Pay the Pilot

Yes, I still get requests like this.

Way back in 2009, I blogged about a video of Harlan Ellison ranting against people who expect professionals to write for free. It’s time to revisit that topic for two reasons.

I Can’t Use No Stinkin’ Badges

First, a Facebook friend pointed out that Idiot’s Guides, an imprint of Penguin Random House, is looking for authors and editors for books and articles. Compensation? “Badges” and exposure. Apparently some writers have mortgages and utility bills that accept that for payment. (Sadly, mine don’t.)

That set off the usual discussion about new writers needing to break into the field and obtain “published clips” countered by my argument that if enough writers are willing to write for free, all the clips in the world aren’t going to help a writer get past the freebie stage because there simply won’t be any paying work for him/her. Publishers don’t seem to care much about quality these days — read most online publications to see for yourself — they just want words that Google well. That’s why there are so many content mills.

I am hugely opposed to writing for free for any publication that makes money from my work. If a publication values your work, it should pay you for it. Period. If it doesn’t, you shouldn’t be writing for it.

If you have a differing opinion and feel a need to voice it here in comments, be my guest. Just (1) stay civil if you want your comment to actually appear and (2) don’t expect to change my mind. You might want to watch that Harlan Ellison video first.

Promoting My Company on Your “Social Medias” Doesn’t Pay for Fuel (or Maintenance or Insurance)

Last night, I got the following email message, submitted using a form on the Flying M Air website; I’ve obviously redacted identifying information:


Source: A Search Engine

my name is ***** and I’m a landscape photographer. I am in Page now and I was looking for joining a flight over Lake Powell/Alstrom Point tomorrow 05/27 or in the next days if not available. I would like to know if you would be interested in a collaboration. I would promote your company through my social medias and I will give you the rights to use some of the images I will take for your promotional purposes (such as website and social medias). Also I’m traveling with my partner, the travel blogger behind *****.com and she would also promote you through her social medias + mention you on her blog. Kindly let me know if you are interested in my proposal. If you want to check out my work please follow this link: www.*****.com

Best regards,

I need to point out that this person didn’t think it was appropriate to include his phone number in the field conveniently provided for it. So if I decided that I wanted to take him flying the next day at a location 736 NM from my base of operations, the only way I had to contact him was by email or to go to his website and attempt to find a phone number.

Alstrom Point
The view from above Alstrom Point at Lake Powell. This is just one of at least a dozen good photos I have from this area.

And yes, Lake Powell is over 700 nautical miles from my base of operations. The same contact page he used to send me an email clearly displays my mailing address in Washington state. The entire site provides information about the tours and other services I offer in the Wenatchee area of Washington. So I’m not quite sure why he thought it was remotely possible for me to fly him the next day at a place 700 miles away.

I did a Twitter and Google search for this person. I could not identify his Twitter account and he did not appear on the first page of search results for Google. This pretty much confirms my suspicion that his “social medias” wouldn’t have any value at all.

My first instinct was to simply delete the email. And I did. But then I thought about how well it would work as an example for this discussion in my blog. So I pulled it out of the trash and started writing this.

Then I thought about responding to it. And I wrote a response:

Thanks for taking the time to inquire about our aerial photography services.

Apparently you missed the part on our Contact page — coincidentally the same page where you found the form to email us — where we provided our mailing address in Washington state. Lake Powell is 739 nautical miles from our base, so the possibility of us flying there today to take advantage of your generous collaboration offer is pretty much nil.

If you’re serious about flying with us at Lake Powell, you might be interested in this offer for next spring:

You might also benefit from reading and understanding the information here:

A “collaboration” has to be mutually beneficial. I don’t need aerial photos of Lake Powell — I have hundreds of them, some of which appear on the Flying M Air site. Some of the photos in my collection were given to me by photographers who also paid me for their flights. I can’t imagine how more photos or promotion on your “social medias” would help me buy fuel, pay for maintenance, or cover my $15,000/year insurance bill.

And by the way, which ***** are you on Twitter? I couldn’t find you. And a Google search for your name didn’t bring up any landscape photographer on the first page of results. Seems to me that you need to fix your “social medias” before you offer them up as compensation for services rendered.

Enjoy your trip to Lake Powell.

Maria Langer
Owner, Flying M Air

I haven’t sent it yet. Should I?

May 25, 2916, 9 AM Update:

Prompted by Brian Dunning’s comment below, I’ve recomposed my response. What do you think of this?

