I Have No Patience for Lazy Writers

A brief rant.

This morning, I got this email from someone who is apparently farming out parts of his books to people with better description skills than he has:

You are the perfect person to help me. I’m writing a book about birding adventures that I had in 2011. One tense incident happened along the Rio Grande when armed cartel waded across the Rio Grande. To make a long story short, for the next forty-five minutes or so two helicopters (border patrol) circled overhead. Here is my question:

How would you accurately describe the sound these helicopters make?

Border Patrol at Rio Grande
Photo of Border Patrol helicopter over Rio Grande from gallery on U.S. Customs and Border Protection website.

For the record, I’ve never been birding along the Rio Grande while Border Patrol helicopters circled overhead for 45 minutes. How would I know what it sounds like?

Yet this guy was apparently there and can’t describe it. He figures that since I’m a helicopter pilot and a writer, I can describe it for him. So he sends me this email message.

Here’s a tip: if you can’t accurately describe something with words, you shouldn’t be a writer.

And yes, I addressed this in my blog back in 2009: “Writing Tips: Writing Accurate Descriptions.” If you do read that post, pay close attention to the first paragraph under the heading “Do Your Homework,” since it pretty much covers my thoughts on getting email messages like this one.

It’s Not That Simple

A response to a reader’s request.

The other day, I got the following email message in my In Box with the subject line “Quicken 2017 for Mac”:

As I write these words your “Quicken 2002 Deluxe for Macintosh” book sits in front of me. The time has come, whether I like it or not, to update to Quicken 2017 for Mac from Quicken 2007 for Mac. Sadly, thee’s no good documentation to use. In fact, I haven’t found any good material since your 2002 book! For all I know, you’ve moved on and no longer write books such as the one published back then. That being said, I’d like to request you consider writing a new Guide similar to the one your wrote way back then. All the best to you whatever your future ventures may be.

First, I want to thank the sender for phrasing his request so politely and understanding that I might not be writing books like that one any more. A lot of the email messages I get regarding my writing work is a lot less polite and a lot more demanding, which partially explains why the Contact page on this blog seems to discourage communication from readers. (It’s actually toned down a lot more than it used to be.)

Now let me tell you a little bit about the rise and fall of tech publishing.

The “Old Days” of Tech Publishing

Dvorak's Inside Track
This is the first book I was involved in; I was a ghost writer on 4 chapters and am mentioned in the acknowledgements.

I got into the world of computer how-to book publishing way back in 1991. I’d left my last full-time job as a Financial Analyst at a Fortune 100 Corporation the year before and was trying my hand at freelance writing. Through an odd series of events, I wound up ghost writing four chapters of a book by John C. Dvorak, Bernard J. David (who I worked with directly), and others. That led to a book that Bernard and I co-authored, which led to another 80+ books that I mostly authored alone.

Back in those days, the Internet was in its infancy. Hardly anyone had a website — I didn’t have my first one until 1995 — and services like Google, which was founded in 1996 and wouldn’t become the powerhouse it is for years, didn’t exist. When people wanted to learn, they turned to books.

Software developers knew this. They provided printed manuals with their software products. Manuals for some software could be voluminous — I remember the one I had for a version of FrameMaker that had to be at least 800 pages. But despite the availability of these reference guides, users wanted something easier to read and understand. So computer how-to books were born. I happened to be at the right place at the right time to write them.

And I was very good at it. I had a knack for learning how to use software, breaking it down into simple tasks that built progressively through the book to more complex tasks, and writing it in a way that readers found helpful.

With a lot of competition, however, not many readers got to see my books and there wasn’t much money in writing them. No problem: I’ll just write more books. My publishers — especially Peachpit Press — really liked my work and my ability to meet deadlines. They kept me busy. I once signed six book contracts in a single day. One year, I wrote 10 books.

I wasn’t the only one cranking out books. Numerous publishers had tech imprints and dozens of new titles appeared every month. Bookstores — and there were a lot more of them in those days — had trouble keeping up, but they did. Publishers published these books and bookstores stocked them for one reason: they sold.

Demand only got higher as software developers stopped including lengthy manuals with their software, favoring Quick Start books instead. And then switching to digital only manuals that they might or might not include on the software CD.

Thus began the glory days of computer how-to book authors and publishers, a period that lasted from around 1995 through 2010.

Success Comes with Sales

Quicken 99 Official Guide
This was one of my first bestsellers. Revised annually until I gave it up after the 2009 edition, it was a major source of income for me.

My financial success as the author of computer how-to books didn’t come from writing a lot of books with average sales. It came from writing two particular books, revised often, that were bestsellers. My Quicken 1999: The Official Guide was one of these bestsellers.

Quicken 2002 Mac
I was very happy to be able to write about Quicken for Mac, since I was a long-time user.

The success of one book often spurs a series of books. Quicken Press (later Intuit Press), an imprint of Osborne-McGraw-Hill, soon began publishing other Quicken and QuickBooks books. That’s how I wound up authoring Quicken 2002 Deluxe for the Macintosh: The Official Guide, the book referred to in the email message above.

