Phoenix to Lake Powell by Helicopter

Again, but this time with video.

The initial call about the January photo gig at Lake Powell came in December through one of my Russian connections. Apparently, two Russian businessmen who were attending the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas wanted to photograph the Lake Powell area from the air. They were willing to pay me to fly up to Lake Powell from Phoenix and make at least two flights totaling 3 to 5 hours.

Trips like this are extremely costly — after all, the client has to pay for 4 hours of flight time just to get me up there and back — and I honestly didn’t expect it to happen. But a week before the chosen dates — January 12-13 — I got the green light and the all-important credit card number I needed to get paid for that 4 hour repositioning flight plus a standard overnight fee to cover my expenses and compensate me for my time away from home.

The Gig

Weight and BalanceI admit I wasn’t looking forward to the gig. The two photographers claimed to weigh 242 pounds (converted from kilos) and I knew they likely weighed more fully dressed and carrying camera equipment. I calculated the weight and balance as soon as I had this information and discovered that I’d have to strip all non-essential equipment out of the helicopter to lighten it up so we could take enough fuel for 2 hour flight segments (plus FAA-required reserves). Anything that was left on board would have to be shifted from under my seat to under the seat behind me, just to shift weight backwards. Having two fatties — yes, including me — up front would make us front-heavy. Having two fatties on the left side would make us heavy on that side. But even after adding 15 pounds of weight for each of them, I confirmed that’d be in balance with 2/3 fuel or less on board.

The other thing that bothered me was weather. Page, AZ was having unseasonably cold weather with daytime highs barely getting above freezing. Flying a helicopter with two doors off guarantees plenty of outside air inside the cabin and no amount of heat is going to win against 30°F outside air. So not only did I have a bit of a challenge ahead of me with a listing (but still within acceptable CG) aircraft to fly, I’d likely be freezing my ass off.

As far as the helicopter goes, I wasn’t worried about the cold weather affecting operations. My R44 Raven II is fuel injected, so carburetor ice is not an issue. I’d flown it in cold weather before and it was always peppy — once I got it started. In fact, that was my only real concern: Lake Powell photographers usually want to get off the ground at dawn for morning flights and with overnight temperatures under 20°F, I worried a bit about getting the helicopter started for its morning flight.

But the gig did have one big thing going for it: at least 4 hours of revenue time. And if there’s one thing I’m interested in, it’s getting paid to fly.

The Flight Up

Lake Powell is about 200 nautical miles north of the Phoenix area. Since my clients were paying for a 2-hour flight, my goal was to make it there in two hours. That meant flying as close to a straight line as I could.

CourseUsing Sky Vector, I plotted a course from Phoenix Deer Valley Airport (KDVT) to Page Municipal Airport (KPGA) with only one waypoint in between: the Little Colorado River Gorge (LCRG) on the east side of Grand Canyon’s Special Use Airspace. I wrote down the coordinates for the LCRG to punch them into my GPS — a recent GPS battery change had wiped my user waypoint list clean. The flight path would take me north along the east side of I-17, crossing it just before it dips down to Camp Verde. I’d cut across the Verde Valley between Sedona and Cottonwood, then climb the Mogollon Rim west of Sedona, pass east of the restricted area for the Navajo Army Depot, west of Flagstaff, and west of the San Francisco Peaks, the tallest mountain in Arizona. From there, I’d drop back down into the Navajo Reservation, flying over its western edge, hop the Echo Cliffs, and drop back down to Page, AZ.

And that’s mostly how it all came off.

I departed Deer Valley at about 8:45 AM under partly cloudy skies with little or no wind. It was a cool morning, with temperatures just climbing through the 50s. I crossed Deer Valley’s runways at 2000 feet MSL as required by the Tower there and got right on course, aiming for the LCRG waypoint I’d added to my GPS.

It was interesting and different to fly a straight line route through an area I knew so well. After all, I’ve been flying from the Phoenix area to Sedona, the Grand Canyon, Flagstaff, and Lake Powell for years, so it’s not as if the area I’d be flying over was new to me. But I usually fly with passengers on board and, to make the flight more interesting, I fly over or past various points of interest, such as towns, highways, mine sites, and canyons. On this flight, speed was the goal — I wasn’t interested in scenery. But I got scenery anyway — how can you fly a helicopter through Arizona without seeing something spectacular every mile?

