2010: My Year in Flights

I was all over the place.

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

The Big Picture

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

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

Some Details

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

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

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

I only flew one aircraft: my R44 Raven II.

The Flights

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

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

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

Not a Bad Year

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

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

LogTen Pro

A mini software review for pilots.

LogTen ProAt the end of 2010, nudged by the availability of a coupon code for 30% (I think) off, I purchased the Mac and iPad versions of LogTen Pro. This program, published by Coradine Aviation Systems, is designed primarily for airline pilots to log their flight time, trips, duty time, expenses, and other data. It can then generate any number of reports, including FAA-approved logbook pages and duty sheets. Of course, pilots with Macs don’t only live in the US, so LogTen Pro supports multiple countries and the reports needed to satisfy their own FAA-equivalent organizations.

Although, on the surface, LogTen Pro seems like overkill for logging pilot hours, its true power lies in the fact that you don’t need to log everything it lets you. For example, LogTen Pro enables you to log flight date, aircraft N-number, duty time in, hobbs out, time out, from airport, to airport, time in, hobbs in, and duty time out. That’s the kind of information an airline pilot might need or want to log. But, in reality, how many people really track that much information about their flights? LogTen Pro is perfectly satisfied just taking the flight date, N-number, from airport, to airport, and total time flown. And of course, you can log day vs. night time, VFR vs. IFR time, etc.

In other words, you can log as little or as much information as you like.

iPad version of LogTen ProOf course, the iPad version (shown here with a screen shot of all my 2010 activity) syncs with the Mac version, so I can log time on the go and sync it all up when I get back to my office. Or I can pull old log entries out of my paper logbook and enter them in my Mac and then sync it all to my iPad.

While LogTen Pro is a bit weak on logging helicopter flight time — for example, it supports the Rotorcraft category but did not include a Helicopter class (although, for some reason, it did have gyroplane; go figure) — it is highly customizable. I simply used one of the undefined Class fields to create a Helicopter class in my copy of the software. Although this is calculated properly in the logbook reports as is, I can also create custom log book pages that eliminate columns I don’t need and expand on ones I’m interested in tracking, such as High DA/Mountain (another custom field I created) or Turbine helicopter.

I could go on for thousands of words about this software — there’s a lot to it. But it would be better to let you view the Guided Tour and just try the software for yourself. If you’re a pilot with a Mac, iPhone, or iPad, download the demo version of the software and see what you think. If you’re geeky and love stats like I do, I think you’ll be sold.

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.