I was pretty happy about this. Truth is, I’m a Mac user and had been writing Windows books only because there were more Windows users so the sales potential was higher. I’d been using Quicken on my Mac for years and knew it better than the Windows version I’d been writing about since 1998.

But my Quicken Mac book didn’t take off the way we’d hoped — there were a lot fewer Quicken Mac users and Intuit still had viable competition to Quicken on the Mac OS platform. To complicate matters, Intuit didn’t revise Quicken for Mac as often as it revised Quicken for Windows. When the next version, Quicken 2007, was released, neither Intuit nor my publisher saw a sufficient market for a book about it. So I was never asked to revise my book for future editions.

Google and the Death of Tech Publishing

Meanwhile, as publishers and authors were churning out computer books as fast as we could, the Web was growing. People were writing how-to articles and publishing them on blogs, on software support websites, on user group websites, and in online magazines. Even I did this for a long while, mostly to help promote my existing titles. These articles were free and available immediately. When search engines like Google proved to be extremely effective in helping readers find the content they sought, people started thinking twice about buying computer how-to books.

After all, why go to a bookstore or go online at Amazon to find a book that may or may not answer your specific question when you could spend a few minutes searching with Google and find the answer you need? Why wait for a book you ordered online to arrive when you could find the information you needed immediately? Why depend on the voice of one author when you could access information provided by dozens or hundreds of them?

Book sales dropped off dramatically in the late 2000s. I could see it in my royalty statements; my income peaked in 2004 and 2005 and then began a steady decline. Books about software staples like Word and Excel, that I’d revise with every new version, were dropped one after another. Publishers who had once agreed to a contract for nearly every title I proposed now declined, saying they didn’t think there was a sufficient market for the book. There were fewer and fewer new software-related titles being published. Editors who’d worked on dozens of titles a year suddenly found themselves unemployed. Publishers or imprints merged or disappeared. The few brick and mortar bookstores that managed to survive the rise of Amazon reduced or even eliminated their computer book shelf space.

By 2013, all of my book titles were officially dead — not scheduled for revision. And I know I’m not the only tech author who lived and thrived through the computer book glory days to find myself without a book market for my expertise. There are lots of us out there. The ones like me who saw it coming had a safety net to fall into; others weren’t so lucky and find themselves struggling to stay relevant and earn a living writing words few seem willing to pay for.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying that computer how-to books no longer exist. They do. There just aren’t many of them. And rather than appeal to the beginner to intermediate user I wrote for, they’re mostly written for a much higher level of user about far more complex topics. Or very narrow markets that are easy to sell to.

This Reader’s Request

Fast forward to today.

The very politely worded email request from a reader quoted in full above is asking me to revise my Quicken 2002 for Mac book for Quicken 2017 for Mac. If you’ve been reading carefully, you know why this is unlikely to happen.

There is not a sufficient market for such a book.

And that’s what it’s all about: being able to publish a book that will sell enough copies for the publisher to make a profit. It has nothing to do with the author; publishers really don’t care what authors make. Their contracts routinely minimize author royalties to help the book’s bottom line. That’s all that matters. They have spreadsheets that calculate breakeven and if a title can’t break even with a decent profit, they won’t publish it. Simple as that.

Would I write and self-publish a book about Quicken 2017 for Mac? Probably not. Even self-publishing such a book doesn’t mean I’ll earn enough money to make such a project worthwhile. Let’s do the math. It would take me a good 400 hours of time over two months to write the book and prepare the manuscript for publishing. Say I need to make a minimum of $25/hour. That means the project would have to net me $10,000. Even if I managed to net $5/book after fees paid to Amazon, Apple iBooks store, Nook, etc., I’d still have to sell 2,000 copies. Are there 2,000 people out there willing to buy a book about Quicken 2017 for Mac? I seriously doubt it.

And I’ll share a secret with you: I still use Quicken 2007 for Mac. I bought but decided I didn’t like the 2015 version and I haven’t even bothered to buy the 2017 version.

So if I — a loyal Quicken user since the early 1990s — haven’t bothered to upgrade, how many other people have? And how many of them want a book about it?

The answer is simple: Not enough for me or apparently anyone else to write a book about it.

This Explains It

And this pretty much explains why I don’t write books about how to use computers and software anymore. I can’t make a living doing it.

But I’m lucky: at least I’ve found something else to make a living at.

About the “Postcards” Posts

Lazy blogging at its best.

At this point I think I owe regular readers a quick explanation. 

I normally write very long and drawn out blog posts about cooking, flying, traveling, etc. All kinds of topics — after all, the site is called An Eclectic Mind and I cover an eclectic assortment of topics.

