Flying Isn’t Always Fun

About flying in the afternoon in the Arizona desert.

If you’ve been reading these blog entries, you may recall that about a month ago, I was supposed to fly up to the Grand Canyon early one morning for work and was prevented from doing so by a nasty t-storm over Wickenburg. I was forced to drive that day and was an hour late for work because of it. I promised my boss that from that point on, I’d come up to the area the day before I was due to start work.

Flying in the summer in Arizona — especially central Arizona, where Wickenburg is located — is not much fun. It isn’t bad early in the morning, before the sun has a chance to heat the desert up to its daily high of 100°F+. (When I say early, I mean early: sometime between dawn and 7:00 AM.) During monsoon season, even the morning can be hot and rather sticky, though. But by 10:00 AM, things are starting to get pretty awful. The sun is beating down on everything, heating up the earth and the air. The thermals start, caused by all that hot air wanting to rise. And, with a little bit of moisture in the air, clouds start to form and climb. By afternoon, you have some nice towering cumulonimbus clouds, dropping virga, rain, hail, and lightning in isolated storms all over the place.

What does this have to do with promising to get to the Grand Canyon area the day before I start work? This: Instead of flying up the day I start work, in the cool, calm, predawn air, I fly up the afternoon before I start work, in the hot, turbulent, t-storm-infested air.

Two weeks ago, I had to pick up Three-Niner-Lima from its annual inspection in Prescott. Mike drove me up and we had lunch before I left Prescott. It was after 1 PM when I got out of there and I could clearly see all the t-storms that I had to fly around to reach Howard Mesa. The nastiest was right over Bill Williams mountain and I had to detour to the east to keep out of the virga on its fringes. I landed without incident, tied everything down, and drove the Toyota down to Williams for my groceries. There was some rain on the mesa that night and other rain during the week.

Three-Niner-Lima in SmokeI flew my helicopter to work four of the six days that week and enjoyed calm air in the morning. Unfortunately, a controlled burn in the forest east of the airport filled the airport area with smoke every morning; one morning I needed a special VFR clearance to land because the smoke was so thick. (Photo shows Three-Niner-Lima parked on a transient helipad for the day; the building in the background on the far right is Papillon’s tower. That’s not fog; it’s smoke.) The afternoon is another story. One afternoon was particularly nasty, with a t-storm east of Valle that I had to steer clear of. A sudden gust of wind slapped me sideways and shot my airspeed from 85 knots to 100 knots in a flash. (I hate when that happens.) But I did see my first circular rainbow that afternoon, so I really can’t complain.

Today was no fun at all. The temperature in Wickenburg at 11:30 AM was already about 100�F when I fueled up. I was so hot as I waited for the engine to warm up that I took my shirt off, content to fly in my shorts and sport bra. (Heck, it isn’t like anyone can see into the cockpit while I’m airborne.) I also took my Keds off, trying to get the sun on the tops of my feet. Every summer I get a Keds tan on my feet that I really hate. The best way to get rid of it is to fly with my shoes off. The thermal updrafts started on me before I even crossed route 93 (about 3 miles north of the airport) and Three-Niner-Lima felt sluggish with its full tanks of fuel. I climbed at a mere 70 knots and felt no relief from the heat until I was in the Prescott area. There was a t-storm southeast of Prescott, in the Bradshaw Mountains, and another one west of Chino Valley, out toward Bagdad. I flew between them. I got bounced around a bit, but not too badly. Unfortunately, with my temperature (30�C) / altitude (6500 ft) combination, the never exceed speed was only 82 knots. That speed wasn’t limited by power, either. I’m sure I could have gotten it up to a steady 90 knots if I wanted to. But Robinson claims that flying above never exceed speed, especially at high altitudes or when heavy, can cause damage to main rotor blades. And believe me, the last thing in the world I want to damage is my main rotor blades. So I flew slowly.

I also flew high. Well, higher than usual. You see, on my flights from Wickenburg to Howard Mesa, I basically have two mountain ranges to cross. The first is the Weavers. I leave the airport and immediately start to climb so by the time I reach the Weavers I’m at around 5500 feet so I can cross them. There’s a high desert valley beyond it (Peeples Valley, Kirkland Junction, Kirkland, Skull Valley, etc.) but I don’t usually descend because I’ll have to be at at least 6500 to go around the north end of the Bradshaws, just west of Granite Mountain. Then there’s Chino Valley and Paulden. But beyond them is another mountain range — so to speak. It’s the Mogollon Rim, just south of Billl Williams Mountain, I-40, and the town of Williams. I have to climb to 7500 or thereabouts to cross through that area. So almost the whole time I’m flying to Howard Mesa, I’m climbing.

Today I had a scare. I was about 1500 feet AGL (above ground level, for you non-pilots) when I caught sight of a small plane at my altitude. It crossed in front of me about two miles away and, as I watched, it banked to the right and headed straight for me.

I don’t know what radio frequency he was on. There is no frequency for that area. So talking to him was not an option. I put on my landing light in an effort to make myself more visible. He leveled out on a collision course, less than a mile away. I did what any other helicopter pilot would do: I dumped the collective and started a 1500 foot per minute descent.

I think it was this sudden movement that caught his attention. He suddenly veered to the left. But I wasn’t taking any chances. I kept descending until I was a comfortable 500 feet AGL. Right where I should be. And right where most planes won’t fly.

He passed behind me. I switched to Prescott’s frequency and, a moment later, heard a Cessna call from Chino Valley. Obviously the pilot who’d shaken me up.

A few minutes later, I saw a helicopter cross my path, west to east. It was pretty far off in the distance — a few miles, perhaps. It looked like it might be a LifeNet helicopter. But if it was, I didn’t know where he was going. He seemed to be headed toward Sedona.

The rest of the flight was pretty uneventful. There was a t-storm to the east of Howard Mesa, still pretty far off. And a forest fire on the south rim, far to the east of where we fly in the canyon. I landed, cooled it down a good long time (I never saw the oil temperature get that hot on a flight, but it was still in the green), and shut down.

Tomorrow morning, I’ll fly to the Grand Canyon airport and report for work. It’ll be a nice flight.

What do you think?