A Birthday Flight

I take a 90-year-old woman, her 88-year-old brother, and her son on a helicopter tour.

I’ve been getting a lot of calls lately from people in Scottsdale, interested in helicopter tours. There’s a charter company down there named Westcor Aviation (associated with the Westcor malls and other real estate ventures) and my very first flight instructor, Paul, works for them as a pilot. They occasionally get calls from people who want to charter a helicopter and get “sticker shock” when they hear the rate: $1,500 per hour. So when asked to recommend other operators in the area, Westcor has begun recommending me, along with the others.

Doing flights out of Scottsdale isn’t exactly good for me. I ask $495 per hour for flights originating in the valley, with a one-hour minimum. But I don’t charge people for the amount of time it takes me to get from Wickenburg to the valley and back again. So I don’t really make much money on these flights. But they’re good experience and they do help pay for the helicopter. And they give me an excuse to fly.

I did one of these flights on Sunday. I’d gotten a call during the week and made arrangements with someone named Brad to fly his grandmother on a tour of the area for her 90th birthday. He’d fill the other two seats, too, and he’d make sure the total weight was below 650 for the three passengers. I just had to meet him at Scottsdale Airport at 10:00 AM.

This worked out well for Mike and I. Mike had gotten Greyhawk Members Club tickets to see the FBR US Open in Scottsdale, which wasn’t far from the airport. The tickets got us entrance to the event as well as entrance to hospitality tents scattered around the course. We could eat and watch the golfing from comfortable, shaded seats — all for free. We figured we’d head over to the course when my flight was finished.

We arrived at Scottsdale Airport about 40 minutes early and got a great parking spot right out in front of the terminal. We went into the restaurant for some weak coffee and a bite to eat and I spent some time reviewing the Phoenix Terminal Area Chart to see where I could take them. At 9:50, I headed out to the lobby to wait for my passengers. There were three young people there and one of them approached me. It was Brad.

I looked at him and his two companions. “I thought you said it was for your grandmother.”

“She’s on her way,” he said.

I tried to review the route I’d planned with him, hoping it would meet his approval. He didn’t seem to care. “She wants to see the Superstition Mountains,” he said.

I wanted to take her up the Salt River, which would take us near the Superstitions but not over them. I didn’t want to fly over or around the Superstitions. It’s rocky, dangerous terrain and I didn’t think it would make for an interesting or comfortable one-hour flight, given the wind conditions and the descending clouds out that way.

“She doesn’t know she’s doing this,” he added.

A while later, his grandmother arrived. With about twenty other people. She was a petite 90-year-old woman. They escorted her up to the window where she could see Zero-Mike-Lima parked on the ramp. “That’s your birthday present,” someone told her.

She was thrilled. They quickly sorted out who would be flying with her: her brother, who I can accurately describe as a little old man, and her son, who was considerably larger. I don’t think their total weight even reached 500 pounds. I escorted them outside to the security door and told them that only one person could accompany us through the gate to take photos. Out at the helicopter, I gave them the safety briefing. I put the birthday girl in the front, her brother behind her, and her son behind me. As I warmed up Zero-Mike-Lima, my passenger’s entourage watched from behind the glass partition.

We departed to the southwest to remain west of Runway 21. Although the controller told me he’d call my turn to the east, he was so busy with other traffic that I was clear of his airspace before he had a chance to. I passed north of Camelback, then headed east toward the Salt River. I skirted the north edge of Falcon Field’s airspace, then continued up the Salt River Canyon.

The desert was absolutely beautiful. I’d never seen it so green. And all the lakes we flew over — Saguaro, Canyon, Apache — were completely filled with water. The sunlight through the low clouds made a patchwork of shade over the entire scene, illuminating some hillsides and rock formations and shadowing others. The Superstitions were clearly visible, just below the clouds, to the south of us, so my passengers got to see what they wanted to, and so much more.

About 0.6 hours out, I made the turn to come back, using my GPS to give me a more direct route. The goal was to make the flight exactly 1.0 hours. Soon we were heading toward Fountain Hills. I looked at the clock on my instrument panel. It was nearly 11 AM. Is it possible that I’d overfly Fountain Hills just as they turned on the fountain? It was. We were still about three miles out when the water started to rise. It was an added bonus for my passengers to see it from the air.

We approached Scottsdale Airport from the west. Fortunately, the controller wasn’t nearly as busy as he’d been when we left and we had no trouble approaching the airport, crossing the runway, and landing right where we’d begun.

My passengers were very pleased with the flight. I was too.

And when the woman’s daughter handed me a check, a little voice in the back of my head reminded me, “And they pay you to do great stuff like this, too.”

What do you think?