Lately, however, I’ve been on the road traveling south for the winter and I’ve been doing a lot of driving. Although I have my laptop with me, I honestly don’t feel like sitting in front of it typing long blog posts about my travels. Instead, I’ve decided to share short stories about my travels with pictures I’ve taken along the way. That’s with the “postcards” are all about.

I will eventually sit down in front of my computer and write more substantial blog posts about the things I’m doing and thinking. There’s a lot going on in the news and I’m actually following it when I’m on the grid. I just spent two days in Las Vegas and I got really tuned in again. Soon I’ll be housesitting in Wickenburg and have a lot of time on my hands to get some writing done.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is this: don’t give up on me. If you come here to read my long, thought out blog posts, you will eventually see them again. But it might not be for a few more days. Until then, I hope you enjoy the postcards.

AOPA’s Consolidated Blog

Better exposure for my articles.

AOPA LogoI’ve been writing for AOPA’s helicopter blog, Hover Power, for about a year and a half. Back in February 2016, they published the first of three articles about the contract work I do: “Doing Wildlife Surveys“. The other two articles were in the queue, but never appeared.

After a while, I wondered what was going on and emailed my contact at AOPA. He responded that things were busy for him and that changes were underway.

Then a month or two later, one of my Facebook friends, who is also a pilot, shared a link to the second article in the series, which was about cherry drying. Heavily edited with its title changed to “Using a big fan” (seriously?), it appeared on AOPA’s main blog. The third piece, “Flying frost control,” appeared about a week and a half later.

The consolidation of AOPA’s blogs into one main blog is a good thing for me as a writer. It gives me more exposure for my work. (Obviously, I get paid, too; you can’t pay the bills with “exposure,” folks.) This has already paid off — Robinson helicopter’s newsletter editor called to ask if she could feature my cherry drying work in an upcoming issue of the newsletter. While that won’t earn me anything, it’s a nice little feather in my cap.

I haven’t written anything new for AOPA for a while — I was put off when my articles were shelved for so long — but I hope to come up with some ideas soon. I’ll likely be writing shorter pieces than I have been; this blog is updated about every two days and I don’t think I should overload readers with my typically wordy posts. And, let’s face it: the average AOPA pilot flies a plank — I mean plane — and isn’t terribly interested in rotary wing stuff.

You can find AOPA’s blog here. If you’re a pilot or interested in flying, I urge you to check it out.

And if you’re interested in reading some of my other published work, be sure to check out my Articles page.

Are Writers this Desperate?

Another rant. I’ll keep it short.

This morning, I went through my email inbox (currently 1795 messages, 10 unread) and found this message from a few days ago:

Email Message
This is the email message I received from a video training company looking for authors.

Maybe I’m being oversensitive here — it certainly wouldn’t be the first time — but I’m trying to figure out why any author in his/her right mind would send a bunch of detailed ideas for potential video courses in response to an obviously boiler-plated email that doesn’t even include the name or title of the person sending it.

Testing for Legitimacy

A side note about Lynda.com

I honestly don’t know why LinkedIn bought Lynda when it’s only a matter of time before there are hundreds of copycat sites out there, all cheaper. And what of the free content already available on YouTube? Video content is already going the way of the print content I used to create. Why buy a book when you can Google it? Why pay for a video when you can find one for free on YouTube? Quality doesn’t seem to be a concern anymore.

With Lynda’s current policy of replacing freelance experts with in house (i.e., non-royalty) authors, they can’t even claim to have better courses anymore. Those out-of-work experts have plenty of places to go — especially if they’re not as picky as I am.

I did some research. I looked at the website for the domain name the email came from. It looked legit — like a Lynda.com copycat site. A link at the bottom of the home page said they were looking for authors. I clicked it. No details at all: just a form to fill out with contact information. Apparently, they’d get in touch.

So at this point, I have no idea what kind of deal they’re offering authors. Do they even pay authors? I don’t know. I do know that I need to be paid — or feel confident that I will be paid — before I do any work, including developing ideas that it would be all too easy to have an “in house author” develop and record without compensating me. I’m not a complete idiot.

And anyone can whip up a real looking website these days. And was the grammar error in the email a typo or a sign that the email was sent by someone who doesn’t speak English regularly? Like someone at a content mill?

My reply was aloof:

I’m interested, but I need to know more about your author program before I make any proposals. I have a great deal of experience creating video courses, having authored and recorded about a dozen for Lynda.com over the years. Here’s a list: http://www.aneclecticmind.com/videos/ My areas of expertise include Mac OS, Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Twitter, WordPress, and various niche software products. I’ve been writing books and articles about computing since 1990 and have had 85 books published since then.

If you’re interested in working with me, you’ll need to do a bit more than leave an anonymous message for me through a form on my blog. I’ve worked with a lot of publishers since 1990 and have learned that the serious ones are the ones who make personal contact and help me understand why I should want to work with them. I know I can benefit you; what can you do to benefit me?

Looking forward to hearing from you.

Maria

I don’t expect to get a response.