As I flew, my GoPro Hero camera recorded a 720p widescreen video of the flight. Mounted up front, it offered an unobstructed view of everything ahead of me. The wide angle lens brought in details of what was close while pushing back distant points. Later that night, I’d watch much of the 2 hours of video and remember the various points of the flight.

Mountains north of PhoenixWhat fascinated me was the way the light changed throughout the flight. At first, it was partly cloudy. Then the sun slipped behind the clouds and it was cloudy. Then the sun began to break through, speckling the mountainsides with light. This still image, captured from the video, gives you an idea of what I mean. The light changed numerous times over the two-hour period of the flight — at one point, clouding over completely only 1,000 feet above me — giving the illusion that the flight was conducted over multiple days.

It wasn’t just the light that changed, of course. It was also the terrain. Flat desert in the Phoenix area, soft mountains studded with saguaro cacti as I headed north, flat mesas with steep basalt sides, deeply carved canyons, wide valleys, red rock cliffs and hoodoos, alpine forests blanketed with snow, tall mountains, ancient cinder cones, flat “painted” desert, deep gorges, buttes, uplifted cliff faces, slot canyons. I saw it all over the course of my two hour flight — all without trying to see it. My nearly straight line course simply put me over the top of all these things. I sat comfortable and warm in my seat, admiring the view as I glided over it.

Glided is definitely a good word. There was hardly a breath of wind during the entire flight so it was amazingly smooth. A pilot’s dream. And although outside temperatures dipped as low as -5°C, I was cosy and warm with the heat up only about halfway.

SedonaOne of the highlights of the flight was crossing the red rock cliffs west of Sedona and climbing up over the Mogollon Rim. The light was absolutely perfect, breaking through light scattered clouds to illuminate the rocks with a soft golden light. Absolutely breathtaking and the GoPro camera captured the whole thing.

Beyond that was a surprising amount of snow and a light overcast layer that shrouded the top of the San Francisco Peaks. The temperature there was around 0°C, but the Flagstaff ATIS reported -5°C — a real thermal inversion only 10 miles east. The low cloud layer and dimly lighted snowfields made me feel claustrophobic. Ahead of me, it looked as if some precipitation could be falling from the clouds. That got me a bit worried about icing, but I continued on. By the time I got to the point I thought I’d seen rain or snow falling, it had stopped — and so did my worries.

The only surprise on my flight was upon reaching the GPS coordinates for the LCRG. Simply said: it wasn’t there. It was about 10 miles northwest of where I’d plotted it to be. I can only assume that I’d punched in a wrong digit when I entered the waypoint into my helicopter’s GPS. So rather than fly over its most dramatic point, I crossed a bit to the east and kept going. I deleted that waypoint so I wouldn’t depend on it again. Oddly if I’d made a serious mistake in the entry, I would have noticed it a lot sooner. But because it was only off by a little bit, it wasn’t until I passed the waypoint that I realized the error. I’ll definitely be more careful in the future.

Over the RezWhen I got to the empty expanse of the Navajo Reservation, I dropped down and flew low over the ground. There were few homes in the hundreds of square miles and only a handful showed signs of life. In the video, my helicopter’s shadow is clearly visible: small when I’m flying higher and larger when I’m flying lower. The video makes it seem as if I’m going much faster during this portion of the flight, but I’m not. I managed to keep a steady 100-110 ground speed for most of the flight. It’s just an illusion: the closer the camera is to the ground, the faster I seem to be flying.

I crossed over the Echo Cliffs at Cedar Ridge — at least I think that’s where I was — and sped across more of the Navajo Reservation north. In all, I think about 45 minutes of the flight was spent over the Rez. It’s an amazing land of stark beauty, sprinkled with traditional homesteads, more modern yet simple homes, and, on its far western reaches, the ruins of abandoned homesites clearly visible as rock rings and corrals. The traditional Navajo home is a round or octagonal building called a hogan and they are clearly visible from the air. Also visible on most days are livestock such as cattle and sheep and wild horses.

