Helicopter Flight from Washington to Arizona, Day 2: Desert Heat and Familiar Terrain

Descending into the desert’s warmth and well-known flight routes.

I woke at around 5 AM. Actually, Penny woke me up that early. She left the bed and for a while I just lay there, half asleep, wondering where she’d gotten to in the vast attic guest room. Then I remembered that I hadn’t closed the door and realized that she might have gone downstairs. I jumped out of bed and headed down to find her.

She was in the kitchen at the back door with the other three dogs. I opened the door to let them all out. The morning was cool and the sky was clear with the waning gibbous moon hanging high in the western sky. The autumn leaves rustled in the gentle breeze. I waited patiently, then got the dogs back in, one at a time, and closed the door.

Megg was awake, getting ready for work. We talked quietly in the kitchen for a few minutes before she headed off to the shower and I headed back upstairs.

A while later, Megg was upstairs to say goodbye. I wasn’t sure how long we’d stay — it depended on when Jeremy could be ready — and she knew she wouldn’t be home until at least 10 AM. I hoped to be in the air by then. So we said goodbye, possibly until July, and she headed off to work.

Meanwhile Jeremy was still asleep and I wanted coffee. Megg had told me about a place walking distance from her home, Alchemy Coffee. I checked it out on Google Maps and saw that it was only 0.6 miles away and opened at 6:30 AM. I got dressed, grabbed my coat and Penny’s leash, and headed out for a walk — or more like a mission — in the predawn light.

Salt Lake City Capitol Building
I got a neat view of the Capitol building as I walked back to Megg’s house. There was something kind of surreal about the way the first light illuminated the flag outside.

Megg lives in Salt Lake City proper, not far from Capitol Hill. If you think it would be very urban, you’d be wrong. It’s a really nice residential neighborhood with lots of houses of various styles and ages. Sidewalks on both sides of the street keep you off the road as you wander past front yards, often under overhanging trees. It wasn’t a long walk at all, but there was one steep hill, about two blocks long, just as Megg had warned me. I passed within two blocks of the Capitol building and arrived at Alchemy right around 7 AM.

I had my latte and an almond danish while sitting at an outside table with Penny. By that time, it was fully light, although the sun hadn’t cleared the mountains to the east yet. The coffee shop did a brisk business, with about half of its patrons parking briefly at the curb while they ran in for their coffee.

I caught up on Twitter and Facebook activity while I slowly drained my cup. I also checked in for my flight out of Phoenix the next day, very pleased that I’d gotten a First Class upgrade again. I switched my seat from an aisle to a window seat using the Alaska Airlines app. (Does anyone other than me remember the red paper tickets we used to have and waiting on line to change a seat?)

I texted Jeremy to let him know that I wanted to head out by 9 AM. He agreed that an early start would be best. Then I headed back on a slightly different route, really enjoying the variety of architecture along the way.

Back at the house, I let the dogs out again as Megg had asked me to. Her son was still asleep and I tried not to bother him. Jeremy was packing up. When he was ready to go — I’d already packed up before leaving for coffee — I used my phone to call an Uber. A car was at the curb less than 5 minutes later.

We talked Uber along the way. I’d recently become an Uber driver but didn’t drive much, mostly because demand was so low in Wenatchee that it was a waste of time to hang out in town waiting for a call. I learned a few things from the driver’s point of view. Unfortunately, he had trouble finding Skypark and I had to direct him the last mile or so. The fare was only around $12, which I thought was good for a 7-mile drive.

Leg 4: Salt Lake City to Bryce Canyon

After preflighting and adding a quart of oil — I added either a quart or half quart at every fuel stop — we loaded up the helicopter, climbed on board, and started up. It was probably about 9:15 when we got airborne.

TAC for Salt Lake
This closeup of the Salt Lake TAC shows how close Skypark is to Salt Lake City’s surface airspace.

The first challenge was crossing through the surface area of Salt Lake City’s Class Bravo airport along the I-15 freeway. I had to get clearance and I wasn’t able to make contract until I was airborne. Because Skylark is right next to Salt Lake City’s surface airspace, I had to head due east to make contact and get clearance. I called on the wrong frequency (of course) and had to switch to another one, which I managed to screw up once. So I was orbiting a bit out there until we got it sorted out and I got the clearance I needed. Then it was an easy flight south.

The only thing I regret is not turning on the GoPro. Although I had remembered to turn on the wifi and camera, I’d forgotten to turn the camera on. It’s a real shame because I think I could have gotten a few nice shots as we flew past downtown Salt Lake City.

The last tower I had to talk to — at least for a while — was Provo. Again, I asked for and got clearance to follow I-15 south. Using a landmark like a freeway makes it very easy to tell a tower what you want and make sure you both know exactly where you’re supposed to be.

Leg Four
The fourth leg of our trip, recorded by ForeFlight.

Past Provo and abeam Spanish Fork, I veered to the east a bit to enter the valley that would take me along route 89 to Bryce Canyon. That put us in a series of long, relatively narrow valleys between mountain ranges that rose up to 9,000+ feet on the west and 11,000+ feet on the east. There were a few towns along the way and lots of farmland. Very rural, almost remote. And then another narrower, more remote valley with 11,000+ foot mountains on either side. It was 213 nautical miles from Skypark to Bryce Canyon and it took us nearly 2-1/2 hours to cover that distance. I’d been hoping to refuel at Page, AZ, but it didn’t look like we’d make it so we stopped at Bryce.

Bryce Hangar
The old log hangar at Bryce Canyon Airport.

The last time I’d been to Bryce Canyon Airport had been way back in January 2013 on a photo flight with a good client. He’d been assigned by Airpano to get pictures of Bryce Canyon in winter for their panoramic image project. We flew up from Phoenix and wound up getting snowed in for two nights before we could do the shoot. You can read a bit about it here. On that last visit, the airport guy had been extraordinarily helpful with weather-related problems — so helpful that my client and I had each tipped him $100. I still have the t-shirt he gave me when I wanted to buy one; I call it my “hundred dollar t-shirt.” I was looking forward to seeing him, just to see if he remembered me. But he wasn’t there. It was a different guy who was older and not quite as friendly. I think he was put off by Penny, who first came into his office off-leash. Oops.

Anyway, he fueled us up while we used the bathroom. I was out on the ramp again chatting with him when the local sheriff’s office guy came up, in uniform. I wondered if we’d done something wrong but couldn’t imagine what it might be. But he was just there to chat with his airport buddy, to kill time on a nice day.

And it was a nice day — unseasonably warm for October, especially at Bryce’s 7590-foot elevation. The kind of day you’d want to sit out in the sun on one of the chairs they had on the FBO porch. In the 50s, at least. I didn’t even need my jacket.

