In Wickenburg.

Sikorsky S-64 SkycraneIn May 2006, a Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane stopped at Wickenburg for fuel on its way to Tucson. Three of Wickenburg’s four resident helicopter owners — including me — were on hand, attracted to the helicopter like bees to honey.

The helicopter, painted bright orange and carrying a crew of three and firefighting equipment, landed at Wickenburg Municipal Airport just after 10 AM on a Sunday morning. It had flown directly to Wickenburg from its last refueling stop at Bullhead City on the Colorado River near Laughlin, NV.

The crew took some time to chat with onlookers and provide information about the rare helicopter. At the time, Tanker 733, as this helicopter was designated for firefighting, was one of only three Skycranes operating in the United States. All other Skycranes were abroad on other missions.

According to the crew, the Skycrane, which weighs over 20,000 pounds, can lift over 25,000 pounds. Its firefighting equipment enables it to suck several thousand gallons of water from a water source at least 18 inches deep in less than a minute. The water is then mixed on board with fire retardant chemicals and sprayed with precision over fires. The helicopter burns approximately 500 gallons of fuel per hour — and you thought your SUV was a gas hog!

WebCam Timelapse – July 11, 2007

Lots of confused cloud activity.

The Arizona sky is making me a liar. In a post earlier this month, I talked about how most days started clear and the clouds built up throughout the day. This week, however, it’s been cloudy early in the day and clears up in the late afternoon. Makes me look like I haven’t got a clue, huh?

This is a great video (in the new “large” size) that shows off all the confusion in yesterday’s sky. Watch the clouds carefully — they move in various directions throughout the day!

After clicking this image, you may have to wait a few seconds for it to load before it starts playing. Be patient and click only once. It’ll play right in this window. QuickTime is required.

Although I can do a larger image movie, I think the 1.1 MB bandwidth is enough. I’d like to increase the number of images that make up the movie, but that’ll also increase the movie size and bandwidth when it’s played. If you have any preferences about this, use the Comments link or form to be heard.

And I do want to note that I’m not releasing these every day — just the days when there’s something interesting to see. This time of year, that can be several times a week.

WebCam Timelapse – July 9, 2007

Another interesting timelapse.

What I like about this one is:

  • Nice colors at sunrise. Remember, this camera points northeast, so we don’t actually see the sun.
  • About halfway through the day, the clouds going by seem to make a right turn as they move across the sky. I think there was a wind shift up there. Interesting.

You need to click the image to download and play the file with QuickTime. I did this purposely for the folks who aren’t interested in wasting bandwidth on something as trivial as this.

For those of you who requested a larger image, one is on the way. Yesterday’s big image was too big, so we’ll have to wait until the next interesting sky. Today’s might be a good candidate; lots of clouds. We’ll see.

And for those of you just tuning in, these images are my attempt to show how the weather changes here in Arizona during out annual monsoon season. Usually we don’t have any clouds at all, so these images really do show something special. I’m hoping that images created later in the season will include storms and, if we’re lucky, even a few lightning strikes.

Could it Be? Monsoon Season?

Heat’s not enough. I want humidity and rain, too.

This morning, when I woke at 5:30 AM to the whistles of my parrot, I was surprised to see that Mike hadn’t opened the French door between our bedroom and the upstairs patio. He always opens it during the night this time of year. That’s the only time it’s cool.

But when I opened it, I realized why: it wasn’t cool. For the first time this season, the outside temperature remained in the 80s overnight. And that’s the first sign of what everyone in Arizona is waiting for this time of year: monsoon season.

A Monsoon? In the Desert?

Sure. I can’t make this stuff up.

