Return to Lake Powell

On what’s likely to be my last aerial photo gig here.

Penny wearing Earplugs
Penny with makeshift earplugs. They lasted about five minutes before falling out.

I flew my helicopter up to Lake Powell late this morning. With me for the ride (and the few days to follow) were a friend and Penny the Tiny Dog.

The Backstory

Way back in June, one of my good clients, Mike Reyfman, had booked three days of aerial photo flights with me starting January 1. He leads photo excursions for Russian photographers in various places throughout the world. I’m his Arizona/Utah helicopter pilot. I’ve flown for him on about a half dozen gigs since 2004: Lake Powell, Horseshoe Bend, Monument Valley, Goosenecks, Shiprock, and Bryce Canyon. Jobs last 2 to 7 days and involve 8 to 20 hours of flying. It’s good work not only because of the number of revenue hours I can fly, but because it takes me to some of the most incredible scenery in the southwest.

I had mixed feelings about the job. I wanted to go to Lake Powell again; it had been over a year since the last time I was up there. I own a hangar at the airport — purchased back when it looked as if I might do seasonal tour or charter work there — and I wanted to sell it. I needed to take a peek inside to see what the tenant had in there and then meet with a Realtor to get it listed. I also wanted to see the lake again. Over the past eight years — since buying my R44, in fact, I’d flown at least 200 hours at the lake, covering its length from the Dam to Hite at least a dozen times and even going as far as Canyonlands National Park two or three times. I’d worked with a video crew to make an aerial tour of the lake and was ripped off by the filmmaker, who disappeared with $26K of my money, leaving me with a hard disk of mediocre raw video and a hard lesson learned. (And no, I’m not interested in discussing this.) There’s no arguing that Lake Powell is one of the most beautiful places in the Southwest and the best way to appreciate that beauty is from the air.

But, at the same time, I was leery of winter photo shoots. Back in February 2011, I’d gone to Bryce Canyon for a 360° Panoramic photo shoot with this same client. A snow storm and cold weather had delayed our flight and made it damn near impossible to get the helicopter started when we were ready for the shoot. It required a gas-heater and generator under the helicopter’s engine compartment to warm the engine enough to crank it. The delay meant we couldn’t get out at first light as originally intended. When I checked the weather and saw freezing temperatures forecasted for dawn and dusk at Lake Powell, I remembered the Bryce Canyon problems and began worrying about a replay. Although my helicopter has a primer, no amount of priming will start that engine if it’s too cold. I also remembered another January photo gig up there and how cold it had been in flight. Those guys had kept me flying for about 3 hours — I even had to land for fuel at Cal Black Memorial halfway up the lake from Page. It was so cold that the back seat photographer had given up shooting and was leaning away from his open door as far as he could in an effort to keep warm. I never did like cold weather.

All of these thoughts were going through my head when I contemplated the job. But a revenue flight is a revenue flight and I had the possibility of being paid for 10 hours or more of flight time over four days at one of my favorite destinations. After losing at least $10K of revenue in Washington due to my early return, my inability to concentrate enough for writing jobs, and the huge sums of money I was paying my legal team to help me protect my business assets from the greedy, cheating liar I’d married six years before, I could really use the cash. So I convinced myself that I was glad about the work and prepped to make the trip.

Getting There

We flew up there around midday on New Year’s Day. The conditions were remarkably good. I’d flown through unforecasted low visibility and snowstorms on my way from Wickenburg to Winslow the day before, but there was none of that on Tuesday. The flight went well and I got a chance to show my companion even more of Arizona’s remote scenery from the air. This post with video gives you an idea of what we saw, although we weren’t flying from Phoenix so the actual route and views differ. (We got to see Sedona on our flight the day before.)

After a brief tour of Horseshoe Bend, the Glen Canyon Dam, and Wahweap Marina for my friend, we touched down at Page Municipal Airport. The folks from American Aviation were out to the helicopter with a van before my blades had even stopped spinning.

Penny Lounges in the SunPenny lounges in the sun under the desk in our hotel room.

We grabbed the rental car I’d arranged for, stopped at Stromboli’s restaurant for a huge calzone to share, and checked into the Days Inn hotel. The pet-friendly room was clean and well appointed with a king-sized bed, refrigerator, desk, free (and fast) wifi, and a sliding door that made it easy to take Penny outside. Best of all, it was on the south (sunny) side of the hotel, so the afternoon sunlight streamed in through the window, giving Penny that patch of sunlight she always seems to enjoy.

First Flight

A while later, I was back at the airport. I had to prep the helicopter for the afternoon flight. That meant removing the two passenger side doors, adding a quart of oil, and laying out the life jackets. I make all my passengers wear flotation devices during photo flights over the lake. In more than a few places I fly there, an engine failure means a swim. I didn’t want anyone drowning because they couldn’t find or put on their life jacket.

Back in the terminal, Mike arrived with his group. He took one look at me and said he was seeing only 2/3 of me. I told him I’d lost only 20% of my body weight, not a third. I had already told him in email that the reason I had to lose weight was because he kept gaining it.

I gave his group a safety briefing. After each topic, Mike translated what I’d said into Russian. About half the group spoke some English and about half of those spoke it well.

I took the first group out to the helicopter: two photographers and a passenger. Normally, I won’t do a photo flight with three passengers on board, but the helicopter performs magnificently in cold weather, so it wasn’t an issue — even with nearly full tanks of fuel. They all climbed on board and I made sure they were strapped in. Then I started up the engine, warmed up, checked their seat belts one more time, and took off.

Mike’s instructions had been specific: start with Horseshoe Bend, which is near the airport. Then head uplake to Reflection Canyon, the San Juan Confluence, and an odd canyon I call “Canyon X” because of the way it looks from the air. Then back down lake to Padre Bay and Alstrom Point for a look at Gunsite Butte. So that’s what I did.

Oddly, when I first took off, I felt a bit hazy about the locations of all these points. It wasn’t until we were heading uplake, past Tower Butte that it all started coming back to me. Mostly it was the reporting points the tour pilots used. I’d learned these points so I understood where they were when they made their calls. I also used them so I could tell them where I was. Tower Butte, Padre Butte, Gregory Butte, Rock Creek, Dangling Rope, Rainbow Canyon. That’s as far as most of the tour planes went. I went a little farther, to the confluence.

Boundary Butte
At 3:56 PM, we were just passing the north end of Boundary Butte, heading uplake.

I flew uplake at about 5500 feet staying mostly over the river channel. The air was mostly calm and the water was glassy smooth in more than a few places, creating amazing reflections of the red sandstone cliffs. Just past Gregory Butte, the wind picked up a bit, ruining any chance of reflections on the lake surface.

I reached Reflection Canyon — poorly named, in my opinion, because I’ve overflown it at least 100 times and have seldom seen any reflections there — at 5500 feet. I began a slow climb as I flew a racetrack pattern around the canyon, spiraling up in altitude. Our next destination was the twisting course of the San Juan River near its confluence with the Colorado and that was best viewed from 7000 feet or higher. When my photographers were finished with Reflection, I moved on to the San Juan and began circling it, spiraling up to 8500 feet as I circled it twice. Off in the distance, I could see the buttes in Monument Valley.

It was cold. The outside air temperature (OAT) gauge said -9. That’s -9°C, of course, or 15°F. I was wearing a pair of jeans and a long sleeved shirt under my leather jacket. I had a scarf and thin wool gloves on. Every part of me was cold. I hunched over the controls, trying to use my body to keep my body warm. I wasn’t succeeding. At times, my teeth chattered.

After the San Juan, I took them around Canyon X. Then we headed back toward Padre Butte. I was flying almost directly into the sun. I had a baseball cap on to offer some protection from the sun’s glare, but it didn’t help much. I kept at 6000 feet so I wouldn’t have to worry about flying into any buttes or canyon walls along the way.

East Side of Padre Bay
The east side of Padre Bay, shot from my helicopter’s nose cam from the south.

My passengers wanted to see the northeast side of Padre Bay, so we flew there first. I took them past Cookie Jar and the pockmarked rocks around it. There were some nice views of the canyon walls on the east side; my nose cam even got a nice shot. By the time we got to Gunsite, the sun was very low and the light had faded. The view wasn’t much to get excited about. My passengers had enough and we headed back.

We touched down at 5:20. The fuel truck was waiting.

Thawing Out

I was frozen solid. Or at least I felt as if I was. My right hand, which had been clutching the cyclic in a death grip, was probably the worst. I was shivering almost uncontrollably. I threw the doors back on the helicopter, locked it up, and headed back to the hotel.