Thanks for taking the time to inquire about our aerial photography services.

Unfortunately, we’re not available at Lake Powell today or the 27th or any other time this week. We are planning a trip there in April. You can learn more about opportunities to fly with us there then on this page of our website:

You might also benefit from checking out the additional information here:

But your timing is perfect! I have a photography job here near our Washington base that needs to be done this weekend and I think we might be able to collaborate on that. I’ll need about a dozen 20 megapixel photos of the Rock Island Dam shot with a 10mm fisheye lens from a boat near where the water is released from the dam. I’m sure you have or can get the equipment needed for creating such photos. I would sell your photos to my client and mention your name to him; maybe he’ll hire you in the future! I’d also show them off on my social medias to help promote your work. And a friend of mine who has a photography blog might mention your name, too.

Kindly let me know if you’re interested in my proposal.

Best regards,
Maria Langer
Owner, Flying M Air

More Helicopter Charter Company Advice

You need a business plan? Do it right.

I need to start this blog post by reporting that at this moment, there are 2,214 items in my email Inbox, 64 of which have not yet been read. See?

My email inbox is really out of control.

So maybe you can understand why you’ll find this paragraph on the Contact Me page of this site:

I cannot provide career advice of any kind, whether you want to be a writer or a helicopter pilot. The posts in this blog have plenty of advice — read them. There’s a pretty good chance that I’ve covered your question here in a blog post.

Yet the contact form on that page continues to be used by pilots requesting career or business-related information. Apparently these people have failed to read or understand the paragraph right above the contact form, which says:

First, read the above. All of it. Now understand that if you contact me by email for any of the above reasons, I’m probably not going to respond.

I don’t know any way to be more clear than that.

So yes, I get dozens of email messages every month from people who either can’t read or comprehend the above-quoted paragraphs. And I delete just about every single one.

You want more about this? Read this.

So Outrageous It Needs an Answer

That said, here’s today’s question from a reader in Germany, a question I found so outrageous that I fired up my blog composition app and started typing.

Hi Maria,

i like your blog and read it nearly every week. I am a helicopter pilot too and try now to realize my own company next to my job at airbus helicopters.
I am just at the point: How can i buy a helicopter R44 like you ???

I know it is not easy but i have to create a concept for my bank.

Where do I begin?

How I Bought My Helicopter

How did I buy my R44? I sold my R22 and an apartment building I owned, took the proceeds plus a $160,000 loan from AOPA’s aircraft lending program, and handed it over to Robinson Helicopter. I then paid back that loan over eight years at about $2,100/month — while I covered my living expenses and all the costs of operating my business.

How did I buy the R22 and an apartment building? I worked my ass off as a writer, working 12-hour days, for more month-long stretches than I care to remember, writing books about how to use computers. I wrote 85 of them in 25 years and some of them did very, very well. But instead of pissing the money away on stupid things to keep up with the Joneses, I invested it in real estate and my future.

Through hard work and smart money management, I became a helicopter pilot without incurring a penny of debt and I acquired the assets I needed to build my helicopter charter company.

That’s what I did. Are you ready to do that, too?

Me and My Helicopter

First of all, I my entire guide for starting a helicopter charter business can be found in a post coincidentally titled “How to Start your Own Helicopter Charter Business.” Someone interested in doing this should probably start there. You want to know how you can do what I did? That blog post, which was written way back in 2009 and has been sitting on this blog waiting for folks to read it since then, explains exactly what I did.

So even though this person claims to read my blog “nearly every week,” this person hasn’t bothered to use the search box at the top of every single page to find blog entries that might have been missed that might have the information wanted. Instead, I’m expected take time out of my day — time that might be used to clear out some of the crap in my inbox — to explain how to write a business plan for a helicopter charter company.

Because that’s what needed here: a business plan.

Business Plan Resources

Most people can’t do what I did to start their own helicopter charter company. Those are the people who need business plans because they need a lender to give them the money that they need to acquire the assets that they need to start their business.

There are no shortcuts. Either you have the money and can spend it or you need to find a lender who will give it to you. And that lender is going to need some proof that you know everything about your business before you even start it.

That’s what business plans do: They help you understand every aspect of the business you want to start. They also prove to a lender that you’ve thought it through and that it has the potential to make a profit so they can get their money back.

