Some Thoughts on Drone Photography

If you can’t beat them, join them.

Phantom 4
The Phantom 4 is a flying camera.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the rise of unmanned aerial systems (UAS), more commonly referred to as “drones,” these days, mostly because I’ve been able to get some good hands-on experience with the prosumer DJI Phantom 4. The Phantom 4 is marketed as a flying camera and I honestly think it’s a good categorization. Clearly it was designed for photography and it has given me a new appreciation for drones, which I don’t generally like.

Drone Threats

As a helicopter pilot, I’ve felt a rather unique threat from the rise of drones (no pun intended). I want to take a moment to explain, mostly because although my general opinion of drones has changed, my views about their threats have not.

Safety

First and foremost are my safety concerns. There are too many drone “pilots” who fly irresponsibly in places they should not be, including near airports and at altitudes that should be reserved for manned aerial flights. The FAA has attempted to reduce the risk of drone/aircraft collisions by setting a maximum altitude of 400 feet for drones. This is far from a perfect solution for two reasons:

  • Irresponsible drone pilots ignore the restrictions and fly higher than 400 feet above the ground. I have witnessed this more than once, although I’m glad to report that I wasn’t flying at the time.
  • Helicopters generally don’t have a minimum operating altitude so we can fly below 400 feet. Even my Part 135 certificate, which sets some limitations for on-demand charter flights, specifies a minimum altitude of 300 feet — this means I can legally be sharing 100 feet of airspace with UAS with charter passengers on board.

Drones are small. They can fly at speeds in excess of 50 miles per hour. I fly in speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour. That’s a closing rate, for a head-on collision, of 150 miles per hour. Does anyone really think I can “see and avoid” something the size of a 12-pack of beer coming at me at 150 miles per hour?

And if pilots are irresponsible enough to disobey FAA regulations, are they responsible enough to stay clear of aircraft?

Other drone-specific regulations regularly ignored:

  • Staying clear of temporary flight restriction (TFR) areas. There have been many reported instances of drones flying around wildfires being worked by firefighting aircraft. In some cases, these violations of airspace have caused the grounding of aircraft.
  • Staying clear of other restricted airspace. The one that worries me most is flights close to airports.
  • Keeping the drone within sight. That’s not easy to do when the drone has a range of more than 3 miles and it’s so small.
  • Not flying over people. I have witnessed this first hand many times at outdoor gatherings.
  • Obtaining FAR Part 107 certification for commercial use of drones. This certification helps ensure that drone pilots are real pilots who know and understand FAA regulations and important aviation and aeronautical concepts.

I can go on and on, but why bother? The fact is that although many drone pilots are responsible enough to learn and obey the rules for operating their drones, enough of them aren’t responsible at all. They make pilots — especially low-level pilots like those flying helicopters — worried about their safety.

Economics

The second threat I’m feeling is economic.

I’ll be blunt: over the past 15 or so years, I’ve earned a reasonable portion of my flying revenue from photography and survey flights. Drones are increasingly being used for both roles, thus cutting into my potential market.

I currently charge $545/hour for photo flights. Although I can cover a lot of territory in an hour and give two photographers a platform for aerial photos at the same time, not everyone sees the benefit. For about the same price, a photographer can buy a decent entry level photo drone and get the shots he needs. And then use the same drone another day without a further investment.

Or make a larger drone investment and get a better drone and better camera.

I’ll admit it: in many instances, a drone can get a better shot. A perfect example is a dawn photo shoot I did with a good client about two years ago. They’d staged the Wenatchee Symphony Orchestra at a local park, Ohme Gardens, and wanted sweeping aerial images of them playing. On our first pass, our downwash blew away their sheet music. (Oops.) We eventually got the shots they wanted, but I recall saying to my client, “You should have used a drone for this one.”

Aerial Orchestra
Here’s a still image from one of the aerial sequences we did that morning. Watch the whole video here; all the aerial shots were done from my helicopter.

But another client needed aerial video and still images all along the Columbia River from Wenatchee to Chelan, then up the Wenatchee River to Leavenworth and up Lake Chelan to Stehekin. This was well over a hundred miles to cover and some of it was inaccessible by car. We got all of the shots in less than three hours of flight time. It would have taken weeks to get that footage with a drone — and even then, some of it would have been impossible to get.

And a four-hour shoot from Seattle to Mount Rainier along often remote areas of the Green River? I can’t even imagine doing that with a drone.

But not everyone sees that. So I see drones threatening part of my livelihood.

Flying Cameras

My generally poor opinion of drones was significantly changed this past week. What changed it? Getting my hands on a Phantom 4 and seeing the quality of the photos and videos

My friend Jim — a gadget guy if there ever was one — has one of these drones. He started off by showing me some of the video he’d shot on an RV vacation in the southwest with his wife last summer. I was immediately struck by how rock-solid and clear the images were. I’ve created footage with a GoPro mounted in various places on my helicopter and have seen footage created with high-quality professional video cameras from my helicopter both with and without gyro-stabilized mounts — Jim’s footage was as good as or better than any of that.

From a flying camera that costs less than $1,000. To put things in perspective, that’s less than my Nikon DSLR, which doesn’t fly.

Then Jim and I took the drone out for a few flights. It was remarkably easy to fly, even if you choose to do so manually. The controller has two sticks that were immediately familiar to me as a helicopter pilot. The left stick handles ascent/descent (like a helicopter’s collective) and yaw (like a helicopter’s anti torque pedals) while the right stick handles direction of flight (like a helicopter’s cyclic). The drone is amazingly responsive, but what really blows me away is that releasing the controls brings the drone to a controlled hover at its current altitude. And if that isn’t enough, several program modes and tools make it possible to program a flight. The damn thing can literally fly itself.

