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.

Wickenburg
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 wickenburg-az.com, “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.

Snake in Cactus (with Photos)

The view from my window.

Snake in a CactusI was on the phone with Verizon, asking them to turn off the “tether” feature for my Treo, when I glanced out my window. I was just in time to see a snake slither up the side of the 20-foot saguaro 10 feet away.

I finished up my business, grabbed my new camera with its zoom lens, threw on the first pair of shoes I found (which happened to be Mike’s), and dashed outside. The 103°F heat hit me like a hammer but didn’t slow me down. A moment later, I was taking the photos you see here.

The snake had climbed the cactus to investigate the two nests on the southwest side. Woodpeckers and other birds sometimes dig holes in the sides of saguaro cacti and build nests there. This morning, I’d seen a Gila woodpecker sitting at the opening to the topmost nest. This afternoon, a snake was climbing out of it. He’d obviously been looking for a meal, but if he found one, it couldn’t have been too large; there was no sign of a hastily swallowed egg or chick along his long, skinny body. Arizona snakes commonly eat bird eggs; Martha Maxon sent a great series of photos of a Gopher Snake swallowing Dove Eggs for publication on wickenburg-az.com.

Snake in a CactusI don’t know what kind of snake it is, but I know it isn’t a rattler. No rattles. It was about 4 feet long with a head so tiny that it was hard to make out. (Thank heaven for 10 megapixel cameras and autofocus zoom lenses.) It was definitely an intelligent creature that didn’t mind the heat; its perch on the cactus was in the full sun, bringing the temperature up to at least 120°F. It also seemed immune to the hard, sharp spines of the cactus it climbed on.

Snake in a CactusHe apparently saw me on the ground nearby because he didn’t seem interested in coming down. I took the opportunity to run back inside for a longer lens — my 70-210mm zoom. When I got back outside, he was on his way down, his body doubled along the cactus’s ribs. He stopped for a moment to watch me, sniffing the air with his tongue.

I got sidetracked by by Jack the Dog proudly delivering a dead dove to the driveway. (He likes to catch them as they try to escape from the chicken coop, where they’ve gone to steal the chicken scratch.)

When I returned to the cactus, the snake was slithering back into the nest hole. It must have been pretty large because the entire snake fit in there. I waited a while for it to come back out, but it stayed there.

I wonder if it lives there now.

Oh, yeah. And that really is the color of the sky here. Sometimes I still can’t believe how blue it gets. Not a single cloud in sight today, either.

Flying "Into" the Grand Canyon

A dialog about the idiosyncrasies of flying helicopters in certain parts of Arizona.

I just spent the last 30 minutes or so cleaning up my e-mail in box. I have the nasty habit of not filing or discarding messages as quickly as they come in, so there were over 300 messages to wade through. I’d read all of them and flagged some. I wound up deleting about 1/3 of them, filing another 1/3 of them, and leaving the rest for another day.

Among the e-mail messages I found was a dialog between me and another pilot, Robert Mark of JetWhine. He’d e-mailed me to ask a question and although I normally don’t answer questions sent to me by e-mail — I prefer using the Comments feature on this site so the exchange of information can involve and possibly benefit others — I did answer his. Although I’d like to get the exchange out of my e-mail in box, I want to share it with readers, since I think it has some interesting information.

So here’s the exchange. I’ve mixed Robert’s questions with my answers to make the exchange easier to follow.

Robert:

As a helicopter pilot out west, I wondered if you might be familiar with this Grand Canyon topic.

Do you know if it is correct that tour copters operated through the tribal reservation run to different standards than those that are based elsewhere?

The Chicago Tribune ran a story about the Canyon Sunday and claimed the tribal-operated copters can dip well below the edge of the cayone on a tour where others can not.

It sounded pretty odd to me.

Me:

Helicopters operating on tribal lands with appropriate permits can actually LAND at the bottom of the canyon. This, of course, is on tribal land belonging to the Hualapai and Havasupai tribes in the western part of the canyon — not in the main National Park area.

Please send me a link to that article if it is online. I’d like to read it.

Robert:

Just happen to have that link to the Tribune handy.

So then as a tribal copter, do their pilots train to different standards if they only fly there?

Me:

No, they’re not owned by the tribes. They’re owned/operated by other companies, like Papillon and Maverick, both of which operate in Vegas and at the Grand Canyon.

I worked for Papillon at the Grand Canyon. Training for GCW (Grand Canyon West) consists of spending a day or so with another pilot, learning the route and getting the feel for the density altitude situation. It’s hotter than hell down there in midsummer. Anyone can do it, but they don’t normally train women because of limited housing out there. That’s one reason why I never learned.

