My Desert Dogs

A bit about my Arizona dogs.

I’ve had dogs almost my entire life and four of them have lived with me in Arizona’s Sonoran desert.

Spot and me in front of my old house in New Jersey. Spot didn’t really like the desert much.

The first was Spot or “Country Squire Rorschach,” a Dalmatian that I got for my birthday years ago when I lived in New Jersey. Spot was getting on in years by the time I moved to Arizona and he wasn’t the brightest bulb on the tree. He never quite understood the importance of finding and standing in shade on hot days. I took him hiking out in the desert just once with me and I thought he would die of heat stroke by the time we got back. I have a photo somewhere of him standing by a big saguaro cactus, but I can’t seem to find it right now; if I do, I’ll post it here.

Next came Jack the Dog, a Border Collie/Australian Shephard Mix. My soon-to-be ex-husband and I adopted him from the local shelter about a year after Spot died. He proved to be an excellent hiking and horseback riding companion. He liked going out on horseback rides so much, that he once followed two friends of ours when we let them ride our horses without us. He was a true “desert dog,” spending most of his time loose in the backyard, overseeing the scant traffic on the road that led to our house and barking at any vehicle that didn’t belong. When he was forced to spend time in Phoenix, in the tiny condo my husband had bought, we did what we could to get him out and about on long walks. But I know he was happiest at home and on the 40 acres of ranch land we owned near the Grand Canyon.

Jack at Howard Mesa
Jack the Dog taking in the view at our Howard Mesa property in northern Arizona.

Charlie on a Rock
It’s hard to believe that this photo was shot only a year ago, when my soon-to-be ex-husband and I were on a hike out in the desert behind our house. He’s taken Charlie from me; all I have left of him are photos and memories.

Charlie came about a year after Jack’s demise. My husband and I had gone to an adoption event in Phoenix, feeling ready to bring home a new dog. After taking two unsuitable dogs for short trial walks, I spotted Charlie, wet from a dog wash and looking pretty ragged. We took him out for a walk — against his will, I might add — and decided to make him ours. It’s unfortunate that he spent most of his time at that damn Phoenix condo, but when I was with him there, I took him to various Phoenix dog parks so he could run free with the other dogs. We also played catch daily with tennis balls at the condo’s unused tennis courts. Like Jack, he was happiest in Wickenburg, though, roaming around the yard or accompanying us on Jeep rides or hikes in the desert. The horses were gone by then, but I sure think he would have liked accompanying us on rides. It saddens me to think of his current life with my husband in Phoenix and Scottsdale, in walled-in yards and boarding facilities. A dog like Charlie needs to roam free.

Penny on a Rock
I shot this photo of Penny just the other day — on the same rock I’d shot the above photo of Charlie on the year before. She’s hard to take photos of; she just won’t sit still!

I got Penny the Tiny Dog in Quincy, WA near the end of June, 2012 as a foster dog. I missed Charlie terribly — he had become an important part of my life during the long days I was stuck at the Phoenix condo the previous winter. Although my husband and I had been talking about him and Charlie spending the summer with me in Washington, my husband had gone silent (again). Still, for some dumb reason, I had high hopes of them arriving, perhaps on my birthday at month-end. I really looked forward to seeing Charlie and Penny playing together — Charlie loved playing with our neighbor’s Chihuahua in Phoenix. But three days after I got Penny, I got the birthday call from my husband asking for a divorce. Penny has been a huge comfort to me since then — I officially adopted her only two weeks later. She travels almost everywhere with me — even in the helicopter and on airlines — and, like Jack and Charlie before her, loves hiking out in the desert. She’s outside now, as I type this, walking along the top of the short wall around the backyard, looking for lizards on the hillside below her.

My days in the Arizona desert are numbered now — when the divorce winds up, I’ll finally be on my way with Penny. Although I’ll miss the hiking and Jeeping here, I know there are new adventures ahead of us — in other deserts and in canyons and forests and along rivers. Penny and I are both up to the challenge.

A Four River Flight

I thoroughly enjoy a flight from Wickenburg to Chandler on a beautiful Arizona winter day.

E25 to CHD
Direct flight = boring flight.

I recently had to reposition my helicopter from Wickenburg (E25) to Chandler (CHD) to get some maintenance done. That meant a cross-country flight which, if flown directly, would take about 40 minutes and fly right over the top of Sky Harbor Airport (PHX).

But the helicopter was going in for a 100-hour maintenance and had 6 hours left before it was due. It seemed to me that I should try to use up as much of that time as I could.

Unfortunately, I did have a time constraint. I was meeting a friend at Chandler Airport at 1 PM. I had plans to spend some time with him and then another friend afterwards. And I even had a dinner date down in Tempe.

But as I loaded Penny and an overnight bag into the helicopter, I figured I had about an hour and a half to kill along the way. Why not take the scenic route?

I didn’t realize then that I’d be treating myself to a four-river tour.

The Hassayampa River

The Hassayampa River flows through Wickenburg, AZ, the town I’ve been living in for the past 15 years. Its name supposedly means “river that flows upside down” or something like that. That’s because although water flows year-round, it doesn’t always flow on the surface of the river bed where it can be seen. Instead, it flows mostly under several feet of sand in the river bed. So, when you drive over the bridge in town — usually on your way to or from Las Vegas, which is how most people know Wickenburg — you won’t see any water down there. Just sand. And tire tracks. And occasionally, some cattle.

River? What River?
If you know Wickenburg and the Hassayampa River well enough, you should be able to see where it “flows” on this Google Maps terrain view from the canyons near Box Canyon to just past Constellation Road.

Indeed, the Hassayampa River is so un-riverlike that it doesn’t even appear on Google Maps’ terrain view.

But it had rained a few days before — a constant, steady rain that had lasted for hours. Although it hadn’t been enough rain to get the wash that flows through my property flowing, it apparently accumulated in streams upriver from town. When I flew over the river two days later, I could see a small but steady stream of water.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

For some reason, I headed south from the airport — not east toward the river. I think my initial idea was to fly south to Buckeye and slip between the Estrella Mountains and South Mountain, approaching Chandler from the west. I also wanted to glimpse the roads I’d been on a few days before with a local Jeep group.

When I got to Vulture Peak, I decided to see if anyone was on top. So I started a steep 1500-foot-per minute climb, reaching the top in about 10 seconds. No one up there. I dropped down on the other side and followed some wash beds east past Wickenburg Mountain. And then I found myself at the Hassayampa with the water flowing by beneath me.

And I stopped thinking about Buckeye.

Instead, I turned north, passing to the east of Wickenburg and joining up with the Hassayampa River just past the bridges. The river’s flow wasn’t much to brag about, but it was something — a lot more than I’d seen there in a long time. I followed the flow, flying a lot lower than I usually do with passengers on board, gently coaxing the helicopter left and right as I followed its winding course. In the narrows past Box Canyon, in the place I usually refer to as “the slot,” the water filled the canyon, wall to wall. Beyond that, where the riverbed was wide and sandy again, the water returned to an ambitious trickle.

I flew past the nearly abandoned ranch formerly operated by the Gatehouse Academy as part of their treatment center for young people with addiction problems. I remembered flying by and seeing my husband’s old suburban parked in the lot the house. I remembered all the times I’d flown the owners out there with various VIPs. I remembered the time a cowboy and his dogs had chased off a herd of cattle closing in on me and my helicopter as it sat parked in a field. I remembered the Christmas day I’d flown Santa and a bag of toys out to the ranch and had wound up giving rides to about a dozen young men who had taken a detour from their lives into drugs or alcohol. Gatehouse was gone, closed up over the summer while I was away. Their properties in town were for sale and there was no sign of life down on the ranch.

