My Las Vegas Weekend

Something I’d prefer not to repeat any time soon.

If you follow me on Twitter or read this blog regularly, you know that I spent last weekend in Las Vegas doing a multi-day charter flight for two women from Prescott. The job was to fly them by helicopter to Vegas, where they’d spend two nights as part of a family get-together, and then take them home on Sunday afternoon. It was just the kind of gig a pilot looks forward to: an all expense paid weekend in Las Vegas. As an added bonus: the weather would be perfect.

Our Route

Our route to and from Las Vegas, as recorded by my Spot personal tracking device.

I picked them up at Prescott Airport (PRC) on Friday afternoon. My passengers were great people, although they seem to have packed enough luggage for two weeks instead of two days. (Honestly, how many changes of clothes does a person need in less than 48 hours?) I took off from Prescott at about 3:15 PM and made a beeline for the Hoover Dam 140 nautical miles away. My goal was to be on the ground in Las Vegas before dark.

Strike 1: Fuel Pump Failure

We were about 60 NM short of the dam, not far from Hackberry, AZ on old Route 66, when the Aux Fuel warning light illuminated. I remember thinking to myself: Oh no, not again. I checked the circuit breaker for the pump and sure enough, it had popped out. I pushed it back in. It popped right back out. So there I was, in the middle of nowhere, with an auxiliary fuel pump failure.

As I’ve written elsewhere in this blog, the auxiliary fuel pump is a redundant piece of equipment on a Robinson R44 helicopter. Although it’s required for operation on launch — in other words, I can’t legally take off if it isn’t working — it doesn’t do anything in flight except wait around for the engine-driven fuel pump to fail. Fortunately, that fuel pump is apparently much better designed and built because it doesn’t seem to fail at all. This particular auxiliary fuel pump was the third one that had failed on my helicopter since it was new 5 years (about 1100 hours) before.

As a pilot, I had a decision to make. I could:

  • Hackberry

    We were right about here when the auxiliary fuel pump failed. That group of buildings on the right is Hackberry.

    Land there in the middle of nowhere where it would be extremely difficult to get help. Not only would this ruin my passengers’ weekend by delaying them at least 5 hours, but it would be extremely costly for me to get them (and me) transportation anywhere else. This was something I considered for only a moment. The helicopter was running fine and the emergency procedure says land as soon as practical. Hackberry, AZ was not a practical place to land.

  • Detour to Kingman. Kingman, AZ was about 12 NM southwest. It was marginally better than Hackberry and the same arguments against it apply. But given a choice between Hackberry or Kingman, I would have gone to Kingman.
  • Return to base. The Robinson guy I spoke to yesterday said that on an auxiliary fuel pump failure I should go back to base, but since I was much closer to my destination than base (Deer Valley Airport in Phoenix), going back to base seemed pretty silly. Frankly, I didn’t even consider it.
  • Continue the flight to Las Vegas. This seemed to make the most sense. Again, the helicopter was flying fine. There were several small communities and one or two small airports along the way. If I started experiencing any problems, I could set down there.

I chose the last option.

Again, everything was running smoothly so I wasn’t really worried. Just a little more alert than usual, listening hard for an engine hiccup that might indicate a fuel flow problem.


As we flew, the back of my mind worked on the problem I now had to deal with: getting the pump replaced before 1 PM on Sunday. It was actually a two-part problem:

  • Getting a fuel pump. The last time the pump had failed, I’d tried unsuccessfully to find a replacement locally. The Robinson Helicopter Company had them in stock, but they’d shortly be closed for the weekend and I’d missed their shipping window anyway.
  • Finding a mechanic to install the fuel pump. The last time I’d had mechanical problems in Las Vegas, Silver State Helicopters had still been in business there. Their mechanic had come to McCarren and made a ramp repair. But Silver State was gone and I had no connections in Vegas for repairs. Especially on a weekend.

Understand that if I didn’t get it fixed by midday Sunday, I’d have to:

  • Provide alternative transportation for my clients back to Prescott. That meant two plane tickets from Las Vegas to Phoenix followed by a 160-mile round trip car service ride.
  • Refund at least part of the money my clients had paid me to fly them up to Vegas or provide them with a 2-hour flight somewhere else in the future.
  • Spend additional time in Las Vegas, incurring more costs while I remained unproductive.

That would cost more than a repair — and I’d still need the repair.

Hoover Dam and Bridge

One of my favorite photos from our Prescott to Las Vegas flight on Friday.

The answer came to me not long after crossing over the Hoover Dam and its new bridge. My Seattle mechanic had made a “hangar call” in Phoenix for another one of his customers in October. Maybe he’d come to Vegas. And since he had a bunch of R44s, if he didn’t have the pump on a shelf, he could pull one out of a helicopter temporarily as a loaner. It seemed like a good bet. After all, who would turn down a free trip to Vegas?

Luxor and Excalibur

Only in Las Vegas can a pilot fly between a glass pyramid and a garishly painted medieval castle.

My route took us up the west shore of Lake Mead to Lake Las Vegas, then west into the sinking sun toward the Stratosphere. We crossed over the Strip as tourists in the tower beside us took photos of us, then headed south along I-15 on the west side of the Strip. I turned base leg between Luxor’s pyramid and Excalibur’s medieval castle, then came in for landing on the Atlantic Aviation ramp on the northwest corner of McCarren Airport (LAS).

While my passengers visited the ladies room in the FBO, I was on the phone with Rich, my mechanic. Within 10 minutes, we had a solution. He’d fly to Vegas that weekend and replace the pump.

While this seems like a happy ending, it would also be an expensive one. I’d have to cover Rich’s round trip airfare to Vegas — with tickets bought at the last minute — and pay a weekend labor rate about three times his normal rate that would also apply to the four hours of travel time. And the pump would cost another $1,600. Plus, in order to facilitate transportation for Rich and any needs he might have, I rented a car at the FBO for $85/day. My free trip to Vegas had suddenly become very expensive.

Strike 2: Rio “All Suites” Hotel

My reservations were at the Rio, an off-the-strip hotel that markets itself as having all suites. I wanted to be comfortable for my stay, so I’d looked into it. Vegas is hurting in this economy and deals are everywhere. I got an upgraded “Strip-view suite” for $80/night.

They put me on the 23rd floor of the tower. I looked out the window, expecting to see the Strip. I didn’t. I called the desk. After speaking with three different people, they agreed that my room was not Strip-view. Since I’d paid for Strip view, they moved me to a room on the 26th floor. They’d send a bellman up with my new keys.

Rio View

The view from my room around sunset. Okay, so it doesn’t suck, but it isn’t what I expected, either.

I waited 30 minutes for the bellman. When I got to my new room, I found that it was on the same side of the hotel. But because the hotel was curved, it had a partial view of the Strip. That’s the best they were willing to do.

As far as the “suite” part of the room’s description goes, the folks at the Rio obviously have a different idea of what a suite is. To me, a suite is either two rooms or one room with a divider between living and sleeping areas. Embassy Suites has suites. What I had at the Rio was a big room with a bed, sofa, desk, and TV that faced neither the bed nor the sofa. It was not, by any stretch of my imagination, a suite.

There was nothing very appealing about the room at all. It was rather run down, although the bed was comfortable and there were plenty of pillows. The business part of the bathroom — shower and toilet — was small, although the outer area was quite large. The climate control system clanked every time it kicked on, so I left it turned off at night so I could sleep.

I won’t be staying at the Rio again and I don’t recommend it to anyone.

My advice to anyone who wants a nice room in Las Vegas: stay in a hotel less than 5 years old — there are plenty to choose from — on the Strip.

Strike 3: Buffet Dinner

I was meeting friends who were in Vegas for National Finals Rodeo (NFR), which was finishing up on Saturday. I’d invited them to join me for dinner. To compromise on our food choices, I picked the Rio’s buffet, which I’d heard was very good.

As usual with Las Vegas and so many American things, quantity seems more valued than quality. Yes, the buffet had over 300 items to choose from. But none of them were outstanding. In fact, unless you like to stuff yourself with mediocre food — which I don’t — it was a huge disappointment.

But they did have a good bread pudding for desert, and my friends seemed happy enough. Still, I won’t be eating there again.

Hit 1: Sleep

I slept remarkably well. Although the room was right next to the elevators and vending area, it was quiet. There was a bit of noise when my next door neighbors came in — the room had a connecting door — but they got quiet pretty quickly. And, thankfully, I didn’t have to listen to them having sex.

I did wake for the day at 4 AM, but that was to be expected. I was on Arizona time, and I usually wake around 5 AM there. I got a blog post written and posted using Bluetooth tethering on my BlackBerry to access the Internet, then showered and started my day.

Hit 2: Walking/Shopping Las Vegas

I am not a gambler. I don’t see the point. To me, the people parked on stools in front of slot machines like zombies are missing out on the finer points of life. The people at gaming tables are at least getting some social interaction — but at what cost?

Las Vegas is one of the freakishly weird places on earth and there’s nothing more interesting to me than to explore it on foot.

So after visiting my friends at the Cowboy Christmas market they were participating in at the Hilton’s convention center, I headed over to the Las Vegas Fashion Mall on the Strip. I got a great parking spot under the mall and went up on a mission: Buy a Verizon MiFi.

You see, back when I bought my iPad, I made a conscious decision to go with the WiFi only version. I was already paying for Internet three ways and couldn’t see adding a fourth. Besides — silly me — I thought Apple might enable Bluetooth tethering, like I could use with my MacBook Pro and Verizon BlackBerry Storm.

Two things happened:

  • Outrageous WiFi Price

    Yes, the Las Vegas Convention Center wanted $99 a day to access their WiFi.

    I started traveling with my iPad only. Without my MacBook Pro, I couldn’t set up an Airport Network to share my Internet connection with my iPad. If WiFi wasn’t available, I couldn’t use Internet features on my iPad. And I was certainly not going to spend $9 to $99 a day to access the Internet at a hotel without free WiFi. (I’m addicted, but not that badly.)

