I Have No Patience for Lazy Writers

A brief rant.

This morning, I got this email from someone who is apparently farming out parts of his books to people with better description skills than he has:

You are the perfect person to help me. I’m writing a book about birding adventures that I had in 2011. One tense incident happened along the Rio Grande when armed cartel waded across the Rio Grande. To make a long story short, for the next forty-five minutes or so two helicopters (border patrol) circled overhead. Here is my question:

How would you accurately describe the sound these helicopters make?

Border Patrol at Rio Grande
Photo of Border Patrol helicopter over Rio Grande from gallery on U.S. Customs and Border Protection website.

For the record, I’ve never been birding along the Rio Grande while Border Patrol helicopters circled overhead for 45 minutes. How would I know what it sounds like?

Yet this guy was apparently there and can’t describe it. He figures that since I’m a helicopter pilot and a writer, I can describe it for him. So he sends me this email message.

Here’s a tip: if you can’t accurately describe something with words, you shouldn’t be a writer.

And yes, I addressed this in my blog back in 2009: “Writing Tips: Writing Accurate Descriptions.” If you do read that post, pay close attention to the first paragraph under the heading “Do Your Homework,” since it pretty much covers my thoughts on getting email messages like this one.

Lake Berryessa and the Glory Hole

Not something you see every day.

I spent a few weeks in the Sacramento area of California — as I have been since 2013 when I brought my helicopter there for its first frost control contract — in late February and early March. I’ve gotten to know the area pretty well over the past five years and as I continue to explore new places, I also return to the old ones. Lake Berryessa, the largest lake in Napa County, is one of these places.

I first discovered it during a drive up Putah Creek, starting in Winters, CA. From there, I made a stop at the Lake Solano Campground (which I eventually stayed at for the first time this year) and noted its crazy collection of peacocks. Farther up the road, I passed numerous parking areas for fishing and hiking and picnicking. Still farther, the road crossed the creek, wound up a hill, and passed the Monticello Dam, which holds in the waters of Lake Berryessa. Penny and I have hiked in various places along the shore, driven much of the west side’s shoreline, and even flown over it numerous times in my helicopter.

Aerial View of Lake Berryesssa
An aerial view of Lake Berryessa, shot with a GoPro on my helicopter back in March 2014. The water was very low.

For the first four years I’ve been in the area, the lake level was low — very low. This isn’t surprising given the serious drought that affected nearly all of California. All of the lakes I flew over were low. But this year things were different. This year, all the lakes are full, nearly full, or even — in some cases — overflowing. Lake Berryessa is one of the lakes with too much water.

Man-made lakes — basically, any lake that holds water in with a dam — usually have flood control features built in that guide excess water safely out of the lake and into a receiving stream or river. This is normally done with the use of a spillway that can be opened or is automatically utilized before the water level reaches the top of the dam.

Spillways come in different styles. The most common is a sort of water chute that excess water flows down, away from the dam. Most dams have this kind of spillway. The Oroville Dam, which has been in the news a lot lately, has spillways like this, one of which was severely damaged by floodwaters.

Another less common type is an open bell mouth spillway. That’s the type at Lake Berryessa. It’s a round concrete hole not far from the road and the dam. From Wikipedia:

Near the dam on the southeast side of the reservoir is an open bell-mouth spillway, 72 feet (22 m) in diameter, which is known as the Glory Hole. The pipe has a straight drop of 200 feet (61 m), and the diameter shrinks down to about 28 feet (8.5 m). The spillway has a maximum capacity of 48,000 cfs (1360 cms). The spillway operates when there is excess water in the reservoir; in 2017 after heavy rains it started flowing, for the first time since 2006.

Monticello Dam w/Glory Hole
In looking through my archive of photos from 2014, I found a GoPro photo of the dam from the air that clearly shows the Glory Hole when it isn’t in use.

It was in the news in February because the lake had finally filled, after 11 years, and water was flowing into the Glory Hole. Of course, I had to go see it. So when I got the helicopter into California and needed to a “maintenance flight” to check a few things, I headed over there. Sure enough, water was flowing into the hole and a small gathering of people along the road were looking in. I flew by a week later and the water was still flowing in.

I wanted to see it again from the ground, so I returned on Saturday. By that time, Penny and I were on our way home from nearly four months on the road so I had the Turtleback on my truck. Once again, I’m so glad I downgraded from my big fifth wheel; parking in the very crowded parking area was remarkably easy.

There were a lot of people there. It was, after all, Saturday and the Glory Hole had been on the news quite a bit. It made a good, easy, and free point of interest for sightseers.

Glory Hole from the Road
The Glory Hole, photographed from the road. That’s the dam to the right. The water is pretty close to the top.

Penny and I joined the crowd and walked along the road for a good look. The chain link fence made it difficult to get a good photo. The hole is right next to the road and pretty much fills the camera lens. But I did my best.

A guy was out there with a Phantom 4 drone so I decided to give my drone (AKA flying camera) a shot when he was done. I went pack to the truck, put Penny inside, and pulled out my drone. Within about 5 minutes, I had it all set up in a clear area between parked cars and the fence downstream from the dam. When I was sure the other drone had landed, I launched mine.

Understand that I’m still learning how to use my Mavic Pro. I’m also very careful. Immediately after launching, I took it up over the lake, away from people. Then I captured some still and video shots of the Glory Hole from the air, including a short pass where I flew directly over the hole with the camera pointing straight down.

Glory Hole from the Air
I really don’t know why the water looks so green in this shot. I don’t think it’s the camera. It must be something to do with the light.

I tweeted the video clip and got a lot of positive feedback about it. I also got a request to contact the folks at a video licensing company who want to represent me on the resale of the clip to news other media organizations. I’ll all for that, provided my FAA Commercial UAS Pilot certificate has come through; it’s not legal to sell drone photography without it. Need to get home and check my mail to see if the paperwork is there; I applied back in January so I should be good.

I need more practice using my Mavic and I intend to get some on my way home. I had it out again this morning from my campsite at Bodega Bay. I’m hoping to put together a little montage when I get home and share it here on the blog. Stay tuned.

My R44 Helicopter’s Overhaul

Easier than I expected, but I’m still glad it’s all behind me now.

I picked up my 2005 Robinson R44 Raven II helicopter, Zero-Mike-Lima, from its first 12-year/2200-hour overhaul on Monday, February 20, 2017. I’m very happy with the way it turned out. I thought I’d take a moment to share some information about the process and the way I dealt with it.

About the Overhaul

While most helicopters — most aircraft, actually — have a wide variety of life-limited parts and complex maintenance schedules, Robinson handles maintenance for major components a bit differently. It requires that the entire helicopter be overhauled every 12 years or 2200 hours of flight time, whichever comes first. It does this by syncing the life on certain components so they all need to be inspected, rebuilt, or replaced at the same time.

For example, another helicopter might have blades with a life of 3000 hours and an engine with a life of 2000 hours and a transmission with a life of 1500 hours. The owner/operator/maintenance manager is required to keep track of when each component is due for maintenance or replacement and make sure the helicopter doesn’t overfly the next due item. Then the helicopter needs to be taken offline so that the work that is due can be done. Once it’s finished, that item’s clock is reset (so to speak) and the helicopter continues to operate until the next item needs attention. The benefit to this is that major maintenance costs are spread throughout a helicopter’s life and each maintenance task can be knocked off relatively quickly. The drawback is that there’s a lot of components to track and the helicopter could be down for maintenance quite frequently if it’s flown a lot.

On a Robinson helicopter, the engine, rotor blades, transmission, and other major components are all built to last 12 years or 2200 hours. That’s also when the whole helicopter needs to be thoroughly inspected for frame cracks or other structural problems. So Robinson owners usually get it all done at once as an overhaul.

I say usually because it doesn’t always work out that way. For example, some components — for example, the engine — are limited by hours flown only. So if a helicopter is only a few years old but is flown often, only those components that have a flight time related life limits need to be replaced or inspected. But since you often have to take the helicopter apart to get to those components, it usually makes sense to do the whole overhaul. And there’s always a chance that a helicopter’s component will simply go bad — a blade strike can destroy a set of blades, an engine overspeed can damage an engine, etc. — and that component will be replaced on its own, thus throwing the whole 12-year/2200 hour synced schedule out of whack.

It Ain’t Cheap

An R44 overhaul isn’t cheap. These days it usually runs about $220,000 to $240,000. And no, that isn’t a typo.

But remember this: instead of spending $50K one year for a set of blades and $40K another year for a rebuilt engine and $15K another year for a tail rotor assembly and $15K another year to borescope the frame tubes, you’re paying for everything at once. When it’s done, the helicopter is in like-new condition. (Heck, mine is now worth more than I paid for it 12 years ago.)