Leg 5: Bryce Canyon to Sedona

Of course, Bryce Canyon Airport is only a few miles from Bryce Canyon National Park, so there’s no chance we’d leave there without a nice little flyby. I felt bad for Jeremy, who’d really hoped to visit friends and his daughter on the way south. I thought of Bryce Canyon, which he’d never been to, as a sort of consolation prize.

Bryce Canyon is really a misnomer; it’s not a canyon at all. It’s basically a cliff face where Mother Nature has eroded rocks with wind and rain, exposing the red sandstone layers and carving out towers called hoodoos. These are visible from various lookout points along a rim road on the top of the cliff as well as from the air to the southeast of the park itself. At least one tour operator does helicopter tours there. Although the airspace is clearly marked for the National Park, I know the rules: pilots are requested to avoid flight within 2,000 feet of the ground or cliffs (or hoodoos) within that area. That doesn’t mean flight is forbidden. So a quick flyby wouldn’t break any rules and likely wouldn’t bother many tourists. After all, there’s a tour operator likely flying by multiple times in a day for a lot longer and a lot closer.

And I did keep it quick. I made a big loop out toward Tropic and then came in closer with Jeremy’s side facing the park. He shot a bunch of photos. The nosecam didn’t really get any good shots, but one was sharable. Then we continued on our way.

Bryce
Keep in mind that I was turning when the nosecam captured this image of Bryce Canyon.

It was around then that I first caught sight of Navajo Mountain. This is a huge landmark for me. It means coming home, returning to a place that I know very well: Lake Powell. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent over the lake with photographers on board. Easily over 200. I missed it and I wanted to fly it again, but I wasn’t interested in flying over it with a nearly timed-out engine that was making metal shavings. I’ve tentatively planned a photo shoot there in April 2017, before I bring the helicopter back to Washington from its California frost contract. If you’re interested, you might want to check this out. And tell your friends.

West of Page
Typical terrain west of Page, AZ. If you look closely at the horizon, you should be able to see Navajo Mountain off it in the distance.

We took an almost direct route to Page, AZ from there, taking a slight detour to visit the Wahweap Hoodoos. Then we flew past the Glen Canyon Dam, over Horseshoe Bend, and down toward Lees Ferry. I skirted the edge of the Grand Canyon Airspace, flying over the Navajo Reservation, seeing wild horses and the remains of old hogans. All of this was familiar to me but new to Jeremy. For some reason, the helicopter felt lighter, happier, faster. Probably my imagination, but maybe it knew it was returning to familiar terrain?

Horseshoe Bend
Horseshoe bend from about 700 feet up. Not nearly as impressive as it is from much higher looking almost straight down.

Vermillion Cliffs
Lees Ferry with the Vermillion Cliffs behind them.

Marble Canyon
Marble Canyon looks like a giant crack in the earth as it winds across the plateau toward the Grand Canyon.

We reached the Little Colorado River Gorge and I flew along the top of it, keeping the nosecam in mind for a different view. I think I could have gotten better shots from higher up, with the camera pointing more down. Next time?

Little Colorado River Gorge
The Little Colorado River Gorge, heading toward the Grand Canyon.

Then we climbed up onto the Coconino Plateau and I steered almost due south toward Sedona. There’s a lot of nothing out there, but Jeremy managed to spot some wild horses where I’d never seen wild horses before.

Closer to Flagstaff, the air was smoky. There were fires burning but because there were no TFRs in the area, I assumed they were controlled burns. We dropped down into Oak Creek Canyon just west of Flagstaff Airport’s airspace. It was a bit bumpy as we followed the canyon down. We were flying into the sun again, so the nosecam didn’t capture any good images. I can’t remember, but I’m pretty sure this was Jeremy’s first time in Sedona. I think he was impressed by the red rocks.

Leg 5
The fifth leg of our trip, as recorded by ForeFlight.

We lined up to land along the taxiway. I was just looking for parking on the ramp when I remembered that they liked helicopters to park in the remote helicopter landing area far to the southwest corner of the field. I decided to try landing with the planes, which was much closer to the terminal and restaurant. I chose a spot in the last row, isolated from the parked planes, with my tail rotor out toward the taxiway so I didn’t have to worry about anyone walking behind me. In the old days, someone would get on the radio and tell me to move. But that day there was silence. There was someone mowing out by the helipads and I figured they either didn’t care or weren’t using them that day. So I shut down.

Of course, the woman operating the mower came out to scold me when the blades had stopped. She claimed it was “safer” for me to park down in no man’s land. (Okay, not what she called the helipads.) Safer? I couldn’t see how, especially since it required us to walk along an active taxiway to get to the terminal. I feigned ignorance and said we’d be gone soon anyway. Knowing she couldn’t expect me to start it back up just to move it for an hour-long stay, she left us, looking frustrated and annoyed.

Parking at Sedona
I don’t see what’s so unsafe about this parking spot.

I ordered fuel and we chatted with the pilot of a Cessna on floats that was on a cross-country from Minnesota (if I remember correctly) to California. Seaplanes are pretty rare in Arizona (although the state does have more boats per capita than any other state in the country).

We went to the restaurant and got a table outside so Penny could sit with us. Our waiter, whose name was Ferrari, was very pleasant but not a very good waiter. It took forever for him to bring our drinks. (Penny actually got water before we did.) We were all famished so I ordered an appetizer to share. We both ordered salads. The food, when it came, was good and really hit the spot. I shared some of the chicken from my salad with Penny. I also had one of their mango cake desserts, which was just as delicious as I remembered it being. Jeremy picked up the extremely large tab, I paid for gas, and we headed back out to the helicopter.

Leg 6: Sedona to Phoenix

By this time, my dinner date in Wickenburg had been cancelled and I’d made arrangements to meet my friend Mike at his airpark home near Phoenix instead. He had to go to work so time was limited. Still, I couldn’t resist detouring through Wickenburg. Since my old house was sold in 2015, I’d become friends with the new owners. They’d made some improvements to the house since moving in and although I’d seen a few pictures, I hadn’t actually seen the house itself since I left it in May 2013. I thought it might be nice to do a flyby. Maybe Jeremy could get some nice aerial photos that I could pass along to the new owners.

So we left Sedona flying northwest, along the red rock cliffs. Although the light wasn’t quite right for photos, I did manage to get a few good images.

Sedona from Airport Mesa
Here’s a look at Sedona right after departing northwest bound from the airport, which sits atop a Mesa.

Sedona's Red Rock
The red rocks of Sedona, west of town.