It took me nearly an hour to warm back up.

Dinner with Russians
Mexican dinner with 11 Russians.

We went out to dinner at a Mexican place. If you ever want a weird experience, watch 11 Russians try to order Mexican food in English from a Mexican waiter. Dinner was good, but the portions were too large. Seriously: who needs that much food in a tourist town when you can’t even bring leftovers home? The bowls of soup looked as if they held a half gallon of the stuff.

Afterward, I went to Walmart to see if I could buy a pair of long johns and a turtleneck. I found a pair of leggings — the only pair in my size was brown. (Walmart offered all kinds of color options in sizes 2X and 3X.) I bought a few turtleneck shirts for the next few days.

Dawn Flight

The next morning, I layered my clothes: leggings under jeans and turtleneck under sweater under jacket. That should keep me warm, I reasoned.

I was out at the helicopter by about 6:45 AM. It was still dark, although I could see the sky brightening beyond the Navajo Generating Station. I took the doors back off and did a preflight with a flashlight. The quart of oil I’d brought into my hotel room overnight poured easily. I hooked up my GoPro with my skid mount so it would point the same general direction my passengers would be shooting. I drove the car back to the terminal building and parked it out back.

Ski Clothes
My passengers knew how to dress for freezing weather.

I greeted my passengers when they arrived at 7:20, got their life jackets on, and buckled them in. There were just two men. I realized that they were wearing ski clothes. They were Russians, accustomed to cold weather. And they were wearing ski clothes. You think that would have told me something.

I primed the engine a good ten seconds, pushed the starter button, and was surprised that the engine caught almost immediately. I fed it a little more fuel as I flicked the strobe, clutch, and alternator switches on. It sounded rough at first, but soon smoothed out. When the clutch light went out, I brought the RPM up to 68% and began the long wait for the engine to warm up.

While I waited, I used my laminated startup check list to scrape the frost off the cockpit bubble. I suspected that even in full sunlight, at 17°F and 90 knots for a wind chill factor of -14°F, it was unlikely to melt off.

When I was ready to go, I made my radio call and started pulling up on the collective to pick up. Immediately noticed that the collective was heavy. When I got it into a hover, I realized that the cyclic was extremely stiff. Almost — but not quite — as if they hydraulics weren’t working. I checked the switch; it was in the correct position. Circuit breaker was fine, too. I hovered a tiny bit hack and forth over the helipad. Stiff but not too stiff to fly. I assumed the hydraulic fluid was cold and that the situation would improve as it warmed.

Dawn Light
Padre Bay, by the dawn’s early light.

We took off just as dawn was breaking behind the power plant. We headed uplake at 5000 feet. As I flew, I admired the way the early morning light seemed to kiss the tops of the buttes and cliff faces.

Of course it was another perfectly clear morning. Some people might think that’s nice, but for photography, it sucks. The light gets harsh quickly and, without clouds and shadows, there’s little depth to the scenery. Besides all that, a clear blue sky is downright boring. But that’s part of life when doing photography in the desert southwest.

So we were racing uplake to the three target areas, hoping to get there and back to Padre Bay before the light got too bright.

Gregory Butte
Gregory Butte at first light with a view up Last Chance Bay.

It was another beautiful flight — and I can prove that with hundreds of photos. Honestly, I’ve seen so much of Lake Powell from the air during the “golden hours” that none of the photos really impress me anymore. It has to be one of the most beautiful places on earth and there’s no better view than from a helicopter at dawn.

My passengers wanted me flying higher, so I climbed to 6000 feet. I was freezing cold again before we got to the San Juan Confluence. I started doubting the wisdom of doing these flights. And started wondering how many layers of clothes I needed to wear to keep warm. My hand on the cyclic seemed frozen solid. And my feet were freezing, too. But I kept flying, knowing that when the light got too harsh, we’d be done.

I circled each target area two to three times as instructed. My photographers snapped dozens of photos. I’d glance at them occasionally and see them moving their cameras in every direction, framing up their shots. Occasionally, the one who spoke English — and he spoke it very well — would give me instructions. But in general, they let me do what I liked.

When they were finished with the uplake target areas, we headed back down the lake. Along the way, they stopped me to photograph several other places where the light was hitting just right. All I could think about was how cold I was and how much I wanted to be on the ground.

Horseshoe Bend
Horseshoe Bend from the south. The narrow canyon is usually full of deep shadows.

We finished up with Horseshoe Bend, which is best photographed when the sun is high. News flash: the winter sun is never quite high enough to photograph Horseshoe Bend without deep shadows.

Warming Up Again

We were on the ground by 9:20 AM. Shutdown went quickly; the engine had cooled considerably on my approach. I felt frozen and was shivering badly when the fuel truck pulled up to fuel us. My feet felt like stumps as I joined my passengers for the walk back to the terminal.

I left the doors off the helicopter and drove back to the hotel, stopping at McDonalds for a quick bite to eat and a more important glass of orange juice. I was shivering the whole time. In fact, it took me a full hour and a half to stop shivering. Then I stretched out on the bed and fell asleep. I didn’t wake up until after 1 PM. That had me really worried — I never sleep like that in the middle of the day. I was certain I was coming down with a cold.

With at least two flights left to do, I needed warmer clothes.

My “armour” against the cold.

I headed out to a sporting goods store I found near Safeway. The saleswoman there set me up with some Under Armour. I didn’t care what it cost. I bought a shirt, a pair of pants, and a pair of gloves and left $180 with her. Then I headed back to Walmart and found a pair of thermal socks in the sporting goods department.

We hit Sonic for lunch and had another big glass of orange juice. We had a nice little walk with Penny while we waited for the food.

Then I went back to my room to dress all over again. Three layers of shirts under my leather jacket, 2 layers of pants, the thermal socks. I’d put the new gloves on before taking off.

I made it back to the airport by 3 PM, in time to prep for my afternoon flight.

Third Flight

My passengers were late and slow about getting on board. As a result, we didn’t take off until after 4 PM. This turned out to be very unfortunate for them.

Navajo Canyon
Navajo Canyon, from the south. Although the canyon walls are not very high here (compared to Horseshoe, anyway), there were already deep shadows.

Like the previous afternoon’s flight, these folks wanted to start with Horseshoe Bend. I thought it was a waste of time, but doubted whether they’d believe me so I kept quiet. We circled Horseshoe Bend twice, then headed uplake. Along the way, they caught sight of the pair of islands in the middle of Navajo Canyon and instructed me to circle them. I did that twice. It wasn’t until 4:28 that we continued heading uplake.

I was cold. Still. I realized that the gloves I’d spent $25 on weren’t much better than the junky gloves I’d worn on the previous two flights. I tried to put another glove over the one on my right hand, but couldn’t manage it while holding the cyclic. I was able to jam my left hand under my leg or between my legs to keep it warm. Occasionally, I’d wrap my left hand around my right hand on the cyclic in an attempt to warm my right hand. I don’t think it worked. My body was warm enough but my legs were not. My feet were nice and toasty — at least my $6 Walmart socks were doing their job. Overall, however, I was definitely warmer than I had been on the previous two flights.

Canyon X and Reflection Canyon were already in deep shadows when we got there 15 minutes later. Even the twisting course of the San Juan River was in shadow — although there were some decent reflections there. I circled and climbed and circled and descended. When I got the word, I headed back down lake.

By this time, it was after 5 PM. Sunset was 5:20. It would take at least 15 minutes to get all the way down to Padre Bay, the next target location. But I’d noticed on the previous day’s flight that the sunlight was already too soft to really show off the red rock glow by 5:10. My passengers were running out of light and there was nothing I could do.

Mouth of Rock Creek
The cliff faces across from the mouth of Rock Creek were nicely illuminated in the last light of the day.

Of course, since we were flying into the sun, my passengers could see it just as well as I could. I think they realized that we wouldn’t reach Padre Bay in time. So they had me circle a few areas that were still illuminated, like the cliffs across from the mouth of Rock Creek.
“Very dramatic,” my front seat passenger said. I couldn’t argue.

West Canyon
By the time we reached West Canyon, only the highest points — like Navajo Mountain — were still in sunlight.

After that, we tried to check out the area south of West Canyon. This area is normally outrageously beautiful in last light, but often overlooked by photographers who concentrate on the cliffs and buttes around the lake. But by that time, only the highest points still had light on them. I watched the sun’s orange globe sink below the horizon in the west.

“Go back?” I asked my clients?