I didn’t think much about the overhaul cost during the first few years I owned Zero-Mike-Lima. Ideally, I should have been saving up about $100 for every hour I flew, but I didn’t. I was already paying about $2,100/month on its eight-year loan, about $1,000/month to keep it insured, and anywhere from $3,000 to $8,000 a year on regular maintenance. (Don’t let anyone tell you that owning a helicopter is cheap.) Back in those days, my flying business struggled. I still had this silly idea that I could operate a tour business in (of all places) Wickenburg, AZ, and even when I moved it down to the Deer Valley area for part of the year I couldn’t make a tour business work. So my writing work was funding my flying business and I wasn’t very interested in using my royalties to save up for the helicopter’s overhaul.

But around 2007, things started to change. I discovered the world of aerial survey work and began to understand the value of regular, repeat clients rather than one-time tour passengers. My business began paying its own expenses. Then, in 2008, I got involved in cherry drying work in Washington state and, through careful management of my expenses and the acquisition of new contracts, began making some decent money. (My tenth season is coming up in May and I expect to hire at least five pilots with helicopters to work with me.) It was around 2010 that I was able to start putting aside some of Flying M Air’s revenue for the overhaul. By 2012, I’d saved up $132K, which was pretty darn close to the $150K I should have had saved by then. Not bad, huh?

Of course, it was that $132K and the helicopter that my future wasband and the desperate old whore he moved in with had their eye on in divorce court. But my legal team was smart. We brought in a helicopter flight school owner who operates a fleet of R22 and R44 helicopters as an expert witness. He testified that the money I’d saved was to cover a deferred maintenance expense — which, of course, is what the overhaul is. Fortunately, the judge understood this and I was able to keep the money.

Sadly, a portion of it went to pay for divorce legal fees. But I consider that money well spent since I got to keep the helicopter and a variety of other assets I owned, too. I still don’t understand what made my wasband think he was entitled to any of it. (Expensive delusions?)

Once I’d gotten through the divorce, downsized a bit, and built my new home, I was able to start saving again. Last year’s very rainy cherry season couldn’t have been more timely for me — although I admit I felt bad for my clients. By the time I was ready for the overhaul, I had a bunch of money saved up again.

Timing is Everything

In the first eight years I owned my R44, I flew it almost exactly 200 hours a year. At that rate, it would have needed to go in for overhaul within 11 years.

I thought about overhaul timing starting around 2010 or so. My busy season in Arizona was winter and spring and I wanted the helicopter around for that. And, of course, I needed to take it to Washington for the summer for cherry season, which was starting to really pay off. That meant an autumn overhaul. I’d bring it in around September to get it back by Christmas. That was the plan.

But despite picking up new work doing frost control in California in the late winter/early spring of 2013, I began flying a lot less. My frost and cherry contracts paid to have the helicopter standing by, ready to fly. It didn’t necessarily fly. (This amazes me: that I can fly less and earn more.) When I permanently moved to Washington in May 2013, I no longer had that long ferry flight — at least 10 hours each way — between Arizona and Washington for cherry season. And as I worked to build my new home, I didn’t have as much time for joy flights. So it soon became apparent that the helicopter would go the full 12 years before overhaul.

My season changed, too. Now it was vital to have the helicopter available from late February through September for frost season, cherry season, and local area tours. Winter was absolutely dead — in fact, I’d begun going south for the winter, leaving the helicopter idle in the garage until I needed it in California for frost. Clearly, that would be the best time to get the overhaul done.

I started speaking to overhaul shops about what needed to be done as early as August 2015. They all estimated anywhere from two to four months. That meant dropping it off in October or November 2016 to get it back in time for this year’s frost season.

Researching Overhaul Shops

As you might imagine, you can’t get an overhaul done in just any repair shop. It needs to be an Robinson authorized repair shop. The helicopter is literally stripped down to its frame and rebuilt. I wanted to make sure it was rebuilt by people who knew what they were doing.

I started my search in August 2015, when I brought Zero-Mike-Lima to Hillsboro, OR for an annual inspection. Hillsboro Aviation is the outfit who had sold me the helicopter at Heli Expo in 2004. (I got it priced up there, ordered it two months later, and took delivery six months after that.) They had a good shop full of experienced mechanics that maintained the R22s and R44s for their flight school. But I didn’t get many details then; I wasn’t really thinking about yet.

In November 2015, while I was in Florida visiting my sister, I stopped off to visit a shop in St. Augustine that I knew of. (I had actually rented an R22 from them way back in 2000 or 2001 so I could give my stepdad a ride.) I had no problem with the distance; I figured I could spend some time visiting my sister while they worked on it. They were very receptive and gave me a tour of their hangar, where their mechanics were working on two Robinsons. I was introduced to the guy who would be doing most of the work. “He’s great with Robinsons,” I was told. “He’s been working on them for nine months now.”

Nine months! I thought to myself. I want someone who has been working on them for nine years.

A few months later, in March 2016, I checked out a shop in Salinas, CA. They had a very impressive operation where they did a lot of work on airplanes, including some classics. They could even make their own metal parts using computer-driven fabricators. But they didn’t seem overly eager to do it. It was almost as if they’d take it on as a sort of challenge. And I couldn’t pin them down on timing. Maybe four months, maybe more.

I tried to contact Hillsboro again and, for a while, got no response. Later, I discovered that they’d undergone a personnel change and the guy I’d spoken to was gone. They seemed eager to get the job, though, and I was confident that they’d do it right.

And then I contacted Quantum Helicopters in Chandler, AZ. I had a history with Quantum and it wasn’t all good. I’d gotten my private pilot license with them, finally finishing it up after a year and a half of part-time lessons, taking the summer off to avoid the heat. I liked my instructor a lot and thought the school treated me well. The owner had even been instrumental in helping me buy my first helicopter, a 1999 R22 Beta II. I leased that helicopter back to the school and began my commercial training in it. All was going well until my commercial flight instructor took a job at the Grand Canyon and I just couldn’t seem to do anything to please my new instructor. I was ready to take my check ride but no one would sign me off. I got frustrated and wound up leaving the school. (It took me only 10 days a few months later to finish my training and pass my check ride at a different flight school in Long Beach.) I made the mistake of voicing my concerns and frustration to the owner in a letter and he told me not to bring my helicopter in for maintenance anymore. He later backed down a bit from that position, but it would be ten years before I came back. I was pissed.

Why come back at all? Simply said, Quantum has one of the best Robinson maintenance shops in the country. The Director of Maintenance, Paul, is the same guy who was there in the same job when I started my training back in 1998. That’s 20 years working on Quantum’s Robinsons and before that, he worked at the Robinson factory. He’s got a staff of at least a dozen mechanics and apprentices and they work on Robinson helicopters all day long every day. They know Robinsons. And their maintenance hangar is huge, with enough space to work on at least six helicopters at a time and all the tools they need to fix Robinsons.

When I first came back to them, it was because I had a leak in my hydraulic servos. Another mechanic had told me they’d need to be replaced but hadn’t been able to do it. In a bind, I called Paul and he agreed to take a look. He said that the problem wasn’t uncommon and that there was a good chance the servos would last until overhaul. He told me to keep an eye on it and how much hydraulic fluid needed to be periodically added. He saved me about $2,000 and a week of down time that day. (And he was right; the leak never got worse and the servos lasted until overhaul.)

Before moving to Washington in 2013, I had Quantum do a few of my annual inspections, replace the original fuel tanks with the new bladder tanks, and even install some specialized lighting on the front skid legs. The work was always done right. Best of all, they understood that I wasn’t a sucker with deep pockets. They did what needed to be done to keep the aircraft safe and airworthy and advised me of any potential problems that might need future attention. But they never replaced anything that didn’t need replacing. That saved me a lot of money, too.

So when it came to start getting estimates of overhaul cost, I included Quantum in my list of possible shops to get the job done. Again, it was quite a distance from where I lived in Washington, but I was spending much of my winters in Arizona, anyway.

I also contacted the Robinson factory. They do overhauls, too. In fact, they have a separate assembly line just for overhauls. The benefit of a factory overhaul is that it really does come out just like new. They do everything that could possibly be done to restore it to like-new condition. But I was warned in advance of a few things. First was timing: it could take up to six months. Second was expense: factory overhauls usually cost a lot more than their estimates because any part that is even slightly damaged is replaced — and if it isn’t part of the kit, it’s added to the bill.

The Estimates

The estimates fell into three categories:

  • Cheap. The Florida outfit thought that I was mostly concerned with meeting airworthiness requirements as cheaply as possible. They would do the minimum amount of work so I could pay the minimum amount of money. While that may be attractive to some, I’m always skeptical of the lowest bidder. What costs are hidden? Besides, was the nine-month mechanic still there — now with 18 months of experience? Or had he been replaced with a four-month mechanic? I decided I didn’t want to take the chance.
  • Reasonable. Quantum’s estimate was reasonable. It was based on the cost of the “overhaul kit” sold by Robinson and just the parts I needed. They’d have my engine rebuilt locally — rather than replace my engine with someone else’s rebuilt engine. (I’m not sure if that matters but I kind of liked the idea.) They had the tools and knowhow to do all the inspections in-house. The factory overhaul estimate, which arrived after I made my decision, was also reasonable, but I already knew that the estimate was misleading; it would cost me 20% to 25% more by the time they finished replacing every single dinged panel with a new one and running it all through the paint shop.
  • Expensive or Crazy Expensive. The other estimates were either expensive or crazy expensive. I can’t remember which was which. I’m thinking Salinas was crazy expensive — maybe 20% more than Quantum. The other was close to Quantum’s but I didn’t have the same level of confidence in them as I had with Paul and his team.