Another Site, another Courting

This reminds me a bit about a personal email I did get from another video training company about two years ago. This guy was in full sale mode, doing his best to tell me why I should be a writer for them, and why they wanted to get a bunch of my courses for their launch. There would be generous payment — 50% of the take on each course sold — but I’m smart enough to know that 50% of nothing is still nothing. Could they sell the courses they put online? I didn’t know.

I decided to wait a while to see how things went. After all, the whole thing could be a web version of vaporware. Six months after launch, I checked in. The site appeared to be up and running and there was content, although the courses weren’t very meaty. I emailed my contact to ask about sales figures. I never got a response. A year later, the site was down.

It would be nice to hitch up to a new wagon, but I need to be careful whose wagon I hitch up to. I don’t want to waste my time writing content for a publisher that I might not be properly compensated for.

How Desperate are Writers?

But again, these contacts and pleas for authors have me wondering: just how desperate are writers that they’d respond to an anonymous message like this with course ideas and outlines?

And how little do content publishers care about authors and content quality that they’d send out messages like this to anyone they think might take the bait?

How bad has the situation in publishing and content creation become?

You Can’t Go Back

A note in response to a bulk email from an old colleague.

It may be hard for some blog readers to believe, but for a while in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was “famous.”

My fame was limited to a group of people who bought my books and read my articles about using computers. I started writing in 1991 — as a ghostwriter for a John Dvorak book — and was soon writing my own titles. I learned early on that if you couldn’t write a bestseller, you had to write a lot of books. So I did. And then, in the late 1990s, two of my books became best sellers. Subsequent editions of the same book continued to be best sellers. For a while, I was making a very good living as a writer. At the computer shows where I was a regular speaker, people actually asked for my autograph.

I’m not an idiot. I knew that my good fortune could not last forever. So as I continued to write, turning out book after book and becoming well known in my field, I invested my money in my retirement, assets that could help extend (or at least securely bank) my wealth, and something that I thought would be a great hobby: flying helicopters. I learned to fly, I got hooked on it, and I bought helicopter. I started my helicopter charter business in 2001 — it was easy to fit flights in with my flexible schedule as a writer — and bought a larger helicopter in 2005. Building the business was such a struggle that I honestly didn’t think I would succeed. But fortunately, I did.

Mountain Lion VQS
My most recent book was published back in 2012. I don’t call it my “last book” because I expect to write more. They likely won’t be about computers, though.

And it was a good thing, because around 2008, my income from writing began declining. By 2010, that income began going into freefall. Most of my existing titles were not revised for new versions of software. Book contracts for new titles were difficult to get and, when they were published, simply didn’t sell well.

Around the same time, my income from flying started to climb. Not only did it cover all the costs of owning a helicopter — and I can assure you those costs are quite high — but it began covering my modest cost of living. By 2012, when I wrote my last computer book, I was doing almost as well as a helicopter charter business owner as I’d done 10 years before as a writer. And things continued to get better.

I was one of the lucky ones. Most of my peers in the world of computer how-to publishing hadn’t prepared themselves for the changes in our market. (In their defense, I admit that it came about quite quickly.) Many of these people are now struggling to make a living writing about computers. But the writing is on the wall in big, neon-colored letters as publishers continue to downsize and more and more of my former editors are finding themselves unemployed. Freelance writers like me, once valued for their skill, professionalism, and know-how, are a dime a dozen, easily replaced by those willing to write for next to nothing or even free. Books and magazine articles are replaced by Internet content of variable quality available 24/7 with a simple Google search.

So imagine my surprise today when one of my former colleagues from the old days sent me — and likely countless others — a bulk email message announcing a newsletter, website, and book about the same old stuff we wrote about in the heydays of computer book publishing. To me, his plea came across as the last gasp of a man who doesn’t realize he’s about to drown in the flood of free, competing information that has been growing exponentially since Internet became a household word.

I admit that I was a bit offended by being included on his bulk email list simply because he had my email address in his contacts database. But more than that, I was sad that he had sunk so low to try to scrape up interest in his work by using such an approach. Hadn’t he seen the light? Read the writing on the wall? Didn’t he understand that we have to change or die?

So after unsubscribing from his bulk mail list, I sent him the following note. And no, his name is not “Joe.”

The world’s a different place now, Joe.

After writing 85 books and countless articles about using computers, I haven’t written anything new about computers since 2012. I’m fortunate in that my third career took off just before that. Others in our formerly enviable position weren’t so lucky.

Not enough people need us as a source of computer information anymore. All the information they could ever want or need is available immediately and for free with a Google search. There are few novices around these days and only the geekiest are still interested in “tips.” Hell, even I don’t care anymore. I haven’t bought a new computer since 2011 and haven’t even bothered updating any of my computers to the latest version of Mac OS. My computer has become a tool to get work done — as it is for most people — a tool I don’t even turn on most days.

Anyway, I hope you’re managing to make things work for yourself in this new age. I’m surprised you think a newsletter will help. Best of luck with it.

