[Another] Predawn Flight to Scottsdale

Flying before the day begins.

I had an early flight in Scottsdale yesterday. Three passengers wanted a custom tour of the Phoenix area.

The man who booked it kept asking to do it earlier and earlier. First 8 AM. Then 7:30 AM. Then 7:00 AM. And then 6:30 AM. “We’ll meet you at 6:15 AM,” he finally said. “Will the pilot be ready to fly right away?”

I assured him that the pilot would be ready to fly within 10 minutes of meeting them. I didn’t mention that the pilot would be me. I hung up, glad he hadn’t shifted the flight another fifteen minutes earlier.

The helicopter was in Wickenburg. Although I’ve been storing it in Deer Valley for most of this season, I took the month of March off. There were a few reasons for it, including two trips (that were eventually postponed). So I had to fly the helicopter down to Scottsdale from Wickenburg — a 35-minute flight — before meeting the clients. When I calculated my departure time, I realized I’d have to leave my house by 5:00 AM to make it on time.

I set my alarm for 4:20 AM. I woke up at 3:30 AM. I showered and thoroughly enjoyed a cup of coffee with Alex the Bird and Jack the Dog. Then I packed up my laptop and flight manifest, shut off the lights, and stepped out to start my day.

It was dark outside. The moon had set, but I could see stars. That meant it was clear. The weather forecast looked as good as it usually does, so I wasn’t expecting any difficulties on the flight. The only questions were about the client: Had he lied about the weights of the passengers? Would he really give me 90 minutes of flight time, making the trip worthwhile? (He wasn’t paying for my ferry time, so a short flight would make the trip a loss.) Would he really be at the airport by 6:15?

I drove to the airport in my Ford truck, passing just a few cars and trucks along the way. The green-white-green-white sweep of the rotating beacon cut through the night as I pulled into the drive. I paused long enough to enter a combination on a keypad and wait while the metal gate rolled aside with a beep-beep-beep. Then I steered the truck down the asphalt drive, turned into the first row of hangars, made a broad U-turn, and parked in front of my hangar’s left door, with my headlights facing out. Even though the motion-sensor lights we’d installed over the hangar door went on, I’d need my truck’s headlights to see the combination on the padlock that secured the hangar. Once unlocked, I rolled the right door all the way open on the track and flicked on the lights. The big box hangar filled with light and the steady hum of the overhead fluorescents. I killed the lights on my truck before they killed the battery.

I’d done most of my preflight the afternoon before, after washing the helicopter and putting it away. I’d debated leaving it out overnight, but decided against it in case the client cancelled at the last minute. If I’d left it out, it would have saved me 15 minutes of time that morning. Instead, I had to use the ground handling equipment — a golf cart, a tow bar, and a set of ground handling wheels — to get the helicopter out onto the ramp. I backed the golf cart out of the hangar, towing the helicopter out nose first. Then I turned off the lights in the hangar and rolled the big door shut, securing it with the padlock again.

It was quiet and dark as I backed the cart out onto the ramp. Some of the overhead lights out on the ramp don’t work. It didn’t matter much to me — I wouldn’t park under any of them anyway. I needed room for my rotors to spin; it simply didn’t make sense to park next to a pole. But the ramp was too dark to see what I was doing. I had to turn on the golf cart’s headlights to unhook the tow bar. I’d never used them before and was rather surprised to find that they worked.

With the ground handling equipment out of the way, I climbed into the cockpit and went through my startup procedure. It took two tries to start the engine; not enough priming the first time for the cold. The engine roared to life and I flicked the appropriate switches to get the blades turning, battery charging, and radios working. I clearly heard the relatively high-pitched whine the engine — or something else back there — makes when it’s cold out. I knew from experience that the sound would go away as the engine warmed up. I turned on the navigation lights, which also illuminated the instruments. The green position light beneath my door reflected in the dusty surface of my side window.

I plugged my iPod into the intercom system. I’d listen to music on the way down.

It took a long time for the engine to warm up. While I waited, the guy in the hangar across from mine drove up and parked in front of his hangar. It was 5:30 in the morning — a full hour before sunrise — and the guy didn’t have a plane. What the hell was he doing there? He spent more time at the airport than most aircraft owners did, usually just sitting in his truck and talking on the phone. It creeped me out.

When the cylinder head temperature had sufficiently warmed, I did my mag check and needle split. I loosened the frictions and brought the engine and rotor RPM up to 102%. I was ready to go.

It was still very dark.

I made my radio call: “Wickenburg traffic, helicopter Six-Three-Zero-Mike-Lima is on the ramp, departing to the southeast.” I flicked on my landing lights, surprised, as always, by the sudden glow and the brightness of the dust particles swirling around in my downwash. Then I lifted into a hover, used the pedals to point the nose at the taxiway, and eased forward, climbing gently. When I reached the taxiway, now eight feet off the ground, I banked right and followed the pavement on a heading of 50°.

Wickenburg at Night

This photo by Jon Davison of us landing at Wickenburg at night gives you an idea of what the view from the cockpit looks like with the runway lights on.

The landing light shined down on the taxiway and out ahead of me as I gathered speed and altitude. I was about a quarter of the way down the taxiway when I realized I’d neglected to turn on the runway lights. I pressed the mic switch seven times. Nothing happened. I tried again, more slowly. The runway lights came to life: two strands of glistening white pearls turning to orange and then to red as they receded into the distance. The taxiway lights, glowed blue in a pair of light strings to their right beneath me. Beyond them was the dark void of empty desert and the greedy dreams of a failed real estate project. Aligning myself with the taxiway lights, I climbed out into the night. I flicked the switch to kill the landing lights.

The lights of Wickenburg spread out before me like a handful of gems cast into the desert by a giant. As I gained altitude to clear the invisible mountains just south of the town’s center, the distant glow of the Phoenix area came into view on the horizon, blocked here and there by the dark shapes of mountains that lay between me and the city beyond. I continued to climb. My goal would be to clear all those little mountains so I wouldn’t have to worry about hitting them in the dark.