There are countless sources of free information about creating business plans. Many of them are online. Google “How do I create a business plan?” and see for yourself. An especially good resource is the U.S. Small Business Administration‘s Create Your Business Plan page. These are also the folks who can help you get a loan through their own program.

Like reading books? (I hope someone still does.) A search of for “creating a business plan” yields a list of more than 2,900 books on the topic. Isn’t it worth investing a few dollars to help you do this right?

I Can’t Do It for You

Living the Dream?
People tell me that I’m “living the dream” and lately I think I agree. But it wasn’t luck or charity that got me here. I did it all myself, despite numerous obstacles, and I’m proud of it. When you achieve your goals through your own efforts, you’ll be proud, too.

If this post comes across as a snarky rant, it’s because that’s the way I feel about this. I’m really tired of people trying to get me to help them achieve their goals.

No one helped me. No one. In fact, too many people close to me tried to hold me back.

A professional pilot friend told me I was a fool to think I could start a career as a pilot so late in life. (I was 39 when I got my private pilot certificate.) He told me I’d never make any money.

My mother cried when I bought my first helicopter. She was convinced that I’d die in a fiery crash. (She also cried when I left my full-time job as a financial analyst to become a freelance writer.)

My wasband tried to talk me out of buying the R44. He should have know as well as I did how impossible it was to build any kind of charter business with an R22. He also tried to keep me from traveling to Washington state each summer — by endlessly trying to make me feel guilty about the trips — where I finally found the work I needed to make my company profitable. (I only wish I’d chosen my business over him about 10 years earlier.)

No one told me what I’d later learn through trial and error about advertising, getting maintenance done, finding clients, and building a niche for my services. (I’ve blogged extensively about all these things here.)

Every helicopter charter business is different. The only business I know about is mine — and I’ve shared most of what I know on this blog. It’s here for anyone willing to take the time to look for it. (Hint: there’s a Search box at the top of each page.)

I cannot be expected to cook up an all-purpose formula that will work for anyone who wants to create a business like mine where they live. And even if I could, I wouldn’t. Any business with that formula would fail. Why? Because if the business owner doesn’t fully understand his/her business, he can’t possibly make it succeed.

So my advice to those of you interested in starting a helicopter charter business is this: stop looking for someone to do the hard part for you. Do your homework. Analyze the market. Gather information about costs. Check out the competition. And then write a complete, thorough business plan.

If you can succeed at doing that on your own, you might have a shot at succeeding in your business.

Pilot Motivations

What drives pilots at various career levels.

I’ve been flying helicopters since 2000, when I got my private pilot certificate. I learned to fly as a hobby but soon realized that if I wanted to fly, I needed an aircraft. Back in those days, I was earning a good living as a freelance writer and had authored two “bestsellers” in my field. I bought a helicopter and flew it in my spare time. I also worked toward my commercial pilot certificate, which I received in 2001, so I could fly for hire. After all, I wasn’t rich and who knew when the money from my writing career would dry up? Over time, I grew my business, bought a larger helicopter, and found a few lucrative niche markets for my services. Since the money from my writing career has pretty much dried up, I’m glad to have a solid standing in my flying career.

That’s the very short version of how I got to where I am today: an owner/operator with just one helicopter and a handful of regular clients, doing the occasional rides gig, tour, and photo/survey flight as need arises.

As I head home from two days of callout on a frost control contract in California’s Central Valley, I’ve been thinking a lot about what motivates pilots on each level of the aviation ladder: new pilots, experienced commercial pilots, and owner/operators. I’ve spent time in each group — although admittedly in unusual circumstances. I though I’d share a few thoughts from my experience — as well as what I’ve gleaned from talking to other pilots.

New Pilots

New pilots are mostly interested in doing one thing: building time.

Until they get enough experience as pilots, they’re not able to get a “real” flying job. Instead, they’re usually forced to take jobs as flight instructors, which most of them don’t really want to do. That’s the most common way for new pilots to build the 1,000 hours or more of pilot-in-command (PIC) time that’s usually required to get a non-training job.

This is an unfortunate time for any new pilot who doesn’t have the “right stuff” to be hired by a flight school. What is that right stuff? Flying skills, good attitude, patience, and a body weight under 180 pounds come to mind. Luck is part of it, too. Despite what flight schools tell their students, they can’t hire all graduates of their training program to be flight instructors. Sometimes new pilots need to be lucky enough to get their certified flight instructor (CFI) certificate just when one or more instructors are moving on to their first flying jobs.