Beyond the ranch, the river flowed in a twisting canyon. I stayed low, about 200 feet up, following the river on a less twisting path. I saw that the old mobile home at the edge of Jesus Canyon had collapsed into a million pieces and that someone was using heavy equipment on a patch of old farmland across the river. I flew over most of the goosenecks that the river had carved through the rock, admiring the tall saquaro cacti that covered the hillsides and marveling at how all that rain had washed the dust off everything below me.

Did I mention that the flying conditions were perfect? On the ground at Wickenburg Airport, there had been a bit of a breeze, but a few hundred feet up, any breeze was completely unnoticeable. It was smooth flying at any altitude I chose. And the cool air made the helicopter’s performance better than I was accustomed to. I had great speed, great climb rates when I wanted them, and great response to all my control inputs. Flying was effortless, leaving me to enjoy the scenery and the freedom to be able to move in any direction I wanted.

Although I could follow the Hassayampa all the way up to its source in the Bradshaw Mountains — which is something I’ve done in the past — I left it where the Williams Family Ranch sits on the side of a hill at the mouth of a tributary wash. It takes at least an hour to drive from the ranch into town on unpaved Constellation Road, but I could cover the same path in less than 3 minutes in the helicopter.

From there, I slipped between two rocky hillsides, following a canyon southeast, roughly toward Chandler. The terrain here was rough and unforgiving; an engine failure would have been a huge problem with absolutely no suitable landing zone. I followed wash beds and dirt roads, climbing with the terrain the whole time. Then the land dropped off in front of me and I descended down into the canyon where Buckhorn Creek flows. Although it was still wet from recent water flowing, nothing wast flowing that day. I followed the creek bed downstream, past where it met with Castle Hot Springs Creek. I began to see homes and then Castle Hot Springs with its green lawn and tall palm trees. A fifth wheel RV was parked on its ruined tennis courts.

And then I was at the shining blue waters of Lake Pleasant.

The Agua Fria River

Decision time. Which way to go? If I headed south, I could still do a route to Chandler that would take me between the Estrellas and South Mountain. But after passing the lake, I’d be spending much of the flight time over suburbia — subdivisions of houses on postage stamp sized lots, surrounded by tall walls to keep out the world. I hated seeing homes like that. I hated knowing that people lived like that when there was so much open land so closely. I hated thinking that people actually liked that way of life.

Without thinking nearly that much about it, I turned east. I flew low across the northern arms of the lake, mildly surprised that the water level was so low after all that rain. There were a few fishing boats on the water, but not many. I made a half-hearted attempt to spot some wild burros (donkeys), but knew I was probably going too fast — 110 knots — to see them.

Lake Pleasant
The northern half of Lake Pleasant is a series of “arms” where tributary streams and washes enter the lake.

A pair of C-130 cargo planes flew over the lake in loose formation about 3000 feet above me, heading northwest. The only reason I know their altitude is because a flight instructor on the practice area’s radio frequency announced them. The pilots didn’t say a word and were soon just a pair of specks in the distance, climbing over the mountains to the east.

Agua Fria River Near Lake Pleasant
The Agua Fria River where it enters Lake Pleasant. Indian Mesa is near the lake.

I headed toward the Agua Fria River arm and climbed steeply to take a really good look at the prehistoric Native American ruins atop Indian Mesa. I even slowed enough to considered a few possible landing zones. Then I pointed the helicopter’s nose up the river and continued on my way.

Agua Fria is Spanish for cold water. The river flows much of the year, but often not more than a serious trickle. That day, it was flowing much more than usual. It drains the mountains up I-17, past Black Canyon City. I didn’t want to follow it that far. I didn’t want to go that far out of my way. So I struck out to the east again, crossing over I-17.

New River

I picked up New River almost immediately, on the other side of the freeway. I realized that I although it was only a 20-minute flight from my home, I had never followed it upstream. Never. It was time to remedy that situation.

The river had a good, strong flow as it came through the canyon from the northeast. I saw a parking area with a bunch of trucks and empty flat-bed trailers. Although it was midweek, there were ATVers out and about. I saw a dirt road that generally followed the river — Table Mesa Road, according to the map — and wondered whether I’d see the riders along it.

New River
New River winds mostly east through a canyon.

I followed the river upstream, keeping a sharp eye out for wires. I wasn’t very low, but low enough that wires stretched high across the canyon could be a problem. The water rushed by below me. I looked for waterfalls, but didn’t find any.

I climbed with the canyon. The road meandered alongside the river, sometimes disappearing from view to the south before coming back. It climbed to a high point overlooking the river and there were the ATVers — about eight of them, parked at the overlook. One of them waved up at me. I waved back.

Other streams fed into the river as the main channel turned to the northeast. I needed to go south, so I chose a tributary canyon and followed it toward the south. It climbed steeply and widened, with a flat-topped mesa on either side. The water disappeared. The rock was volcanic — dark basalt. I started noticing rock walls alongside the east wall of the canyon. There were quite a few of them, hundreds of feet long, parallel with the top of the mesa at different heights. Fortifications from ancient indians who had likely made their homes atop the mesas. As I got level with the mesa tops, I started looking for rock foundations. But with all the jumbled rocks and yellowed weeds and cactus up there, it was hard to see any patterns at all.

I was surprised when I found myself at the broken mesa that I had dropped off two passengers for a camping trip years before. I had climbed to over 4,000 feet; when I reached the edge of the mesa, there was a 1,000 foot drop to the valley floor. I lowered the collective and began a steep descent, heading northeast again.

And that’s when my sister called. My new Bose headsets have Bluetooth, so I’m able to take phone calls while I’m flying. The music I was listening to stopped, the phone rang, and I touched a button on the headset cord to answer. We chatted. I brought her up to date with the bullshit being flung at me by the lying, cheating bastard I was still married to, the man who’d told me to my face less than two months before that he still cared about me. But I was descending down into a small canyon area northeast of Scottsdale. As I expected, my cell phone dropped the signal. The music from my iPhone resumed. My mood immediately lightened as I descended to follow one of the many canyons cut through the sedimentary rock that had been deposited into the valley millions of years ago.

I flew over an ATV speeding down the sandy canyon floor with two people on board. I wondered if they heard me coming before I flew over.

Then the canyon opened wide to the last river on my trip.

The Verde River

Verde River
The Verde River shows up as a blue line on the map, likely because it flows year-round.

The Verde (green, in Spanish) River flows year-round. Its source is up near Ash Fork. It winds through a narrow canyon into the Verde Valley, flows past Camp Verde, and then enters another long, narrow canyon. Beyond that, two dams create two lakes: Horseshoe and Bartlett. I reached the river just downstream from Bartlett Lake; I could see the dam off to my left.

I turned right, dropped down low over the river, and sped south. The river was wide here — about 50 to 100 feet across — and shallow. It was about ten past noon and the sun shined into the cockpit warming me and penny asleep on the passenger seat beside me. I followed its course downstream, gently banking right and left. At one point, I saw three wild horses standing in a row in the middle of the stream, drinking. The sun reflected off the water all around them, displaying them as silhouettes. One of them looked up at me as I flew over.

By then, I was getting back into civilization. The community of Rio Verde was to the west and the McDowell Indian Reservation was all around me. I crossed the Beeline Highway. I knew there were wires up ahead and I knew I’d have to talk to a few airport towers soon. The fun part of my flight was over. I was at the confluence of the Verde and Salt Rivers, on the eastern edge of Phoenix’s sprawl.

I climbed to 500 feet above the ground, tuned in the frequency for Falcon Field, and got ready to finish my flight.

Finishing Up

The last part of my flight required me to navigate through Falcon Field’s airspace, avoid Gateway’s airspace, and slip into Chandler’s airspace to land at the heliport.