“What is our choice?” the English speaker replied glumly.

I didn’t tell them that another photographer had once kept me out nearly an hour past sunset at the lake — so late that I needed my landing light to find the helipad. Instead, I just headed back.

Back on the ground, I walked them to the terminal. It was locked. The fuel guy was gone and my doors were inside the building. I helped them get through the gate, then drove around to the front of the building. A few people were still inside, so I was able to retrieve my doors. But no chance of getting fuel. Unless I was willing to pay a $50 after-hours callout fee — which I was not — the next morning’s flight might be a lot shorter than desired.

Talking My Client Out of Flying

I buttoned up the helicopter, grabbed a quart of oil to heat in my room overnight, and went back to the hotel.

I was cold and I didn’t want to fly any more than I had to. I was worried about getting sick.

I called Mike and told him about the fuel situation. I told him I thought we had enough for about an hour and a half in the morning. Then I talked to him about the second part of our photo gig: the Goosenecks of the San Juan, which is near Mexican Hat, UT. I had two logistical problems.

First, I didn’t have a landing zone less than 15 minutes flight time from Goosenecks. The only good landing zone was at Goulding’s Lodge, a private runway. That means that each flight would likely take 45 minutes to an hour.

Second, the closest fuel was at Cal Black Memorial Airport on Lake Powell, about 20 minutes flight time from Gouldings or Goosenecks. That meant a 40-minute refueling run.

Mike, of course, had to pay for all of my flight time. He could do the math as well as I could. It would likely add 4 to 5 hours of flight time if he decided to move forward on the Goosenecks flights. He said he’d talk to the photographers and see what they wanted to do. We hung up and I crossed my frozen fingers that they’d pass.

Fourth Flight

I was back at the airport at 7 AM the next morning, prepping for my flight. Since the fuelers for Classic Aviation were already there, I ordered fuel from them, topping off the tanks.

Frost on the Bubble
Frost on the bubble.

I repeated the previous morning’s routine, although I did scrape the frost off the bubble before my passengers arrived. There was a lot more of it. Later, when I returned, I’d still see tiny piles of the stuff on my helipad, where it had stuck to the ground but failed to melt.

I had three passengers: two photographers and an observer. They were all women.

I lifted off at 7:50 AM, 11 minutes after sunrise. The controls were so stiff that I was almost certain the hydraulics had failed. I set it back down, tested the controls, and realized that it was just the cold again. Worse than the day before. I decided to give it a go; I could always turn around and come back. Fortunately it was operating normally within 5 minutes.

Canyon X
An early morning view of what I call Canyon X, from the air.

San Juan River
An aerial view of the San Juan River near its confluence with the Colorado at Lake Powell.

Reflection Canyon
Reflection Canyon from the air.

In my opinion, this flight had the best light along the way. The sun was high enough to illuminate the rock faces, but low enough to cast shadows that added depth to the scenery. And the light was soft and red — just perfect (in my opinion) for photographing the lake. Indeed, my uplake skidcam images are better from this fight than any other.

And because we’d gotten a later start than the previous morning, there was also better light on our target areas. Canyon X, for example, had lots of interesting light and shadows. The twisting course of the San Juan River seemed to glow in the morning light. Even Reflection Canyon was more interesting than in previous flights. There were even some reflections down there.

Because we weren’t racing to beat the sunset, the flight was more relaxed, too. Sure, the light wouldn’t be as “good” later on in the flight, but it wasn’t as if we’d run out of light. So we took our time and circled each point as many times as necessary. Stress free.

I was still cold, of course. I’d layered up a little better and was wearing two pairs of gloves. My hands and legs were still cold. I was not looking forward to the prospect of more flights that afternoon out near Monument Valley.

After finishing up near the Confluence, we headed back toward Padre Bay. We did a few circles in the area. The light was nice, but the golden hour was nearly over. They wisely decided to skip Horseshoe Bend.

We were on the ground by 9 AM. I didn’t hang around. I got into the rental car and headed back to the hotel to pack.

Finishing Up and Heading Out

Mike called when I was halfway finished packing and sucking down yet another orange juice. He came by the hotel to pay for the flights. Fortunately, he’d decided to skip the Goosenecks flights. I was relieved. I’d pretty much decided to say no and was wondering how I’d tell him. Now I didn’t have to.

Mike paid for the flight time and we said our goodbyes with a hug. It would likely be the last time we worked together. I was moving to Washington State and, unless he wanted aerial tours of the Palouse (another one of his destinations), he’d have no need for a helicopter in my area. I was sad to see him go.

Later, I met with a Realtor at the hangar I need to sell. We discussed terms and I was not happy to learn that an agreement with them would require me to pay them a commission even if I sold the hangar on my own. I still don’t get the logic in that.

We were loaded up — with the doors on! — and ready to depart by 12:45. I was really looking forward to getting home.

Little Colorado River Gorge
The Little Colorado River Gorge from about 200 feet above the rim.

The flight back was uneventful. I did a straight line to the Little Colorado River Gorge, which I flew over rather low to get a dramatic shot with the skidcam. Then I straight-lined it to my Howard Mesa property, which I always fly over when I’m in the area. From there, a straight line to the west side of Granite Mountain near Prescott and then a straight line to Wickenburg Municipal.

As I was coming in, a friend of mine from my Papillon days back in 2004 was leaving on a Game and Fish survey job. We spoke briefly on the radio; he’d join us for dinner later that evening.

I was glad to get the helicopter tucked away into the hangar and even gladder to be in my truck heading home. I was looking forward to at least a few days without travel — and even longer without freezing cold.

Homeless in Page, AZ

A true story.

“Can you help me…with some food?”

The query came from a Navajo woman with a cane in the Safeway supermarket parking lot in Page, AZ. I was just walking up to my rental car when she came up to me.

I thought for only a moment. “Sure. What would you like?”

“Taco Bell.”

The Taco Bell was just down the street. “I’ll take you there,” I told her. “Hop in.”

She walked around to the other side of the car while I climbed in my side. I put my Starbucks latte in the cup holder and tossed the lemon coffee cake I’d bought onto the dashboard. I had some things on the passenger seat and moved them for her. Then she climbed in, putting her cane between her legs and shut the door. She was conservatively dressed, looked clean, and didn’t appear (or smell) drunk. She had a round face with flattened features and half-opened eyelids. She looked almost Asian. I remembered that the Navajo were descended from the people who had crossed the Bering Strait into North America in prehistoric times. She looked to be in her sixties.

I started toward Taco Bell. It was 9:40 AM. “It’s not even 10 o’clock. Do you think it’s open?” I asked.

“No. I don’t think so,” she replied thoughtfully. “It’s open until 11 at night.”

“How about McDonald’s?” I suggested. “They make a good breakfast.”


McDonalds was down off the mesa on Route 89, about 2 miles away. I started down the hill.

“Do you work for a hotel?” she asked me. She’d obviously seen my rack cards, which I’d be bringing to the airport the next day.

“No,” I replied. “I work for a tour company.”

“Where are you from?”

“The Phoenix area,” I told her. “Wickenburg.”

“Oh, I know Wickenburg,” she replied. “I used to live in Glendale. Peoria, El Mirage.” She thought for little while and added, “I moved there when my husband died. Now I’m just homeless.”

I steered us down the hill. Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon Dam came into view.

“Can’t they help you at the Chapter House?” I asked. It didn’t seem right that the Navajo people would let one of their own remain homeless on the streets of Page.

“No, they can’t help me.”

The conversation died as we rolled down the hill. I suspected she wasn’t telling me everything. She was too clean and well kept to be truly homeless. She must be going somewhere at night.

“Do you have family in Page?” I asked her as I made the left turn onto Route 89.

“I have a son in Salt Lake City and another one in Phoenix,” she replied.

The conversation died again. This time she revived it.

“I heard that Chinatown got wiped out.”

I made her repeat what she said; I didn’t think I’d heard it right the first time. But I had.

“Chinatown?” I repeated. There was no Chinatown within 500 miles of Page, AZ. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“I heard it on the news.”

It came to me suddenly. “Oh, you mean Japan. The earthquake and tsunami.”

“Yeah, that’s it.”

By this time, McDonald’s was in sight.

“Can we go to Burger King instead?” she asked.

I saw the Burger King logo just up ahead. “Sure. You like that better?”

“Yes. They have a good deal. Two hamburgers for three dollars.”

I pulled up to the drive through at Burger King. The menu was on a board beside the talking box. “What do you want?”

“Two hamburgers,” she said. I think she was trying to save me money.

