Call Me Captain, Please

How I got my epaulets.

Back in March, I interviewed for a job as a helicopter pilot with Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters. And before I went home later that day, I had a job.

A job. What a weird thing for me. I’ve been working freelance since May 29, 1990. I haven’t seen a paycheck in almost fourteen years. But here I was with a job. And I had to report for duty in two weeks to begin my training.

But wait a minute. I think I’m moving too fast. Let me give you some of the background.

The really old background is this. When I was in my twenties, I decided that there were four things I wanted to learn to do in my lifetime: learn to ride a motorcycle, learn to fly a helicopter, learn to speak Spanish fluently, and learn to play the piano. I got the motorcycle thing done before I turned thirty. I also turned my significant other, Mike, and my brother, Norb, on to motorcycling. I had a false start with the piano and put that aside. But in 1998, when I was thirty-something, I started taking flying lessons. I got my private pilot helicopter rating in April 2000 and my commercial ticket in October 2001. To date, I have not progressed beyond high school Spanish. But I did add another desired skill: I want to learn how to juggle.

The thing about flying is that once I started doing it, I started really liking it. Liking it enough to buy my own helicopter. Enough to do tours locally. And enough to start considering it as my next career.

Some former friends of mine told me I was crazy. “At your age, you’ll never get enough work experience to make real money at it. Why bother?”

Why bother? Why bother doing something you love? If someone is willing to pay you to do it? Frankly, I can’t understand the way some people think. Money is not a motivator here. Money is why I do things I don’t like to do. There’s plenty of that.

Since October 2001, I’ve been in “time building mode.” You see, in order to get a job as a helicopter pilot for a reputable company, I needed at least 1000 hours of flight time. That’s a lot of time. So I started doing tours in Wickenburg and at events around the state. I made long cross-country trips (to Eagle, CO and Placerville, CA, among other places). I flew around town to pass the time, made numerous trips to Deer Valley and Prescott for breakfast or shopping, and explored canyons and mountains and valleys throughout the state. Fly, fly, fly. The clock’s ticking and I need logbook entries.

PhotoThis year I had enough time to apply for a job. I sent in a resume and got an interview. Three men interviewed me on March 26. I was nervous at first, but warmed up quickly. It was like the old days of job interviews, but now, nineteen years later, I had the answers. I wasn’t some green kid who didn’t know which way was up. I was an experienced and successful business woman who wanted to explore a new world. When they asked me what I could see myself doing in ten years, I laughed. I said I wasn’t sure about ten, but in fifteen, I’d like to be flying tours in a nice place, like Hawaii. Semi-retirement, you know. I’m a bit older than the kids they’d been hiring.

Chuck, the Chief Pilot grabbed a pair of headsets and we went outside. I slid into the seat my friend Rod, who’d urged me to apply, vacated after his check flight for a utility pilot job. The turbine engine on the Bell 206L-1 C30P Long Ranger was running. Chuck took off. A quarter mile away from the airport, he told me to take the controls. I wrapped my right hand around the huge cyclic and my left hand around the industrial-looking collective. I placed my feet on the pedals. And I flew.

We wiggled a bit in the air at first. The Long Ranger has hydraulics, which my little R22 doesn’t have. But I was accustomed to flying with hydraulics in the R44 Raven I’d been leasing from a friend. Within a minute, the wiggles were gone and we were flying pretty smoothly.

He had me do some maneuvers. Gentle turns. A traffic pattern at the old Grand Canyon Airport (just northwest of Red Butte). A landing. A set down. Some hovering and hovering turns — a bit of a challenge with the 15-knot winds that were blowing that day. A take off. Another approach and landing. Then back to the heliport. When he let me do a steep approach to one of Papillon’s eleven helipads, I knew I’d passed his test.

When he called me back into his office a while later, he said, “We’d be honored to have you work for us.” Wasn’t that nice! I told him it was the nicest job offer I’d ever had and how could I refuse?I signed a contract agreeing to work until October. I got a sheet of paper telling me what I’d have to wear to work. When asked if I could start training on April 12, I said I’d be there.