After crossing Sycamore Canyon, I headed toward Prescott on a path that took us within sight of Jerome. From there, we transitioned the southeast side of Prescott’s airspace and followed the Hassayampa River all the way down to Route 93 in Wickenburg. I adjusted my course to intercept Cemetery Wash and followed that up past my old home. It looked great from the air — the new owners are really taking good care of it. I was amazed by the size of the Mexican fan palm in the side yard — I remember planting that tree when it was shorter than me and now it stands at least 30 feet tall. I circled the house and Jeremy shot photos. I still haven’t seen them, but I’m sure he got at least one good one to share.

From there, we headed southwest toward Vulture Peak. I did a quick flyby, pointing out the trail that wound up to the saddle for Jeremy’s benefit. I looked forward to hiking the peak in a few months when I was back in town with friends.

Then I headed southeast toward Hangars Haciendas, the airpark where my friends Mike and Cheryl live. I worked the GPS and radio. I had to connect with Luke Approach to enter and transition the jet training area northwest of Glendale. That was the biggest challenge since I was flying only about 700 feet up — my usual cruise altitude — and had to call from so far out that they couldn’t pick up my transmission. That meant climbing. We finally connected and I got a squawk code and transition instructions. They asked for my destination and I told them Hangars Haciendas.

“What airport is that near?” the controller responded.

“It is an airport,” I replied. “A residential airpark southwest of Sky Harbor.”

Leg 6
The sixth leg of our trip, recorded by ForeFlight. This was the scenic, time-wasting portion of the flight.

Clearly, he had no clue where I was going, but he understood that I had to go through Goodyear’s airspace so he handed me off to that controller when I got closer. That guy cleared me to transition eastbound along I-10. There was a tense moment when he pointed out an aircraft in downwind and I couldn’t see it. I offered to stay north of I-10 and he accepted that. Jeremy saw the plane before I did and it really was no factor. But I could tell by the controller’s voice that he was concerned. I’m sure he was glad to cut me loose.

Of course, Hangars Haciendas does not appear on my Garmin GPS, although it is on ForeFlight. I used that to zero in on it. It was very difficult to find! I finally caught sight of it and eventually saw Mike, in his uniform, waving us in to his concrete hangar apron. I landed in the corner and immediately popped my door open. It was hot!

Mike Waves Me In
The nosecam caught this photo of my friend Mike waving me into parking on his hangar apron.

I cooled down the helicopter while Penny and Jeremy got out. It’s kind of funny when you think about it — the next stop would be the engine’s last stop before overhaul. Why bother doing a proper shutdown? Well, why not? Surely I could spare the extra two to three minutes to take care of an engine that had been so good to me for so long.

Parked at Mike's House
Zero-Mike-Lima parked in front of my friend Mike’s hangar.

Mike only had about 20 minutes to spare for us. He’d been on standby and had actually been called in to work. He needed to leave before 5 PM. So he wasted no time showing off his new plane and helicopter, both of which were tucked into his hangar. I also got a chance to see his home, which was still in its final construction phase the last time I’d been there. I didn’t get a chance to see his wife Cheryl because she was basking in the sun in Hawai’i that week. She’d be home later in the week, just before he left for China.

We parted ways a short while later. Mike drove off to the airport while Jeremy, Penny, and I went back to the helicopter for the last leg of our journey.

The Last Leg: Phoenix to Chandler

I have to say that the last leg was kind of bittersweet for me. Not only would it be the last time I flew until January or February, but it also marked the end of my helicopter’s first life. Its tired airframe, engine, rotor blades, and other components would be stripped down, rebuilt, and replaced. When I got it back, it would be the same helicopter, yet different.

We took off heading almost due east along the north side of South Mountain. Jeremy spotted another helicopter at our altitude nearby — he’s actually a pretty good flying companion — and I tuned into the Phoenix Air-to-Air frequency (123.025), which I hadn’t used in three years, to make a call. The pilot of the other helicopter, with a Firebird call sign — I’m thinking either DPS or Phoenix Police — responded immediately. They were doing some training work, hovering over a South Phoenix neighborhood. We exchanged pleasantries and I continued on my way.

South Mountain
Flying eastbound along the north side of South Mountain near Phoenix. I don’t miss Phoenix’s smog layer at all. That day was actually clearer that most.

After I crossed I-10 and made my first radio call to Chandler tower, I turned on the cockpit GoPro, which had been set up for the entire flight but never turned on. I figured I’d document this last leg of the flight. I started off chatty enough, but soon lapsed into silence. I guess I didn’t have much to say. You can see for yourself in the video below. It’s a shame that the setting sun over my right shoulder puts so much glare into the cockpit.


For some reason, I thought it was a good idea to document the last leg of our flight with a video.

Last Leg
The last leg of our flight was very short. See it on ForeFlight.

It was a very short flight — less than 15 minutes from takeoff to landing. Again, cooled down the engine before shutting down. I patted the controls and talked to the helicopter. (Yeah, I do talk to my machines, even though none of them have names or genders.) When the blades had stopped, I got out with Penny and went to find the Director of Maintenance, Paul.

Post Flight

Into the HangarPaul wheeled the helicopter into the hangar where the overhaul work would be done.

The next hour or so was spent helping Paul bring the helicopter into Quantum’s big hangar, talking to him about the little problems it had that needed attention, and discussing core and replacement options. Together, Jeremy and I unpacked the helicopter, separating everything in it into three piles: his luggage, my luggage, and the stuff that would stay with the helicopter in the wheeled box I’d brought along. I was glad that my day pack had been lightly packed for the trip because I did have to take a few things home with me — my GoPros, Penny’s bed, and my Square card reader equipment. Finally, everything was organized and packed for taking or leaving. The sun was down and we were ready to leave.

I didn’t take one last photo. After all, I’ll see Zero-Mike-Lima again in December. I know they’ll have started work by then and it’ll be partially stripped. That’s okay. I’d rather remember it from the last few photos I took during that final flight. I left it parked between two other R44s, knowing that it was in good hands.

The folks at Quantum gave us a lift to the hotel I’d reserved off I-10. The driver was studying to be a helicopter mechanic and working toward his private pilot license. He refused to take the tip I offered when he dropped us off.

We checked in and got information about a restaurant with an outside patio that was within walking distance of the hotel. I was very pleasantly surprised by how comfortable and clean my room was. This was a Quality Inn — which allows dogs — and the room rate was only $65 with tax. I had very low expectations and was so glad they delivered a much nicer room than I expected.

We walked to the restaurant, which turned out to be a very nice Italian place in a strip mall. We sat outside, where the evening air was comfortable and cool. I had two drinks to celebrate the end of the journey. We had a light dinner — mostly because we’d eaten so much at lunch — and walked back to the hotel.

I slept like a log.

Helicopter Flight from Washington to Arizona, Day 1: Over the Mountains, IFR

A flexible flight plan, weather, and then smooth flying to someplace other than where I expected to be.

It was overcast with a handful of low-level clouds as we headed southeast from Wenatchee Airport at about 11 AM on Monday morning. Not very promising weather for the first day of our trip south.