“Some orange juice to go with that?” I asked. I was thinking about getting something healthy into her.


“Anything else? Some fries?”

“No fries.” She was reading the menu board. “Maybe the sausage, egg, and biscuit,” she said suddenly.

“Okay. And two hamburgers for later?”


After what seemed like eternity, a voice came through the speaker. I ordered the sausage, egg, and biscuit breakfast meal and two hamburgers. The order taker asked if I wanted coffee or orange juice with that. I asked my companion.

“Orange juice.”

The order taker read back our order. It came to seven dollars and change. She told us to pull up to the second window.

At the window, the order taker took my money and gave us the orange juice and a straw. Then she asked us to pull up and wait in the parking lot while they made the burgers. Because it was so early, they’d have to be made special. So I pulled around to the parking lot.

While we were waiting there, I asked, “Why did you come back here from Phoenix?”

“I wanted to come back to my reservation,” she said. After a while, she added, “My mother and father live here.”

“Do they live far from Page?”

“Yes. Very far. Thirty-six miles. You go down Haul Road and then you keep going.” She added the name of the town but I didn’t catch it. Later, I found Kaibito on Route 98 36.9 miles from Page in the right general direction.

“Maybe you should go live with them for a while,” I suggested.

“I been thinking about it.”

“I think it’s a good idea,” I said honestly. I hesitated, then asked: “Do you need someone to drive you there?” I would have done it to get her off the street. My morning was wide open.

“No,” she replied. “I can hitchhike.”

I knew that hitchhiking was a popular means of transportation among Navajo people on the Reservation. I’d picked up a hitchhiker once myself, when I was driving through the Rez with some friends. She’d be okay.

The order taker came out with her food and I handed it over. I backed out of my parking space and prepared to take her back up into town.

“Can you drop me off at McDonald’s?” she asked.

McDonalds was just down the road, near the Wal-Mart. “Sure.” I drove over and made the turn. “Where? Here or near Wal-Mart?”

“Here,” she said. “By the tables.” McDonald’s had some outdoor tables in the sun. “I can sit and eat here.”

“Okay.” I drove over to the tables and stopped. For a moment, she struggled with her bag of food, orange juice, and cane. Then she managed to get the door open.

“Do you think you can help me with some money?”

I was wondering if she’d ask and was prepared. I handed her a $10 bill. “Here you go. Use it to get something good for yourself.” I still wasn’t convinced that she didn’t have a drinking problem — alcohol is a major problem on the Rez. But I couldn’t say no. I have so much; she had to ask strangers for food.

She took the money. “Thank you.”

She got out of the car, closed the door, and stood still behind it. I shifted into drive and pulled away slowly. When I’d gone around the McDonald’s to the exit, I saw her sitting at the table with her breakfast and lunch.

I drove back to my hotel, just down the road.

Lake Powell to Monument Valley by Helicopter

Part of my Southwest Circle Helicopter Adventure.

This article was originally written for Aircraft Owner Online magazine. I write their monthly “Adventure Flying” column. I normally pull old blog posts for publication, but this time, I wrote an original piece for them. You can find it in their November 2010 issue.

Although I’m based in the Phoenix, AZ area, I spend an unusual of time at Lake Powell doing aerial photo flights for amateur and professional photographers. In September of this year, I flew a total of 20 hours over the lake with at least 20 different photographers on board. I usually get as far uplake as the San Juan River confluence, which is halfway to Monument Valley. But due to the difficulty and expense of getting aerial photo permits for Monument Valley, I rarely fly there.

The one thing that does get me to Monument Valley is Flying M Air‘s Southwest Circle Helicopter Adventure. That’s a 6-day excursion by helicopter that starts in Phoenix and spends a night at Sedona, Grand Canyon, Lake Powell (at Page), Monument Valley, and Flagstaff before returning to Phoenix. I don’t do this trip often — frankly, it’s quite costly and there aren’t many folks who want to spring for it — but I happened to do one in October 2010. In fact, as I’m typing this on my laptop, I’m looking of the window of my room at Goulding’s Lodge at the first light striking the famous monuments of Monument Valley.

On this particular trip, I rigged up a GoPro Hero camera on my helicopter’s nose. Although I used this “nosecam” to shoot video on the first day of the trip, the mount introduced too much vibration to make the video usable. For the remaining days of the trip, I switched over to still photos. The camera automatically shoots a high resolution image every 5 seconds as I fly. With 720 photos per hour, I usually get a few good shots on each leg of the trip.

Wednesday was one of the most scenic legs of the trip. We flew from Page Airport (PGA) up Lake Powell to the San Juan confluence and then east to the airstrip at Goulding’s Lodge in Monument Valley (UT25). On board with me were my two excursion guests and all of our luggage for the 6-day trip. I pack the luggage on and under the seat behind me and sit my guests in the two right seats (front and back) so they get the same view. I then fly to put the best views on their side of the aircraft.

We lifted off from Page at about 2:30 PM. The ASOS reported wind at about 8 knots out of the north, but it sure didn’t feel that strong. I made my radio call and then departed right across the runway, heading uplake. A Citation jet called a downwind a few moments later; we caught sight of him high above us as we crossed the airport fence.

Departing PGA

Our shadow as we crossed the runway at Page Municipal Airport.

It was a beautiful day, with high, thin clouds tracing lazy lines across a clear blue sky. The October afternoon sun bathed the landscape with a soft light that illuminated the red rock cliffs and buttes, cast shadows in the canyons, and accentuated the blue of the water. Sure, the light was too harsh for the aerial photographers I usually take around there, but for my passengers and me, it was great for taking snapshots of our surroundings.

The first canyon we crossed was Antelope Canyon, which is just east of the airport. Normally, I just buzz across it, but the tour boat was inside the canyon, so I made a turn to the left so my passengers could get a photo of it. I didn’t circle, though. I’m extremely conservative with fuel on the fourth and fifth days of the excursion, since there’s no fuel between Page, Monument Valley, and Flagstaff (or, in this case, Winslow). I need every drop of fuel I have on board to get to my Day 5 destination on Thursday with required reserves on board.

Antelope Canyon

Most people see Antelope Canyon from the inside, where it’s a masterpiece of sandstone swirls carved by wind and water. But this is the view I see most often.

We continued uplake, passing Antelope Point Marina and the mouth of Navajo Canyon. I made a position call a mile north of iconic Tower Butte and changed from the Page airport frequency to the uplake frequency (122.75). I repeated the call on that frequency and got into a discussion with the returning tour pilots. They’d be coming my way at 5,000 feet; I’d stay out of their way by flying at 4,500 feet.

The tour traffic is a major concern for anyone flying at Lake Powell. It’s a very good idea to learn the tour routes, altitudes, and reporting points they use before exploring in your own aircraft. There’s nothing scarier than flying the lake and seeing a plane flying where you don’t expect it, especially if it’s not on frequency or doesn’t know where it is in relation to the usual reporting points. Ten minutes with a tour pilot and a chart at Page Airport is enough to get the basics.

We slipped between Dominguez and Boundary Buttes at the south end of Padre Bay and continued uplake. Winding canyons opened up on our right. I pointed out a cluster of kayaks near a powerboat in a canyon with water as smooth as glass. In the main channel, you could clearly see the wind on the water. Not enough to make whitecaps, but gusty enough to see round patterns of movement appear and disappear across the water surface.

Dominguez Butte

My usual uplake route takes me between Dominguez and Boundary Buttes. In the far left of this photo, you can see Padre Butte, referred to by local pilots as “submarine.” Navajo Mountain looms in the distance.

We passed the south side of Gregory Butte and Last Chance Bay as two tour planes flew by overhead. Last Chance is a long, wide canyon with steep sandstone walls. It’s a long boat ride to the end where there are a few sandy spots suitable for houseboat parking. Distance to parking and the cost of fuel are part of what keeps the canyon free of traffic, even during busy summer months. On this October day, however, the whole lake was quiet; I don’t think we saw more than 20 or 30 boats.

We flew over the main channel of the lake as the canyon narrowed. One of my passengers pointed out Dangling Rope Marina and asked me about it. I told her what I knew: it was a marina only accessible by water. There were no roads in or out. I then told her a story about our stop there 20 years before on a houseboating trip. How I miss cruising the lake in a houseboat!

Lake Powell from the Air

Over the main channel of Lake Powell just uplake from Last Chance Bay. The canyon walls rise about 800-1,000 feet off the water’s surface here.