I descended down toward the lake, flying at a low enough level that I didn’t actually see its clear blue water until I was about 15 miles out. Of course, I could see other landmarks — notably the bulk of Navajo Mountain about 50 miles to the east of Page and the Navajo Power Plant, with tall stacks belching ugly smoke into the air just outside of town. The radio frequency was silent as I descended toward the airport. I lined up with the taxiway and set down on one of the helipads.

The Video

Later, after doing 3.4 hours of photo flying around the lake and points east, I watched the video shot by my GoPro Hero. It was probably some of the best footage I’d ever captured with the camera. My only regret was that I hadn’t shot in in 1080p.

Over the course of two days, I assembled a movie from seven-second clips shot during that two hour flight. Last night I added titles and music. I exported it for my iPad and uploaded it to YouTube. Here it is. Enjoy.

Is That Deal Really as Good as They Say?

Amazon misstates retail prices to inflate savings.

It’s a twist on my Safeway whine from last week. Stores — including online stores — purposely misstate the retail or regular price of items to make their own prices look better.

Amazon's PriceHere’s proof. I was distracted by a tweet that took me to Amazon.com and was further distracted by a “Lightning Deal” offer for the Garmin nüvi 500 GPS. Here’s the deal as it appeared on Amazon.

Wow! I thought to myself. A $499.99 GPS for only $169.99! That’s a savings of $329 or 66% off retail price!

I’m shopping for a new GPS — something with a bigger screen that still supports topographic maps — and thought this might be an excellent deal for me. So I went to the Garmin Web site to get the full details about this particular model.

Real Retail PriceWhat did I discover on Garmin.com? That the suggested retail price of this GPS is not $499.99, as Amazon advertises. It’s $299.99. That’s $200 less.

Doing some math, I calculated a savings of only $129 or 43% off the real retail price. Admittedly, that’s still pretty good, but it’s a far cry from 66%.

Not Such a DealAnd the deal isn’t so sweet when you look at Amazon’s regular (not “Lightning”) price: $232.38. Now you’re saving only $67 or 22% off retail price, despite the fact that Amazon claims you’re saving $267 or 54%.

My point? Don’t believe retail prices as advertised on reseller Web sites or in stores. Do your homework. Don’t let fantasy savings con you into making a purchase decision before you have all the facts.

How to Extract GPS Coordinates for a Google Maps Location

It’s a lot easier than you might think.

Like most folks who depend on the Internet as a source of information, I use Google Maps a lot. But rather than use it to track down street addresses and get driving directions, I use it to pinpoint places out in the middle of nowhere that I need to visit by helicopter. There are usually no street addresses, and even if there were, they wouldn’t help much while flying. What I need are GPS coordinates.

You might be in a similar situation. You see a place on a map and, for one reason or another, you need to know its exact GPS coordinates. Fortunately, Google Maps can help. Here’s how to get those coordinates.

  1. Use Google Maps (not Google Earth) to display the location you want GPS coordinates for. In my example, I’ll use satellite view to find a dirt airstrip I know along the Verde River north of Phoenix. You could search for an address if you needed the coordinates for a street address.
  2. Google GPS Step 1Hold down the Control key and click right on the spot you want the coordinates for. A menu pops up. (You may be able to simply right click, but I’ve had limited success with that on my Mac using Firefox; Control-click always works.)
  3. On the menu, choose Center Map Here. The view will probably shift a bit.
  4. Google GPS Step 2Above the map area, in the blue bar, click the Link button. A window appears with two text boxes in it. The contents of the top text box, which are selected, includes a link to the map that you might paste into an e-mail message. It also includes the GPS coordinates, which I’ve indicated with a red box around them. Sometimes the GPS coordinates are not so obvious and you’ll need to scroll through the contents of the box to find them.

Note that the coordinates are in digital format. In this example, they’re 34.160043°N 111.727266°W. (West and South are negative numbers.) Some GPSes use this format; you can usually specify the format you want to use in your GPS’s settings.

