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…

Airport Tower Closures: Reality Check

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

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

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

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

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

What an ATC Tower Does

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

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

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

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

An airplane calling in might say something like:

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

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

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

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

To the airplane, he might say something like:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few things to note here:

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

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

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

Low Traffic Airports Don’t Need Towers

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

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

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

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

For example, they’re closing four in Arizona:

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

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

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

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

How Airports without Towers Work

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

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

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

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

An airplane pilot might say:

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

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

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

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

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

The Reality

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

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

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

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

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

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.