Some Thoughts on Drone Photography

If you can’t beat them, join them.

Phantom 4
The Phantom 4 is a flying camera.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the rise of unmanned aerial systems (UAS), more commonly referred to as “drones,” these days, mostly because I’ve been able to get some good hands-on experience with the prosumer DJI Phantom 4. The Phantom 4 is marketed as a flying camera and I honestly think it’s a good categorization. Clearly it was designed for photography and it has given me a new appreciation for drones, which I don’t generally like.

Drone Threats

As a helicopter pilot, I’ve felt a rather unique threat from the rise of drones (no pun intended). I want to take a moment to explain, mostly because although my general opinion of drones has changed, my views about their threats have not.

Safety

First and foremost are my safety concerns. There are too many drone “pilots” who fly irresponsibly in places they should not be, including near airports and at altitudes that should be reserved for manned aerial flights. The FAA has attempted to reduce the risk of drone/aircraft collisions by setting a maximum altitude of 400 feet for drones. This is far from a perfect solution for two reasons:

  • Irresponsible drone pilots ignore the restrictions and fly higher than 400 feet above the ground. I have witnessed this more than once, although I’m glad to report that I wasn’t flying at the time.
  • Helicopters generally don’t have a minimum operating altitude so we can fly below 400 feet. Even my Part 135 certificate, which sets some limitations for on-demand charter flights, specifies a minimum altitude of 300 feet — this means I can legally be sharing 100 feet of airspace with UAS with charter passengers on board.

Drones are small. They can fly at speeds in excess of 50 miles per hour. I fly in speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour. That’s a closing rate, for a head-on collision, of 150 miles per hour. Does anyone really think I can “see and avoid” something the size of a 12-pack of beer coming at me at 150 miles per hour?

And if pilots are irresponsible enough to disobey FAA regulations, are they responsible enough to stay clear of aircraft?

Other drone-specific regulations regularly ignored:

  • Staying clear of temporary flight restriction (TFR) areas. There have been many reported instances of drones flying around wildfires being worked by firefighting aircraft. In some cases, these violations of airspace have caused the grounding of aircraft.
  • Staying clear of other restricted airspace. The one that worries me most is flights close to airports.
  • Keeping the drone within sight. That’s not easy to do when the drone has a range of more than 3 miles and it’s so small.
  • Not flying over people. I have witnessed this first hand many times at outdoor gatherings.
  • Obtaining FAR Part 107 certification for commercial use of drones. This certification helps ensure that drone pilots are real pilots who know and understand FAA regulations and important aviation and aeronautical concepts.

I can go on and on, but why bother? The fact is that although many drone pilots are responsible enough to learn and obey the rules for operating their drones, enough of them aren’t responsible at all. They make pilots — especially low-level pilots like those flying helicopters — worried about their safety.

Economics

The second threat I’m feeling is economic.

I’ll be blunt: over the past 15 or so years, I’ve earned a reasonable portion of my flying revenue from photography and survey flights. Drones are increasingly being used for both roles, thus cutting into my potential market.

I currently charge $545/hour for photo flights. Although I can cover a lot of territory in an hour and give two photographers a platform for aerial photos at the same time, not everyone sees the benefit. For about the same price, a photographer can buy a decent entry level photo drone and get the shots he needs. And then use the same drone another day without a further investment.

Or make a larger drone investment and get a better drone and better camera.

I’ll admit it: in many instances, a drone can get a better shot. A perfect example is a dawn photo shoot I did with a good client about two years ago. They’d staged the Wenatchee Symphony Orchestra at a local park, Ohme Gardens, and wanted sweeping aerial images of them playing. On our first pass, our downwash blew away their sheet music. (Oops.) We eventually got the shots they wanted, but I recall saying to my client, “You should have used a drone for this one.”

Aerial Orchestra
Here’s a still image from one of the aerial sequences we did that morning. Watch the whole video here; all the aerial shots were done from my helicopter.

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

And a four-hour shoot from Seattle to Mount Rainier along often remote areas of the Green River? I can’t even imagine doing that with a drone.

But not everyone sees that. So I see drones threatening part of my livelihood.

Flying Cameras

My generally poor opinion of drones was significantly changed this past week. What changed it? Getting my hands on a Phantom 4 and seeing the quality of the photos and videos

My friend Jim — a gadget guy if there ever was one — has one of these drones. He started off by showing me some of the video he’d shot on an RV vacation in the southwest with his wife last summer. I was immediately struck by how rock-solid and clear the images were. I’ve created footage with a GoPro mounted in various places on my helicopter and have seen footage created with high-quality professional video cameras from my helicopter both with and without gyro-stabilized mounts — Jim’s footage was as good as or better than any of that.

From a flying camera that costs less than $1,000. To put things in perspective, that’s less than my Nikon DSLR, which doesn’t fly.

Then Jim and I took the drone out for a few flights. It was remarkably easy to fly, even if you choose to do so manually. The controller has two sticks that were immediately familiar to me as a helicopter pilot. The left stick handles ascent/descent (like a helicopter’s collective) and yaw (like a helicopter’s anti torque pedals) while the right stick handles direction of flight (like a helicopter’s cyclic). The drone is amazingly responsive, but what really blows me away is that releasing the controls brings the drone to a controlled hover at its current altitude. And if that isn’t enough, several program modes and tools make it possible to program a flight. The damn thing can literally fly itself.

Phantom 4
Jim’s Phantom 4, awaiting takeoff near Vulture Peak in Wickenburg, AZ. I got a chance to experiment with both manual and automatic flying modes.

I could go on and on about the Phantom 4’s feature set — which I understand is shared by many competing products these days — but I won’t. I’ll let you explore them for yourself. There’s plenty of information online.

I will say this, however: As someone who has been involved in tech for a long time — hell, I wrote books about computers for 22 years starting way back in 1990 — I’m not easily impressed. The Phantom 4 completely blew me away.

Me? A Drone Pilot?

Jim, in the meantime, is looking to upgrade and offered me a sweet deal on his Phantom 4 with lots of accessories. That got me excited about owning one of these flying cameras. So excited that I watched all of the Phantom 4 tutorials on DJI’s website, worked through the FAA’s UAS pilot online training, and took (and passed) the FAA’s Part 107 pilot test. All I need is a meeting with the FAA and a sign off to become a certificated UAS pilot.

What does that mean? I’ll be legal to conduct commercial UAS flights. That means I can create (and sell) some of the photos and images I collect with a flying camera like the Phantom.

But I have other ideas for how I can make drone photography part of my professional life. Stay tuned; I’ll be sharing more on this topic in the months to come.

After all, if you can’t beat them, join them.

AOPA’s Consolidated Blog

Better exposure for my articles.

AOPA LogoI’ve been writing for AOPA’s helicopter blog, Hover Power, for about a year and a half. Back in February 2016, they published the first of three articles about the contract work I do: “Doing Wildlife Surveys“. The other two articles were in the queue, but never appeared.

After a while, I wondered what was going on and emailed my contact at AOPA. He responded that things were busy for him and that changes were underway.

Then a month or two later, one of my Facebook friends, who is also a pilot, shared a link to the second article in the series, which was about cherry drying. Heavily edited with its title changed to “Using a big fan” (seriously?), it appeared on AOPA’s main blog. The third piece, “Flying frost control,” appeared about a week and a half later.

The consolidation of AOPA’s blogs into one main blog is a good thing for me as a writer. It gives me more exposure for my work. (Obviously, I get paid, too; you can’t pay the bills with “exposure,” folks.) This has already paid off — Robinson helicopter’s newsletter editor called to ask if she could feature my cherry drying work in an upcoming issue of the newsletter. While that won’t earn me anything, it’s a nice little feather in my cap.

I haven’t written anything new for AOPA for a while — I was put off when my articles were shelved for so long — but I hope to come up with some ideas soon. I’ll likely be writing shorter pieces than I have been; this blog is updated about every two days and I don’t think I should overload readers with my typically wordy posts. And, let’s face it: the average AOPA pilot flies a plank — I mean plane — and isn’t terribly interested in rotary wing stuff.

You can find AOPA’s blog here. If you’re a pilot or interested in flying, I urge you to check it out.

And if you’re interested in reading some of my other published work, be sure to check out my Articles page.

At AOPA’s Bremerton Fly In

Why yes, a helicopter can camp with the airplanes at an AOPA event.

With cherry season over, travel season has begun for me. I started with a week-long road trip with my truck and the Turtleback at the beginning of the month. At mid-month, I set off in my helicopter for a four-night adventure with my favorite co-pilot, Penny the Tiny Dog.

About the Fly In

I’ve been an AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association) member for almost 20 years now — from the very start of my aviation training. Back then, I joined up primarily to get an AOPA credit card, which would give me a 5% rebate on all of my flight training. When you’re spending $200/hour for dual time in a helicopter — the going rate back in the late 1990s — 5% back is welcome. Later, AOPA helped me finance both of my helicopters, including the R44 I bought back in 2005 and still own.

I get AOPA’s magazine, Pilot, and write for their helicopter blog, Hover Power, which has apparently been merged with their regular blog. I’d heard a lot about their fly ins, but none of them were ever convenient to attend. But this year was different. This year, there was a fly in in Bremerton, WA, which was about an hour’s flight time due west of my home in North Central Washington. Best of all, it was after cherry season, so I’d be free to attend.