I’ve flown the route between Wickenburg and Scottsdale many times. I even flew it at least one other time before dawn. But this time, I was tuned in to the darkness and silence of the night. I pressed the play switch on my iPod, letting some classic rock accompany the steady hum of my engine and the beat of my rotor blades. I climbed to 4,000 feet MSL — more than fifteen hundred feet over the desert below me — and leveled out. I was clear of all mountains between me and my destination.

Once away from Wickenburg, below me was only the darkness of the empty desert. With no moon, there was barely enough starlight to make out the meandering lines of dry washes and the occasional dirt road. Without visual landmarks, I realized I didn’t know where I was. Was that the Santo Dominguez Wash? Or one of the lesser washes in the area? And how about those lights to the left? Campers? Or that ranch off Constellation Road, viewed from a different angle? Only my GPS and the view of Phoenix’s lights spread out in the distance before me assured me that I was heading in the right direction.

The sky brightened ever so slightly as I glided southeast. The air was calm and smooth; my helicopter could have been a skiff floating on glassy water. I crossed over a well-defined dirt road that had to be Castle Hot Springs Road. Then I recognized the lights of the Quintero golf course and vehicles on Carefree Highway. The brightening sky reflected in Lake Pleasant, far to my left.

After ten minutes of flying over empty desert, I was returning to civilization: the northern reaches of Peoria.

I descended through 3500 feet, feeling ridiculously high above the ground as the glow from lights below me started reflecting in the inside of my cockpit bubble. I turned up the brightness on my instrument lights just a bit. Still descending, I flicked the radio to listen to the ATIS at Deer Valley. It was 5:50 AM and the tower was still closed. The automated weather observation system reported calm winds and an altimeter setting of 30.04. I adjusted my altimeter while listening to the recorded voice of the controller who’d closed the tower the night before. The tower would open at 6 AM. I wondered whether I’d reach the airport before then. I tuned the radio to the common traffic advisory frequency for Deer Valley, made a radio call with my position ten miles out, and continued on a course that would take me right over the top.

Lights at Night

The lights of the Phoenix area, at night. Photo by Jon Davison.

To the south, the brightness of lights on the ground intensified. The area was packed with new subdivisions, some completed before the housing bubble burst while others still had empty, weed-filled lots beneath their street lamps. It was a sharp contrast to the empty desert I’d been flying over for most of the trip. It amazed me that people wanted to live like that — packed like sardines into bulldozer-groomed lots — when there was so much beautiful desert, with rolling hills, cactus, and natural landscaping only a half mile away. The wide open spaces are what drew us to Wickenburg in 1997, but even that small town wasn’t immune to the greed of developers. Town planning restrictions were overturned on a case-by-case basis — often against voter’s wishes — for favored developers, resulting in smaller and smaller lots. Land zoned as horse property was rezoned to keep horses out and make lots too small to have them anyway. The retirees bought second homes in town to escape the cold of the midwest, doubling the population — for half the year, anyway. A friendly little western town turned into a retirement community right before our eyes. All of our young friends moved on to places like Colorado and New Mexico and California, leaving us with the retirees.

But I’m not ready to retire from life.

I descended to 2500 feet — a good 500 feet above where I normally flight during daylight hours — and leveled off. At five miles out, I made another call to Deer Valley traffic. I was now crossing into Deer Valley’s airspace; if the Tower had been occupied, I’d have to establish radio communication with the controller. I was the only one on the radio though — no one else spoke up. I crossed over the Central Arizona Project (CAP) canal where it meets the I-17 freeway. The sky, now quite bright, reflected in its smooth waters, drawing a bright line to the southeast.

Two miles from Deer Valley, I made another position call. No answer. I was close enough to see the tower; there was some light up there. Towers are normally kept dark so the controllers can see outside without bothersome reflections. A moment later, the airport’s two runways stretched out below me. I didn’t bother turning on the lights; I wasn’t landing and didn’t need them. But I could still see them quite clearly in the predawn light. It was about 5:58 AM and I expected the tower to open at any minute. I used the radio to announce that I was over the top and transitioning to Scottsdale. No answer. I glided on my way, descending down to 2300 feet.


In this last shot by Jon Davison, you get an idea of how the horizon looks before dawn. (This shot was actually taken after sunset.)

Now the lights were bright below me as I flew over one subdivision after another. I crossed the Loop 101 freeway. Ahead of me, I could see the rotating beacon at Scottsdale Airport, about 12 miles away. The black bulk of the mountains on the horizon were well defined with sharp edges against the bright sky. Four Peaks was clearly identifiable by its four individual peaks.

I used my second radio to listen to Scottsdale’s ATIS while remaining tuned into Deer Valley. That airport was still closed, too. The automated weather system reported light winds and an altimeter setting just a few hundredths off from Deer Valley’s. The recorded controller’s voice warned of an unlighted 150-foot construction crane and advised that the tower would open at 6 AM. I flicked the recording off.

Now I was wondering about my client again, wondering whether he’d show up on time, whether he’d lied about his weight, whether he’d give me more than the 90 minutes of flight time he promised. I’d know soon enough.

The sound of a telephone dial tone came through the radio in three short bursts. Then the Deer Valley controller came on. He sounded tired and depressed, as if he’d just woken up to bad news, as he read the standard tower opening statement over the radio. It was long. I was still in his airspace, so I listened. At the end, he said, “Helicopter Zero-Mike-Lima, traffic ahead and to your left is a helicopter at twenty-five hundred feet. Frequency change approved.”

I’d already seen the helicopter flying west along the north side of the Loop 101. I replied: “Zero-Mike-Lima has that traffic in sight. Changing frequencies. Have a good day.”