Don’t think it’s a big deal. It’s not. Each flight is about 6 minutes long and you’re doing ups and downs all day. The canyon isn’t as deep there as elsewhere in the park. And it isn’t as if you’re cruising up and down the canyon all day. You’re not. Just ups and downs on a preset route. Tedious stuff. Flying the South Rim is far more rewarding.

Thanks for the article link. I’ve flown out there in my old R22. The article describes the place pretty well. It’s unfortunate that many Vegas tourists think GCW is “The Grand Canyon.” It’s just a tiny part of it — and not even the good part.

Robert:

Sorry, but I’m kind of dumb on Native American issues.

Me:

Don’t feel bad. A lot of people are.

The reservations are self-governing bodies within the U.S. In a way, they’re like they’re own countries. They make their own rules, but do have to answer to the U.S. government for some things.

Robert:

So these are regular helicopter tour operators that ALL get a special exemption to do whatever this writer was talking about then? And that comes from FAA or is FAA essentially not involved because it is tribal land?

Me:

Yes, the helicopter operators get permits from the tribes. When I say operators, I mean the companies, not the pilots. They pay a fee to the tribes that’s based on operations (takeoffs/landings), facilities (like landing zones next to the river), and other stuff. Theoretically, my company could apply for (and get and pay for) a permit to do the same thing Papillon is doing. But since GCW is a 2-hour flight from where I’m based, I haven’t tried.

Closing Note:

Since the opening of the Skywalk at Grand Canyon West, I’ve gotten a number of calls from people interested in flying out there. It’s a two-hour flight from the Phoenix area and I’d have to charge about $2K round trip (for up to 3 people; not per person). But the alternative is a 5-1/2 hour (each way) drive. For folks with money to spend, I can turn a two-day excursion to the middle of nowhere into a pleasant day trip. Still, I don’t expect many takers. Not many people are willing to blow $2K+ on a single day of fun.

The Ups and Downs of Ups and Downs

There’s always one in the crowd.

My company, Flying M Air, did helicopter rides at an airport event in Buckeye, AZ last weekend. I believe it’s called the Buckeye Airport Open House.

The Event

The folks at Buckeye really know how to put on a safe and fun family event. They had a D.J. playing music, classic and experimental aircraft on display and flying by, flight schools, an Army recruiter, fire trucks, a medevac helicopter, a crop-dusting helicopter, and parachute jumpers. They also had a bunch of food vendors and a train to take little kids on rides around the airport.

It was an annual event and this was our third year participating. Although attendance was down a bit this year from last year, we still managed to give about 50 rides, five of which were freebies awarded as raffle prizes.

The Airport staff had set me up on a ramp that connected the main parking area with the taxiway. This was an excellent location because it gave us plenty of space on pavement to operate and made it very easy for us to secure the landing zone. Best of all, it was within view of all attendees, so everyone got a chance to watch me take off and land. (Funny how normal helicopter operations can make their own “air show” for folks who don’t usually get to see helicopters operate.)

They were supposed to have a B-25 parked behind me, but the plane had some engine problems and couldn’t attend. I had mixed feelings about that. On one hand, I was glad that we wouldn’t have to worry about people behind my landing zone. On the other hand, I was disappointed for the attendees, because I knew they’d like to see the plane.

Just Say No to Long Lines

In the past, we’ve always been the busiest “vendor” at the event. During the past two years, I’d continued flying at least an hour after all the other vendors had closed up and gone home, just to work off the line that had formed. I clearly remember flying in at the end of a ride to see eight or ten people waiting in the shade under the wings of a parked aircraft on the ramp. They were waiting for me.

This year, we decided to keep the price the same but shorten up the rides a bit to prevent hour-long lines from forming. Our prices continue to rise — 100LL fuel is now more than $4/gallon at most airports — but we figured that with shorter rides, we’d still come out okay. I liked keeping the price affordable — $35/person — so people could afford to fly and to take their kids. (I always fly a lot of kids at this event.) So I aimed for the low end of our usual 8 to 10 minute flight range. Although actual ride length varied depending on the wind and maneuvers I needed to perform to avoid skydivers and other aircraft, most rides probably came in right around 8 minutes.

It’s important to note here that we never advertised the ride length. It did not appear on any sign. When asked, my ground crew — Mike, Darlene, and Dave — would tell passengers that the ride went out toward the town of Buckeye and came back on a different route. When pressed, Darlene gave out the usual 8 to 10 minute range. None of them were actually timing me. I’d timed the first few rides to make sure I had a suitable route and then stopped timing. I have better things to do when I fly than to watch the chronometer — like making sure the skydivers weren’t going to miss the mark and land on the taxiway in front of me as I approached. The passengers, on the other hand, could easily see how long the rides were by timing them as they waited.

