Taking a Stand Against the Full Body Backscatter X-Ray

Stand up for our rights. You can make a difference.

Yesterday, when I went through security at Seattle-Tacoma Airport (SEA) for a flight to Wenatchee Pangborn Airport (EAT), I was one of four people in a five-minute period who opted for a pat-down rather than subject my body to the highly controversial full body scanner or backscatter x-ray machine.

BackscatterWikipedia image. (No, it’s not me. Sheesh.)

Because we had to wait while the TSA called screeners for each of us, we discussed why we’d made the decision. The four of us agreed that the use of backscatter x-ray technology for security screening was a violation of our privacy and constitutional rights. This “virtual strip search” is not only ineffective for revealing hazardous materials carried by determined terrorists, but it raises additional health concerns. Two of us were certain that the machine was hazardous — more on that in a moment — I’m not convinced either way.

All four of us had decided to make a stand against the use of the equipment by forcing the TSA to conduct a pat-down each time we were asked to go through the machine. This inconveniences the TSA far more than it inconveniences us. It only adds about 10 minutes to your screening time, but it forces the TSA to shuffle around staff, thus slowing down the whole security line. If enough people do this on a regular basis, the TSA will be forced to increase its staff to handle screening needs during busy times — or simply cease using the machines. After all, the normal metal detectors are still there and are used when the backscatter x-ray machines are down for maintenance. Why is it that they’re good enough at, say 5:10 to 5:30 PM one day but not good enough five minutes before or after that? It’s all bullshit, if you ask me.

One by one we were taken away for our pat-downs. Soon, it was just me and a man left chatting. He said he always gets the pat-down and is convinced that the machine is dangerous. I told him that I always ask for a private screening. This doubly inconveniences the TSA because it requires not only a private space, but two TSA screeners of the same gender: one to conduct the pat-down and another to observe — so you can’t cry foul, I suppose.

In addition, because they can’t separate you from your luggage, they must carry all your luggage and bins into the screening room with them. If you have a lot of stuff — think laptop, coat, belt, purse, briefcase, carryon bag, etc. — that could take more than one trip. You’re not allowed to touch it once you opt out so they’re forced to carry it for you to the screening room. One time, I had three of them tied up carrying my stuff around.

The man I was speaking to obviously liked the idea as much as I did and he opted for a private screening, too.

While a lot has been said about the obtrusiveness of pat-downs, having gone through it three times now, I can assure women that it isn’t a big deal. I didn’t feel violated or uncomfortable at any time. It’s just another woman wearing gloves patting you down. I’ve had seamstresses get more friendly when fitting me for a gown.

I try to make the situation more tolerable by chatting up the TSA women, teasing them gently, making sure they understand that I’m just opting for the pat-down to “get my money’s worth” out of the screening process. Occasionally, I’ll get one that admits the process isn’t effective or doesn’t make sense, but most times they’ll stop short of actually saying so. Yesterday, one of the women actually admitted that she thinks the backscatter x-ray machine is dangerous. Not only will she avoid it, but she’s told her mother not to go through it. Good to know that the TSA can’t even convince it’s own people about the safety and security of the system.

I usually mention the Israeli airport security system as an alternative method of screening. Often, they are familiar with it. Yesterday, one of the women said that they couldn’t use that system “because we’re not allowed to profile.” We both agreed that profiling should be allowed — at least to a certain extent. But rather than the kind of racial profiling Sheriff Joe uses to harass Hispanic people in the Phoenix area, airport profiling should look for signs of nervousness or other indicators that might suggest a person has something to hide. This is psychological profiling that requires extensive training and dedicated screeners. Unfortunately, members of the U.S. government would rather spend our tax dollars on sophisticated machines manufactured by their friends than useful training for TSA and other security agents.

As usual, yesterday’s pat-down was a non-event. I made my statement and was very pleased to see that I wasn’t the only one doing so. My only question is this: Why are most people acting like sheep, walking through a machine that displays nude images of them to strangers while dosing them with radiation?

