike me, his main home is in Washington; mine is in Arizona. The past two winter seasons, we shared hangar space — at least part time — at Deer Valley Airport. That’s where we met. Don owns an R44 like mine but blue. He’s retired and likes any excuse to fly. On Friday morning, I was his excuse. He came up to Wickenburg, picked me up, and flew me down to Sky Harbor.

What most folks don’t know is that Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix has a public helipad on the top of the Terminal 3 parking structure. (Don’t believe me? Next time you’re at the airport, take your car up there to the roof and see for yourself.) The helipad doesn’t get much use. In fact, I’m willing to bet that Don is one of the top 10 users with me in the top 20 during the winter months. I blogged about the helipad here and here and even put a video online here.

Don Flies Away
Don’s departure to the north.

Don dropped me off with my limited luggage, waited until I was clear of the helipad, and flew away to the north. I had just two small bags: an overnight bag that contained primarily camera equipment and my Bose headset bag. My A20 headset had been repaired under warranty and shipped back to my Wickenburg home; I wanted to use it on my upcoming long distance flight.

I took the elevator down to the baggage claim level, went out to the curb, and waited for the airport shuttle bus. I was at Terminal 3 and needed to be at Terminal 2. If it wasn’t so damn hot out already — at 9 AM! — I would have walked it. Instead, I waited for the bus, consulting my watch every 30 seconds.

Fortunately, the security lines at Terminal 2 were short and they didn’t ask me to go through the naked x-ray machine — which I won’t go through. So I was walking to my gate with time to spare before my 10:20 AM flight. Enough time to get a shoeshine and spend most of my time in the chair helping the shoeshine guy attract his next customer.

Grand Canyon from Airliner
This is what the Grand Canyon looks like from an airliner. And yes, I’ll admit it: I actually took this photo on the way home from Seattle in September.

The flight was uneventful. The only item of note is the pilot or first officer who acted as a tour guide throughout various portions of the flight. I’ve never heard a pilot provide so much information about what was out the windows. We flew near or over the Grand Canyon, Bryce National Park, and, of course, the mountains south of Seattle: Rainier, St. Helens, Adams, Hood. I was on the right side of the plane and felt a surge of homesickness when I spotted the Columbia River basin near Quincy. I also caught sight of the smoke from the fires that were still burning between Wenatchee, Cashmere, and Ellensburg. The air over the Columbia, however, was much clearer than it had been on the day I’d left three weeks before.

At SeaTac, I needed to meet up with my co-pilot for the return trip, Ronnie. Ronnie is a pilot who used to live in Arizona but now lives in Colorado. She’s a flight instructor who mostly flies Schweizers these days, but she’s checked out and endorsed in R44s. I’d asked her to join me on the return flight to Phoenix because I was worried that I might be too tired to make the flight alone. I haven’t been sleeping well for the past few months and would likely be doing a lot of flying on Saturday, before our planned afternoon departure. Her flight landed right after mine. We texted back and forth and finally met up near her gate. We’d take the same flight together to Wenatchee.

We arrived in Wenatchee on time at about 3:30 PM. We walked to the general aviation terminal, where the truck I used all summer was parked and waiting for my return — with the luggage I’d packed three weeks before for my return trip. It started right up. We stowed our bags and drove it out onto the ramp. Then I peeled off the helicopter’s blade hail cover and cockpit cover and tossed them into the back of the truck. We unloaded all the gear I’d left in the helicopter and stowed it in the truck, moved the truck off the ramp, and went back out to the helicopter. I wanted to make sure it started — I hadn’t flown it in over three weeks — and top off the tanks with fuel. It seemed like a good idea to take Ronnie for a quick flight around the area.

I preflighted, we climbed aboard, and I primed the engine. When I pushed the starter button, the helicopter roared to life as if to say, “Where the hell have you been? Let’s go flying!” A few minutes later we were airborne, heading southwest.

I showed Ronnie the orchard I’d been based at for the end of the season and the now-empty RV pad my host had built for me near his home. Then we popped over Wenatchee Heights and headed out to Malaga. I showed her my friend Al’s winery and the 10 acres of view property I hope to buy in January for my new home. Then we crossed the river, hovered momentarily near the tasting room for Mike and Judy’s winery, and went in for landing at the pumps at Wenatchee Airport. As we were coming in, another helicopter pilot got on the radio and welcomed me back.

