Back in the Saddle

I spend a morning flying and it feels good.

Yesterday morning, I went flying. And boy, did it feel good to be back in the air, just tooling around, again.

I needed to go out to Robson’s. I’m doing helicopter rides at their big anniversary celebration on Saturday. I wanted to check out my landing zone and drop off a few signs and flyers for Rebecca, who is organizing the whole thing.

Jim Wurth wanted to get some stick time in an R44. I owe it to him. He’s taken me out a few time in his Hughes 500c. Since the dual controls are always installed in his ship, I always get at least a little stick time. I’m not too crazy about the feel of his ship. It doesn’t have hydraulics, so the cyclic and collective are very stiff. I feel uncomfortable pushing it around because you have to push so much harder than in a Robinson to get it to do anything. I worry I’ll push too hard and I’ll do something sloppy which will make me look like a bad pilot. So when I fly his ship, I fly it very conservatively, almost to the point of being boring. Of course, he notices that and just thinks I’m a boring pilot.

Which brings up the old aviation saying, “There are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots.”

So yesterday morning, I put the dual controls in Zero-Mike-Lima, did a thorough preflight with the assistance of a new ladder (that mast is tall!), towed it out to the fuel island, filled it up, and positioned it in a parking space for departure. After disconnecting all the bothersome tow stuff, I did a final walk-around (a good habit I picked up at Papillon) and climbed on board.

It took a long time for the engine to warm up in the early morning cold. It was about 10:00 AM and the winter sun was shining but hadn’t gone to work yet. I think it was still having its morning coffee. I picked up and felt the odd sensation of having all that full helicopter behind me with no one in front with me to balance the weight. I was still in CG, of course — it’s damn near impossible to load an R44 out of CG — but the front end of the helicopter came off the ground about ten minutes before the rear end (okay, so it just seemed like ten minutes). I wondered if I would scratch the bottom of the back of the skids on the pavement. Like that matters much.

Jim’s house is exactly 2 nautical miles away from Wickenburg Airport. It took about a minute and a half to get there. And once again, the R44 showed me how well it floats. I had to dump all my power to get it to descend to Jim’s helipad.

Why not just fly lower for that two miles? Well, there’s some idiot who keeps coming to Airport Commission meetings to complain about helicopter noise. I know he isn’t complaining about me because I haven’t flown in over two months. It’s LifeNet, which is now based at the hospital, and probably Ray, who flew low to do some aerial survey work on a housing project near town one day. And the flight schools that come up from Scottsdale and Glendale. But I don’t want him complaining about me so I’m not going to give him anything to complain about.

When I got to Jim’s he was taking pictures of my arrival. I set Zero-Mike-Lima down gently in the middle of his pad. He gave me the shut down signal and I complied. A few moments later, I was out on the pad, showing off Zero-Mike-Lima to Jim and his wife Judith.

Jim and I both climbed aboard a few minutes later. I narrated the startup sequence for him. In the few minutes the ship had been shut down, it had cooled considerably. It took a few minutes to warm back up. Then I took off on Jim’s usual departure path, heading northwest.

We followed the train tracks, then took a detour over Moreton Field. Doug Moreton had just sold the remaining lots in his partially-developed air park to a developer. Jim pointed out the homes and hangars of a few people we knew. Jim told me he was thinking of buying a lot there. I couldn’t understand why. He lives on 40 acres just outside of Wickenburg and has his own hangar and helipad. Why move?From there, we buzzed straight toward Robson’s. I let Jim fly. He immediately commented on how sensitive the controls were. He kept drifting to the right. After a few minutes, he got the hang of it, though, and we zipped over the desert at about 110 knots. Jim said he never cruises that fast. But, like me, I think he was having trouble getting it to go slow. The Raven II just wants to go.

He gave back the controls for the landing at Robson’s. I landed in a space between several saguaros, a long, skinny (at the bottom) landing zone that gave me plenty of room for my tail. I think I was roughly in the same place I’d landed the year before. We shut down, got the signs out of the back, and went into Robson’s. We dropped it all off in the restaurant. I had to walk back to the helicopter to get the flyers, which I’d forgotten under my seat. While I was taking care of that, Jim used my Pilot Operating Handbook to research a problem I’d been having with the Aux Fuel Pump.

We took off a while later. Jim wanted me to fly up a canyon behind Robson’s where there are some Indian ruins and petroglyphs. He said I should fly through there on Saturday with passengers. I told him I didn’t want to because there would be people hiking in there and I didn’t want to ruin their hiking experience.