I switched over to Scottsdale tower with the flick of a button. A female controller with a bright, bubbly voice was giving instructions to a jet preparing to take off.

I waited until she was finished and the pilot had replied, then made my call: “Scottsdale Tower, helicopter Six-Three-Zero-Mike-Lima is seven to the west off Deer Valley landing at the terminal.”

“Helicopter Zero-Mike-Lima, proceed inbound, report a half mile west.”

“Will report a half mile west, Zero-Mike-Lima.”

I continued inbound, crossing over Route 51. The sky was much brighter now; dawn was only 30 minutes off. I continued my descent to 2000 feet, roughly 500 feet over the ground. I listened to the tower talk with a female airplane pilot with the call sign “Traffic Watch” and wondered what kind of traffic she could watch from an airplane. Maybe I’d misheard them. She was using Runway 3.

Then I was less than a mile out and ready to start my final approach. I reported my position and was cleared to land on the ramp with the usual “use caution; ramp uncontrolled” and “remain west of the runway and taxiway at all times.” I repeated the “remain west” restriction as I steered to the south, descending. When I was abeam the approach end of runway 3, I swung northeast and lined up with the ramp, parallel to runway 3 and the taxiway beside it. I came in behind all the jets parked on the ramp and hover-taxied beyond them to transient parking for small airplanes. I set down at the end of the “Reserved” row and started my shutdown procedure.

In front of me, the terminal’s empty windows reflected the bright glow of the predawn sky, along with the flash of my helicopter’s strobe light. It wasn’t night anymore, but it wasn’t really day, either. It was that in-between time, the time of day when you put the secrets of the dark night behind you and prepare to embrace the day. It’s a special time, a time that’s always calm, always reflective. A time that makes me feel good to be alive.

I shut down and went inside the terminal. It was 6:10 AM.

And in case you’re wondering, the passengers did show up, they lied by a total of 50 pounds about their weights, and they flew with me for a full two hours.

Finding a Legal Landing Zone

It’s not as easy as it seems sometimes.

At Lake Pateros
My R44, parked on the side lawn at the Lake Pateros Inn in Washington State. Sadly, heat from my engine browned the grass.

One of the benefits of operating a helicopter is that you can land it almost anywhere. One of the drawbacks of this, however, is that not all landing zones are legal.

The other day, I was asked by a client to find a pickup location for him that was closer to where he was staying than Scottsdale Airport. He suggested two possibilities that I knew I couldn’t use:

  • A private helipad at the resort where he’s staying. That helipad is owned by another helicopter operator who gets three times what I do per hour of flight time. They do not allow others to use their helipad.
  • A private, residential airport near the resort where he’s staying. They have a strict “no helicopter” policy.

I went through the motions and called the managers of both facilities. I was told what I expected to be told: that I could not use them.

What Do the FARs Say?

Around this time, I commented on Twitter that I was conducting a search. Another pilot, who flies airplanes, wanted to know how I was searching and where legal landing zones were covered in the FARs (Federal Aviation Regulations).

The truth is, they’re not. There’s no FAR that clearly states where you’re allowed to land a helicopter.

Instead, the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) offers some clear guidance on where you’re not allowed to land any aircraft. 7-4-6 Flights Over Charted U.S. Wildlife Refuges, Parks, and Forest Service Areas states, in part:

The landing of aircraft is prohibited on lands or waters administered by the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, or U.S. Forest Service without authorization from the respective agency. Exceptions include:

1. When forced to land due to an emergency beyond the control of the operator;
2. At officially designated landing sites; or
3. An approved official business of the Federal Government.

I assume this is in the FARs somewhere — the AIM is generally a plain English translation of most FARs, better organized and easier to read — but I can’t track it down.

So Where Can You Land?

A Heli Outing
This heli-outing brought three helicopters, including my old R22, out in the desert near the Swansea Townsite.

When I first started flying helicopters, knowing where you were allowed to land in a non-emergency situation was a big deal. Everyone dreams of landing on their best friend’s driveway or backyard. Was it legal? How about showing up at your kid’s soccer game? Dropping off a friend at work in an office park? Stopping in at Krispy Creme for a donut and coffee? Landing along the lakeshore for a quick afternoon swim?

Is any of this legal?

My answer: it depends.

Before you read any farther, understand that I am not a lawyer. I cannot advise you on these matters. If you get in trouble for landing somewhere and use what you read here as a legal defense, you are an idiot and deserve to lose your license. I’m just sharing what I’ve learned through experience. I don’t know all the answers and certainly cannot advise you in your specific situations.

Landing in the Middle of Nowhere

R22 in Riverbed
A blast from the past: My old R22 sitting in a wash south of Alamo Lake about a day after it flowed. Hard sand makes a good landing surface.

Keep in mind that I live on the edge of nowhere. Wickenburg is on the northwest end of Maricopa County. There’s not much other than empty desert in most directions. Go southeast and you’ll get to the Phoenix metro area within 30 minutes, but go in almost any other direction and you’ll be driving (or flying) for a while before you get anywhere else.

That said, friends and I have landed our helicopters at many remote patches of desert, both privately owned and owned by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

I discovered through telephone calls, an exchange of mail, and a $270 fine that I’m allowed to land on BLM land that’s not Wilderness area as long as I don’t do it with paying passengers on board. Commercial flights must have permits for landing on BLM land. And trust me: BLM will drag its collective butt in getting you a permit once you apply for one. It took 18 months for me to get permission to land at the Swansea Townsite and costs $90/year to maintain that permit. (I’ve landed there once with paying passengers in the past three years; do you think I should renew?)

But land on private land just footsteps away from government-owned land and you’re okay — as long as other factors don’t come into play.

Permissions and Local Ordinances

At the Big Sandy Shoot
Parked at the semi-annual Big Sandy Shoot. The event is held on a mile-square parcel of privately-owned land northwest of Phoenix.