On Easter Sunday, I moved up to Howard Mesa, which is covered in some detail in another blog. And I reported for work the next day. My training class had only two students: me and a Texan named Riese. Riese was married and had a 4-year-old daughter. He’d left them home in Texas. He wanted the job to build turbine time, so he could get a better job in the fall. He was a nice guy, friendly and easy to get along with. We spent the first morning filling out paperwork, watching employment videos about sexual harassment and drugs, and getting drug tested. In the afternoon, Chuck started briefing us about company operations.

The training lasted all day, every day, for the week. On Wednesday, we were joined by another new hire named Ron. Ron had worked in the Gulf of Mexico, transporting people and equipment to oil rigs, for two years. He was a typical Brooklynite: sharp, full of attitude, and eager to poke fun. The kind of person I both missed and hated.

I learned all kinds of things from many of Papillon’s long-term pilots. I learned how the Long Ranger engine and other systems worked. I learned about the rules and regulations covering flight at the Grand Canyon. I learned about the requirements of Papillon’s Part 135 certificate. I learned about the TOPS safety program that Papillon’s founder developed for the entire scenic tour industry. I learned how the work schedule worked and how to read the computer monitor with schedule information that changed throughout the day.

By Friday, I had a bad case of the sniffles. By Saturday, it was a full-blown cold. I got the day off on Sunday and wound up taking an extra day at home to recover. When I returned the following week, Riese was more than halfway through the Part 135 class and Ron was right behind him. Because of a shortage of helicopters with dual controls, I had to wait to fly. I spent the time taking one tour after another, flying with other pilots to learn the routes.

By Thursday, Riese was fully signed off and flying tours. Then the incredible happened. He quit.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to speak to him about it. He told the Chief Pilot that it was a personal matter, something to do with things at home. But he’d been gung-ho that morning, excited about flying. And he was positively beaming in his uniform when I saw him at the morning meeting. He’d even gotten a nickname from the guys: Squadron Leader. But that day was very windy and pretty turbulent out in the Canyon. Most of us think he got caught up in one of the sinkholes on the Imperial Tour and got sucked down when he should have been climbing. One part of the tour requires you to climb at least 1100 feet (preferably 1500) in a very short distance. The trick is to fly alongside a particular butte, right along the North Rim of the canyon, where there are normally updrafts you can ride up on while climbing. He may have missed the updraft (we call it the Kibby Elevator) and found himself facing the rocky cliff he was supposed to be flying over. In any case, he called for a break pilot one flight later and was gone before lunch.

That left me and Ron.

They pushed Ron through the program. But he must have made at least one of the instructors unhappy, because they weren’t very enthusiastic about finishing his training. And his Part 135 check ride was conducted in two sessions (always a bad sign). Still, they needed pilots and he had 400 hours of experience in Jet Rangers. Soon his Part 135 check ride was behind him and he was doing route training. The next day, he was wearing his epaulets.

My turn.

My Part 135 instructor’s name was Tom. Tom is a great guy: friendly, witty, and sharp. He put me at ease when we went flying. But that didn’t prevent me from flying like shit.

I was terrible. Heck, I’d flown better at my interview. I couldn’t even do a good pick up or set down. I was having trouble hovering. But Tom stuck with me and over the course of the next 4.9 hours (in three days), we worked on all the maneuvers I’d be tested on: straight in autorotations, 180 autorotations, hovering autorotations, slope landings, pinnacle landings, confined space landings, steep approaches, shallow approaches, hydraulics failure emergency landings, maximum performance takeoffs. He signed me off for my check ride on Sunday, two full weeks after my arrival at Papillon.

Dave did my check ride. He was tough. He asked all kinds of questions about the helicopter’s systems.

I could only answer about half the questions he asked. But he encouraged me to figure things out for myself. And, for the most part, I did. Then we went flying. At least I did okay on that. But not perfect. He pointed out two problems — one of them too embarrassing to detail here — then passed me.

Captain MariaI’d earned my epaulets.