Monsoon season in Arizona is marked by a number of meteorological events:

  • Dew point reaches at least 55°F for at least three days in a row. That’s the official indicator of the start of monsoon season in Phoenix. That means it gets humid outside. The “dry heat” isn’t so dry anymore.
  • The winds shift to bring moist air off the Sea of Cortez and Gulf of Mexico in a counterclockwise flow. This is why the storms, when they come to Wickenburg, come from the north or east during monsoon season.
  • My WebCamStorms build just about every afternoon. I can see them coming from my office window. (You can check out the WebCam image here; it’s usually available during daylight hours.) They’re isolated, severe thunderstorms, packed with high wind, lightning, and the occasional microburst.
  • It rains. That’s if we’re lucky. The clouds have lots of moisture, but if the ground is too dry, the rain dries up before it hits the ground, resulting in virga and, often, dust storms. But once monsoon season is underway, we get rain — although never enough of it to quench the thirst of our golf courses and swimming pools.
  • We get flash floods. That’s if we get enough rain all at once. A dry wash runs through our property and, with enough rain, it can turn into a raging river. For about an hour. Then it’s just a wet riverbed that, within 24 hours, turns dry again.

Want more info, you can get it here, here, and here.

And this is what most Arizonans are waiting for.

My Monsoons

I’ve experienced Arizona monsoons in three different places over the years.

I’ve lived in Wickenburg for ten years now, and although I’ve been wanting to escape, like the snowbirds, in the summertime, I haven’t usually been able to. That means I’ve lived through a good bunch of monsoon seasons.

My office has always faced the mountains to the north (even when it was in a condo I own downtown). I’d be sitting at my desk, working away, occasionally glancing up out the window. I’d see the storm clouds building over the Bradshaw and Weaver Mountains, making their way southwest toward Wickenburg. The sky would get dark out there — while it remained sunny at my house — and lightning would flash. If the storm reached us before sunset, we were in for it. But in too many instances, the storm was just too slow and got to us after the sun set. Then it was a 50-50 chance that we’d get some storm activity — including welcome rain — before the storm dissipated.

Sometimes, the storms moved in more quickly — probably more moisture in the air. In those cases, we’d get a storm in the afternoon. What a treat! I’d stand under the overhang by my front door or on the patio at the condo and listen to the rain fall. Sometimes, if it looked rainy enough to get the washes flowing, I’d jump in my Jeep and head out into the desert, looking for a stream where streams don’t normally appear. I don’t drive through these — mind you — that’s dangerous. I just watch all that flowing water, remembering what it was like to live in a place where flowing water is a lot more common than dry streambeds.

On very rare occasions, a storm would move in just before dawn. I can’t remember this happening more than a few times, though. One time, it was the morning I was supposed to report back for work at the Grand Canyon, where I was flying helicopter tours. I had planned to take my helicopter up — the 1-1/2 hour flight sure beat the 3-1/2 hour drive. But with a thunderstorm sitting on top of Wickenburg, flying up was not a safe option. So I had to drive. I left two hours earlier than I would have and still got to work an hour late.

If you want to read more about the monsoon in Wickenburg, I recommend Lee Pearson’s excellent article for, “The Monsoon Is Near“. It includes links to video footage he’s made available online.

Grand Canyon
In the summer of 2004, I worked as tour pilot at the Grand Canyon. I flew Long Ranger helicopters over the canyon 10 to 14 times a day on a 7 on/7 off schedule from April through the end of September.

My introduction to monsoon season came on my return from a flight in July. The storms had built up and were moving in toward the airport. I was about 5 miles out when a bolt of lightning came out of the sky less than 1/4 mile from where I was flying and struck the top of a Ponderosa pine tree. The treetop exploded into flames. I got on the radio, on our company frequency, and said, “It’s lightning out here. It just hit a tree about a quarter mile away from me.” The Chief Pilot’s voice came on and said, “Better get used to it.”

When you learn to fly, they teach you the danger of flying near thunderstorms. They advise you to stay at least 20 miles away. 20 miles! So you can imagine my surprise when I realized that the tour company had no qualms about continuing flight in the vicinity of thunderstorms.