For those new pilots who can’t secure a flight instructor job, things can be tough. They can’t get a job and move forward in their careers until they build time and they can’t build time without getting a job. Catch 22. These are the guys who will take any opportunity to fly, no matter what kind of flying it is, even if they have to pay for that flight time. I’ve had at least ten new pilots fly with me on long cross-country flights in my R44, paying an hourly rate much lower than what it would cost them to rent a helicopter, just to build time. There used to be a guy in Southern California who sold time in his JetRanger while he conducted traffic flights. (Is he still doing that?) And then there a few questionable operators who “hire” low time pilots to fly for them, requiring these “employees” to pay at least part of the helicopter’s operating cost when they fly.

Cherry Drying
No, I’m not interested in having a 300-hour pilot who can’t/won’t get a job as a CFI hovering at treetop level over cherry trees in my helicopter — even if he doesn’t want to be paid.

And don’t get me started on operators who use low-time pilots for potentially dangerous flying jobs, with that flight time as their only compensation. Every year I get at least one pilot calling or emailing me, offering to do cherry drying flights for free. My point of view on this: a professional should be compensated with money for his work, no matter what he does, and responsible operators should be hiring — and paying — sufficiently experienced pilots for the type of flying that needs to be done.

Time building is everything for new pilots — as it should be. Experience is vitally important for safety. And no matter how good a 300-hour pilot thinks he can fly, he’s nowhere near as good or safe as most 1,000-hour pilots.

Experienced Commercial Pilots

Once a pilot has gotten past the time-building stage and is able to qualify for a flying job, his main concern is — or should be — finding the right job. That should meet one (or all) of three criteria:

  • Be the kind of flying the pilot wants to do.
  • Give the pilot the flying experience he needs to get a future job doing the kind of flying he wants to do.
  • Pay a living wage — or better.

In other words, an experienced pilot’s main motivation is the advancement of his career down the path he prefers.

For example, someone interested in EMT work will need turbine flying experience, as well as night flying experience. He may have gotten night experience as a CFI doing all those night cross country flights with student pilots on board, but he likely didn’t get turbine time. A tour job at the Grand Canyon or in Alaska might be a good start. Those jobs are a good start for other kinds of helicopter work, including utility work, since some operators also have utility operations and might have a career path with training right into those jobs.

The $80K Helicopter Pilot Job

I want to point out here that those $80K/year helicopter pilot jobs do exist. They just don’t exist right out of flight school. If your flight school lured you in with promises of a big paycheck doing a cool job, they did you a disservice. Different types of flying pay different rates, but they all require a lot of experience to reach the higher pay levels. If your primary motivation is making a lot of money, you’re probably in the wrong career.

The more experience a pilot has, the more opportunities he has. And I’m not just talking about flight time, either. While logged PIC time is important, having a lot of time doesn’t automatically make a pilot qualified for a specific job. For example, I’ve got about 3200 hours of flight time logged, but I could never expect to walk right into an EMT job since I have limited turbine time and very little night flying time. But I could qualify for a job as a heli-skiing pilot because of my extensive experience in high density altitudes and off-airport landings. At this point in a pilot’s career, PIC time and experience, although related, are not of equal value.

So once a pilot has paid his dues and can start getting the jobs he wants, he’s mostly motivated to do the kind of flying he wants to do or that will help him further his career goals and earn a decent living.


And that brings us to where I am today and why I didn’t mind spending 40 hours traveling to and from and waiting around in California this week without turning a blade.

Owner/Operators are motivated primarily by one thing: making enough money to keep their helicopters, stay in business, and make a profit — often in that order.

In 2006, when I started seeing a decline in my writing income after riding a wave since 1998, I began to realize that if I didn’t keep my business in the black, I’d have to give up my hobby-turned-part-time-business. As the situation got worse, it changed the way I operated my aircraft. The ratio of non-revenue to revenue flight hours dramatically decreased as I flew more for hire and less for fun. While I still wanted to fly as much as I could — after all, I got into this business because I love to fly — money became my primary motivator.

Think about it: why would I let other pilots fly my aircraft if I love to fly? Because I was getting compensated for that flight time. That compensation would go toward paying my aircraft expenses.

Parked in California
Here’s my company’s most valuable asset on Wednesday, parked in California, waiting to be flown. A smart owner/operator will find ways to earn money without turning a blade.