The Route

The flight was a good mix of farmland, new development, and empty desert. I took off, following the taxiway parallel to Runway 17, then headed east toward downtown Phoenix. Early in the morning, it was hazy and the buildings in the distance were impossible to see, but as the sun moved across the sky and the air cleared a bit, details emerged.

We flew over some freshly sown farmland that was being irrigated. In this area, they use gravity to siphon water from a narrow irrigation canal through short lengths of tube that run from the canal to the beginning of deeply cut irrigation rows between rows of crops. The water flows down the rows and, as you fly over it, the sun reflects off its moving surface.

Beyond that, in another field, farm workers were cutting alfalfa. A cutting machine would drive up and down the field, neatly cutting the crop. Then another machine would gather the cuttings into narrow piles of the stuff. A third machine, paired up with a big open-backed truck, would come down the rows, scoop up the cut alfalfa, and dump it into the back of the truck. I found the process fascinating and watched its progress all day. To the south of that, beyond our flight path but still visible, plows worked on another field, sending up clouds of dust that blew back toward the airport in the strong breeze.

Next came a former farm field that had been prepared for a housing development. You could clearly see where the roads and sidewalks and homes would go. But construction had never begun and weeds were growing tall in many areas. Beyond that was a brand new housing development that hadn’t been there the year before. Probably about 200 homes, a school, and a park.

This is where we made our turn to the left, crossing I-10, rounding the east end of a tall hill, and following what I was told was McDowell Road heading west. Now we were over empty desert. Well, empty if you don’t consider the people illegally shooting at makeshift shooting ranges and the incredible amounts of trash dumped out there. We crossed this area with a tailwind, following a fenceline. Ahead of us, in the distance, we could clearly see the Palo Verde nuclear power plant. Below us were a few homes, then more, then more. About two miles from the airport, I’d make my radio call and start scanning the skies for jumpers. I’d turn final for the taxiway parallel to runway 17 and land at the ramp where I was set up for operations.

A Busy Day…and a Crazy Lady

I flew pretty much nonstop from 8:30 AM to 11:30 AM. Then I took a break to use the bathroom and have the helicopter refueled. Buckeye has a 100LL fuel truck, which really takes all the hassles out of refueling. (The first year we did the event, we had to refuel by carrying 5 gallon fuel cans back and forth to the helicopter. What a drag!) I also had a bite to eat. Mike and my ground crew had already sold my next three flights, so I didn’t get a long rest. After 30 minutes out of the helicopter, I was back in my seat, spinning up, getting ready to go.

The event ended at 2 PM and that’s about the same time the other vendors were packed up and gone. I finished flying at about 2:30. We packed up the helicopter, topped off the tanks — I paid for the fuel by check and got an excellent price — and headed home.

That’s when Mike mentioned the “crazy lady” who kept shouting that the rides were only 7 minutes long. I don’t hear anything in the helicopter unless it comes over the radio or intercom, so I had no idea that anyone was giving my ground crew grief. Evidently, her husband and grandson (or maybe son?) had gone on a ride and she’d timed it. According to her, it was only 7 minutes. She claimed that we’d advertised 10 minute rides.

I told Mike that we hadn’t advertised any length for the ride. I asked if she’d bothered anyone else and he said no, she hadn’t. I asked him if anyone else had complained. He told me that everyone else was very happy. And then we just forgot about her. There’s always one malcontent in the crowd and I wasn’t about to let it ruin our day.

The Crazy Lady Makes Herself a Nuisance

I was in Austin yesterday when I checked my voicemail messages from the day before. A Mrs. Smith (not her real name) had called and wanted a call back. She didn’t say what it was about. I called her back and, within a few minutes, realized that I was speaking to the crazy 7-minute lady.

She immediately accused me of ripping off all of my passengers by 1/3 of what they had paid for. Not the best way to start a conversation with me — especially when she was dead wrong.

I told her that the rides were not advertised as 10 minutes and that no one had said they were 10 minutes long. She insisted that that’s the way they had been advertised in the newspaper. I told her that we hadn’t placed any newspaper ads.

She continued along the same vein, repeatedly accusing me of cheating my passengers by three minutes of flight time. She wasn’t interested in the truth. She had this 10 minutes locked in her brain and I couldn’t shake it loose. And the conversation was going nowhere fast.