Phantom 4
Jim’s Phantom 4, awaiting takeoff near Vulture Peak in Wickenburg, AZ. I got a chance to experiment with both manual and automatic flying modes.

I could go on and on about the Phantom 4’s feature set — which I understand is shared by many competing products these days — but I won’t. I’ll let you explore them for yourself. There’s plenty of information online.

I will say this, however: As someone who has been involved in tech for a long time — hell, I wrote books about computers for 22 years starting way back in 1990 — I’m not easily impressed. The Phantom 4 completely blew me away.

Me? A Drone Pilot?

Jim, in the meantime, is looking to upgrade and offered me a sweet deal on his Phantom 4 with lots of accessories. That got me excited about owning one of these flying cameras. So excited that I watched all of the Phantom 4 tutorials on DJI’s website, worked through the FAA’s UAS pilot online training, and took (and passed) the FAA’s Part 107 pilot test. All I need is a meeting with the FAA and a sign off to become a certificated UAS pilot.

What does that mean? I’ll be legal to conduct commercial UAS flights. That means I can create (and sell) some of the photos and images I collect with a flying camera like the Phantom.

But I have other ideas for how I can make drone photography part of my professional life. Stay tuned; I’ll be sharing more on this topic in the months to come.

After all, if you can’t beat them, join them.

Home Tour, 8-Oct-16

Another look at my work-in-progress home.

On May 20, 2014, I began blogging about the construction of my new home in Malaga, WA. You can read all of these posts — and see the time-lapse movies that go with many them — by clicking the new home construction tag.

I had a friend I hadn’t seen for about a year come over for dinner on Saturday night. It was a good thing he came. I had a few little projects that I’d been putting off for two long — the trim around my bathroom door being the biggest one — and knowing he was coming motivated me to finish them. It also motivated me to clean the place up and throw away a lot of the junk that had been accumulating. I am the queen of clutter and I’m really working hard to control it.

My Red Sofa
I get very serious when I clean. I even took out the leather cleaner and wiped down my living room sofa.

Once my home was all spiffed up, I figured I’d take the opportunity to do a quick video tour. I’ve been videoing various parts of my new home construction and it’s kind of neat to go back through my archive and see where I was at various points.

My living space is about 95% done at this point. I have my Certificate of Occupancy — I got it last spring — so there’s nothing left to get inspected. There are three big finishing projects, though:

  • Build a ladder to my loft. I already have all the wood and hardware. I just have to stop procrastinating and get the job done.
  • Finish the tile around my shower stall. Again, I have most of the materials I need. I just absolutely detest working with tile. So I procrastinate.
  • Paint and trim the stairs. I’m going with paint because it’s durable and cheap. But I still have to sand the steps, paint them, and then add trim along the sides.

I also have some “baseboard” trim work to do. I’m using quarter round to keep it simple. There’s not much left to do. I might knock it off Monday afternoon.

Anyway, here’s the video. Enjoy.

Making It Happen

You can do it if you try hard enough and stop making excuses.

Yesterday evening, when I got home from a charter flight, it was a wee bit too windy to land on the platform I use to roll the helicopter into the garage. The platform sits in a rather confined area and there’s little room for error. A gusty tailwind could make for an ugly landing and I simply didn’t want to deal with it. So I did what I’ve done on a few other occasions: I landed in the side yard.

The wind didn’t die down before nightfall, so I left the helicopter out there overnight. It was supposed to rain today anyway and I figured I’d just put it on the platform after any cherry drying flights I had to do. I do my best to limit the number of times I have to start or shut down the helicopter on my property so as not to bother the few petulant neighbors who, in the past, have complained — to others; not me — about it.

But this morning dawned bright and mostly sunny. I checked the forecast and, sure enough, it had changed. Apparently, the big rain would be on Sunday — unless the forecast changed again.

Of course, the beautiful — and I really do mean beautiful — morning light gave me an excellent opportunity to take a few new pictures of the helicopter. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you likely know how much I value Golden Hour light. And I never get tired of the view from my property.

N630ML at First Light
Flashy lawn ornament at first light.

My Prized Possession — for a Reason

As you might imagine, my helicopter is one of my prized possessions. (My new home is the other one.) Not only did it cost a huge amount of money to buy — and yes, I do own it outright — but it represents a series of achievements in my life:

  • writing a few best-selling computer books that eventually funded its purchase,
  • building skills to fly it safely as needed for the kinds of flying I do,
  • jumping hurdles set up by the FAA to operate it for Part 135 charter flights,
  • winning the right to keep it and my other business assets in my ugly divorce,
  • building a solid business around agricultural contracts in Washington and California, and
  • continuing to operate it as a primary source of income in my third career as a helicopter pilot.

It’s been a long road that started way back in 1997 when I took my first helicopter lesson and won’t end until I retire from flying and sell it to its next owner.

I often think about an airline pilot I was once friends with. He questioned why I would even bother learning to fly helicopters at my age — I was 36 when I started. “You’ll never make any money as a helicopter pilot,” he told me. Although I didn’t intend to make a living as a pilot back then, he turned out to be dead wrong. And I’m glad that I no longer have negative people like him in my life.

But think about how easy it would have been to accept his “expert opinion” and not try to move forward with any kind of career as a pilot. It was a built-in excuse for failure. Why try if this guy who knows the industry better than me says it’s impossible?

How many people do that? How many people simply don’t try because they think the odds are stacked up too high against them?

Anyway, as I snapped a few photos from every angle in that amazing first light of the day, I was thinking about this, thinking about what the helicopter means to me. Thinking about what it represents. Thinking about the series of actions I took to get from a 36-year-old who had only been in a helicopter twice to a 55-year-old — unlike other women, I don’t lie about my age — who makes a nice living as a pilot and has a helicopter parked in her side yard with that beautiful view behind it.