As my Alaska Air flight descends into Seattle, I think about the chain of events that led me to seat 9A today: getting a frost control contract in December with a start date in March, repositioning the helicopter to California in late February (with another pilot at the controls), spending a few days on standby for an early contract start date before returning home. Then a phone call at 3:22 PM on Tuesday followed by a scramble to book and catch a flight to Sacramento, two nights on standby, another call to release me from standby, and a trip to Sacramento airport to catch this flight. Along the way, there were rental car reservations, hotel stays, and meals. I preflighted the helicopter once and woke up long before dawn both days.

And I didn’t turn a blade.

But I’m happy. No, I’m thrilled. Why? Because without putting any wear and tear on my company’s most valuable asset — my helicopter — I netted more money in less than 40 hours than I did during the period of from October through January. More than most new pilots make in a month.

Some people might think this is a great deal — after all, I’m making money without doing anything except traveling and waiting around. But these people are missing the big picture. I paid $346K plus interest to buy my helicopter. It costs more than $20K a year to insure it and keep it airworthy. Shouldn’t that enormous investment not only pay for itself but earn a profit? Every opportunity it can?

And, sadly, that’s what’s most important these days for me: keeping my bottom line healthy enough to keep flying for a living. That’s what’s on the minds of most owner/operators who aren’t independently wealthy.

Respect that — and don’t expect handouts.

Think About It

So here are three different ways three different pilots might look at what’s important to them about flying.

Why bring this up? Mostly so that pilots on each rung of the career ladder can better understand what’s motivating the other pilots.

I think about the new pilots and how eager they are to build time at almost any cost. I think about the more experienced pilots who are willing to be picky about the jobs they take just so they get set on a career path that’s right for them. And I think about owner/operators who have a helicopter at their disposal all the time but must responsibly choose how to deploy that asset for maximum returns.

I want the folks just starting to climb that ladder to understand the rest of us — and realize how their priorities will change if they slip into our positions some day.

Washington Healthplanfinder FAIL

When automatic payments go seriously wrong.

I usually get email while traveling and generally keep up with anything important. Although I wasn’t surprised to get an email from Washington Healthplanfinder, my health insurance agent here in Washington State, to say that my monthly payment had been automatically withdrawn from my account, I was surprised at the amount:

Withdrawal Confirmation

Note the amount: $1,116.15. My monthly premium is $375.14.

I immediately called Washington Healthcarefinder. After pressing numbers to navigate through four different menus — just to ask a billing question — and waiting five minutes on hold, a typical script-reading customer service representative answered. I told her about the problem. After asking for various information to assure I was who I said I was, she read a script that told me that emails had gone out in error. She asked if my bank had processed the withdrawal.

I admitted I hadn’t checked, and whipped out my iPad to check with my bank’s app while she was still on the phone. The transaction had not been processed.

She read another script that assured me that it wouldn’t be processed. That it was just the email that was an error. I suggested that if this was a widespread problem that an email should go out to notify subscribers of the error. She didn’t have a script for that so she didn’t have anything to say. I hung up.

Two days later, on Wednesday, I got an email from my bank confirming a withdrawal from Washington Healthcare Finder:

Withdrawal Confirmation

Note the amount: $1,116.15.

I just about went ballistic. I called the bank to have the charge reversed and was told that I’d have to fill out a series of forms to get the process started.

Washington Healthcare Finder’s offices were still closed that early, but later in the day, I managed to get yet another idiotic, script-reading customer service representative on the phone. I was not kind, especially when her script informed me that the process could take several days while their accounting department researched the problem. There was lots of time wasted on hold, which further pissed me off. When she got back on the phone, I told her that their error had cost me more than an hour of my time with two calls to them and one to my bank. I asked if I would be getting compensated for my time. She said they wouldn’t compensate me for my time, but they’d “compensate me for the overcharge.”

“That’s not compensation,” I roared over the phone. “That’s a refund for your freaking error!”

Because she obviously didn’t understand the difference, she had nothing to say. I hung up.

But not before I demanded that she turn off automatic payments for my account.

Later yesterday morning — yes, two days after the initial email about the incorrect amount went out, I got this:

Notice of Error

Is there any way they could have screwed this up more?

I’m fortunate in that I had enough money in my account to cover this unexpected withdrawal. Other people who routinely carry smaller checking account balances would likely bounce checks to other payees, setting up a nighmarish experience of explaining the problem for every bounced check and getting overdraft fees reversed. Hours of a person’s time could be wasted on this.