  • I began using Square. Square is this great system for accepting payment by credit card. It requires an iOS or Android device. I use it on my iPad. Problem: it requires Internet access. No WiFi, no chargie.

I’m due for a new phone after December 23. I’d already decided to buy an Android phone — probably the Motorola Droid 2 — so it would work with Square. I’d done extensive price calculations to see which would be better: using the phone as a hotspot (it has that capability) or getting a MiFi. The cost was about equal, but having the MiFi would give me greater flexibility in that I’d get more bandwidth for less money and the additional bandwidth cost was cheaper. Plus, as I later learned, I’d be able to continue using the Internet while I was on the phone.


Smaller than a pack of cards, this MiFi will connect me to the Internet just about anywhere I go.

Verizon has a special deal on the MiFi 2200 right now. The device is free with a 2 year plan. I decided to go for it and that’s why I went to the mall.

I found a Verizon kiosk, picked the brains of the very knowledgable and friendly but not pushy sales guy, and signed up. I walked out with a MiFi, stowed it in the car, and went out the mall’s main entrance on foot to explore that area of the strip.

Fashion Mall

The front of the Fashion Mall from the overpass at the Wynn across the street.

I crossed over to Wynn, where I had lunch in Red 8, a Chinese restaurant. I’ve been really hungry for good Chinese food lately — there isn’t any in Arizona — and had a bunch of it in Las Vegas.

Venetian Canal

Yes, this is completely indoors. Why have a real sky when you can have a prettier fake one?

From there, I walked down the strip past the new (to me) Palazzo and into the Venetian’s indoor shopping mall. The Venetian was built in the tail end of the wacky phase that demanded rides in every hotel and, because of this, it has an indoor “canal” with gondola rides. I bought a very unsatisfactory tiramisu in a “bakery” and wandered back out onto the strip.

I got about as far as Harrah’s when I started feeling hot and tired and figured it was time to head back. So I crossed the street and walked along the strip past the Mirage and Treasure Island. They were doing work on the sidewalk there and they detoured all traffic into the casino (how convenient), but I found the walkway over the road to the mall. I wandered up to the Apple Store to see what kind of iPad cases they have — I’m actually looking for a purse-like case — and then wandered out empty-handed. Three hours after I’d started my walk, I was back in my rental car, exhausted.

Hit 3: Dinner at the Burger Bar

During my walk, I’d decided to cheer myself up from my helicopter maintenance woes by going to a show. I’d heard a lot about Chris Angel as the big up-and-coming magician. He had a show at the Luxor that was somehow connected to Circue du Soleil. I called and, as a party of one, got a third-row seat to see the 7:00 PM show.

So after taking a nap and configuring my new MiFi, I headed out to the Luxor to pick up my tickets and grab a bite to eat before the show. I wound up in the Burger Bar, which is on the overpass between Luxor and Mandalay Bay. I’ve eaten there before. It’s basically a pricey burger joint, but it’s easy and there’s aways a seat at the bar.

I wound up sitting beside a woman in her early 30s who was also alone. Only moments after I arrived, she struck up a conversation. Within minutes, we were chatting like old friends. She was from a small border town in Canada and was on exactly the same page as I was regarding politics and the role of religion in society. She was an outdoorsy person who was out of place in the zaniness of Las Vegas, but was determined to explore it. She’d read about the Burger Bar in a tour book and had asked her friends to join her there for dinner. But they’d rather shop so she’d hopped on a bus from Planet Hollywood (up the strip) and had made the trek alone.

It’s always interesting to me to see how people from other countries similar to the United States think of us. At one point, we were discussing the tax situation in the United States and she said, “I can’t believe you people want tax cuts when you have such a huge deficit and you don’t even have universal healthcare yet.”

I consider that meal a high point of my weekend. It wasn’t the food — I had the sliders and they were pretty good but nothing special — it was the conversation. It’s always great to meet someone who has the same basic ideas you have. Just when I think I must be nuts because of what everyone else is thinking and doing, I meet someone who thinks the same way I do. It confirms that I’m not nuts after all.

Strike 4: Chris Angel Believe

I’ll start by saying this: Do not waste your money on this show.


Interesting that the letters LIE should be bold in the logo. The show’s description was certainly a lie.

Chris Angel has built a show to stroke his ego and feed his narcissism. A big video screen shows photos and videos of Chris in action throughout his life at various points in the show. (Apparently, I’d come to watch TV.) His comedic sidekicks shared immature bathroom joke humor that served primarily to get cheap laughs and stretch out the show’s length to 90 minutes.

Every once in a while, Chris would do a magic trick. Most tricks were some version of the transposition illusion, where Chris and an assistant or sidekick exchange places using a teleportation illusion. I think he did at least five of these and, after the third one, I felt like saying, Okay, I get it. You can switch places with someone. Let’s move on.

He also escaped from a straight jacket while hanging upside down — a trick my cousin was doing when he was in his teens.

He apparently swallowed razor blades and string and pulled the string out with the razor blades tied to it. Teller of Penn and Teller does the same trick with sewing needles and is a lot more entertaining as he does it.

He put on a big, bulky stage coat and then proceeded to produce birds. (Gee, where did they come from?)

He cut an assistant in half in a relatively gory version of the usual trick.

He defied gravity, but in each instance, it was pretty easy to see an assistant releasing the invisible wires attached to his back. In fact, I’m not even sure if we were supposed to be impressed by that; it was pretty transparent.

There were other tricks, too, but not enough to fill 90 minutes — hence the chatty fill and stupid jokes. Every break in the action seemed to be an opportunity for Chris Angel to brag about himself or promote his TV show or products for sale in the gift shop. It was probably this aspect of the show that turned me off so much. I think that if he’d had a more likable personality and wasn’t so damn full of himself, I could be more forgiving of his performance. But to brag about how great you are and then deliver such a mediocre performance was unforgivable.

When the show ended, it did so abruptly, leaving the audience wondering if it was really over.

I cannot believe how much money I spent on this show and how absolutely ripped off I felt when it was done. I would have better spent the same amount of money feeding into slot machines. At least I would have seen something different at every spin.

Oddly enough, my passengers saw the next show that night — the 1,000th performance. They were equally disappointed. I’m really surprised that this show was so well attended. In my opinion, it sucked.

Strike 5: Stomach Problems

Despite the fact that two doctors have told me that there’s nothing seriously wrong with my stomach, I was up in the middle of the night with severe acid reflux and nausea. I had no medicine — not even Tums or Rolaids — to take. I prepared the bathroom for the expected second act where I’d lose those tasty sliders and fries, then went back to bed. Propping myself up on all the pillows so I was nearly sitting up really helped. I was even able to get back to sleep without losing my dinner.

From now on, I travel with Tums.

Hit 4: Rich to the Rescue

On the Ramp

Parked on the ramp at LAS. The 747 behind me is a private jet belonging to the owner of the Venetian.

My mechanic, Rich, arrived at LAS on time at 8:20 AM on Sunday with a remarkably small duffle bag. I picked him up at the main terminal and drove him over to the Atlantic Aviation terminal. The drove us out to the far reaches of the ramp, where they’d had me parked. Rich got right to work. Within minutes, the side panel was off and he was pulling the old pump. Once the new pump was in, we ran it to check for leaks. Then I ran up the helicopter while he slid underneath to make sure everything was okay.

By 9:30 AM, we were walking back to the terminal. He decided to try to catch an earlier flight back, so I drove him around to the main terminal and let him off. Mission accomplished.

I’ll get the bill in the mail.

Strike 6: The $8.54 Smoothie

I had 3 hours to kill before departure time. I decided to kill it at Mandalay Bay, which has a bunch of really great restaurants. It was too early for lunch, so I figured I’d pick up a smoothie, which would help keep my stomach settled. All I’d had to eat that day was a cup of green tea and half a toasted bagel with cream cheese.

There was a yogurt place on the north side of the casino that had make-your-own smoothies. You’d fill up a cup with your choice of frozen yogurt flavors and some fresh fruit, then hand it off to the girl behind the counter. She’d toss it in a blender with some 2% milk.

It wasn’t until after my mix was in the blender that I was told it would cost $8.54. Ouch. Well, at least it was tasty.

Hit 5: Lunch at the Noodle Shop

I went for Chinese food for lunch again. This time, I had congee, which is a Chinese rice gruel. It sounds gross and most American folks probably would think it is. But I like it.

Back in the 1980s, when I worked for the City of New York, my partner was Chinese, originally from Hong Kong. On payday, after picking up our checks at the our office in the Municipal Building, we’d head over to Chinatown for lunch. She’d take me to the restaurants where the Chinese people ate. I’d be the only Caucasian in the place. She’d order in Chinese and I’d eat whatever she ordered for me. I think that at first she was trying to see what I’d eat. She soon learned that I’d eat anything. Congee at Big Wong was one of our favorites; she’d order it with tripe sometimes or with little meatballs made of god-knows-what.

At the Noodle Shop in Mandalay Bay, I had congee with abalone and chicken. I’d never had abalone before and I figured it was worth a try. It was good, but not worth the extra money. I would have been just as happy with pork. But at least I know what abalone is like now.

Return Flight

I got back to the helicopter at 12:30 PM and preflighted it. I settled my bill at the Atlantic desk for fuel, parking, and “security” fee. I then went into the pilot lounge to wait for my passengers. They had WiFi there and I spent some time Tweeting and Facebooking. My passengers showed up right on time at 1:30 PM and we got a lift out to the helicopter.

West of Vegas

Bummer. They made me fly up the west side of I-15 instead of up the Strip.

On departure, I asked to fly up the Strip but was told I couldn’t. I have a feeling security concerns have made that off-limits to pilots now. (I was able to do it about two years ago for my husband and his mom.) Instead, I was allowed to fly up the west side of I-15 as two tour helicopters came down the east side. Disappointing, mostly because I couldn’t give my passengers the Strip tour I’d hoped to — and I couldn’t get the incredible pictures I’d expected to get from the helicopter’s nose cam.