(I should mention here that I was supposed to stay in Washington until October. I’d been working on a video project for another one of my winemaker friends. In April, when I brought my RV up from Arizona, I’d videoed the bottling process. I was supposed to video the late September pick and crush at several of the wineries. But things back home had become so uncertain that I simply had to return to check things out. And although I had every intention of coming back to Washington to do the video work I planned, what I found at home convinced me to stay. Thus, I missed out not only on getting the video work done, but I also had to turn down at least a dozen charter flights and winery tours that probably would have been good for about $10K in revenue.)

We fueled up the helicopter and I repositioned it on the ramp. By that time, my friend Jim was about 20 minutes out with his helicopter. Jim also flies an R44. He’s based in Coeur d’Alene, ID and operates Big Country Helicopters there. Like me, he’s a cherry drying pilot. During the summer, we’d arranged to work together at the Wenatchee Wings and Wheels event at the airport on Saturday, October 6. We’d be doing helicopter rides for $35/person. Jim had brought along his wife and another ground crew person. Ronnie would also help out during the event.

Jim arrived and parked beside me on the ramp. We then set about stowing all the helicopter gear from the truck in the general aviation hangar so I could squeeze the five of us in the truck for the trip into Wenatchee.

We got rooms at the Coast Wenatchee Center Hotel, which was quite nice. Ronnie and I shared a room, not only to save a few dollars but because it was the last available room in the hotel. Jim had reservations; we didn’t. We were pretty lucky to find a room at all because of a big event going on in Leavenworth, about 20 miles away.

At the Rivertop
I think this sign says it all about the Rivertop Bar and Grill.

We had dinner at the Wok About Grill. Jim and I are still dieting; Mongolian Barbecue makes it easy for us to pick and choose exactly what we eat. Later, we went up to the top floor bar in our hotel for drinks. While we were there, a DJ came in, started playing a weird mix of music, and turned on one of those disco balls. We left before the Karaoke began.

Saturday: The Big Event

Of course, I slept like crap. It’s difficult to deal with insomnia when you’re sharing a room with someone else. There are limits to what you can do without waking the other person. I spent a lot of time reading and doing social networking on my iPad. By the time 6 AM rolled along, I’d had about four hours of sleep. I hopped in the shower, dressed, and put on some makeup. By that time, Ronnie was half awake. I left her at 7 AM with a promise to be back my 9:00 to take everyone back to the airport. I had things to do and people to see.

My first stop was up in Wenatchee Heights, at the house where I’d parked my RV in late August and early September. The house belonged to my friend Mike, who had agreed to store my motorcycle for the season in his garage. I needed to retrieve my Moitek video camera mount. I wanted to bring it back to Arizona with me so I could do video flights while I was home during the winter months. I unlocked the house and dragged the two Pelican cases to the garage door where the truck was parked and waiting. But I could not lift the larger of the two boxes by myself. I needed help.

So I called Steve, the next door neighbor. He’s building a garage with an apartment on top for retirement and he was there and awake. A while later, he was helping me lift the two boxes into the back of the truck.

Next, we needed to make sure that the truck fit in Steve’s garage. I’d made arrangements with him to store the truck there over the winter. His garage has three bays and solar heat. He’d graciously agreed to let me park the truck there, out of the elements. In return, I told him he could use the truck for any Home Depot runs he needed to do. After measuring the garage bay and the truck, I drove it in. It fit with about 3 feet of space to spare.

Steve gave me a cup of coffee and we chatted for a while. His upstairs apartment is coming along nicely. He’s a really nice guy — hell, all of the people I’ve met in Washington are really nice — and I really appreciated him helping me out with the truck.

Then I was off to my next meeting: a visit with Alex the Bird and the folks who have agreed to take her for the winter.

When I knew I had to leave early to check on things back home, I arranged with Leah and Freddy, who live on the orchard, to watch Alex the Bird. Even though I planned to return, I suspected that bringing Alex home with me would not be a good idea. It would complicate matters that were already likely out of control. So I asked them if they’d take her for the winter. Not only did they say yes, but they were excited about it. With two kids, a dog, and a cat, I knew their home would be a great environment for Alex. I also suspected that Alex would entertain them.

I rang the bell at 8 AM, as scheduled. Alex was in her cage in the kitchen where she could watch everything going on. She looked happy — but cautious — about seeing me. Our past year together — which included living in my husband’s Phoenix condo — had not been good. Alex hated the condo, maybe even more than I did. Not only was her space there dark with nothing going on to keep her entertained, but I spent long hours in my office, working on various books. Her winter molt had lasted far longer than it should have — an indication to me that she wasn’t happy. Even when we got back to Washington and she was staying in her favorite cage, I could tell that things were different with her.