I recently set up automatic withdrawals for a number of organizations I do business with. It should make it easy to pay on time without any additional effort. But I’m going to re-think that strategy and make my payments through my bank’s billpay feature. This puts absolute control in my hands and would certainly prevent something like this from happening again.

Pride for My Prized Possession

Why I like to keep my helicopter clean.

The other day, I did a Santa flight. When I landed and shut down, one of the many people who’d crowded around the helicopter for a closer look commented on how clean and shiny it was. Although I thanked her, I didn’t say what I was really thinking: it was filthy.

That was my opinion and it wasn’t shared by many others. I’m often complemented on how good my helicopter looks. Just the other day, a pilot friend from Oregon stopped by and he said pretty much the same thing. I pointed out the smashed bugs on the mast and leg fairings and the grime on the back panel near the tailpipe. He then saw what I saw and conceded that it could use some cleaning.

Indeed, it had not been washed with a hose in more than two years.

Keeping it Clean

Washing my Helicopter
This photo from 2006 shows my wash setup back in Arizona.

Back when I was still living in Arizona, I’d take it out a few times a year with a hose and sponges and a ladder and give it a good cleaning, from back to front and top to bottom. It was quite a chore and often took as much as two hours. I had to time it right so the sun wasn’t full on it and I could towel it dry before water droplet stains could form. Often, I’d finish it off with a coat of RV spray wax. Occasionally someone would help, but more often than not, they didn’t seem as interested as I was in getting it perfectly clean — or as close to perfection as possible.

Since January 2013, my helicopter has been bouncing from Washington to California and back to Washington on various agricultural flying contracts. It lived outdoors for months at a time, spending the winter of 2013/14 in a Wenatchee Airport hangar before settling into its permanent space in my RV garage at home only two months ago. The last time I washed it was when it still lived in Arizona, back in 2012. Since then, I’ve had to satisfy myself by wiping it down with a microfiber cloth after a heavy rain. That took care of most of the dust and some of the bugs. Spot cleaning took care of the rest.

Although my building has a handy drain in the floor and a hose spigot indoors, I haven’t gotten around to washing it in there — mostly because it’s too cold this time of year for it to dry properly. I expect I’ll be washing it indoors once in a while when spring comes. Otherwise, I can wash it outdoors on its landing pad in the summer, when the late afternoon sun sinks behind my building and leaves the driveway apron in the shade. That’s the plan anyway.

My Prized Possession

Why is it so important for me to keep it clean? It’s simple: I’m proud of it. It’s my prized possession.

Please understand that it’s not really the value of the helicopter that makes me so proud. At this point, it’s 10 years old. Both the house I still (unfortunately) own with my wasband and my current home are worth more (although the helicopter was once worth more than either one). Resale value does not make it a prized possession.

Instead, it’s what the helicopter represents: the result of hard work, smart investments, and a never-ending drive to make my business grow and thrive with good-paying work.

I look at the helicopter and I see long days sitting in front of a computer, writing book after book for my publishers. I wrote or revised 85 books in 20 years. Because they were computer how-to books, they had tight deadlines. How many 12-hour days and 7-day workweeks did I spend in my office banging away on a keyboard to meet a deadline? Too many to count. And don’t even get me started about the 12 summers in a row that I spent mostly indoors, working to meet deadlines for my Quicken books. It was only because a handful of my titles became bestsellers that the money started flowing in. That money made it possible to buy my first helicopter, a much smaller two seater that I put 1000 hours of flight time on in just five years.

I look at the helicopter and I see real estate investments I bought to explore a role as a landlord. The property with a two-bedroom home and four furnished studio apartments that I bought in the early 2000s stands clear in my mind. Yes, I got a good deal on it, but I also poured a lot of time and money into it, improving each furnished unit, showing it to a countless stream of snowbirds and transients, cleaning apartments over and over, dealing with complaints and tenants who couldn’t pay their rent on time or at all. And then the suicide in one apartment followed closely by the suicide of a tenant before she even moved in. (Seriously, I can’t make this shit up.) This property taught me how much I could hate being a landlord. But when I sold it shortly before the peak of the real estate market and pocketed a 50% profit in less than five years, I wasn’t complaining. That money, and the proceeds from the sale of my first helicopter, is what made up the sizable downpayment for my prized possession, making monthly payments for the balance almost affordable.