I made my radio call to Falcon Field’s tower, requesting a transition through the east side of their airspace. When I released the mic button, all I heard was static and two men having a conversation.

It sounded like a flight instructor with a student.

Falcon Field is a class Delta airspace. That means I can’t enter until the tower responds to me, including my aircraft N-number. But the only sound on the frequency I was tuned into was the sound of a flight instructor and a student.

I checked the frequency with my cheat sheet and with the chart on my iPad. I was tuned into the right frequency. I banked to the left, beginning a circle just outside the airspace until I could figure out what to do.

It was pretty simple to me. If I couldn’t communicate with the tower, I could detour south, on the east side of Falcon’s airspace. I could then use my GPS to navigate the narrow space between Falcon and Gateway. Or I could call Gateway and get permission to transition through the north side of their airspace.

As I was thinking about this, the two men on the radio were musing on why no one was answering their call. “Stuck mic!” I wanted to scream into the radio.

And suddenly the static ended and the controller came on. He sounded annoyed. He identified the aircraft by number and told him to make a full stop landing because his mic had been stuck. Again.

The flight instructor responded. The mic got stuck again, but only for a moment. I seized my chance and made my call.

The controller’s voice clearly indicated his frustration when he gave me my clearance. He then started issuing instructions to everyone else who needed guidance.

I was glad I wasn’t the guy with the stuck mic. I knew that the ground controller would be giving him a phone number when he landed.

I headed southwest, giving Falcon’s runway plenty of space. Then I banked right. I pushed Go To, Enter, Enter on my GPS to get a solid pink line from my current position to Chandler, which had been programmed in since before I took off. I flew over roads and golf courses and canals and wires. And houses. Thousands of houses. No wild horses here.

Falcon cut me loose and I switched to Chandler’s frequency. I’d already listened to the ATIS recording on my second radio, so I knew the airport conditions. I asked for landing on the Quantum ramp. The controller cleared me for a straight in approach. There were no planes in the pattern. Just helicopters.

A while later I was setting down on one of the big circles in front of Quantum Helicopters’ hangar. R22 helicopters were coming in and spinning down all around me. As I was shutting down, my phone rang again. It was my editor, Cliff. He said he’d had a dream about me the night before and wanted to check in. Weird, because I’d been thinking about him earlier in the day.

I put Penny’s leash on and dropped her onto the pavement outside my door while I finished shutting down. My friend walked out to the helicopter just as I hung up.

I was done flying for the day.

A[nother] Trip to Quartzsite

A quick trip to Quartzsite — perhaps my last ever.

I flew to Quartzsite, AZ on Tuesday with Penny the Tiny Dog. I wanted to visit one of my favorite weird desert destinations one more time before I move north to my new home in Washington State.

Quartzsite, in case you don’t know, is a tiny community in the desert right on I-10 a bit east of the California border. During the summer months, it has a population of about 3,600 people. In the winter, especially during the big RV show week in January, the area population grows to at least 50,000. Most of the winter visitors are RVers who live in trailers and motorhomes out in the desert on BLM land. They come there for the warm climate, but also for the continuous string of shows and swap meets in the area.

I’ve been going to Quartzsite for years. I really like going for a few days and staying in an RV out in the desert, but it was often difficult to arrange, given my soon-to-be ex-husband’s schedule. I bought my fifth wheel RV (the “Mobile Mansion“) there back in 2010 and that was the last time we stayed there overnight. Almost every year I managed to get at least one visit in. Last year, I visited for the day; my friend Janet was living there, selling her artwork at one of the Tyson Wells shows.

This year, a Twitter friend was staying in the area and I used that as an excuse to go out there during the RV show week. (I don’t know why I need an excuse these days; my life is finally my own to do as I please. But old habits die hard.) I didn’t feel like driving — it’s about 100 miles each way. So I went out to the airport, dragged the helicopter out, preflighted, fired it up, and took off with Penny on board in the passenger seat beside me.

It was an uneventful flight. A typically perfect Arizona winter day with temperatures forecasted to get into the high 70s, no wind, and no clouds. I had a bit of a problem with my door on takeoff — I’d lifted off with the door unlatched — and had to land in the desert about 4 miles west of town to close it properly. But then we were on our way, zipping across the desert about 500 feet up at 120 knots ground speed. Foreflight on my iPad told me we’d get there at 9:23 AM.

My landing zone (LZ) was a crapshoot. I honestly didn’t know for sure where I’d land. Quartzsite is surrounded by BLM land and I am allowed to land there, provided I don’t have paying passengers on board. But I wanted to get as close to Tyson Wells and the RV show across the street as possible. I thought I might try an empty lot south of I-10, but when I got near there, I saw a few trailers parked nearby and a man walking across the lot. Too much going on. So instead, I found a nice LZ a bit south of there. It was probably about a half mile from the traffic light just east of Tyson Wells.

Quartzsite Helicopter Parking

I shut down, put Penny on her leash, and locked up the helicopter. We walked over to the RV show. It was still early — only about 9:30 AM — and things were just waking up. That’s one of the things I like about getting to Quartzsite early; you get a real feel for the “behind the scenes” life of the vendors. Along the way, I got a text from my friend Jim in Idaho and decided to give him a call. We chatted while I walked around outside the big RV show tent.

By the time we finished, I was in the vendor area nearby, just outside a pet supply booth. I made my first purchase of the day: a new harness/collar for Penny. Finally she can stop wearing that kitten collar!

Artisan Village
One of the weirder vendor RVs at Tyson Wells.

We walked Tyson Wells next. The show was not nearly as big as it had been in past years — hell, Quartzsite has come a long way down since its glory years. There was still plenty to see and buy, including the usual collection of junk of interest to RVers. There were also quite a few bible and prayer booths. As I walked past one of them, a guy outside asked me if I wanted to participate in a “bible survey.” I said, “You don’t want to hear what I have to say,” and laughed as I walked away.

I looked at jewelry. I’m still trying to replace a pair of earrings I aways wore that my husband gave me. I simply can’t bear to look at them anymore. But I didn’t see anything better than the pair I’d already bought that were slightly too big for everyday use.

Wouldn’t this be a great way for a caterer to display his business cards at events?

I bought a business card stand made out of flatware for a friend of mine who owns a catering company. I figured it would be a neat thing to put out at events to display his business cards.

I also bought an excellent, right-out-of-the-oven cinnamon roll without all that icky icing Cinnabon uses. Delicious!

In the meantime, Penny was trying to say hello to all the other dogs she saw — and there were a lot of them. Sadly, a lot of the smaller dogs were confined in dog strollers — if you can believe that — or being carried. Why won’t people let their dogs be dogs?

Finished with Tyson Wells, we walked back to the RV show. I wanted to buy a sign.

Last year, when I’d gone to the show, I’d bought five wooden signs designed to hang one under the other. The top one said “Mobile Mansion” and the bottom ones each had names: “Maria,” “Mike,” “Charlie,” and “Alex.” You see, my husband was supposed to join me on the road in the RV and I thought it would be fun to have these signs hanging outside to show who was in residence. It’s an RVer thing. I had them with me in Washington last summer and was having a sign stand made so I could hang them outside the RV. Of course, when my husband told me he wanted a divorce, I sent the “Mike” and “Charlie” signs back to him. Although I aways hoped I could get Charlie back, it doesn’t seem as if my husband will give him up. But I do have Penny so I wanted to have a sign made for her. I’ll hang the remaining signs when I go back to Washington and set up the RV again.

I found the wooden sign guy and placed my order. I paid him $15 and he told me to be back in an hour.

I put Penny in my tote bag with her head popping out. I didn’t want to carry her, but I knew that walking her though the big tent on a leash was not a wise idea. With her safely tucked away under my arm, we went inside.

Teeth Whitening at Quartzsite
For some reason, I found the teeth whitening booth disturbing.