A “fly in,” if you’re not familiar with the term, is a gathering of pilots who fly in to a destination. There’s usually something there to draw them in. Often, it’s something as simple as a pancake breakfast or barbecue. But when the fly in is sponsored by a larger organization, such as AOPA, there’s usually a lot more. In Bremerton, there would be seminars, vendor booths, parties, display aircraft, and that all-important traditional pancake breakfast.

The timing was right — I had nothing else on my calendar (although I admit I turned down two charter flights for that weekend). Best of all, the weather would be perfect for a direct flight over the Cascade Mountains. And I even had one or two destinations for after the fly in so I could extend my weekend from two nights to four.

A Stands for Aircraft

As I sort of expected, it wasn’t going to be as easy to arrange as I’d hoped.

The camping information I was promised when I signed up never arrived in my email in box. (Oddly, a lot of stuff I’ve been expecting has never arrived; I’m beginning to think I’ve got email issues.) When the Bremerton Fly In website proclaimed that camping was full, I decided to follow up with AOPA. I was bounced from one person to another and finally began an email exchange with a woman named Paula who could help. She confirmed that I was registered for camping. But because I was flying a helicopter, they’d park me on the “north ramp” and help me get my gear over to the camping area.

So I would not be able to camp with my helicopter?

No, Paula told me. They can’t have helicopters with the airplanes. There were only two helicopters signed up and the other one wasn’t camping.

I told her that was unacceptable. I told her I wanted to camp with everyone else and that I needed my aircraft as a place to secure my valuables. I reminded her that the A in AOPA stood for Aircraft and not Airplane. I told her I’d been a dues-paying member for almost 20 years and was entitled to the same treatment as all other members.

She was at a loss for how to proceed, so I helped out. I told her I’d be arriving early on Friday and departing Sunday. Surely they could park me on the edge of the camping area and let later arrivals fill in the space between me and the folks that arrived before me.

To my surprise, she agreed. She said that many people arrived late on Friday and most left on Saturday so that should work.

I told her I’d be there sometime between 2 and 3 PM on Friday. I also told her I’d bring wheels in case I needed to be moved on the ground.

And then I set about packing.

Packing for the Trip

I do two kinds of camping: tent camping and RV camping.

RV camping is easy; almost everything I need is already stowed in the Turtleback. I add food and clothes, put it on the back of my truck, and set off.

Tent camping takes a bit more effort to prepare for. I stow all of my tent camping gear in two wheeled tool boxes. If I’m going on a regular car camping trip, I add food and clothes to those boxes, include a cooler with ice block jugs for cold items, and gather together items from the Turtleback, like my portable grill and fuel. When I went camping last summer with the guy I was dating at the time, we crammed all this stuff into the back of my Jeep. The wheeled boxes make it easy to transport camping gear from a vehicle to a campsite that might not be nearby.

I don’t go backpacking anymore. At least I haven’t for a very long time. I have no desire to do so and it would be a hard sell to get me to change my mind.

Camping with the helicopter would be a little more challenging. I had room for the smaller of the two wheeled boxes, but not both. Fortunately, I didn’t need all the gear in both boxes. I’d need a small cooler, but not my grill. I’d need a stove and percolator, but not a mess kit. I’d need a tent, but not a large tarp. So I had to go through all my gear and get what I needed packed into the smaller of the two boxes. Tent, air mattress, sheets, fleece sleeping bag, chair, throw rug, lamp, small tarp, stove, fuel, percolator. Most of it fit right into the bin. The rest, including a small cooler with milk for my coffee, dog food, drinks, and other food items, filled the back seat area of the helicopter. I added my orange traffic cones and ground handling wheels. My weekend bag full of clothes went under one of the back seats.

I put Penny on her bed on the front passenger seat — there was no room for her in back — and at around 12:30 PM on Friday, we set off for our long weekend.

The Flight West

We stopped at Pangborn Airport to get fuel before heading west. I had to wait behind two other airplanes fueling up. Is it my imagination or are there more planes flying at Pangborn these days?

I set my panel mount GPS for Auburn Airport and Foreflight on my iPad (EFB) for Don Johnson’s Home heliport. Don (not the famous one) is a friend of mine who owned a helicopter until just a few years ago. He recently accompanied me on a flight from the Sacramento area to his home in Auburn, WA. Don had a pair of helicopter door covers he no longer needed and wanted to give them to me. Since his home was on the way and I hadn’t seen him for a while, I figured I’d drop in for a few minutes.

The sky was cloudless and winds were light when we took off from Pangborn heading almost due west. My track would take me straight over the Cascade Mountains, between Stevens and Stampede Passes. This is a sort of “no mans land” for pilots — once I left the Wenatchee area, I’d pass over just two paved roads for the next 50 or so miles of the 80 nautical mile distance. In between were steep, rocky mountains peaks, steep slopes, mountain streams, and lakes. An engine failure would be a very bad thing — but any pilot who flies chooses a route based on the convenience of an engine failure along that route probably shouldn’t be a pilot.

Wenatchee to Auburn
My route west took me straight across the mountains. This is my actual track, recorded by ForeFlight.

I climbed out gradually, crossing each ridge I reached at a few hundred feet above it. Crossing the Cascades isn’t a big deal on a clear day. Although I honestly can’t remember the highest altitude I reached, I doubt it was more than 6,000 MSL. While a lot of sea level pilots might think that’s high, I learned to fly in Arizona, where there are many airports at 5,000 feet elevation or higher and mountain ranges that forced me above 8,000 feet to cross. The air smooth for most of the flight, although it did get a little rough when I reached the lakes far below me between Cle Elum and Snoqualmie Pass. I crossed I-90, continuing west. Mount Rainier towered in the near distance, snow-covered and serene. I remembered the flight I’d done a year or two before, following the course of the Green River to the base of the mountain and thought again about the deserted fire lookout tower we’d found perched on one of the mountain’s north-reaching arms.

From there, the terrain was mostly downhill. I descended, letting my speed creep up to 120 knots at times. The lower we got, the warmer it got. I opened the front door vents and the main cockpit vent. Penny stirred in her seat yet again — her bed was in the sun and I could tell that she was frustrated that she couldn’t climb in back. It was hot enough without a black fur coat on.

We got close to Don’s house and, as usual, I had to hunt around a bit to find it. The GPS coordinates on Foreflight were off by at least 1500 feet. I knew some of the landmarks and, of course, I knew what Don’s house looked like from the air. But the area was thick with tall trees. I finally caught sight of it, then set up for a straight in approach on my usual route in. It’s a steep descent; you can see a video of it in my post about my April flight with Don. As I came in, I saw two of Don’s garage doors closing; he was working in one of his garages — he has 10 — and was trying to prevent my downwash from blowing things around in there. Then we were on the ground and I was cooling down and Don was outside waiting for me. I let Penny out to run around with Don’s dog while I shut down the engine.

We chatted for a while and he gave me the two door bags, which I managed to squeeze into the helicopter with the rest of the gear in the back seat. Then we went inside for a cold drink. When he heard I was camping, he insisted on giving me a battery operated fan he’d used on a recent overnight bike ride. He said it had been so hot every night that he would have been lost without it. He gave me a fresh set of batteries to go with it, too.

I was already running late for my promised early arrival at Bremerton, so I didn’t stick around long. I got Penny back in the helicopter, said goodbye to Don, and started up. It was just after 2 PM when I climbed out the way I’d come.

Arrival at Bremerton

AOPA released an 18-page PDF with arrival procedures for the fly in. It contained detailed instructions on how airplanes coming in from just about any direction should approach and enter the traffic pattern. Although Bremerton is not a towered airport, there would be an Air Boss directing traffic. The document listed frequencies, provided waypoints (with GPS coordinates), and showed maps. If you were flying an airplane and had any questions about flying in, this document would answer it.

Unfortunately, the word “helicopter” did not appear anywhere in the document. There were no helicopter instructions at all.

Airplane pilots might be thinking, so what? Just follow the airplane instructions. But that’s not what helicopter pilots are supposed to do. FAR Part 91.126(b)(2) is clear on this:

Each pilot of a helicopter or a powered parachute must avoid the flow of fixed-wing aircraft.

To me, that means don’t follow the instructions in that 18-page document.

So what do I do? Fortunately, I knew exactly what the airplanes would be doing so they would be easy to avoid. I also knew that the Air Boss would be directing traffic. I figured I’d fly in as I normally would: direct to the airport and make a call a few miles out with my intentions. In this case, however, I’d be calling the Air Boss with a request and take his orders for landing.

I skirted around the south side of the surface airspace for Seattle Tacoma Airport (KSEA or SeaTac) and headed directly for Bremerton. I admit that I wasn’t too happy flying over the south end of Puget Sound — all that open water! I climbed to about 2000 feet to make a glide to land in the event of an engine failure just a little more possible. Then, on the other side, I descended to about 1000 feet, taking in the scenery around me. It was hazy from fires that were burning on the Olympic Peninsula to the northwest. I was flying over a land of forest-covered islands with straits between them.

Auburn to Bremerton
Here’s my route from Don’s place to Bremerton.

I tuned into the frequency for the Air Boss at Bremerton. It was busy with pilots calling in and the Air Boss patiently telling them to follow the procedures for approach. Occasionally, he would clear airplanes to land and provide taxi instructions. Once, he urged a pilot to get off the runway because another plane was landing behind him. (That 18-page document said, in several places, that pilots should not linger on the runway.)

I didn’t have the airport in sight when I called in from 3 miles out. I was only 500 feet up, avoiding the flow of fixed-wing traffic by staying below the traffic pattern altitude. “Bremerton Air Boss, helicopter six-three-zero-mike-lima is three east landing for camping.”