The GOP and its propaganda arms (think Fox News and Rush Limbaugh) are constantly talking about government intrusion in our lives and violations of our constitutional rights, yet I don’t see any of them complaining about this complete disregard for privacy and Fourth Amendment rights. Why not?

Don’t they see that every time they introduce a measure like this, they’re subjecting us to more government intrusion and violating more of our rights?

I’m an American and I value my rights. Because of this, I arrive at the airport an extra 15 minutes early and do my part to protest the use of this ineffective, unnecessary, and possibly harmful intrusion of my privacy and violation of my rights.

If you care about your rights, you’ll do the same.

The 2012 Buckeye Air Fair

Some small towns really know how to put on an airport event.

Yesterday, for the fourth (or possibly fifth) time, I participated in one of the nicest airport events in Arizona: The Buckeye Air Fair. The event was held annually for several years until 2009. It moved to Gila Bend for at least one year and I turned down an offer to participate because of the distance. I was thrilled to ask to participate again in the 2012 event when it returned to Buckeye.

I flew almost nonstop yesterday from 9 AM to 5 PM, with only short breaks for an airport closure (for an RC aircraft demonstration) and refuelings. There was a constant stream of people coming on board, aged 3 through 73. Although I missed the rest of the event — being stuck in the cockpit all day — I had a great time and met lots of really great people. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I estimate that I took at least 50 people for their first-ever helicopter ride. For some of them, our flight was their first ever time airborne.

Interested in what you missed? Check out this video by Arizona Public on YouTube. You’ll see a couple of shots of me and my bright red helicopter.

Thanks again to Margaret and Steve and the rest of the folks at Buckeye for making this such a great event for everyone.

Departure from DVT Video

A behind-the-scenes look at a helicopter departure from a relatively busy class D airport in Arizona.

I went for a little pleasure flight on Tuesday, mostly to check out the capabilities of my new GoPro HD Hero2 camera. This GoPro has two features I’ve been wanting:

  • A narrower field of view. The HD Hero2 supports a 90° FOV in addition to 127° and 170°; the HD Hero supports only 127° and 170°. I like to show off low-level, high speed flight, but with a super wide angle lens, I had to almost be kicking up dust in flight for the picture to actually look low-level.
  • Audio in via a Mic port. Let’s face it; there’s nothing too interesting about the droning sound of a helicopter’s engine and rotor blades. I wanted to include cockpit sound.

So I rigged up the Hero2 with a skeleton housing as my helicopter nosecam and ran a 3.5mm stereo cable from the audio in port to an audio out port I’d had installed in my helicopter for use with my old POV.1 setup. And then I went flying.

And today I put together this little educational video that puts you on the helicopter’s nose with headsets on for a departure from Deer Valley Airport (DVT) in north Phoenix.

A few things about the video and setup.

  • The audio is clear but there’s an annoying buzz when no one is talking. I don’t know what that is but it annoys the hell out me. For serious production use, I’d have to duck the audio for each “silent” period. That means using Final Cut Pro instead of iMovie (which I used to throw this together).
  • As with the HD Hero, 1080p video capture (which is what this video was recorded at) introduces a waving motion in the bottom half of the frame. This motion goes away at 720p resolution on my HD Hero and HD Hero 960. I should note here that I purchased a 30MB/s Class 10 SD card to make sure the wiggle wasn’t caused by the camera’s inability to write quickly enough to the card.
  • The color looks terrible. I don’t know if it’s because I used my polarizing filter and didn’t really need it or if there’s something weird about the camera’s optics. Will try it next time without the polarizing filter.

By the way, there’s a nice comparison of the three currently available GoPro Hero models here. I’m embarrassed to admit that I now own one of each.

I’ll play with this some more at different settings to see if I can get the results I expect. So far, I’m not exactly happy with the video quality, although I’m very glad to be able to record a decent cockpit audio track.


Wickenburg to Phoenix by Helicopter

Yet another helicopter video.

Join me for a wild ride across the Sonoran desert between Wickenburg, AZ and north Phoenix, AZ. Shot on January 20, 2011 during a Flying M Air repositioning flight. Enjoy.