And if you ever find yourself in Washington state, I hope you’ll stop by for a visit and a helicopter ride. I can’t begin to tell you how glad I am that I invested in my third career while I was at the height of my second.

Maria

Is it still possible to make a living writing about computers? For some of us, yes. But we’ll never be able to achieve the same level of fame and fortune we once achieved. Those days are over.

When I Became a Pilot

An essay from years ago.

Let me start with an introduction.

Thanks to the enthusiastic encouragement of a local writing group I joined a few months ago, I’m working on a book project about my flying experiences.

I’d started a book about flying back in 2010, intending to document my first 10 years as a pilot, but set it aside when life got busy with other things. Then, when my crazy divorce started, I forgot all about it. Rebooting my life in a new place and building a new home kept it on the far back burner of my mind. I recently discovered the manuscript on my computer’s hard disk and submitted one of the stories to the group. They seemed to love it and asked for more. With an overabundance of free time during the winter months, it seemed like a good idea to dive back in and possibly get it ready for publication by this spring.

I spent most of yesterday learning to use Scrivener, the writing tool of choice among so many of my writing friends. I moved the manuscript into Schrivener and organized the existing content into subchapters while expanding the outline. Then I continued the process of tracking down old blog posts to form the basis of stories that would make up the subchapters for the book.

I have a lot of blog posts about flying.

Although many of the early posts never made the transition from my original iBlog-based blog to the WordPress-based blog I started in January 2006, some of them did. Among them is a post called “The Big, White Tire,” which I wrote on November 6, 2003. (Yes, I’ve been blogging for more than 12 years now.) Near the beginning of that post, I wrote:

In my essay, “When I Became a Pilot” (which has since been lost in various Web site changes), I discuss the various flights I’ve made that have led up to me finally feeling as if I really am a pilot. One of these flights was my private pilot check ride. And in one of those paragraphs, I mention the big, white tire.

I got curious about the essay. Was it really lost? When had I written it? Was it possible that it was on my computer somewhere, hiding in plain sight?

So I did a computer search for “when I became a pilot” and found a Word document with the same name. It was the “missing” essay.

Here it is.


When I Became a Pilot

I became a helicopter pilot this past year, although I’m not sure exactly when.

It wasn’t the day I took my introductory flight. That 0.9 hours on the very first line of the very first page of my logbook isn’t even a clear memory to me. I know my instructor, Paul, and I left Chandler Municipal for the practice area at Memorial field, as we would do for most lessons over the course of my private pilot training. I assume he spoke to me about flying and I have a vague memory of handling the controls, although not all of them at once. I certainly wasn’t a pilot that day.

It wasn’t the day I first soloed, after months of squeezing hour-long training flights into my busy schedule. I remember that day clearly. After doing a few traffic patterns at Memorial, Paul told me to set down. He had a hand-held radio with him and he tuned it and the one in the helicopter to the frequency the flight school used.

“Now when you pick up,” he told me, “the front left skid will lift off first. You’ll have to compensate with forward and left cyclic. Do a few traffic patterns. Make all your radio calls. I’ll be listening and keeping an eye out for traffic.”

He lowered his head as he walked away from the helicopter and its spinning blades. Then he stood facing me, only thirty feet away. I could see his face clearly.

“Go ahead,” his voice came though the radio.

I pulled the collective up slowly. The helicopter became light on its skids. Then the left skid came up while the helicopter seemed to tip backwards. I panicked a little and jerked the collective up. The helicopter popped up ten feet. Paul’s eyes opened wide and his face displayed his concern. I’m sure mine did, too.

I did three or four patterns, landing near him on the cracked asphalt of the runway on each pass. Then he told me to set it down and he got back in. I could tell he was proud of me. (He told me later that the reason he remained a flight instructor so long was because he felt a real sense of achievement every time a student soloed for the first time.) But I still wasn’t a pilot.

It certainly wasn’t the day I did my first cross-country flight. Paul and I had planned the flight and I had circled all the waypoints I expected to see. The chart was folded and strapped to my leg with the flight plan clipped on top of it. It was a warm day in April and the doors were off. But the late afternoon thermals were brewing as we flew south to Eloy and they were particularly nasty as we flew over the Santan Mountains. That’s when I started feeling sick.

Studying a map on my lap while the helicopter bumped through rough air was too much for me. I found all the waypoints and we stayed on course, but about ten miles short of Gila Bend, our second stop, I’d had enough. I asked Paul to take over.

I didn’t get sick. Keeping my eyes on the horizon and off the damn map saved me. I was able to land at Gila Bend. Paul decided we should get out and walk around a bit, so we shut down on the ramp near a small building. Inside was a table, a few chairs, and a soda machine. We bought Cokes. A Mexican man was sitting at the table, patiently cutting the spines off young cactus pads that were neatly spread out in a flat cardboard box. Napolitos. We spoke briefly to him; he didn’t speak English very well.