What are the other factors?

Well, you need to have permission of the property owner. After all, it is his property. It doesn’t have to be written permission, but if you don’t have permission, you could be prosecuted for trespassing.

You also need to be aware of any local ordinances against landing. Wickenburg has one of these ordinances, although they only seem interested in enforcing it when it’s convenient to them. (This is the case with many of Wickenburg’s rules, especially those regarding zoning.) Scottsdale also has an ordinance.

Moab, UT didn’t have an ordinance until after I landed at a friend’s 2-1/2 acre property there. The cops rolled by and I thought I’d get in trouble, but they just wanted to see the helicopter. A week later, the ordinance came out and was on the front page of the local newspaper. Oh, well.

There are two ways to find out if a locality has an ordinance against helicopters landing within town limits:

  • Land there and see if you get in trouble. I don’t recommend this approach, but it can be effective, especially in remote areas where you might not even be seen by anyone on the ground.
  • Call ahead and ask. In most cases, they won’t know. You can make a lot of calls and get nowhere. Then you can try the above approach and see where it gets you. Hopefully, not in jail.
Helicopter at HouseParked in the desert north of Phoenix. Photo by Jon Davison.

Of course, this refers to towns and cities. Within those are subdivisions that may be controlled by written rules (such as that private airport that won’t allow helicopters). And everything is inside a county, which may have its own rules.

Sounds like a pain in the butt? It is. But if you don’t do your homework before you land off-airport, you’re liable to get in deep trouble with the local authorities and FAA. You could have your pilot certificate suspended or even revoked. I don’t know about you, but I have enough time and money invested in my helicopter pilot certificate, aircraft, and business to act wisely. If I can’t find a legal landing zone where I think I need one, I won’t land there.

Please Read This

Tristan's R44
Before buying my own R44 in 2005, I leased a friend’s. This shot was taken in Congress, AZ, where I attempted to sell helicopter rides a few times.

If you’re landing off-airport, whether you have permission to land at an official helicopter landing zone or you’re just taking a risk landing where you might or might not be allowed to, please, for the sake of all of the helicopter pilots out there, keep these things in mind:

  • Only land where its safe. This applies to the terrain of the landing zone itself, as well as your approach and departure routes. Wouldn’t you be embarrassed if you had a dynamic rollover in your buddy’s backyard?
  • Land at the edge of activity — or farther away, if possible. I used to do rides at the Mohave County Fair. My landing zone was at the far end of the event, beyond the carnival rides. There were many people at the event who didn’t even know there was a helicopter around. I’ve also landed at remote restaurants far enough away that no one even heard me approach.
  • Only land where you can secure the landing zone while the helicopter is running. I’ll land places where there may be people on the ground if I have a second person on board with me to get out and keep the landing zone clear of curious bystanders. But if I’m alone, I wouldn’t even think of landing where someone might approach the helicopter while it’s running. Do you really think it would be a good idea to land at your kid’s soccer game? What if a bunch of those kids ran toward you from behind and ducked under the tailcone? Do I have to paint a bloody picture for you?
  • Do not overfly people, vehicles, animals, or buildings at low-level. This is for courtesy and safety. Engine failure on approach or departure means a possibly messy crash into whatever’s below you. Crashing into an empty parking lot is very different from crashing into a crowded soccer field or county fair arcade. (By the same token, anyone who buys a home within a mile of the approach/departure end of any airport runway should have his/her head examined.)
  • Be courteous to people on the ground. Don’t spend more time than necessary circling the landing zone at low level. Once you know your approach and departure routes, get it on the ground. Don’t give bystanders a reason to complain. That’s why localities make these ordinances. Because some jackass pilot annoyed just the right number of people to get the ordinance voted in.
  • Do not draw attention to yourself. Sure, it’s cool to land off-airport and yeah, everyone will be jealous. But aren’t you above all that? If you can land and depart in such a way that no one even knows how you arrived, that’s even cooler.
  • Do not walk away from the aircraft with the engine running and blades spinning. I can’t believe I have to include this no-brainer on a list, but here it is, for the folks who have no brain and actually leave a running helicopter unattended.
  • If asked to leave, do so quickly and without argument. Be apologetic. Be nice. Don’t be an asshole.

The rest of us are depending on you to act wisely so the FAA doesn’t add a rule that prevents us from landing off airport.

My Advice

Mansion Landing
Parked at the house of some friends just outside Wickenburg town limits. They cleared a small helipad up there for me to use. Photo by Jon Davison.

My advice is that you don’t land anywhere where safety or legality may be an issue. Do your homework and get the information you need to establish whether your landing zone is legal.

Or simply land at the nearest airport. That’s what I’ll be doing for my upcoming charter flight.

Wine Tasting at Bacchus

A nice night out in Scottsdale.

My friend Tom, who is a wine lover like me, has a home in the Scottsdale, AZ area, where he lives during the week. (You may recall the article I wrote about dinner at Tom’s Wickenburg home.) On Wednesday nights, he goes to a wine shop named Bacchus, for wine tastings. It’s mostly a social event, but it also gives him an opportunity to try a wide variety of wines, many of which he purchases for his wine “cellar.” He’s urged us to join him, but since Scottsdale is a 60-mile drive from Wickenburg, it isn’t exactly convenient.

Yesterday, however, I had some other plans that included a trip to Scottsdale. I needed to drop off my “airport car” at a friend’s hangar near Scottsdale Airport, where it would wait patiently for my next trip down there. About half of Flying M Air’s business is out of Scottsdale these days and since the old Toyota wasn’t doing anything worthwhile in Wickenburg, I thought I’d leave it in Scottsdale for ground transportation when I flew down for business. So I drove it down there yesterday afternoon. The poor car rides terribly at slow speeds in city stop-and-go situations, but is like a magic carpet at highway speeds. The speedometer must be wrong because it said we were doing almost 80 all the way down there but it sure didn’t feel like it and there were still a few cars passing us on the highway. The radio’s speakers are all broken too now — must be the dry air — so I had to listen to my iPod with ear buds. That was okay because the car is also pretty loud (the engine is right behind me and it rides low to the ground) and the plug-style buds I wear blwocked out most of the road noise. I tried to catch up with NPR podcasts and managed to hear at least 15 of them during the ride.