In talking with Leah, I got the impression that she was happier with Leah’s family than she had been with me over the past year. It made me both happy and sad. And Leah was still enthusiastic about watching her. She told me about how much Alex kept them entertained. And she apologized about Alex learning the word “crap” from her son. I left them after a half-hour visit that included filling Leah in on what had gone on at home in the past three weeks. She, like everyone else, was extremely sympathetic and supportive.

I was back at the hotel at 9:15. Everyone climbed aboard and we headed up to the airport. The event was just beginning, starting with a pancake breakfast. We went out to the helicopters, removed the tie-downs, and preflighted. We already had several people waiting to fly. Because of the cold overnight temperatures, Jim needed a little help from the local mechanics to get his helicopter started. So I started up and started doing rides. I was just coming back from my second ride when Jim was spinning and ready to take on his passengers.

Waiting Passengers
The view from my seat as I waited for the ground crew to load passengers. The orrange-red plane in the photo is operated by the Spirit of Wenatchee. It’s a reproduction of the Miss Veedol, the plane Clyde Pangborn and Hugh
Herndon Jr. used to cross the Pacific Ocean in 1931.

We flew from 8:30 AM on. Our ground crew was excellent — no whining! Jim’s wife took the money and kept track of how many each of us flew. Ronnie did the safety briefings, using one of my safety briefing cards. Then Ronnie and Marshall loaded and unloaded the passengers. Jim and I worked hard to time the flight so only one of us was on the ground at a time. It was a constant flow of passengers for our 6- to 8-minute flights. The only time we stopped was for fuel: Jim first, then me a while later, and then Jim again.

Time flew. The event was supposed to end at 3 PM, but people were still lined up for flights. When Jim went for fuel around that time, I told him I’d keep flying until he was ready to fly again. Then Ronnie and I needed to leave. The plan was to top off the tanks, reload the gear, and get down to John Day Airport in Oregon before nightfall. But as time ticked on, that seemed less and less likely. Even when the tanks were topped off and we started loading our gear, I was doubtful about reaching John Day before dark. Sunset was just after 6 PM and it was already after 4 PM in Wenatchee.

Honey Crisp Rules!
The remaining apples, once I got them home. I’ve been eating them every day since and have given away a bunch more. Thanks, West!

Meanwhile, my favorite Wenatchee area client stopped by with a 40-pound box of Honey Crisp apples, picked only days before at one of the orchards we’d landed at quite often during the summer. I realized immediately that the box would take up too much space in the helicopter. So I gave away about half the apples to the mechanics at Wenatchee airport and to Jim and his crew, then cut the box down to half size to get the remaining 20 pounds home. The box was still a lot bigger than I needed it to be, but there was no way I was going to part with any more of those apples.

We struggled to get the Moitek boxes into the helicopter. Although we managed to get the big one in, it left very little room for the rest of the things we needed to take. I started getting stressed, probably because of the long day of flying and my general lack of sleep. I made two big decisions: (1) leave the Moitek behind and (2) start the flight home in the morning. Ronnie agreed.

In the meantime, Jim was just finishing up. He planned to fly back to Coeur d’Alene that night. It was about a 90-minute flight for him and he knew the area well. We repacked my helicopter and repositioned it for the night. Then we saw Jim and his party off and headed back up to Wenatchee Heights to store the Moitek back in Mike’s house.

Ronnie and I were both exhausted from the full day. We knew we’d have to leave Wenatchee very early in the morning to make it to Phoenix in time for Ronnie’s 5:55 PM flight to Denver. We got a room at an East Wenatchee hotel I’d stayed at before and tried to grab a quick meal in the restaurant behind it. Service sucked and we spent way too long there. Ronnie got a sandwich and I took the other half of my salad to go for the next day. We wouldn’t have time to stop for lunch; there would be in-flight meal service on our helicopter flight.

We were in bed and asleep by 9 PM.

Sunday: The Cross-Country Flight

It should come as no surprise that I slept like crap. I was up for hours in the middle of the night with my brain operating at light speed. My biggest worry: what was going on at home with me gone. My husband had become an irrational stranger over the summer and I honestly didn’t know what he was capable of anymore. Of course, I fell back to sleep around 4 AM. So when Ronnie’s alarm went off, it woke me up, too.

I grabbed a quick shower, dressed, and was ready to go within 30 minutes. It was still dark out with no sign of dawn when we got to the airport at 5:30 AM. It was cold, too. I’d dressed in a long-sleeved shirt and one of my Flying M Air denim shirts and a jacket and was still chilled. I preflighted with the help of a flashlight while Ronnie installed the dual controls. We lifted off at 5:50 AM as the sky began to brighten in the east.

Our Route
The actual track from our route, plotted on a map. The kinks in the route were to fly around restricted or otherwise controlled airspace.