Leg 1: Wenatchee to Baker City

Leaving Wenatchee
It looked pretty dreary when we left the airport heading southeast on Monday morning.

We left the Columbia River for the first time at the Gorge Amphitheater south of Quincy, WA. (We’d cross the twisting river two more times before leaving the area.) The air was really smooth and I found it difficult to believe that such high winds lay ahead on our planned route. But instead of taking that route, I headed toward Hermiston, which was closer to Pendleton than our original route would have taken us. I could always steer west again if I wanted to get back on that route.

The weather in Pendleton was moving northeast — per radar on my iPad — and it looked as if it might be gone by the time we got to Hermiston. I could check the weather at various points on my iPad as I flew and I did so, trying to decide what to do. But it wasn’t until we crossed over Benton City that I pretty much decided a more eastern route would be better; the winds at Benton City bounced us around in light turbulence that had Jeremy talking about the weather again. If a few bounces like that were bothering him, he’d either be sick or terrified when we hit the moderate turbulence forecast up ahead on our planned route. And although I was unlikely to be either, I still didn’t want a long day flying in turbulence. Been there, done that.

Fortunately, the weather that had been in Pendleton had moved off. I plotted a course for the airport there. We could clearly see rain in various places around us, but there was no lightning and the air was smooth. I talked to the tower at Pendleton and was cleared to cross over the field. The runways looked soaking wet. But what pleased me to no end was that I could clearly see the tops of the Green Mountains to the east. We’d have no trouble climbing them to follow the I-84 corridor.

Yes, IFR = I Follow Roads.

First Leg
Our first leg was from Wenatchee to Baker City. This is an actual track log from ForeFlight.

The next hour or so was a mix of sun and clouds and even some light rain as I plotted the straightest route I could that kept us within sight of the freeway. I turned the helicopter’s nosecam on and off depending on how nice it looked outside. When we were flying into the sun, the pictures are generally crappy with bad exposures so I didn’t have the camera on much. I had a GoPro 3 Black up there that I could control from my phone. It was set up to record HD video with still images every 10 seconds. With a 64 GB mini SD card and USB power source, it would last the entire length of the trip. The aerial photos throughout this post are from that camera.

Meanwhile, Jeremy was shooting pictures almost nonstop whenever there was something interesting to see. I felt kind of bad that he had to shoot through the plexiglas, which I knew could be very reflective. But taking a door off would be uncomfortable and slow us down. And because we had so much junk in the back, there was no place to store it on the flight anyway. The only good thing is that the occasional rain showers we passed through sometimes cleaned the bugs off the front windows.

Skeleton Crew
The folks at Baker Aircraft are serious about Halloween decorations. Photo by Jeremy.

FBO at Baker City
Yes, the fridge at the Baker City FBO is completely covered with airplane panels. How cool is that? I’ll let you fly in to discover what happens when you open the door.

We stopped for fuel at Baker City, OR. (I always stop at Baker City, whether I’m driving or flying.) I parked to one side of the pumps and the fuel guy came out and fueled me up while Jeremy and I made a beeline for the bathrooms. I asked about the courtesy car and they handed over the keys. After paying for fuel, we drove into town for lunch. I always eat at Sumpter Junction, a great little restaurant with a huge model train that passes by the booths at one side of the restaurant and that day was no different. They have a great breakfast all day; I had chicken fried steak and eggs. Back at the FBO, I bought some snacks — Pepperidge Farm Milano Cookies and some almond chocolate biscotti — for the flight.

Leg 2: Baker City to Burley

Before leaving, I texted my friend and former editor Megg, who lives in Salt Lake City, telling her that we might be overnighting in the area and asking if she was available for dinner. I knew Bountiful Skypark from having landed there several years before, and figured we could grab an Uber to a hotel for the night. It’s always good to have a plan, even if the plan changes.

Then it was back in the air, heading southeast through Oregon along the I-84 corridor again. More sun and clouds and light rain. Some snow around us (but not on us). Lots of green. Very few bumps. I was very happy I’d made the route change.

In Oregon
Along the I-84 corridor east of Baker City.

In Oregon
A bit further along the road. The weather was constantly changing but never became an issue for flight.

Leg 2
The second leg of our flight, as recorded by ForeFlight.

After about an hour or so, we finally dropped out of the mountains into the flatlands around Boise. We were back in civilization again, with lots of airports to monitor and traffic to see and avoid. (I didn’t have the nosecam running because we were pointing into the sun and the images would have been awful anyway.) I steered us through the Caldwell and Nampa airspaces, making calls along the way, then steered us eastbound, south of the Boise Class B airspace, partly because it was the most direct route, even though it took us away from I-84, and partly because I just didn’t feel like talking to a controller. We monitored the frequency, though, and heard the planes coming and going.

Then it was back out into the mostly flat lava fields east of Boise. The sky had cleared considerably and although there were still isolated rain showers in the area, it was very pretty and pleasant flying weather.

Over Idaho
We crossed over a few wind farms, including this one east of Boise. Jeremy got a great picture out the side window as we passed one of them. This is from the nosecam.

We fueled in Burley, ID. It’s another airport I’d stopped at before. I think it was back in 2008 when I was flying from Wenatchee, WA to Page, AZ with my wasband and another pilot. We’d overnighted there in a hotel not far from the airport. This time, we just fueled up as quickly as possible.

Leg 3: Burley to Salt Lake City

Megg had texted back with an invitation for us to spend the night at her house. I was eager to see her new home and spend more time with her so after conferring with Jeremy, I texted back that we’d try to get there before sunset. We were airborne minutes later.

East of Burley, ID
The nosecam picked up this image as we climbed out of the airport at Burley, ID.

By this time, it was nearly 5 PM local time and sunset at Salt Lake would be about 6:30. I did not want to fly in that area in the dark. So I put the pedal to the metal (so to speak) and cut some corners along the way to shave off a few minutes of flight time.

The light was magnificent for photography so I turned on the nosecam and left it on for the remainder of the flight. I picked up more than a few nice images along the way. The air was still smooth and we had a bit of a tailwind that hurried us along. We broke from the freeway corridor when we entered the Salt Lake basin, mostly to shorten up the route and avoid other airports along the way. There was fresh snow on the mountains and parts of the lake that we flew over were smooth enough to reflect the sky.

Heading toward Salt Lake
Heading south along on I-84 toward Salt Lake City in late afternoon.

North of Salt Lake
Although I cut some corners to save time, I was never very far from the freeway.

Salt Lake Basin
Dropping into the northeast corner of the Salt Lake Basin.

Reflections in Salt Lake
This is my favorite photo of the trip. I am such a sucker for reflections and will actually plan a route over water if it looks like the nosecam might get a few good shots.