A while later, we were back in the helicopter, starting up. The wind was howling. I felt Paul’s steadying grip on the controls as we took off. We had a tailwind, and according to the winds aloft information I had, it might be even stronger higher up. So instead of flying back at 500 AGL, we climbed to 2000 AGL. According to the helicopter’s GPS, we had a ground speed of 103 knots. The airspeed indicator read about 85. We were in a hurry to make up for lost time, so we let the wind help us out. I learned a lot about flying and the remote airports of Arizona that day. I also learned not to study a map strapped to my leg while I was flying in bumpy air. But I still wasn’t a pilot.

New Pilot Maria
I found this photo in my logbook case pocket. My flight instructor, Paul, snapped this right after I passed my first check ride in April 2000.

It wasn’t the day I took and passed my private pilot rotorcraft helicopter check ride, either. At that point, I was flying out of Scottsdale, which was a bit closer to home. Although more than a year had passed since my first lesson, Paul was still my instructor. I’d spent the whole week at Scottsdale, staying at a local hotel, flying during the day and studying at night. I think I did more autorotations that week than I did in all my months of training.

The oral part of the check ride went pretty well. The examiner was the flight school owner and he did a good job putting me at ease. Then we went out to fly. I don’t remember much, but I do remember thinking that I was flying pretty badly. I didn’t think I’d pass.

I think it was the tire that killed my meager confidence. It was a huge truck tire, painted white. It was out in the desert and one of these days I’m going to go find it. The examiner told me to hover up to it, facing it. Then he told me to hover around it, facing it the whole time. I did a terrible job, and I couldn’t even blame it on the wind.

I was feeling pretty bad by the time we went back, certain I’d failed. But I did make the absolute best approach and landing I’d ever made to the confined space we parked in at Scottsdale. Maybe that’s what saved me. Or maybe my performance wasn’t any better or worse than most student pilots on their check rides. I passed. When the examiner shook my hand, he told me I was a pilot.

But he was wrong. I wasn’t a pilot yet.

I knew I wasn’t a pilot the following month, when I took my first passenger for a ride. We’d rented the same helicopter for two hours. We drove the 70 miles to Scottsdale to pick it up and I did my preflight as I had so many times before. It was warm and the doors were off. I took off and headed back toward home. The plan was to fly over our town, then bring it back. We had just enough time and fuel to make the trip without rushing.

Although the air wasn’t any more turbulent than it had been on my check ride or when I flew with Paul, it seemed different. I was sharply tuned to the sound of the rotor blades, which changed based on their pitch and the pockets of air they sliced through. It seemed to me that there was an unusual amount of blade slap. My passenger, Mike, was also tuned to the sound and it made him nervous. He held onto the doorframe. He made me nervous. I made myself nervous.

It wasn’t a bad flight, but it wasn’t a good one, either. I wasn’t any more a pilot than I had been during my check ride.

I know I wasn’t a pilot when I started my commercial pilot training at a flight school in Prescott. My new instructor, Raj, didn’t baby me. When he realized that I was afraid to fly in heavy wind, he made me face my fear by having me spend twenty minutes on a very windy day, practicing hovering. I remember the lesson well; it was the first time I’d ever been told to make a hover turn using only one foot on one pedal.

Three-Niner-Lima
My first helicopter, an R22 Beta II, in a friend’s driveway in Aguila, AZ not long after I got it.

I still wasn’t a pilot when I bought my helicopter, a 1999 Robinson R22 Beta II with only 168 hours on its Hobbs meter. I’d gone back to my first flight school and had a new instructor there, Masohiro. He flew with me around the Phoenix Sky Harbor surface airspace to show me how I could fly from Chandler to Wickenburg without talking to ATC. Then I was on my own, to fly Three-Niner-Lima home with Mike.

I don’t recall feeling nervous that day, although I’d logged less than ten hours since our first flight together from Scottsdale five months before. I don’t recall him seeming nervous either. Perhaps I was overwhelmed by the significance of what I was doing: flying my own helicopter.

But I certainly didn’t feel like a pilot a few days later when I flew solo for the first time in over a year to bring Three-Niner-Lima back to Chandler. (I was leasing it to the flight school and I only got it on weekends.) As I took off from Wickenburg, I choose a poor departure route, over the hangars, and for a brief moment, I thought I wouldn’t clear them. (I haven’t done that since.) And I was nervous all the way down to Chandler.

I didn’t feel like a pilot the following month, when I checked out to rent a helicopter in St. Augustine, FL. I wanted to take my stepfather for a ride. The autorotation I did for the flight instructor who checked me out, Ziggy, was so bad, he asked for another one. It must have been okay, though, because they let me rent it. But I wasn’t a pilot yet.

I almost felt like a pilot the month after that, when I participated in a Young Eagles rally in Aguila, AZ. I followed all the rules and worked with a ground crew to give safe rides to five kids. I told them about the helicopter and answered their questions. I knew what I was talking about and what I was doing. And it was clear that everything there thought I was a pilot. But I still wasn’t sure.