I’ve written about a lot of it here in my blog, and I don’t want to repeat it here. This blog has over 2,400 posts from the past 13 years. No shortage of things to read if you want to spend the time.

What I do want to touch on briefly here is the fact that just about all of us have it within our power to make things happen for ourselves.

I’m living proof of that. I’m from a lower middle class family where college wasn’t likely to be an option and got my first job — a paper route — when I was 13. I’ve been working pretty much nonstop since then — although my idea of work these days has little resemblance to the 9 to 5 grind most people deal with daily. (Hey, I was there for eight years and I know what you’re going through. The commute, the office politics, the meetings, the feeling that all you’re really doing is pushing paper. Ugh. Hope yours is better than mine was.)

Everyone dreams of doing or learning something special that’s important to them, but how many people do it? Some try but fail because they don’t realize from the get-go that achieving a difficult goal is a lot of hard work with very long hours and no guarantee of success. It takes planning, it takes funding, it takes the ability to work smart and have Plan B (or C or D) ready when things don’t work out as you expected. It’s easier to not try and to simply keep dreaming.

But do you really want to wake up one day when you’re 56 years old and realize that your life is more than half over and you haven’t achieved what you wanted to? (I think that’s what happened to my wasband; it pretty much caused him to lose his mind in a midlife crisis that went horribly wrong.) We only have one life. Why would you let it go by without at least trying to achieve your dreams?

The Psychology of “Success”

I was in college, in a Marketing class, when I first learned about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. From SimplyPsychology:

Maslow (1943) stated that people are motivated to achieve certain needs. When one need is fulfilled a person seeks to fulfill the next one, and so on.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Wikipedia image by FireflySixtySevenOwn work using Inkscape, based on Maslow’s paper, A Theory of Human Motivation., CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36551248

The earliest and most widespread version of Maslow’s (1943, 1954) hierarchy of needs includes five motivational needs, often depicted as hierarchical levels within a pyramid.

This five stage model can be divided into basic and psychological needs which ensure survival (e.g. physiological, safety, love, and esteem) and growth needs (self-actualization).

The deficiency, or basic needs are said to motivate people when they are unmet. Also, the need to fulfil [sic] such needs will become stronger the longer the duration they are denied. For example, the longer a person goes without food the more hungry they will become.

One must satisfy lower level basic needs before progressing on to meet higher level growth needs. Once these needs have been reasonably satisfied, one may be able to reach the highest level called self-actualization.

The SimplyPsychology page about Maslow goes on at some length, making it difficult to decide when to end the quote. If this interests you, I highly recommend that you read it for yourself. It’s in plain English and a lot easier to decipher than the Wikipedia entry.

Maslow’s Hierarchy stuck with me since I first learned it. It made so much sense. It almost provides a blueprint for a good and fulfilling life. We are motivated for obvious reasons to take care of our basic needs like food, water, shelter, rest, and safety. Once those have been dealt with, we can move on to psychological needs like friends, relationships, prestige, and a feeling of accomplishment. Once we feel secure psychologically, we can move on to the need for self-actualization: achieving our full potential and realizing our dreams.

I admit that I was a bit put out when I learned this — keeping in mind that I was only 17 at the time — by the notion my professor suggested that once we’d found self-actualization, there was nothing left to motivate us. But since then I’ve realized that self-actualization isn’t the achievement of one thing. It’s the achievement of as many things as we like.

Here’s an example from my life. Since I was a kid, I always wanted to write a book (and have it published). When I was 31, I achieved that goal. So what does that mean for me? Game over? Call it quits? No. There was another goal waiting in the wings to step forward when that had been achieved: to make a good living as a writer. And I had other goals throughout my 20s and 30s and beyond: learn to ride a motorcycle, visit all 50 states (still working on it; haven’t been to Minnesota yet), learn to fly helicopters, manage rental properties (what a mistake that was!) — the list goes on and on. As it should.

Some people think of these goals as “bucket lists.” I’m not a fan of that. I don’t believe in check lists of things that we put off until we’re ready to “kick the bucket.” I believe in doing things now, while we can really enjoy them and learn from them and possibly let them change our lives.

Flying is a good example. I wanted to learn how to fly helicopters since my first ride at age 7. I never dreamed I’d be able to do it, but when I had the time and money to learn, I did. Then I got hooked on flying. I bought a helicopter. I dreamed of being a Grand Canyon pilot and built the experience (measured in flight hours) to qualify. I did that for a season. And before I knew it, I had bought a bigger helicopter and was doing what had to be done with the FAA to build a charter business. Now flying is my primary source of income. Yet when I took my first lesson back in 1997, I never thought I’d fly for a living.

Good thing I didn’t wait until I was collecting social security to take that first lesson, huh?

A side note here: 36 is older than usual to start flying, but not too old. Two of the helicopter pilots who flew with me this season also got late starts as pilots. One of them co-owns a helicopter flight school that has two locations and a bunch of helicopters and employees. The other works for him and just this week has built the 1,000 hours of flight time he needs to get his first commercial pilot job. Both men are in their 40s and have been flying for less than 10 years.

Make It Happen

As usual, I’ve wandered away from my original point. I have so much to say that it’s difficult sometimes to stay focused.

My point is this: we all have the power within us to make it happen.

Inspired Pilot

Back in March 2015, I was interviewed for the Inspired Pilot podcast. This is the brainchild of Marvyn Robinson, a UK-based pilot and IT guy, who interviews pilots with the goal of having them provide inspirational thoughts and information for people who want to learn to fly. It was a real pleasure to share my story. If you’re interested in the path other pilots took, I highly recommend it.