2010: My Year in Flights

I was all over the place.

I thought I’d take a moment to blog about some of the flying I did this past year. LogTen Pro, the software I blogged about yesterday, makes keeping track of my flying activities a lot easier to summarize.

The Big Picture

I flew a total of 207.3 hours in 2010 with exactly 300 takeoffs and landings. Nine takeoffs were at night while 13 landings were at night — this inequality occurs, in part, because of long flights that begin just before dawn or just before dusk. But I only flew 5.1 hours at night.

Flights by MonthMy flights are spread out over the entire year, with February, March, September, and October my busiest months. LogTen Pro created this graph for me so I could visualize it.

Some Details

I broke my flight time down into different types that I want to track:

  • 71.5 hours Solo. Solo flight time is the time I was on board all alone. Much of this time was spent repositioning the aircraft for a flight. I often offer this time at low rates on Flying M Air’s Web site, but seldom have people take advantage of it. Their loss. I don’t mind flying alone. I suspect I have an unusually high percentage of solo flight time for a helicopter pilot.
  • 89.4 hours Cross Country. For helicopters, cross-country flight time is considered anything over 25 miles. This number includes only flights that landed at least 25 miles from the starting point. It does not include flights where I flew at least 25 miles away and then came back to the same airport or another one nearby. I did make several very long cross-country flights last year, including flights between Phoenix and Seattle and flights from the Phoenix area to Lake Powell, Monument Valley, Las Vegas, and Blythe, CA.
  • 30.2 hours High DA/Mountain. I track high density altitude/mountain flying because it’s important to some employers. The definition I use is flights that begin or end at an airport at 5000 feet density altitude or higher and the part of that flight spent over that DA. So if I flew from Wickenburg (2400 feet elevation) to Prescott (5000 feet elevation) and was over 5,000 feet for about half of that 30-minute flight, I’d log .2 or .3 for High DA/Mountain flying. All of the flights I did when I flew at the Grand Canyon were High DA/Mountain flights because I started and ended at 6300 feet and never got any lower. If I started at a low elevation and landed at a low elevation, however, I probably wouldn’t log any high flying in between unless it was either very high flying or involved crossing mountains, etc. I know this is subjective and not perfect, but I’m really not required to log this at all, so I do it my own way just to get a ballpark idea.

Landing ZonesI landed at 52 different places in Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. 16 of these landing zones were off-airport, although two of them were official helipads registered with the FAA. These numbers do not include about a dozen off-airport landing zones I used during one mine survey job in March; it just wasn’t worth logging them all. This Google Earth map shows where they were, using data from LogTen Pro. (Seriously: isn’t this cool?)

I only flew one aircraft: my R44 Raven II.

The Flights

A look at my logbook reveals a wide variety of flight types:

  • Day Trips to Grand Canyon, Sedona, and Meteor Crater/La Posada. This is something Flying M Air offers and I’m pretty sure we’re the only operator in the Phoenix area that does so at a reasonable price. Truth is, I’ll take you anywhere I’m allowed to — which is almost anywhere in the 48 contiguous states — for the day if you pay me to. These are the trips I offers, so these are the trips I sell. Sure do wish someone would ask for something different once in a while. If I spent any more time at the Grand Canyon, I could probably get a part time job as a tour guide there.
  • Phoenix Tours. This is Flying M Air’s “cheap flight.” Frankly, it isn’t worth going to the airport for less than an hour of flight time, so this is the lowest price tour I sell. It’s a great flight around the city and I customize it for clients, partially to make them happy and partially to make it more interesting for me. One of these custom flights required me to visit several specific GPS locations, four of which were inside class Bravo (PHX) or class delta (CHD) airspace. That was a challenging flight.
  • Moonlight Dinner Tours. I only did one of these last year, but it was a biggie: the guy popped the question and the gal said yes. What’s especially memorable about this flight is that I picked them up and dropped them off at the Sky Harbor helipad, which is between the runways and always a fun challenge.
  • Monument ValleySouthwest Circle Helicopter Adventure. I only did one of these last year, with a nice couple from Tucson. (In 2009, I did four of them and I have one scheduled (so far) for 2011.) This is a six-day excursion with overnight stops at Sedona, Grand Canyon, Lake Powell (at Page), Monument Valley, and, on this particular trip, Winslow (which I actually prefer over Flagstaff, the usual stop). This was the first trip where I actually had to alter my course and change tour reservations due to weather — the second day had low clouds and rain that cleared out later in the day. You can find photos from this trip here.
  • Las Vegas Weekend. I took two women up to Las Vegas for the weekend. It was a nice flight and a relatively nice weekend away, despite some mechanical problems.
  • Video flights at the Best in the Desert (BITD) Parker 425 race. Last year was my third year at the race. It’s my favorite annual gig and I’m only sorry that it’s just one day a year. I flew three videographers last year, chasing race trucks through the desert. (The aerial shots in the video here were made from my helicopter.) Of course, the last videographer let his seatbelt hang out the door, causing damage that cost $2K to repair. I won’t let that happen again.