Along the way, I stopped at Tom’s business in the Deer Valley area, AeroPhoenix. Tom’s a distributor for aviation/pilot supplies and he occasionally lets me wander through his warehouse to look at all the great books (he must have the largest selection of aviation books anywhere), gadgets, and other pilot aids he sells. (This is the business I’d hoped he’d bring to Wickenburg, but he’s pretty settled down in Deer Valley and doesn’t want to move.) I wanted to pick up two pilot shirts — you know, the kind with the do-dads on the shoulder so I could wear my captain’s bars. Although most flights are too casual for such attire, I occasionally do VIP transportation for a Wickenburg-based business owner and I think wearing a captain’s “uniform” would help impress my client’s clients. He had these great helicopter ties, too, but I even thought that particular width is in style, I like a narrower tie. (I’ve never been accused of being stylish.) I invited Tom to join Mike and I for dinner at Deseo for some ceviche. But Tom was busy with work and said he’d have a hard enough time getting to the wine tasting by 6:30.

I met Mike at Scottsdale Airport after parking the Toyota at its new home away from home. We went to the Westin Kierland Resort and Spa, a relatively new hotel just west of the Kierland Commons shopping center near Scottsdale Airport. It’s a nice place — I certainly wouldn’t mind staying there! We found Deseo on the lower level. Unfortunately, since it was only 5:30, the restaurant was still closed. But the bar was open and they were serving mojitos and a limited menu for appetizers. We ordered a pair of the smoothest mojitos I’ve ever had and five different ceviche dishes. As we waited for the food, the small bar filled with people. A bowl game was just starting on the big television above the bar. Our food came from the kitchen in two batches: five incredible collections of ingredients and flavors. We argued over which dish was best and decided that we’d have to come back for dinner in the restaurant and try again.

We asked the concierge for directions to Bacchus. It was in Kierland Commons, about a half mile from the hotel. We took the car so we could park it nearby and save a walk after the tasting. We wound up having to valet park it; there were no spaces near the shops.

Bacchus is a wine shop with a limited selection of wines and a very knowledgeable, service-oriented staff. If you want something they don’t have, they can order it for you, Tom assured us later in the evening. The tasting was $15 per person. After establishing where Tom usually sits (he wasn’t there yet), we took our tasting glasses and notes to the table and introduced ourselves to the folks already there. Among them was Stan, another Bacchus regular. Our table filled up quickly, although I was able to hold a seat for Tom. He arrived right before the tasting, looking a little disheveled, and took the seat I’d saved beside me.

I’ll be honest — I was a bit disappointed with the tasting. It wasn’t the wine so much — I liked two of them and didn’t care much for the other two. It was the accompanying lecture. The session was supposed to be Wine Tasting 101, a beginner’s guide to tasting wine. But rather than step us through the wine tasting process — swirl, examine the legs, sniff, sip, roll around on the palette, etc. — the lecturer gave us tidbits of tasting information as we tried the four wines over a 90-minute period. I was hoping for a more step-by-step approach, with the lecturer telling us, with each wine, what we should be smelling and tasting. It always bothered me that wines could be described as having vanilla or almond or blackberry flavors and I could never taste it. I was hoping to learn how to taste it. I guess the point is, I was hoping to learn. The lecture, however, didn’t cover anything more than I could get from a few winery visits in Napa or Sonoma county.

(Okay, so not everyone in the Scottsdale area has the inclination to go for wine tastings in California’s wine country. But we’ve been there four times, most recently this past June, so there wasn’t much new to us. I never thought of myself as a wine “expert” — and still don’t — but we’re apparently better educated about wine than most people.)

I liked the chardonnay (Le Snoot, 2005) and cabernet sauvignon (Edge, 2004) that we tasted. After the last wine, Tom ordered a bottle of one of his favorites for the table: Giacomo Vico Barbera d’ Alba 2001. It’s a nice, smooth red wine. When that was gone, he ordered an Ada Nada Barbaresco Elisa 2000. Even better.

Now if you’re wondering how I remembered the exact names of the wines, I didn’t. I bought a total of six bottles (two each of the chardonnay and cabernet and one each of the Barbera and Barbaresco and just read the names off the labels. I don’t go to wine tastings just to taste wine. I go to find wines I can buy and bring home and drink. The purchase stood me back over $100 — this ain’t Two-Buck Chuck — but now I know I have good wines on hand for good meals and special occasions.

The last bottle was only halfway finished when Mike and I rose to leave. Tom was going to be moving on to a place called the Ocean Club, where he sometimes went after tastings to meet friends. Evidently, there’s a piano bar there and people gather around and sing. (I don’t think he’s talking about karaoke, either.)

Unfortunately, Mike and I had horses to feed and a dog to let out. Wickenburg was 60 miles away. Although we’d each had a fair helping of wine, it had been spread out over a long enough period that neither of us were anywhere near drunk. We retrieved the car from the valet and Mike drove us home. We stepped in the door at 9:30 PM.

Tom’s left us with an open invitation to join him at Bacchus any Wednesday evening. He has a guest room in his Scottsdale area condo where we can spend the night if we need to. I might take him up on that offer now that I have a car in Scottsdale. The next time I fly into Scottsdale on a Wednesday, when I’m finished with business, I’ll park the helicopter for the night. Then I’ll drive on over to Bacchus for some wine, hit the Ocean Club to check out the scene there, and crash at Tom’s place. In the morning, I can fly back to Wickenburg. Sounds like a plan, huh?

