A Mid-season review of my job at the Grand Canyon.
The other day, a fellow helicopter pilot called me to ask about my job at Papillon. His name is Dave and he’s an R22 owner/pilot like me. I’d met him last year (I think) at the airport in Wickenburg when he came through with his helicopter on a flatbed trailer. He calls himself a “scenery collector” and flies around the country taking photos of the scenery — especially interesting geologic formations — from the air. Now he works as the Chief Flight Instructor for a flight school/aerial photography outfit in Florida, but he’s always thinking ahead.
Dave had seen an ad for a job flying A-Stars in Hawaii. He thought that might be a nice job. (Oddly enough, I think so, too.) Trouble is, he has little or no turbine experience and he knows he can’t get a job like that until he gets some.
Dave was in St. George, UT recently and ran into one or two pilots I know. I don’t know if it was Rod, who flies a helicopter for fire contracts for Papillon or Dusty and Craig who work fire contracts with a SEAT. It might have even been Robin, who runs the helicopter flight school in St. George, or his brother Job, who runs the Millionaire FBO there. (I never realized I knew so many people in St. George. I’ve only been there twice.) Anyway whoever it was reminded him about me. He looked me up on my Web site and gave me a call. By some miracle, I was at my desk and answered the phone.
We had a nice chat. He said he called to find out about working for Papillon. He told me about the Hawaii job and brought me up to date on what he was doing. He said he was thinking of applying at Papillon to get some turbine time. What did I think of working there?
So I thought about it. I’d already been thinking about it, on and off, for the whole summer. But this time, I thought about it in a way that I could provide some kind of conclusion or recommendation.
And this is what I told him.
Working at Papillon can get exceeding tedious at times. I’m the low person on the experience ladder, so I haven’t been trained to do anything except the two basic tours we do: the 25-minute tour in the Dragon Corridor and the 50-minute tour in the Zuni and Dragon Corridors. So that’s what I do. All day long. On average, I make 10-14 trips into the canyon a day. Not much variety.
What can make the work interesting is the weather. Spring brings high winds, sometimes with gusts up to 50 knots before we shut down. That generates turbulence in the canyon when all that wind is rushing over all those weird formations and buttes. Summer brings isolated and scattered thunderstorms, mostly in the afternoon. The challenge is navigating around them without flying into a no-fly zone. Of course, when you get a bit close to one, it’s a bumpy ride. And if you fly under a storm in one of its early stages when you’re out in the canyon, you can expect severe updrafts or downdrafts. Good thing there’s that big ditch under you. And I believe I’ve already gotten a glimpse of what the autumn will bring: low clouds that float below us in the canyon or as ground fog on the north rim. Very pretty, but there will come a day when I have to fly around them, too.
The pay isn’t very good. I won’t get specific, but I will say that I could never survive on that pay. I’m not sure how the rest of the pilots do it. I’m very glad I have another job that I can do on my off weeks to make the money I need to maintain my lifestyle.
And living conditions in Tusayan or Valle are not very pleasant. Imagine sharing a double-wide trailer with three other pilots. Or sharing a fifth-wheel trailer with someone you’ll become very well acquainted with. The closest supermarket is 60 miles away. The closest movie theater (other than IMAX, which plays the same movie all the time) is about 100 miles away. Night life is limited. And everything in the area is extremely overpriced.
Doesn’t sound very good, does it? Well, I’m not finished. There are definite benefits to working at Papillon.
First of all, Papillon is willing to hire piston pilots with as little as 1,000 hours of PIC time. It will train those pilots to fly Bell 206 L-1 C30P Long Ranger helicopters, using a training program that’s very similar to the coveted Bell Transition Course. But rather than take the course in a classroom crammed full of other pilots, Papillon’s training classes are typically 2 to 6 people at a time. And if a pilot needs special attention (as I admit I did for a few things), he’ll get it. The Bell course costs about $6,000 plus living expenses while you’re in Texas for a week. Papillon’s course is free and they pay you while you take it. So there’s a definite benefit to getting transition training with Papillon.
But what’s better than just the training is the extremely challenging conditions you’re thrown into right after you finish. I’m talking about those winds plus flying at high density altitudes (Grand Canyon airport is at 6600 feet) near max gross weight. Only days after learning what torque was, I was battling to keep it under 100% when I took off. And by this time in the summer, it’s common to log 6 or more Hobbs hours a day. Every day. So building time is a definite part of the package.
And, of course, there is the end-of-season bonus that comes when Papillon cuts its pilots loose in October. That makes the pay a little more palatable.
I told all this to Dave. I told him that if he was willing to dedicate an entire summer to Papillon, he’d get the experience he wanted and needed to move on to a turbine helicopter position somewhere else. And, if he didn’t drop out in the middle of the season, he’d earn the respect of Papillon’s management, which could then be depended upon as positive job references.
I think he realized the benefits and the drawbacks. Like me, he doesn’t have to depend on a job like this to survive. He’s still thinking about it, but I have a feeling that unless something else comes along, he’ll be flying at the GC next year.
As for me, one season is enough. I know where I stand with the bosses. They consider me a “Sunday pilot” because I didn’t come to them with a strong background in commercial flying or flight instructing. It doesn’t matter that I have more cross country or solo time than any of their other piston pilot converters. It doesn’t matter that I made solo cross-country trips from Wickenburg to destinations in the Los Angeles area, the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and the western side of the Rockies in Colorado. It doesn’t matter that I’ve been doing tours and rides for the past three years when their other pilots were building time by teaching students how to hover. It doesn’t matter that I can perform as well as — or better than, in some cases — any of the other pilots, sitting in a cockpit for 6 hours straight sometimes, conducting tour after tour. No matter what I do or how I perform for the rest of the season, nothing will change that. So the chances of me getting more training and more varied assignments next year are pretty much nil. And I cannot bear the thought of cranking 50 to 80 passengers a day through the canyon every work day next summer.
So what will I do next summer? I’m thinking about barnstorming in my new R44…anyone want to come along for the ride?