We were nearing the mouth of the canyon that would take us to Rainbow Bridge. As I flew, I’d been listening to the radio and knew there was a female pilot in the area. I also knew there was another tour plane behind me, on its way to “the bridge.” It’s a tight squeeze in the canyon and my challenge is always to stay as low as possible to ensure my photography clients can get the shots they need. Over the years, I’ve perfected my approach.

The female pilot was just leaving the area when I reached the mouth of the canyon and turned in. I flew up the canyon at 5000 feet, telling my passengers what to look for as we flew: the dock, the trail, the giant stone arch of Rainbow Bridge. I was busy keeping an eye on the mesa to the right of the helicopter. On a day like that one, with occasional gusts of wind, I wouldn’t get any closer than 200 feet from it’s edge. I verbally pointed out Rainbow Bridge when I saw it, keeping both hands on the controls. We flew past and they snapped photos. I circled around the back, assuring the pilot behind me that I’d stay at or below 5000 feet until I was clear of the area. Then, when abeam the bridge a second time, I broke off to the left and climbed out toward the San Juan Confluence.

Rainbow Bridge

This wide-angle shot gives you an idea of how tricky the area around Rainbow Bridge is. I get very close to that mesa top. Can you see the bridge in the photo?

The trickiest bit of flying I’d have to do on the entire trip was behind me.

I climbed to 6500 feet to give my passengers a good view of the twists and turns of the San Juan River just upstream from the confluence. Then I punched in my user waypoint for Goulding’s Lodge, adjusted course, and headed east over the eroded desert terrain south of the San Juan River.

San Juan River

The San Juan River twists and turns dramatically before meeting the Colorado.

We were east of Navajo Mountain now and the area was riddled with water-carved canyons, windswept rocks, and stunted trees. Below us, here and there, were two-track roads leading back toward the river. One of the roads looked very well maintained, although there was no sign of any homesteads or other reason to use it.

We flew over the top of No Man Mesa, where two or three ranches are scattered. A pickup truck drove slowly along a two-track toward one of the ranches. We saw a herd of horses and a flock of sheep tended by a dog before crossing over the top of the mesa and beginning our descent toward Monument Valley. The famous monuments started coming into view as we rounded the edge of a cliff face.

Off No Man's Mesa

A wide canyon cuts across the desert just past No Man Mesa. While not as beautiful as the Grand Canyon, it offers a glimpse of what the Grand Canyon may have looked like before it became grand.

I switched to the Monument Valley frequency and heard several tour planes making calls. I leveled off at 5500 feet and flew directly over the first paved road we’d seen since leaving the airport. Ahead of us, at the airport, I could see three tour planes launch, one after the other. One crossed overhead in front of me, the others climbed out beside me and likely crossed behind me. All of them were returning to Page the quick way. They’d be back within 30 minutes; we’d taken 60.

Before landing at Gouldings, I always make a quick loop around the western part of the Monument Valley Tribal Park. That day was no different. I climbed to 6000 feet and followed the road into the park. Once I reached the visitor center area, I banked left toward the Mitten buttes. I flew between them, on a route the tour pilots refer to as “splitting the mittens.” Then I banked left again and headed back toward Goulding’s.

Splitting the Mittens

The two Mitten Buttes (East and West) are iconic Monument Valley images.

Monument Valley

I restrict my quick loop around Monument Valley to the west side of the park to minimize noise impact on the ground.

As we came in for a landing, a small herd of horses, spooked by the sound of my helicopter, galloped across the desert east of the airport, kicking up fine red dust.

Landing at Monument Valley

Monument Valley Airport has just one way in and out. Not the kind of airport where you want to overshoot the runway.

It had been a good flight with few bumps or unexpected challenges. Later, in my hotel room at Goulding’s Lodge, I was pleased with the quality of the images my Hero camera had captured. What a great way to document a flight.

Note to Pilots: If you do plan a trip to Goulding’s Lodge, remember that the airport there is private and for use by Goulding’s guests and tour clients only. Go to Goulding’s Web site at to learn more about restrictions regarding airport use.

Another Lake Powell Photo Flight

Perfect conditions, except for the cold.

It was a photo flight that brought me to Page and Lake Powell on my annual trip from Wickenburg, AZ to Seattle, WA for cherry drying season. Although I usually depart Arizona mid-May, when this flight came up, I figured I’d use it as a springboard to start my trip. Rather than return to Arizona, I’d use the ferry fees to take me two hours closer to Seattle. Not exactly a direct trip — it would likely add at least an hour to my total flight time — but it was something.

I flew to Lake Powell on Thursday afternoon so I could be ready for the photo flight at 6 AM on Friday. I planned to spend Friday night in Page as well, since our second flight of the day was scheduled for 6 PM.

So at 5:30 AM, I was at the airport, preflighting the helicopter. It was already light; the sun rose while I was working. There was a thin layer of clouds to the east and it filtered the sun, softening the light. Exactly the kind of light my best Lake Powell photo client likes.

Fifteen minutes later, I was waiting in my rented car in front of the terminal. I own a hangar at Page — it’s for sale if anyone’s interested — so I have a key card to get onto the ramp. I figured I’d pick up my passengers in front and drive them out to the helicopter. I’d then leave the car out there until we got back.

My passengers were on time. The photographer was a big guy, weighing in at 240 pounds. His wife was much smaller and thinner; only 130 pounds. We said our introductions and I drove them out to the helicopter. I pulled the front passenger door off and put it in the trunk of the car. Then I gave them a safety briefing and handed out the life jackets. (I always make my passengers wear life jackets over the lake.) They were Russian — it seems that most of my Lake Powell photo clients are — but they spoke English well. I don’t speak any Russian.

It took a while to warm up. The temperature had dropped down near freezing overnight. But by 6 AM sharp, I was pulling pitch and taking off. We climbed out and I turned uplake.

That’s when I realized that my photographer client had no idea where he wanted to go. He told me to take him to places that I knew were good. Places I’d taken other photographers. And Rainbow Bridge.

Gregory ButteSo we did a quick circuit around Gunsite Butte and Alstrom Point, then hustled up the lake toward Rainbow Bridge. Although the forecast had called for 50% overcast and morning winds up to 10 MPH, the sun was bright but filtered and the wind was not an issue at all. Flying toward the sun, the views weren’t very good, but glances to the left or right as I turned showed stunning morning views of the lake and red rock cliffs. My client didn’t provide much instruction, so I didn’t waste his time by being a tour guide. (Note that this photo and all the others that appear in this post were taken at other times; I can’t take pictures while I’m flying with clients aboard.)

I should mention here that it was bitter cold. With my heat not functioning — it had triggered a carbon monoxide warning the day before — and a door off, the cold morning air rushed in. I had a hat, scarf, and three layers of long sleeves on, but no gloves. My client was out in it. His wife sat behind me and didn’t say much, so I don’t know how she was taking the cold. But I figured that Russians were probably a lot more accustomed to cold weather than thin-blooded Arizonans.

Rainbow BridgeWe had a bit of a tense time when my client asked me to fly lower near Rainbow Bridge. The problem is, Rainbow Bridge is at the bottom of a narrow canyon. I know that I can get down to 5,000 feet MSL safely, so that’s what I always shoot for. He wanted me lower. That would bring me very close to a canyon wall. When I pointed that out, he backed down. I think he may have been spooked. But I gave him a good look at the bridge and was satisfied to hear his camera clicking right through his microphone.

Afterwards, he told me he wanted to go into a canyon he’d seen on the way up. But we were so close to Reflection Canyon, which everyone loves, that I asked if I could take him there. It added about 10 minutes total to the flight. He seemed happy with what we saw. The light was breaking through the clouds by then and although it was still soft, it was brining out the colors of the lake and the rocks.

We headed downlake and I reminded him several times that all he had to do was direct me and I’d fly wherever he wanted me to. We went into Wetherall Canyon on the south side of the lake, but he turned me around after only a few minutes. Then back to the main channel. Another side trip up Rock Creek’s main branch and back. Then another trip up Last Chance Bay and back. And some time over Padre Bay. There was a lot to see and the light was good, but he didn’t direct me to do much. I just flew, trying to enjoy myself, trying not to worry about my client not getting his money’s worth because he didn’t tell me where to fly.

Horseshoe BendHe asked me to take him to Horseshoe Bend and I headed out that way. I purposely swung past the Glen Canyon Dam, putting it on his side of the aircraft so he could take photos. I heard his camera snap. Then I climbed — Horseshoe Bend is best seen from at least 6,000 feet — and headed downriver. A few minutes later, I pointed out Horseshoe Bend and began making a climbing circle to the left around it. I was about 270° into it when he told me we were done.