At one point, she claimed that she had other people to complain to about this but that she thought she’d give me an opportunity to respond first. That sounded like a threat to me. I don’t like threats.

Finally, I said: “What is it that you want from me?”

“Well, you didn’t give your passengers one third of what they paid for –”

More of the same. I cut her off. “I can’t believe you’re wasting your time and mine with this nonsense,” I said. And I hung up the phone.

I don’t know what she wanted from me. Maybe she expected me to give her a refund to keep her quiet. I hadn’t done anything wrong and I wasn’t about to refund money I’d earned. And if she wanted her money back, why hadn’t she asked for it? Did she expect me to offer it? Why would I do that if I’d earned it?

Keep in mind that I’m originally from the New York metro area, where it’s not unusual for people to complain about something in an effort to get it for free. Her threat was a line a New Yorker would use. I wonder how many other times she’d used it successfully on unsuspecting Arizona merchants and vendors who just gave her the money back to shut her up.

Maybe she didn’t realize that she was playing games with the wrong person.

Interview Does Not Equal Advertisement

I was curious about where she’d gotten the 10 minute time from, so I called my contact at Buckeye airport. I told her about the crazy lady and asked if the airport folks had advertised a ride time in the newspaper.

“I didn’t know how long the rides would be,” my contact told me. “So we didn’t put anything specific in the paper. Just helicopter rides.”

“So where did she get this idea?”

“Let me look in the paper.” I heard pages rustling over the phone. Then she came back on. “There’s an article about the event in this week’s paper.”

And she proceeded to read me a section of the article where a couple who had just come off the helicopter was interviewed by the reporter — possibly the same reporter I’d taken for a flight. They used phrases like “once in a lifetime opportunity” and “ten-minute ride” and “highlight of the event.” They were very happy with the ride. (I’ve never had an unhappy passenger.) And I guess that since they didn’t have stopwatches going during their ride, they thought they were in the air for 10 minutes. (Maybe they were. I didn’t time all the rides.) But a report with an interview after the event is a far cry from advertised information.

“Don’t worry about it,” my contact concluded. “There’s always one nut in the crowd.”

We talked about the event and the turnout and how I’d done. “I’d like to come back next year,” I said meekly.

“We want you back,” my contact assured me. “We want you there every year.”

Now I’m wondering what the crazy lady will do next. Because if there’s one thing I know: people crazy enough to make such a fuss over nothing obviously don’t have anything better to do with their time.

Phoenix Sky Harbor to Grand Canyon

I never thought a flight like this would become so routine.

The call came at 9:30 on Friday morning. The voice had a heavy Japanese accent. He wanted to go from Sky Harbor, Phoenix’s busy Class Bravo airport, to Sedona or the Grand Canyon.

“The earliest we can pick you up is 12:00,” I told him. “That’s a little late for the Grand Canyon.”

Flying M Air offers day trips to Sedona and Grand Canyon. The day trip includes roundtrip helicopter transportation following scenic routes, 4 to 5 hours on the ground, ground transportation to Uptown Sedona or into Grand Canyon National Park, and a Sedona red rocks helicopter tour. Grand Canyon is about 45 minutes farther away from Phoenix than Sedona. I’d need to leave either one by about 5:30 PM.

We agreed on a Sedona day trip. I took down his name and weight, his companion’s name and weight, and his credit card information. I’d charge the card before I flew down to get him and he’d sign the receipt when I saw him. Then I hung up and began the process of planning the flight and doing all the paperwork required by the FAA for charter operations. That includes checking weather, creating and filing flight plans, and calculating a weight and balance for each leg of the flight. I do all of it by computer, using Duats for weather and flight planning and my own R44 Manifest form, built with Excel, for the passenger manifest and weight and balance calculations.

By 10 AM, I was done with the paperwork. I changed into more professional clothes, debating whether I should wear a long sleeved or short sleeved shirt. Fortunately, I went with the long sleeved shirt. I packed some hiking shoes and a T-shirt into my day pack, along with my 12″ PowerBook, punched my passengers credit card info into my terminal, and stuck the resulting charge receipt in my shirt pocket. I was ready to go to the airport by 10:30.

At the airport, I did my preflight in the hangar before pulling the helicopter out onto the ramp for fuel. Both Sky Harbor and Sedona tend to have outrageous fuel prices, so I wanted to top off both tanks in Wickenburg. With only two passengers on board, each weighing less than me, weight would not be a problem. By 11:08, I was lifting off from Wickenburg Airport for my passenger pickup point.