There was a pause before the Air Boss replied, “Are you the one that called in?”

“I’ve been emailing with Paula,” I told him. (I should mention here that a benefit of being a member of the female pilot minority is that my voice is easily distinguishable from other pilots on the frequency, making it possible to skip identifiers once in a while. Normally, I’d include my N-number in every radio communication.)

“Okay, zero-mike-lima. We know where to put you. Do you see that airplane on downwind?”

I looked. At that point, I could see a plane flying south at what might be traffic pattern altitude. “Zero-mike-lima has that traffic in sight.”

“I’m going to want you to make a lower traffic pattern to the south, outside of his,” the Air Boss said.

As I tried to envision what he wanted, the runway came into view. There was no one on base or final. It would be so easy to just dart across the runway. But I obediently started a turn to the southwest. “Zero-mike-lima turning downwind.”

“I’ve got you in sight now,” the Air Boss said. “Zero-mike-lima, just cross the runway to taxiway alpha and turn south. They’ll direct you.”

“Zero-mike-lima crossing the runway.” I banked to the right and bee-lined it for the taxiway on the opposite side of the runway. I found myself in a hover not far from where some airplanes were parked with tents set up. South would have taken me farther away from them, completely out of the area. So I turned north, figuring he’d made a mistake, looking for someone to flag me in.

A guy with two orange sticks like the kind they use to direct airliners was at the north end of a grassy parking area, directing me in. I followed his instructions to set down at the top of a tiny slope where stakes had been put in to prevent pilots from driving down the little hill. There was some confusion when he had me park perpendicular to all the other aircraft and I asked him whether I could turn sideways. He said he knew helicopters needed to take off into the wind so he thought I’d like that direction better. But the wind was a tiny breeze and I wasn’t taking off for two days. So he let me park facing west, which turned out to be a good thing when the sun really beat down on my camp.

I put Penny on her leash and dropped her out the door while I cooled the helicopter’s engine and shut down. We had arrived.

Making Camp

As I had suggested, they parked me at the edge of the airplane camping area. In the hours to come, they’d start parking other airplanes west and south of me. After climbing out and chatting with Paula, who’d come in a golf cart to greet me, I set up camp.

The breeze was just enough to keep me on my toes as I set up my little domed tent, which I’ve had for at least 20 years. It’s a good quality tent with a rain fly that really works — I can tell you from experience. I had bought new stakes for it and brought along a small sledgehammer to drive them in. I only staked the four corners. Then I inflated my air mattress using a rechargeable air pump I’d bought a few weeks before and made the bed with clean sheets. I opened my fleece sleeping bag and draped it over the bed as neatly as I could. It was going to be hot that weekend — it had already topped out at over 90°F — and I couldn’t imagine needing more. I set Don’s fan up nearby and hung a small battery lamp from the top of the tent. I didn’t bother with the dark blue tent fly — I knew from experience that it would turn the tent into a small oven.

Campsite in Afternoon
My campsite, right after setting up.

I stowed the gear I didn’t need back in the rolling box and set up my stove on the lid. I set up my chair beside it and my cooler beside that. I set the stack of cones — I really only needed one — under the end of the forward facing rotor blade to prevent a fuel truck or some other tall vehicle from driving where a blade strike might be possible.

I was just putting up my wind ribbon on a pole when Paula drove up again. “I can tell you’ve done this often,” she said.

I laughed. “No. This is only my second camping trip with the helicopter. But I’d like to do it more.” (The other time, in case you’re wondering, was at the Big Sandy Shoot way back in 2006.)

By this time, the sun was starting to dip to the west and the north side of the helicopter was in the shade. I settled down on my chair for a rest and to cool down. Penny, who’d been off her leash for a while, had to go back on it; other pilots were arriving and more than a few had dogs Penny wanted to visit with. I set her up with some cold water and food and watched the world go by while sipping an ice cold lemonade from my cooler.

Friday Night at the Fly In

It was probably around 5 PM when Penny and I headed toward the main event area. I didn’t have any tickets for any of the meal events and needed to buy them. I also needed a schedule of the seminars and other activities that would keep me busy on Saturday.

Some of the AOPA guys and vendors were still setting up, but the place was pretty much ready for the event. I wandered around, getting the lay of the land — the main event tent, the smaller session tents, a handful of vendor booths, and the big exhibition tent (which was closed). A bunch of airplanes were on display, including Miss Veedol from Wenatchee. I chatted briefly with Tim, one of the pilots who I already knew. Like me, he’d had a smooth direct flight across the Cascades.

I bought tickets for that evening’s party, the Saturday pancake breakfast, and Saturday’s lunch. Then, since it was hot and there wasn’t much else to do, I headed back to my camp.

A woman wearing a propeller beanie hat and riding a bicycle rode over to chat. Her name was Patrice and she was soon joined by her husband Pat who I’d apparently met (but, as usual, didn’t remember) in Wenatchee when he’d stopped in on a flight. Other people came and went. Some asked questions about the helicopter. I saw one person take a photo of my campsite when he thought I wasn’t looking.

After a while lounging around, studying the program, and catching up on social media, I headed back over to the event area. Although I’d arrived right on time for the party, there was already a long line for food. Penny and I queued up. I chatted with a couple on line behind me as we inched forward. Dinner was pulled pork with cole slaw and beans. And one of those Hawaiian rolls that was so good I finished it before I got to the salad bar.

Although I saw Patrice, who was looking for Pat, I wound up having dinner with Tim and the Miss Veedol gang. Tim had said to me that I had to meet his new friend Barry, who was also a writer. Barry, who was with them at dinner, turned out to be none other than legendary pilot/author Barry Schiff, a man who has been writing about aviation almost as long as I’ve been alive. We chatted a bit about writing and he got me motivated to get back to work on my flying memoir. (A winter project?)

All the time we were eating and chatting, a live U2 cover band was playing outside on a stage set up in front of the B-25, “Grumpy.” As night fell, it got cooler. There were stars and a big moon. It was great to be among so many pilots, most of whom were camped out for the night. I said goodnight to my companions and headed back to camp with Penny. I let her off her leash for the walk between airplane tent camp sites and she tore around like a crazy dog, excited to be let loose after hours of being under foot and under tables. I made a quick stop at the blue plastic building — which had a nice hand washing station beside it — along the way.

Music and Warbirds
They set up the band in front of “Grumpy.”

First Night at Camp

Back at camp, I took a few moments to attach the rain fly to the tent. Despite the fact that it had gotten very warm during the day, it had cooled off considerably. My tent has thin nylon walls, which makes it great for summer camping. But in cold weather, it really needs that full-sized rain fly to provide a layer of insulation. The wind had died down completely, so it was an easy job. I staked it out away from the tent in the back so I’d get air flow through the back window, as well as along the staked poles, not really knowing what to expect.

We crawled into the tent and settled in for the night. I closed the screen but left the door panel open. I got a reasonable flow of air through the tent. That was great — when I first lay down. But as the night progressed, the air got cooler and cooler. I woke up in the middle of the night, thoroughly chilled. After a quick walk in the moonlight to the blue building, I closed up the tent more securely, hoping to keep more warmth in. But I slept fitfully for the rest of the night, feeling the cold ground come up through the bottom of my air mattress. My fault entirely — I’d expected it to be very warm and it wasn’t. I’d have to redo the bed for Saturday night.

Saturday at the Fly In

It was light out — although the sun hadn’t yet risen — when I fully woke the next morning. I threw on some clothes and stepped outside for another visit to the blue building, this time with Penny in tow. It was a perfectly clear day with the temperature probably in the 60s. The sun felt good when it rose above the trees to the east and shined down on my little campsite. Other campers were stirring.

First Light at the Campsite
First light at our campsite on Saturday morning. It was a beautiful day!

Percolator on Stove
I “fixed” my coffee pot size problem with two heavy tent stakes. And no, the plastic parts did not melt.

I prepped the percolator to make a cup of coffee and got my first surprise: the pot was too small to fit on the metal brackets over the burner! ! Instead, it slipped down onto the actual burner, extinguishing it. I felt a moment of panic before annoyance took over. Surely I could do something to make this work. The solution turned out to be two of the tent pegs positioned on either side of the burner. The pot sat atop them. Problem solved. I was drinking fresh, hot coffee a short while later.

Other than a few snacks, I hadn’t brought any food — at least not for me. I did bring food for Penny, which I put out for her. She sniffed it and gave me a look as if to say, “You’re kidding, right?” For the rest of the trip, I’d be sharing my food with her.

After I made a second cup of coffee and dressed for the day — at which time I decided I needed a larger tent that I could actually stand up in — we headed over to the main event area. Breakfast lines were surprisingly short. I had pancakes and sausage, sitting inside the main tent with two pilots from Canada.

Then it was off to the seminars.

The first was about ADS-B, a new ATC tracking system that will be required on all aircraft that fly wherever a Mode C transponder is required — basically within 30 miles of any Class B airspace (think Seattle, Phoenix, Denver, LAX, JFK, etc.) — by 2020. I had a vague idea of what ADS-B was and what it might entail in the way of avionics upgrades, but by the end of the session I completely understood what I’d have to do and how I might benefit. I say “might” because I generally fly too low to be picked up on radar around where I live — literally “below the radar” — and since the ADS-B stations are ground based, I wasn’t likely to be picked up by any of them, either. But if I had a dual band receiver, I could pick up signals sent out by other ADS-B equipped aircraft so I’d see them on my GPS screen — if my systems were compatible.