We were going the most direct route, which should be about 9 hours of flight time. We needed three fuel stops: Burns, OR; Elko, NV; and Mesquite, NV. Although I wanted to land in Wickenburg and drive Ronnie to the airport, it didn’t look as if we’d have enough time to do that. I’d evaluate the situation when we got to Mesquite; I was prepared to land her at Sky Harbor, just as Don had done for me two days before.

Ronnie at the Controls
Ronnie at the controls over Oregon or maybe Nevada.

The sun came up when we were just south of Hanford. We crossed the Columbia River near Hermiston to voice the restricted area west of there. From there, it was a straight shot to Burns. Ronnie did most of the flying, but I landed us at Burns because I knew where the fuel island was. We got there in good time. The place was deserted, but fuel was self-serve. I had the grounding strap connected before the blades had even stopped spinning. I don’t think we were on the ground more than 15 minutes. Then we started up and took off to the next stop.

The stretch between Burns and Elko crosses over some of the most remote, empty desert I’ve ever flown over. In the spring, the area is home to many large herds of wild horses. But in the fall, with most of the grass gone, there isn’t much life at all. We didn’t see a single horse — and believe me, I looked.

Fall Foliage from the Air
Fall foliage near Elko, NV from the air.

Again, Ronnie did most of the flying. I had my Nikon out and took a few pictures. Just a few because I really hate photos with glare in them and it’s nearly impossible to get glare-free photos through Plexiglas. We saw some pockets of fall color along the way. In some areas, it was quite beautiful.

We landed at Elko, where they have a great FBO. The line guy fueled us from a truck while we went inside to use the restroom. I also bought some oil — I’d been adding at least a half-quart at each stop — and bottled water. We were on the ground less than 30 minutes. Then we were airborne again, continuing southeast. It was about 11 AM. We were doing excellent time.

We ate our lunches, one at a time, just after leaving Elko. Ronnie went first while I flew. Then I went. Yes: I admit that I stole a fork from the restaurant. We’d kept the food cold in a little cooler I’d left in the helicopter just for that purpose; my salad was even better the second day.

We may have been doing good time, but it wasn’t good enough to land at Wickenburg and drive to Phoenix. That became clear as we neared Mesquite, NV. Even though we were on the ground there less than 20 minutes, we had at least 2 hours of flight time ahead of us. While it might be possible to land and drive to Sky Harbor in time for Ronnie to make her flight to Denver, there wouldn’t be time to stow the helicopter in the hangar before that. And with things as weird as they were back in Wickenburg, there was no way I would leave my helicopter out in the open without keeping an eye on it.

We skirted around the Grand Canyon airspace south of Mesquite, listening to the tour pilots on the radio talking about reporting points we didn’t know. I made a few position calls in relation to Meadview. As we climbed over the cliffs near Grand Canyon West airport, just when I thought we were clear of the tour traffic, Ronnie spotted another helicopter a little too close to our location for comfort. The other pilot must have seen us, too, because he took evasive action before we could.

Later, near the Weaver Mountains, I took control from Ronnie again and gave her a low-level thrill ride through the canyons that led to Lake Pleasant. It’s something that I usually do alone, but since Ronnie had commented on canyon flying earlier in our flight, I thought I’d give her a taste of what I do when I know the terrain very well. I admit that I’m spoiled: being able to fly where I like is something that most pilots who work for someone else don’t get to do.

It was around 4 PM when I made my radio call to Phoenix Tower. Ronnie used her camera to video our approach and landing on the helipad. (She put it on Facebook but I think access is restricted to her friends.) She climbed out and grabbed her bags. I watched her clear the helipad, then called for departure and headed north to Deer Valley. I’d need to buy fuel to get back to Wickenburg.

I took a nice rest at Atlantic Aviation, had some cold water, and chatted with the girl working the desk. Although I’d been shedding layers of clothing on every stop, I was still wearing jeans and a long-sleeved shirt in 90+° weather. But I felt remarkably refreshed when I headed out for the final leg of my trip to Wickenburg. Once I cleared the subdivisions and the power lines near Lake Pleasant, I dropped down low over the desert, speeding northeast. It felt good to be back in familiar territory.

But I also felt sad. I knew my days in Arizona were numbered. How many more times would I cross that familiar stretch of desert between Phoenix and Wickenburg? I didn’t know. One thing is for sure: I’m determined to enjoy every single flight.

I touched down at Wickenburg at 5 PM. By 5:30 PM, the helicopter was secured back in its hangar and I was heading home.

We’d shattered my previous record for the flight, completing it in about 9 hours of total flight time.