There’s always one in the crowd.
My company, Flying M Air, did helicopter rides at an airport event in Buckeye, AZ last weekend. I believe it’s called the Buckeye Airport Open House.
The folks at Buckeye really know how to put on a safe and fun family event. They had a D.J. playing music, classic and experimental aircraft on display and flying by, flight schools, an Army recruiter, fire trucks, a medevac helicopter, a crop-dusting helicopter, and parachute jumpers. They also had a bunch of food vendors and a train to take little kids on rides around the airport.
It was an annual event and this was our third year participating. Although attendance was down a bit this year from last year, we still managed to give about 50 rides, five of which were freebies awarded as raffle prizes.
The Airport staff had set me up on a ramp that connected the main parking area with the taxiway. This was an excellent location because it gave us plenty of space on pavement to operate and made it very easy for us to secure the landing zone. Best of all, it was within view of all attendees, so everyone got a chance to watch me take off and land. (Funny how normal helicopter operations can make their own “air show” for folks who don’t usually get to see helicopters operate.)
They were supposed to have a B-25 parked behind me, but the plane had some engine problems and couldn’t attend. I had mixed feelings about that. On one hand, I was glad that we wouldn’t have to worry about people behind my landing zone. On the other hand, I was disappointed for the attendees, because I knew they’d like to see the plane.
Just Say No to Long Lines
In the past, we’ve always been the busiest “vendor” at the event. During the past two years, I’d continued flying at least an hour after all the other vendors had closed up and gone home, just to work off the line that had formed. I clearly remember flying in at the end of a ride to see eight or ten people waiting in the shade under the wings of a parked aircraft on the ramp. They were waiting for me.
This year, we decided to keep the price the same but shorten up the rides a bit to prevent hour-long lines from forming. Our prices continue to rise — 100LL fuel is now more than $4/gallon at most airports — but we figured that with shorter rides, we’d still come out okay. I liked keeping the price affordable — $35/person — so people could afford to fly and to take their kids. (I always fly a lot of kids at this event.) So I aimed for the low end of our usual 8 to 10 minute flight range. Although actual ride length varied depending on the wind and maneuvers I needed to perform to avoid skydivers and other aircraft, most rides probably came in right around 8 minutes.
It’s important to note here that we never advertised the ride length. It did not appear on any sign. When asked, my ground crew — Mike, Darlene, and Dave — would tell passengers that the ride went out toward the town of Buckeye and came back on a different route. When pressed, Darlene gave out the usual 8 to 10 minute range. None of them were actually timing me. I’d timed the first few rides to make sure I had a suitable route and then stopped timing. I have better things to do when I fly than to watch the chronometer — like making sure the skydivers weren’t going to miss the mark and land on the taxiway in front of me as I approached. The passengers, on the other hand, could easily see how long the rides were by timing them as they waited.
The flight was a good mix of farmland, new development, and empty desert. I took off, following the taxiway parallel to Runway 17, then headed east toward downtown Phoenix. Early in the morning, it was hazy and the buildings in the distance were impossible to see, but as the sun moved across the sky and the air cleared a bit, details emerged.
We flew over some freshly sown farmland that was being irrigated. In this area, they use gravity to siphon water from a narrow irrigation canal through short lengths of tube that run from the canal to the beginning of deeply cut irrigation rows between rows of crops. The water flows down the rows and, as you fly over it, the sun reflects off its moving surface.
Beyond that, in another field, farm workers were cutting alfalfa. A cutting machine would drive up and down the field, neatly cutting the crop. Then another machine would gather the cuttings into narrow piles of the stuff. A third machine, paired up with a big open-backed truck, would come down the rows, scoop up the cut alfalfa, and dump it into the back of the truck. I found the process fascinating and watched its progress all day. To the south of that, beyond our flight path but still visible, plows worked on another field, sending up clouds of dust that blew back toward the airport in the strong breeze.
Next came a former farm field that had been prepared for a housing development. You could clearly see where the roads and sidewalks and homes would go. But construction had never begun and weeds were growing tall in many areas. Beyond that was a brand new housing development that hadn’t been there the year before. Probably about 200 homes, a school, and a park.
This is where we made our turn to the left, crossing I-10, rounding the east end of a tall hill, and following what I was told was McDowell Road heading west. Now we were over empty desert. Well, empty if you don’t consider the people illegally shooting at makeshift shooting ranges and the incredible amounts of trash dumped out there. We crossed this area with a tailwind, following a fenceline. Ahead of us, in the distance, we could clearly see the Palo Verde nuclear power plant. Below us were a few homes, then more, then more. About two miles from the airport, I’d make my radio call and start scanning the skies for jumpers. I’d turn final for the taxiway parallel to runway 17 and land at the ramp where I was set up for operations.