So I went with Quantum. And I managed to save about $10K to $12K by not having the helicopter repainted and not replacing the leather seats and headliner, neither of which needed replacement. (I did have the carpet replaced; the pilot side was completely trashed.) After all, I’d taken pretty good care of the helicopter for the past 11+ years and it had spent most of its life in a hangar or garage when not flying. A good detailing and it would look fine.

Paul told me the fastest they’d done an R44 overhaul was about 8 weeks for a very anxious owner. I told him I’d give them 3 and a half months. I’d drop it off in November and pick it up in mid-February. He said that would work for him.

The Last Days before Overhaul

I flew a lot last summer. It was a rainy cherry season and more than a few times I flew all day long, sometimes several days in a row. But I was still at just over 2030 hours at the end of the summer.

With a calendar date set for the overhaul, I began flying as often as possible, hoping to put as many hours on it as I could to get my money’s worth from the overhaul. I took it to an AOPA fly-in near Seattle, then flew it around the Olympic Peninsula and down to visit a friend in Salem, OR. I took almost all of my friends and neighbors for rides, often to my favorite eating spots: Tsillan Cellars winery, Cave B winery, Blustery’s Burger. (Will fly for food.) I went joy flying before or after charter flights.

Then, in early October I took it in for a 50-hour inspection, which includes an oil change. My mechanic found metal in the oil filter. He told me that he’d been seeing some metal for a while, but the amount he now saw was significant. My engine was sending me a message: I’m tired, rebuild me.

Into the HangarOn October 18, 2016, Paul wheeled the helicopter into the hangar where the overhaul work would be done.

Although it was running smoothly, I decided to move up the calendar a little, mostly to get the helicopter out of my sight so I wouldn’t be tempted to fly it any more. I made arrangements to fly down to Arizona with a friend. Then I did a few last rides that I’d promised to friends and had the oil changed again. I’d decided that if there was a lot of metal in the filter, I’d have it trailered to Arizona. There wasn’t. So I flew, but chose a route that took us near major roads so we could land and get help if the engine started acting up. It didn’t. The flight, which we did over a two-day period in mid-October, went smoothly and, in the evening of October 18, 2016, Paul rolled it into Quantum’s hangar. I would be helicopterless until February.

Down to the Wire

Of course, Paul wasn’t going to start work on my helicopter until I sent money: roughly $171,000. I had money saved up, but not that much. So I needed to get a loan.

I talked to three lenders, including my local bank. In the end, I went with a lender I’d learned about at the AOPA fly-in the previous summer. I filled in all the paperwork online and was approved in 24 hours. It pays to have good credit.

I arranged for two wire transfers: one from the lender and the other from me. They converged at Quantum in the beginning of November, just in time for Paul to order the overhaul kit from Robinson and get it before Robinson closed down for the Christmas holiday. In the meantime, his team began stripping down my helicopter.

Visitation

I made a total of four visits to the helicopter over the next few months.

I arrived in Arizona in early December after a leisurely drive down from Washington with my camper that began the day before Thanksgiving. I was scheduled to dog sit for 10 days for a friend in Wickenburg, but I thought I’d visit the helicopter before I started that gig. So I drove down to Chandler on December 2 for my first look. At this point, they’d been working on it for about a month and it was almost completely disassembled. I blogged about that visit here.

Fuselage
The helicopter’s fuselage was sitting on a rolling wooden cart. You can see more photos here.

Tail Rotor
Here I am back in December with my brand new tail rotor, still wrapped in foamy paper. That’s my helicopter’s fuselage on the right behind me.

My only regret is that I didn’t bring goodies for the crew that day. I’d gone after a midday trip to the eye doctor and was running late; all I could think about was getting back to Wickenburg before the traffic jams started.

I returned on December 16. I remembered to stop for pizza for the crew that day. The overhaul kit had arrived and I posed for a picture holding the new tail rotor, still in its foam wrapping.

Main Rotor Blades
The main rotor blades are a lot longer than the 8-foot bed of my pickup truck.

I returned a few days later, after spending the weekend with some friends in Phoenix. I wasn’t there for the helicopter; I was there to fetch the rotor blades. Robinson doesn’t want old rotor blades out there in the wild, so they require any shop replacing blades to send back the blade roots as proof the blades are not being used elsewhere. (It would be too costly to ship back the whole blades.) Quantum throws away what’s left. But I got this crazy idea that they might look cool hanging in my house. So I went back and fetched them off the recycling pile. I brought them back to Wickenburg in the back of my truck and then later got them hoisted to and tied down on the top of my camper. That’s where they are right now — under my kayak. It’ll be fun getting them down when I get home.

I was busy for the rest of December and most of January and didn’t visit again for a while. I didn’t want to be a nuisance, either. But I did return for one more visit on February 3, 2017. By that time, it was starting to look like my helicopter again, with the tailcone back on and the blades and engine installed. (I think it was the engine that had been holding up progress.)

Nearly Done
By February 3, Zero-Mike-Lima was starting to look like my helicopter again.

Nearly Done
The main rotor blades, transmission, engine, tail cone, and tail rotor were installed and it would be ready for test flight and blade balancing in a week.

By that point, I’d been communicating with my frost client in California and had an idea of when I needed to be there: February 25. Would the helicopter be done in time? I wanted to pick it up sooner so I could fly it a bit and work out any bugs before I left the state. Paul assured me that he’d begin flying it within a week and that it should be ready soon after that. We agreed on February 20 as a pickup date.

The Pickup

I continued my travels, now with the goal of getting to the Sacramento area with my truck and camper by February 19 so I could hop on a flight to Phoenix on February 20. I spent a few more days in Wickenburg with friends and then hit the road, spending a few days in Death Valley along the way. I had an interesting — read that never again — experience driving through snow storms in mountain passes on the east side of the Sierra Nevada before reaching Lake Tahoe and crossing the mountains on Route 50 at Echo Pass. By the afternoon of February 16, I was at my destination, visiting with friends and making arrangements to park the helicopter and camper for a while.

I also had to make arrangements for one more wire transfer of $48K — the final payoff amount. As I blogged here, I was able to handle that over the phone with the money delivered on Friday since Monday was a holiday.

(If you’re doing the math, the total amount I spent comes out to $219,000 for the overhaul. But that doesn’t count the amount I’ll get back from Robinson for cores sent in for evaluation. Paul seems to think I’ll get about $8K back.)

I arrived at Sky Harbor airport just after noon on February 20. Quantum sent a van to get me. A while later, I was back in the hangar. My helicopter had been moved to where the other R44s and a handful of R66s were parked. It was done.

Finished
Zero-Mike-Lima, ready for pickup.

It looked great: clean and almost pristine. But not so pristine that it didn’t look like my helicopter.

I spent about an hour going through the plastic toolbox I’d left behind to store the helicopter’s contents and setting it back up the way I liked it with headsets, iPhone and iPad mounts, extra oil (Paul swapped out the W100 Plus I’d had with some mineral oil I’d need to use for the engine’s first 50 hours), and cleaning supplies. While I worked, I chatted with Paul and the other mechanics as they took care of some last-minute items for me: replacing the cap for the cyclic dual controls, making me a new plastic cover for the pedal area at the front passenger seat, and replacing one of the Danger stickers on the tailcone.

Paul from Overhaul
Paul pulls my R44 out of the Quantum hangar after its overhaul on February 20, 2017.

When it was finally set up and Penny, the toolbox, and my luggage was stowed inside, Paul towed it outside onto the ramp. I did a preflight and added a quart of oil. And then I got in and started it up.

It might sound weird but when you’ve flown the same aircraft — and only that aircraft — for 12 years and over 2,000 hours, you really get to know the way it sounds and feels. The fuel pump sounded different. The startup process felt different. The engine sounded different. And when the blades started spinning, I heard a definite whistle that hadn’t been there before.

I called Paul from the cockpit, using my Bluetooth-enabled Bose headset. “The blades make a whistling noise now,” I said. He was standing on the ramp just outside the hangar watching me. He told me they will sound different because the new blades are stiffer than the old ones. I wasn’t too happy about that but I was very happy to have the new blades, which I knew were a lot better than the originals. The old ones were barely within specs for airworthiness and I was thrilled that they’d made it to overhaul.

When I took off, it just about jumped into the sky. I’d later discover that it cruised about 10 knots faster than it used to. Nothing like a rebuilt engine.

I flew it to visit friends at Falcon Field in Mesa and then took two of them for a flight up the Salt River as far as Roosevelt Lake. The next day, I went to Wickenburg and then took two friends for an overnight trip to Bisbee (their choice). I noticed that the cylinder head temperature was running higher than it used to and it was burning a lot of oil. I texted Paul about it. He said it was the mineral oil and that it should cool down once the rings set. I sent more pizza.