I dumped the collective and started a steep descent, banking east toward the airport. I landed on the taxiway as a National Park Service patrol plane took off.

Here’s a look at our route on the official Park Service map:

Photo Flight

My client jumped out while I was cooling down the engine. He snapped a few pictures of the aircraft as his wife got out and joined him. Then I shut down, got the blades stopped, and climbed out. We’d flown 1.3 hours.

I brought them back to the front of the terminal. My client told me that he was going to cancel the evening flight — it was just too cold. I was shocked. He’d paid me for 5.3 hours of flight time but had only been airborne for 1.3 of those hours. A second flight would cost more, but it would also help spread the cost of the ferry time and help him get his money’s worth.

But who was I to argue? The wind was supposed to kick up later in the day and I wasn’t eager to be out over the lake with the wind howling around the canyons.

So at 8 AM, I was done for the day.

Two hours later, I was heading toward Bryce Canyon. But that’s another story.

Wickenburg to Seattle by Helicopter: Day 1

Wickenburg to Page, AZ.

Regular readers of this blog who don’t follow me on Twitter might have been wondering where I’ve been. Did I fall off the face of the earth? Or finally, after six years, get tired of blogging?

Neither. I was making my annual helicopter repositioning flight to Washington State.

This year, I got an early start, piggy-backing my long cross-country flight at the end of a photo flight at Lake Powell. A photographer was willing to pay for the 4-hour round trip ferry time for me to get the helicopter from the Phoenix area to Page, AZ. At the end of that flight, I continued north to Salt Lake City instead of heading home. This put me several hours closer to my destination. At Salt Lake City, I picked up Jason, a low-time CFII interested in building R44 time for much less than the cost of renting. With Jason at the controls, we continued to Seattle.

The trip can easily be summarized by the number of days it took to complete. I’m putting it all down here, in four parts, while it’s still fresh in my mind. The photos aren’t terribly good due to glare through the bubble, but I hope the illustrate some of the terrain and weather we encountered.

In this first part, I’ll cover my trip from Wickenburg to Page, AZ. You can click here to see my approximate route on

I’ve made the trip from Wickenburg to Page (or Page to Wickenburg) countless times. It’s the kind of trip that I don’t even need to consult a chart to complete. I know the landmarks by heart.

But on Thursday, the weather promised to be a factor. Although it was sunny down in Wickenburg as I preflighted around 2:30 PM, the clouds were building to the north. I could see them thickening over the Weaver Mountains 15 miles away. And all the forecasts for all the points north of the Weavers called for high winds gusting into the 30s. It would be a bumpy ride.

So bumpy, in fact, that my friend Don and his wife decided not to join me on my trip to Page. Don’s got a helicopter very much like mine and he’d planned to fly up there with me, spend two nights, and let me show him around Lake Powell between my photo flights. But with the forecast so nasty, he bowed out. I didn’t blame him. No one wants to spend 2 hours getting thrown around the sky in a relatively tiny bubble of metal, Fiberglas, and Plexiglas.

And if wind wasn’t enough of a deterrent, the forecast also called for isolated showers and thundershowers north of I-40. So I knew I’d be dodging weather, too.

But I had a contract and my client had paid me to fly up there. I had a pilot waiting for me in Salt Lake City for a Saturday departure. The weather would have to be impossible to fly through to prevent me from making the flight.

So at 3:30 PM, I took off from Wickenburg (E25) into a 15 mph wind from the west and turned out to the north.

Wickenburg RanchI climbed steadily at about 200-300 feet per minute, gaining altitude slowly to clear the 5,000 foot Weaver Mountains ahead of me. Below me, I could see the scars the near-bankrupt developers had left on the desert where Routes 93 and 89 split off. Greed had scraped the desert clean, built a golf course, and then let the grass wither and die. Where there was once pristine rolling hills studded with cacti and small desert trees, there was now flattened dirt, void of vegetation, shaped by bulldozers and men. A dust bowl on windy days covering hundreds of acres of Sonoran desert.

I continued to climb, looking out at the Weaver Mountains ahead of me. The clouds were low over the mountain tops and I could clearly see patches of rain falling. The wind was moving the weather along at a remarkable pace. I picked a spot to cross the mountains, preferring the place where Route 89 climbs into Yarnell over the more direct crossing at the ghost town of Stanton and the valley beyond it. I knew from experience that the wind would be setting up some wicked turbulence in that valley as it gusted over Rich Hill and Antelope Peak. I braced for the turbulence I expected as I topped the hill at 5,000 feet MSL and was surprised when I wasn’t blasted.

That’s not to say there wasn’t turbulence. There was. But it was the annoying kind that bounces you around every once in a while just for the hell of it. The kind that makes flying unpleasant but not intolerable. The kind pilots just deal with.

Ahead of me was Peeples Valley, which was remarkably green. Our winter and spring rains had fallen as snow up there and it wasn’t until the warm weather began arriving that the grass could start sucking it up. The result was a carpet of new green grass that made good eating for the open range cattle and horses up there. All it needed was a little sun to give the illusion of irrigated pasture. But the sun was spotty, coming through breaks in low-hanging cumulous clouds.

Peeple's Valley to KirklandThe weather up ahead gave me a good idea of what I’d be facing for much of the trip: a never-ending series of isolated rain and snow showers. They appeared as low clouds with hanging tendrils of wispy precipitation. But unlike the gray rains hanging below summer rainclouds, these were white, making me wonder whether I was looking at rain or snow. With outside air temperature around 4°C (40°F), it could have been either. Or something worse; damaging hail or icy sleet.

I’d been taught at the Grand Canyon that if you can see through it, you can fly through it. But I didn’t think that rule applied to late spring storms at high elevations. I wasn’t going to fly through anything I didn’t have to.

Knowing which way the storms were moving made it easy to skirt around their back sides. Up near Kirkland, this put me several more miles west of my intended course. Before taking off, I’d punched the waypoint to our property at Howard Mesa into my GPS; I always fly over anytime I’m close, just to make sure everything is okay. Having flown the route dozens of times, I should be flying much closer to Granite Mountain. But that mountain was completely socked in by one of the storms, so I passed to the west of it, adjusted my course line with the push of two buttons, and continued northeast.

Near the Drake VORNear the Drake VOR, I detoured more to the east to avoid a rapidly approaching shower. Raindrops fell on my cockpit bubble and the 110 wind of my airspeed whisked them away. The sky was clearer ahead of me, although the tops of Bill Williams Mountain was still shrouded in clouds. The Prescott (KPRC) ATIS reported mountain obscuration and snow showers to the north, east, and west. I couldn’t see the San Francisco Peaks, which were likely getting more snow to extend the skiing season at the Snow Bowl.

Bill Williams MountainThen I was back out in the sun — a good thing, since the outside temperature had dropped to just over freezing and my cabin heat wasn’t able to keep up with the cold. I climbed up the Mongollon Rim just west of Bill Williams Mountain, trading high desert scrub for ponderosa pines. The mountain had recently been dusted with fresh snow. That didn’t surprise me; only three hours before, the airport at Williams (KCMR) had been reporting 1/4 mile visibility.

By now, the turbulence had become a minor nuisance that didn’t bother me much. I was listening to a genius mix on my iPod, hearing songs I didn’t even know I owned and trying to enjoy the flight. I was almost an hour into it and had more than an hour to go.

I reached Howard Mesa and flew over our place. Everything looked fine. I was surprised to see the wind sock hanging almost limp. Surely there was more wind than that.

I punched the next waypoint into my GPS; a point on the far east end of Grand Canyon’s restricted airspace. I wasn’t allowed to overfly the Grand Canyon below 10,500 feet. Since my helicopter starts rattling like a jalopy on a dirt road over 9,500 feet, that was not an option. Besides, one look out in that direction told me that no one would be flying anywhere near the Grand Canyon that day. All I could see to the north was a blanket of low clouds. I couldn’t even see Red Butte, a distinct rock formation that can normally be seen from 50 miles away. The Grand Canyon (KGCN) ATIS confirmed that things were iffy. The recording reported “rapidly changing conditions” and instructed pilots to call the tower for current conditions. You don’t hear that too often on an ATIS recording.

My course would take me east of that area, but the weather was also moving east. It soon became apparent that I was in a race against the storm. I was halfway to my waypoint when I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to go that way. Although there was a gap there between two storms, I knew from experience that gaps can disappear quickly, swallowing up whatever naive pilot slipped inside. The temperature had dropped down to 0°C and the clouds were only 300 feet above me as I zipped across the high desert, 500 feet off the ground. I’d have to detour to the east.