A Busy Day…and a Crazy Lady
I flew pretty much nonstop from 8:30 AM to 11:30 AM. Then I took a break to use the bathroom and have the helicopter refueled. Buckeye has a 100LL fuel truck, which really takes all the hassles out of refueling. (The first year we did the event, we had to refuel by carrying 5 gallon fuel cans back and forth to the helicopter. What a drag!) I also had a bite to eat. Mike and my ground crew had already sold my next three flights, so I didn’t get a long rest. After 30 minutes out of the helicopter, I was back in my seat, spinning up, getting ready to go.
The event ended at 2 PM and that’s about the same time the other vendors were packed up and gone. I finished flying at about 2:30. We packed up the helicopter, topped off the tanks — I paid for the fuel by check and got an excellent price — and headed home.
That’s when Mike mentioned the “crazy lady” who kept shouting that the rides were only 7 minutes long. I don’t hear anything in the helicopter unless it comes over the radio or intercom, so I had no idea that anyone was giving my ground crew grief. Evidently, her husband and grandson (or maybe son?) had gone on a ride and she’d timed it. According to her, it was only 7 minutes. She claimed that we’d advertised 10 minute rides.
I told Mike that we hadn’t advertised any length for the ride. I asked if she’d bothered anyone else and he said no, she hadn’t. I asked him if anyone else had complained. He told me that everyone else was very happy. And then we just forgot about her. There’s always one malcontent in the crowd and I wasn’t about to let it ruin our day.
The Crazy Lady Makes Herself a Nuisance
I was in Austin yesterday when I checked my voicemail messages from the day before. A Mrs. Smith (not her real name) had called and wanted a call back. She didn’t say what it was about. I called her back and, within a few minutes, realized that I was speaking to the crazy 7-minute lady.
She immediately accused me of ripping off all of my passengers by 1/3 of what they had paid for. Not the best way to start a conversation with me — especially when she was dead wrong.
I told her that the rides were not advertised as 10 minutes and that no one had said they were 10 minutes long. She insisted that that’s the way they had been advertised in the newspaper. I told her that we hadn’t placed any newspaper ads.
She continued along the same vein, repeatedly accusing me of cheating my passengers by three minutes of flight time. She wasn’t interested in the truth. She had this 10 minutes locked in her brain and I couldn’t shake it loose. And the conversation was going nowhere fast.
At one point, she claimed that she had other people to complain to about this but that she thought she’d give me an opportunity to respond first. That sounded like a threat to me. I don’t like threats.
Finally, I said: “What is it that you want from me?”
“Well, you didn’t give your passengers one third of what they paid for –”
More of the same. I cut her off. “I can’t believe you’re wasting your time and mine with this nonsense,” I said. And I hung up the phone.
I don’t know what she wanted from me. Maybe she expected me to give her a refund to keep her quiet. I hadn’t done anything wrong and I wasn’t about to refund money I’d earned. And if she wanted her money back, why hadn’t she asked for it? Did she expect me to offer it? Why would I do that if I’d earned it?
Keep in mind that I’m originally from the New York metro area, where it’s not unusual for people to complain about something in an effort to get it for free. Her threat was a line a New Yorker would use. I wonder how many other times she’d used it successfully on unsuspecting Arizona merchants and vendors who just gave her the money back to shut her up.
Maybe she didn’t realize that she was playing games with the wrong person.
Interview Does Not Equal Advertisement
I was curious about where she’d gotten the 10 minute time from, so I called my contact at Buckeye airport. I told her about the crazy lady and asked if the airport folks had advertised a ride time in the newspaper.
“I didn’t know how long the rides would be,” my contact told me. “So we didn’t put anything specific in the paper. Just helicopter rides.”
“So where did she get this idea?”
“Let me look in the paper.” I heard pages rustling over the phone. Then she came back on. “There’s an article about the event in this week’s paper.”
And she proceeded to read me a section of the article where a couple who had just come off the helicopter was interviewed by the reporter — possibly the same reporter I’d taken for a flight. They used phrases like “once in a lifetime opportunity” and “ten-minute ride” and “highlight of the event.” They were very happy with the ride. (I’ve never had an unhappy passenger.) And I guess that since they didn’t have stopwatches going during their ride, they thought they were in the air for 10 minutes. (Maybe they were. I didn’t time all the rides.) But a report with an interview after the event is a far cry from advertised information.
“Don’t worry about it,” my contact concluded. “There’s always one nut in the crowd.”
We talked about the event and the turnout and how I’d done. “I’d like to come back next year,” I said meekly.
“We want you back,” my contact assured me. “We want you there every year.”
Now I’m wondering what the crazy lady will do next. Because if there’s one thing I know: people crazy enough to make such a fuss over nothing obviously don’t have anything better to do with their time.