I didn’t feel much like a pilot a month later, though, after making my first bad decision regarding weather. The weather forecast called for ceilings of 900 feet along my route from Wickenburg to Chandler and I figured that was enough, since I normally flew at 500 AGL. We took off to the south and soon discovered that the ceilings were lower than expected. They seemed too low along my preferred route, so I decided to take my backup route, which looked a little better. Soon, they were low there, too, and I was flying at 350 to 400 feet AGL, with wisps of cloud bottoms passing the cockpit bubble. The ceilings rose when I was halfway there, but then the rain started to fall. The temperature dropped to freezing and I began to wonder about icing on the blades. The visibility deteriorated to about three miles—still within minimums. But to a fair-weather flyer like me, it seemed as if I were flying in a fog.

I was just about to set it down in the desert and wait out the weather when I picked up Chander’s ATIS and was encouraged by the ten mile visibility it reported. I was five miles out and still couldn’t see the airport, but I followed the familiar route in. I was glad to be on the ground. And fortunately, my passenger—who was from the San Francisco Bay area and accustomed to such weather—never knew about my concerns.

Two months later, on my first long cross-country trip, I realized that I still wasn’t a pilot. I stretched my fuel supply almost to exhaustion with 2.9 hours of flight time. I must have been running on fumes when the fuel guy in Boulder City put 28.5 gallons into a pair of tanks that hold 29.7 gallons. Another few minutes of flight and the Low Fuel (or “Land Now”) light would have come on—possibly while still over Lake Mead.

But a week later, I certainly felt like a pilot. The comment in my log book for that 1.2 hour flight says simply “Yarnell Hill!” I’d followed the Hassayampa River north through the Weaver Mountains and into the valley beyond. Then I’d followed Waggoner Road to Route 89 and followed that to the town of Yarnell. At about 4,500 feet elevation, Yarnell is nestled near the edge of a cliff that the locals call Yarnell Hill. Beyond it, the earth falls away to the Sonoran desert floor near Congress, 1,500 feet below. Worried about the possibility of downdrafts, I’d approached the cliff edge at about 6,000 feet MSL. But the air was smooth. As I cleared the cliff, I lowered the collective almost to the floor and entered a sort of “powered autorotation.” Gliding down at the rate of 1500 feet per minute at about 80 knots airspeed, I got the most amazing rush. I pulled in the collective gently to level off at 3500 MSL feet over the dairy farm, close enough to smell the manure. Now that was flying!

A few off-airport landings for the $200 hamburger also made me feel not only like a pilot, but like a helicopter pilot. My favorite spot is Wild Horse West, about a mile east of Pleasant Valley Airport near Lake Pleasant. I line up with the old pavement of what used to be Route 74 (before it was moved to bypass the restaurant) and land near the entrance to the parking lot. Then I hover-taxi off the road into a clearing where Three-Niner-Lima will be out of the way. A helicopter near the parking lot turns a few heads, but I haven’t gotten a parking ticket yet.

Of course, a new flight instructor who was impossible to please didn’t make me feel much like a pilot at all. I reached new levels of frustration, not long after my departing instructor told me I was ready for my commercial check ride. The only thing that impressed the new guy was my GPS skills—a fact he noted boldly in my student folder. I decided to complete my training elsewhere.

I started feeling like a pilot again when my friends Mark and Gary gave me some formation flying lessons. It was June and I was scheduled to fly along with the world’s largest airworthy biplane (piloted by Mark) to AirVenture in Oshkosh the following month. Gary took off in his Cub and we took turns being lead and wing. It was tough flying slow enough for him to keep up with me when I was lead—and Mike complains that helicopters are slow! I wish I could have seen what we looked like from the ground. I bet it was a sight to see.

The Oshkosh trip fell through but I came up with another cross-country alternative: Colorado. I took a leisurely three-day solo flight, logging 7.0 hours of flight time to Eagle County Airport. Maybe it was that trip that made me a pilot. I learned a lot about flight planning, mountain flying, and weather. And I saw so much! Of course the ride home was tough, especially the 6.1 hours logged in one day, flying from Moab, UT to Wickenburg, AZ with my friend Janet. Heavy departures from high altitude airports, multiple fuel stops, and turbulence combined to make it a flying day I’d rather forget.

But a few months later, I was again doubting whether I was really a pilot.. I had to fly Three-Niner-Lima from Wickenburg to Long Beach, CA to finish my commercial training, and I didn’t think I could do it alone. A private pilot from the flight school took a commercial flight to Phoenix to make the trip to California with me. He wanted to build time; I wanted someone to guide me through the complex Los Angeles area airspace. But when he took the controls on the leg from our lunch stop in Chiraco Summit to our fuel stop at Banning, I knew I was more a pilot than he was. He couldn’t maintain airspeed and let our ground speed drop as low as 52 knots in a 20 knot headwind. Cars on I-10 were passing us! I took control again from Banning to El Monte and showed him how to push into the wind.