Plug and Play Solar
Someone’s version of my husband’s idea: plug and play solar.

Inside the tent was a zoo: crazy crowded. Vendors were selling RV timeshares and providing travel information about various destinations. They were selling cooking appliances and utensils. They were offering massages and pain relief and teeth whitening. They were selling solar panels — including the “Plug and Play” systems my soon-to-be ex-husband had wanted to design but never moved forward on. They were selling clothes and cell phone cases and solutions to clean RVs. The whole place reeked of RV septic system fluid — like someone had dumped a case of the stuff on the floor. It was crowded with retirees shuffling from one booth to the next, making unexpected stops. I was very glad Penny was safely tucked away — she would have either been trampled or her leash would have tripped an old guy.

I looked at a cell phone case, but left without one when I realized they wanted $19.95 for the same thing I could buy at Tyson Wells for $6.

Turkey Leg
Smoked turkey legs, anyone?

Loaded Baked Potato
I call this lunch.

We exited back into the fresh air on the west side of the tent, right outside the smoked turkey leg booth. I took Penny out of the bag, set her on the ground, and got on line. My husband never left Quartzsite without a smoked turkey leg — he loved them. In fact, last year when I went without him, I brought a few back for him. I liked them, too, of course, although it was too much food for lunch. So I ordered one wrapped to go (which I’d eat for dinner over the next two days — they really are huge) and got a fully loaded smoked baked potato for lunch. Penny and I retreated back toward the outside of the tent, where we sat on a flattened cardboard box to eat in the sun. By this time, I’d stripped off most of my layers of clothing and was very comfortable in a tank top and jeans. (Yes, in January.)

Penny's Sign
The style and color of the sign is different, but last year’s sign man wasn’t around. The “Maria” and “Alex” signs are in my RV.

With lunch finished, we walked around the outside of the RV show tent again, eventually winding up at the sign guy. The sign was ready, although he had run out of the spray stuff he uses to protect it. I told him I didn’t want to wait for his companion to arrive with some, confirmed that the paint was dry, and stuffed it in my bag of goodies.

We were done and it was time to go home.

Dog Ice Cream Cone
How cool is this? An ice cream cone for dogs! It was about 3-4 inches total, including the ice cream on top.

I did want ice cream, but I didn’t want to wait on the very long line for the ice cream vendor outside the big tent. And I certainly wasn’t going to pay the other guy on the way out of the area $7 for an ice cream cone. But we did find an ice cream place not far from the corner with the traffic light. I got a huge 2-1/2 scoop serving on a waffle cone. And when they saw that I was with a dog, they gave me a tiny vanilla cone just for her.

We walked back to the helicopter. I did a quick preflight, added a half quart of oil — which I managed to spill quite a bit of — and climbed on board. A while later, we were airborne over the town. I managed to take one photo of the RV show and Tyson Wells area before turning east toward Wickenburg.

Aerial Quartzsite

We were back on the ground at Wickenburg Airport 40 minutes later.

It had been a nice day out — and possibly the last time I’d ever go to Quartzsite. I’d miss it.

Lost in the Desert

I do a “search and rescue” and come up empty. Again.

First of all, understand that I don’t do search and rescue with my helicopter. I do search, but rescue isn’t part of the deal. I’m not equipped for it.

As for search — well, I’ll do it, but I don’t usually find what it is that we’re looking for. I’ve looked for hikers and dogs and even a truck and have not had success. I did find three out of four bulls once, but I think that was a fluke. Or just luck.

When people call and ask me to do a search, I tell them about my track record. I don’t want them to throw away $545/hour on a low-level helicopter flight that’s likely to come up empty. I basically talk them out of it. Hell, I did it a few weeks ago, when I was asked to search for a dog. Been there, tried that, failed.

I like money, but I hate taking it from disappointed passengers.

The First Call

I was at a wine tasting at Vistancia with some new friends when I got the call. It was so loud in the wine bar that I had to go outside to talk to the caller.

It was Edwin from another helicopter operation based in Glendale. A woman’s husband was sick and lost in the desert on the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation south of I-8. What was he doing there? I asked. Crossing in from Mexico illegally, he admitted. The woman needed someone to look for him, someone with a bigger helicopter than the R22s he operated. Would I do it?

I told him about my track record. I said I didn’t want to get in hot water with Border Patrol. He said I wouldn’t have to pick him up. I could just call 911 with his coordinates. He was sick and needed help. I told him he could have her call me the next day. I told him I was up as early as 7 AM. Then we hung up and went back to my wine tasting.

Red wines from Paso Robles are very good.

The Client Call

She called at 7:56 AM the next day. She had a Mexican accent, but her English was very good — she’d obviously been here a long time. She told me he’d been lost since Wednesday. She said he often had problems with tonsillitis and reminded me of the cold snap the week before. Nighttime temperatures had been in the 20s. She said his cousin had abandoned him in the desert and because it was on the reservation and they only had 4 rangers, no one was looking for him.

It was Sunday. If he really was sick, given the cold weather, he was likely dead.

But he could be alive. She apparently thought so.

I told her my track record. I told her that things were hard to find out in the desert.

She assured me that the area to search was small — only about 10 miles. She said it was mostly flat. She said he had a maroon blanket that should be easy to see.

I told her my rate. I told her I’d need a credit card deposit before I went to Glendale to meet them.

She said they’d pay cash. She said she’d fly down to Glendale with me to pick up the other two passengers for the search. She said one of them was familiar with the area. She said she’d talk to her brother-in-law and call back.

I went upstairs to get dressed.

She called back. She asked if I could do anything about the rate. I thought about the flight — 4 hours minimum. I thought about losing a loved one out in the desert. I thought about how she considered me her only hope. I thought about actually finding someone and saving his life.

I didn’t want to do it, but I made her a deal. And I reminded her again about my track record.

I couldn’t talk her out of it. She said she’d meet me at the airport in an hour.

The Clients

It was 10 AM when we met at the airport. The helicopter was already on the ramp. I’d refuel at Glendale to maximize flight time for the search.

She was surprisingly young — maybe in her late 20s — petite, pretty, and surprisingly calm. It’s odd, but the divorce crap I’ve been going through has really been affecting me in horribly negative ways, putting me in tears at odd times for the slightest thoughts. (After all these months, the memory of being locked out of my own house by my husband still gets me every time.) But this young woman, whose husband was sick and had been missing in the desert for more than half a week, was amazingly calm and collected. I believe it has to do with the way Mexican people deal with life problems. They’re so accustomed to hardship that they can be strong when most Americans would be falling apart.

There’s something to learn there.

As the helicopter was warming up, she showed me their wedding picture. It was a 5 x 7 print, a closeup shot, professionally done. She looked stunning, with flowers in her hair, a made-up face, and a white dress. He looked a little bit older than her with short hair and a nice suit. They looked like a nice couple. She looked at the photo with me, then slipped it back into her purse.

Death is Not Fair

In the past month, two of my friends have become widows suddenly and unexpectedly.

Linda’s husband of 40+ years, Ron, died due to complications during what was supposed to be a relatively routine surgery. Just this afternoon, I got a thank you card from her for the fruit basket I sent. In it was a card about Ron’s life and a poem and photo. I read it and cried. I’ll miss Ron, too.

Pamela’s husband Terry died several hours after having a heart attack. They stabilized him in the hospital and said they were going to let him go home in the morning. She was sitting with him that night when she watched “the light leave his eyes.” She cried to me when she told me what a wonderful partner he had been.

These two women — and the young woman I flew for on Sunday — loved their husbands and their husbands loved them. They lost their husbands unexpectedly or even tragically.