I took three other friends to Sedona for breakfast and it performed magnificently at altitude on a relatively warm day. Then I flew back down to Chandler to have a few minor things tended to: clutch belt adjustment, strobe light fix, and oil change. The next day, I flew it to California with a friend.

Postscript

Zero-Mike-Lima was parked on the ramp at Woodland for a few days. I took it for a little joy flight out over Lake Berryessa (which is full) to see the “Glory Hole” and came back to the airport via Cache Creek. Then I decided that I wanted it in a secure, sheltered place so I made arrangements to hangar it with a friend’s helicopter at another airport nearby. Yesterday I took it to Sacramento Mather airport to have the battery in the Garmin 420 panel mounted GPS changed. And I took it for another flight to make sure the traffic feature of the Mode S transponder still works with the GPS.

On Sunday or Monday, I’ll start my drive home with my truck and camper. Today’s weather is kind of dreary, but I’ll be sure to take Zero-Mike-Lima out at least one more time before I head home. Unless I get called out for frost protection, it’ll be a long time before I get a chance to fly it again.

Meanwhile, I’m glad to have the overhaul behind me. Finding the right shop, arranging for payment, and then waiting for it to be finished were somewhat stressful tasks that had to be done. Now I’ve got a helicopter with a clean bill of health and few maintenance items ahead of me for the next few years. I suspect my cost of operations will drop, helping my business stay more profitable in the years to come.

And yes, this is likely my last overhaul. I figure I’ll retire from flying in about ten years, which should be before the next overhaul is due. The next owner is likely to get quite a deal on a well-kept machine — and possibly my business at the same time. Stay tuned.

An Insider’s Look at Helicopter Spray Operations

Fascinating work with a lot of very specialized equipment.

My friend Sean runs a helicopter spraying operation. (You might know about this kind of work by another name: crop dusting.) The business is highly regulated not only by the FAA to ensure that operators and pilots have the skills and knowledge to do the work safely from an aviation perspective, but also by state and local agencies concerned with the safety of the chemicals being sprayed. It also requires a ton of very costly specialized equipment, from spray rigs that are semi-permanently installed on the helicopter to navigation equipment that helps the pilot ensure chemicals are spread evenly over crops to mixing and loading equipment to get the chemicals into the helicopter’s spray tanks.

Sean's Helicopter with Spray Gear
Sean’s helicopter with spray gear. He was running rinse water through the system on the ground here.

A lot of people have asked me why I don’t go into this business. Although I’d love to fly spray jobs, I have absolutely no desire to invest in the required equipment, start selling spray services to potential clients, or deal with the government agencies that need to get involved for each job. Or have employees again.

Sean is just getting his business off the ground (no pun intended) after over a year of spending money on equipment and jumping through hoops with the FAA. While I wouldn’t say he’s struggling, he’s certainly motivated to complete contracts and collect revenue. Unfortunately, it’s not the kind of work a pilot can do cost effectively without help. He needs at least one person on the ground to mix and load chemicals, refuel the helicopter, and keep the landing zone secure.

Sean was having trouble finding someone to do the job. It’s not because he isn’t paying — I think he’s paying pretty good. Trouble is, a lot of folks either (1) don’t want a job that doesn’t guarantee a certain number of hours a week or (2) don’t like physical labor. Because the job depends on when there’s a contract to fulfill and what the weather is like when the job needs doing, hours are irregular. And it is tough physical work.

Spray Gal
Here I am in my coveralls, hamming it up for a selfie between loads.

I know because I stepped up to the plate to help him with his first two big jobs. I thought I’d spend a bit of time talking about this work from the loader’s point of view.

The Job

The pilot’s responsibilities are to spread the loaded chemicals over the crops to be sprayed using the tools in and on the helicopter. I can’t speak much about that because I haven’t flown a spraying mission. I can tell you that in a light helicopter like the R44, the pilot is doing a lot of very short runs — sometimes only a few minutes — and is often spending more time getting to and from the spray area than actually applying the spray. For that reason, the landing/loading area needs to be as close to the crops as possible — usually somewhere on the same property. The pilot is taking off near max gross weight for most flights and landing relatively light. And there are a lot of take offs and set downs. As I told Sean the other day, doing spray runs is a lot like doing hop rides at fairs and airport events — you just don’t need to talk to your passengers.

The loader’s responsibilities — well, that’s something I can address since I’ve been wearing that hat for the past two weeks.

When the pilot is warming up the aircraft for the first flight of the day, the loader is mixing the first batch of chemicals. Sean’s current setup includes a mix trailer that holds 1600 gallons of fresh water, a Honda pump, a mix vat, and a dry mix box. With the pump running, I turn valves to add 50 gallons of water to the vat, which is constantly mixing. Then I add about 4-6 capfuls of an anti-foam agent (which is not HazMat) to the vat, followed by a specific amount of chemical provided in 32-ounce bottles.

Mix trailer
Sean’s mix trailer onsite at an orchard near Woodland, CA. This is the “business end.” The mix vat is on the left.

Luna Sensation
This is how the chemical we’re using is shipped: in 32-ounce bottles.

The chemical we’ve been using is a “broad spectrum fungicide for control of plant diseases” made by Bayer (yes, the aspirin people). It is highly regulated and must be kept under lock and key when not in use. It looks a lot like Milk of Magnesia, which was a constipation remedy my grandmother gave us when I was growing up. It doesn’t smell as good, though. (And I’m certainly not going to taste it.) If you’re not familiar with that, think of an off-white Pepto Bismol. We’re spraying this stuff on almond trees and there’s a definite deadline to getting it done.

Here’s where some math comes in. The guy who wrote up the specs for our client’s orchard wants 6.5 ounces of the stuff applied per acre. The helicopter can take 50 gallons of chemical mix at a time. That 50 gallons covers 2.5 acres. So how much do I need to put into the vat for each 50 gallon load? 6.5 x 2.5 = 16.25. Round that down to the nearest whole number for 16. This is an easy mix because the chemical comes in 32 ounce bottles and there are measuring tick marks on the bottle at 8, 16, and 24 ounces. That makes it easy to add half a bottle and get it right. But if it didn’t work out so smoothly, we could use a big measuring cup Sean has to get the right amount.

So I add the chemical and the mixer mixes it up. If I’ve finished the bottle, I need to rinse it, which I do by dipping it in the mixer and then swishing it around a few times before dumping it into the mix. Then I put the empty bottle away in a box; even the empties are accounted for at the end of a job.

As you might imagine, I’m wearing protective gear: rubber gloves and coveralls. This particular chemical isn’t very nasty and I’m not likely to breathe it so I don’t need to wear a respirator or anything like that. (If I did, I probably wouldn’t be helping out.)

All this tank filling and mixing takes me less than 2 minutes.

Stopwatch
I timed one of our cycles. Lap 1 was skids down to skids up: my loading work. Lap 2 was skids up to skids down: Sean’s flight. Less than 4 minutes for a cycle.

When Sean is ready for chemical, I turn the valves on the trailer’s mix system to direct mixed chemical into a thick long hose with a specialized fitting at the end. I bring the fitting over to the helicopter, drop down to my knees (which is why I also wear knee pads), and mate the hose fitting to a fitting on the helicopter’s tank. I then turn a valve on the hose fitting to get the mix flowing into the helicopter. I watch the mix vat the whole time and turn the valve off when it gets near the bottom so I don’t run it dry. Then I get back up and use a pull cord on a pump on the same side of the helicopter to start up his pumping system. When that’s running, I give Sean a thumbs up and head back to the trailer, gently resting the hose fitting on the hose along the way.

I timed this once and it took just over a minute, but that’s because it took two tries to get the helicopter’s pump going.

Sean lifts off immediately — often while I’m still walking away — and I get back to work mixing the next batch. When I’m done with that, I wait until Sean returns. It’s usually less than 4 minutes. Then I’m turning valves on the trailer quickly, sometimes before he even touches down. My goal is to minimize load time so he can take off again quickly.

Landing
Here’s Sean coming in for a landing beside the trailer. And yes, his approach route for a while was under a set of wires. (The rest of the time, he was departing under them.)

I usually leave the pump on the whole time I’m in the loading area, although if Sean’s work area is more than a minute or two from the landing zone, I sometimes shut it off. I wear ear plugs or earbuds so I can listen to music while I work. I keep a radio in my pocket so I can hear Sean if he calls for something or warn him if there’s a problem with the landing zone.

Beyond Mixing/Loading

Every six or seven runs, Sean needs fuel. He often radios ahead, but if he doesn’t or if I don’t hear the radio, I can tell he needs fuel because he throttles down to idle RPM (65%) after landing or makes a hand signal. In that case, I’ll fill the chemical first and return the hose to its resting position, then turn on the fuel pump on his truck, and walk the hose over to the passenger side of the helicopter. Sean said fueling is usually done by walking around the back, but no one can pay me enough money to walk between a helicopter’s exhaust pipe and tail rotor while it’s running. So I walk around the front, dragging the hose under the spray gear to get into position. Then I pump fuel until he gives me a signal to stop. It seems to me that he’s half filling the main tank each time — that’s about 14 gallons less whatever he already has in there.