I aimed for the leading edge of the storm, hoping I could reach it and go around it. But the leading edge was racing eastward to cut me off. My course kept drifting eastward until I was heading due east. That would put me, eventually, over the Navajo and Hopi Reservations, far from any major road or town. I didn’t want to go that way.

I came down off the Coconino Plateau just southwest of Cameron. At least that’s where I figured I was. The low-hanging clouds had blocked all of my normal landmarks from view. To the north, where I needed to go, was a solid sheet of gray rainfall, blocking out whatever lay beyond it. As I descended from the plateau, still heading east, I began thinking of making a precautionary landing and waiting out the storm.

Then I saw a break in the storm with bright sunlight beyond it. It was still raining there, but I could clearly see my way through and what I saw looked pretty good. I banked to the north and entered the rainstorm. Soon, I was being pelted by rain. Visibility was still tolerable; I could see well enough to fly. Thankfully, there were no downdrafts to contend with. Just turbulence, rocking me around, punishing me for interfering with nature’s gift of rain. I held on and rode it out.

And that’s when the carbon monoxide detector light went on. On departure, I thought the heat had smelled a little more like engine exhaust than usual, but had put it out of my mind. The warning light brought it right to the front of my mind again. I opened my door vent and the main vent and pushed the heater control to the off position. I took stock of the way I felt: any symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning? No, I felt fine. But soon I’d feel very cold.

Echo CliffsI passed through the rain and emerged on the other side with a clean cockpit bubble and likely very clean rotor blades. Ahead of me, now due north again, the sky was brighter and I could clearly see the Echo Cliffs. Before entering the storm, I’d punched Tuba City (T03) into my GPS to keep my bearings; now I punched in Page (KPGA) and was pleased to see that I was already right on course. I aimed for The Gap, a small town at the gap in the cliffs, right on Route 89, adjusted power to maximize speed, and sped forward, 500 feet off the high desert floor.

The rest of the trip isn’t very interesting. I did get some different views to the west, where the Grand Canyon was still covered by a thick blanket of clouds. It would be snowing there, especially over the North Rim. My usual path was at least 20 miles to the west, much closer to the Canyon. It included overflying the Little Colorado River Gorge and mile after mile of nearly deserted flatlands on the far west edge of the Navajo Indian Reservation. I was still over the reservation on this path, but the land below me was sculpted by wind and water into mildly interesting patterns. This was the western edge of the Painted Desert, which is not quite as picturesque as most people think.

The GapI crossed Highway 89 at The Gap and flew through the gap in the Echo Cliffs. I was now about 45 miles from Page, flying among three sets of high tension power lines that stretched from the Navajo Generating Station on Lake Powell to points south. There was a dirt road here that made a short cut to page — if you didn’t mind driving more than 40 miles on a dirt road. Navajo homesteads were scattered about. The sky was a mixture of clouds and patches of deep blue. I warmed in the sunny spots and cooled in the shadows.

It was after 5 PM and I was starting to worry about reaching Page in time to pick up my rental car at 5:30. I began making calls to the FBO from 25 miles out. No answer. A while later, another plane called in from the northwest. Other than that, silence.

I was fifteen miles out when Lake Powell came into view. It looked gray and angry under mostly cloudy skies.

I landed on the taxiway parallel to runway 33 and went right to parking. A line guy from American Aviation arrived with a golf cart to pick me up. I shut down and jumped in. It was 5:30 PM; the 200 NM flight had taken almost exactly 2 hours. I was just in time to get my rental car.

Helicopters 101: Flight Planning

The basics of cross-country flight planning for helicopters.

Articles in the Helicopters 101 series:
Flight Planning
Hover Charts
Ground School

Recently a reader of this blog wrote to suggest that I cover cross-country planning as a blog topic. I searched my archives and found that I already had. My post, “Flight Planning,” goes into a great deal of detail about the process I use to prepare for Part 135 charter flights, which require a complete flight plan. But that’s probably not what this reader was talking about. I think he was more interested in the nuts and bolts of creating a flight plan.

This weekend, I have to make three relatively long cross-country flights:

  • Wickenburg, AZ (E25) to Page, AZ (PGA) – 189 nm direct
  • Page, AZ (PGA) to Salt Lake City, UT (SLC) – 232 nm direct
  • Salt Lake City, UT (SLC) to Seattle, WA (BFI) – 601 nm direct

I’ve flown the route from Wickenburg to Page and back numerous times. I’ve done Salt Lake CIty to Page once and Seattle to Salt Lake City once. I figured I’d use the PGA to SLC flight, which I’ll be doing alone, as an example of how I plan a flight.


A few days before the scheduled flight, I start checking the weather along my route. I use the National Weather Service’s NOAA Web site for weather information. After all, the NWS is the source of all the weather data for the United States. That’s where the Weather channel and Duats and the FAA get raw weather data. Although each weather reporting organization may interpret it slightly differently, it’s all based on the same stuff. And the NWS site doesn’t bombard me with obnoxious advertising.

A lot of folks use the Aviation Weather link to get aviation weather information. I don’t — at least not a few days out. Remember, I’m flying a helicopter. I’m 500 – 1000 feet off the ground. I don’t care much about upper level disturbances, the jet stream,or icing in clouds. I’m not getting anywhere near that stuff.

Page Weather

The graphic weather forecast for Page on the morning this post was written.

What I’m interested in is forecasted conditions for the departure and arrival airports, as well as any cities in between. So, in this case, I would check out the weather forecast for Page, Salt Lake City, and possibly Richfield, which is roughly halfway between the two. I’ll pay close attention to the forecast for my day of travel, as well as the day before and after.

What I see today is relatively poor forecasted conditions for Saturday, the day of my flight, with chance of rain or snow at each location. Not what I want to see, but remember, it’s a forecast. It will probably change. I have to hope it gets better.


Next, I plan out my route. Although I listed straight-line distances at the beginning of this piece, I seldom fly in a straight line. Instead, I try to find a route that’s a compromise between a straight line — which, out in the desert, usually means doing a lot of flying in the middle of nowhere — and following roads — which is where people will be if I need help.

Now I need to make it clear that unless there’s a road going the way I need to go, I’m not going to follow roads to get from Point A to Point B. I don’t want to go out of my way — at least not too far. Helicopters are expensive to fly and I’m not made of money. The time budget for this trip is 2 hours — that’s what the client paid for — and I’ll need all of it and then some. So what I want is a compromise that puts me near roads for part of my trip.

I plan my route with charts. World Aeronautical Charts (WACs) are very handy for long cross-country flight planning. But sectionals offer more detail.

Of course, I cheat. I use It puts the charts onscreen and enables me to do some very basic flight planning — mostly distances and directions. As the site warns — probably with the advice of lawyers — it’s not for navigation or preflight use. But I use it for preliminary planning. It really helps me get a good idea of where I need to go.


The pink line at the bottom is the direct route from Page to Brice; the red and blue lines are my two options for continuing northbound without overflying 10,000 foot mountains.

In this case, I’m seeing that a direct flight from Page (PGA) to Bryce Canyon (BCE) would take me 57 nm mostly over remote, high desert terrain, climbing from about 4300 feet to over 7000 feet. No major mountain ranges to cross along the way — and that’s good.

From there, I can follow the East Fork of the Sever River and the road beside it northbound between a pair of mountain ranges topping out at over 10,000 and 11,000 feet, then follow a pass that’ll hook me up with Highway 89. This map shows it as the red route. That’s the way I flew last time and the only drawback I recall was the rough air in that pass.

The other option is to continue on almost the same heading to Panguitch (U55), which will hook me up with Highway 89. I can then follow that northbound between two mountain ranges topping out at 11000 feet, staying slightly lower in overall altitude and sticking with a well-traveled road. This map shows it as the blue route.

Completed Route

My planned route, roughed out on SkyVector.

I continue this process for the entire trip. This one’s pretty easy; I’ll be following Route 89 most of the way. When I get to the outskirts of Salt Lake City, I’ll be following I-15. This turns my 232 nm trip into a 259 nm trip and adds at least 15 minutes of flight time. But I’ve minimized my flying time over the middle of nowhere without detouring too much out of my way. The WAC charts I pasted together here from SkyVector screenshots give you an idea of what the entire route looks like. I can also see that my flight without wind could be as long as 2-1/2 hours. My helicopter’s endurance is just 3 hours, so I need to consider the possibility of needing a fuel stop if I hit headwinds. Fortunately, there are plenty of airports with fuel along the last 50 miles of my route.