Yet my husband, who has turned into a hateful, vindictive bastard, still lives. Why couldn’t he have died instead of one of them? Why couldn’t he have died before he broke my heart? Yes, I’d still be in pain, but at least I’d have the illusion of thinking that he still loved me when I lost him. And at least I’d have some closure by now.

Death is not fair. It takes the wrong people.

I thought about this young woman with her whole life ahead of her. I thought about her husband, who she loved and wanted to find. And I all I could think about was my husband, who had lied to me, cheated on me, locked me out of my home, and was trying to use Arizona law and the court system to take as much of my hard-earned money and assets as he could. Surely life would be better for both her and me if it were my husband sick and lost in the desert instead of hers.

We flew direct to Glendale. It was a 20-minute flight. I landed on the ramp and called the FBO for fuel. She went to the terminal to bring back the other passengers.

I had to get them back through the gate. It was two men — a younger man who was amazingly jovial, considering the situation — and an older, more heavyset man who didn’t speak much English. I did a safety briefing, loaded them on board, I started up, warmed back up, and headed out.

Along the way, they gave me texted GPS coordinates, which I punched into my Garmin 420 GPS. It took us 30 minutes to get there: Ventana, AZ.

The Story

The story had many versions which evolved during the course of the day. My clients were receiving texts throughout the flights. And later, when we landed at Casa Grande for fuel, we got even more information from a Border Patrol officer who met with us briefly.

The original story was this: Oscar and his Cousin had crossed the border on foot with a party from Sonoyta with a Coyote. Oscar had gotten sick, which slowed them down near Ventana. The Coyote and others had abandoned them because they were too slow. Oscar and his cousin got as far as Ventana, where they got water. Then they continued on, walking toward the glow of the Phoenix lights. Oscar got too sick to walk, so his cousin left him in “a flat area near a tank with water within 1 mile of a paved road between Ventana and Kaka.” His cousin then walked for 10 hours before he got to Kaka at about 5 PM and turned himself in at a house. Border Patrol picked him up, but it was too late in the day to start a search for Oscar.

There was some talk about a pipeline that the illegals often followed on their trip. The pipeline went right through Kaka, but didn’t go anywhere near Ventana.

Coyote Route

My clients had some information from Oscar himself, when he called on a cell phone from where he’d been left. He was apparently very sick but in good spirits, telling his wife that he wanted to surprise her with his visit. I didn’t ask why he was illegal, whether she was, or anything else like that. It wasn’t my business. I didn’t care.

And my clients also had some information from the Coyote, but it was clearly incomplete.

So our initial search area was between Ventana and Kaka a distance of only 4.5 nautical miles.

The First Flight

I wish I had photos to show you how flat and featureless most of the terrain between Ventana and Kaka is. But I don’t. I wasn’t expecting anything beautiful, so I didn’t rig up my cameras for the flight.

If you’re reading this and you live anywhere near a metropolitan area, I guarantee you’ve got no idea of the kind of remote and empty terrain I’m writing about here. You can go 50 miles or more without crossing a paved road or seeing any kind of man-made structure. There’s no shelter from the sun or the wind. During the day in the wintertime, it can get into the 80s; the same night it can go down into the 20s. There are coyotes in the flats and mountain lions in the hills. This is the landscape Mexican immigrants often walk through to get a better life in America.

From Glendale, we flew past the Estrella mountains and into a long valley between mountain ranges. The ground was mostly flat, with dusty soil, and scrubby cacti, mesquite, palo verde, and other typical Sonoran desert vegetation. The only thing missing were saguaro cacti. They were all on the rocky mountainsides.

In some places, the ground was covered with tall yellow grass. In other places, it was sand. In still other places, it was eroded into shallow washes lined with somewhat taller trees. My chart showed some of the terrain as dry lake beds, but they were more grassy than the dry flat basins I’m familiar with.

We crossed the pipeline, which ran from the southwest to the northeast. The man familiar with the area, George, wanted me to go all the way to Ventana, but we began checking near cattle tanks — man-made ponds out in the desert designed to gather and hold water during rainstorms for cattle. We were looking for that maroon blanket.

Closeup of Search Area

A satellite view of the thriving metropolis of Ventana, AZ. That stuff that looks like dusty dirt? It is.

We got to Ventana. It was a settlement of about 50 buildings. It was miserable blotch on the desert landscape. I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to live there. (Apologies to the people who do.) The only thing it had going for it was a paved road leading out of town.

First Track
My actual track from the first search flight. I came in from the north, worked my way around the area, and then departed for fuel to the northeast.

I tried a search pattern between Ventana and Kaka. (Kaka was as bad as, if not worse than, Ventana.) George, kept directing me off my pattern. That was okay. If we searched where they wanted, they couldn’t blame me if we came up empty. But there was no sign of anyone — not even the usual trash left behind by illegals regrouping before moving on.

There were, however, wild horses. I have never seen so many wild horses in my life. They were all over the place in herds ranging from 5 to 20 animals. All different colors: brown, white, black, paint. They didn’t seem the least bit interested in us, even when we flew just a few hundred feet over their heads.

There were also shrines or memorials along the side of the roads. Crosses and hearts and flowers. I counted at least ten or twelve. Others had died in the area. Were they victims of car crashes or of the desert’s hostile terrain? Would there be a memorial near there for Oscar one day soon?

The Questions

As we got a better idea of the area, the questions started coming. If they were walking from Sonoyta to Phoenix along the pipeline, how had they gotten anywhere near Ventana? And if they were in Ventana, why did they walk northwest (instead of northeast) to Kaka? And why had it taken Oscar’s cousin 10 hours to walk from Ventana to Kaka, a distance of less than 5 miles? And if they were walking along the pipeline, how could they be within a mile from a paved road?

None of it made sense.

We followed the pipeline west past Kaka, exploring the low mountains in that area. I had strayed into a restricted area which, fortunately, was closed on Sundays. We found ourselves in another valley with the same featureless terrain and wild horses.

The pipeline road was littered with trucks and minivans — the vehicles stolen by Coyotes in Phoenix to smuggle illegals in. They drive them until they break and they leave them in the desert to rot. There were also wheels along the road. When a vehicle gets a flat, they change it and leave the old wheel behind.

And bicycles. Some of the people use stolen mountain bikes instead of walking. When the bikes are destroyed by the rough terrain, they’re simply left behind. I wondered if my bicycle, stolen last year from our Phoenix condo, was out in the desert nearby.

George directed me to fly south down a dirt road from the pipeline. That eventually dumped us in Hickiwan, another Indian village on a paved road. This one was a bit bigger. We saw a Border Patrol vehicle. We searched the area, around cattle tanks. I couldn’t understand why he’d be so close to a town and not go to get help. They told me he was very sick — too sick to walk. Again, I thought that he must be dead by now.

When George pointed southwest down the paved road between two big hills and told us that the Coyotes usually came up from there, I suspected that he’d worked with Coyotes in the past. He just knew the routes too well.

We followed the paved road to Vaya Chin, searching on the north side as we went. Then back up to Ventana, searching on the west side of the road. Then to Kaka again, where the paved road ended.

By that time, I needed fuel. Casa Grande was the closest airport with fuel and it was a good 20-minute flight away. So we took off northeast, following the pipeline most of the way. We even did one or two brief searches on either side of the pipeline. Of course, this was nowhere near a paved road.

Fuel Stop

At Casa Grande, I let them out while I shut down the engine, refueled, and added a quart of oil. They were hanging out near the terminal building in the sun. It was a beautiful day in the high 60s with very little wind. They couldn’t ask for better weather for a search.

At various times, each of them were on the phone. At one point, my client called the Border Patrol guy who’d picked up Oscar’s cousin. He said he was in the area and would meet us.