When I’m done, I cap the tank, carefully walk the hose around the front of the helicopter to the truck, and then go back to start that pesky helicopter pump. Thumbs up and he takes off. I usually remember to turn the fuel pump off. Then I mix another batch of chemical so I’m ready when he returns.

Occasionally his pump or mine needs fuel. He uses helicopter fuel — it’s just 100LL AvGas — for both pumps. He keeps a jug of it at the mix trailer. I do the fueling.

Keeping the landing zone secure is pretty easy. On our last job, we were in a nice concrete loading area for a hay operation. Trucks did come and go, but in most cases, they saw Sean landing or sitting in the landing zone and waited until he was safely on the ground or had departed. Twice I tried to signal trucks to stop when I saw him coming in but they didn’t — both times they didn’t see the signal until it was too late and Sean aborted the landing. In our current landing zone, which is a dirt patch at the edge of the orchard, there’s a truck that comes and goes to haul out dead trees cut into firewood; the driver of that rig seems to pay attention and stops when I signal him.

Getting Physical

The job is extremely physical. All day long I’m walking around the trailer, truck, and helicopter; climbing up and down on the trailer’s mix station and truck bed; and hauling heavy hoses, fuel jugs, and cartons of chemical. And dropping to my knees (and then getting up) when I load the helicopter. And don’t even get me started with the pull cord on the helicopter’s pump, which I apparently pull too hard half the time.

I move at a quick pace, but I don’t run. Running is dangerous. Too easy to trip on a hose or a skid. Too many very hard things to crack your skull on if you fall. Anyone who runs while doing this job is an idiot.

But it can’t be too physical, right? After all, I’m a 55-year-old woman and I’m not in the best of shape. And I’m doing it all — although I’m exhausted at the end of the day.

Hours and Break Time

The job is weather dependent. We can’t work if it’s raining or likely to rain. We can’t work when the wind is more than 7 or 8 knots. We didn’t work Sunday because it was raining on and off all day and very windy.

But when we can work, we start early. We’re typically at the landing zone about an hour before dawn. Usually, Sean gets there first since he has more to do to get ready. He fills his truck’s fuel transfer tank with 100LL from the local airport. That can take 20-30 minutes. Then he comes back to the landing zone and, if the water tank is less than half full, he hooks it up to his truck and drags it to his water source and fills it. That’s another 20-30 minutes. Then he brings it back to the landing zone and positions it based on the wind direction, slipping 4×4 pieces of wood under the trucks rear wheels to bring the front end of the trailer up.

By that time it’s nearly dawn and I’ve arrived. I prep my work station by setting out chemical and anti-foam bottles in the trays on one side of the trailer and boxes for the empty bottles on the other. I suit up in the coveralls and get my knee pads on. While he’s preflighting the helicopter, I’m mixing the first batch of chemicals so I can load as soon as he starts up.

We work pretty much nonstop until we’re out of water. More math: If the trailer’s tank holds 1600 gallons and we’re using 50 gallons per load, we can do roughly 32 loads (1600 ÷ 50) before we’re completely out of water. That’s two 8-bottle cases of chemical. It’s also 80 acres. If you figure an average of 6 minutes per spray run/loading cycle, that’s about 3-1/4 hours.

When we’re out of water, I get my break because Sean has to fetch fuel and water using his truck. There’s nothing too difficult about doing any of it, but since I can really use a break after working that hard for that long, I won’t volunteer to do it. Instead, I strip off my protective gear, wash my hands (if I can), and take Penny for a walk. (She waits in the truck while I’m working.) Or sometimes I run out and get a bite to eat. Or eat a snack I’ve brought with me. That break lasts about an hour. Then it’s back to work all over again for another 3+ hours.

At the end of the day, we run three rinse cycles through all the equipment. I “mix” batches with just water. The first one usually includes some anti-foam stuff because the foam really gets out of hand if I don’t. The second two are straight water. I purposely overfill the mix tank on the third run to make sure the water gets all the way up the sides. Each load gets pumped into the helicopter and sprayed out to clean the spray rig.

Container
The most difficult thing I did on Saturday was to get this container open so I could lock up two cases of chemical.

Then we wind up the hoses, secure the helicopter — or bring it back to base if Sean is near his hangar — lock up any unused chemicals and empty bottles, and call it a night. By that time, it is night; we often do the rinse cycles in the dark. I bring a lantern so I can see.

It’s long day. A very long day. I’ll start at 6 and finish by 7 with two hour-long breaks in the middle of the day. That’s 11 hours of active work.

On Saturday, we worked for most of the day. Yesterday was Sunday and we would have worked all day if the weather was right. There are no “weekends” in this line of work.

So yeah: this job wouldn’t be very attractive to someone who prefers to sit on his ass all day.

But I’m getting a great workout. I know I am because every single muscle in my body was screaming at me this morning when I got out of bed. No pain, no gain, right?

Right?

Why I’m Doing It

Although Sean is paying me for this work and the pay isn’t bad, I’m not doing it for the money. I’m doing it for two reasons:

  • Sean is a friend and he really needs to get this business off the ground. Without a helper, he’d have to mix and load by himself. He’d likely only get a fraction of the acreage done each day. The first orchard I helped him with was 1,000 acres and he did have another part time helper. This one is about 500 acres and there is no other helper. It would take him well over a week to do it by himself. Together, we’ll knock it off in less than 4 days.
  • I have a natural curiosity about how things work. The best way to learn about something is hands on. I know a lot more about the spray business now than I did two weeks ago and that’s a real motivator for me.

We’re down in Turlock, CA for this job. It’s 100 miles from Sean’s base near Woodland, which is also where I’m camped out for the next few weeks. Although I wanted very much to bring my camper down here with me and live in the orchard, Sean needed me to tow the mix trailer while he towed his helicopter.

Spray Gear
Here we are on Friday morning, just before dawn, ready to head down to Turlock with the mix trailer behind my truck and helicopter trailer behind Sean’s.

I’m very glad I let him have his way. We’re staying in very comfortable rooms at what’s probably the nicest Best Western I’ve ever stayed in. After months of mostly living in my camper, I admit that it’s nice to have a good, long, hot shower every day. So that’s a bonus.

And isn’t that what life is all about? Doing different things? Seeing different things? Experiencing different things?

That’s what it’s all about for me.

But I admit that I do hope Sean finds a new helper for his next job. I’m not staying in California much longer and I’m ready to hang up my spray loader cap.

Phoenix to Sacramento by Helicopter

Another ferry flight with a pilot friend.

[Note: I’ve been working on this post for the past two weeks. Just so busy with other things! Finally got it done today. Better late than never, no? (Cynics need not answer that one.)]

For the fifth February in a row, my company, Flying M Air, has been contracted by an almond grower to provide frost protection for one of his Sacramento-area ranches. Frost protection is one of the lesser-known services a helicopter pilot can provide. We basically fly low-level up and down rows of trees to pull warm air from a thermal inversion down into the tree branches where developing crops — in this case, almonds — are growing. Almonds are susceptible to frost damage for a 4 to 8 week period starting around the time that flowers are pollinated. Because the temperatures are most likely to be lowest at night, most of the flying is done then or, more likely, right around dawn.

Before the Trip

My helicopter had been in Chandler, AZ (near Phoenix) since October when I dropped it off for its 12-year/2200 hour overhaul. Although it technically didn’t need to go in for overhaul until January 2017, I needed it done by mid-February for this work. The overhaul, which I blogged about here, takes a minimum of three months to complete, so I made sure the excellent maintenance crew at Quantum Helicopters got an early start. I don’t fly much in the winter anyway and planned to fill my downtime with some snowbirding, most of which would be in Arizona and southern California. I like snow, but not months of it, and I really do need to be in the sun in the winter time. I’ve structured my work life to give me time to go south every winter.

Paul from Overhaul
Director of Maintenance Paul Mansfield pulls my R44 out of the Quantum hangar after its overhaul on February 20, 2017. At that point, I hadn’t flown for four months and I was ready.

I picked up the helicopter on Monday, February 20 and spent much of the week flying it around Arizona with friends: up the Salt River, to Wickenburg, to Bisbee for an overnight trip, and to Sedona for breakfast. Along the way, I got to fly some familiar routes and see some familiar sights: along the red rock formations of Sedona, down the Hassayampa River Canyon, over the Salt River lakes, and over herds of wild horses in the Gila River bed. I needed to put some time on the helicopter to make sure there weren’t any problems before I left the area.