Take care of the needs at the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy. Don’t piss away your money trying to satisfy higher level needs until the lower-level ones are satisfied. (Do you really need a Mercedes when a used Honda will do? Prestige is better earned through actions than flashy, expensive possessions, despite what advertisers tell us.) Get and stay out of debt so you don’t need to be a slave to a job or lifestyle you hate. Think about what you really want in your life: a skill, a dream job, a business doing something you love? Do your homework — find out what it takes to meet your goals.

And then turn off the television, get your head out of your phone, and stop wasting time whining and complaining and making excuses for why you can’t succeed. Work hard and smart, keep your eyes on the goal and what you need to do to reach it. You can do it.

The Video

I started this post by explaining why my helicopter was parked in my side yard and what I was thinking and feeling about it as I photographed it from various angles. What I didn’t mention is that I made a video, too.

I tried to put into words what I was thinking and feeling. I always feel a bit awkward about showing off the helicopter. It’s one thing to put a picture of it in action or parked at a landing zone online, but it’s another to actively brag about it and what it means to me. I know that owning a helicopter is beyond the wildest dreams of most people. But I also know that it was once beyond my wildest dreams — go figure, huh? Maybe anything is possible.

The video does get a little personal. I mention my wasband and how sorry I feel for him. I wish I could have done a better job motivating him to achieve his goals, but in all honesty, I could never understand why he would need motivation from me. Remember Maslow’s Hierarchy? I’ve come to realize that I’m more driven than the average person to reach the top of his pyramid, but I didn’t know it back then. To me, the man I spent more than half my life with was intelligent and had or could build the skills he needed to succeed in one or more of his many life goals. I could never understand why he didn’t even try — or why he gave up so quickly when he did. Instead, when I prodded him to work toward a goal — for example, flying more often so he could get the hours he needed to achieve his goal of becoming a flight instructor — he countered with excuses. After a while, I gave up with frustration. I now realize that not everyone is as driven as I am. He definitely isn’t.

Hindsight is 20-20.

Yes, I know that this blog post is addressing a first world problem.

Here in the United States, most people don’t have to worry about getting food or shelter or meeting other basic needs. Unfortunately, there is nothing I can do to help those in other nations who are less fortunate than we are. I can only recognize that they are struggling and hope that things get better for them.

That said, please don’t lecture me (or others) here about insensitivity to those less fortunate than we are. Read the Site Comment Policy for more advice about sharing your thoughts here.

The video also assures viewers that we all have it within ourselves to achieve our goals. Maybe I’m being too optimistic? I heard on the radio just yesterday that people in Argentina are starving right now because they can’t get food. And what of the millions of refugees in the Middle East and Africa? Can these unfortunate people ever achieve their dreams? I don’t know. They need to take care of the bottom of the pyramid first. So many people in today’s crazy world do.

But for the rest of us — like the dozens of people who have told me, during flights, that they’ve always wanted to be a pilot but never learned — what are you waiting for? Make it happen!

I did — and I continue to do it every day.

Flying with the Global Supertanker

A memorable photo flight and tour of an amazing aircraft.

The first call came from Global Supertanker over a month ago. Would I be interested in working with an aerial photographer to shoot dry runs and water drops made by the world’s only 747 air tanker?

The answer came with only a few thoughts of what this might entail: sure!

But because about 50% of the calls I get to fly Flying M Air‘s helicopter on unusual missions never actually happen, I didn’t get my hopes up too much. I tweeted about it briefly and mentioned it on Facebook. Then I filed it away in the back of my mind and got on with my life.

Until last week. That’s when another call came. And another. Soon I was taking down the names and phone numbers of contacts involved with the demo flight and photo shoot. Checking my calendar for availability and weather resources for forecasts; yes, Monday could work. Getting briefed over the phone about what they wanted to do and how I would help them get the video footage they needed.

I was very excited about the job — and not because of the potential earnings for a few hours of flight time. You see, it’s not always about money to me. It’s often about the opportunity to do something new and different, to meet people who are part of a different world, to participate in a program that’s interesting, to expand my horizons and learn new things. That’s a big part of what my life is about, that’s what drives me to wander down the paths I’ve chosen. It’s about taking on new challenges to make things happen.

And what could be more of an interesting challenge and learning experience than flying a videographer above a 747-400 air tanker as it drops 20,000 gallons of water over a Washington forest?

The date and time was set for Monday, June 20. I’d need to get to Moses Lake, WA by 7 AM so the photographer could install his equipment and I could get briefed with the flight crews of the two planes we’d be shooting.

A Busy Weekend

But I had plenty of other flying to do before then.

Friday was a training day, with me spending about an hour and a half practicing autorotations with Gary, one of the owners of Utah Helicopter, who is also a flight instructor and part of Flying M Air’s cherry drying team. Gary is a great instructor and I did pretty well, actually nailing the spot for a 180° autorotation twice in a row. (I didn’t tempt fate by going for a threepeat.) Afterwards, my helicopter got a 50-hour inspection, which is mostly an oil and filter change and spark plug cleaning.

Friday was also the day one of my Facebook friends excitedly announced, “The Boeing 747 Supertanker just landed at Tucson.” He was under the impression that it was there to fight the wildfire at Show Low, AZ. That got me wondering whether there were two of them. I soon learned that there was just the one and that the only reason it had stopped in Tucson was to refuel before flying on to Moses Lake. Truth is, the Global Supertanker hasn’t been certified yet; I’d be participating in part of the certification process here in Washington.

Saturday was a crazy flying day with rain most of the day and 7 hours of tedious flying over cherry trees. I figure I personally dried about 200 acres of cherry trees, including more than a few orchards that got dried two or three times. My team flew just as much, if not more. While it’s nice to get all those revenue hours, I dread long, widespread rain events like the one we had Saturday. It’s stressful for everyone and exhausting.