I did have to talk to two towers along the way. The first was Ogden, which is north of Salt Lake City. To keep things simple, I asked for a transition along the I-15 freeway. The controller directed me to overfly one of the runways, basically cutting the corner and shortening up my flight path. He then handed me off to Hill Air Force Base tower, where I got clearance to continue my transition along I-15. Easy peasy.

Leg 3
Third leg of our trip, as recorded by ForeFlight.

We made remarkable time to Skypark. I tuned into the frequency, heard another plane in the pattern, and kept clear until I could see him. Although I probably could have darted across the runway to land on the ramp before he turned final, doing so would have had me looking right into the sun, making it difficult to see where I was going. So I joined the pattern in the downwind and followed him in to land.

Landing at Skypark
We landed at Skypark about 20 minutes before sunset. Can you see the plane landing in front of us? He’s about halfway down the runway.

I taxied over to self-serve fuel and topped off the tanks while Jeremy and Penny stretched their legs. I texted Megg to let her know we’d arrived; she said she’d be with us in 30 minutes. Then I fired up the helicopter and repositioned it over to an end parking space near the taxiway, leaving enough space between me and the next tied down aircraft to prevent complaints.

At Salt Lake City

Zero-Mike-Lima at Bountiful
Zero-Mike-Lima, parked at Bountiful Skypark at sunset after a long day of flying.

We unloaded the helicopter and I locked it up for the night, leaving the GoPro on the nose right where it was. We waited for Megg by the main terminal building. The light in the mountains to the east was spectacular.

Megg came and we exchanged hugs. I introduced her to Jeremy. She tried to pet Penny, but Penny danced around as usual. We loaded our luggage into Megg’s car and headed off to pick up her son at Boy Scouts. I could not believe how much he’d grown! He was 13 now — hell, I remember when he was born! — as tall as me, and had ditched the glasses in favor of contact lenses. We all went out to dinner at Cafe Rio. Then it was back to Megg’s wonderful little house, which was originally built in the 1890s and fully modernized. While Jeremy worked with his photos on his laptop and Penny dodged and teased Megg’s three big dogs, Megg and I chatted about things going on with both of us. It was really great to see her and I urged her to stop by my place for a day or two on her way to the Seattle area for a visit with her dad in July.

Then, with Megg needing a very early start in the morning for a meeting and me feeling pretty tired from a long day at the controls, we split up and hit the sack. I was asleep as soon as my head hit the pillows.

[read more]

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.

Just Say No to Traffic Patterns

Why waste time flying around the airport or hogging up the runway when you just want to get on the ground?

Note: A version of this post originally appeared in AOPA’s Hover Power blog. If you’re a helicopter pilot, you owe it to yourself to check in there regularly to read great articles written by experienced helicopter pilots.

Over the past nine or so years, I’ve done more than my fair share of long cross-country flights with newly minted commercial pilots or CFIs. In most cases, the purpose of the flight was to reposition my helicopter at a temporary base of operations 500 or more miles away and the typically 300-hour pilot on board with me was interested in building R44 time. I was on board as a passenger and got a chance to observe the things these pilots did — or didn’t do. I think the fact that I’ve never been a flight instructor gives me a unique perspective on what I observed.

One thing I’ve come to realize is that typical flight training does very little to prepare students for a commercial flying career. Instead, students are taught to perform maneuvers “by the book,” often so they can teach those maneuvers to their own students in the future. While it’s obviously important to know how to perform maneuvers properly, there are other concerns that are important to commercial pilots. In my upcoming posts for Hover Power, I’ll tackle a few of them, starting with traffic patterns.

I can tell lots of stories about new commercial pilots and CFIs entering traffic patterns to land for fuel at nontowered airports in the middle of nowhere. I can even tell you about the pilot who landed on the numbers of an empty airport’s runway, hover-taxied to the taxiway, and then hover-taxied a half mile down the taxiway to reach the midfield fuel island. They did this because that’s what they had been trained to do. That’s all they knew about landing at airports.

Our flight training teaches us a few things about airport operations, most of which are school-established routines at the handful of airports where we train. There’s a procedure for departing flight school helipads and there may be a procedure for traveling to a practice field nearby. Once there, it’s traffic patterns, over and over. Normal landing and takeoff, steep approach, maximum performance takeoff, run-on landing, quick stop, autorotation–all of these standard maneuvers are taught as part of a traffic pattern. It gets ingrained into our minds that any time we want to land at an airport, we need to enter a traffic pattern.

The reality is very different. Remember, FAR Part 91.129 (f)(2) states, “Avoid the flow of fixed-wing aircraft, if operating a helicopter.” Your flight school may have complied with this requirement by doing a modified traffic pattern at the airport, operating at a lower altitude than the typical airplane traffic pattern altitude of 1,000 feet, or landing on a taxiway rather than a runway. But despite any modifications, it’s still a traffic pattern.

But is a traffic pattern required for landing? No.

Experienced commercial pilots — and their savvier clients — know that traffic patterns waste time. And while the pilot might not be concerned about an extra few minutes to make a landing, the person paying for the flight will be. Why waste time flying around the airport before landing at it? Instead, fly directly to or near your destination and land there.

Before I go on, take a moment to consider why airplanes use traffic patterns. They enter on a 45-degree angle to the pattern to help them see other traffic already in the pattern. They then follow the same course as the other planes so there are no surprises. This is especially important at nontowered airports that don’t have controllers keeping an eye out for traffic conflicts.

But helicopters are avoiding this flow, normally by flying beneath the airplane TPA. As long as they stay away from areas where airplanes might be flying — remember, avoid the flow — they don’t need to worry much about airplane traffic. Instead, they need to look out for other helicopters and obstacles closer to the ground. If a runway crossing is required, special vigilance is needed to make sure an airplane (or helicopter) isn’t using the runway to take off or land. Obviously, communication is important, especially at a busy airport when a runway crossing is involved.

Now you might be thinking that this advice only applies to nontowered airports, where the pilot is free to do what he thinks is best for the flight. But this can also apply to towered airports.

Airport controllers who are accustomed to helicopter traffic and understand helicopter capabilities may instruct you to fly to and land at your destination on the field. You must be prepared to do this, even at an airport you’ve never been to before. That’s part of what your preflight planning is all about. Consult airport diagrams or even satellite images of the airport. Know where you’ll be flying from and where you need to park. Imagine the route to that spot. Be sure to take note of where the tower is–it’s often a great landmark for navigating while close to the ground. Never assume the controller will put you in a traffic pattern. And don’t be afraid to admit you’re unfamiliar if you didn’t do your homework or if things in real life look different from how they looked on paper or a computer screen.

What if a controller does instruct you to enter a traffic pattern and you don’t want to? As amazing as this might seem to new pilots, you can ask the controller to allow you to go direct to your airport destination.