And they were right — it didn’t seem to be dangerous at all. The storms were all localized — you could see them coming and usually fly around them if they were in your way. The rule we used was that if you could see through the rain, you could fly through it. Although it occasionally got a little bumpy, there were no serious updrafts or downdrafts. And although we were told that if things ever got too rough during a flight, we could land until the storm passed, I never had to. (Thus passing up my only opportunity to legally land a helicopter inside the Grand Canyon.)

The Grand Canyon with CloudsI do recall one other monsoon-related incident, though. The company I worked for had about ten helicopters on duty to do flights. Because of this, the company was very popular with tour companies, which would bus large groups of foreign tourists to the airport for helicopter flights. These flights were booked years in advance, so the company always knew when they’d need all helicopters to fly for a single group. One of these groups arrived late in the day during August. Nine other pilots and I were sitting out on our helipads, engines running, blades spinning, when the bus pulled up. Moments later, the loaders were bringing groups of five and six Japanese tourists to the helipads and loading us up.

It had been stormy most of the afternoon, with isolated thunderstorms drifting across the canyon. Farther out to the east, a controlled burn was sending low clouds of smoke our way. At the airport, however, the visibility was fine. We were scheduled to do a tour on the west side of the canyon, in the Dragon Corridor. One by one, we took off and headed west, making a long line of ten helicopters, all going the same way.

I was about six back from the front and could see we had a problem about five miles short of the rim. The north end of the Dragon Corridor was completely socked in with low clouds and falling rain. We couldn’t see across the canyon.

The lead helicopter announced on the company frequency that he was going to switch to an east canyon tour. He made a 180° turn. One by one, we all announced the same intentions and followed him. Now we were all heading back to the airport. We got permission from the tower to transition to the east, crossed about 1/2 mile south of the airport, and continued on.

Now we were in the smokey area. It wasn’t bad. Not yet, anyway. We crossed over the canyon and my passengers let out the usual oohs and ahs. And we proceeded to do the east canyon tour, which was reserved for weather situations because it normally ran about 35 minutes (and our passengers paid for a 25 minute tour). Of course, with the initial false start, their tours would be 45 minutes long.

The thing about flying at the Grand Canyon is that you have to stay on established routes. The only time I’d ever done that route was in training four months before, so I really wasn’t too clear on where I was supposed to go. Fortunately, there was a helicopter about 1/2 mile in front of me to follow. Unfortunately, the weather was closing in. It started to rain and visibility got tough. I focused on the other helicopter’s strobe light and followed it back across the canyon to the rim. Then I lost it in the smoke.

I pointed the helicopter in the direction I thought the airport might be and flew as if I knew where I was going. About a mile out, I saw the tower and other landmarks. I was only about a half mile off course. I landed safely, my passengers got out, and I shut down for the day.

I used to ask the Chief Pilot why we flew scenic tours in weather like that. His response: “If they’re willing to pay for it and it’s safe, why not?”

Howard Mesa
Howard Mesa is a mesa north of Williams and south of the Grand Canyon. It stands 300 feet above the Colorado Plateau. Our vacation property, with its camping shed, is at the very top of the mesa, with 360° views stretching out for 50 to 100 miles, depending on sky and dust conditions.

In the summer of 2005, I spent about a month at Howard Mesa, preparing our camping shed for its future duties. I lived in our old horse trailer with living quarters, a cramped space that was fine for one person, a dog, and a parrot. Mike came up on weekends to help out and escape Wickenburg’s heat.

Monsoon season atop Howard Mesa is a real treat. The clouds start building at around 11 AM and, because you can see in every direction, you can monitor their progress as they move across the desert. By 1 or 2 PM (at the latest), you can see rain (or virga) falling somewhere. This is where you can really get an idea of the individual storms because you can see them all, individually. I took this shot one afternoon around sunset. The view is out to the northwest. The mountain you see in silhouette is Mount Trumbull on the Arizona strip, 80+ miles away.