Bagdad Mine

The relatively small open pit copper mine at Bagdad, AZ.

After retracing my route back to Hoover Dam, we followed the Colorado River south, past Lake Mohave, Laughlin, and Topock Gorge. At the north end of Havasu City, I turned east and beelined it for Bagdad. We flew over the mine and could see Granite Mountain just northwest of Prescott in the distance. We set down at the FBO in Prescott at 4:45 PM local time. My passengers thanked me as I walked them into the FBO. We talked about other flights. Then they left.

After fueling up and visiting the ladies room, I climbed back on board and headed back to Phoenix. I landed about 15 minutes after sunset, exhausted and glad to be back.

I’m in no hurry to go back to Las Vegas.

A Day in the Life of a Part 135 Charter Pilot

An illustrated journal for Friday, December 10, 2010.

On December 10, 2010, I took two passengers on a flight from Prescott, AZ to Las Vegas, NV in my 2005 Robinson R44 Raven II helicopter. This is a journal of that day’s events.

4:45 AM
Awake, thinking about the asshole doctor I visited yesterday. I’m angry — too angry to get back to sleep. I decide to blog my anger and frustration.

6:12 AM
Blog entry done, published, proof-read, and corrected. I make a very large cup of half-caf coffee, add 3/4 teaspoon of sugar and about an ounce of 2% milk. I go back to my computer to catch up on Twitter and Facebook.

6:31 AM
Mike (my husband) is awake, doing things in bathroom. Shower starts running. I turn to the computer to check weather for the day’s flights from Phoenix (DVT) to Prescott (PRC) and then on to Las Vegas (LAS) with two paying passengers for the weekend. But instead of checking the weather, i get distracted by e-mail and waste some time with that. I finish packing and hop into the shower when Mike is done.

7:03 AM
Although I only drank half of my first cup of coffee, I brew another cup. Mike is having breakfast at the dining room table with his laptop. He has a big meeting in the afternoon and is likely preparing. I give Alex the Bird (my parrot) his breakfast of scrambled eggs. Our roommate, Matt, takes care of his breakfast things and leaves for the day.

7:15 AM
I fix up my hair and face to the best of my limited abilities and stow a few final things in my weekend bag. I clean up Alex’s cage and give him fresh food and water for the day. Mike is still working on his computer when I fetch a few things from his truck to pack into the plastic trunk in the bedroom. He’ll bring the trunk back to our house in Wickenburg later in the day when he goes home for the weekend.

7:48 AM
iChartReady to go, I wait for Mike, who is only half dressed and still working on his laptop. I pull out my iPad and check the weather for Las Vegas. Later, when I’m waiting for my passengers at Prescott, I’ll check official weather with Duats and file a flight plan, which is required for my Part 135 operation. I waste some more time playing with iChart, a pilot chart app. The previous evening, I’d downloaded sectionals and terminal area charts for Phoenix, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and more.

8:12 AM
Mike and I head out in Mike’s car. It’s a 25-minute drive in the HOV lane to Phoenix Deer Valley Airport where my helicopter is parked for the night. Mike drops me off and says goodbye.

8:37 AM
After dropping off a tray of holiday cookies at the Atlantic Aviation desk and chatting with Tiffany, who is on duty there, I wheel my weekend bag out to the helicopter in the big south hangar. It’s in good company, surrounded by Pilatus airplanes, a handful of small jets, another R44 helicopter, a Cessna, and the prettiest DeHaviland Beaver on wheels that I ever did see.

In the Hangar

I stow the bag on the seat behind mine and check my map pocket. Sure enough, my Las Vegas sectional chart is expired. I’ll need a new one, along with a Las Vegas TAC, to be legal for my Part 135 flight.

8:46 AM
I settle down for breakfast at the airport restaurant, where I order an iced tea and a gyro omelet with cottage cheese instead of potatoes. Around me, pilots and students come and go. The omelet is a bit greasy but delicious.

9:17 AM
I head into the pilot shop and buy Las Vegas sectional and terminal area charts to make me legal for my Part 135 flight to Las Vegas later in the day. Then I head back to the Atlantic FBO, say goodbye to Tiffany, and head out to the helicopter, which has been pulled out of the hangar for me. As I start my preflight, a fuel truck pulls up and tops off both fuel tanks.

9:52 AM
I finish prepping the helicopter for the flight, stowing my weekend bag under the seat behind mine. My passengers’ luggage will go atop that seat, secured with the seatbelt and bungee cords. I set up my GoPro Hero camera and iPod. I stow a bunch of gear I don’t need in a locker back in the hangar. I make a quick stop in the ladies room there before returning to the helicopter.

10:14 AM
After one last walk-around, I start the helicopter and begin warming up the engine. I turn on my SPOT personal tracker and enable the breadcrumb tracking feature. I listen to the ATIS; winds are calm. I tune the radio to the south tower frequency with the north tower frequency in standby. I complete the startup process, make my radio call to the tower, and on receiving my clearance, begin a steep climbing turn to the west and then south. I’ll climb in a 270 degree turn to 500 feet over the ground before crossing both runways and departing to the north.

Crossing Over DVT

10:25 AM
AnthemI make a radio call on the practice area frequency as I fly over Anthem, a master-planned community north of Phoenix, and then leave the urban sprawl behind me. Ahead of me are rolling hills climbing into the high desert. I fly over the freeway toward Prescott, passing over a handful of scattered homes and dirt roads. Somewhere along the way, I realize that changing the battery in my Garmin 420 GPS has erased my custom settings; I make some display changes on the map page. I tune my main radio to the Prescott tower frequency and tune the radio on my GPS to the Prescott ATIS frequency.

10:48 AM
I round the corner of some low mountains and Prescott Valley comes into view. I listen to the Prescott ATIS. Winds are calm, runways 21 in use. I hear several other helicopters in the area, all calling in to Prescott tower. I key my mike and make my radio call, requesting landing at Legend Aviation. I’m given a squawk code and told to make my approach to runway 30 and call 2 miles out.

10:51 AM
I pass the first of two herds of antelope. The second comes only moments later.


I see the runway and line up. I’m 2-1/2 miles out when the tower asks where I am. I’m told to continue, then told to land and hold short on the numbers 30.

10:54 AM
The Numbers of 30I come into a hover over the numbers 30 on runway 30. I’m told to switch to a ground frequency — something that very seldom happens — and I get sloppy with my 3-foot hover while using my left hand to tune in the frequency. I call in and get progressive taxi instructions to the Legend ramp. I land in a t-spot, glad that they use chains instead of ropes to tie down the planes. I shut down and send an OK signal from SPOT to Mike.

11:05 AM
After placing a fuel order, I take the FBO’s crew car (a Toyota Camry) to the mall where I have an eye doctor’s appointment.

12:30 PM
I return to the FBO and settle down in the pilot lounge. I copy the photos off my Hero camera to my laptop and put the camera on its charger. I use the Internet to check weather. I send a few photos from my flight to Twitter via Nambu client software — both Twitter and Facebook sites are blocked by the free wifi. I snack on some cookies from my purse. I use Duats to check the weather and file a flight plan, which is required by the FAA for my Part 135 flight. I have already completed my weight and balance calculations for the flight, which I am required to carry on board. I relax.

2:00 PM
I take the Hero camera off the charger and mount it on the helicopter again. I make a cheat sheet of frequencies for the flight. I relax.

2:45 PM
I pack up my laptop and power cords and stow my luggage under the seat again. I preflight the helicopter. I return to the FBO lounge to wait for my passengers.

2:50 PM
My client calls the FBO for directions.

3:03 PM
My clients arrive: two women with two very large — but not particularly heavy — wheelie bags. I immediately wonder whether the bags will fit in the helicopter. A few minutes later, I’m stuffing them onboard, atop the seat behind mine, while the two clients chatter nonstop about how cool the helicopter is and take pictures from every angle. The two bags barely fit. I strap the bigger one in with the seatbelt and use a bungee cord to secure the smaller one to it.

3:15 PM
Safety briefing completed, passengers loaded onboard and belted in. After a final walk-around, I climb onboard and start the engine. My passengers have already donned their headsets and are talking to each other. I turn on the SPOT unit and enable tracking. I listen to the ATIS. I finish the startup process and keynote mike to talk to ground. I’m told to taxi and hold short of taxiway Delta, then switch to tower. Tower tells me to hold, so I maintain a three foot hover over the entrance to the ramp. For five minutes. We’re facing into the sun and it’s getting hot in the cabin. Departing PrescottTower finally tells me to depart along taxiway Delta (parallel to runway 21L) and maintain taxiway heading. Then switch to the other tower frequency. That controller finally clears me to turn on course. I turn right heading 295 degrees, which will take me directly to the Hoover Dam 160 miles away. Controller asks what altitude I want and I tell him 500 AGL.

3:30 PM
NW of PrescottClear of Prescott airspace, I turn into the FSS frequency and activate my flight plan. Passengers are happily chatting away about the places we’re flying over. I answer questions when asked. Terrain is high desert hills with piñon and juniper pine. Some evidence of lava flows along basalt cliffs. We climb to 6,500 feet to clear small mountain ranges. There are no paved roads, no buildings, no vehicles. Only scattered cattle ponds and the occasional handful of cows.

3:59 PM
I-40We cross I-40 just east of the junction of state route 93, far to the east of we cross a few more mountains, then drop into a Valley inexplicably marked on the charts as Cottonwood Cliffs. (What cliffs?) We’re still heading roughly 295 degrees. There are scattered homes beneath us now.

4:07 PM
We are just passing near Hackberry, AZ (northeast of Kingman) when the Aux Fuel warning light illuminates. The circuit breaker has popped. I attempt to reset the breaker but it pops again. I explain to my passengers what this means — am am very familiar with it, having replaced two fuel pumps in the five years I’ve owned the aircraft — the auxiliary fuel pump is a redundant system. It’s a problem that it has stopped working, but it does not require immediate landing. They’re not worried but I am. I have to figure out how to get the damn thing replaced before our return flight on Sunday afternoon. We are about 45 minutes from our destination.

