Helo Day at Falcon Field

A trip to Mesa to put Three-Niner-Lima on display.

A few months ago, I got a phone call from Jeff Fulinari (whose name I have probably just mangled). He’d gotten my name and number from someone — I can’t remember who — who said that I might be interested in putting my helicopter on display at a special “Helo Day” at Falcon Field’s Veteran’s Day Fly In. Of course I was interested. Any excuse to fly!

And then I proceeded to tell him about all my other helicopter friends who had ships that were far more interesting than mine. At the top of my list were Brian and Keith with their Bell 47s and Jim with his Hughes 500c. I promised to contact these people to see if they were also interested in putting their ships on display.

Time went by. Jim agreed to come and made arrangements with Jeff early on. Brian seemed to hop on board about a week before. Meanwhile, Jeff had been busy. He told us via e-mail that he’d lined up a total of 19 helicopters for the show. Very impressive.

Jim and his wife Judith agreed to fly down to Mesa with Mike and I. The trouble was, Jim’s 500c usually cruises at 105 knots. My never exceed speed is 102 knots. Alone, on a cool (less than 80° or so) day, I can push my ship to cruise at 95 knots. But with Mike on board, I’d be lucky to get 85 knots. Jim might slow down by 10 knots, but he certainly wouldn’t slow by 20. The solution was simple: let Mike fly down to Mesa with Jim. That would lighten me up so we could fly together. It seemed like a good enough idea to Mike — he’d been wanting a ride in Jim’s ship and this was his big chance. We settled on this as the plan.

Early this morning, Mike drove to Jim’s house, where he hangars his helicopter. I drove to the airport and loaded my ship with folding chairs, Big Wheels (a long story), and miscellaneous marketing material for Big Wheels and the airport. I took off and circled Jim’s place, which is about 3 miles north of the Wickenburg airport. Jim’s helicopter was sitting on the helipad. A few moments later, the strobe light started blinking and the blades started turning. I was on my second pass when he took off.

He slowed to let me pass him just south of town. Then we flew in a loose formation toward Phoenix. My GPS had the old “Camelback Route” set into it. The route goes from Wickenburg to a point just west of the north side of Camelback mountain, passing over Arrowhead Mall and Metro Park along the way. It then slips between Camelback and Squaw Peak, east past the 101. From there, it goes due south to Chandler, but I’d change the last waypoint when we were clear of Phoenix’s class B airspace. The benefit of this route, of course, is that it is the most direct way that avoids all Class B, Class C, and Class D airspace in the Phoenix area.

It was a beautiful day in Wickenburg — clear and cold (8�C on the ramp) — with excellent visibility. Not so in Phoenix. A beige smog cloud blanketed the valley, hiding the skyscrapers and mountains beyond from view. Even Camelback looked far away and, at first, I thought it was a different mountain much further to the southeast. I thought about people with breathing problems who may have come to Arizona for better air. So many people, so many cars, and a daily thermal inversion conspired to make the air worse to breath than where they’d come from.

As we flew, we tuned in, at first, to 122.75, which is the “official” air-to-air airplane frequency in the area. That frequency was full of students announcing positions in the Northwest and Northeast practice areas north of Phoenix. So we switched to 122.85. That frequency was used by students in the Southeast and Southwest practice areas, and there were far fewer of them. But the frequency was also being used by a bunch of airplane pilots.

“Six-five-bravo is 152 miles out.”

“Niner-three-juliet is 110 miles out.”

“Four-Alpha-Papa is 140 miles out.”

There were six or seven calls like this. Then some chatter about who was faster, how high airplanes close to each other were flying, and whether the plane off one guy’s left wing was one of the group. Then silence.

A while later, new position reports trickled in, followed by more chatter. I couldn’t contain my curiosity. “Where are you guys going?” I asked.

“Chiriaco Summit, for breakfast,” one of the pilots replied.

Chiriaco Summit is a truck stop along I-10 in California, about halfway between Blythe and Palm Springs. It had a decent runway, a Patton Museum, a gas station (for cars), and a restaurant that featured photos of the airport when it was actually used.

“Sounds like fun,” I said.

“They’re filming a movie out there,” another guy said, “and we want to check out the actresses.”

I laughed to myself. Any excuse to fly. “Where are you flying from?” I asked.

“Deer Valley,” two of the pilots answered, stepping on each other.

The conversation was over — no need to clutter up the airwaves any more than they needed to be. I thought about flying out to Chiriaco Summit instead of Falcon Field, wondering if I’d have a better time there. But by the time I made it there — after two hours and a fuel stop — all the activity would probably be winding down. And I didn’t think Jim would want to fly that far.