If you need coordinates in degrees, minutes, seconds format, you’ll need to do some simple math. Let’s take a look at how it works for the first number: 34.160043.

  1. Take the whole number (34) and set it aside. That’s the degrees.
  2. Take the number after the decimal point and multiply it by 60: .160043 x 60 = 9.60258
  3. Take the whole number from that calculation (9) and set it aside. That’s minutes.
  4. Take the number after the decimal point and multiply it by 60: .60258 x 60 = 36.1548
  5. Take the whole number from that calculation (36) and set it aside. That’s seconds. Keep in mind that if you want a more precise number, you can include the decimal places after it. You might also want to round the number up or down depending on what comes after the decimal point. In this example, the number after the decimal point is 1 so I’d round down and use 36.
  6. Put the numbers you set aside together in degrees° minutesseconds” format. In this example, you’d have 34° 9′ 36″.

My helicopter’s GPS uses a degrees° minutes‘ format, so I’d stop calculating after step 2 and wind up with 34° 9.60258’.

The Race is On!

Some fun with geocaching.

My Twitter friend, @PlagiarismToday, and I share a few interests. One of them is geocaching.

Although I’ve been fooling around with geocaching since about five years ago, I just rediscovered it. He, on the other hand, has been seriously going after geocaches every weekend for a while.

One of the things you can do with geocaches is set up, pick up, and transport “trackables.” A trackable is an item with a tracking number on it. You log it with the Geocaching.com Web site and place it in a cache. From that point on, every time someone picks it up or drops it off in another cache, they should log it. This makes it possible for the item to not only move from one cache to another, but for the item’s owner to track where it is.

SYDI had a travel bug (like a dogtag with tracking information) and attached it to a gumby-like figure that I named Smiling Yellow Devil (SYD). I logged it into the Geocaching.com Web site and gave it a “mission”: travel to New Orleans, where @PlagiarismToday lives. With luck, the folks who find SYD will not only keep moving him from cache to cache, but they’ll move him toward New Orleans. It might take years, but eventually, I hope he gets there.

In the meantime, @PlagiarismToday has created another trackable named Flightless Bird that he’s sending my way, toward Wickenburg, AZ. The idea is that we’ll release them around the same time and see which reaches its destination first.

I’ll likely be blogging the progress of each trackable item as it moves along. To watch along with me, subscribe to the comments on this post; that’s where I’ll put the updates as they come in.

And if you’re a geocaching enthusiast along SYD’s route, I hope you’ll help him get closer to his destination.

Geocaching Revisited

Hunting for hidden treasures.

Back in 2005, I discovered geocaching, an outdoor activity where people use a GPS to find hidden containers of trinkets. I wrote about my thoughts on the topic — and some big plans that never came to fruition — in some detail here. Because part of the game is to pull something out of a cache and replace it with something else, I started gathering items to share. Among these were some “travel bugs,” which are basically serial numbered tags you can affix to an item so it can be tracked. The tracking is mostly done on the Geocaching.com Web site. That’s also were you can find a list of geocaches just about anywhere in the U.S.

And that’s the interesting thing: these things are everywhere. Did you drive more than 10 miles to work today? I bet you passed at least a dozen of them within 3 miles of your car. There’s one a block from my house in Wickenburg and one 4/10 of a mile from my RV here in Quincy. As this map shows, they’re all over the place:

Geocaches Near Me
My RV is just about dead-center in this map. The little box and question mark icons indicate geocaches in the area. The smiley face icon is a geocache I found that I logged.

For some reason, I find the proliferation of these little boxes of hidden “treasure” fascinating. It emphasizes how big the world really is. It also reminds me a bit of a walk my husband, Mike, and I had along the rim of the Grand Canyon once. We got off the beaten path and walked right along the rim, far from where the tourists wander. We happened to stop for a rest on a rock outcropping. And there, tucked under an overhang with a beautiful view of the canyon, was an urn of cremated remains. How long had it been hidden there? We didn’t know. It was like an uncharted geocache. Seems like a good final resting place to me.