PRC
The airport diagram for Prescott. The X marks the location of the restaurant and we were coming in from the west. Runways 21L and 21R were active. The tower instructed us to fly all the way around the south end of the airport, at least three miles out, to get into a pattern for Runway 21.

I’ll never forget the flight I had one day as a passenger on my friend Jim’s Hughes 500c. Jim was a retired airline pilot who had been flying helicopters for at least 10 years. We were flying into Prescott Airport (PRC) in Arizona for lunch. When Jim called the tower, he asked for landing at the restaurant. The controller told Jim to enter a traffic pattern that would have required him to fly all the way around the airport, taking him at least 10 minutes out of his way. “Negative,” Jim barked into his microphone. “One-Two-Three-Alpha-Bravo is a helicopter. We want to land direct at the restaurant.” A new pilot at the time, I was shocked by his tone of voice. There was an uncomfortable silence and then the controller came back on and told him he could fly direct to restaurant parking.

Will the tower always grant your request? It depends on the situation. If a runway crossing is involved and the airport is busy with traffic, they might not. It might be safer or more convenient for them to keep you in a pattern with the airplanes. But it can’t hurt to ask, although I don’t think I’d be as aggressive as Jim was that day.

One of the big challenges of becoming a commercial helicopter pilot is thinking like a commercial helicopter pilot. There are things we can do that seem to conflict with what we were taught. Landing at airports without the formality of a traffic pattern is one of them.

Maximum Performance Takeoffs and Judgement Calls

Just because you can perform a maneuver, doesn’t mean you should.

Note: A version of this post originally appeared in AOPA’s Hover Power blog. If you’re a helicopter pilot, you owe it to yourself to check in there regularly to read great articles written by experienced helicopter pilots.

In the summer of 2014, I was part of a helicopter rides gig at an airport event. There were three of us in Robinson R44 helicopters, working out of the same rather small landing zone, surrounded on three sides by parked planes and spectators. We timed our rides so that only one of us was on the ground at a time, sharing a 3-person ground crew consisting of a money person and two loaders. Yes, we did hot loading. (Techniques for doing that safely is fodder for an entirely different blog post.) The landing zone was secure so we didn’t need to worry about people wandering into our flight path or behind an idling helicopter.

The landing zone opened out into the airport taxiway, so there was a perfect departure path for textbook takeoffs: 5-10 feet off the ground to 45 knots, pitch to 60, and climb out. It was an almost ideal setup for rides and we did quite a few.

One of the pilots, however, was consulting a different page of the textbook: the one for maximum performance takeoffs. Rather than turning back to the taxiway and departing over it, he pulled pitch right over the landing zone, climbed straight up, and then took off toward the taxiway, over parked planes and some spectators. Each time he did it, he climbed straight up a little higher before moving out.

I was on my way in each time he departed and I witnessed him do this at least four times before I told him to stop. (I was the point of contact for the gig so I was in charge.) His immediate response on the radio was a simple “Okay.” But then he came back and asked why he couldn’t do a maximum performance takeoff.

It boggled my mind that he didn’t understand why what he was doing was not a good idea. The radio was busy and I kept it brief: “Because there’s no reason to.”

The Purpose

The Advanced Flight Maneuvers chapter of the FAA’s Helicopter Flying Handbook (FAA-H-8083-21A; download for free from the FAA) describes a maximum performance takeoff as follows:

A maximum performance takeoff is used to climb at a steep angle to clear barriers in the flightpath. It can be used when taking off from small areas surrounded by high obstacles. Allow for a vertical takeoff, although not preferred, if obstruction clearance could be in doubt. Before attempting a maximum performance takeoff, know thoroughly the capabilities and limitations of the equipment. Also consider the wind velocity, temperature, density altitude, gross weight, center of gravity (CG) location, and other factors affecting pilot technique and the performance of the helicopter.

This type of takeoff has a specific purpose: to clear barriers in the flight path. A pilot might use it when departing from a confined landing zone or if tailwind and load conditions make a departure away from obstacles unsafe.

The Risks

This is an “advanced” maneuver not only because it requires more skill than a normal takeoff but because it has additional risks. The Helicopter Flying Handbook goes on to say:

In light or no wind conditions, it might be necessary to operate in the crosshatched or shaded areas of the height/velocity diagram during the beginning of this maneuver. Therefore, be aware of the calculated risk when operating in these areas. An engine failure at a low altitude and airspeed could place the helicopter in a dangerous position, requiring a high degree of skill in making a safe autorotative landing.

Deadman's Curve
Height Velocity diagram for a Robinson R44 Raven II. Flying straight up puts you right in the “Deadman’s Curve.”

And this is what my problem was. The pilot had purposely and unnecessarily decided to operate in the shaded area of the height velocity diagram with passengers on board over an airport ramp area filled with other aircraft and spectators.

Seeing what he was doing automatically put my brain into “what if” mode. If the engine failed when the helicopter was 50-75 feet off the ground with virtually no forward airspeed, that helicopter would come straight down, likely killing everyone on board. As moving parts came loose, they’d go flying through the air, striking aircraft and people. There were easily over 1,000 people, including many children, at the event. My imagination painted a very ugly picture of the aftermath.

What were the chances of such a thing happening? Admittedly very low. Engine failures in Robinson helicopters are rare.

But the risks inherent in this type of takeoff outweigh the risks associated with a normal takeoff that keeps the helicopter outside the shaded area of the height velocity diagram. Why take the risk?

Just Because You Can Do Something Doesn’t Mean You Should

This all comes back to one of the most important things we need to consider when flying: judgment.

I know why the pilot was doing the maximum performance takeoffs: he was putting on a show for the spectators. Everyone thinks helicopters are cool and everyone wants to see helicopters do something that airplanes can’t. Flying straight up is a good example. This pilot had decided to give the spectators a show.

While there’s nothing wrong with an experienced pilot showing off the capabilities of a helicopter, should that be done with passengers on board? In a crowded area? While performing a maneuver that puts the helicopter in a flight regime we’re taught to avoid?

A responsible pilot would say no.

A September 1999 article in AOPA’s Flight Training magazine by Robert N. Rossier discusses “Hazardous Attitudes.” In it, he describes the macho attitude. He says:

At the extreme end of the spectrum, people with a hazardous macho attitude will feel a need to continually prove that they are better pilots than others and will take foolish chances to demonstrate their superior ability.

Could this pilot’s desire to show off in front of spectators be a symptom of a macho attitude? Could it have affected his judgment? I think it is and it did.

Helicopters can perform a wide range of maneuvers that are simply impossible for other aircraft. As helicopter pilots, we’re often tempted to show off to others. But a responsible pilot knows how to ignore temptation and use good judgment when he flies. That’s the best way to stay safe.