After that session, the next time slot didn’t have anything that interested me — remember, this event was primarily for airplanes and so much of what the sessions covered simply didn’t apply to helicopter flying — so I decided to take that time to visit the vendor tent. I was mostly interested in applying what I’d just learned to figure out what my upgrade options were and what they’d cost me. There wasn’t much memorable about the vendor area except a few ForeFlight clones, a very crowded Garmin and ForeFlight booth, and a handful of vendors specializing in products or services for airplanes.

ForeFlight, in case you don’t know, was the first successful iPad app for pilots. I was an early adopter and have been using it for years. The FAA even certified ForeFlight on my iPad as my EFB (electronic flight bag) so it’s actually not legal for me to conduct a Part 135 charter flight without it on board. I can’t say enough nice things about ForeFlight. It’s changed the way I plan flights and navigate while in flight. It’s also saved me hundreds of dollars every year on Garmin GPS updates for my panel-mount Garmin 430 GPS — indeed, it saves me enough to buy a brand new iPad with ForeFlight subscription update every two years if I want/need to. (I’m even thinking of pulling that 430, which cost a whopping $12K back in 2005, out of my panel.) And Foreflight isn’t satisfied to rest on their laurels and just rake in the dough like other aviation product makers do — ahem, Garmin? — they’re constantly improving and updating their app, adding features all the time. They even listen to feedback from users; when I complained that their flight planner wouldn’t let me plan a helicopter flight with less than 30 minutes of reserve fuel (the airplane minimum), they modified the software to allow helicopters flight plans with 20 minutes of reserve fuel, as allowed by the FAA.

Do you think I like ForeFlight?

Anyway, since ForeFlight came out, a bunch of copycats have followed it. Garmin makes one of them. (Too little too late, guys.) There were a few others in the vendor tent. I wasn’t interested in switching. I’m sure that none can offer any more helicopter-specific features than ForeFlight or save me any money. And who wants to learn a new app?

But the beauty of using a tablet for an EFB is that I could easily change apps if I wanted to without dumping a lot of money on new panel-mount hardware.

I chatted with a few vendors about a few products. Along the way, I learned that one vendor’s ADS-B solution wasn’t certified for helicopters because of vibrations (huh?) and that I could probably get an ADS-B transmitter/receiver that would work with my iPad and ForeFlight. Although all the vendors at the seminar had urged pilots to get their systems upgraded now because of long waits at avionics shops, it’s clearly in my best interest to wait. As time goes by, more and possibly better and definitely cheaper solutions are coming to market. I could spend $3,000 to $5,000 now or wait three years and spend $1,500 to $4,000 for something better that might be more powerful or smaller/lighter. That’s what I think, anyway. Time will tell.

Penny Sleeping at Seminar
Here’s Penny, sound asleep at the ADS-B seminar.

I had lunch at 11:00 and ate it at a table in the shade of the big main stage tent. It was getting hot outside, just as forecasted — a beautiful sunny day that would soon be in the 90s. I shared my hot dog with Penny, who gobbled it right up and looked for more. She’d been extremely well-behaved all day, snoozing on the floor or my lap in the seminar and letting me carry her in the more crowded areas of the vendor tent.

A speaker came on the stage at 11:15. It was an older female pilot who had made as an airshow pilot. She started her presentation with a story about her father, an airline pilot, who crashed his plane when a passenger went berserk and how much it meant to her when accident investigators determined it wasn’t his fault. It was a weird story and it really turned me off to whatever came next. I got the distinct impression that she’d been telling that story in front of every audience she’d addressed for the past forty years, vindicating her father every chance she got. I was done eating anyway, so I left.

I’d planned on going to the ForeFlight tips seminar at 11:15, but arrived at 11:30 to a standing room only crowd. There was no way I was getting inside the tent — people lined the outside of the seating area and flowed out the doors. I didn’t think I wanted to go in anyway. With poor ventilation in the tent, it had to be nearly 100° in there. I’d get my tips some other time.

Grumpy
“Grumpy,” coming in to park after a flight.

Instead, I went back to the vendor tent and chatted with the few vendors that were too busy to speak to on my first time through. Then I wandered around the airplane exhibits, chatted with a few pilots, and watched the B-25, “Grumpy,” take off with a bunch of passengers who’d paid $495 for the privilege.

The 12:45 seminar I chose was back at the main stage. It was led by AOPA’s media guy, who apparently makes videos related to flying. He showed a series of snort video productions about various pilots or aircraft. Although they were pretty good, his “Top 40 Radio Voice” narration didn’t always fit in and sometimes made me laugh.

An hour later, I was sitting closer to the front of the room in the same tent for Barry Shiff’s presentation, which consisted mostly of funny flying stories with photos. It was, in a way, a sort of aviation stand up comedy routine. Not laugh-your-ass-off funny, but extremely entertaining. Barry has had a long career in aviation and aviation writing and has gotten many opportunities to be part of many interesting projects. Am I alone in considering him a legend? I felt fortunate to have had the opportunity to chat with him the evening before.

I stayed in the tent for the start of the AOPA Pilot Town hall — the last event of the day — but it seemed too much like an airplane-specific commercial for AOPA membership than a chance to learn something. So Penny and I wandered back outside and killed time at vendor booths and watching the B-25 some more. When the Town Hall was over, we near the front of the line for the “ice cream social,” which was basically a bunch of volunteers handing out wrapped ice cream sandwiches and pops that had to be eaten very quickly.

And then it was over. AOPA staff members and volunteers had already begun taking video equipment and signs out of the seminar tents. Vendors began packing up. And the folks who had flown in began leaving.

The stats, available a few days later, were impressive for the event. Over 4,000 people attended, with 690 aircraft (that would be 689 airplanes and one helicopter) flying in and 162 campers. (I’m thinking the campers number is people and not planes, but it could be planes because there were a lot of us.) You can find a summary with some photos here. An AOPA photographer came by my site on Saturday morning to take a photo but I haven’t found it anywhere online yet.

Evening After the Event

Penny and I headed back to the helicopter. I attempted to feed her again and she again turned her nose up to it. She’d had some water during the day and had more when we got in. I sat in my chair in the shade, watching the parade of airplanes taxi by and then take off past me. About half the campers had packed up and left; the others seemed to be sticking around for another night like I was. A few people came by to chat and look at the helicopter.

Someone came by with a flyer for a party that would have a live band. Its location was a bit vague so when Penny and I tried to find it later on, we found a hangar party with no live entertainment that seemed to be wrapping up and a tiny gathering of people in front of a band that seemed to be practicing. Nothing that matched what was on the flyer. (In hindsight, I think it was the gathering by the band which was likely poorly advertised so it was poorly attended.)

Penny with a B-25
Penny looks really tiny next to the front gear of a B-25.

I took some more photos of the classic airplanes sitting around, got yelled at for letting Penny off her leash, and then wandered over to the airport restaurant, leaving Penny tied up outside. (Penny is used to being left on her own when I go into a restaurant or someplace else she can’t go and is very well behaved when I have to leave her.) The place was crowded and I think the staff was overwhelmed. There was no air conditioning and the evaporative cooler I think they had running made the place kind of cool and steamy — if that’s even possible. I had a very unsatisfying meal, bought a plain hamburger for Penny, and headed back to camp. By this time, the sun was setting and I was ready to call it a day.

I remade the bed with my fleece sleeping bag zipped up and my top sheet folded inside it. This would provide two more layers between me and the ground. Then, after watching the sun set and the moon rise, visiting the blue building, and tidying up my camp in case the wind kicked up overnight, I crawled into the tent, got into my pajamas, and slipped into my sleeping bag. Penny curled up on her bed nearby. I read for a while and then fell asleep.

A Foggy Morning

Bremerton was IFR when I woke up the next morning. That means visibility was below minimums and it wasn’t legal to depart. Of course, helicopters can usually get a special VFR clearance, but what good would that do me if I couldn’t get to my next destination? Besides, I wasn’t in any hurry. As a matter of fact, I wasn’t quite sure where I was going to go.

Inside Coffee
My vestibule was large enough to set up my stove and make coffee.

After a visit to the blue building in the dreary predawn light, I staked out the front of my tent fly to create a little vestibule, moved my stove into it, and got the percolator going. A while later, I was drinking hot coffee while I caught up on social networking on my air mattress.

Outside, the other campers were beginning to stir. It was kind of wet outside — not the weather you’d want to be rolling up a tent in — so few were packing up. As the morning progressed, a few planes able to get IFR clearances took off into the gray sky. After a second cup of coffee, I got dressed, put Penny on her leash, and went back to the restaurant for breakfast. There were fewer people in there and both service and food were better. I had an egg scramble with bacon that was huge and brought back some for Penny. When I gave it to her back at camp, she turned her nose up to it, which got me worried because she hadn’t eaten much of the hamburger the night before either.

Back at camp, I made plans for departure. I’d originally thought I’d be bringing the helicopter to a children’s burn camp event in Bellingham, but the friend who’d asked me to do that had completely dropped the ball and hadn’t made any arrangements. (He later told me he’d been busy with a lot of other things. Whatever.) I was due to visit a friend in Salem, OR, but hadn’t planned to arrive until Monday and he wasn’t ready for me a day early. That meant Penny and I had a day to kill. With a helicopter.