Flying into Sky Harbor

These days, most of my big charters are out of the Phoenix area — usually Deer Valley or Scottsdale Airport. Every once in a while, however, I’ll get a charter out of Sky Harbor. Sky Harbor, which lies just southeast of downtown Phoenix, has three parallel runways, with a row of terminals between the north runway and the middle runway. The general aviation FBOs, Cutter and Swift, are on the southwest corner of the field, requiring me to cross arriving or departing airline traffic for my approach or departure.

Sky Harbor, like many towered airports, has a letter of agreement with helicopter pilots called Sharp Delta. Sharp Delta defines terminology and lays down rules for transponder codes and flight altitudes. It used to include instructions and diagrams for landing on the helipad on top of Terminal 3, but that helipad closed down when they began construction on the new tower. I never landed there. I don’t know if it’ll reopen any time soon, but I hope so. It’ll make things a lot easier for my passengers, who have to get transportation to or from Cutter (my FBO choice) to meet me. Cutter has a free shuttle to the terminals, but it adds a step of complexity for passengers who don’t have their own ground transportation.

At first, flying in and out of Sky Harbor was extremely stressful for me. Let’s face it: I fly in and out of Wickenburg, a non-towered airport. I could fly all day long and not have to talk to a tower or controller. The only time I talk to controllers is when I fly into one of the bigger airports in Class Delta, Charlie, or Bravo airspace. And among pilots, there’s this feeling that the controllers at the big airports full of commercial airliners simply don’t want to be bothered by little, general aviation aircraft. We feel a little like recreational baseball players asking the manager of a professional baseball team if we can join them for practice.

Of course, there’s no reason to feel this way. In this country, general aviation aircraft have just as much right to fly in and out of Class Bravo airports like Sky Harbor, O’Hare, LAX, or even JFK as the big jets do. But since those controllers are generally a bit busier than the ones at smaller towered airports, we need to know what we want and where we’re going before requesting entrance into the airspace, be brief and professional with our requests, and follow instructions exactly as they’re given.

The Sharp Delta agreement makes this easy for helicopter pilots flying in and out of Sky Harbor’s space. And, at this point, I’ve done it so many times that it really is routine.

I fly from Wickenburg down to the Metro Center Mall on I-17 and Dunlap. By that time, I’ve already listened to the ATIS recording for Sky Harbor and have dialed in the altimeter setting, which is vital for helicopter operations down there. I wait for a break in the radio action and key my mike: “Phoenix Tower, helicopter Six-Three-Zero-Mike-Lima at Metro Center, Sharp Delta, landing Cutter.”

Phoenix TAC

My usual route.

The tower usually comes back with something like, “Helicopter Six-Three-Zero-Mike-Lima, squawk 0400. Ident.” This means I should turn my transponder to code 0400 and push the Ident button. The Ident button makes my dot on the controller’s radar stand out among all the other dots so he can see exactly which dot I am.

“Zero-Mike-Lima identing,” I reply as I push the button. I don’t know if ident can be used as a verb, but other pilots do it, too.

I keep flying toward the airport, heading southeast toward Central Avenue, waiting for clearance. The controller might give an instruction or two to a big jet landing or taking off. Then he comes back on the radio. “Helicopter Zero-Mike-Lima, radar contact. Proceed via Sharp Delta. Remain west of Central.”

That’s my clearance. He must say either “proceed via Sharp Delta” or “cleared into the Class Bravo airspace” for me to enter the surface airspace for the airport. Because I’m a helicopter using Sharp Delta, I get the Sharp Delta clearance. An airplane or a helicopter not on Sharp Delta would get the other clearance.

I continue toward Central Avenue, the main north/south avenue running down Phoenix. Most of Phoenix’s tall buildings are lined up along this road. I need to stay west of Central and descend down to about 1800 feet MSL (mean sea level). That’s about 600 feet AGL (above ground level). When I’m lined up a block or two west of Central, I turn south and head toward the buildings.

If I have passengers on board, this is usually pretty exciting for them. I have to stay low because of other air traffic, so I’m not much higher than the building rooftops. These days, I have to watch out for cranes for the few buildings under construction downtown. But it gets better. By the time I cross McDowell, I have to be at 1600 feet MSL — that’s only 400 feet off the ground.

Somewhere halfway through Phoenix, the controller calls me again. “Helicopter Zero-Mike-Lima, contact tower on one-one-eight-point-seven.”

I acknowledge and press a button on my cyclic to change to the south tower frequency, which I’ve already put in my radio’s standby. “Phoenix tower, helicopter Zero-Mike-Lima is with you on one-one-eight-point-seven.”