Now all I need is a Wednesday charter down in Scottsdale.

Predawn Flight to Scottsdale

An early morning charter.

Earlier in the week, I took a reservation for a 7 AM flight out of Scottsdale with a photographer, his assistant, and their client. The job was a photo shoot in the Camelback Mountain area. The idea was to catch the early morning light shining on the mountain with the city of Phoenix in the background.

It was a great idea, but there was one minor problem: a cold front moved through the area yesterday and temperatures in Phoenix are actually getting down near freezing. The coldest part of the day is right before dawn. The sun was scheduled to rise at 7:18 AM. And when we do a photo flight, we fly with at least one door off.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

What I really wanted to write about was my flight down to Scottsdale.

I left my house at 5:30 AM. It was 27°F outside. And dark. Very dark.

I drove to the airport, parked my Jeep in front of the hangar, and pulled the hangar door open. It was only slightly warmer inside the hangar. I had to turn on the light in there to see what I was doing — normally I get plenty of light through the two skylights on the roof. I’d preflighted the helicopter the afternoon before, so it was ready to go. Only thing I still needed was fuel.

I pulled the helicopter out onto the ramp, closed the hangar door, and pulled it up to the fuel island. I was wearing my brown leather flight jacket, which I don’t get a chance to wear very often here in Arizona. I was also wearing my O.J. gloves. Those are the brown leather gloves that are so tight, every time I pull them on, I say to myself, “If the gloves don’t fit, you must acquit.” Sheesh. And I didn’t watch a minute of the trial.

I fueled in the dim light shining over the fuel island. Although the airport was deserted, there was a lot of noise coming from the industrial park on the other side of the runway. They must start work early at one of the manufacturing places over there.

I disconnected my tow equipment and drove it over to the airplane parking area, where I left it for the day.

It took two tries to start the helicopter. My helicopter simply does not like cold weather. I ran the starter for a while to give it every opportunity to start on the first try, but it wasn’t going to cooperate. I had to give it a second priming. Then it started right up.

While the engine warmed up, I turned on the runway and taxiway lights. Wickenburg, like most airports, has pilot controlled lighting (PCL). It enables a pilot to turn on the runway and taxiway lights by clicking the push to talk button on his radio. I tried 5 clicks. The runway lights came on. Then I tried 7. The taxiway lights came on, too.

I let the engine warm for about 10 minutes. The whole time, I waited for my cell phone to ring. The client had until 6:15 AM to cancel. That was my estimated departure time. If he canceled after that, I would charge him a cancellation fee to cover my cost of flying all the way down to Scottsdale for nothing. The helicopter wasn’t ready to go until 6:20. No call from the client, so I brought the engine RPM up to 102% (a Robinson thing), picked it up to a hover, scooted sideways away from the fuel island, turned, made my radio call, and took off along the taxiway parallel to Runway 5.

The sky to the east was beginning to glow reddish orange, but it was still very dark in Wickenburg. So dark that I flew over the taxiway all the way to the end, just in case the engine decided to go back to sleep. If I was going to have an emergency landing, I wanted that landing to be somewhere I could see. Those nice blue taxiway lights made it pretty obvious where the pavement was. Not so as I turned to the southeast and flew over the homes of Wickenburg.

I climbed to about 3000 feet — that’s 1000 or so feet off the ground southeast of Wickenburg — so I wouldn’t have to worry about hitting any granite clouds. I could see the lights of Phoenix far out in the distance. I could also see some mountains on the horizon that looked like Four Peaks but much closer. It turned out that they were Four Peaks. Not only was it cold out, but it was incredibly, beautifully clear. Not a cloud in the sky. The sky above me was a deep, dark blue that got lighter to the southeast until it blended with the red and orange glow of the sun beneath the horizon. And scattered in front of me were millions of city lights.

Sights like these simply cannot be photographed — at least not while flying a helicopter. It’s too dark for a good exposure. And even if the shot did come out without blur or windscreen glare, the foreground would be featureless blackness — not the gently rolling hills and small mountains that I could see beneath me. I wish I could share the view with readers using more than just words, but although the images of the flight are imprinted on my mind, they can’t be reproduced as images here. My words will have to do.

I had programmed Scottsdale into my GPS and a direct flight would take me over Deer Valley Airport, which is only 9-1/2 miles west. I normally fly around Deer Valley. The airport is usually so busy with flight training aircraft on its two runways that the controllers don’t want helicopters transitioning over the top. I listened to the ATIS (Automated Terminal Information System; a recording of airport conditions) and learned that the wind was out of the northeast at 6 knots and the altimeter setting was an amazing 30.49 (it would later get up to 30.54 — the highest pressure reading I’d ever seen). The Tower frequency was pretty quiet as I approached. I listened to the tower tell an inbound airplane to make a straight in landing, then requested my transition. It was immediately granted. A few minutes later, I was flying over the airport at about 2500 feet. Channel 15’s helicopter was flying low over route 101 nearby. When the controller pointed him out, I acknowledged that I’d seen him. Then the controller told me to contact Scottsdale and cut me loose.

I almost always approach Scottsdale from the northwest, so approaching from almost due west was weird. It was still nighttime — at least as far as I was concerned — and the area around the airport was a sea of lights. By this time, however, the sky was much brighter. The smooth water of the CAP canal that wound just north of the airport reflected the sky, looking like a bright, blue-gray ribbon.

I called Scottsdale tower and was told to report a half mile out. Channe1 15’s helicopter was still following the 101, now toward Scottsdale. I was at least 500 feet above him and now south of his position. I started my descent. A few times, I lost my bearings — so many lights! But I recognized Scottsdale Road and Greenway as I crossed the intersection. I made my 1/2 mile call and was told to land at my own risk — the usual thing for helicopters at towered airports.