Sunday was a lot more enjoyable and nearly as busy, with seven Father’s Day flights, including two short ones for my next door neighbors and one for my mechanic and his family that included a flight down to Blustery’s in Vantage, WA for milk shakes. 5.3 hours logged.

And then there was Monday.

Prepping to Fly

Despite waking up at about 4 AM — I get up very early here in the summer — I got off to a late start. I’d planned 30 minutes to get to Moses Lake, but lifted off at 6:35.

At Moses Lake
Flying M Air’s helicopter parked at Moses Lake with the Global Supertanker.

The sky worried me. It was cloudier in the area than I’d expected based on the forecast and the radar showed rain to the southwest moving northeast, right toward the Wenatchee area. Not a good day to be taking off to the east. Although I’d never be more than 45 minutes flight time from my base, I did not want to break off from the photo flight to dry cherries. Fortunately, I had two pilots in Wenatchee who could cover the orchards. As long as it wasn’t another widespread rain event, we should be okay.

I made it to Moses Lake on time. I set down on the lone helipad in front of the Million Air FBO at almost exactly 7 AM. No one was around, but the big plane was parked on the ramp behind me.

Moses Lake
Moses Lake is a huge, underutilized airport.

I should say a few words about Moses Lake’s airport, Grant County International. First, it’s huge, with five runways, the longest of which is 10,000 feet. A former military airport, it still has a military ramp. It also has a U.S. Customs office, two FBOs that provide fuel, and a handful of flight schools. There’s a control tower but no airline service, despite a very nice terminal building. It’s used by Boeing to test fly 747s coming out of the factory in the Seattle area. They fly them over the Cascade Mountains, land them at Moses Lake, and then fly them around to work out any bugs before delivering them to clients. It’s the only airport I know where you can occasionally see 747s flying standard — but admittedly wide — traffic patterns and doing touch-and-goes. With a Boeing facility on the field, it was an obvious choice for the Global Supertanker people to continue work on their certification process.

Million Air doesn’t sell 100LL, the fuel my helicopter takes. It only sells JetA. But Columbia Pacific, which was supposed to open at 8 AM, sells 100LL. As I went through the shutdown procedure, I saw activity at its hangar and decided to try raising them on the radio. I’d need both tanks topped off before the flight. I got a line guy on the radio and put in a fuel order. He promised to get to it when he was finished with the other plane he was fueling.

I went inside the FBO to look for one of my contacts. It was a while before I connected with the photographer, Tom, who was piling gear on the floor after multiple trips out to his car. He’d driven in from Seattle with his camera mount, a brand new video camera, and a ton of other equipment. He asked me to move the helicopter closer to the building and I was in the process of going out to do so when the fuel guys arrived. Before they could finish, Tom had come out to the helicopter with one of the FBO line guys and his gear and began setting up. I removed the rear passenger-side door for him, stowed it in a Bruce’s Custom Covers door bag I had, and brought it into the FBO office for safekeeping.

Back in the FBO, I waited outside the conference room where a meeting of the pilots, FAA inspectors, and other program personnel was going on. While I waited, an FAA inspector came up to me and introduced himself. He asked if I was the pilot of the helicopter and when I told him I was, he told me he’d ramp-checked me. I was surprised and I think my expression revealed that. He laughed. “Don’t worry. You passed. Everything is fine. But I do need to get some info from your pilot and medical certificates.” I handed them over.

That’s when two things happened. First, I was called into the meeting. Second, my phone started ringing. Caller ID showed it was one of my cherry drying clients. I apologized and excused myself, took the call for an orchard drying request, hung up, and called one of my pilots to give him the job.

I was introduced to those assembled and put a few of my business cards on the table for those who wanted one. Then I was briefed, through map images on a laptop, of the planned routes and what my position needed to be. I got important information such as flight altitudes, operational frequency, and radio calls for various parts of the flight. The operating area was a place called Keller Butte, which was about 50 nautical miles north northeast on the Colville Reservation, not far from the Grand Coulee Dam. There was a fire tower there and one of my contacts was already there with a few other people to do photography from the tower. The other two aircraft was the 747-400 Global Supertanker and the lead plane, a King Air, which would do “show me” flights and then guide the larger plane to the drop zones for both dry and live runs. There were two planned run routes at or below 5,000 feet elevation in the hilly terrain around the Butte.

Wake Turbulence
Wake turbulence, illustrated. The best way to avoid it is to stay far away or above the plane.

My main concern, of course, was wake turbulence from the 747. Wingtip vortices from the big plane’s wings trail out and down. If I flew too close to the plane — especially at a slightly lower altitude, I could be caught in them. Only a week before, I’d been caught in the relatively minor wake turbulence caused by a Dash 8 at Wenatchee. I was far enough back that it wasn’t an issue, but I certainly did feel it. Getting even that close to a 747 configured for a low pass would be catastrophic for me and my aircraft. The solution was to stay above it. I asked about altimeter settings so we would all be dialed in the same way. One of the pilots said we’d start with the setting for Moses Lake and then update it in flight. They said they wanted me at least 200 feet above. I was thinking 500 feet.

I got and made another call while I was in the meeting. Those attending were surprisingly understanding. Now both of my Wenatchee pilots were flying. I knew that if the cherry orchard acreage started adding up beyond the point where my guys could cover it promptly on their own, I’d have to leave to help them. This would inconvenience my new clients and ruin any possibility of future work with them. But when I stepped out of the meeting and consulted Wenatchee area radar, I saw that whatever cells had moved in were already moving out or dissipating. There would be no more calls.

Before the meeting broke up, I was introduced to my front seat passenger, Phil from the FAA. So yes, I had to conduct a complex photo flight with an FAA inspector sitting next to me. No added stress, huh?

Camera Mount
Tom’s camera mount. The camera is facing the wrong direction in this shot.