4:21 PM
NothingWe near the area where the tour pilots fly between Boulder Airport and Grand Canyon West, so I tune into their frequency to monitor communications. Lots of chatter using landmarks and reporting points I don’t know. The only comforting information is their altitudes: higher than mine. The desert flattens out with scattered communities. We overfly two paved roads.

4:35 PM
Route 93We cross over the road to Temple Bar and pick up state route 93 as it snakes into the hills. The pair of two-lane roads looks freshly paved. At the turnoff to Willow Beach, I veer off the main road to the west. We catch a glimpse of the Colorado River as we head toward the dam.

4:43 PM
We overfly the new bridge just downstream from the Hoover Dam and the the dam itself.

Hoover Dam and Bridge

After making a radio call, tour pilots suggest we climb another 400 feet to avoid tour traffic; makes sense in rising terrain. Past the dam, we descend and fly up the west shore of Lake Mead toward Lake Las Vegas.

4:50 PM
Vegas SmogListening to the Las Vegas ATIS, I learn that the helicopter frequency is in operation. I call the tower and request inbound heading to Stratosphere, then turn for landing at Atlantic ramp. I receive a squawk code and clearance to do as requested. Ahead of us, a thick blanket of white smog covers the Las Vegas skyline. The Stratosphere tower, rising 1,149 feet above the Strip, is barely visible in the haze.

4:57 PM
We cross the strip just south of the Stratosphere. Tourists on top of the tower are snapping photos at us as we pass below them; I see their cameras flash. The sun is low on the horizon. I turn south along I-15 toward the airport. I’m cleared to land — at my own risk — at the Atlantic ramp. I turn “base leg” between Luxor’s pyramid and Excalibur’s medieval castle.

Turning Base

I land on the ramp between two jets. A tug with two linemen wave me to follow them so I life off and return back down the ramp to the usual exile parking reserved for helicopters. I shut down and send Mike an OK signal with SPOT.

5:15 PM
We pull all the luggage out if the helicopter, I unmount the Hero camera, and I tie down the helicopter’s blades. I close my flight plan by phone. We let the two line guys drive us back to the FBO in a long golf car. Inside, my passengers use the ladies room while I arrange for overnight parking with the FBO desk. I tell them I’d likely be doing some repairs on the ramp. (This isn’t the first time I had mechanical problems in Las Vegas.) Then I call my Seattle mechanic and explain the fuel pump problem. He reminds me that the fuel pump, which was replaced less than a year ago, is still under warranty. I remind him that I have two passengers that I need to get back to Prescott, AZ on Sunday afternoon. He says he has a pump and agrees to fly it down to Las Vegas on Saturday or Sunday and will call me with details when he has them. I call Mike and leave a voicemail message. I call a friend I’m supposed to meet for dinner and she tells me she’ll meet me at her hotel after 5 PM.

4:20 PM PST
I realize that I’m in a different time zone and reset my watch. There’s a 40-minute wait for the hotel shuttle. I rent a car: a RAV 4 that will cost me $85/day — about the same as my hotel room. I figure that it will get my passengers to their hotel promptly and make it easier for me to transport my mechanic from the commercial aviation side of LAS to the general aviation side and back. I hope he’s done by Saturday afternoon so I can drop it off a day early and save some money.

4:32 PM PST
I drop my passengers and their luggage off at the Luxor Hotel, where they are staying. They tell me they’ll meet me at Atlantic Aviation at 1 PM on Sunday. The repair clock officially starts ticking.

4:47 PM PST
After many wrong turns on back roads, I find my way to the Rio, where I am staying. I leave the car with the valet and take my luggage inside. There’s a short line for registration. I check in, get my room key, and go to my room on the 23rd floor of the main tower. It’s the wrong kind of room. I call the desk and get reassigned to a room on the 26th floor. I wait 30 minutes for a bellman to bring the key, getting crankier every moment.

5:20 PM PST
I get into my hotel room, disappointed. The Rio’s idea of a “suite” does not match mine: it’s nothing more than a good-sized hotel room with a large dressing area. I unpack and set up my laptop. Internet access will cost $13.95 per day, so I use my cell phone to connect to the Internet to check mail. I begin looking at photos snapped by the Hero camera. Some of them are pretty good.

5:49 PM PST
My friend calls from downstairs. I leave to meet her and her husband. We wait on line for the “world famous” buffet for about 20 minutes, chatting about this and that. The buffet has over 300 items, but none of them are outstanding. I eat only a little more than I should.

7:14 PM PST
My friends come up to my room where I hand over a few things I’ve brought for them. They admire the view to the north that offers glimpses of the strip. We spend some more time socializing.

The View from my Room

7:51 PM PST
My friend leave. I call Mike and update him on the helicopter problem. I check e-mail, Twitter, and Facebook. I upload several photos. I start writing up this blog post, using the notes I’ve been taking all day.

10:21 PM PST
Exhausted from a long day, I turn off the lights, leaving the curtains wide open, and go to sleep.

Aviation Communications

It’s not as tough as you think.

When I was learning to fly back in the late 1990s, my flight instructor babied me when it came to radio communication. He did most of the talking. Because I wasn’t forced to talk on the radio during my training, I didn’t get as much practice as I should have. As a result, my radio communication skills were weak — to say the least.

Although I really like my original flight instructor — and still stay in touch with him after all these years — he really wasn’t doing me any favors by handling communication for me. That became apparent when I went through my commercial pilot training and got my commercial pilot certificate. Although I could fly to FAA-established standards, I was a nervous wreck when it came to using the radio.

I eventually learned by doing it. After all, there was no CFI along with me to do the talking, so I had to do it. It took about a year for me to relax and even more time to realize that it wasn’t such a big deal after all.


The big misconception among pilots in training is that they must use a certain vocabulary and say things in a certain order to communicate with ATC. That is simply not the case.

The goal of radio communications is to simply communicate. How you say it doesn’t matter much as long as the message gets across and two way communication is established when needed.

The Basics of Making a Radio Call

Here’s an example. Suppose I’m flying from Wickenburg to Deer Valley Airport. Wickenburg (E25) is class G, so the only talking I need to do is on unicom for position reports, etc. Deer Valley (DVT) is a busy class D airport on the north side of Phoenix. I need to establish 2-way communication before entering the class D airspace, which starts about 5 miles out from the airport.

What do I need to say? It’s pretty simple:

  • Landing DVTWho I’m talking to: Deer Valley Tower
  • Who I am: helicopter Six-Three-Zero-Mike-Lima
  • Where I am: eight miles northwest
  • What I want: landing terminal helipad
  • ATIS confirmation: with bravo

Ideally, this is the best formula, keeping things short. The initial radio call would be:

Deer Valley Tower, helicopter Six-Three-Zero-Mike-Lima is eight northwest landing terminal helipad with bravo.

But the information doesn’t have to be in that order. I could also say:

Deer Valley Tower, helicopter Six-Three-Zero-Mike-Lima is eight northwest with bravo, landing terminal helipad.

If I leave something out, there’s no reason to panic. The tower will ask for the missing information. So if I leave out the ATIS confirmation, they’ll say something like:

Helicopter Zero-Mike-Lima, verify you have Information Bravo?

Or if I left out my position, they might say:

Helicopter Zero-Mike-Lima, say position?

I’d reply with the missing information:

Affirmative, Zero-Mike-Lima has bravo.


Helicopter Zero-Mike-Lima is eight miles northwest.

Responding to ATC

When the tower responds to my initial call, all I need to do is repeat back the important part of the instructions. So if the tower says,

Helicopter Six-Three-Zero-Mike-Lima, Deer Valley Tower, report 1 mile north at or below two thousand. Plan midfield crossing at two thousand.

What’s important? RIght now, just to acknowledge that I’ve heard the instructions and will report again a mile north. So I’d say,

Zero-Mike-Lima will report one north.


I might also include mention of that altitude restriction, but I usually don’t. Why? Because the tower usually repeats it when they clear me to cross the runway. (The helipads are south of the two runways.) So they might say

Helicopter Zero-Mike-Lima, Deer Valley Tower, we have you in sight. Cross both runways midfield at two thousand feet. Landing at the terminal helipad will be at your own risk.

I’d respond:

Zero-Mike-Lima crossing at two thousand.

I don’t have to repeat the risk thing. It’s the altitude restriction that they want to hear.

Note that in my original response, I chopped Six-Three off my call sign. Although a lot of the pilot reference material says not to do this until the tower does, I have never had a problem abbreviating my call sign before ATC does.

If ATC Makes a Mistake

Sadly, its pretty common for the tower to get my N-number wrong. I can’t tell you how often they think I said “Helicopter Six-Zero-Three-Mike-Lima.” They’d respond:

Helicopter Six-Zero-Three-Mike-Lima, Deer Valley Tower, report 1 mile north at or below two thousand. Plan midfield crossing at two thousand.

If they do that, my response to them corrects them using the entire N-number again, with stress on the scrambled characters:

Helicopter Six-THREE-ZERO-Mike-Lima will report one mile north.

In which case they repeat back the N number to correct themselves; no response is necessary.

If You Make a Mistake

I can’t tell you how many times I told a tower I was X miles east when I was really X miles west. Or X miles southwest when I was really X miles southeast. It happens. It’s dumb and sloppy, but it happens. It’s not the end of the world.

If you make a mistake and it’s something you think the tower needs to know, get back on the radio and correct yourself:

Sorry, Tower, Helicopter Zero-Mike-Lima is really eight northEAST.

I usually put the stress on the word(s) that correct what I got wrong the first time. The tower will repeat it back and you don’t need to respond unless you get new instructions.

You don’t have to tell the tower about every single mistake you make. Maybe you told the tower you were 12 miles out and you’re really only 11. Not a big deal. Direction is far more important so the tower knows what direction they should be looking for you.