Snowbirding 2016: Return to Wickenburg

I return for a few more days with friends — and make some new friends.

Posts in the Snowbirding 2016 Series:
Introduction
The Colorado River Backwaters
Quartzsite
Wickenburg
Phoenix
Home
Back to the Backwaters
Return to Wickenburg
Valley of Fire
Death Valley
– Back to Work

I left my Colorado River backwaters campsite and was on I-10 heading east by 11 AM on Tuesday morning — a full two days earlier than I originally expected. But that was okay — I was heading back to Wickenburg, the the comparable luxury of my friends’ guest house.

Getting There

It was about 100 miles or so of driving without much traffic. By noon, I was hungry. I wound up stopping for lunch at a place in Salome that turned out to be a biker bar. Whatever. I ordered a burger and sweet potato fries and ate it out in the shade on the patio. My friend Jim texted me with a lunch invitation just as I was taking delivery of my food. I felt bad having to turn him down.

The rest of the drive was completely uneventful. I drove into the outskirts of town a little after one.

Unfortunately, although Jim and Cyndi have 10+ acres of land, their driveway is narrow and twisty and likely not navigable by my truck pulling the Mobile Mansion. I had to park my rig somewhere relatively close by that would also be safe and free. I came up with what I like to think is an ingenious solution: a piece of unused pavement inside a locked fence. Sadly, I don’t feel at liberty to say more — I think I’d get into some serious hot water if lots of people started parking RVs there. Let’s just say that it falls under the “ask for forgiveness, not for permission” rule of life. When I finally told the property manager that the RV parked there for two days was mine, he was cool about it, but if I’d asked in advance, he probably would have said no.

At Jim and Cyndi’s

After parking the Mobile Mansion and offloading the things I needed with me for the next five days, I drove over to Jim and Cyndi’s house. I let myself in through the garage — neither of them were home — and let their dogs out into the yard to play with Penny. Then I settled into the same room in the guest house I’d stayed a few weeks before.

Jim and Cyndi cooked dinner for us that night: spaghetti with a thick and meaty sauce. Wickenburg treated us to an amazing sunset. I retired early to the guest house to do laundry and relax. I was asleep very early.

Wickenburg Sunset
Sunset at Wickenburg.

On Wednesday, Jim and I went down to Phoenix to get the speakers on one of his cars fixed. We went to Fry’s Electronics on Thunderbird, which is one of the few stores in the Phoenix area that I really miss. I bought a CD head cleaner and a new battery operated vacuum for the Mobile Mansion. We sat around in the cafe, waiting for the repair to be done. Afterwards, he took me to a burger place on Bell Road that he really likes. Then another stop in Wickenburg for some errands while I did some shopping and met up with some old friends. Along the way, I passed by where my old neighbor works and had to introduce myself — he didn’t recognize me after the nearly three years since I’d moved out of town.

I made dinner that night. I had some pork tenderloin and salad and bought some macaroni and cheese to go with it. I’d invited my friends, Janet and Steve, to join us — they were also staying in town and had brought their horses by earlier in the day to stay at Jim’s place — but they’d had a late lunch. They did join us after dinner, where we all sat around Jim’s gas fire pit talking and drinking wine or beer. Steve’s dad, Archie, was also visiting. I love Archie and hadn’t seen him in at least 10 years so it was really good to give him a hug and catch up with him.

On Thursday, I took Jim out to Wickenburg airport and another friend’s house to introduce him to some of the local area pilots. Jim is a retired airline captain and I think he’s having trouble keeping himself busy. Two of my airport friends are also retired airline pilots; the others are simply involved with aviation. Three of them are building planes. We spent a few hours meeting and greeting folks. Hopefully, Jim forms some good friendships with guys he has a lot of common with.

That afternoon, the other guesthouse guest arrived. Ron is a photographer based in Cottonwood, AZ. Jim and Cyndi had purchased one of his works months before and had suggested that he get a booth to sell at Gold Rush Days, Wickenburg’s big annual event. My friend Janet, who is an artist, was also selling her work there; that’s why she and Steve were in town. Ron turned out to be a really friendly, down-to-earth guy who was a pleasure to hang out with. Jim and Cyndi took us to dinner at our favorite Wickenburg restaurant that’s not in Wickenburg, Nichols West.

On Friday morning, I helped Jim and Cyndi set up a booth in town for Cyndi to sell the jewelry she makes. Then, while Jim headed down to Phoenix on an errand, I hit the art show around the library in town. It was surprisingly busy; I didn’t expect the Gold Rush kickoff to begin until Saturday after the big parade. I visited Janet’s booth and Ron’s booth; both looked great. (Janet later won first prize for Best Booth.) I saw two metal sculptures I thought would look great hanging on the front wall of my home: different versions of a sun face over four feet in diameter. The one I liked better had a hefty price tag and I decided to give it some more thought before splurging.

Afterwards, I headed back to the house. I was tired — I hadn’t been sleeping well — and although I wanted to get my truck washed, I decided to put it off until I got to California and took the kayaks off the roof. (Yes, I drove around with the kayaks up there for five days.) I spent the afternoon napping and reading and being lazy. I’d begun reading a Robert Galbraith book and found it difficult to put down. I need that kind of reading to keep my attention.

That evening, two of Jim and Cyndi’s friends joined us for a trip up to the T-Bird Cafe in Peeples Valley for pizza. Ron didn’t come. He’d begun feeling under the weather earlier in the day and just wanted to rest. I had a great pizza topped with all kinds of meat — I love meat on my pizza; you can keep the veggies — and we all brought back some for Ron. But he was asleep, knocked out by the cold medicine.

English Breakfast
English breakfast at Nichols West. Yum.

On Saturday, I went up to Nichols West for breakfast. Simon, the owner, is British and there’s an item called English Breakfast on the menu. I’d had it before and liked it, so I went back for more. I highly recommend it.

Penny on the Trail
Penny, the tiny trail dog.

Afterwards, I headed up to Granite Lake with Penny for a hike. It was early — not even 10 AM when we arrived — and still cool. We parked on the back side of the lake and, after walking along the lake’s edge for a few minutes, struck out along a trail heading northwest. That soon joined up with another trail that climbed into the saddle between Granite Mountain and the smaller hills to the west. There were horse tracks along the trail, along with patches of ice, snow, and mud. The trees were a mix of evergreens, manzanita, and other high desert varieties. Granite boulders were everywhere. A trickle of snowmelt formed a tiny stream that wound down the hillside, sometimes across the trail, to the lake.

Cat tails
I did a bit of photography around Granite Lake.