Meanwhile, Tom, the photographer had set up his camera on a weird hanging mount in the left rear seat. Its heavy padded base sat on the passenger seat with a pole that provided a hook for his camera. The seatbelt held it securely in place, making an STC unnecessary. The camera hung from a bungee cord contraption and had two Kenyon KS-6 gyros attached to it. Tom would sit in the seat beside it and shoot through the window.

I admit I wasn’t happy with the setup. There were two reasons:

  • The camera’s lens was at least 10 inches inside the cabin door. That meant that he’d have less panning range before the door frame came into view. (The Moitek camera mount I have makes it possible to mount the camera with the lens at the door opening, right inside the slipstream. That maximizes the potential range without worries about wind buffeting.)
  • Putting the camera on the opposite side of the aircraft from the pilot with a passenger sitting beside the pilot made it virtually impossible for me to see what he was seeing. At times, my passenger also blocked the target aircraft from view. But although I suggested that he mount the camera behind me, he said that the mission required it to be where it was. I still don’t see why that was so, given that with a variety of runs and angles, we shot pointed in either direction. But the customer is always right, eh?

Still, there was nothing seriously wrong with the setup. It just made more work for me and the photographer and limited his capabilities. So once I’d conducted my required FAA flight safety briefing — using the briefing card, of course, mostly for the benefit of my FAA audience — and satisfied myself that nothing would fall out the open doorway, I climbed aboard with my passengers and started up.

The Shoot

Leg 1 on Google Earth
I beelined it to Keller Butte, did a lot of maneuvering there, and then beelined it to Wilbur Airport for refueling.

The flight to Keller Butte was uneventful. I chatted mostly with Phil. Because rushing air coming in through the open doorway was getting into Tom’s microphone, I had to turn off voice activation. That kept Tom quiet, mostly because he had so much stuff between the seats that he couldn’t reach the push to talk (PTT) button. Later, when we were set up to shoot, I’d turn voice activation on.

We crossed the farmland north of Moses Lake, the desert north of there, and the wheat fields north of there. Then we crossed over Roosevelt Lake, which is the Columbia River upriver from the Grand Coulee Dam. Electric City was just west of us and during the course of the day, we spotted the Grand Coulee Dam several times. (We even did a flyby on our way to refuel.) Keller Butte was one of two small mountains just north of the lake. We zeroed in on the higher of the peaks and saw the fire tower right away.

Then it was time to wait. There was no landing zone up there — why don’t they build helipads near fire towers? — so we had no choice but to circle. By then I was tuned into our agreed upon air-to-air frequency. The folks at the fire tower had handheld VHF radios and kept us informed on what they knew about the other aircraft based on phone calls they were apparently getting from Moses Lake.

Then I heard the King Air pilot coming in. As he got closer, he asked about my position and I told him. He got me in sight and began circling and practicing the runs.

Then the Supertanker’s pilot called in. He also needed to know where I was. I stayed close to the tower, realizing that he was coming in at a higher altitude than the 5500 feet I was maintaining. Fortunately, he joined up in formation flight with the King Air far enough away to make wake turbulence a non-issue for me. They got right down to business, prepping to make the first “show me” run. I moved into the agreed-upon position and climbed to 6000 feet while they descended.

The “show me” run is where the lead plane does the actual run that the tanker needs to do. The tanker pilot stays higher, following him and watching where he flies. The lead plane’s pilot announces when he’s on the line, where the drop should begin, where the drop should end, and when he’s clear. He peels off to one side and the tanker normally peels off to the other. They then regroup with the smaller, more maneuverable plane joining back up with the tanker.

There’s a lot of radio chatter during all this as they synchronize speeds, talk about positions, and establish run altitudes. I stayed quiet unless I thought they needed to hear from me or asked me a question. Phil listened and observed intently. In the back, Tom apparently couldn’t hear the radio chatter and had to be filled in, over the intercom, about what was coming next.

First Leg Spaghetti
Foreflight’s track log feature recorded the details of my flight path. Looks like spaghetti, no? This was just the first flight.

My job was mostly to hover in position with the camera facing the action. Because the camera’s panning range was so limited, I also had to pivot the helicopter so Tom could track the big plane. There was about a 10 knot wind up there and depending on which direction we were facing, maintaining that hover and smoothly conducting that pivot ranged from easy to near impossible. Over the course of the day, I’d get into and (obviously) recover from settling with power twice. Once, a quartering tailwind whipped us around almost 90° before I caught it. But, in general, I did an acceptable job. The biggest challenge was facing a target that I sometimes could not see. Fortunately, the choreography of the runs and shoot position — as well as my front seat observer — made it unnecessary for me to worry about midair collisions.

This went on for nearly two hours. A “show me” run followed by several dry runs followed by a live run with a full drop — which was awesome to see from the air — followed by more dry runs. Tom missed the live run because of camera focusing issues. The two planes moved to the other run location and I shifted position accordingly. Then another cycle of runs. But because they were out of water, there was no live run. They checked in with me when I still had an hour of fuel left. Then did three more runs before announcing bingo and heading back to Moses Lake to refuel.

We didn’t need to go so far. The closest airport with fuel was Wilbur, WA, 20 nautical miles south southeast. It’s basically a paved ag strip with a handful of hangars and a set of fuel pumps for 100LL and JetA. We landed and someone came over to help us with the pumps. There was no credit card system, so I gave him my mailing address and he promised to send a bill.

We hung out for a while. Although the Global Supertanker can refuel and refill with water/retardant in 30 minutes, they weren’t doing it that day. We were told it would be at least 90 minutes. So we killed time by visiting the ag operator’s hangar, finding and using a restroom, and talking. The folks there were very nice. And Tom, the photographer, showed me how to do a trick panorama shot like this one:

Trick Pano
Seeing double Tom? This shot is remarkably easy to make, right in the iPhone’s camera. All you need is a model who is quick on his feet.