Monsoon Rain

The great thing about the monsoon up north is that when the rain comes, the temperature drops at least 20°F. I remember one day doing some work around our place in the morning. The temperature was in the 90s, which is pretty hot for up there. I was wearing a pair of gym shorts and a tank top. I hopped in the truck and drove down to Williams to do some laundry and shopping. While I was there, a storm moved in. In minutes, the temperature dropped down to the 50s. Needless to say, I nearly froze my butt off.

Of course, there’s also hail up there. Some friends of mine were on top Bill Williams Mountain south of Williams one summer day when a storm moved in. The golf ball-sized hail that fell did some serious damage to their car. And the fear of hail like that is what keeps me from leaving my helicopter at Howard Mesa, unprotected in the summertime. Rotor blades cost $48K a pair.

This Year’s Monsoon

Anyway, it looks like this weekend might be the start of the 2007 Monsoon Season here in Arizona. I’m hoping for lots and lots of rain — we really need it. And I’ll try to share some photos throughout the season. Sadly, I think all my old monsoon season photos were lost in my big hard disk crash earlier this year.

Flying with Cars, Take 2

Another gig at the Proving Grounds.

I spent yesterday afternoon sweating my brains out, flying in formation with cars.

I’d been hired once again to take a film crew around a proving ground tracks to get some footage for a internal marketing video. Last time, there had been one car. This time there were two. Last time it had been in September. This time, it was July.

The Flight Down

Mike came with me from Wickenburg. We topped off the tanks at the local airport here and took all four doors off. We’d filled a cooler with ice and bottled water and Gatorade to bring along. I also had a hand-held radio for Mike so he could listen in while we were flying. The flight from Wickenburg took about 50 minutes. It was hot — about 110°F/42°C — and even the wind through the open doorways did nothing to cool us. I had a small spray bottle and would douse my loose-fitting cotton shirt down with water as I flew. 2 minutes later, it would be completely dry again.

It was also bumpy. The desert, baked throughout the day by the broiling sun was sending waves of thermals straight up. But a 10 to 20 knot wind from the southwest was breaking all that up. As a result, the flight was like riding on a poorly maintained road with big, fat, soft tires. Bumpy but seldom jarringly so. Someone prone to motion sickness probably would have puked.

There were also dust devils: towering updrafts of swirling dust blown laterally across the desert floor. At any one time, looking out at the open desert, we could see at least two dozen of the damn things, some of them at least 500 feet tall. We were flying at about 500 feet above the ground, so dodging them became part of our flight path. If it looked like we’d hit one, I’d alter course to pass to the west behind it. This probably added a few minutes to the flight, but I wasn’t the least bit interested in getting very close to any of them.

By the time we got to the proving ground and landed on a piece of road where everyone waited, I was tired and red hot — literally! — my face was completely flushed — and partially dehydrated. It was a good thing we had an hour to kill before the film crew would be ready. I spent it drinking water and Gatorade in the air conditioned comfort of the facility’s lunch room.

The Film Crew

The film crew consisted of the same director and photographer as last time. The photographer had a big, professional video camera that he sat on his shoulder as he taped the action. The camera was attached by a cable to a small monitor that the director could hold in his hands during the flight.

The photographer was strapped in not only with a seat belt by with a rope that tied the harness he wore to the bar between the two front seats in the helicopter. In addition, they rigged up a come-along strap on the helicopter’s frame between the left and right side of the helicopter and had the camera attached to that by two separate straps. We clearly would not be dropping either the photographer or camera out of the helicopter.

Everyone on the film crew wore black shirts. These are obviously people unaccustomed to life in the desert. It doesn’t take long for a desert dweller to realize that black might look cool but it doesn’t feel cool with the sun shining down on you and a UV index of 10. They also drank a lot of Pepsi. No matter how many of us “locals” recommended water, they’d guzzle Pepsi and some weak tea looking concoction they kept in one-gallon plastic water jugs. I didn’t ask what it was.