A lot about the helicopter felt or sounded different — and I tell you, you really get to know an aircraft when you’ve put over 2000 hours on it in 12 years. The auxiliary fuel pump sounded different, the blades sounded different, and the engine start up felt different. I immediately noticed that it was running at a higher cylinder head temperature. The guys who worked on it assured me that was normal until the rings on the newly rebuilt engine were set and I took it off mineral oil, which was recommended for the first 50 hours. The belts were also too loose when the clutch was disengaged and needed to be adjusted. And my strobe light, which had been working intermittently when I dropped it off, was now not working more often than it was. These were all minor things and I had them taken care of on Friday afternoon, when I flew it back from Wickenburg to Chandler. While I was there, the head of maintenance offered to do an oil change and, since the oil was getting dirty, I let his crew do it. I suspect the strobe light fix — which required a new part — was the most bothersome of all the fine-tuning work they did. They’d keep it in their hangar overnight.

My Ride
My ride from Chandler to Mesa with Captain Woody at the controls.

While they got to work, my friend Woody picked Penny and me up in Chandler in his company’s newly leased R44 — with air conditioning, that he had turned on, likely to impress me (it worked) — and flew me to Falcon Field in Mesa, where his company is based. For some reason, I decided to live broadcast the flight via Periscope — how often do I get to be a passenger? — and Periscope decided to feature it. Soon 450+ people were watching our progress across the Chandler/Gilbert/Mesa area. By the time we’d landed, over 4,000 people had seen all or part of it. I think Woody got a kick out of that.

Woody, Jan, and Tiffani operate Canyon State Aero, a helicopter flight school that also does tours and aerial photo work. They have a modest fleet of Schweizer 300s, plus the newly added R44 and an R22 that should arrive next week. I hung around the office while they finished up paperwork and other things, occasionally answering their questions about R44s and R22s. I’m hoping to see that R44 again in Washington this summer for cherry drying.

Afterwards, Jan, Tiffani, and I went out for dinner. We tried for seafood and wound up with Chinese food. Back at their house, we talked and drank wine and watched some amazing time-lapse videos of the desert on Netflix while Penny played with their dogs and stared at their cats. I had an allergic reaction to something — likely the cats — and made the mistake of taking two Benadryl. That pretty much knocked me out for the night.

I woke up early (as usual), feeling refreshed and allergy-free. Woody showed up around 7:30 AM. After some coffee and goodbye hugs all around, Woody, Penny, and I hopped into Woody’s Prius and headed back to Chandler. We hoped to be off the ground by 9 AM.

Getting Started

I’d planned the flight via Foreflight, with fuel stops at Twentynine Palms and Porterville, CA. The total time was estimated at about 6-1/2 hours with a slight headwind. It was a variation of a flight I’d done a few times before, starting with a solo R22 flight in the 2003 from my Wickenburg home to Placerville, CA and ending, most recently, with the 2013 trip that took my helicopter out of its Arizona hangar for the last time and brought it to California for its first frost season. This was the first time I’d be doing the route from Chandler and I worried a bit about making it all the way to Twentynine Palms for fuel. There aren’t any fuel options between Blythe and Twentynine Palms, so having almost enough fuel to get there wasn’t an option. But Foreflight and my own personal experience with the helicopter said I could do it, so that’s what I planned.

Planned Route
Our planned route, as shown on the SkyVector website. Good thing we didn’t fly today when I plotted that for illustration here; there’s a 22 knot headwind.

The weather was absolutely perfect for flying. I’d been monitoring various forecasts for points along our route and it all looked good with the possibility of some wind in the Tehachapi area and a slight chance of rain near our destination. Visibility was good. It would be a bit cool — even in the California desert — but the helicopter has good heat if we needed it. I was looking forward to a good, although somewhat long, flight.

Woody would fly. Woody’s an airline pilot nearing retirement. He’s got a bunch of hours in helicopters and recently got his R44 endorsement. Now he was interested in building some time in R44s. We agreed that he’d pay for fuel — which accounts for less than 1/3 of my operating costs — for the whole trip in exchange for stick time. I didn’t need the time — I have about 3500 hours in helicopters (R44, R22, 206L) — and I’d been flying around all week. And I really don’t mind being a passenger once in a while, especially with a good pilot at the controls. Still, I sat in the PIC seat and he sat in the seat beside me, using the dual controls.

Penny, of course, sat in the back. The back of the helicopter was completely full of stuff, including the wheeling toolbox I’d brought along to hold helicopter parts and accessories — think headsets, charts, log books, etc. — while the overhaul crew stripped down the helicopter to its frame, my luggage, Woody’s luggage, Woody’s pilot uniform, a box of Medifast food (long story), and Penny’s travel bag. I’d forgotten to bring along a bed for Penny, so I folded up my cotton sweatshirt and put that on top of the toolbox for her. She perched up there and slept for most of the flight.

Chandler to Twentynine Palms

I took off from Chandler, crossed the runway per the tower’s instructions, and struck out almost due west. As soon as I got to cruising altitude — 500 feet above the ground (AGL), which was 1700 feet above sea level (MSL) — I offered the controls to Woody. He took them and I settled back for the first leg of the flight.

We flew west along the south side of South Mountain, where we saw a flight of four Stearman airplanes. Woody was pretty sure he knew one of the pilots, but since we didn’t know what frequency they were on, we couldn’t raise them on the radio. (We tried 122.85, 122.75, and 123.45, which are common air-to-air frequencies around Phoenix.) I was kind of surprised to see that we were gaining on them and eventually passed them. (Did I mention that my helicopter is now about 10% faster than it was before the overhaul and now cruises easily at 110-115 knots?) We crossed the north end of the Estrella Mountains just south of Phoenix International Raceway (PIR), mostly to avoid having to talk to the tower at Goodyear. We did tune in, though, and that’s how we learned that Luke Approach was closed so we wouldn’t have to talk to them to cross Luke’s Special Air traffic Rule (SATR). Woody wasted no time getting right on course; I’d already dialed my Garmin 430 GPS in to KTNP for Twentynine Palms.

Flight of Four Stearman
Flight of four Stearman planes, in formation.

Captain Woody
Captain Woody flying past some mountains in California near the Colorado River.

There wasn’t much of anything exciting for the next two hours. We crossed over Buckeye Airport as another plane was coming in, flew north of the steaming cooling towers of the Palo Verde Nuclear Power Plant, paralleled I-10 for a while, and then drifted north of it, crossing SR60 just east of where it joined I-10. Then we crossed a little mountain range and entered the Colorado River Valley about halfway between Parker and Blythe. The Colorado River was a ribbon of blue snaking from north to south beneath us. Then we were in the southern reaches of California’s Mohave Desert, crossing a sandy desert landscape that looked as inhospitable as the Sahara but without the tall dunes. Woody kept pretty close to the GPS track, but did detour around the tallest parts of any mountains in our path. Our altitude varied from 300 to 1000 feet AGL, depending on where we were. For a good portion of the flight, we were the only living things in sight.

Rice Valley
There’s a whole lot of nothing in the California desert between Joshua Tree National Park and the Colorado River.

I did a lot of talking, telling Woody about the helipad on top of Harquahala Mountain where I’d landed my R22 years ago and later my R44, and sharing some of the stories of my flights with low-time pilots who had done ferry flights with me over the years. We agreed that most helicopter pilots didn’t get much real-life experience as they built time as flight instructors. He asked me a bunch of questions about my time working for Papillon at the Grand Canyon. I told him about the excellent learning opportunities a season at the Canyon offered, but lamented about the fact that some of my coworkers had been either immature or cocky head cases. We talked a little about pilots we’d known who had died flying. We agreed that it was ironic that so many people said “he was a great pilot” about pilots who had died in crashes; if he was so great, why was he dead? (There are old pilots and bold pilots but no old, bold pilots.)

We flew through the very northernmost edge of Joshua Tree National Forest, along a road there. When the park fell away to the south, the abandoned buildings started up, one after the other. It was as if hundreds of people had made sad little homes on five-acre lots out there, only to abandon them to the desert wind years later. Many of them had completely blown away, leaving only concrete slabs and scattered debris. I remembered this part of the flight very clearly from my other trips through the area and didn’t take any photos this time around. But if you look on a zoomed-in satellite image of 29 Palms Highway east of Twentynine Palms, you’ll see what I’m talking about. It’s kind of eerie.

East of 29Palms
A satellite image from Google of an area east of Twentynine Palms shows a sample of the scores of abandoned or wrecked buildings out in the desert.

We reached the airport in just over two hours — which is about 15 minutes quicker than I’d planned for. (All my flight plans are for 100 knots airspeed; I’d rather over-estimate time than underestimate it, especially when flying out in the desert.) Woody landed in front of the pumps. We cooled down the engine and shut down. Woody handled the fueling while I cleaned the windows and then added a quart of oil. An old guy with a taildragger flew in and came to a stop nearby; he’d wait for us to leave before refueling. A friend of his drove into the airport and they chatted for a while. They came over to look at the helicopter and Penny, who I’d let out to get some exercise and take a pee. Woody used the bathroom and I took a picture of the helicopter. Then we all climbed back on board, I started up, and I took off to the west.

At TNP
Zero-Mike-Lima at Twentynine Palms.