“Helicopter Zero-Mike-Lima, proceed south across the river bottom for landing Cutter.”

I acknowledge. At this point, we’ve crossed the extended centerline for the airport’s north runway, which is less than 5 miles to the east. Commercial airliners are either taking off or landing over us, depending on the wind, which will determine runways in use. I’m always worried about wake turbulence, but it’s really not a problem because we’re so far below.

I cross the extended centerline for the other two runways and approach the bed of the Salt River. It’s usually pretty dry — dams upriver have trapped all the water in five lakes. I’m only about 300 to 400 feet off the ground here and need to keep an eye out for the power lines running along the river. Once across, I turn left and head in toward the airport. I make my approach to the west of Swift, follow the road that runs between the taxiway and the FBOs, and come in to Cutter. They’ve usually heard me on the radio and have a “Follow Me” car to guide me to parking. I follow the car in until it stops and a man jumps out. He uses hand signals that tell me to move up a bit more and then to set down.

That’s all there is to it.

Well, I should mention here that I’m seldom the only helicopter in the area. One of the medevac companies is based at Swift and has two or three helicopters going in and out of there. I also pass a few hospitals with rooftop helipads. And if there’s traffic or an accident or a fire or an arrest going on, there’s usually at least one or two news helicopters moving around. So although I don’t have to worry about other airplanes, the helicopter traffic can be pretty intense.

That’s how it went on Friday. I shut down the helicopter and hitched a ride in a golf cart to the terminal. My passengers were waiting for me: two Japanese men. My contact was probably in his 30s and his companion was possibly in his late 50s. After making sure they both spoke English, I gave them the passenger briefing.

“Can we go to the Grand Canyon instead?” my contact wanted to know. “We really want to see the Grand Canyon.”

I didn’t really want to fly to the Grand Canyon, but there was no reason I couldn’t. Changing the flight plan would be easy enough and I’d already checked the weather for the whole area. I warned him that we wouldn’t have much time on the ground and that we needed to leave by 5:30. I didn’t want to cross any mountains in the dark with passengers on board.

So I did what I needed to do and we departed for the Grand Canyon instead of Sedona.

To the Grand Canyon

I won’t bore you with the details of leaving Sky Harbor. It’s basically the same but backwards. South departure, west until I’m west of Central, then north low-level over the river bottom. They cut me loose when I’m clear to the north.

My two passengers enjoyed the flight through Phoenix, even though they were both seated on the side opposite the best views. (They’d get the good view on the way back.) They both had cameras and were using up pixels with still and video images. We crossed through the west side of Deer Valley’s airspace — with permission, of course — and headed north. I pointed out various things — the Ben Avery shooting range, Lake Pleasant in the distance, the Del Webb Anthem development, Black Canyon City. Once away from the outskirts of Phoenix, I pointed out open range cattle, ponds, roads, and mountains. We saw some wild horses grazing near some cattle in the high desert past Cordes Junction.

I took them along the east side of Mingus Mountain and showed them the ghost town of Jerome and its open pit copper mine. Sedona was to the east; I told them we’d pass over that on the way back. We climbed steadily, now on a straight line path to Grand Canyon airport, and reached an altitude of over 8,000 feet just east of Bill Williams Mountain. From there, it was a slow descent down to about 7,000 feet. Our path took us right over our place at Howard Mesa, which I pointed out for my passengers, and right over Valle. I called into Grand Canyon tower, and got clearance to land at the transient helipads.

At the Grand Canyon

Once inside the terminal, I asked my passengers if they wanted to go right into the park or take a helicopter overflight. I’m not allowed to fly over at a comfortable altitude, so if my passengers want to overfly, I set them up with Grand Canyon Helicopters or Maverick Helicopters. Both companies fly EC 130 helicopters — the Ecostar — which are much nicer than the old Bell Long Rangers I used to fly for Papillon. I prefer Maverick these days (for mostly personal reasons that I’d prefer not to go into here).

“What do you recommend?” my passenger asked.

“Well, if money is not a concern, I definitely recommend the helicopter flight,” I told him. And that was no lie. Everyone who can should experience a flight over the east side of the Grand Canyon. It’s the longer, more costly tour, but if you don’t mind spending the money, it’s worth every penny.

“Okay,” he said simply.

I didn’t have Maverick’s number on me, so called Grand Canyon Helicopter. A long tour was leaving in 20 minutes. I booked it for two passengers and we walked over to Grand Canyon Helicopter’s terminal.