I took my time packing up my camp. The weather was clearing slowly and there were pockets of visibility along the coast. I definitely wanted to be south of where I was by the end of the day, making my trip to Salem shorter instead of longer. But where to go? I did a bunch of research on my iPad and found an inn in West Port, WA, on the coast, that was walking distance from the airport there. They allowed dogs and had vacancy. I didn’t want to book a room until I was sure I could make it there, but there didn’t seem to be a problem on a Sunday night.

So with a destination in mind, I finished packing up my campsite, getting all my gear back into the rolling box and eventually back into the helicopter. A few of the folks I’d spoken to over the past day and a half stopped by to say goodbye. The weather had improved to the point where the airport was marginal VFR, so when I was ready to go, I started up the engine and warmed it up. Penny seemed to be happy in the co-pilot seat, curled up on her bed, already resting up for the next adventure.

It was just after 11 when I lifted off. Where was I going? For pie, of course! But that’s another story.

Flying with the Global Supertanker

A memorable photo flight and tour of an amazing aircraft.

The first call came from Global Supertanker over a month ago. Would I be interested in working with an aerial photographer to shoot dry runs and water drops made by the world’s only 747 air tanker?

The answer came with only a few thoughts of what this might entail: sure!

But because about 50% of the calls I get to fly Flying M Air‘s helicopter on unusual missions never actually happen, I didn’t get my hopes up too much. I tweeted about it briefly and mentioned it on Facebook. Then I filed it away in the back of my mind and got on with my life.

Until last week. That’s when another call came. And another. Soon I was taking down the names and phone numbers of contacts involved with the demo flight and photo shoot. Checking my calendar for availability and weather resources for forecasts; yes, Monday could work. Getting briefed over the phone about what they wanted to do and how I would help them get the video footage they needed.

I was very excited about the job — and not because of the potential earnings for a few hours of flight time. You see, it’s not always about money to me. It’s often about the opportunity to do something new and different, to meet people who are part of a different world, to participate in a program that’s interesting, to expand my horizons and learn new things. That’s a big part of what my life is about, that’s what drives me to wander down the paths I’ve chosen. It’s about taking on new challenges to make things happen.

And what could be more of an interesting challenge and learning experience than flying a videographer above a 747-400 air tanker as it drops 20,000 gallons of water over a Washington forest?

The date and time was set for Monday, June 20. I’d need to get to Moses Lake, WA by 7 AM so the photographer could install his equipment and I could get briefed with the flight crews of the two planes we’d be shooting.

A Busy Weekend

But I had plenty of other flying to do before then.

Friday was a training day, with me spending about an hour and a half practicing autorotations with Gary, one of the owners of Utah Helicopter, who is also a flight instructor and part of Flying M Air’s cherry drying team. Gary is a great instructor and I did pretty well, actually nailing the spot for a 180° autorotation twice in a row. (I didn’t tempt fate by going for a threepeat.) Afterwards, my helicopter got a 50-hour inspection, which is mostly an oil and filter change and spark plug cleaning.

Friday was also the day one of my Facebook friends excitedly announced, “The Boeing 747 Supertanker just landed at Tucson.” He was under the impression that it was there to fight the wildfire at Show Low, AZ. That got me wondering whether there were two of them. I soon learned that there was just the one and that the only reason it had stopped in Tucson was to refuel before flying on to Moses Lake. Truth is, the Global Supertanker hasn’t been certified yet; I’d be participating in part of the certification process here in Washington.

Saturday was a crazy flying day with rain most of the day and 7 hours of tedious flying over cherry trees. I figure I personally dried about 200 acres of cherry trees, including more than a few orchards that got dried two or three times. My team flew just as much, if not more. While it’s nice to get all those revenue hours, I dread long, widespread rain events like the one we had Saturday. It’s stressful for everyone and exhausting.

Sunday was a lot more enjoyable and nearly as busy, with seven Father’s Day flights, including two short ones for my next door neighbors and one for my mechanic and his family that included a flight down to Blustery’s in Vantage, WA for milk shakes. 5.3 hours logged.

And then there was Monday.

Prepping to Fly

Despite waking up at about 4 AM — I get up very early here in the summer — I got off to a late start. I’d planned 30 minutes to get to Moses Lake, but lifted off at 6:35.

At Moses Lake
Flying M Air’s helicopter parked at Moses Lake with the Global Supertanker.

The sky worried me. It was cloudier in the area than I’d expected based on the forecast and the radar showed rain to the southwest moving northeast, right toward the Wenatchee area. Not a good day to be taking off to the east. Although I’d never be more than 45 minutes flight time from my base, I did not want to break off from the photo flight to dry cherries. Fortunately, I had two pilots in Wenatchee who could cover the orchards. As long as it wasn’t another widespread rain event, we should be okay.

I made it to Moses Lake on time. I set down on the lone helipad in front of the Million Air FBO at almost exactly 7 AM. No one was around, but the big plane was parked on the ramp behind me.

Moses Lake
Moses Lake is a huge, underutilized airport.

I should say a few words about Moses Lake’s airport, Grant County International. First, it’s huge, with five runways, the longest of which is 10,000 feet. A former military airport, it still has a military ramp. It also has a U.S. Customs office, two FBOs that provide fuel, and a handful of flight schools. There’s a control tower but no airline service, despite a very nice terminal building. It’s used by Boeing to test fly 747s coming out of the factory in the Seattle area. They fly them over the Cascade Mountains, land them at Moses Lake, and then fly them around to work out any bugs before delivering them to clients. It’s the only airport I know where you can occasionally see 747s flying standard — but admittedly wide — traffic patterns and doing touch-and-goes. With a Boeing facility on the field, it was an obvious choice for the Global Supertanker people to continue work on their certification process.

Million Air doesn’t sell 100LL, the fuel my helicopter takes. It only sells JetA. But Columbia Pacific, which was supposed to open at 8 AM, sells 100LL. As I went through the shutdown procedure, I saw activity at its hangar and decided to try raising them on the radio. I’d need both tanks topped off before the flight. I got a line guy on the radio and put in a fuel order. He promised to get to it when he was finished with the other plane he was fueling.

I went inside the FBO to look for one of my contacts. It was a while before I connected with the photographer, Tom, who was piling gear on the floor after multiple trips out to his car. He’d driven in from Seattle with his camera mount, a brand new video camera, and a ton of other equipment. He asked me to move the helicopter closer to the building and I was in the process of going out to do so when the fuel guys arrived. Before they could finish, Tom had come out to the helicopter with one of the FBO line guys and his gear and began setting up. I removed the rear passenger-side door for him, stowed it in a Bruce’s Custom Covers door bag I had, and brought it into the FBO office for safekeeping.

Back in the FBO, I waited outside the conference room where a meeting of the pilots, FAA inspectors, and other program personnel was going on. While I waited, an FAA inspector came up to me and introduced himself. He asked if I was the pilot of the helicopter and when I told him I was, he told me he’d ramp-checked me. I was surprised and I think my expression revealed that. He laughed. “Don’t worry. You passed. Everything is fine. But I do need to get some info from your pilot and medical certificates.” I handed them over.

That’s when two things happened. First, I was called into the meeting. Second, my phone started ringing. Caller ID showed it was one of my cherry drying clients. I apologized and excused myself, took the call for an orchard drying request, hung up, and called one of my pilots to give him the job.

I was introduced to those assembled and put a few of my business cards on the table for those who wanted one. Then I was briefed, through map images on a laptop, of the planned routes and what my position needed to be. I got important information such as flight altitudes, operational frequency, and radio calls for various parts of the flight. The operating area was a place called Keller Butte, which was about 50 nautical miles north northeast on the Colville Reservation, not far from the Grand Coulee Dam. There was a fire tower there and one of my contacts was already there with a few other people to do photography from the tower. The other two aircraft was the 747-400 Global Supertanker and the lead plane, a King Air, which would do “show me” flights and then guide the larger plane to the drop zones for both dry and live runs. There were two planned run routes at or below 5,000 feet elevation in the hilly terrain around the Butte.

Wake Turbulence
Wake turbulence, illustrated. The best way to avoid it is to stay far away or above the plane.

My main concern, of course, was wake turbulence from the 747. Wingtip vortices from the big plane’s wings trail out and down. If I flew too close to the plane — especially at a slightly lower altitude, I could be caught in them. Only a week before, I’d been caught in the relatively minor wake turbulence caused by a Dash 8 at Wenatchee. I was far enough back that it wasn’t an issue, but I certainly did feel it. Getting even that close to a 747 configured for a low pass would be catastrophic for me and my aircraft. The solution was to stay above it. I asked about altimeter settings so we would all be dialed in the same way. One of the pilots said we’d start with the setting for Moses Lake and then update it in flight. They said they wanted me at least 200 feet above. I was thinking 500 feet.

I got and made another call while I was in the meeting. Those attending were surprisingly understanding. Now both of my Wenatchee pilots were flying. I knew that if the cherry orchard acreage started adding up beyond the point where my guys could cover it promptly on their own, I’d have to leave to help them. This would inconvenience my new clients and ruin any possibility of future work with them. But when I stepped out of the meeting and consulted Wenatchee area radar, I saw that whatever cells had moved in were already moving out or dissipating. There would be no more calls.

Before the meeting broke up, I was introduced to my front seat passenger, Phil from the FAA. So yes, I had to conduct a complex photo flight with an FAA inspector sitting next to me. No added stress, huh?

Camera Mount
Tom’s camera mount. The camera is facing the wrong direction in this shot.