Twentynine Palms to Porterville

The next stop was Porterville, which was in California’s Central Valley. Unfortunately, we couldn’t fly a direct path to the Porterville because of the restricted airspace between it and Twentynine Palms. So I plotted a course that took us to Apple Valley and Victorville and on to Rosamond before climbing over the pass at Tehachapi and then dropping down into the Central Valley. The route would keep us clear of all the restricted airspace, including Edwards Air Force Base, which is east of Rosamond at the edge of a not-so-dry lake bed.

The desert west of Twentynine Palms was almost as empty as the desert east of it — but not quite. There were homes and small communities scattered about the immediate area, growing ever more rare as we continued west. After a lot of mostly empty desert, the population climbed as we passed near Lucerne and Apple Valley. Woody talked to Victorville’s tower and got permission to cross over the top — we were the only one the controller talked to the whole time we were tuned in. There were dozens of planes mothballed on the tarmac beneath us.

Planes at Victorville
Some of the planes stored at Victorville.

We passed near El Mirage Lake, another dry lake bed that Woody knew from gliders or racing or something I’ve forgotten. Then more empty desert in an area the chart warned us had Unmanned Aerial System operations below 14000 feet. We tuned into Joshua Approach’s frequency as the chart suggested, but never did hear anything about drones.

Then we were south of Edwards Air Force Base and could see the huge dry lake bed where they occasionally landed the space shuttle off in the distance. But because of all the rain California had been having, it looked more wet than dry.

We turned the corner of the restricted airspace and Woody steered us northwest, over the town of Rosamond, where I had the misfortune of being stuck overnight once back in 2003, and toward the windmills on the south side of Tehachapi Pass. There had been windmills — or, more properly, wind turbines — on that hillside for as long as I could remember, but every time I came through the area, there seemed to be more. This time, I decided to share the view on Periscope. Although my voice couldn’t be heard above the sound of the helicopter’s engine and blades, I moved the camera around a lot, showing off the turbines, Woody, and even Penny perched atop the rolling toolbox in back.

Green Foothills
The foothills of the Sierra Nevada, on the west side, just north of Tehachapi. Despite the gray day, they were very green.

We crossed over the pass and began the descent down the other side into California’s Central Valley. It was like a completely different day. On the south side of the pass, in the desert, it had been mostly sunny, bright, and warm. But on the north side, it was mostly cloudy, gray, and cool. But the foothills were so lush and green!

Our flight plan had us heading northwest bound through the valley with our next fuel stop in Porterville. As usual, I tuned in the radio for the next closest airport so we could listen in on any traffic and make a radio call if necessary. There wasn’t much to hear or report on.

When we landed at Porterville, we found a nice looking Bell 47 already parked there. We squeezed in in front of it. While Woody handled the fueling, I wiped down the windows, and Penny began exploring our surroundings, the helicopter’s owner and a friend came out. “You’re from Washington!” the helicopter’s owners — whose name I’ve already forgotten (sorry!) — exclaimed. It turns out that he reads this blog and put two and two together when he saw me. (After all, how many red R44s are piloted by a woman who often travels with a small dog?) We all chatted for a while and Woody asked for a picture of us with my helicopter. Penny made new friends, too — a pair of small dogs that hang out in the airport office. Woody and I visited the rest rooms before climbing back on board, starting up, and continuing our trip.

Maria and Woody
Woody and I posed for a photo with the helicopter at Porterville.

Porterville to Woodland

The last leg of the trip wasn’t very exciting. We flew over a lot of farmland — California’s Central Valley is a major food producer — including more than a few almond orchards in full bloom. We’d already been in the air for more than four hours and I was ready to be at the destination.

Airport
One of the many general aviation airports we passed near or over as we made our way northwest through California’s Central Valley.

One by one the small general aviation airports ticked by beneath us or within sight: Visalia, Selma, Fresno Chandler, Madera, Chowchilla, Oakdale, Lodi, Franklin.

Just past Stockton is when I began to notice the flooding below us. Farmland inundated with water. A broken levee. Closed roads. When we reached the Sacramento River and ship channel, we saw a sea of silty water with occasional “islands” of homes and equipment yards. It was sobering.

California Flooding California Flooding
California Flooding California Flooding
California Flooding California Flooding
A few shots (through Plexiglas) of the flooding we flew over just south of Sacramento, CA.

Just past Davis, I asked for and took the controls. I wanted to overfly Yolo County Airport, where I was based last year. The orchard I’m contracted to cover for frost season is adjacent to it; I wanted to fly by and see the condition of the orchard and trees. There was no flooding down there — at least not that I could see — and the trees were in full bloom. Pallets of beehives were scattered among the trees. Business as usual.

I steered us north and zeroed in on our final destination, a small privately owned airport nearby where my camper was already set up and waiting for me. A while later, I was touching down at the fuel pumps, ready for Woody to top off the tanks after our long trip. Once that was done, I started it back up and hover-taxied to a parking spot on the ramp.

Then I was on to my next adventure with Woody and Penny: getting a cab to take me to where my truck was waiting, having dinner at one of my favorite restaurants in town (I highly recommend the venison osso buco), and driving Woody to Sacramento International Airport for his flight back to Arizona. I returned to the helicopter to retrieve my luggage not long after dark and, a few minutes later, was letting myself into my camper where I was soon dead asleep after the long day.

Postscript

The arrangement I had with Woody worked out for both of us, especially since fuel prices have come way down in recent months. He got more than six hours of flight time that cost him less than $500; I saved about $500 on fuel, got company for my flight, and even got treated to dinner with cocktails when we arrived at our destination. And because Woody is an airline pilot, he was able to catch a company flight back to Phoenix at no cost. Win win.

I didn’t mind letting Woody do the flying. I’d put about 10 hours on the helicopter since picking it up from overhaul and knew I’d be putting more time on it soon. Sometimes its nice to be a passenger — especially when you have confidence in the flying capabilities of the guy at the controls. (With a certain “Sunday pilot” flying, I’d rather remain on the ground.) I got to sit back, take a few photos, and enjoy the scenery.

Best of all, my helicopter is now officially back at work, earning me money — even while parked in a deluxe hangar in California.

What a Difference a Bank Makes

Service I can count on.

After too many years banking with Bank of America and, before that, Wells Fargo, I finally moved my personal and business banking to a small, local bank in the small city near where I live. The difference is amazing.

I should start off by saying that when I opened my bank accounts at Bank of America in Wickenburg, Arizona, I got incredible personalized service from one of the bank officers, Mary. I’m not sure if it’s because of the number of accounts my wasband and I opened or some of the balances I maintained, but I like to think it was just the local branch’s way of doing business. Whenever I went into the bank — which wasn’t very often — I was greeted by name by the banker I worked with most often. If she wasn’t busy, we often chatted. When I needed something — for example, an increase on my home-equity line of credit —  she handled it immediately at her desk with a minimum amount of effort on my part. Banking was easy and that’s why I stuck with Bank of America for as long as I did.

But things change. 

When the economy tanked in 2008, banking with Bank of America changed too. The first thing they did was try to recall the home-equity line of credit that my wasband and I often depended on to meet shortfalls in income — me, because of the nature of my quarterly royalty payments (my only source of income at the time), and him, because of his periodic inability to hold down a job. I went to the bank to talk to my usual banker and she told me that her hands were tied. Instead of working with her, I was forced to work with the loan department people in the corporate office, providing them with documents to prove the amount of equity we had in our almost paid-for house. It was extremely stressful, although it did work out satisfactorily, with a reduction in the credit line that still met our needs. At least they hadn’t closed the account. 

After that, banking at Bank of America seem to have all kinds of additional fees and requirements and the friendly atmosphere that I had enjoyed for so many years was gone. Mary left and I felt as if I no longer had a banker. The only thing that kept me banking there was the convenience of their free online banking services and iPhone app. But later, when I moved to Washington state and they closed down all of the Washington branches in my area, it became a real ordeal to make deposits during my busy summer months when I often exceeded the total amount I could deposit using the bank’s iPhone app.

Bank of America wasn’t changing so I’d have to.

I found Peoples Bank when I was out in Wenatchee searching for a specialized signature confirmation document I needed for some divorce-related paperwork. With the local Bank of America branches closed, I found myself at a loss for getting these papers signed and sent out. I had a nice conversation with the bank manager at Peoples and was impressed by the friendly atmosphere that was so similar to what I’d experienced at my local Bank of America branch in Wickenburg all those years before. 

A few months later, when I was ready to move to a new bank, I went back to Peoples. Although the bank manager I’d spoken to was gone, a customer service representative, Selene, stepped right up to help me. She’s been my banker ever since. She’s friendly and enthusiastic and although I’m not in the bank very often — I use the ATM to make deposits — she always greets me by name when I come in. I opened four accounts (two business and two personal) and love how easy it is to move money between them and pay all my bills online. Their banking app isn’t quite as good as Bank of America’s, but it’s good enough.

And now comes the reason why I’m writing this blog post today. 