I look at the helicopter and I see all the ways I tried to build my business and make it profitable. I think about the tours and photo flights I’d do no matter how little revenue they generated. I think about the first few regular clients I got — a Russian photographer who led photo expeditions in the Southwest and needed a pilot over Lake Powell, Monument Valley, and Shiprock; a local addiction treatment center bigwig interested in showing off to client parents and investors by flying them to the desert facility; a proving grounds manager needing an aerial photo pilot who wasn’t afraid to operate in the deadman’s curve; an environmental impact study company that needed to fly hour after hour along cliff faces looking for raptor nests; orchardists who needed protection for their valuable cherry or almond crops. I think about the epiphany I had when I realized that these clients and this work was what would make my company succeed and that I was simply wasting my time trying to attract one-time clients looking for a deal.

I look at the helicopter and I think about all the hard work involved to keep my business profitable. I think of flying through weather to get to a client on schedule, I think of long hours flying slowly along the top of winding canyons, I think of hour after hour hovering low-level over cherry trees, I think about staying in cheap hotel rooms and having to walk three miles with luggage just to get back to the helicopter, I think of living in an RV for months on end. I think about writing proposals, sending out contracts, and tactfully nagging for payment. I think about patiently explaining to a client why he should fly with me instead of a cheaper alternative in a smaller aircraft piloted by a less experienced pilot. I think about networking and getting the word out and landing cherry drying and frost control contracts that finally got me in the niche I needed to ensure long-term profitability. I think about moving my helicopter and my RV between Arizona and Washington state — four 1000+ mile trips each year — usually by myself, year after year in all kinds of weather. And moving them again between Washington State and the Central Valley of California — four 500+ mile trips each year — for the past two years. I think about taking annual check rides with the FAA and dotting all my I’s and crossing all my T’s to satisfy government requirements.

I think about the money I spent on the helicopter since buying it in 2005: $268,000 for maintenance, $123,000 for fuel, $144,000 for insurance, and $47,000 on interest for the helicopter’s loan. I think about those numbers along with the other expenses I’ve had for simply owning the helicopter and operating a business — well over $1,300,000 total in the past 10 years — and how I feel when I explain to a passenger that it costs more to fly a helicopter than just the cost of fuel.

My most memorable flight of all was from Wenatchee, WA to Hillsboro, OR in the summer of 2012; check out the video.

And then I think about the amazing flights I’ve had at the controls over the past ten years. Flying through desert canyons and up or down the California coast. Floating over the clouds at San Francisco, seeing one end of the Golden Gate Bridge poking up through the fog layer. Cruising over Lake Powell at sunrise or sunset as the sun’s first or last light touched the red rock cliffs. Flying along snow-covered hoodoos at Bryce Canyon. Crossing Cascade Mountain ridges above valleys full of clouds. Zipping past weird rock formations in Utah, Arizona, and Nevada. Speeding low across the empty Sonoran desert, over ridges and around tall cacti. Crossing the Navajo Reservation with wild horses and the remains of abandoned hogans below me. Skimming 50 feet above the surface of the Columbia River, waving to boats and water skiers I pass. Chasing race trucks on desert trails and go-fast boats on desert lakes. These are just examples off the top of my mind; a look through my log books would yield dozens of others.

And I remember that none of this would be possible without my prized possession.

And my prize possession wouldn’t be mine without all the hard work and long hours I put into earning the money to buy and keep it.

It’s more than just a costly possession that makes people (erroneously) think I’m rich. It’s a symbol of my achievements in life, the result of working hard and smart for a long, long time. It’s my reward for staying focused and doing what needed to be done, to the best of my ability, to move ahead, even when certain people tried so hard to hold me back.

Catching Up on Cleaning

So yesterday, I took advantage of the big, heated space inside Pybus Public Market, where my prized possession is currently parked. I brought in some Meguiar’s Detailing Spray, Turtle Wax Bug and Tar remover, and clean microfiber cloths. And then I finally cleaned the bugs off the mast and the leading edges of the horizontal and vertical stabilizers, leg fairings, and cockpit. I covered all the painted surfaces with the detailing spray, wiping it with a succession of clean rags that soon got dirty from the thin film of grime that had been on the helicopter’s skin. I worked slowly and carefully while a handful of people wandered by to check out the shiny red thing unexpectedly parked by the south door.

My Prized Possession
I took a picture when I was finished. (Missed a rag.)

When I was done, it was even shinier.

But I can still see a few bugs I missed on the mast…