I finished my commercial training in just over a week and passed my commercial check ride. (So much for the opinions of difficult-to-please flight instructors in Chandler.) Was I a pilot then? Maybe. Or maybe I became one on the way home the next day. I had to navigate from El Monte to Wickenburg, alone with a late start, handling all radio communications. I had to request special VFR clearances to fly through two Class D airspaces. I had to decide whether to spend the night at Thermal, near Palm Springs or push onward to reach Blythe or Parker before nightfall. I made all the right decisions and had a good, safe flight. I even enjoyed the overnight stay at Thermal, where the FBO generously gave me a brand new car for transportation to and from the hotel.

Trailer Landing
This trailer landing was a piece of cake compared to the platform I regularly land my R44 on at home these days.

I must have been a pilot when I took my first two paying customers up for rides a few weeks later. Or when Mike and I flew to Falcon Field for dinner at Anzio’s and enjoyed the light of the full moon on the otherwise dark trip back to Wickenburg. Or when Mike’s cousin Ricky and I landed at Swansea, in the middle of nowhere, to explore the ghost town’s ruins without making the five hour round trip car ride. Or when I landed Three-Niner-Lima on the back of a 8×16 flatbed trailer so I could show it off in the Wickenburg Gold Rush Days parade. Or when I stayed on the controls with Mark so he could try out a few maneuvers in the only type of aircraft he’s not rated to fly.

Things felt right during all those flights. I felt confident and my passengers had confidence in me. I didn’t do anything foolish, anything I would scold myself for later on. I was still learning from every flight, but I felt that I had built a solid base of knowledge and skills to fly safely—and enjoy almost every minute of it.

But maybe it was the flight that gave me the idea to write this article. It was just the other morning. I’d gone to the airport at 6 AM and had Three-Niner-Lima out on the ramp and preflighted by 6:30. A few minutes later, we were airborne, just me and my ship, headed south.

The doors are off, the cool morning air rushes through the cockpit. The radio is strangely quiet; am I the only person aloft on that normally busy shared frequency? We pass over the top of Vulture Peak, then make a steep descent and continue south and then west, riding along Aguila Road toward Aguila. Trucks hauling rocks make lines of dust in the distance; soon I’m flying right over one of the trucks on the road. A manmade structure atop a mountain to the south of us catches my eye and we go to investigate. Just a radio tower, but down in the foothills, the ruins of a mining building. A good place to land nearby; I mark it on my GPS for investigation with Mike when the weather cools down. Weaving around the mountains, circling around, looking for anything interesting in the empty desert. There’s the mountain near where we found that saguaro skeleton several years ago. And there’s the old quarry we saw later that day. I mark a few other interesting points, then look ahead. Harquahala looms huge in front of me, rising 3,500 feet from the desert floor. I decide to climb, to see if any other early riser has made the 11-mile, 90-minute journey by four-wheel-drive vehicle to the top of the mountain.

I reduce speed to 60 knots and climb at 500 feet per minute. The ground falls away through my open door and the world spreads out as I gain altitude. It’s a clear, calm morning and I can easily see 50 miles or more in any direction. I notice a road along the ridge that I’d never noticed before. Then I begin to pick out the details at the top of the mountain: the antenna array, the solar panels, and the remains of the Smithsonian Solar Observatory. But the observatory is partially demolished and covered with scaffolding. I circle and check the windsock. There’s no wind. I land at the tiny helipad.

I’m the only human being on top of the mountain that morning as I get out to explore. The observatory is undergoing renovations. I sign the guest book, noting that I arrived by helicopter. Then I walk around, enjoying the silence of the mountaintop and the views all around me. For a while, I feel perfectly in tune with the world.

Time slips away and I have to leave to be back in time for an appointment at 9:00. I climb back into Three-Niner-Lima and start the engine. I bring it up into a hover, then move forward, toward the edge of the cliff. Once clear, I push down the collective and go into a steep glide, following the canyons around to the back of the mountain, where the dirt road winds down to the valley floor. I level off at three thousand feet, then make my way back to Wickenburg.

As I put Three-Niner-Lima back into the hangar, I know that I’m finally a pilot.


After reading this, I pulled out my original logbook and searched for the flight to Harquahala, the one that made me realize that I was a pilot. It was on May 29, 2002, about two years after I got my private pilot certificate. I logged 1.6 hours for that flight and, at that point, had less than 300 hours logged as a pilot in command.

I remember that flight as if it were just yesterday — flying around the desert, then climbing to the top of the tallest mountain in the area and setting my little R22 down on the tiny helipad up there. It was dead quiet that morning and I felt like I was the only person in the world. It was still cool that early in the day and I could see for miles. There was something magical about it.

Of course, there would be many, many magical flights to come.

Anyway, I thought I’d rescue this essay and put it on my blog where it belongs. Consider it a taste of the book to come.