Leaving Out Your N-Number

It’s very important to include your N-number — either the whole thing or the abbreviated version — in every communication with a tower. I recently heard an exchange between a tower and a pilot who neglected to mention his N-number. The tower basically ignored him for two or three calls, then chewed him out over the radio. How embarrassing.

The tower was right, though. If you don’t give your N-number, the tower doesn’t know who’s talking. How can it answer and provide instructions?

I’ll be the first to admit that I occasionally omit my N-Number when I’m having a “conversation” with a tower. For example, if a tower asks a direct question:

Helicopter Zero-Mike-Lima, confirm you have information Bravo.

I might answer:

That’s affirmative.

It’s also wrong. The only reason I get away with it is because (1) I immediately answered a question directed to me and (2) I am likely the only female pilot flying a helicopter in that airspace at that moment. It’s simple voice recognition on the part of the controller. But he has every right to demand I answer properly and I have no right to expect him to distinguish my voice from anyone else’s.

Requesting a Frequency Change

Deer Valley and ScottsdaleIn the Phoenix area, there’s less than a mile between the Deer Valley class D airspace and the Scottsdale class D airspace. The towers know this, of course, so if you’re flying from one to the other, they usually give you a frequency change when you’re less than three miles from the airport you’re leaving. Even if you didn’t ask for it, they’ll say something like:

Helicopter Zero-Mike-Lima, frequency change approved.

But sometimes they don’t cut you loose. Maybe they forgot. Maybe they’re busy. Maybe there’s traffic in your area and they want to be able to talk to you. Who knows? It doesn’t really matter. It’s pretty handy to get an early frequency change so you can listen to the ATIS and prepare for your radio call to the next tower.

To ask for it, just say:

Deer Valley Tower, Helicopter Zero-Mike-Lima requests frequency change.

The response will likely be:

Helicopter Zero-Mike-Lima, frequency change approved. Good day.

You can now change the radio frequency while still in their airspace.


I can’t tell you how many times I’ve avoided airspace just so I didn’t have to talk to a controller. I don’t do that anymore. Transitioning through the edge of a class D or C or even B surface airspace is easy. Just remember the formula:

  • Transition ExampleWho I’m talking to: Scottsdale Tower
  • Who I am: helicopter Six-Three-Zero-Mike-Lima
  • Where I am: six miles west
  • What I want: transition southeast through the southwest side of the airspace
  • ATIS confirmation: with bravo

So the call might be:

Scottsdale Tower, helicopter Six-Three-Zero-Mike-Lima is six miles west with bravo. I’d like to transition southeast through the southwest side of your airspace.

If you don’t mention the ATIS, no big deal. You’re not landing there, so you don’t need it. Chances are, they’ll give you the current altimeter setting anyway. They might say something like this:

Helicopter Six-Three-Zero-Mike-Lima, Scottsdale Tower, proceed as requested. Scottsdale altimeter two-niner-niner-seven.

I usually respond with something like,

Two-niner-niner-seven, Zero-Mike-Lima.

Or sometimes I just repeat my abbreviated N-number to acknowledge that I heard them. That’s it. When I’m clear of the airspace, if the tower frequency isn’t busy, I’ll say something like,

Scottsdale tower, helicopter Zero-Mike-Lima is clear to the south.

Otherwise, I don’t bother.

Unusual Requests

Once in a while, you might have an unusual request — something beyond simply coming or going or transitioning. I had one of these a few weeks ago.

A client wanted a custom tour of the Phoenix area that included circling five different addresses. When I plotted the addresses on SkyVector to create a flight plan, I realized that I’d be passing through and circling within Phoenix Sky Harbor class B and Chandler class D airspaces. The flight required me to talk to Glendale tower on departure, Phoenix tower on transition, Chandler tower for operation in the northeast corner of their airspace, Phoenix tower again for operation in their surface area before another transition, and back to Glendale tower for landing. All within about an hour.

Flight from Hell

Even though I’m pretty confident these days about my radio communication skills, I admit that I was nervous about this one — especially since most of the addresses we needed to circle were in subdivisions filled with lots of homes that look nearly identical from the air. I didn’t want my client disappointed, so navigation was a huge issue.

What is it they say about pilot priorities? Aviate, navigate, communicate. Of the three, the flying would be the easiest part!

Amazingly, this came off without a hitch. Why? Because I remembered the primarily goal of radio communication: to communicate what you need. So, for example, when I was still 10 miles out from Chandler, I said something like:

Chandler Tower, Helicopter Six-Three-Zero-Mike-Lima is ten miles northwest. We need to take some aerial photos of three targets in the northwest corner of your space. The closest to the airport is at Route 202 and Alma School.

The tower came back with:

Helicopter Zero Mike Lima, Chandler Tower. What altitude do you need?

Duh. I should have mentioned the altitude. But no big deal, huh? The tower just asked me for the information they needed. I replied:

Helicopter Zero-Mike-Lima will stay at or below two thousand feet.

To which they replied:

Helicopter Zero-Mike-Lima, you can proceed as requested. Chandler altimeter is three-zero-one-one. Report on point.

What he did was give me permission to do the job but also to let him know when I was at each location I needed to circle. I replied with my abbreviated N-number to let him know I’d heard him. Then, when I got to the first address, I said:

Chandler Tower, Helicopter Zero-Mike-Lima is on point at the first target.

To which he replied,

Helicopter Zero-Mike-Lima, thank you.

We repeated this exchange two more times. He also advised me of some traffic when I was at my second target; the traffic was at least 300 feet above me and not a factor. When I finished with the last target and departed to the north, I said:

Chandler Tower, helicopter Zero-Mike-Lima is clear to the north. Thanks for your help. Good day.

Although there was only one target in the Phoenix class B surface area, there was also another helicopter just outside the surface space, about a mile east of me, circling. The tower was busy with jets, but they also had to advise me of this traffic, which they saw on radar but weren’t talking to. Fortunately, I saw it both on my helicopter’s traffic information system (at my altitude!) and then visually. I was able to confirm that I would keep visual separation. We circled the site and departed to the north.

I like to think of this flight as my “final exam” in aviation communication. I passed.

Just Communicate

If you’re a pilot struggling with communication, relax. Magic words and phrases aren’t necessary. Just communicate. Tell the tower what you want. Believe me — they’ve heard it all. No matter how bad you think you are on the radio, there was someone worse only an hour ago.

Air traffic controllers are professionals. They deal with it. Do your best and you’ll do good enough.

And the more often you communicate while flying, the better you’ll get.

Lake Powell to Monument Valley by Helicopter

Part of my Southwest Circle Helicopter Adventure.

This article was originally written for Aircraft Owner Online magazine. I write their monthly “Adventure Flying” column. I normally pull old blog posts for publication, but this time, I wrote an original piece for them. You can find it in their November 2010 issue.

Although I’m based in the Phoenix, AZ area, I spend an unusual of time at Lake Powell doing aerial photo flights for amateur and professional photographers. In September of this year, I flew a total of 20 hours over the lake with at least 20 different photographers on board. I usually get as far uplake as the San Juan River confluence, which is halfway to Monument Valley. But due to the difficulty and expense of getting aerial photo permits for Monument Valley, I rarely fly there.

The one thing that does get me to Monument Valley is Flying M Air‘s Southwest Circle Helicopter Adventure. That’s a 6-day excursion by helicopter that starts in Phoenix and spends a night at Sedona, Grand Canyon, Lake Powell (at Page), Monument Valley, and Flagstaff before returning to Phoenix. I don’t do this trip often — frankly, it’s quite costly and there aren’t many folks who want to spring for it — but I happened to do one in October 2010. In fact, as I’m typing this on my laptop, I’m looking of the window of my room at Goulding’s Lodge at the first light striking the famous monuments of Monument Valley.

On this particular trip, I rigged up a GoPro Hero camera on my helicopter’s nose. Although I used this “nosecam” to shoot video on the first day of the trip, the mount introduced too much vibration to make the video usable. For the remaining days of the trip, I switched over to still photos. The camera automatically shoots a high resolution image every 5 seconds as I fly. With 720 photos per hour, I usually get a few good shots on each leg of the trip.

Wednesday was one of the most scenic legs of the trip. We flew from Page Airport (PGA) up Lake Powell to the San Juan confluence and then east to the airstrip at Goulding’s Lodge in Monument Valley (UT25). On board with me were my two excursion guests and all of our luggage for the 6-day trip. I pack the luggage on and under the seat behind me and sit my guests in the two right seats (front and back) so they get the same view. I then fly to put the best views on their side of the aircraft.

We lifted off from Page at about 2:30 PM. The ASOS reported wind at about 8 knots out of the north, but it sure didn’t feel that strong. I made my radio call and then departed right across the runway, heading uplake. A Citation jet called a downwind a few moments later; we caught sight of him high above us as we crossed the airport fence.

Departing PGA

Our shadow as we crossed the runway at Page Municipal Airport.

It was a beautiful day, with high, thin clouds tracing lazy lines across a clear blue sky. The October afternoon sun bathed the landscape with a soft light that illuminated the red rock cliffs and buttes, cast shadows in the canyons, and accentuated the blue of the water. Sure, the light was too harsh for the aerial photographers I usually take around there, but for my passengers and me, it was great for taking snapshots of our surroundings.

The first canyon we crossed was Antelope Canyon, which is just east of the airport. Normally, I just buzz across it, but the tour boat was inside the canyon, so I made a turn to the left so my passengers could get a photo of it. I didn’t circle, though. I’m extremely conservative with fuel on the fourth and fifth days of the excursion, since there’s no fuel between Page, Monument Valley, and Flagstaff (or, in this case, Winslow). I need every drop of fuel I have on board to get to my Day 5 destination on Thursday with required reserves on board.

Antelope Canyon

Most people see Antelope Canyon from the inside, where it’s a masterpiece of sandstone swirls carved by wind and water. But this is the view I see most often.