Geocaches are hidden. They’re tucked away in painted coffee cans, sealed lengths of black PVC pipe, and plastic Tylenol bottles. In the old days, ammo cans were popular, but I think the value of these has prevented their widespread use — too likely to be stolen if found. (I bought 3 nice-sized ammo cans from a seller in Beatty, NV some years back to create my own geocaches; I still have them.) Caches are hidden in bushes, under rocks, and among the remains of pioneer trash heaps. You’re not likely to stumble upon any of them by accident. You have to look for them. And even with GPS coordinates, they’re not always easy to find.

For some reason, I brought my bag of geocache goodies along with me on my trip to Washington this year. I guess I thought I’d try it again. I didn’t think much of it until the other day when a Twitter friend, @PlagiarismToday, started tweeting about his weekend geocaching activities. It got me thinking about it. I pulled out my bag and took a look inside it. I had a GPS with me, and an Internet connection to get information about local caches, so I had everything I needed to try again.

So I went out yesterday to search for three caches. I found three, but not the original three I’d set out to find.

  • Ryann’s Hide was the first cache I’d hunted for in over 5 years. Although I’m using a newer GPS (a Garmin GPSMap 60c) than I did in 2005, I soon realized that precision was something that needed patience. As I walked, the GPS would guide me, but I quickly overshot the location. Seems that the GPS could not keep up with my movement. I needed to slow down and let the signals catch up. Zooming in on the map gave me ever-increasing detail. Standing still, gave me ever-increasing precision. Once I caught on, I was able to zero in on the location. The cache was alongside a two-track road that led down a hill to a fishing spot. The road was closed to unauthorized vehicles. It started on the edge of an orchard and curved down into a very pleasant wooded area. (I think I need to explore further down that trail.) The container was a painted coffee can with a plastic lid. I pulled out a plastic car and replaced it with a tiny stuffed teddy bear. I entered my Geocaching.com user name in the log book, closed everything back up, and replaced it exactly where I’d found it. Success!
  • Quincy Valley Rest Area II was a bit easier to find — once I got on the correct side of the rest area fence. It was a nicely made cache container consisting of a short length of black PVC pipe with a screw-top on one end. Inside was a baggie with the logbook, some plastic dinosaurs, and a very nice shell. I took the shell and replaced it with an emery board with advertising for a nudist colony on it. (I really don’t remember where I got such a thing, but it is pretty funny — and clean.) I logged my visit and closed it all back up. Success!
  • West Bar Overlook is the one I really wanted to find. It’s located on Babcock Bench, high above one of the orchards I dried several times this summer. The entry on Geocaching.com provided lots of photos and information about the geologic significance of the spot. I’d brought along my camera, planning to get some shots from its perfect vantage point. Unfortunately, the two-track access road that appeared to link the cache area with pavement was inaccessible. Not only was there a locked gate across the road, but there were lots of tall weeds making the start of the trail a bit questionable for someone wearing shorts during snake and tick season. I’ll either try again next spring, before the weeds grow so tall or possibly try to visit via helicopter. I already scouted the power lines in the area. So this was a failure.
  • Rust Everywhere was my consolation prize. I’d already imported its GPS coordinates into my GPS, so I knew approximately where it was. But because I hadn’t planned to look for it, I didn’t have the details — like a basic description of what it looked like. Having a location but no description makes things a bit tougher. Patience and perseverance paid off, though. The cache was a label-less Tylenol bottle hidden well among rocks. I pulled out a kid’s hair clip and replaced it with a computer chip, logged my visit, and put it back. Success!

In all, it was a nice way to spend the afternoon. I was at it for about two hours and it got me out and about. To onlookers, I must have looked pretty silly, walking around while studying a GPS. But I got to find a neat place — that wooded trail — and get some exercise and fresh air. I hope to do more tomorrow.

I also think that it would be a great family or small group activity. A way to combine socialization with exercise. Working together to complete a challenging task.

I do have a geocaching project lined up. I’m going to release one of my travel bugs into the wild with the mission of traveling down to New Orleans, LA. That’s where @PlagiarismToday lives and does his geocaching. He, in turn, is going to send one my way. We’ll see which one completes its mission first.

I’ll likely blog about the progress here.