At Scottsdale, the ramp was full of private and fractional jets. They were crammed into parking spots, obviously towed there. I flew along the ramp behind them, lined up with a row of parked planes, and set down in front of the terminal. It didn’t take long for the helicopter to cool down. It was 6°C on the ramp.

The photo flight a while later went well. The sun rose while I was giving the safety briefing and reviewing the flight path with my passengers. We took off a while later, crossed the runway, and headed toward Falcon Field, another airport in Mesa. When we were almost due east of Camelback, I turned and headed west. The photographer wanted the helicopter close to the mountain, but he had a huge lens on the camera and I knew we’d be too close. We made four passes of Camelback and Squaw Peak, each time moving a little farther away. The last time, we were almost in Scottsdale’s airspace.

All the time we flew, the photographer’s door was off. His camera lens was so long that I had to slow down so he could shoot the pictures — otherwise there was just too much wind when he put the camera lens out in the slipstream. The poor guy was freezing. I sat up front in reasonable comfort beside their client with the heat on full. My right hand was cold — my O.J. gloves are too tight to wear on my right hand when I grip the cyclic — but the rest of me stayed pretty warm.

As we made our passes, I kept a sharp eye out the cockpit and on my GPS’s traffic display for the aircraft that were flying past. We were listening to Sky Harbor’s north tower frequency, but since we were out of their airspace, I wasn’t talking on it. I heard the controller point me out to another airplane in the area once, so I know he saw us on his screen. I saw more than a few planes flying past.

The view was beautiful. The heavy winds the day before had blown most of the smog out, so the city was crystal clear. The low-lying sun cast an orange-yellow light on the mountain sides, leaving the northwest sides in shadow while illuminating the city’s tall buildings in the background. The last pass of Camelback and the third pass of Squaw Peak were probably the best.

The photos will be used for an advertisement about the Valley Metro light rail system Phoenix is finally installing. Unlike New York, which I’m quite familiar with, Phoenix has a really crappy mass transit system. That’s one of the reasons there’s so much traffic and smog. These photos will be used for “before” and “after” shots. “Before” will be a photo touched up to look really smoggy, like a normal Phoenix morning. “After” will be a photo touched up to remove the smog we saw that day — which really wasn’t nearly as bad as usual. The ad will try to convince people to take mass transit to clean the air.

I won’t offer my opinion on the ad strategy but I do like the idea of the photos. And it’ll be neat to see them, knowing that they were taken from my helicopter today.

We returned to Scottsdale by 8:15 AM.

I had two meetings with other potential clients. I had coffee with one of them and breakfast with the other. Then I made some inquiries about office space in Scottsdale at the airport, bought a few things at the pilot shop, and left.

By that time, it was late morning. All the magic of the predawn flight was a dim memory.

Shopping in Scottsdale

Mike and I make a day trip down to Kierland Commons.

It was Sunday morning and Mike was looking for an interesting way to spend the day. We briefly seen the shops at Kierland Commons, just east of the Scottsdale Airport, and he wanted to explore them more fully. (Yes, I have a man who likes to shop.) He was also interested in having a “good lunch” (his words).

I wanted to hit the Organized Living shop on the west side of Scottsdale Airport (right near the loop 101’s Frank Lloyd Wright exit) and the Apple Store down at the Biltmore shopping center (Camelback and 24th Street). I was shopping for a color laser printer, tired of sending small print jobs out and having to wait for the print shop guy to get around to printing them.

So we hopped in Mike’s Honda Accord, which has far more trunk and storage space than my Honda S2000, and drove out of town.

Traffic was light. We got off the Loop 101 at Scottsdale Road less than an hour after leaving the house. We both commented on the development that had been going on over the years. When I was just finishing up my helicopter training in Scottsdale, the entire stretch of Scottsdale Road from where the Loop 101 would be (it didn’t exist there yet) to Bell Road was pretty much empty. The only landmarks were the entrance to the Scottsdale Princess Resort and Chauncey’s Ranch, a really fancy horse facility. Now the same stretch is lined with shopping centers, car dealers, and condos. Chauncy’s Ranch is gone — although it’s still referred to as a check point by pilots flying into Scottsdale Airport — and there’s no empty frontage on Scottsdale Road at all. This is all in a matter of less than five years.

We turned into Kierland Commons, drove down its main street, and were fortunate enough to find a parking spot right in front of one of the shops. The place was bustling with people. Mike’s first order of business was lunch and we quickly found a suitable place: a restaurant called North. The sign said it was “Modern Italian Cuisine” and after a quick glance at the menu, we decided to get a table. There was seating both indoors and outdoors, but we took an inside table. A cold front is moving through the area (again) and neither of us wanted to eat with our jackets on.

Mike ordered an “antipasti of seasonal Italian specialties” and some seared ahi tuna with a salad and I ordered a pizza with figs, prosciutto (an Italian ham), and goat cheese. We shared everything and everything was very good. It’s always great to eat fresh ingredients prepared simply but in interesting combinations.

Once Mike’s stomach (and mine) had been satisfied, we took a walk around the shopping center. It had been designed to resemble a downtown shopping area, with a few streets just wide enough for two-way traffic and diagonal parking on both sides. Shops with various exterior designs lined both sides of the streets. There were tall trees, vine-covered awnings, and a real small town feel. Remarkable, when you think that we were deep in the city of Scottsdale. Although there were a lot of people around and all the parking spots were taken, I couldn’t say it was crowded. Most folks were in the shops and restaurants and in a small parklike area where Santa was waiting to get his picture taken with kids.

The shops were of the designer variety you’d fully expect to find in a place like Scottsdale. I don’t remember many of the shop names — I know little about designer clothes — but some that I do recall include Bebe, Clearwater Creek, Tommy Bahama, Restoration Hardware, Crate and Barrel, and Orvis. We went into very few of the shops, preferring to stroll along the sidewalk and just take in the sights. Mike may be a shopper, but I’m not.