Throughout the flight, the director would yell commands to me and the photographer through the helicopter’s intercom system. He had to yell because the photographer was hanging out of the helicopter to get his shots and his microphone was out in the 20 to 80 knot wind (depending on our speed, of course). The director also yelled into a handheld radio that the driver was tuned into, giving him directions.

Of course, the most challenging thing about communication was not the wind noise but the language. They didn’t speak good English.

The Flying

The kind of flying this time around was mostly chasing the car around the speed track (a large paved oval with sharply banked curves) and the dirt track (a smaller oval with a dusty dirt surface). I’d fly alongside, anywhere from 10 to 100 feet off the ground, but usually around 30. Speed ranged from a hover to as fast as 80 knots.

If you’re a helicopter pilot, you know that this kind of operation puts me in the shaded area of the height-velocity diagram or so-called “dead man’s curve.” I’m full aware of the dangers of this kind of flying and communicated them to my passengers.

But frankly, my willingness to do this kind of flying is what got me the job two years ago. They’d asked two other local operators to do it and they both said no. I think that the fact that they were flight schools played heavily into the decision. Wouldn’t be a good example to set for newly minted CFIs. Besides, I really think that this kind of “extreme” flying is best done by experienced pilots. Although I only have about 1,800 hours right now, that’s a heck of a lot more than the typical 400-hour flight school CFI.

The challenging parts:

  • Going from a near hover to highway speed in a very short time.
  • Keeping an eye on the car and the obstacles around the track, including poles with wires, antenna towers, tents used to hide cars from passing aircraft (believe it or not), and road signs.
  • Flying alongside the car at 20 feet above the ground, making smooth “hops” over lower obstructions (signs, tents, etc.) as necessary,
  • Swooping past the front of the car and turning so the camera didn’t lose sight of the car until it was past us.
  • Getting back into shooting position quickly after a technical shot so the photographer could maximize his video time.
  • Understanding what my passengers wanted me to do, especially on those occasions when they couldn’t agree and gave conflicting commands.

The best shots probably came close to sunset, when we were working with one of the cars on the dirt track. The clear sky, low sun, and dust combine to make magical scenes. Most of the shots used in the video from last time were ones from the dirt track. My job was to keep the setting sun, car, and helicopter in a line so the photographer could get sunset footage.

The Machine

I really enjoy this kind of work. Flying a helicopter from point A to point B is mildly interesting, but doing the kind of flying needed to photograph moving cars (or boats, for that matter), is extremely challenging. It takes all of my concentration to deliver what the photographer and director want.

But what’s probably best about it is the way my arms and legs go into a certain autopilot mode. I think of what I want and my body reacts to make the helicopter do what needs to be done. There’s very little thought involved. I’m just part of the machine — the brain, so to speak. And when flying — or doing anything with a piece of equipment, I imagine — becomes so automatic and thought-free, that’s magic.

The Trip Home

We finished up just after sunset. Rather than shut down and go inside for some refreshments, I decided to keep it running and head home. I wanted to get home before it was too dark. I was exhausted — I’d flown over 4 hours that day, including a flight from Howard Mesa and the ferry flight to the track — and was depending on the last vestiges of adrenaline to power me home. So the film crew got all their straps and cables out, Mike got in, and we took off.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that the Low Fuel light was flickering 2 miles from the nearest airport. Another plane was on final when I came in for my approach. I meekly asked him if I could land first because of my fuel situation. He gracefully pulled his twin engine airplane into a 360 turn to the right to give me additional room. By the time I set down at the self-serve pump, the fuel light was shining brightly. I thanked the pilot of the plane again after he rolled out from his landing.

It was still 104°F/40°C most of the way home — an hour-long flight in growing darkness. I’m accustomed to flying at night — I think every pilot should be comfortable with that skill — so it wasn’t a big deal. It was also very smooth; hardly any wind until we neared Wickenburg.

The only problem was the dust that had evidently gotten into my eyes during the last bit of shooting. It really messed up my contact lenses.