The helicopter returned from the previous tour and they switched pilots. The woman pilot who climbed on board was the tiny Japanese woman who’d been flying for Grand Canyon Helicopters when I was a pilot a Papillon. I told my passengers what her name was and that they should greet her in Japanese.

Grand Canyon HelicoptersThen they got their safety briefing and were loaded aboard. I took a photo of them taking off. Then I hiked over to Maverick to meet the Chief Pilot there. I had 45 minutes to kill and planned to make the most of it.

I was back at Grand Canyon Helicopters when my passengers’ flight landed. They were all smiles as they got out. I called for transportation into the park and was told it would be 20 minutes. As we waited, the Japanese pilot came into the terminal and spent some time chatting with us. She’s 115 pounds of skilled and experienced turbine helicopter pilot — a dream come true for any helicopter operator. This is her fifth year at the Canyon. They call her their “secret weapon.” When the van pulled up, she bowed politely to my passengers, saying something to them in Japanese. I think they really liked getting a reminder of home so far away.

We took the van into the park and were let off at El Tovar. It was 3:20 PM. I told my passengers to meet me back there at 5 PM. It wasn’t nearly as much time as I like my passengers to have, but our late start had really limited our time. I left them to wander the historic buildings and rim trail on their own and went to find myself something to eat. I hadn’t eaten a thing all day and was starved.

What’s weird about this particular trip to the Canyon is that I don’t think I spent more than 5 minutes looking into the canyon from the Rim. I didn’t take a single picture. This is why the word routine comes to mind. It’s almost as if the Grand Canyon had ceased being a special place. A visit like this was routine. It was something I’d do again and again. If I didn’t spend much time taking in the view this trip, I could do it on my next trip. I think that’s what was going on in the back of my mind.

The time went by quickly. I had lunch, browsed around Hopi House, and took a seat on El Tovar’s porch to wait for my passengers. I was lucky that it was a nice day — I didn’t have a jacket. Several people told me it had snowed the day before and there had been snow on the ground just that morning. But by the time we got there, all the snow was gone and it was a very pleasant day. Not even very windy, which is unusual for the spring. But as the sun descended, it got cool out on the porch. I was glad when my passengers showed up just on time.

I called for the van and was told it would take 20 minutes. That’s the big drawback to taking people to the Canyon — ground transportation. I’d rent a car if there was a car there to rent. But there isn’t, so we’re at the mercy of the Grand Canyon Transportation desk. The fare isn’t bad — $5 per person, kids under 12 free — but the service is painfully slow, especially during the off season. It’s about a 15-minute drive from Grand Canyon Village to the Airport in Tusayan, but between the wait and the slow drivers, it stretches out to 30 to 45 minutes. That’s time taken away from my passengers’ day at the canyon.

Back to Sky Harbor via Sedona

We were in the helicopter and ready to leave the Grand Canyon Airport at 5:45 PM. At that time of day, the airport was dead. Tour operators have a curfew and cannot fly over the canyon past 5 PM this time of year; that changes to 6 PM in May. So there wasn’t anyone around. Fortunately, the terminal was still unlocked with people working at the Grand Canyon Airlines desk when we arrived so we had access to the ramp.

I’d put in a fuel order before we left earlier, so both tanks were topped off. We warmed up and I took off to the south. I set the GPS with a Sedona GoTo and the direct path took us southeast, past Red Butte, east of Howard Mesa. We saw a huge herd of antelope — at least 50 to 100 of them! — in an open meadow about 10 miles north of I-40. It was the same meadow I’d seen antelope before.

We climbed with the gently rising terrain. The forest ended abruptly and I followed a canyon east and then south, descending at 1000 feet per minute into the Sedona area. The low-lying sun cast a beautiful reddish light on Sedona’s already red rocks. The view was breathtaking. My passengers captured it all with their cameras.

We flew through Oak Creek Village, then turned toward I-17. I started to climb. There was one more mountain range I needed to cross. Although a direct to Sky Harbor would have put us on a course far from I-17, I prefer flying a bit closer to civilization, especially late in the day.

At one point, I looked down and saw a single antelope running beneath us, obviously frightened by the sound of the helicopter above him.

We watched the sun set behind the Bradshaw Mountains as we came up on Black Canyon City. There was still plenty of light as we came up on Deer Valley Airport. I transitioned through the west end of their airspace and continued on.

Sky Harbor was considerably busier when I tuned in and made my call. But my approach was the same as usual. My passengers took more pictures and video as we passed downtown Phoenix just over rooftop level, then crossed the departure end of the runways and made our approach to Cutter. It was just after 7 PM when we touched down.