The highlight for Mike was seeing a Bentley Continental GT parked in front of one of the shops. Although I asked him not to drool as he went over to check it out, I’m afraid he might have.

My friends Jim and Judith have been making occasional trips out this way in Jim’s helicopter. Jim parks at the airport and they walk over. It’s not a long walk — maybe 1/4 mile — and although the walk isn’t exactly pleasant, the atmosphere once you get to Kierland Commons certainly is. I have to make a trip for business down to Scottsdale in a few weeks and have saved two seats on the helicopter for anyone interested in joining me for the flight and spending a few hours at Kierland Commons while I take care of business. I’m offering the seats as a special deal through Flying M Air, but if it works out well, I might offer it as a shopping expedition day trip. Although most Wickenburg residents would find the $395 round trip charter price tag a bit tough to swallow, some of the bigger guest ranches in town attract the kind of clientele that would see it as the bargain it really is.

After our walk, we got back into the car and went over to Organized Living. We stopped at the Toyota dealer along the way; I’m thinking about buying a small pickup truck and wanted to check out the Tacomas. Sadly the smallest model that I can add the features I want — 6 cylinder engine, 6-speed manual, tow package, 4×4 off road package — is still a bit larger than I want. We already have one big pickup; I can’t see having two. And I’m accustomed to small vehicles. The sales guy who intercepted us in the lot had to be the worst sales guy I’d ever met. A complete loser who knew less about the trucks and their options than I did. He had no clue how to handle us and quickly retreated back into the building to get help. The sales manager he came out with wasn’t much better.

At Organized Living, we discovered that they’d soon be changing their name to Storables. Okay. The place was in the middle of being reorganized and the item I wanted to buy — a laundry sorter with a clothes rack for hanging finished laundry — wasn’t there. Odd, because I was pretty sure I’d seen it in one of their mailings. We bought something else to do the job and headed out for the Biltmore.

My main goal at the Apple Store was to see the print quality offered by some of the color laser printers I’d been researching. I’m an HP printer person; I’ve owned 2 HP laser printers and both of them continue to work faithfully. Mike has the old one, which is at least 10 years old. I passed it on to him when I realized that my print jobs were just too complex for its limited RAM. That was a LaserJet 4MP. I replaced it with a LaserJet 2100TN, a network printer with 3 paper trays. It continues to work well, but it does make a kind of clanking sound as it spits out each sheet of paper. I think some lubrication in the right places would help. But the printer is 5 years old and would cost more to service than replace. So I’ll continue to use it until it dies.

The idea behind the color laser printer is to be able to produce my own marketing materials for Flying M Air without having to send out small color print jobs. Each page on one of those small jobs costs about $1 at the local print shop and I can’t always get them done as quickly as I’d like. This was beginning to become a nuisance. So I’d get my own color printer and continue to use the old printer for my B&W work. I didn’t want to spend a lot of money. In fact, if I could keep it under $500, I’d be very happy.

Unfortunately, Apple didn’t have a single color laser printer on display at the Apple Store at the Biltmore. They had “all-in-one” devices (fax, scanner, copier, printer) and plenty of photo printers, but no color lasers.

The place was absolutely mobbed, with dozens of people milling about the iPod side of the store and the rest sprinkled around other cool toys. I found a guy to ask about the printers and he confirmed what I’d seen: no color laser printers on display. I asked him some other questions I had about printers. Like can I get a non-network printer if I hook the printer up to a computer and use printer sharing to share it. Yes, was the answer, as long as I left that computer on. How about if the computer was running Mac OS X server? He told me he’d tried it without luck. Server seems to work okay if you use a generic printer driver, but if you try the printer driver that comes with the printer, no luck. That means you can’t access printer-specific features. This confirmed a rumor I had already heard. But it didn’t matter. 99% of the printing I do is from my Dual G5, so I’d just hook up to that.

We left the Apple Store and wandered into Macy’s. Mike was looking for a pair of brown pants. (Ick.) I needed to buy something to wear to Mike’s office Christmas party on Friday. None of my party clothes would fit. I looked at what was available at Macy’s and decided that clothing had gotten just plain ugly. Even the mannequins didn’t look good wearing it. What was wrong with simple clothing with simple lines, the kind of thing that relies on the woman inside them to complete the picture? Not that I’d do a good job completing that picture these days. (I’m feeling quite fat and very ugly.)

Mike, of course, found a pair of slacks and two shirts to buy.

We started on our way home with one more stop to make: a pet store just off I-17 at Happy Valley Road. It’s in a new shopping center that’s probably the closest to Wickenburg without stopping at a traffic light. (How’s that for a weird statistic?) There was a PetCo in there and I went in to buy some feeder fish for a very large carnivorous fish I have in one of my tanks. I wound up with some live plants and other fish for my other tank, too. Meanwhile, Mike had gone into Staples next door. He reported that they had 3 HP color laser printers on display. So after stowing the fish stuff in the car, we went for a look. Oddly enough, they had the same three models I’d been considering. I got a chance to look at them in detail. I was hesitant to buy the one I wanted — a LaserJet 2600n priced at only $319 — because the onboard memory seemed low. But the sales guy, who was extremely helpful and knowledgeable, told me that I had two weeks to try it out and make sure it met my needs. Sold! I bought the printer but passed on the extra consumables ($82 per cartridge and I’d need 4 of them!). This week, I’ll give it a good testing by throwing all kinds of complex documents at it. If it passes this week’s test, I’ll keep it. Otherwise, it’ll go back to Staples and I’ll go back to researching printers.

We rolled into Wickenburg at about 6:30 PM, after spending most of the day shopping down in the valley. It had been good to get out of town and see some new things. And although I’d expected to encounter traffic, congestion, and crowds, there had been none of that. Not bad for three weeks before Christmas.