We continued uplake, passing Antelope Point Marina and the mouth of Navajo Canyon. I made a position call a mile north of iconic Tower Butte and changed from the Page airport frequency to the uplake frequency (122.75). I repeated the call on that frequency and got into a discussion with the returning tour pilots. They’d be coming my way at 5,000 feet; I’d stay out of their way by flying at 4,500 feet.

The tour traffic is a major concern for anyone flying at Lake Powell. It’s a very good idea to learn the tour routes, altitudes, and reporting points they use before exploring in your own aircraft. There’s nothing scarier than flying the lake and seeing a plane flying where you don’t expect it, especially if it’s not on frequency or doesn’t know where it is in relation to the usual reporting points. Ten minutes with a tour pilot and a chart at Page Airport is enough to get the basics.

We slipped between Dominguez and Boundary Buttes at the south end of Padre Bay and continued uplake. Winding canyons opened up on our right. I pointed out a cluster of kayaks near a powerboat in a canyon with water as smooth as glass. In the main channel, you could clearly see the wind on the water. Not enough to make whitecaps, but gusty enough to see round patterns of movement appear and disappear across the water surface.

Dominguez Butte

My usual uplake route takes me between Dominguez and Boundary Buttes. In the far left of this photo, you can see Padre Butte, referred to by local pilots as “submarine.” Navajo Mountain looms in the distance.

We passed the south side of Gregory Butte and Last Chance Bay as two tour planes flew by overhead. Last Chance is a long, wide canyon with steep sandstone walls. It’s a long boat ride to the end where there are a few sandy spots suitable for houseboat parking. Distance to parking and the cost of fuel are part of what keeps the canyon free of traffic, even during busy summer months. On this October day, however, the whole lake was quiet; I don’t think we saw more than 20 or 30 boats.

We flew over the main channel of the lake as the canyon narrowed. One of my passengers pointed out Dangling Rope Marina and asked me about it. I told her what I knew: it was a marina only accessible by water. There were no roads in or out. I then told her a story about our stop there 20 years before on a houseboating trip. How I miss cruising the lake in a houseboat!

Lake Powell from the Air

Over the main channel of Lake Powell just uplake from Last Chance Bay. The canyon walls rise about 800-1,000 feet off the water’s surface here.

We were nearing the mouth of the canyon that would take us to Rainbow Bridge. As I flew, I’d been listening to the radio and knew there was a female pilot in the area. I also knew there was another tour plane behind me, on its way to “the bridge.” It’s a tight squeeze in the canyon and my challenge is always to stay as low as possible to ensure my photography clients can get the shots they need. Over the years, I’ve perfected my approach.

The female pilot was just leaving the area when I reached the mouth of the canyon and turned in. I flew up the canyon at 5000 feet, telling my passengers what to look for as we flew: the dock, the trail, the giant stone arch of Rainbow Bridge. I was busy keeping an eye on the mesa to the right of the helicopter. On a day like that one, with occasional gusts of wind, I wouldn’t get any closer than 200 feet from it’s edge. I verbally pointed out Rainbow Bridge when I saw it, keeping both hands on the controls. We flew past and they snapped photos. I circled around the back, assuring the pilot behind me that I’d stay at or below 5000 feet until I was clear of the area. Then, when abeam the bridge a second time, I broke off to the left and climbed out toward the San Juan Confluence.

Rainbow Bridge

This wide-angle shot gives you an idea of how tricky the area around Rainbow Bridge is. I get very close to that mesa top. Can you see the bridge in the photo?

The trickiest bit of flying I’d have to do on the entire trip was behind me.

I climbed to 6500 feet to give my passengers a good view of the twists and turns of the San Juan River just upstream from the confluence. Then I punched in my user waypoint for Goulding’s Lodge, adjusted course, and headed east over the eroded desert terrain south of the San Juan River.

San Juan River

The San Juan River twists and turns dramatically before meeting the Colorado.

We were east of Navajo Mountain now and the area was riddled with water-carved canyons, windswept rocks, and stunted trees. Below us, here and there, were two-track roads leading back toward the river. One of the roads looked very well maintained, although there was no sign of any homesteads or other reason to use it.

We flew over the top of No Man Mesa, where two or three ranches are scattered. A pickup truck drove slowly along a two-track toward one of the ranches. We saw a herd of horses and a flock of sheep tended by a dog before crossing over the top of the mesa and beginning our descent toward Monument Valley. The famous monuments started coming into view as we rounded the edge of a cliff face.

Off No Man's Mesa

A wide canyon cuts across the desert just past No Man Mesa. While not as beautiful as the Grand Canyon, it offers a glimpse of what the Grand Canyon may have looked like before it became grand.

I switched to the Monument Valley frequency and heard several tour planes making calls. I leveled off at 5500 feet and flew directly over the first paved road we’d seen since leaving the airport. Ahead of us, at the airport, I could see three tour planes launch, one after the other. One crossed overhead in front of me, the others climbed out beside me and likely crossed behind me. All of them were returning to Page the quick way. They’d be back within 30 minutes; we’d taken 60.

Before landing at Gouldings, I always make a quick loop around the western part of the Monument Valley Tribal Park. That day was no different. I climbed to 6000 feet and followed the road into the park. Once I reached the visitor center area, I banked left toward the Mitten buttes. I flew between them, on a route the tour pilots refer to as “splitting the mittens.” Then I banked left again and headed back toward Goulding’s.

Splitting the Mittens

The two Mitten Buttes (East and West) are iconic Monument Valley images.

Monument Valley

I restrict my quick loop around Monument Valley to the west side of the park to minimize noise impact on the ground.

As we came in for a landing, a small herd of horses, spooked by the sound of my helicopter, galloped across the desert east of the airport, kicking up fine red dust.

Landing at Monument Valley

Monument Valley Airport has just one way in and out. Not the kind of airport where you want to overshoot the runway.

It had been a good flight with few bumps or unexpected challenges. Later, in my hotel room at Goulding’s Lodge, I was pleased with the quality of the images my Hero camera had captured. What a great way to document a flight.

Note to Pilots: If you do plan a trip to Goulding’s Lodge, remember that the airport there is private and for use by Goulding’s guests and tour clients only. Go to Goulding’s Web site at to learn more about restrictions regarding airport use.

Flight Planning Realities

It’s more than just drawing a straight line.

Every week I get at least one weird helicopter flight request. Yesterday’s was for a flight from Scottsdale to Four Corners and back.

Four Corners

Four Corners, on a map. (Wikipedia image.)

When I say Four Corners, I’m talking about the place on the map where Arizona, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico meet. In drawing their rather arbitrary state lines years ago, the mapmakers created this manmade point of interest: the only place in the United State where four state boundaries meet at one point. There’s a monument there that supposedly marks the exact point where the states meet. Tourists like to drive in and get down on all fours for photos with one limb in each state.

These days, the monument is managed by the Navajo Nation, which has land on three of the four states. The Colorado section is on Ute Indian land. I’m pretty sure there’s a fee to get in, but I could be wrong. I’ve driven past the point and flown over it, but have never stopped there.

So the passengers wanted to land at Four Corners, which is on Navajo land. That means I need permission from the Navajo Nation to land there. That’s the first hurdle the booking agent has to jump. (I won’t get permits for my passengers; I’ve wasted enough time trying for flights that didn’t happen.)

The booking agent evidently uses some kind of flight planning tool to estimate flight time. He estimated 2-1/2 hours each way. But the booking agent didn’t take into account the realities of endurance, refueling locations, weather, and FAA reserve fuel requirements.

I used SkyVector — highly recommended! — to come up with a basic flight plan — something I could use to estimate the cost of the flight. Its built-in aeronautical charts make it easy to identify places to stop for fuel if needed.

I learned that a direct flight from Scottsdale to Four Corners would take approximately 2-1/2 hours — just as he’d estimated. But this didn’t take into consideration the possibility of headwinds and my aircraft’s endurance. I roughly estimate 3 hours endurance on full tanks of fuel. But could I fill the tanks? I had no idea what the passengers weighed yet. And with my 20 minutes of required reserve fuel, planning a direct flight was not a good idea.

But what made it a really bad idea is that there is no fuel available between Winslow, AZ and Four Corners — a distance of 143 NM or 1-1/2 hour of flight time. Indeed, the closest fuel to Four Corners is 42 NM to the east — not on our way back — at Farmington.

My Flight Plan

SkyVector makes preliminary flight planning very quick and easy.

That meant I needed to plan three fuel stops: Winslow (INW) on the way up and Farmington (FMN) plus Winslow (INW) or Payson (PAN) on the way back. The resulting flight path is a narrow triangle totaling 549 NM and at least 5-1/2 hours of flight time. To be on the safe side, I’d estimate 6 hours.

This is what kills me about some of these booking agents. This particular one is based in Atlanta, GA. I can pretty much guarantee he’s never spent any time in an aircraft over the Navajo Reservation — which is where at least half this flight would be conducted. He has no concept of the vast distances and empty terrain a route like this would cover. He — and likely his passengers — can’t conceive of the utter boredom of six hours flying over this area. Sure, there are scenic parts, but not six hours worth. They’d be paying me close to $3,000 for this one-day adventure.

And all for what? A photo opportunity at a manmade “monument” in the middle of nowhere? Heck, look at it on GoogleMaps! There’s nothing there or anywhere near it!

Yet the booking agent will sell it to them if he can. And I’ll provide the service if it’s paid for.

I think the booking agent could do them a better service by selling them a Sedona tour or a trip up to the Grand Canyon. Or even Lake Powell, for Pete’s sake! Closer, cheaper to visit, and far more interesting.

Of course the weird requests of uninformed passengers or booking agents isn’t really my point.

My point is this: There’s a lot more to flight planning than simply measuring the distance between two points. The preliminary flight plan I cooked up here is just the first part of a lengthy planning process I have to go through if I get this job.

I have to admit that I find it a bit annoying when a booking agent oversimplifies the requirements of a flight — especially if he fails to inform his clients about what they’re getting into. In this case, it’s a long and expensive flight over the high desert of Arizona with very little of interest to see along the way.