I was glad I’d brought along some water. My passengers had, too. There was nothing within walking distance of the airport except wheat fields. The town was in a clump of trees about two miles away. I nibbled at some salad I’d brought for lunch, then put it away. I could wait.

We took off when we figured enough time had passed. It was a short flight back to Keller Butte, where the guys in the tower — now lounging on chairs in the parking area below — told us neither plane had taken off yet. Eager to save fuel, I demonstrated a pinnacle approach and slope landing for the FAA inspector on board. Tom got out and soon disappeared a way down the hill. What is it about men peeing outdoors?

When I heard the King Air pilot make his call, I called Tom back. When he was strapped in, I took off and circled back up near the tower. And then we repeated what we’d done earlier with a variety of drop runs, two of which were live. This time, Tom got the footage. So did Phil, on his phone’s camera:

Supertanker Water Drop
Phil took this picture with his phone. Not bad through plexiglas.

I was just relieved that Tom had captured footage of the drop. It was very stressful to do all this costly flying, wondering whether he’d succeed and satisfy himself and his client.

This went on for another two hours with lots of hovering and circling and pedal turns. Then we all went back for fuel for another run — the two planes to Moses Lake and me to Wilbur by way of the Grand Coulee Dam, which neither of my companions had ever seen.

Triple Selfie
Me, Phil, and Tom. Now you know why I don’t share selfies: I suck at taking them.

This time I fueled up by myself, making the required entry in the fuel sale log book. (Things are pretty laid back in farming communities.) An older gentleman drove up as I was fueling, apparently excited about seeing the helicopter come in. His name was Phil, too, and he and Phil and Tom chatted. I walked back to the hangar to see if I could track down some W100Plus oil for my helicopter — it’s been burning more oil than usual lately, probably because of the engine’s age — and came back with a quart of W100 oil, which would do in a pinch. Then the ag service owner came over and chatted with the guys for a while. I ate my salad and finished a bottle of water. I took a selfie of us.

At 3:30 PM, it was time to go back. We loaded up, I started up, and we took off. We beat the two planes back again, but not by much. It seems that they’d discussed a new run and drop zone while they were in Moses Lake and wanted to do it. They had me hang out south of the tower while they did a “show me” pass to show the big plane, the guys who had been in the tower and were now on a road below it, and me. I picked a spot north of the new run area and told them I’d stick to 6500 feet or higher. Then I watched a few more practice runs while Tom shot video. I practiced and then nearly perfected a forward move that kept us from getting into settling with power and gave me more control over the direction I was able to point the helicopter, making it easier for Tom to get smooth shots.

But I also watched the planes. It was amazing how close that 747 could get to the treetops.

That went on for about an hour, with one big live drop. And then it was over — at least for us. They told us we were done. The two big planes peeled off to the west and I dropped altitude, ducking behind the ridgeline as I headed south. We continued listening to them for a while on the radio. Then, 20 miles out from Moses Lake, I switched frequency and they were gone.

The After Party

I got back to Moses Lake and set the helicopter down near the front of the FBO so Tom wouldn’t have to lug his equipment so far. Then I placed a fuel order. I didn’t even hear the Supertanker land and taxi into its parking spot behind us.

Phil urged me to ask for a tour. There was nothing I wanted more. Trouble was, the plane was in a part of the airport ramp that was not accessible to pedestrians. I asked the fuel truck driver to take Tom and me over and he started to. But then he got to some pavement markings and told me he couldn’t drive across without a green badge. He drove us back to Million Air.

I went inside and asked a guy in an office if he could help us get to the big plane. He very kindly came outside and drove us over in a golf cart. He let us off between the 747 and King Air and Tom immediately went to the King Air to retrieve some of his equipment. I told the FBO guy that I’d find my own way back and thanked him for the ride.

Stairway to Supertanker
The staircase was quite inviting.

I walked over to the big plane, snapping pictures most of the way. On the other side, a long stairway had been set up between the pavement and the door. One of the plane’s pilots, Marco, was there, inviting me in for a tour. He had the King Air pilot, Jamie, with him and another man who did work for the FAA. I climbed the stairs and joined them for a tour.

Marco on the Tanks
Marco explains what the tanks are for and how they work.

I could probably write an entire blog post about the inside of that plane. Formerly a cargo plane, the entire lower level had been stripped out. The front “first class” section remained empty — at least that day — but the back was configured with a collection of cylindrical tanks for air, water, and retardant. The air is used as a “plunger” to force the water and retardant out of the four ports at the bottom of the plane. The system is set up to make up to eight drops with a load. The retardant system can hold two different kinds of additives and drop them with water in any configuration. There’s an extensive leak detection system and a whole procedure for handling leaks in flight. Our guide told us all about it as we climbed over and crawled under huge white pipes.


I actually broadcast this first part of the tour on Periscope, but when the audience level did not rise above 10 viewers, I stopped the video so I could take photos instead. Here’s the video; I’m afraid it isn’t very good due to the tight quarters.

The Crew Cabin
The upstairs first class cabin is pretty much intact for use by the ground crew.

Copilot Selfie
I look ridiculously excited here, sitting in the First Officer seat of a real, operating 747.

747 Cockpit
Now that’s a cockpit.

Under the 747
It was my first — and likely my only — time strolling under a 747.

From there, we went up a sort of ships ladder to the top level. The original upstairs first class cabin was intact; with seats for 12 people, it was used to carry the ground crew to each mission. There were some computer controls in a room behind that. Then the cockpit with its sleeping bunks in a tiny room off to one side. I was invited to sit in the First Officer’s (co-pilot’s) seat while the FAA guy sat in the Captain’s seat. We took pictures of each other like tourists while the two pilots talked behind us about the plane’s systems.