Meanwhile, Tom, the photographer had set up his camera on a weird hanging mount in the left rear seat. Its heavy padded base sat on the passenger seat with a pole that provided a hook for his camera. The seatbelt held it securely in place, making an STC unnecessary. The camera hung from a bungee cord contraption and had two Kenyon KS-6 gyros attached to it. Tom would sit in the seat beside it and shoot through the window.

I admit I wasn’t happy with the setup. There were two reasons:

  • The camera’s lens was at least 10 inches inside the cabin door. That meant that he’d have less panning range before the door frame came into view. (The Moitek camera mount I have makes it possible to mount the camera with the lens at the door opening, right inside the slipstream. That maximizes the potential range without worries about wind buffeting.)
  • Putting the camera on the opposite side of the aircraft from the pilot with a passenger sitting beside the pilot made it virtually impossible for me to see what he was seeing. At times, my passenger also blocked the target aircraft from view. But although I suggested that he mount the camera behind me, he said that the mission required it to be where it was. I still don’t see why that was so, given that with a variety of runs and angles, we shot pointed in either direction. But the customer is always right, eh?

Still, there was nothing seriously wrong with the setup. It just made more work for me and the photographer and limited his capabilities. So once I’d conducted my required FAA flight safety briefing — using the briefing card, of course, mostly for the benefit of my FAA audience — and satisfied myself that nothing would fall out the open doorway, I climbed aboard with my passengers and started up.

The Shoot

Leg 1 on Google Earth
I beelined it to Keller Butte, did a lot of maneuvering there, and then beelined it to Wilbur Airport for refueling.

The flight to Keller Butte was uneventful. I chatted mostly with Phil. Because rushing air coming in through the open doorway was getting into Tom’s microphone, I had to turn off voice activation. That kept Tom quiet, mostly because he had so much stuff between the seats that he couldn’t reach the push to talk (PTT) button. Later, when we were set up to shoot, I’d turn voice activation on.

We crossed the farmland north of Moses Lake, the desert north of there, and the wheat fields north of there. Then we crossed over Roosevelt Lake, which is the Columbia River upriver from the Grand Coulee Dam. Electric City was just west of us and during the course of the day, we spotted the Grand Coulee Dam several times. (We even did a flyby on our way to refuel.) Keller Butte was one of two small mountains just north of the lake. We zeroed in on the higher of the peaks and saw the fire tower right away.

Then it was time to wait. There was no landing zone up there — why don’t they build helipads near fire towers? — so we had no choice but to circle. By then I was tuned into our agreed upon air-to-air frequency. The folks at the fire tower had handheld VHF radios and kept us informed on what they knew about the other aircraft based on phone calls they were apparently getting from Moses Lake.

Then I heard the King Air pilot coming in. As he got closer, he asked about my position and I told him. He got me in sight and began circling and practicing the runs.

Then the Supertanker’s pilot called in. He also needed to know where I was. I stayed close to the tower, realizing that he was coming in at a higher altitude than the 5500 feet I was maintaining. Fortunately, he joined up in formation flight with the King Air far enough away to make wake turbulence a non-issue for me. They got right down to business, prepping to make the first “show me” run. I moved into the agreed-upon position and climbed to 6000 feet while they descended.

The “show me” run is where the lead plane does the actual run that the tanker needs to do. The tanker pilot stays higher, following him and watching where he flies. The lead plane’s pilot announces when he’s on the line, where the drop should begin, where the drop should end, and when he’s clear. He peels off to one side and the tanker normally peels off to the other. They then regroup with the smaller, more maneuverable plane joining back up with the tanker.

There’s a lot of radio chatter during all this as they synchronize speeds, talk about positions, and establish run altitudes. I stayed quiet unless I thought they needed to hear from me or asked me a question. Phil listened and observed intently. In the back, Tom apparently couldn’t hear the radio chatter and had to be filled in, over the intercom, about what was coming next.

First Leg Spaghetti
Foreflight’s track log feature recorded the details of my flight path. Looks like spaghetti, no? This was just the first flight.

My job was mostly to hover in position with the camera facing the action. Because the camera’s panning range was so limited, I also had to pivot the helicopter so Tom could track the big plane. There was about a 10 knot wind up there and depending on which direction we were facing, maintaining that hover and smoothly conducting that pivot ranged from easy to near impossible. Over the course of the day, I’d get into and (obviously) recover from settling with power twice. Once, a quartering tailwind whipped us around almost 90° before I caught it. But, in general, I did an acceptable job. The biggest challenge was facing a target that I sometimes could not see. Fortunately, the choreography of the runs and shoot position — as well as my front seat observer — made it unnecessary for me to worry about midair collisions.

This went on for nearly two hours. A “show me” run followed by several dry runs followed by a live run with a full drop — which was awesome to see from the air — followed by more dry runs. Tom missed the live run because of camera focusing issues. The two planes moved to the other run location and I shifted position accordingly. Then another cycle of runs. But because they were out of water, there was no live run. They checked in with me when I still had an hour of fuel left. Then did three more runs before announcing bingo and heading back to Moses Lake to refuel.

We didn’t need to go so far. The closest airport with fuel was Wilbur, WA, 20 nautical miles south southeast. It’s basically a paved ag strip with a handful of hangars and a set of fuel pumps for 100LL and JetA. We landed and someone came over to help us with the pumps. There was no credit card system, so I gave him my mailing address and he promised to send a bill.

We hung out for a while. Although the Global Supertanker can refuel and refill with water/retardant in 30 minutes, they weren’t doing it that day. We were told it would be at least 90 minutes. So we killed time by visiting the ag operator’s hangar, finding and using a restroom, and talking. The folks there were very nice. And Tom, the photographer, showed me how to do a trick panorama shot like this one:

Trick Pano
Seeing double Tom? This shot is remarkably easy to make, right in the iPhone’s camera. All you need is a model who is quick on his feet.

I was glad I’d brought along some water. My passengers had, too. There was nothing within walking distance of the airport except wheat fields. The town was in a clump of trees about two miles away. I nibbled at some salad I’d brought for lunch, then put it away. I could wait.

We took off when we figured enough time had passed. It was a short flight back to Keller Butte, where the guys in the tower — now lounging on chairs in the parking area below — told us neither plane had taken off yet. Eager to save fuel, I demonstrated a pinnacle approach and slope landing for the FAA inspector on board. Tom got out and soon disappeared a way down the hill. What is it about men peeing outdoors?

When I heard the King Air pilot make his call, I called Tom back. When he was strapped in, I took off and circled back up near the tower. And then we repeated what we’d done earlier with a variety of drop runs, two of which were live. This time, Tom got the footage. So did Phil, on his phone’s camera:

Supertanker Water Drop
Phil took this picture with his phone. Not bad through plexiglas.

I was just relieved that Tom had captured footage of the drop. It was very stressful to do all this costly flying, wondering whether he’d succeed and satisfy himself and his client.

This went on for another two hours with lots of hovering and circling and pedal turns. Then we all went back for fuel for another run — the two planes to Moses Lake and me to Wilbur by way of the Grand Coulee Dam, which neither of my companions had ever seen.

Triple Selfie
Me, Phil, and Tom. Now you know why I don’t share selfies: I suck at taking them.

This time I fueled up by myself, making the required entry in the fuel sale log book. (Things are pretty laid back in farming communities.) An older gentleman drove up as I was fueling, apparently excited about seeing the helicopter come in. His name was Phil, too, and he and Phil and Tom chatted. I walked back to the hangar to see if I could track down some W100Plus oil for my helicopter — it’s been burning more oil than usual lately, probably because of the engine’s age — and came back with a quart of W100 oil, which would do in a pinch. Then the ag service owner came over and chatted with the guys for a while. I ate my salad and finished a bottle of water. I took a selfie of us.

At 3:30 PM, it was time to go back. We loaded up, I started up, and we took off. We beat the two planes back again, but not by much. It seems that they’d discussed a new run and drop zone while they were in Moses Lake and wanted to do it. They had me hang out south of the tower while they did a “show me” pass to show the big plane, the guys who had been in the tower and were now on a road below it, and me. I picked a spot north of the new run area and told them I’d stick to 6500 feet or higher. Then I watched a few more practice runs while Tom shot video. I practiced and then nearly perfected a forward move that kept us from getting into settling with power and gave me more control over the direction I was able to point the helicopter, making it easier for Tom to get smooth shots.

But I also watched the planes. It was amazing how close that 747 could get to the treetops.

That went on for about an hour, with one big live drop. And then it was over — at least for us. They told us we were done. The two big planes peeled off to the west and I dropped altitude, ducking behind the ridgeline as I headed south. We continued listening to them for a while on the radio. Then, 20 miles out from Moses Lake, I switched frequency and they were gone.

The After Party

I got back to Moses Lake and set the helicopter down near the front of the FBO so Tom wouldn’t have to lug his equipment so far. Then I placed a fuel order. I didn’t even hear the Supertanker land and taxi into its parking spot behind us.

Phil urged me to ask for a tour. There was nothing I wanted more. Trouble was, the plane was in a part of the airport ramp that was not accessible to pedestrians. I asked the fuel truck driver to take Tom and me over and he started to. But then he got to some pavement markings and told me he couldn’t drive across without a green badge. He drove us back to Million Air.

I went inside and asked a guy in an office if he could help us get to the big plane. He very kindly came outside and drove us over in a golf cart. He let us off between the 747 and King Air and Tom immediately went to the King Air to retrieve some of his equipment. I told the FBO guy that I’d find my own way back and thanked him for the ride.