[Another] Predawn Flight to Scottsdale

Flying before the day begins.

I had an early flight in Scottsdale yesterday. Three passengers wanted a custom tour of the Phoenix area.

The man who booked it kept asking to do it earlier and earlier. First 8 AM. Then 7:30 AM. Then 7:00 AM. And then 6:30 AM. “We’ll meet you at 6:15 AM,” he finally said. “Will the pilot be ready to fly right away?”

I assured him that the pilot would be ready to fly within 10 minutes of meeting them. I didn’t mention that the pilot would be me. I hung up, glad he hadn’t shifted the flight another fifteen minutes earlier.

The helicopter was in Wickenburg. Although I’ve been storing it in Deer Valley for most of this season, I took the month of March off. There were a few reasons for it, including two trips (that were eventually postponed). So I had to fly the helicopter down to Scottsdale from Wickenburg — a 35-minute flight — before meeting the clients. When I calculated my departure time, I realized I’d have to leave my house by 5:00 AM to make it on time.

I set my alarm for 4:20 AM. I woke up at 3:30 AM. I showered and thoroughly enjoyed a cup of coffee with Alex the Bird and Jack the Dog. Then I packed up my laptop and flight manifest, shut off the lights, and stepped out to start my day.

It was dark outside. The moon had set, but I could see stars. That meant it was clear. The weather forecast looked as good as it usually does, so I wasn’t expecting any difficulties on the flight. The only questions were about the client: Had he lied about the weights of the passengers? Would he really give me 90 minutes of flight time, making the trip worthwhile? (He wasn’t paying for my ferry time, so a short flight would make the trip a loss.) Would he really be at the airport by 6:15?

I drove to the airport in my Ford truck, passing just a few cars and trucks along the way. The green-white-green-white sweep of the rotating beacon cut through the night as I pulled into the drive. I paused long enough to enter a combination on a keypad and wait while the metal gate rolled aside with a beep-beep-beep. Then I steered the truck down the asphalt drive, turned into the first row of hangars, made a broad U-turn, and parked in front of my hangar’s left door, with my headlights facing out. Even though the motion-sensor lights we’d installed over the hangar door went on, I’d need my truck’s headlights to see the combination on the padlock that secured the hangar. Once unlocked, I rolled the right door all the way open on the track and flicked on the lights. The big box hangar filled with light and the steady hum of the overhead fluorescents. I killed the lights on my truck before they killed the battery.

I’d done most of my preflight the afternoon before, after washing the helicopter and putting it away. I’d debated leaving it out overnight, but decided against it in case the client cancelled at the last minute. If I’d left it out, it would have saved me 15 minutes of time that morning. Instead, I had to use the ground handling equipment — a golf cart, a tow bar, and a set of ground handling wheels — to get the helicopter out onto the ramp. I backed the golf cart out of the hangar, towing the helicopter out nose first. Then I turned off the lights in the hangar and rolled the big door shut, securing it with the padlock again.

It was quiet and dark as I backed the cart out onto the ramp. Some of the overhead lights out on the ramp don’t work. It didn’t matter much to me — I wouldn’t park under any of them anyway. I needed room for my rotors to spin; it simply didn’t make sense to park next to a pole. But the ramp was too dark to see what I was doing. I had to turn on the golf cart’s headlights to unhook the tow bar. I’d never used them before and was rather surprised to find that they worked.

With the ground handling equipment out of the way, I climbed into the cockpit and went through my startup procedure. It took two tries to start the engine; not enough priming the first time for the cold. The engine roared to life and I flicked the appropriate switches to get the blades turning, battery charging, and radios working. I clearly heard the relatively high-pitched whine the engine — or something else back there — makes when it’s cold out. I knew from experience that the sound would go away as the engine warmed up. I turned on the navigation lights, which also illuminated the instruments. The green position light beneath my door reflected in the dusty surface of my side window.

I plugged my iPod into the intercom system. I’d listen to music on the way down.

It took a long time for the engine to warm up. While I waited, the guy in the hangar across from mine drove up and parked in front of his hangar. It was 5:30 in the morning — a full hour before sunrise — and the guy didn’t have a plane. What the hell was he doing there? He spent more time at the airport than most aircraft owners did, usually just sitting in his truck and talking on the phone. It creeped me out.

When the cylinder head temperature had sufficiently warmed, I did my mag check and needle split. I loosened the frictions and brought the engine and rotor RPM up to 102%. I was ready to go.

It was still very dark.

I made my radio call: “Wickenburg traffic, helicopter Six-Three-Zero-Mike-Lima is on the ramp, departing to the southeast.” I flicked on my landing lights, surprised, as always, by the sudden glow and the brightness of the dust particles swirling around in my downwash. Then I lifted into a hover, used the pedals to point the nose at the taxiway, and eased forward, climbing gently. When I reached the taxiway, now eight feet off the ground, I banked right and followed the pavement on a heading of 50°.

Wickenburg at Night

This photo by Jon Davison of us landing at Wickenburg at night gives you an idea of what the view from the cockpit looks like with the runway lights on.

The landing light shined down on the taxiway and out ahead of me as I gathered speed and altitude. I was about a quarter of the way down the taxiway when I realized I’d neglected to turn on the runway lights. I pressed the mic switch seven times. Nothing happened. I tried again, more slowly. The runway lights came to life: two strands of glistening white pearls turning to orange and then to red as they receded into the distance. The taxiway lights, glowed blue in a pair of light strings to their right beneath me. Beyond them was the dark void of empty desert and the greedy dreams of a failed real estate project. Aligning myself with the taxiway lights, I climbed out into the night. I flicked the switch to kill the landing lights.

The lights of Wickenburg spread out before me like a handful of gems cast into the desert by a giant. As I gained altitude to clear the invisible mountains just south of the town’s center, the distant glow of the Phoenix area came into view on the horizon, blocked here and there by the dark shapes of mountains that lay between me and the city beyond. I continued to climb. My goal would be to clear all those little mountains so I wouldn’t have to worry about hitting them in the dark.

I’ve flown the route between Wickenburg and Scottsdale many times. I even flew it at least one other time before dawn. But this time, I was tuned in to the darkness and silence of the night. I pressed the play switch on my iPod, letting some classic rock accompany the steady hum of my engine and the beat of my rotor blades. I climbed to 4,000 feet MSL — more than fifteen hundred feet over the desert below me — and leveled out. I was clear of all mountains between me and my destination.

Once away from Wickenburg, below me was only the darkness of the empty desert. With no moon, there was barely enough starlight to make out the meandering lines of dry washes and the occasional dirt road. Without visual landmarks, I realized I didn’t know where I was. Was that the Santo Dominguez Wash? Or one of the lesser washes in the area? And how about those lights to the left? Campers? Or that ranch off Constellation Road, viewed from a different angle? Only my GPS and the view of Phoenix’s lights spread out in the distance before me assured me that I was heading in the right direction.

The sky brightened ever so slightly as I glided southeast. The air was calm and smooth; my helicopter could have been a skiff floating on glassy water. I crossed over a well-defined dirt road that had to be Castle Hot Springs Road. Then I recognized the lights of the Quintero golf course and vehicles on Carefree Highway. The brightening sky reflected in Lake Pleasant, far to my left.

After ten minutes of flying over empty desert, I was returning to civilization: the northern reaches of Peoria.

I descended through 3500 feet, feeling ridiculously high above the ground as the glow from lights below me started reflecting in the inside of my cockpit bubble. I turned up the brightness on my instrument lights just a bit. Still descending, I flicked the radio to listen to the ATIS at Deer Valley. It was 5:50 AM and the tower was still closed. The automated weather observation system reported calm winds and an altimeter setting of 30.04. I adjusted my altimeter while listening to the recorded voice of the controller who’d closed the tower the night before. The tower would open at 6 AM. I wondered whether I’d reach the airport before then. I tuned the radio to the common traffic advisory frequency for Deer Valley, made a radio call with my position ten miles out, and continued on a course that would take me right over the top.

Lights at Night

The lights of the Phoenix area, at night. Photo by Jon Davison.

To the south, the brightness of lights on the ground intensified. The area was packed with new subdivisions, some completed before the housing bubble burst while others still had empty, weed-filled lots beneath their street lamps. It was a sharp contrast to the empty desert I’d been flying over for most of the trip. It amazed me that people wanted to live like that — packed like sardines into bulldozer-groomed lots — when there was so much beautiful desert, with rolling hills, cactus, and natural landscaping only a half mile away. The wide open spaces are what drew us to Wickenburg in 1997, but even that small town wasn’t immune to the greed of developers. Town planning restrictions were overturned on a case-by-case basis — often against voter’s wishes — for favored developers, resulting in smaller and smaller lots. Land zoned as horse property was rezoned to keep horses out and make lots too small to have them anyway. The retirees bought second homes in town to escape the cold of the midwest, doubling the population — for half the year, anyway. A friendly little western town turned into a retirement community right before our eyes. All of our young friends moved on to places like Colorado and New Mexico and California, leaving us with the retirees.

But I’m not ready to retire from life.

I descended to 2500 feet — a good 500 feet above where I normally flight during daylight hours — and leveled off. At five miles out, I made another call to Deer Valley traffic. I was now crossing into Deer Valley’s airspace; if the Tower had been occupied, I’d have to establish radio communication with the controller. I was the only one on the radio though — no one else spoke up. I crossed over the Central Arizona Project (CAP) canal where it meets the I-17 freeway. The sky, now quite bright, reflected in its smooth waters, drawing a bright line to the southeast.

Two miles from Deer Valley, I made another position call. No answer. I was close enough to see the tower; there was some light up there. Towers are normally kept dark so the controllers can see outside without bothersome reflections. A moment later, the airport’s two runways stretched out below me. I didn’t bother turning on the lights; I wasn’t landing and didn’t need them. But I could still see them quite clearly in the predawn light. It was about 5:58 AM and I expected the tower to open at any minute. I used the radio to announce that I was over the top and transitioning to Scottsdale. No answer. I glided on my way, descending down to 2300 feet.