We said our goodbyes in Cutter’s terminal, where I got my passenger’s mailing address in Japan so I could send him a receipt for the additional amount I’d have to charge him for the longer flight. They called a cab for their hotel and I paid the landing and ramp fee Cutter sometimes charges me. (I don’t mind paying the $17 fee because my passengers nearly always use their free shuttle and I rarely take on any fuel.) Then I hurried out to the ramp for the last leg of my flight, back to Wickenburg.

Flying Home

It was dark by the time I was ready to leave Sky Harbor. This was the first time I’d depart Sky Harbor at night. Of course, just because the sky was dark doesn’t mean the ground was dark. It was very bright, well lighted by all kinds of colored lights.

I launched to the south just seconds before a medivac launched from Swift. We were both told to squawk 0400 and Ident. I never caught sight of the helicopter behind me, but he had me in sight. Together, we flew west to Central. Then he headed up Central Avenue and I headed direct to Wickenburg. The north tower cut us both loose together as we exited their space.

The flight to Wickenburg was easy. I simply followed the bright white line drawn on the ground for me by traffic heading southeast on Grand Avenue. The road goes from Phoenix to Wickenburg and is the most direct route. At night, it’s lit up by traffic and very easy to follow. When I got closer to Wickenburg, the red taillights heading to Las Vegas far outnumbered the white headlights heading toward Phoenix. After all, it was Friday night.

I set down at the airport in Wickenburg and gave the helicopter a nice, long cool down. I’d flown 4.1 hours that day and was glad to be home.

Rain Storm in Wickenburg

Not much to talk about.

It rained today. For those readers who live in places where rain is a part of life, you might be wondering why I’ve taken the time to write about it.

But rain isn’t a part of life here in the Sonoran desert of Arizona. Rain is usual. Rain is special. Rain is something to look forward to and enjoy.

The rain came with a strange kind of storm. The day started out clear enough, after high winds last night blew the desert dust around. The dust was hanging in the air this morning when it got light. The same dust we’ve been looking at for the past few days.

It’s spring and wind is part of spring. Calm in the morning, windy in the afternoon, then calm in the evening and overnight.

But last night, the wind didn’t calm down. Our wind chimes tinkled vigorously all night long. We had the windows closed to keep the dust out, so they weren’t loud enough to keep us up.

This morning, it was still windy. But then it got calm. And then it got windy. Calm. Windy. Calm. Windy.

Make up your mind already!

At 10 AM, I left my desk and went into the kitchen to make breakfast. Although I’m usually up before 6 AM and have my coffee right away, I don’t have breakfast until midmorning. And when I reached the kitchen with its southwest-facing windows, I realized that a storm was on the way.

Windy, calm, windy, calm. What a strange day. I watched the hazy, dust-filled sky cloud over from my northeast-facing office window. At lunchtime, back in the kitchen, I saw that the storm was closer.

Oddly enough, my neighbor’s windmill was calm. So was my other neighbor’s windsock.

The calm before the storm?

I went outside and threw my MR-2’s old car cover over my Jeep. I still haven’t put the doors and windows on the darn thing and I didn’t want to get it soaked.

A while later, the wind kicked up again. Howling this time. The palm tree branches I’d cut off our little palm tree days before blew around the yard as a dust devil came through. I went outside to check the Jeep and was surprised to see that the cover was still stretched over it.

I let the dog in.

The rain started a while later. Drizzle then pouring then drizzling. Not enough volume to keep the pavement wet; certainly not enough to get the wash flooding — a good thing, since the horses were down there. The rain cycle went on like that for a while. I checked the radar images on my Radar In Motion widget. The storm was all around me, moving in from the west.

But never enough rain to really get the pavement wet.

We have a problem here in Arizona. It’s often so dry that when it rains, the rain evaporates before it hits the ground. People think I’m kidding when I say this, but I’m not. It’s called virga. Look it up.

Sometimes, even when the rain does reach the ground, it dries before more drops can join it. The drops appear on the pavement, but dry before more drops fall around it. So the pavement doesn’t get wet. That’s what was happening today. Very disappointing.

But when I poked my head outside, I smelled the rain. A nice, fresh smell. The smell of water on the creosote bushes. A smell so unique that the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix has an exhibit that simply sprays water on creosote branches so people can smell it.

I kept working. The storm passed through. It got quiet.

When the UPS man arrived, I went outside. The pavement was dry.

To the north, I could see the mountains again. The radar showed the storm had moved to the east.

The storm was past. The rain was over.

Now I’ll have to wait again for the next storm. I hope it’s better than this one was.