Stairway to Supertanker
The staircase was quite inviting.

I walked over to the big plane, snapping pictures most of the way. On the other side, a long stairway had been set up between the pavement and the door. One of the plane’s pilots, Marco, was there, inviting me in for a tour. He had the King Air pilot, Jamie, with him and another man who did work for the FAA. I climbed the stairs and joined them for a tour.

Marco on the Tanks
Marco explains what the tanks are for and how they work.

I could probably write an entire blog post about the inside of that plane. Formerly a cargo plane, the entire lower level had been stripped out. The front “first class” section remained empty — at least that day — but the back was configured with a collection of cylindrical tanks for air, water, and retardant. The air is used as a “plunger” to force the water and retardant out of the four ports at the bottom of the plane. The system is set up to make up to eight drops with a load. The retardant system can hold two different kinds of additives and drop them with water in any configuration. There’s an extensive leak detection system and a whole procedure for handling leaks in flight. Our guide told us all about it as we climbed over and crawled under huge white pipes.


I actually broadcast this first part of the tour on Periscope, but when the audience level did not rise above 10 viewers, I stopped the video so I could take photos instead. Here’s the video; I’m afraid it isn’t very good due to the tight quarters.

The Crew Cabin
The upstairs first class cabin is pretty much intact for use by the ground crew.

Copilot Selfie
I look ridiculously excited here, sitting in the First Officer seat of a real, operating 747.

747 Cockpit
Now that’s a cockpit.

Under the 747
It was my first — and likely my only — time strolling under a 747.

From there, we went up a sort of ships ladder to the top level. The original upstairs first class cabin was intact; with seats for 12 people, it was used to carry the ground crew to each mission. There were some computer controls in a room behind that. Then the cockpit with its sleeping bunks in a tiny room off to one side. I was invited to sit in the First Officer’s (co-pilot’s) seat while the FAA guy sat in the Captain’s seat. We took pictures of each other like tourists while the two pilots talked behind us about the plane’s systems.

Afterwards, we climbed back down the ships ladder and the main stairs to the pavement outside. I wandered around under the plane, checking out the enormous landing gear and engines and looking up into the four discharge ports that could disperse almost 20,000 gallons of water or retardant over a 3 kilometer path. Around me, workers were tending to the plane: fueling it, filling it with water, cleaning its windscreen. It was the focus of attention even as it just sat their idle, waiting for its next flight.

I looked across the pavement at my helicopter and realized that the two aircraft had a lot in common. They were both used for a purpose, pampered between flights, and respected by their pilots.

As I headed for the Million Air’s shuttle bus, I stopped to chat with one of the men working on the plane. He asked me if I had a challenge coin.

“A what?” I asked.

Challenge Coin
Is this a cool souvenir or what?

“Here,” he said. “I think we have a few left.” He went into a box on the front seat of a van nearby and produced a heavy coin in a protective plastic sleeve. He handed it to me and I thanked him. It’s a great keepsake of the day’s events.

The van drove us all back to the FBO. Jamie and Marco went inside and I walked back to my helicopter. I’d already put the door on and was all ready to go. I took a last look at the big plane I’d been flying over most of the day and wondered if I’d ever see it again. Then I climbed on board, started up, and headed home.

When I shut down, I discovered I’d flown a total of 7.3 hours.


Postscript: As evidence of a day spent dancing on the anti-torque pedals, for the first time ever, my calves were sore in the morning.

North to the Future

About one of my photos and the plane featured in it.

I was in Alaska this past week. My friend George has a house up there and he’d told me I was welcome to come any time. Last month, when I was feeling kind of stuck in a rut — long story there — I decided that a trip to visit a friend might be a good idea. I texted George to see if he was going to be around, then bought plane tickets to go see him.

This was my third trip to Alaska.

The Alaska Cruise

The first trip, back in 2007, was with my wasband. We were married at the time and we went on a cruise out of Seward. He had friends living in Anchorage and we spent two nights at their home before heading north on the tourist train to Denali. After Denali, we got on another tourist train to Seward where we picked up the cruise ship.

The trip was memorable, but mostly because both Alaska Air and the cruise line had managed to lose various pieces of luggage in Alaska. It was a huge relief that the one remaining missing bag found its way into our stateroom on the ship.

Although I didn’t hate the trip, I was extremely disappointed. I detest being treated like a tourist and because my wasband had booked everything through a travel agent, that’s exactly how we were treated. I particularly hated the Princess-affiliated hotel we were stuck in near Denali with the boardwalk outside our room that people thundered by on at all hours. Even the cruise was a disappointment. Shuffled here and there, every port full of the same tourist crap shops and cooked-up attractions, and hundreds of midwesterners on the ship who bragged about how they kept their costs low with an inside cabin and no port excursions. Clearly most folks were on the cruise so they could say they’d been on an Alaska cruise. I was hoping for a more unique and positive experience.

Anyway, I blogged about the trip when it was over, so you can read a lot more detail and see some of the photos. Personally, I’d rather forget it in favor of some new Alaska memories.

The Job Interview

My second trip was in March 2008. I flew up to Anchorage for a job interview.

Robbie book cover
Alpine Air Alaska was featured on the cover of the 2009 book, “Robbie: The Robinson Helicopter Experience.”

The interview was at Alpine Air Alaska. I’d met the owner of Alpine Air, Keith, via email when we were both featured in Jon Davison’s coffee table book about Robinson Helicopters. (Can’t believe I didn’t blog about that, but I can’t seem to find an entry.) Keith’s operation was on the cover. I was looking for a summer job that would keep me out of Arizona’s brutal heat and Alaska seemed like a good idea.

I did a few flights with Keith — including one where we landed an R44 on a glacier and got out for a walk with the passengers — and got a chance to see how incredibly beautiful Alaska is in the spring. There was snow on the ground, but not much, and when the low clouds moved out, there were tantalizing glimpses of the snow-covered peaks around Alpine Air’s base in Girdwood. I had my camera with me — it was a Nikon D80 in those days — and I shot a photo right outside the hangar of a bright red and yellow airplane with the mountains beyond it. Later, I entered it into a state-themed photo contest. That’s where it got its name, “North to the Future,” which is the state motto of Alaska. (It didn’t win.)

North to the Future
Shot in March 2008, I call this photo “North to the Future.”

And that’s really what this blog post is about: the photo. You see, although it looks like a photo of a plane, it’s really a photo of a scene. The snow covered runway, the fresh snow in the trees, the clouds clinging to the mountains, the blue sky beyond, and this brightly painted plane looking as if it’s waiting for an excuse to take off. I just thought it was a great image, and the aviation theme didn’t hurt. It’s actually one of my very favorite photos. The colors and clarity still blow me away.

But the photo has a history beyond the day it was shot.

Condo Living Room
I happened to find this 2009 photo of the condo living room in iPhoto while looking for something else. You can see the photo hanging over the red leather sofa. (Seeing this photo reminded me how much I hated that place.)

It was among the first photos I had enlarged and framed in 2009 to hang in the condo my wasband lived in part-time in the Phoenix area. Back when he bought the condo in late 2008, I thought I’d be spending a lot of time there with him. Instead, he got a roommate, a friend who made me feel very unwelcome every time I came around. With my wasband living in the condo four nights a week, our marriage was suffering. In the summer of 2011, I asked him to get rid of the roommate so I could move in. By the time I moved in that autumn, it was pretty clear that my wasband didn’t really want me there; he was likely already planning his exit strategy for our marriage. By the summer of 2012, the marriage was over.

Still, the photo hung over the red sofa in the condo. Several of my other photos, enlarged, matted, and framed, hung in the condo with it. I wanted them back — I couldn’t understand why my wasband and the desperate old whore he was living with would want my artwork in their home. When the court allowed me to retrieve my things from the condo in November 2012, the photos were near the top of my list. My wasband made me ask permission to take each and every item, including the photos. Later, back home, I packed them up with plenty of bubble wrap in big, flat boxes, and moved them first to my Wickenburg hangar, next to my Wenatchee hangar, and finally to my new home in Malaga. (Oddly, I later got the red leather sofa the Alaska photo had hung over, too.)

Back to Alaska. The job interview that March went well and Keith made me an offer. After some thought and a discussion with my wasband, I turned it down. Ironically, I was worried that being so far away from my wasband for five or more months that summer would hurt our marriage. (It wasn’t the first or last time I turned down work because of him.)

It turned out for the best. I started cherry drying that summer — with a mere seven weeks away from home — and it was far more lucrative and better for my business than a tour job would have been. It also gave me a firm basis for my Wenatchee-based business when the divorce finally freed me up to follow my own path in life.

Trip Number Three

I went to Alaska for the third time this past week. I was feeling in need of a trip and had a free week on my calendar when George would be there, too. I invited myself and he welcomed me.

I’ll blog about the trip in some detail later this week — if I can find time. For now, I just want to talk again about that photo.

You see, when I showed the photo to George — I keep a copy in my phone — he said, “Oh, that’s Wrangell Air‘s plane. I use the same mechanic.” (Although George doesn’t fly for a living, he is a pilot with two planes and a gyro.)

A few days later, we took a drive down the Turnagain Arm. On the way back, we went through Girdwood. I wanted to see the Alaska Air hangar and try to better remember those few days in March seven years before. The hangar looked much the way I remembered it. But there was no fresh snow, no blue sky, and no red and yellow plane.