In this last shot by Jon Davison, you get an idea of how the horizon looks before dawn. (This shot was actually taken after sunset.)

Now the lights were bright below me as I flew over one subdivision after another. I crossed the Loop 101 freeway. Ahead of me, I could see the rotating beacon at Scottsdale Airport, about 12 miles away. The black bulk of the mountains on the horizon were well defined with sharp edges against the bright sky. Four Peaks was clearly identifiable by its four individual peaks.

I used my second radio to listen to Scottsdale’s ATIS while remaining tuned into Deer Valley. That airport was still closed, too. The automated weather system reported light winds and an altimeter setting just a few hundredths off from Deer Valley’s. The recorded controller’s voice warned of an unlighted 150-foot construction crane and advised that the tower would open at 6 AM. I flicked the recording off.

Now I was wondering about my client again, wondering whether he’d show up on time, whether he’d lied about his weight, whether he’d give me more than the 90 minutes of flight time he promised. I’d know soon enough.

The sound of a telephone dial tone came through the radio in three short bursts. Then the Deer Valley controller came on. He sounded tired and depressed, as if he’d just woken up to bad news, as he read the standard tower opening statement over the radio. It was long. I was still in his airspace, so I listened. At the end, he said, “Helicopter Zero-Mike-Lima, traffic ahead and to your left is a helicopter at twenty-five hundred feet. Frequency change approved.”

I’d already seen the helicopter flying west along the north side of the Loop 101. I replied: “Zero-Mike-Lima has that traffic in sight. Changing frequencies. Have a good day.”

I switched over to Scottsdale tower with the flick of a button. A female controller with a bright, bubbly voice was giving instructions to a jet preparing to take off.

I waited until she was finished and the pilot had replied, then made my call: “Scottsdale Tower, helicopter Six-Three-Zero-Mike-Lima is seven to the west off Deer Valley landing at the terminal.”

“Helicopter Zero-Mike-Lima, proceed inbound, report a half mile west.”

“Will report a half mile west, Zero-Mike-Lima.”

I continued inbound, crossing over Route 51. The sky was much brighter now; dawn was only 30 minutes off. I continued my descent to 2000 feet, roughly 500 feet over the ground. I listened to the tower talk with a female airplane pilot with the call sign “Traffic Watch” and wondered what kind of traffic she could watch from an airplane. Maybe I’d misheard them. She was using Runway 3.

Then I was less than a mile out and ready to start my final approach. I reported my position and was cleared to land on the ramp with the usual “use caution; ramp uncontrolled” and “remain west of the runway and taxiway at all times.” I repeated the “remain west” restriction as I steered to the south, descending. When I was abeam the approach end of runway 3, I swung northeast and lined up with the ramp, parallel to runway 3 and the taxiway beside it. I came in behind all the jets parked on the ramp and hover-taxied beyond them to transient parking for small airplanes. I set down at the end of the “Reserved” row and started my shutdown procedure.

In front of me, the terminal’s empty windows reflected the bright glow of the predawn sky, along with the flash of my helicopter’s strobe light. It wasn’t night anymore, but it wasn’t really day, either. It was that in-between time, the time of day when you put the secrets of the dark night behind you and prepare to embrace the day. It’s a special time, a time that’s always calm, always reflective. A time that makes me feel good to be alive.

I shut down and went inside the terminal. It was 6:10 AM.

And in case you’re wondering, the passengers did show up, they lied by a total of 50 pounds about their weights, and they flew with me for a full two hours.

Blogging the FARs: Avoid the Flow of Fixed Wing Traffic

What it means — and doesn’t mean.

I was at Wickenburg Airport for a short time yesterday and was dismayed to see another helicopter pilot practicing autorotations using a left traffic pattern for the taxiway parallel to Runway 23. In Wickenburg, it’s right traffic for Runway 23, keeping the airplanes on the northwest side of the runway. There are fewer houses out that way; a left traffic pattern would have you overflying dozens of homes.

Someone else at the airport told me that the owners of the homes southeast of the runway had asked this pilot several times not to overfly their homes. They were bothered by the noise of his buzzing aircraft just 500 feet over their houses over and over again. He replied that he was supposed to “avoid the flow of fixed wing traffic.” When one of the nicest guys on the airport suggested he fly on the other side, this pilot’s response was, “Fuck you.” Whoa. Seems like someone has an attitude problem.

But is he right? Should he be doing left traffic patterns if the airplanes would be doing right patterns?

The Rules

FAR Part 91.126, “Operating on or in the vicinity of an airport in Class G airspace,” says, in part:

(a) General. Unless otherwise authorized or required, each person operating an aircraft on or in the vicinity of an airport in a Class G airspace area must comply with the requirements of this section.

(b) Direction of turns. When approaching to land at an airport without an operating control tower in Class G airspace —

(1) Each pilot of an airplane must make all turns of that airplane to the left unless the airport displays approved light signals or visual markings indicating that turns should be made to the right, in which case the pilot must make all turns to the right; and

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

To some, it might appear that Part 91.126(b)(2) gives helicopter pilots permission to fly wherever they want in Class G airspace, as long as it’s not anywhere near an airplane. Maybe that’s what our attitude-challenged helicopter pilot at Wickenburg thinks. But I’d argue that it’s simply not true.

Why Avoid the Flow? Why Not Join It?

Wickeburg Airport

Wickenburg Airport, from the approach end of Runway 05.

Helicopters are advised to avoid the flow of fixed-wing traffic mostly because of the significant differences in the way they operate. Helicopters are usually slower than airplanes, they tend to operate at lower altitudes, and they don’t need a runway to land or take off. Putting airplanes and helicopters together in a traffic pattern is like mixing oil and water: they just won’t blend.

But does avoiding the flow of fixed wing traffic mean creating a completely separate traffic pattern? Sometimes, it does.

Does it mean making yourself a noisy nuisance over a residential neighborhood on the side of the airport that normally doesn’t have aircraft flying over it? I say it doesn’t.

And what if there aren’t any airplanes in the traffic pattern? I’ll argue that there’s nothing to avoid so why not use their established, community-preferred traffic pattern?

And that was the problem yesterday: the bad attitude pilot was the only aircraft in the traffic pattern for the entire time he was flying yesterday. There was no fixed-wing traffic to avoid.

There was no reason to overfly those homes.

Fly Neighborly

Although I’m not a big fan of Helicopter Association International (HAI), I do want to commend them on their attempts (although usually feeble) to share information that’s useful to the helicopter community. Among that information is “The Fly Neighborly Guide” they offer as a PDF download from their site. Here’s a blurb about the program from their site:

The Fly Neighborly Program addresses noise abatement and public acceptance objectives with programs in the following areas: 

  • Pilot and operator awareness
  • Pilot training and indoctrination
  • Flight operations planning
  • Public acceptance and safety
  • Sensitivity to the concerns of the community

The point is, lots of people hate helicopters because they’re noisy. (In reality, they’re not all that much more noisy than an airplane. But because they usually fly lower, they seem louder.) By using techniques that help us fly more quietly and avoiding noise-sensitive areas, we’ll blend in with the environmental impact of aircraft traffic much better.

What does that mean to me? Well, here are some of the things I try to do:

  • Maintain speed above 80 knots in my R44 to avoid “rotor slap.”
  • Not fly low over homes, schools, or businesses.
  • Vary the flight path I use to approach or depart the airport.
  • When flying traffic patterns, choose a pattern that does not repeatedly overfly the same noise-sensitive areas. (Yes, the other day when I was practicing autorotations at Wickenburg, I shared the same standard traffic pattern with three airplanes.)

I do need to point out here that anyone who buys a home within 3 miles of an airport should expect some level of noise. If you don’t like aircraft noise, don’t buy a home near an airport. Period.

Why I Care

Why should I care that a bad attitude pilot is thumbing his nose (and perhaps making other hand gestures) at people who complain about his inconsiderate flying?

AFD for E25

The Airport/Facilities Directory entry for Wickenburg.

Well, it’s like this. Right now, at Wickenburg, there is no published noise abatement procedure. Look in the Airport/Facilities Directory and see for yourself. (Try not to notice that the diagram is inaccurate on so many levels.) That means pilots have the freedom to make their own decisions about approaching and departing the airport. We’re not forced to follow some idiotic plan set forth by an ignorant non-flyer in response to noise complaints.

But if Mr. Bad Attitude keeps ignoring the complaints and overflying the same homes again and again, the complaints will get escalated. I’m not too worried about the town doing anything — they’re extremely ineffective when it comes to solving airport-related problems. But eventually, it’ll get up to the FAA. Enough people know it’s not me — a bright red Robinson R44 looks nothing like a little white Schweitzer 300 — so I won’t get in trouble. But the FAA might actually do something to make the complaints go away. Since Mr. Bad Attitude isn’t technically doing anything wrong, the only way to fix the problem is a noise abatement program. The FAA will push the town to make one and we’ll be stuck with it.

What’s also bad is that his continued inconsiderate behavior makes everyone in the helicopter community look bad — including me and the two other helicopter owners based in town. It could cause problems in Wickenburg or other communities for helicopter pilots and operators. It could affect businesses like mine or emergency services. (Come to think of it, one of the reasons our hospital lost its helicopter medevac base was noise complaints. So if you have a heart attack in Wickenburg, you’ll just have to wait an extra 20-30 minutes for help to come.)

And all this is why I care.

In Summary

When helicopter pilots are advised to “avoid the flow of fixed-wing traffic,” that doesn’t mean we should avoid flying in empty airplane traffic patterns. It means we should avoid flying with airplanes.

It also doesn’t mean we should use FAR 91.126(b)(2) as an excuse to become a nuisance by repeatedly overflying noise-sensitive areas.

If there’s no conflicting aircraft, common sense should prevail.