Burro Creek BridgeFrom there, we buzzed out over the desert toward the Santa Maria River. We followed the river east to 93, then headed up 93 to the bridge at Burro Creek (shown here in a photo I took several years ago). ADOT is doing construction in that area, building another two lanes on the bridge. We made a right turn and flew up Burro Creek, dropping into the canyon to get a better look at the things we flew over. Jim wanted to show me a few mining sites he and Ray had spotted on another trip. He thinks I can do tours to these places and let passengers off to explore. I know I need to track down ownership and get permissions. (I’m in the process of doing that with BLM for Swansea Townsite and it’s a lengthy process.) I’m always interested in seeing new places.

It turns out that the first place he wanted to show me was one I’d already seen and considered before. It was a definite possibility. I marked it on my GPS while he took the controls and flew. We got to an intersection of three canyons and he flew up the middle one looking for the second mine site. We flew about five miles before he gave up. He pulled up over the left wall of the canyon and dropped into the next canyon over. We continued flying up canyon. Water was flowing down there and it was beautiful. I saw more than a few waterfalls — some of them spectacular. I also saw two abandoned ranch homes that looked to be in good condition. I’d return to explore on foot one day and, if they’d make good sites for heli-camping, I’d track down the owners and get permission.

We flew up the canyon, climbing at a stead rate of about 200 feet per minute as the canyon floor climbed. We must have flown about 10 miles up that canyon. It was a really beautiful flight. I’d never seen the desert so green. It looked almost lush. Almost.

Jim finally gave up and climbed out of the canyon, this time to the right. The first canyon we’d been in had ended. We were up at about 6000 feet now and there was ice on the mesa tops beneath us. The outside air temperature was 50°F. In the distance, we could see the mountains with snow on them.

We flew southwest for a while, then dropped into another canyon. This canyon quickly dumped us out in the canyon where I’d spotted the ranch houses. After a while, we spotted the Bagdad Mine’s tailings piles ahead of us. And there was the mine site Jim had been looking for, almost in Bagdad Mine’s backyard.

We flew over the Bagdad Mine, which was very active that day. Lot’s of huge dump trucks driving up and down the ramps. The only way you could see how big they were was to see the men or normal sized vehicles bedside them. The bottom of the mine was filled with water and water was gushing into it from a hole in one side of the hill. I assumed they were pumping the water out as quickly as it was gushing in. If not, they’d have a problem in a few days.

Next, Jim wanted to show me some Indian ruins on a hilltop near Skull Valley. We headed toward Kirkland, buzzing along at about 100 knots. There was so much water down in the desert. I saw a ranch that had lost its access road in a flood that was still flowing.

The ruins were interesting, but not the kind of thing I like to explore. I guess you can say that I like “white man’s ruins.” Although the ruins he showed me were probably 1,000 years old, I’d rather walk around in 100-year-old ghost towns. I think it’s because I can identify with what I’m seeing. Indian ruins tend to be nothing more than rock piles. It’s hard to imagine them as buildings when they’re seldom taller than two feet.

I took the controls and brought Jim over to one of my favorite sites in the Weaver Mountains. There are some cabins there and if you approach it just right, you can see them from the air. I didn’t approach just right because even I couldn’t see them — and I know where to look.

We came over the Weaver Mountains and dropped into the valley where Stanton is. I flew relatively low over this ghost town turned trailer park. If I had gotten my helicopter two weeks earlier, I could have had a very lucrative gig among the amateur miners there.

We were only about 400 feet off the ground, near the ghost town of Octave, heading toward the Hassayampa River, when I pointed out some cows running through the desert. I wondered, for a moment, what had spooked them — I was too high to be the culprit. Then I saw the R22 down below me, about 15 feet off the ground, herding the cattle. I swung around to get a better look, trying to raise the pilot on the radio. No answer. I wondered if he’d seen me. He headed back toward Congress and I continued on my way to the Hassayampa.

The river is flowing big right now and it’s a neat thing to see from the air. The slot canyon, where I’ve driven my Jeep numerous times, is wall-to-wall brown water. The water spreads out past Box Canyon and heads into town. The river has been running for more than a week now. I remember the first year we lived in Arizona. It had been an El Niño winter and the river flowed for three months straight. Cool.

I made a nicer approach into Jim’s helipad, although I may have been a little close to one of his neighbor’s houses. I let him off and took off right away. I buzzed past Vulture Peak before I landed. There were two hikers up top and they waved enthusiastically as I went past.

I landed, feeling invigorated. We’d logged 1.8 hobbs hours. I fueled up for Saturday and put the helicopter away. It was 2 PM.

What do you think?