Now if you don’t know what epaulets are, take a good look at the guy flying your airplane next time you catch a Continental flight to Newark (or a Southwest flight to Burbank, for that matter). Epaulets are the striped things the Captain and First Officer are wearing on their shoulders. Now I’ve got a pair. And a bunch of shirts to attach them to. Training wasn’t over yet, though. I still had to do the route training and get check rides for those. There are three main routes: The North Canyon (Green 2) route goes through the Dragon Corridor on the west side of the rim drive. It’s about 25 minutes long and very simple. The Imperial (Green 1, Green 1A, Green 2) route is a much better tour that crosses over the east rim drive just west of Desert View in the Zuni Corridor, crosses out over the Canyon in its widest part, goes over the confluence of the Little Colorado River, climbs over the north rim, and returns down the Dragon Corridor. It’s a 50 minute tour and quite complex. It’s the one that may have scared Riese into driving back to Texas. The third tour is called a Green 1 and I’m not quite sure where it goes because I haven’t been on one yet. Evidently, they’re not sold very often. As of today, I’ve finished most of my route training and can conduct tours on two of the three routes.

And Ron, well, he went back to ground school training. I’m not quite sure why — perhaps because he missed the first two days with me and Riese — but I saw him in class with the newest two recruits. And yes, he still has his epaulets. Once you get them, it’s hard to lose them.

4 thoughts on “Call Me Captain, Please

  1. Dear Captain Maria,

    My name is Carolyn Flaherty. I am 40 years old and my history reads so much like yours. I had to say hello. Ten years ago I started on my “check list of life”: I wanted to learn German and Spanish, how to play the Mandoline, run a marathon, juggle, and learn how to fly helicopters. All of which I have somehow managed to do (some better than others). I’d like to think I fly better anything, but some days that is hit and miss.

    I am currently living in Hawaii going to Mauna Loa Flight School, and maybe a month from going on my CFI check ride. Money is very tight, and I was a bit frustrated today with even knowing if I could pull this aviation career thing off. Somehow I Googled you and read your wonderful web page, and I think you may have been the updraft that I needed to continue with the dream.

    I’ve always wondered how you get into this career without becoming an instructor. And today you answered my question. I am not sure if I want to teach, but love flying, and love the idea of doing something more with aviation and maybe getting paid for it.

    If you have the time I’d love to find out more about your journey, and maybe some suggestions for a 210 (hour almost CFI pilot, who may not want to teach, but wants a career in aviation).

    Either way, thank you for sharing your story, as it gives me perhaps a new avenue that I did not know existed.

    Carolyn Flaherty

  2. Hi, Carolyn, and thanks for writing.

    I built my time in my own aircraft. It was slow going — I only fly about 200 hours a year — but I managed. You can’t get a decent helicopter job (other than as a CFI) without at least 1,000 hours. I already had a full time job as a writer, so I couldn’t take on another job to build the time.

    It’s hard at this age (I’m 45) to break into a new career, but it is possible. The only advice I can give is to work hard, be a team player, and try to ignore co-workers who may act immature or crudely. If you’re lightweight — and I mean that literally: less than 150 lbs — you’ll definitely be in high demand if you get the time and show you have the skills. (One of the top pilots at the Grand Canyon right now is a little Japanese woman who weighs in at only 115 lbs!)

    Life is a challenge — or at least it should be — and setting new goals, like learning skills and trying out new careers is one way to keep it interesting.

    And, for the record, I don’t work at the Grand Canyon anymore. The only thing I Captain these days is my own helicopter, and I just haven’t felt right putting on the epaulets.

    Good luck!

  3. Captain Flaherty,

    Great read, like yourself I’m in the middle of a career change. I’m 42, working on finishing my CFII and continue to build time albeit very slowly. Are you seeing the industry standard hour 1000 requirment beginning to drop? The Reason I ask is I had a friend visit the Papillon booth at Heli Expo a while back and she reported that their requirements had dropped to 500 hours. Any information you can provide would be a great help. Take care and blue skies

  4. I seriously doubt that Papillon’s requirements have dropped to 500 hours. The 1,000 hour requirement is for the TOPS program they participate in (and may have founded). (TOPS stands for Tour Operators Program for Safety.) It’s insurance related, too.

    Why not call them and find out for sure?

What do you think?