I was on the trail for at least 30 minutes when I realized that I’d hiked it before. I tried to remember when I was last there and who I was with. I know I wasn’t there alone. I started wondering whether I’d hiked it with my wasband years before. I remembered that we hadn’t gone far on the trail — I certainly went a lot farther that Saturday — and recall being winded by the climb. That put it before my big 2012 weight loss, when I was really out of shape. I was still married; had we hiked the trail together? Was a hike with my wasband that unmemorable? Unless I find photos or a blog post, I’ll likely never know. It’s probably better that way.

Penny and I hiked for a little more than a mile and half before taking a break and then turning around to go back. Although only two people had passed us on the way up, we passed quite a few people on the way back. It was much later in the day and I’d taken my time on the way out, stopping many times to take photos. Back at the truck, the lot was full of cars.

Sonic Squeeze
Sonic drive-ins apparently aren’t designed for full-size trucks.

I did a little shopping in Prescott before heading back to Wickenburg. On the way, I stopped at the Sonic drive-in for a shake and wasn’t surprised to discover that my truck didn’t fit into the drive-in parking space, even with the mirrors folded in. Sheesh.

Back in Wickenburg, I stopped at the art show in town. I’d decided to pick up one of the two sun faces I’d seen the previous day. But I was spared the expense: they’d both been sold.

Firepit
The fire pit at Jim and Cyndi’s house.

I spent a lot of the evening getting ready for my departure the next day. That meant doing laundry, organizing my stuff, and packing the truck. Jim and Cyndi made spaghetti with Jim’s excellent meat sauce for dinner. Ron, feeling better even after a full day at the show, joined us. Afterwards, we sat around the fire pit and talked. It was a nice, restful evening.

Coffee and Donuts

The next morning, I finished packing and doing laundry and cleaned up the guest house. By 8 AM, I was ready to go. I said goodbye to Cyndi — who was still in her robe — and headed out to pick up the Mobile Mansion. It took a few tries to get it hooked up — I can’t understand why sometimes I line it up just right on the first try and other times it takes a dozen tries — but then it was securely connected and I was ready to move out.

The Birth of Coffee and Donuts at Wickenburg Municipal Airport

There’s a back story for this and I’ll try to make it quick. My company, Flying M Air, LLC, took over the fuel manager contract at Wickenburg Airport in January 2003. It was a sweet deal that included full access to the terminal building and the ability to sell refreshments and pilot supplies. All I had to do was provide a warm body to pump fuel. I split the profits on all fuel sales with the city, which actually bought the fuel. Under this contract, I netted about $60K a year — with employees working 12 hours a day 365 days a year. The contract made a ton of money in the winter when the jets came in and lost some money every summer when it was too hot to fly.

(Around this time, my future wasband was between jobs and wanted to start a consulting business. I set him up in the terminal and paid him $20/hour — which was double what I paid my other employees — to be the warm body, leaving him free to do office work for his consulting business while he was there. He lasted less than a week, claiming there were too many distractions. Needless to say, that consulting business never got off the ground.)

Anyway, when I first got the contract, I naively thought that if I brought more planes to the airport, I’d sell more fuel. So I started providing donuts and coffee every Sunday morning. Donations covered all costs — which is a good thing, because the pilots who came seldom bought fuel. By the time I sold the contract in the summer of 2004, sick of dealing with the town and disappointed that my future wasband wasn’t interested in working there, it had become a tradition.

I had one more stop to make: Wickenburg Airport. I’d promised Jim that I’d introduce him to “the gang” at the weekly coffee and donuts event.

I rolled into the parking lot in my truck with the Mobile Mansion in tow. There was a crowd of people behind the terminal building, where a keypad-operated door let them into the lounge and kitchen. I was amazed by the number of people who had gathered. I knew some of them, but most of them seemed to know me — after they recognized me! (I look a bit different from the old days: considerably slimmer with long hair.) I got lots of hugs. One of my friends asked how long coffee and donuts had been a thing at the airport and was very surprised to learn it had been 13 years.

Jim showed up in his Jeep and I introduced him around. He already knew a few of the people. I’m hoping he makes socializing with the airport’s pilots a regular part of his retirement routine. I know he misses flying — despite his denials — and there are a few pilots who would welcome a companion on a trip for a $100 hamburger.

Heading Out

By 9:30 AM, I was ready to get on the road. I wanted to be at my next stop by early afternoon and it would be a four-hour drive. I said my goodbyes and after a tight squeeze getting out of the parking lot, hit the road, northbound.

I have to say that the best thing about this trip to Wickenburg was running into so many people I know, getting so many big hugs, and having so many people tell me how great and happy I look.

“Divorce suits you well,” one of my real estate friends said.

I laughed. “No shit.”

Gyro Flight

A friend takes me for a ride in his open cockpit gyroplane.

An Angry Bird
Now this is an angry bird!

One of the great thing about living at an airport is that you’re exposed to neat aviation things on a daily basis. And what isn’t neat about an open cockpit gyroplane sporting a custom Angry Birds paint scheme?

My friend George owns this one. He was at the airport most of this week, teaching a friend how to fly it. Well, he was trying to. The wind howled pretty fiercely on Tuesday and much of Wednesday morning.

George and his Gyro
George posing with his gyro.

(This is a gyroplane or autogyro, by the way. Gyrocopter refers to the Bensen Gyrocopter manufactured by Bensen Aircraft.)

On Wednesday afternoon, George took me for a ride — despite winds 14 gusting to 20. It was an interesting experience for me.

With George
Strapped in and ready to go.

Like helicopters, gyroplanes have a mast and main rotor blades. But unlike a helicopter, a gyro has a means of propulsion — normally a pusher engine/prop. To fly a gyro, you use a pre-rotator to get the blades spinning. You then use the engine/prop to move forward on a runway or other suitable surface. At the right speed, the pilot pulls back on the stick like he would in an airplane to take off. Lift is generated by the rotor blades, which remain spinning in a mode very similar to an autorotation in a helicopter. The engine does not directly drive the rotor blades; the pre-rotator is disconnected before takeoff roll.

Low and Slow
Low and slow in an open cockpit plane? What could be better?

We were airborne for about 20-30 minutes. George demonstrated low flight along a creek bed, high flight, and a power-off landing that had us descending backwards in the stiff wind. (He had to dive to make the runway.) He demonstrated several very short landings and takeoffs. We flew low much of the time and waved at people on the ground waving up at us.

Side View
It’s a great feeling to have nothing between you and the ground you’re flying over.

I thoroughly enjoyed the flight. It reminded me a bit of the powered parachute ride I had a few years ago back in Washington — the closest thing to flying like a bird.

George is a CFI and I’m tempted to take a few lessons. It would be fun to better get to know this kind of aircraft. But there’s no gyroplane in my future — at least I don’t think there is — so getting a gyro rating would probably not be worthwhile.

Still, you never know…