A while later, a hispanic guy showed up and introduced himself. By that time, I’d fetched a chart from my helicopter which clearly indicated each of the points of interest we’d searched near (see above). He proceeded to tell us the effort Border Patrol had put into finding Oscar. SUVs, ATVs, guys on foot, dogs, and even helicopters with infrared capabilities. They’d even gone so far as to follow tracks in the desert on foot as far as five miles. Nothing.

He mentioned looking for buzzards (vultures) — which I’d already been doing — and the fact that the infrared gear picked up body heat. Clearly, he didn’t think Oscar was alive at this point either.

I didn’t want my client throwing away more money, but if she wanted to keep flying, we would. It was already after 3 PM; the sunset would be at about 5:40 PM. We didn’t have much time. I mentioned this and asked her what she wanted to do.

Keep flying, she said resignedly.

So we said goodbye to the Border Patrol guy and climbed back on board. I made a beeline toward our original GPS point.

The Second Flight

Track 2
My phone’s battery was nearly dead, so I started this track on my iPad after we’d begun the second search. You can clearly see the search patterns I attempted.

We started in the vicinity of an old mine not far from the pipeline north of Ventana. We searched the valley to the west of there and I pretty much insisted on some sort of search pattern. Then we moved south of Ventana and Kaka, getting almost as far as Vaya Chin.

That’s when my client started getting text messages with more information. Oscar’s cousin had turned up in Mexico. He insisted that he and Oscar had walked through Ventana, stopping there to get water. He said he’d left Oscar within a mile of a paved road near a tank — in other words, it was the original story again. He said they’d been walking in the dark toward the bright lights of Phoenix (north-northeast). He wasn’t clear on how he’d gotten to Kaka, but it was late in the afternoon after he’d left Oscar in the dark.

So we began a search between Ventana and Kaka again, and then a pattern north of Ventana. I think we went too far north — after all, we should have stayed within a mile of the paved road — but I did what I was told. We came up empty.

And with the sunlight beginning to fade, we were also beginning to spook all those wild horses. When they heard us coming, they’d often start to run.

The light was pretty, with a golden hue and long shadows. But it was also difficult to see, especially when we faced the sun.

Finally, at around 5:30, I pulled the plug. I was getting low on fuel again and planned to go all the way back to Glendale — a 30-minute flight — to get more. It didn’t make sense to go to Casa Grande and then Glendale.

As we flew north, they kept getting texts. They talked about Ventana Mountain (Window Mountain) instead of the town of Ventana. They talked about bringing leaves from a tree near Oscar to Kaka where his cousin surrendered to Border Patrol. They talked about the Coyote being purposely vague and the locals not wanting to get involved. The last few mentioned that an Indian woman in Kaka claimed she knew exactly where Oscar had been left. If so, then why wait until the end of the day so long after the search had begun? Did she see the helicopter and think she could get some money from people who were that desperate to find the missing man? It seemed likely, since she said she wouldn’t take them anywhere without being paid. Still, there was nothing they could do other than try.

I felt bad for them. Very bad.

End of the Flight

We got to Glendale and I shut down. It was a little after 6 PM. They went out toward the parking lot while I arranged for fuel. I didn’t have enough to get back to Wickenburg.

My client returned, looking sad. She climbed on board, I got clearance from the tower to depart, and we headed northwest.

Along they way, she told me about how they’d married only three years ago. She told me about her first two pregnancies, both of which ended in miscarriage. She told me about her third pregnancy and the little girl they now had. She was clearly on the verge of tears when she told me how happy they were and how much he looked forward to being with her and his daughter.

I knew that Oscar was likely dead, his bones probably scattered by the coyotes and other desert carnivores who had found a free meal in an unexpected place.

And I thought again about my broken marriage and wished there was some way I could trade Oscar for the man who was tormenting me regularly.

We landed in Wickenburg and I let her go while I shut down. There was no reason to keep her from her daughter and the others who waited for news.

I asked her to call me if they found him.

And as I watched her walk away on the dark ramp, I decided that the next time I was asked to do a search like this, I’d say no.

Photo/Video Flight: Parker 250

A last minute gig turns out to be a fun little adventure — that pays.

I was sitting at my computer at 1:15 PM on Friday, scanning and shredding documents for my paperless filling system, when the phone rang. Caller ID said it was Barry. I couldn’t remember who Barry was, but knew we’d been in touch in the past — hence his number in my phone’s address book — so I answered it with my professional voice: “Flying M, Maria speaking.”

Barry had the foresight to remind me who he was when he identified himself. He’s another helicopter operator out of Falcon Field in Mesa. I’d done a video gig for one of his clients back in 2009. He was supposed to use his Bell 206B JetRanger to do a video flight with a regular client out at the Parker 250 off-road race the next morning. Unfortunately, the JetRanger was due for scheduled maintenance and his 206L LongRanger was just not right for the job. Was I available to go out there today for a shoot starting at dawn?

The first time I flew the Parker 425 was in 2008. All of the aerial footage in this video was shot from my helicopter.

I’d been to Parker to shoot the Parker 425 several times in the past. It’s a weird little town at the edge of the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) reservation that attracts mostly snowbirds. There isn’t much there beyond a Casino resort and a Walmart. The airport is owned and operated by CRIT. Hotel accommodations in the area are limited, especially when there’s a race in town.

Lodging was my first concern. I’d stayed in some pretty crappy places there. Places so bad, I told myself that a sleeping bag in the airport terminal would be better.

“It depends on if I can get a place to stay,” I told him.

He laughed almost nervously. “Well, the clients have rented a house. They were going to give me and the pilot our own room to share. You can have that room.” He hesitated and then added: “It would be private.”

“Ground transportation?”

“Call them when you get to the airport and they’ll pick you up. The only thing is, you need to get there by 5 PM because that’s when the airport closes for fuel.”

I consulted my watch and did some quick calculations. If I left my house at 3 PM, I’d have plenty of time to load and prep the helicopter and get to Parker before 5. I thought about what was going on at home: nothing. With my soon-to-be ex-husband out of the picture, I wouldn’t have to deal with his disapproving glare and whining complaints when I told him I had accepted an overnight flying gig. (Even if I invited him to come along, he’d use it as an example of how I always do what I want — ignoring the fact that flying for hire was how I earned my living and I needed to take jobs when they came up.) The only question was Penny the Tiny Dog, and I did have several options for dealing with her.

“Sure,” I told him. “I can do it.”

“Great,” he said, sounding relieved. “Let me get them on the phone and confirm that it’ll work for them. I’ll call you back as soon as I get a green light.”

Prepping for the Trip

I hung up and called Bar S Animal Hospital. They’re our local vet and they do animal boarding. Penny’s stayed there twice. Yes, no problem. They could take her. I told them I’d be there by 3.

Then I pulled out my overnight bag and packed a change of clothes, including warm layers for the dawn flight. It would be around 31°F in Parker at dawn and although I planned to have just the door behind me off, I knew it would get cold in the helicopter. I didn’t want to repeat the previous week’s shivering cold flights.

I gathered together Penny’s stuff: her bed, a toy, and a bone. She knew something was up, but I played it cool and she lost interest.

Barry called again. He said he’d left messages for the clients. We talked money. He told me what to charge; it was slightly more than my regular rate. He didn’t want a cut. He was just glad I could do the work. He didn’t want to let the client down. I told him I was going to jump in the shower but I’d be expecting the launch call.

The call came after I was showered and dressed. It was one of the clients. He told me to come on out and give him a call when I got to the airport. As easy as that.

The Flight to Parker

A while later, around 3 PM, I was at Wickenburg Airport, prepping the helicopter. I’d dropped Penny off and prepaid for her stay. I preflighted the helicopter in the hangar, out of the cold wind that was blowing across the airport. I loaded my Bruce’s Custom Covers door storage bag and the rock climbing harness I offer photographers who want better range of motion than a seat belt allows. Then I tossed in my overnight bag and leather jacket, closed everything up, and dragged the helicopter out to the ramp.