I tried to get Jim to switch to the helicopter air-to-air frequency (123.025) as we got closer to Phoenix. He tried, then met me back on 122.85 to report that his radio couldn’t get that frequency. Mike later reported that he heard me laughing when I replied. Old radio equipment.

We flew north of Camelback to the canal, then headed straight southeast to Falcon. We agreed to switch to Falcon’s frequency and make separate radio calls. I called in first. The controller, a woman who sounded very cheerful, replied with instructions to report one mile north of the tower. A plane reported in before Jim, then Jim got a chance to call. “Helicopter Two-Zero-Three-Zero-Foxtrot, flying with the other helicopter that just called in wants to do the same thing.” (Jim’s a riot.) The controller was just as friendly to him.

A mile north, Jim called in before me. I think he was afraid that I’d forgotten. We were cleared across and told to switch to 122.8 for guidance. I crossed first and made the switch. I was told to follow the signals of the man in the orange jumpsuit. After figuring out which man in the orange jumpsuit, I touched down on the ramp. Jim parked nearby.

A few other helicopters were already assembled, including an APS Huey, a huge Sikorsky, and a Hiller that looked strangely familiar. It was 8:30 and the show was scheduled to start at 9 AM. Jim led us all to one of Falcon’s two restaurants for breakfast. Mike and I had the Atkins Special omelet, which appeared to be meat scrapings from the griddle, loaded into a thin, folded layer of egg. It couldn’t have been too bad, because we both ate the whole thing.

Back outside, we spent some time walking around, checking out the helicopters. A pair of JetRangers and an AStar had arrived. The JetRangers were doing rides for $25 a pop and were in constant movement by 11 AM. Paul Alukonis, my first flight instructor, was flying the AStar and he spent some time showing off it’s avionics and ENG (electronic news gathering) equipment. Extremely cool. I introduced Paul to a number of people as “the man who taught me to fly.” I think it made him feel good. Brian arrived in his Bell 47 at about 10 AM, embarrassed to be late. No one complained.

I met the Sikorsky owner and, later in the day, got to climb into the ship’s cockpit. He’d been letting kids climb all over the ship all day and I thought he was nuts. But when I sat in the cockpit, I realized why he wasn’t worried. The instrument panel looked like something in a museum. Only in museums, none of the stuff works. In his ship, it was all the same industrial strength stuff, dusty and dirty and looking ancient — but it worked. Very strange. But not as strange as sitting in a cockpit ten to fifteen feet off the ground.

I also met the Hiller owner. He’d been trained in Chandler, where he also got the ship maintained. He told me that if he was lucky, an annual would cost him only about $5,000. He figured his hourly cost to operate was around $300. Not bad for an antique. It’s a weird-looking ship, with a 1-3 seating arrangement. The pilot sits up front, in the middle, by himself. Three passengers can sit on a bench seat behind him. Unlike his Sikorsky buddy, he’d plastered his ship with “Do Not Touch” signs and left his daughter to sit on guard with it.

I was pleasantly surprised to see quite a few people checking out my ship. In my opinion, it was the least interesting of the bunch. But people appeared to be amazed at how small it was. I heard comments when Mike and I finally decided to use the chairs I’d brought along. Some people had assumed it could only seat one person. Many assumed it was a kit helicopter. I set quite a few people straight and spent some time explaining how the drive system worked. I also opened the door and let a few kids sit in it.

Mike and I checked out the rest of the show, including the fixed wing area and museum. We used coupons provided by Jeff to “buy” hot dogs and water. We watched a never-ending stream of planes and helicopters fly by. The fly-in impressed me not only for how big it was, but how well-organized. That point was really driven home when it was time to go. Jim left first. His helicopter was surrounded by three or four ground guys who kept all pedestrians away until he was airborne. Then they surrounded me and did the same thing. It took a while for me to get clearance from the tower to leave — the friendly woman was gone and the man who’d taken her place was extremely busy. Finally, we were cleared to the west and told to fly three miles before turning to the north.

Mike flew with me on the way home. We sent the Big Wheels and chairs home with Jim and Judith. We took a northern route, over Scottsdale Airport. The controller was irate — I think that’s a job requirement there — but we were cleared into the airspace and over the airport. I showed Mike the big, white tire (see my previous entry), then headed home on a leisurely route. I was monitoring 122.75 just south of Carefree Highway when Jim’s voice came on. He was about 10 miles closer to Wickenburg, over Lake Pleasant. I told him where I was and that I’d be landing at his house to drop off Mike.

Back in Wickenburg, an Enstrom was in the area, giving rides to a bunch of young people there. I never got a chance to see the ship. I emptied my ship, hopped into the Jeep, and went home, tired from a good day out.

What do you think?