George wanted to talk to his mechanic, so we went to another hangar down the runway. Inside were a bunch of planes in various stages of undress as they were being worked on by two mechanics. Although the guy George wanted to talk to wasn’t there, he talked to another guy while I wandered around.

Plane
The red and yellow plane was in for maintenance.

And there was the red and yellow plane, in the back corner of the hangar, in for its annual inspection.

It would have been great if it had been parked outside in the same place and I could get a cloudy autumn version of the same shot. I doubt it would have come out nearly as nice, though.

But maybe I’ll get it the next time I’m in the area. Alaska isn’t that far away and George didn’t seem to mind me being around.

The Photo Today

Back home, I hadn’t unpacked any of my photos. My new home has limited wall space and I’m not quite sure where I’ll fit the large framed photos.

But today I went down into the garage where the big, flat boxes marked “Framed Photos” are leaning up against a wall. One by one, I opened the boxes and pulled out the bubble-wrapped frames. I stacked the boxes on the floor, ready for my next trip to the recycling center, and repositioned the wrapped frames where my other packed boxes remain. There’s room there now — I’m about half unpacked. When I found “North to the Future,” I set it aside.

Later, I brought it upstairs. I’d been thinking about how nice it might look on the wall over my desk. I unwrapped it and held it up to the wall. It was a lot bigger than I remembered it. It would be a bit of a squeeze.

I found a picture hanger and tapped it into place. Then I used a damp rag to wipe the Phoenix dust off the frame and plexiglas over the photo and mat. The wire at the back of the photo found its way into the hook without any trouble. I straightened it and stepped back to look at it. It’ll do.

My Office
I think my office is now officially finished.

Now that I’ve been thinking a bit about this photo and Alaska, I realize that the second two trips are far more meaningful to me than my first visit. Those trips were for a purpose other than trying to cram as many tourist destinations and photo opportunities into the shortest amount of time. They remind me how much I hate being a tourist and how much I love being a traveler. (If you don’t know the difference, you haven’t traveled.)

This photo is the perfect reminder of those trips to Alaska — and great trips yet to come.

Being an Inspired Pilot

An interview and more.

Inspired Pilot LogoA few weeks ago, I was contacted by Marvyn Robinson, a U.K. pilot and podcaster. He wanted to interview me for his podcast, Inspired Pilot.

I was flattered, of course. (I’m flattered any time someone contacts me with a request like this.) How could I not say yes?

About the Podcast

The About page on the Inspired Pilot website explains what the podcast is all about:

This will be a weekly show where I interview inspiring pilots, pilots with inspiring journeys from all around the world. Each week we will highlight the life of our featured pilot, follow their journey and how they got to where there are now.

We’ll examine how and why they got started, the decisions made along the way, experiences gained and lessons learned. All this with the view to INSPIRE seasoned pilots, mere mortal low hour pilots like myself, wannabe pilots and pilot enthusiasts alike, by guests sharing their inspiring journeys.

Just to give you an example of the spectrum of our guests, we are going to be talking to pilots from all areas of the aviation industry, from airline pilots, bush pilots, flight instructors, private pilots, bizjet, military and even retired pilots.

The whole idea behind the podcast is to inspire other pilots. The people chosen to be interviewed are supposed to be inspiring. So again, how can I not be flattered?

Who Needs Inspiration?

Every pilot knows at least one other pilot — or wannabe pilot — who just couldn’t seem to get it together to achieve his or her aviation goals. These people often have legitimate or imagined excuses for not moving forward. (I was married to one of these people for a while so I’ve seen it firsthand.)

For many people, the excuse is a life change. For example, a guy is taking flight lessons part time and gets married or his wife becomes pregnant. All of a sudden, his priorities change and he puts flying on the back burner. Many times, he never goes back to it.

For other people, the excuse is simpler: money. Learning to fly isn’t cheap and not everyone has disposable income to throw at what might only be a hobby. When the economy tanked, flight schools were hit hard because fewer people could afford lessons. Renting an aircraft once you become a pilot isn’t cheap either. It has to fit into your budget.

For a select group of people, there are medical issues that can stop a prospective pilot in his or her tracks. Uncorrectable vision, diabetes, untreatable high blood pressure, heart problems — there are a multitude of conditions that pilots simply are not allowed to have.

These are the people Inspired Pilot was created for. To get them excited about flying. To get them thinking of ways to work around the hurdles that face them. To inspire them to achieve their flying goals.

These are the people I want to inspire.

It’s More than a Piece of Paper

I’m one of the people who want to fly. I’m not interested in collecting pilot ratings just because I can.

For example, I learned to fly an open cockpit gyro last spring. It was a ton of fun. I got to fly that gyro again last week. George, who owns it and taught me to fly it, told me what I need to do to get my rating in it. I’m very close — all I need is a check ride.

But why get a rating for something I seldom have an opportunity to fly? That piece of paper is meaningless to me. I’m perfectly satisfied to fly the gyro occasionally with George. In the unlikely event that I buy a gyro or have access to one on a regular basis, I might reconsider getting that piece of paper. Until then, why bother?

And then there are just the folks who claim they want to fly and even move toward the goal of becoming a pilot and perhaps even become pilots — but then don’t do what it takes to stay current and safe. These are the nervous pilots, the pilots who are afraid to push the limits of their experience, the pilots who use the slightest possibility of inclement weather as an excuse not to fly. They’re pilots only because they have a piece of paper saying that they are. (This was the situation with my wasband.)

But are you really a pilot if you seldom fly? If you can come up with more excuses not to fly than reasons to fly? If you never seem to want to fly?

In my experience, a real pilot wants to fly.

If you’re not driven to fly, if you don’t feel a need to get up in an aircraft and explore your world from above, if the responsiveness of an aircraft under your control doesn’t excite you or fill you with joy — well, then you really shouldn’t waste your time and money becoming a pilot. There might be other activities that do for you what flying does for real pilots — bicycling, skiing, painting, writing, golfing, skydiving, whatever. Pursue the activity that means the most to you — because you will never be an inspired pilot.

The Podcast

All that said, if you want to get inspired — or even if you just want to hear what I said on the podcast — you can find it here: 12: Maria Langer – Commercial R44 Helicopter Pilot & Blogger – Inspired Pilot.

On Pilots and the Sacred Trust

A violation of trust, an act of murder.

Like most other frequent airline travelers, I was horrified to learn this morning that the cause of this week’s German Wings airplane crash in the French Alps is most likely the deliberate action of the “co-pilot” (i.e., First Officer), who locked the “pilot” (i.e., Captain) out of the “cockpit” (i.e., flight deck) and put the airplane into a steep descent that ended when it hit a mountain.

The only good thing to note about this is that men, women, and children on board likely never felt a thing as their lives were extinguished, like a candle’s flame between two calloused fingers.

As a pilot, this was more horrific to me. Why? Because the pilot who is responsible violated what I consider a sacred trust.

Let me try to explain. When I fly my helicopter, there is nothing more important to me than my passengers. By climbing aboard my aircraft, whether it’s for a 7-minute “hop ride” around town or a cross-country journey lasting hours, they have proven to me that they trust me with their lives. I don’t take that trust lightly. Maybe I pay closer attention to details, like the wind speed and direction or the way the helicopter lifts off the ground into a hover with their weight distribution. Maybe I fly a little higher, to reduce mechanical turbulence on a windy day and ensure that I’m well outside the “Deadman’s Curve” in the unlikely event of an engine failure. Maybe I keep my bank angle on turns a little flatter and my approaches and departures a little shallower to ensure a smooth flight.

I want my passengers to be not only safe, but comfortable. I want their memories of flying with me to include only the pleasant experiences they have during the flight.

I know a lot of pilots who don’t seem to think this way. Their goal is to impress their passengers with what they consider their flying skill. They want to give “E-Ticket rides.” For some reason, they think this is what their passengers want — and maybe some of them think they do.

But what passengers really want is to get off the aircraft in the same condition they got on it: safe, unharmed — and yes — alive.

And that’s what I call a sacred trust. The passengers trust the pilot to ensure their safety. If the pilot does anything to compromise that safety — whether it’s buzzing a backyard barbecue or diving into a mountain in France — he’s violated that sacred trust.

Pilots who even consider doing dangerous or suicidal things with passengers on board should not be in control of an aircraft.

Airplane
I’m about to get on this airplane for a flight from CA to WA. Do I need to worry about the mental state of the pilots?

As a pilot, I’m upset that a young German pilot decided to kill himself and the 149 people who trusted him with their lives in such a horrific act. I’m worried about what future passengers will think about their pilots’ mental state of mind. I’m worried that people will use this incident to fuel their fears of flying, to avoid flying altogether. I’m worried that the FAA or airline management or other authorities will enact knee-jerk rules and regulations — like the one that made cockpit doors impregnable — that further burden responsible pilots with tests and paperwork that add to their stress and workload.

Most of all, I’m angry about the half-informed media coverage and their “experts,” jumping to conclusions and exploring crazy conspiracy theories, grasping for someone to blame, instilling fears in viewers and listeners and readers.

Again.

Let’s get this straight: it’s all about a pilot who betrayed his passengers’ sacred trust.

This is not just suicide by airplane. This pilot committed murder, pure and simple. In doing so, he sullied the reputation of other professional pilots who take their responsibilities as a pilot seriously.

And that’s what upsets me most of all.

28-Feb-15 Update:Pilot Who Downed Airliner Vowed ‘To Do Something’ To Be Remembered” might shed some additional light on his state of mind.