My route to Parker
My route here to Parker. Click here to access an interactive map.

By 3:35, the hangar was locked up and I was airborne, heading due west. Despite the wind, the flight was quite smooth. I headed toward Cunningham Pass, which cut through the Harcuvar Mountains, and then made a beeline to Parker. There was a whole lot of empty desert along the way — I flew over only 2 paved roads on the 74 NM flight. My only detour was to drop into the dry wash along the race route where folks had set up RVs to observe the race. I flew low level past them, returning their waves and smelling the burning wood of their campfires.

Typical Parker 250 Campsite
A typical Parker 250 campsite out in the desert. This was shot on raceday; the track is on the right, down in the wash.

There was a plane turning final as I crossed the runway at Parker and set down on the ramp. I shut down and pulled out my step stool and blade tie-downs. It was about 4:30 PM. I figured it would probably be a good idea to place a fuel order before I settled down.

Fuel Woes

Although it’s tempting to follow the river, the fastest route between Parker and Lake Havasu City is over the mountains.

And that’s when I was reminded how badly the FBO at Parker airport is managed. There was just one person in the office: a woman who claimed to be a secretary. She told me that everyone else had gone home with the flu. There was no one to drive the fuel truck. No, I couldn’t drive it for her. And no, I couldn’t use the self-serve island. If I wanted fuel, I’d have to go to Lake Havasu City.

Lake Havasu City was a 26NM flight that would take me about 15 minutes. Each way. I called my client and told him what was up. I needed fuel for the next day; there was no doubt about that. I told him I’d be back in 45 minutes. Then I re-stowed all my gear, started up, and headed north.

Mountains South of Havasu
A shot of the mountains I had to cross on a direct path between Parker and Lake Havasu City. I shot this with my iPhone from inside the helicopter; pardon the glare.

Lake Havasu
Lake Havasu City, shot from the air south of town; pardon the glare.

My route took me over some pretty rugged mountain terrain that was beautifully lit in the late afternoon sun. Once over the mountains, I had a clear view of Lake Havasu and the city beyond it. Compared to Parker, it was a thriving metropolis. I sped past London Bridge and covered the distance between town and the airport quickly. Since it was getting close to 5 PM, I called ahead to make sure a fuel truck would be available. Desert Skies, the excellent FBO there, told me to look for the truck. When I got close to the ramp, I saw it and landed nearby.

The fuel guy must have sensed my urgency, because he pulled into position as soon as my blades stopped. I helped him by grounding the aircraft and moving his stepladder for him. He gave me a ride back to the terminal to pay and I took the opportunity to use the ladies room. Then I was done, heading back to the helicopter, winding it back up, and heading south to Parker again.

No Fuel
This sign was on the Pilot Lounge door when I returned to Parker from Havasu.

I touched down exactly 45 minutes after talking to my client. The sun would set in about 10 minutes.

I figured I had 2-1/2 hours of fuel on board before I’d have to go back to Havasu for more. And when I saw the sign on the pilot lounge door, I realized that CRIT would not be providing fuel the next day.

The Frat House

N630ML in Last Light
Here’s my helicopter parked on the ramp at Parker just as the sun was setting.

I had the blades tied down and was waiting outside the airport fence with my overnight bag, leather jacket, and bottle of oil (to keep warm overnight for easier pouring in the morning) when my client pulled up in a big, black van with vanity plates. I climbed in back with three members of the video crew, including the videographer I’d be flying with the next day. They all introduced themselves and I almost immediately forgot their names. (I am so bad with names and faces.) We drove to the house they’d rented in a small gated community on the Colorado River upriver from Parker, making one stop along the way.

The house was on a little canal with access to the river. It had four bedrooms, one bathroom, and a great room. A patio out back on the canal had a barbecue grill, table, chairs, and stairs down to the water. I asked where I’d be sleeping and was offered a small bedroom with a large — maybe California King? — bed, large closet, and television. There were teddy bears on the night tables. The bed was rumbled and I suspected someone else had slept in it the night before.

Turns out the house was owned by snowbirds who, for $2100/weekend, would vacate and rent to groups. Apparently most of the homes in the neighborhood were handled the same way; at least five of the race crews were camped out in nearby homes. Although the owners cleaned out most of their personal possessions, possibly locking them up in the garage and behind one locked door, there were still a few weird items around — like the teddy bears.

The group quickly expanded to eight guys ranging in age from around 20 to 50. They all wore black shirts, most of which had the company logo on it. They were nice guys and all introduced themselves to me. After a quick discussion about dinner, four of them took off in the van to pick up groceries. The rest of us sat around drinking beer or bottled water and eating Fritos and Ruffles chips.

No need to go into details on the evening, but I do recall thinking that this was the closest I’d ever get to living in a frat house. Somehow groceries got organized and beer got put away in the fridge. Burgers and brats got cooked, buns got toasted, and tubs of macaroni and potato salad got served out. My contribution was slicing the tomatoes and a red onion. I had a bratwurst with lots of mustard and some macaroni salad. I also polished off half a bottle of wine.

More guys showed up — this time from my client’s client — and I could tell they were trying to figure out where the only woman fit into the puzzle. When I introduced myself to one of the race team guys as the pilot, he nodded thoughtfully and looked around for the pilot, obviously thinking I said that I was with the pilot. Then his eyebrows rose and he looked at me. “You’re the pilot?” he asked. “The helicopter pilot?” I nodded and admitted that I was.

The Frat House
Here’s an iPhone 5 panorama of the “frat house” with most of the folks who showed up for dinner.

There was a lot of chatter about the next day’s plan. I’d be working with the videographer, who worked with a handheld RED camera, and a still photographer. When I told them I preferred the videographer to sit behind me so that I could see the car we were chasing, they agreed it was the best way to go. The photographer would sit on the opposite side of the helicopter and get his shots after the videographer was satisfied. We agreed to leave the house at 6:30 so we could be in the air by the race start time of 7:15 AM.

Somewhere along the line, they let me know that they might need me on Sunday, too. It all depended on whether their main target vehicle survived Saturday’s race. Was that okay with me? Although I was hoping to get home on Saturday early enough to rescue Penny from boarding, I was certainly not opposed to making a few extra bucks on a second day of flying. (Again, it was great not to have to call a hostile spouse to get approval.) So I told them it was fine with me.

I disappeared into my bedroom at around 10 PM. The guys were still talking loudly and the walls were paper thin. I was lying in bed, reading before shutting off the light when the crowd started thinning out. The house was quiet when I went to sleep.

The bed was comfortable and I slept well.

In the middle of the night, I woke to hear someone snoring next door. The walls were very thin.

Rise and Shine

I was up at 5 AM and figured I’d take the opportunity to use the bathroom before it became in high demand. It was weird to see an empty beer bottle on the vanity.

Frat house.

By 5:30 AM everyone was awake and stirring. About half of the guys had slept in the living room, sprawled out on sofas and an inflatable bed. Without blankets. But they were in remarkably good spirits. I suspect they’d dealt with worse conditions in the past.

I spent about 10 minutes cleaning up beer bottles, plates, and other garbage from the day before. I filled two trash bags. I considered loading the dishwasher but decided that would be too much like being a den mother. Let them deal with that.

They had excellent instant oatmeal cups with nuts and fruit and a coffee maker that I couldn’t get to work. I used the coffee maker that came with the house to brew a pot of Folgers. Only three of us drank it. There was no milk. By 6:10 AM, everyone was out of the house except the three of us who’d be in the helicopter.

I packed up all my things. I wasn’t sure whether they’d need me Sunday and I didn’t want to leave anything behind in case they didn’t. After all, while the race was going on, there was no way for me to get back to the house. Best to have my overnight bag with me.