Afterwards, we climbed back down the ships ladder and the main stairs to the pavement outside. I wandered around under the plane, checking out the enormous landing gear and engines and looking up into the four discharge ports that could disperse almost 20,000 gallons of water or retardant over a 3 kilometer path. Around me, workers were tending to the plane: fueling it, filling it with water, cleaning its windscreen. It was the focus of attention even as it just sat their idle, waiting for its next flight.

I looked across the pavement at my helicopter and realized that the two aircraft had a lot in common. They were both used for a purpose, pampered between flights, and respected by their pilots.

As I headed for the Million Air’s shuttle bus, I stopped to chat with one of the men working on the plane. He asked me if I had a challenge coin.

“A what?” I asked.

Challenge Coin
Is this a cool souvenir or what?

“Here,” he said. “I think we have a few left.” He went into a box on the front seat of a van nearby and produced a heavy coin in a protective plastic sleeve. He handed it to me and I thanked him. It’s a great keepsake of the day’s events.

The van drove us all back to the FBO. Jamie and Marco went inside and I walked back to my helicopter. I’d already put the door on and was all ready to go. I took a last look at the big plane I’d been flying over most of the day and wondered if I’d ever see it again. Then I climbed on board, started up, and headed home.

When I shut down, I discovered I’d flown a total of 7.3 hours.


Postscript: As evidence of a day spent dancing on the anti-torque pedals, for the first time ever, my calves were sore in the morning.

Cheap Power in a Great Place to Live

Summed up in a video.

Last month, my electric bill was $27.73. The month before, it was $37.24. And my August bill, which covered the brutally hot July we had, was only $40.07.

And yes, I do run my air conditioner. That can be pretty frequently, since I’m home most days in the summer. I also have all electric appliances: stove, dryer, water heater, etc.

The power in Chelan County is supposedly the second cheapest in the country. (The cheapest is supposedly across the river in Douglas County.) Our current electricity rate is 2.7¢ per kilowatt hour. Compare this to the last place I lived, in Arizona’s Maricopa County, which was 13.27¢ per kilowatt hour. The national average is 9.84¢ per kilowatt hour.

Rock Island Dam
The Rock Island dam is just downriver from where I live.

Washington’s power is cheap because it’s renewable energy from numerous hydroelectric and wind turbine sources. The Chelan PUD is especially proud of its hydroelectric plants and the work it’s done along the Columbia River to enhance the lives of residents. I’m referring mostly to the numerous parks and publicly accessible boat ramps, many of which are free.

Back in 2014, I did some flying work for one of my video clients. Here’s the resulting video. (All of the aerial footage was shot from my helicopter.) But what I really like about the video is what is says about life in this area of the country. This is really a great place to live.


Our Public Power: The Next Generation from Voortex Productions on Vimeo.

Construction: My Almost Finished Living Room

A video tour of my living room, which is now almost done.

Yesterday morning, I made a video of my living room setup. Thought I’d share it with folks who want to take the tour:

On May 20, 2014, I began blogging about the construction of my new home in Malaga, WA. You can read all of these posts — and see the time-lapse and walkthrough movies that go with many them — by clicking the new home construction tag.

I admit that I sometimes refer to this as my “trophy room.” That’s because the red leather sofa, TV, and stereo surround-sound system came from the condo my wasband bought as a place to live during the week when he worked in Phoenix. To this day, I’m not sure why he agreed to let me have them. The only reason I included them on the list of personal property I wanted was so I could give them up in the bargaining process. But he agreed to the whole damn list — after stewing on it for months — in exchange for me moving out of the house. Joke’s on him: I had to leave anyway for my summer work and my RV and helicopter were already onsite in Washington.

My Living Room
My almost-finished living room; a very pleasant place to hang out.

The leather sofa is very comfortable and has a sofa bed tucked into it. My ex-sister-in-law, who I’m still in contact with occasionally, gave me two of the four pillows on it as a housewarming gift. The rug, storage “bar” behind the sofa, and black leather cushions on the chair are new from IKEA. The lamps are heirloom items — more on those in a future blog post. The rest of what’s in this video are a mix of new items I bought over the past three years and items moved to Washington from my old home in Arizona.

The room is almost done. I just need two things:

  • Windowsills. I have temporary window sills in place under most windows. I was going to make them out of 1×12 lumber and actually finished a few of them, but my friend Don offered me slabs of wood that match the tables he made for me. I can then make windowsills out of that. Trouble is, Don needs to get his friend with the bandsaw on the program to get me the slabs. Then I need to cut, stain, and finish them. It’s a big project and I don’t expect to have it done anytime soon. So I have trimmed 1×10 and 1×12 planks for temporary use. I probably won’t bother staining them, so I can use them for something else in the future.
  • Coffee table. Don made me custom TV table and end tables. They were cut from power poles that survived a fire back in 2010 or 2011 near the Rocky Reach Dam, upriver from Wenatchee. They have a lot of personality, with actual scorch marks on the live edges. I like them so much I’ve asked Don to make me a matching coffee table. We discussed it in some detail yesterday. I hope to get it within a month or so.

The jury is still out on the rug. I bought another one at Pier 1 that I’d like to try. This one might be okay with a coffee table over it.

And yes, I know I should get a universal remote. But honestly: I don’t watch very much television. The view out the windows is much more enjoyable.

The place is coming together. It’s already a far more pleasant home than the one I left behind in Arizona.

Construction: January 24 Walkthrough

A video progress report.

Here’s another walkthrough of my work-in-progress. This time, it’s showing off the nearly completed drywall.

I promise the next video — which I’ll do in about two weeks after they paint and clean up — will be better.