By the way, the main benefit to following a road when you enter busy airspace and don’t know the local reporting points is that you can state your position to ATC in relation to the road. For example, “Helicopter Zero-Mike-Lima is ten miles south over I-15” is a very definite location.

Once I get a rough outline of the course, I go into detail with sectional charts. I buy them as needed for my cross-country flights. I’ll check to be sure there’s no special airspace or weird activity (think gliders and ultralights) along the way. I’ll also look for charted power lines — not that I’ll remember them when the flight time comes. I’ll make a cheat sheet of airport names, designators, elevations, and frequencies so they’re easy to enter into my GPS for added navigation assistance during flight.

Although I don’t usually mark up my local charts (Phoenix sectional and terminal area chart), I don’t mind taking a highlighter to the Las Vegas and Salt Lake City Sectionals I’ll use for this trip. I’ll also have a Salt Lake City terminal area chart on hand. Before I start my flight, I’ll fold them all neatly to expose the route. With just one hand to fiddle with charts, it’s much easier to prepare before lift off.

Destination Information

On this particular trip, I’ll be landing at Salt Lake City Airport, a Class Bravo airport I’ve never landed at before. I’ll need to know where on the airport I’ll be landing so I don’t sound like a complete idiot when I talk to the tower.

Airport Diagram

The airport diagram for SLC. General aviation is handled in the southeast corner, not far from the I-15 freeway.

I could pull out my Airport/Facilities Directory and look up the airport, but that green book is already stowed in the helicopter for the trip. So instead, I’ll hop online to the FAA’s AeroNav Services (formerly NACO) web site. Once there, I’ll click the link for Free Digital Products and then click d -TPP and Airport Diagrams on the page that appears. (Note that you can get a PDF of the page(s) for a specific airport from this site, too.) I’ll use links and search to get the Airport Diagram for SLC, which will be downloaded as a PDF. I can print it out for future reference and put it with my charts.

I’ll also go to AOPA Airports and get information for SLC. I’m interested mainly in FBOs. I was told to go to Million Air, so I want its location, frequency, and phone numbers. AOPA Aiports also shows a zoomed in satellite image of the FBO’s location, making it easy to mark on the airport diagram.

While I’m at the AOPA Airports site, I’ll also jot down the phone numbers for the AWOS or ASOS systems along my route. I’ll program these into my cell phone. This way, if I need up-to-date weather information for a specific airport, I can get it by simply calling. This has come in handy in the past in marginal weather conditions. I have quite a few airports stored in my computer and phone.

Note that I always get airport frequency information from FAA sources: up-to-date charts or the Airport/Facilities Directory. No online database that isn’t maintained by the FAA is guaranteed to be accurate. There’s nothing worse than trying to land at a towered airport and having the wrong frequency for it. I’ll also update my Garmin 420‘s database before this flight. I have an annual subscription, but I often skip updates because they’re such a pain in the butt to install.

Final Planning

I’ll keep watching the weather all week. If it starts to look like its getting worse, I’ll start thinking about rescheduling my trip. In all honesty, the only thing that would stop me from doing the flight would be winds in excess of 40 miles an hour (possible, but not likely), low clouds (definitely possible), or freezing rain (possible). Although I mostly fly in great weather here in the desert, I’ve flown in ugly weather, too. A fair weather pilot should not be flying for hire.

The day before the flight, I’ll call Million Air and tell them to expect me. I don’t have to do that, but it’s better than just dropping in. They’ll also give me some insight about where to land/park. I’ll note it on my airport diagram.

The day of the flight, I’ll check the weather again. This time, I’ll use I’ll punch in my flight plan airports and let Duats tell me the official aviation weather and notams and give me a more precise (official) flight plan that factors in the wind.

Could I do it by hand? Yes, if I had to. But I don’t so I don’t.

I’ll also make my fly/no fly decision.

I’ll file a flight plan via Duats. I might forget to open it when I take off, though. I often do when I fly by myself. But I have a Spot Messenger that broadcasts my location to a Web site that my husband monitors. I think that’s better flight following than I could get from the FAA without climbing to 12,000 feet. (Keep in mind that I don’t have oxygen and the R44 vibrates like a coin op motel bed at altitudes above 9500 feet.)

That’s About It

That’s all there is to it. The longer the flight, the more variables to consider. This is a pretty short one. The flight from Salt Lake City to Seattle is another story. Lots of variables there. My co-pilot on that trip will plan and fly the entire route. I’ve already looked at the route he suggested and it seems fine to me. I’ll just follow along on the chart.

The main thing that makes this different from planning for an airplane flight is the altitude issue. Airplanes climb several thousand feet over terrain. Mountains don’t get in their way; they’re above the mountains. Helicopters generally don’t fly that high, so we often look for routes that take us around obstacles like 11,000 foot mountain ranges. We also have the luxury of being able to land almost anywhere if we have a problem

Animals from the Air

Wild horses, antelope, and sheep — oh, my!

I flew from Grand Canyon Airport to Page Municipal Airport (at Lake Powell) again yesterday.

FlightPath.jpgEach time I make this trip, I follow pretty much the same route, hugging the southeast corner of the Grand Canyon Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA) until I get to the Little Colorado River Gorge and then heading pretty much due north. I wind up just outside the SFRA near Marble Canyon so I can show off Navajo Bridge and Lees Ferry before a quick flight past Horseshoe Bend, the Glen Canyon Dam, and Wahweap Marina. If the wind is in my favor, I can touch down at Page within an hour of departure from Grand Canyon. The same distance by car would take about 2-1/2 to 3 hours.

The terrain for most of this flight — from the Little Colorado River Gorge north, in fact — is high desert — technically the famous “Painted Desert” — and relatively barren. There are, however, some interesting features if you look hard for them. Since I’m always trying to point out interesting things for my passengers to see, I look very hard.

Ruins are relatively common. Round rock foundations are the remains of ancient hogans. (This area is on the Navajo reservation.) There are also the remains of animal enclosures, usually build with the same rock. There are complete hogans, some of which may still be occupied for at least part of the year, and ranches with hogans, sheds, outhouses, animal enclosures, and other buildings. All of these things are scattered across an immense landscape that takes more than 30 minutes to cross at 120 miles per hour.

There are also animals.

One of the questions I’m asked quite often by passengers is whether I see wildlife from the helicopter. I do, but not so often as to make it a common occurrence. It depends on where I’m flying, what time of day it is, and how hard I’m looking for wildlife.

Take antelope, for example. There are a few “prairies” north of I-40 and west of Mt. Kendricks in northern Arizona where, if I look hard enough, I can usually spot a herd of antelope. I know where to look and I remember to look. They’re hard to spot because their color matches the terrain so well. It usually takes movement to spot them. When I see them and point them out, my passengers never see them at first. I have to slow down, turn around, and drop a few hundred feet as we approach the herd. That gets them running a bit so my passengers can see them. As soon as they’re spotted — and photographed, if the passengers remember to whip out a camera — I move away. It’s not my goal to terrify the antelope population of northern arizona by buzzing them with a helicopter.

(When I flew at the Grand Canyon, I always saw at least one elk a day in the forest on one of my first or last flights for the day. My passengers never saw them and, since swooping around to show them wasn’t possible, I simply stopped pointing them out. It would be my own private treat.)

There are wild horses in numerous places throughout Arizona. I wrote a bit about them here. They’re also on the route I take from the Grand Canyon to Page. Today, my passengers and I spotted at least four herds of them — the most ever. They’re a lot easier to spot than antelope because of their size and color. But they’re also a lot easier to confuse with cattle. I look for long legs and long, thick tails.

There are domesticated sheep in various places throughout northern Arizona. We flew over a good-sized herd tended by four dogs today. They were a lot farther south than I expected — I usually see them farther north. This could be a different herd, of course. There were about 50 animals in that herd and the dogs did a pretty good job of keeping them together, even when my helicopter spooked them. (Yes, I had to do a circle for my passengers to see them; they were pretty small.)

In the past, I’ve also seen javelinas (pronounced have-a-leenas) from the air. They’re usually in herds of a dozen or more animals and I’ve only spotted them when I was alone, flying a lot lower than I do with passengers on board.

Of course, I don’t have photos of any of this. I’m flying and my hands are usually busy. My passengers never seem to remember to send me their shots. But one of these days, I’ll have some photos to share.