It was dark when we stepped out of the house at 6:30 AM. Sunrise wasn’t until about 7:45. We weren’t sure why they expected us to be in the air when the race started a full half hour before sunrise. Although the RED camera could handle low light, our six target UTVs wouldn’t be starting until after all the motorcycles and ATVs had left. Still, we went to the airport and I prepped the helicopter for flight.

It was also cold. About 30°F.

I took care of the oil first, worried that it would get cold and thicken back up. Then removed the blade tie-downs. Then did a preflight inspection with a flashlight. Then removed two doors and put them away. And finally set up my GoPro nosecam.

I was disappointed about having to use the nosecam instead of the skidcam, but that was my fault. Although I put the RAM mount piece on the skid, I left the remaining mount components, including the GoPro housing, at home. So I couldn’t assemble the skidcam, which would have given me the same view as the videographer. Instead, I hooked up the nosecam with the remote back and set it up to turn it on/off with my iPhone in the cockpit. I’d shoot 1080p video until the SD card filled or the battery died.

The Flights

We were airborne by 7:15, with the videographer behind me and the still photographer beside me. The starting line was less than a mile from the airport, so we were there within seconds. I circled and we looked down at the action. The motorcycles were leaving, 30 seconds apart. It would be at least 15 minutes before our target vehicles left. We went back to the airport and sat idling on the ramp for a while.

When we took off to check again, the motorcycles were almost done starting, but the ATVs were behind them. We went back to the airport and shut down. No sense burning fuel we’d need later.

Barry called. We chatted about the job. I told him about the fuel situation and the possibility of a second day. He was as bugged as I was about the fuel and apologetic about the second day. “No worries,” I told him. Everything was under control.

One of the video crew members advised us that the target vehicles would likely be off the line in 30 minutes. We all got out to stretch our legs. The local medevac guy showed up and chatted with us. The King Air they fly turned up a while later and he got busy. By that time, we figured it was worth another try so I started back up and we launched again.

We spent about 10 minutes circling the starting line, waiting for them to launch the UTVs. They apparently waited more than just 30 seconds between the last ATV and the first UTV. The two camera guys got shots of the non-action.

Starting Line
The starting line with the UTVs lined up and waiting to go.

Our main target was about 10 cars back, but another target was first in line. When they released him, we took off after them. It was finally showtime.

Chasing desert racers is my absolute favorite kind of flying. I’m out over the mostly empty desert so I don’t have to worry about low flying causing a hazard to people or property on the ground. Although there are wires in the area, I quickly learn where they are. I focus on the vehicle and the instructions from my client. My goal is to get the helicopter into position for whatever kind of shot the videographer needs — without doing anything that could get us killed.

And when the vehicles are moving fast, I can get a pretty good rush.

We began in a 200-foot hover beside the starting line with the car on the videographer’s side of the aircraft and his camera focused on it. Then, when it was released, I pivoted while it made the first turn and then pushed the cyclic forward gently to get some forward movement. Without adjusting the collective, we began a descent, gathering speed along the way. When we were about 100 feet off the ground, I pulled pitch to arrest the descent while maintaining speed. And then I just chased the car, matching its speed, pulling in front of it or behind it as instructed and crabbing, if necessary, to give the videographer the best shot.

My focus was absolute; I was the autopilot. I wasn’t thinking about all the divorce crap that has been fucking up my brain for the past eight months. I was just thinking about the vehicle I was chasing, the instructions from the videographer, and the wires I knew were up ahead. The helicopter was an extension of my mind and body. It did exactly what I needed it to, without me having to give it much thought at all.

I was in the zone.

We chased that car for a while with it on our right side. Then, when the videographer was done, I popped over the top of the track and put the car on our left side for the still photographer. He got a bunch of shots. When he was done, I pulled up and around to go back for the next target.

Chasing Cars
We’re chasing the car behind the one in this nosecam image. You can see the dust kicked up by the motorcycles and ATVs ahead of us on the track hanging low over the desert.

It’s not unusual to bank 45° to 60° at 50 knots or more while turning to pick up the next target. This is really aggressive flying, but done with smooth control inputs, the R44 handles it admirably. In this shot, we were probably 50 to 100 feet off the desert floor.

We did this repeatedly, one target after another. We found the first four targets without trouble and spent most of the time with the main target, shooting it from all kinds of angles. My clients really liked the look of the shots toward the sun where the dust was really illuminated. I did a lot of crabbing, hovering, and pivoting. The wind was calm and the air was cool so performance was not an issue at all — even with three of us on board and nearly full tanks of fuel. The same flying on a 90° day would have been impossible with our load.

Down in the Wash
Again, we’re chasing the car behind these. A good portion of the track runs in dry washes like this one.

Little by little, we made our way down the 80-miles of the track: flat desert, dry wash, more flat desert, powerline road, more flat desert, deep canyon, and more flat desert. The GoPro battery died less than an hour into the flight — I think that remote backpack drains the main battery because I know it was fully charged when I put it on the helicopter — so I don’t have any footage from the more interesting segments of the track.

I did mention the wires, right? The track follows these powerlines to the edge of a wash and then dives down into the wash. It’s tempting to follow the vehicles down, but the wires don’t go down at the same angle, so you need to stay high to clear them when making the right hand turn.

Track Log on a Map
Here’s the actual GPS track from our flight. You can also view an interactive version of this with photos.

We hopped from one vehicle to the next, back and forth on the track. Our main target vehicle broke an axle or something while we were videoing it; we got footage of the team getting out to check the damage. Another one of our targets got a flat tire; we captured one team member changing it. We picked up the last two targets on the return side of the track. We followed one of our targets — which turned out to be the leader — all the way into “the python,” a segment of track that winds around a sandy area near the airport, complete with banked curves and jumps.

And then we were done. The Hobbs meter showed I’d flown exactly 2.5 hours.

Warming Up, Heading Out

I flew back to the airport, which was only about a mile away, and landed. We fetched the doors and my overnight bag from my clients’ car and they prepped to move on to their ground base somewhere along the track. I locked up the helicopter and they dropped me off at McDonalds on their way out.

I got the last breakfast order in and took my food and orange juice to a booth in a sunny window to warm up. I made a few phone calls. I relaxed. Then I went back to the helicopter, which was parked facing south, and relaxed in the pilot seat, reading on my iPad. The cockpit was warm and cozy.

I realized how nice it was to just take it easy without having to be anywhere or answer to anyone.

A jet came in. The jet pilots came by to chat with me. Their passengers arrived at 1 PM — the same time I got a text from the client decision maker. They would not need me on Sunday. I was released.

I didn’t waste any time getting the helicopter started. A few minutes later, I was heading northeast along the Colorado River to Lake Havasu City. I’d have to refuel before heading back to Wickenburg.

While I waited for the line guy to fuel, I went into the BBQ place next to the FBO and got some ribs to go. I settled my bill at the FBO and walked back to the helicopter, swinging my take out bag beside me.

It was then that I suddenly realized that I really love my life. That’s something I need to blog about soon.

I checked the oil and the fuel caps, then climbed into the helicopter and started up. I was munching fried okra and sipping iced tea when I pointed the nose east for the 86NM flight back to Wickenburg. It was a long flight over remote terrain — I’d only cross two paved roads and one tiny settlement (the Wayside Inn) along the way. I’d be there 50 minutes later.

I put the helicopter away and pulled all my gear out of it. I totaled the billable flight time: 5.2 hours. Not bad for an unexpected, spur-of-the-moment gig.

I stopped at a friends hangar and spent some time chatting with a few people there. Then I fetched Penny and we went home. It felt good to get a hot shower and relax with a glass of wine in front of the fire.