Helicopter in Overhaul
After three months in the shop, Zero-Mike-Lima’s overhaul was nearly done when I visited it two weeks ago. I pick it up on Monday.

I’m in California preparing for my seasonal frost control job in the Sacramento area. I moved my truck and camper to the airport where I’ll be based for the next two months. On Monday, I fly back to Phoenix to pick up my helicopter, which is just coming out of its 12 year overhaul. To pick up the helicopter, I needed to make a final payment to the maintenance shop and they wanted that payment sent to them by wire transfer.

There are no Peoples Bank branches here in California and I couldn’t imagine, at first, how I could make a wire transfer — for a significant amount of money — without filling out forms at my bank. But I called Selene and after a quick hello-how-are-you conversation, told her what I needed. She told me that because I was a good customer and that she knew me and my voice, she could handle the wire transfer for me. She would just need to do a few security checks that could be handled over the phone. She asked me to send her an email message with the information for the wire transfer, including the recipient, wire instructions, and amount. Since I had a copy of the form for the last wire transfer I had done with her to the same maintenance shop, I sent that along as well. She called me back a while later, we did the security stuff, and she did the transfer for me. The whole process took less than an hour.

Needless to say, I was very pleased.

In my opinion, there’s no substitute for banking with people that you know. For a very long time, I kept my personal savings in an online bank — ING Direct, which became Capital One 360 — account, mostly because I was able to earn very good interest there. (For a while, it was 8%!) It was always a hassle to move my money from one bank to another and that didn’t get any easier when my local bank branches simply weren’t available anymore. The days of high interest on savings are long gone, so it makes sense to keep my money together in one bank. The added benefit is having multiple accounts that help establish me as a good bank customer that, in turn, helps me get the service I need when I need it.

I guess what I’m trying to say with all this is that there’s nothing quite as pleasant or convenient as having a personal banker in a small, local bank that meets your needs.

Return to Burro Creek

And another [safer] flight under the bridge.

Back in November 2014, I blogged about the time I was in a helicopter that flew under the Burro Creek Bridge on Route 93 at Burro Creek. It was probably on my mind back then as I was reviewing log book entries for a book I’m working on about my flying experiences. I just re-read that post and I do recommend it. It’s short — for me, anyway — and tells an interesting story that gives you some insight into the minds of helicopter owners and pilots.

Burro Creek Bridge
Plenty of room to fly under, no?

Anyway, yesterday I drove north on Route 93, starting my annual migration from my snowbirding stay in Arizona to my late winter/early spring work site in the Sacramento area of California. (Yes, my seven-month “vacation” is nearly over.) I gave myself about 10 days to make the trip and planned stops along the Colorado River near the Hoover Dam, Death Valley, and possibly Lake Tahoe. Or the California Coast. I don’t really know yet. One of the things I like most about my life these days is my unfettered ability to make and change plans on the spur of the moment.

I’d been thinking about the drive for a while, wondering what stops I could make along the way. Burro Creek was a no-brainer. There’s a BLM campground down along the creek about a mile or so off Route 93. I’d considered stopping there for an overnight stay on my way south from Vegas in November but had ultimately chosen a different route that kept me on the Colorado River. The campground isn’t much — in fact, the water is turned off there so the bathrooms are closed up and I’m not even sure if you’re allowed to use the dump station — but it does have ramadas (shade structures) at each campsite, along with picnic tables and a nice desert garden. And plenty of hiking opportunities.

Burro Creek Bridge
A view back toward the campground, looking southwest. That’s Route 93 south of the bridge in the distance.

Burro Creek Campground is about an hour north of Wickenburg, which is where I’d spent the previous two nights. Perfect timing for a break on my estimated three hour drive to Willow Beach on the Colorado River near Hoover Dam. I pulled in, drove down the cracked asphalt road to the campground, and parked in the day use area so the campground host wouldn’t try to hit me up for camping fees.

The Burro Creek Bridge — or should I say bridges? — is clearly visible from the campground. It’s a pair of two-lane truss arch bridges that are about 680 feet long about 390 feet over the floor of Burro Creek’s canyon. The first bridge was built back in 1966 and carried all northbound and southbound traffic. In 2005, as part of route 93’s widening project, they built a second almost identical span right beside it. The new bridge now handles northbound traffic while the old bridge handles southbound traffic. I’m glad they built a matching bridge. It really helps preserve the aesthetics.

Burro Creek Bridge
The two bridges are nearly identical, despite being built 40 years apart.

(A side note here: Route 93 between Wickenburg and I-40 near Kingman had the local nickname “Death Highway” because of the number of deadly accidents — often head-on collisions — that occurred there when it was just one lane in each direction. Widening it was long overdue since it handles nearly all auto and truck traffic between Phoenix and Las Vegas. Parts of it are still one lane in each direction. You can learn more about Route 93 in Arizona on Wikipedia.)

I had done a photo shoot of the new bridge back in 2005 with an aerial photography professional. It was a memorable flight, mostly because he did the shoot with a pair of Hassalblad medium format film cameras. These are extremely costly cameras and the reason he had two of them was so that when he finished shooting a roll of film, he could switch to the other camera instead of fumbling at an open aircraft door to reload film. I think each roll only had 12 shots. I distinctly recall hearing the mechanical sound of the shutter and his manual winding of the film though the intercom system since the microphone was so close to the camera. I orbited the bridges several times. I know he was disappointed with our timing; the second span wasn’t quite done but yet it wasn’t open enough to be dramatic. There was just a narrow gap maybe 50 feet wide in the middle of the roadway. We should have arrived about two weeks before for a more dramatic shot or two weeks afterward for a completed span.

I was thinking a lot about that photo shoot as I walked down to the creek with my Mavic Pro flying camera tucked away in my day pack. The construction company — or Arizona Department of Transportation? — had flown the photographer in to Phoenix from somewhere in the midwest for the shoot. He’d rented a car and drove to Wickenburg. I flew him up there with the doors on, then landed in the construction area to pull off his door and stow it in the back seat. We’d done the flight, circling around and and around. It was midday, but there were still shadows because of the angle of the sun in the deep canyon. I’d landed again to put the door back on and then we’d headed back to Wickenburg. The only reason we hadn’t done the whole flight with the door off was because I could get better speed in transit with the door on and it was at least a 30-minute flight. I’m thinking the whole job was about 1.5 hours of billable flight time, but without consulting my logbook, I can’t be sure. Total cost of those photos? Easily a few thousand dollars.

Burro Creek Bridges
Really. Nearly identical.

I walked as far as I could — at least a half mile — getting almost under the power lines that spanned the canyon just southwest of the bridge. I was hoping to be on the other side of them so I wouldn’t have to worry about them interfering with drone operations, but Burro Creek was running full and fast and I’d gone as far as I could without getting too close to the canyon wall. I spread out my collapsable landing pad in one of the few boulder-free areas, and got to work setting up the Mavic and its controller for flight. I have it down to a science at this point and it only takes me about five minutes from the moment I take it out of the bag to the moment everything is powered up and the Mavic is in GPS mode.

Mavic Operator
I grabbed this image of the video on the Mavic’s return flight. I circled where I’m standing with the landing pad. You can see the campground behind me.

I couldn’t tell how far above the canyon floor the power lines were. I knew they were lower than the bridge, but I also knew that we’d flown under them. They had to be at least 100 feet up. Still, when I launched the Mavic I kept it just 50 feet up until I knew it was on the other side of the wires. (I now estimate they’re at least 150 feet feet from the canyon floor, but likely more than 200.)

I spent the next half hour or so flying around near the bridge. I flew over it once and under it three times. I didn’t want it to distract drivers on the road, so didn’t fly anywhere where the average driver would see it. I had to bump up the maximum altitude for the flight over the bridge, but I figured that was okay because I was still within 400 feet of either the bridge roadway or canyon walls. Certainly nowhere where a manned aircraft should be flying — although I think I’ve already established that it was where a manned aircraft could be flying.

Burro Creek Bridge
This photo was shot from under the power lines.

I switched batteries after two flights and used up 20% of the second battery before finishing up. Penny had very patiently waited nearby. She doesn’t mind the drone or its bee-like buzzing but stays clear of the landing pad when it’s coming or going.

When I was finished, I powered everything down, replaced the Mavic’s gyro lock and cover, and folded it up. Within a few minutes, I was ready for the return hike with everything stowed away in my day pack again.

I got a bunch of video shots, as well as some still shots. This blog post shows off mostly screen grabs from the video. Launching from the stream bed inside the canyon limited what I could do, keeping in mind that I had to keep the Mavic within sight during the flight (per FAA rules).

I think that if I’d launched from up alongside the roadway, level with the bridge, I could have gotten the same shots that Hassalblad photographer had captured twelve years before — for a lot less money. But there really wasn’t a good place to launch from that wouldn’t distract drivers. And it isn’t as if this was a real mission. It was just more practice.

I wonder what that Hassalblad photographer is doing these days. I seriously doubt he’s still using those cameras to take aerial photos.