  • Wine Shopping. I took some regular clients on a wine shopping trip from Wickenburg to Scottsdale. They bought four cases of wine and we managed to fit them all in back under and on the third passenger seat. We named our “passenger” Bacchus.
  • Mine Survey. I took five different people (on multiple flights) to test soil samples on various mine sites not far from Blythe, CA. Although the logged time didn’t add up very much — each flight segment was less than 10 minutes — the waiting time sure did. I was satisfactorily compensated, so that’s not an issue. Now I bring my iPad on all flights so I have something to keep me occupied while clients are out doing their thing.
  • Equipment Testing. I actually did two of these gigs, each over multiple days, out in the desert west of Wickenburg. It required the client to hook up some communications equipment on the helicopter and me to fly as specified so they could test range, etc. There was a lot of flying, a lot of landing, and a lot of waiting. On the first gig, we brought our truck and new fifth wheel trailer out into the desert and camped. The truck had my fuel transfer system on board, which made it unnecessary to go back to Wickenburg for fuel. It gave us a good opportunity to test out the trailer before I used it that summer.
  • Over Lake PowellPhoto and video flights. I did a bunch of photo flights in the Phoenix area, north of Phoenix, south of Phoenix, and all the way up at Lake Powell. In fact, I spent a total of 45.4 hours (according to LogTen Pro’s summary of my remarks field) doing photo and video flights last year. I even got to do one flight with my new Moitek Gyro-stabilized Video Camera Mount.
  • Cherry DryingCherry Drying. I spent more time drying cherries this year than I did in the previous two years combined — but it still only added up to 20 hours over 11 weeks. Anyone who thinks drying cherries is a good way to build time is very wrong. (If you’re a pilot interested in cherry drying, read this.)
  • Rides. I did rides at one public event and one private one last year. I also did a few odd rides here and there, mostly for folks I owed favors to. I figure I took about 40 helicopter “virgins” up for their first ride, along with at least 30 others who had already been in a helicopter.
  • Golf Ball Drops. I did two drops in 2010 and I’m starting to get good at it. On the last drop, I got one ball in the cup and another right on the cup rim.
  • Ash Scattering. I did only one of these in 2010, but that’s okay. Although I don’t mind doing them, I don’t particularly like them. Good part: family happy to have complied with wishes of deceased. Bad part: Climbing to altitude and worrying about packet of ashes breaking open and getting into my air intake (again). This flight went well and the folks were happy. For two of them, it was their first ever helicopter flight.
  • Fun. I did some flights just for fun, mostly in Washington state. I sure do love flying up and down the Columbia River. I also enjoy low-level flight over the empty desert.

Not a Bad Year

I’ve been averaging 200 hours a year — except for the year I flew at the Grand Canyon, which was considerably higher — since I began flying. I have the huge chore ahead of me of entering all that flight time into LogTen Pro. I figure I’ll do a few months a week. I’ll likely finish up over the summer when I’m back in Washington waiting for it to rain.

When I’m done, I’m sure I’ll show off my stats here.