We Conquer Buckeye

We fly down to Buckeye for an airport event and do better than we expected — or hoped.

After our disappoint trip to Lake Havasu City (boy, is that an understatement), I didn’t have high hopes of doing well at any of our helicopter gigs. And then we went to Buckeye.

Buckeye had its second annual Air Fair on Saturday. I was supposed to appear at its first event, which was last April, but two things conspired to make that impossible: first, Tristan took back his helicopter, which I was leasing from him and second, I got a job at the Grand Canyon.

This year, Buckeye’s Airport Manager, Jason Hardison, called me about participating. That should have tipped me off that it would be a good event. When helicopter rides are requested, the event goes well. I went down to Buckeye, chatted with Jason, and checked out the proposed landing zone. Jason told me that the previous year’s event had gone far better than they expected. They’d figured on a few hundred people attending when, in fact, over 1500 had shown up. They thought helicopter rides would be a good activity for attendees. I agreed. As readers of these blogs probably realize by now, I think a helicopter ride is a good activity for anyone. (Unless, of course, they’re in a persistent vegetative state.)

Jason told me to come down to Buckeye by 9:45 AM, which I thought was a little late. Mike would come with me and, for a while, I had trouble finding a second ground crew member. But then I remembered Tom Rubin, who’d recently moved to Wickenburg. Tom runs AeroPhoenix, a pilot supply wholesaler down in Deer Valley. He’s been so busy building his business that he’d drifted away from actually being involved in aviation. I e-mailed him about the event and he agreed to come. He’d never been in a helicopter before, so that alone was a good reason to join us.

It was a good thing that he did come, since Mike would have been overwhelmed by the turnout if he’d been alone.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

We left Wickenburg at 8:30 AM for the half-hour flight to Buckeye. The winds at Wickenburg were dead calm, but as we flew by the summit of Vulture Peak, the wind suddenly picked up, tossing us around a bit as it sometimes does when I fly through a wind shear area. From that point on, we had a crosswind from the east. I didn’t realize how strong it was until we were landing. I’d lined up on the taxiway parallel to runway 17 while an airplane was landing on the runway. The three of us watched the plane struggle to stay lined up with the runway as it descended. First, the left wing dipped dangerously low. Then the plane touched down on the right side of the runway, its nose pointed toward the right. For a moment, we all thought he’d go off the runway. But just as it seemed his right wheel was about to leave pavement, he managed to pull it to the left and recover. Whew! Glad I wasn’t flying a plane.

Our landing was much safer, I came into a hover over the taxiway, then hover taxied to our landing zone in the southwest corner of the ramp, pointed right into the wind (tail toward the runway, of course) and set down. Easy.

The wind was blowing pretty good — at least about 15 knots. And it was blowing straight across the runway. It didn’t look good for the event as a fly in.

But, as we discovered, the event wasn’t a fly in. It was a town event held at the airport. There was a DJ, jumping hut for the kids, fire trucks with demonstrations, and lots of food vendors. Of course, all this was still being set up when we arrived. Jason had provided us with a table and a few chairs and lots of orange cones to clearly mark the boundaries of our landing zone. Tom and I wandered over to the entrance area to put up my two “Helicopter Rides Today” signs.

On the way back to the helicopter, I stopped at a gyroplane on display and chatted with the pilot, who was also the chief flight instructor. Gyros are a cross between an airplane and a helicopter. They can’t hover, but they can take off and land in a remarkably short space. Lift is provided by rotor blades, but there’s no transmission to turn them in flight. Instead, the aircraft is in a constant state of autorotation, with a pusher propeller behind the cockpit and engine to keep a constant forward motion. I’d flown one at Airventure Oshkosh a few years ago and have been toying with the idea of getting my rating. I took the instructor’s card. I’ll probably call him in October when the temperatures start cooling down.

I also talked to the skydiving guys. They were hoping to do some jumps later in the day, when the wind calmed down. They’re based in Buckeye and I’ve often heard them on the radio. “Jumpers away! Do not overfly Buckeye fifteen thousand feet or below.” I told them I wanted to go for a tandem jump to try it, but I didn’t want to get hooked on it. They laughed. I told him I was already hooked on one costly activity; I couldn’t afford another one.

Then we went back to the helicopter to wait.

People started arriving at the event a while later. I took two people for a flight. There was no one waiting after that, so I shut down. Then some more folks came and I took them up. My flights departed from the airport and flew southeast to the town of Buckeye. I’d circle the town and return to the airport. The total flight time was 8 to 10 minutes, but probably closer to 10. The third group of passengers asked for a special flight up into the White Tank Mountains. Since I still wasn’t busy, I took them and Mike charged my usual hourly rate: $395 (which he rounded up to an even $400). We were gone for .4 hours. When I returned, I had a line of people waiting.

The line persisted for the rest of the day. I had to stop for fuel and a bathroom break and lunch around 1 PM. Fuel was a nuisance. Buckeye does not have a fuel truck and they didn’t want me hover-taxing to the fuel island, which was right in the midst of the activities. So we used 5-gallon fuel cans, which I’d brought with me from home. I only had two of them and it took 3 trips to put about 35 gallons of fuel into the helicopter. Then I climbed back on board and continued flying.

The event was scheduled to end at 3 PM, but by 2 PM, the crowd was thinning. But not in my landing zone. I just kept flying, taking three people at a time. For some folks, I altered the flight to take them over their house or a relative’s house. I always made the trip in 10 minutes or less. More than half of my passengers were kids, and Mike gave them all helicopter toys when they got off. He sold a few t-shirts, too. Tom helped him load and unload the passengers and keep folks away from the landing zone when I was there.

It 3 PM, the rest of the vendors and activities had cleared out. I still had a line of people. I finally finished them all at about 4 PM. I was exhausted and low on fuel. Mike and Tom loaded our stuff back into the helicopter and I hover-taxied over to the fuel island, which was now clear. I shut down and let the guys top off the tanks.

I’d put 4.1 hours on the hobbs meter. When we got home and counted the proceeds, I discovered that I’d flown 65 passengers. That was 18 more than my previous big day (47 at Robson’s). The trip had not only been worthwhile, but it had been downright profitable.

I flew home up the Hassayampa River, circling Tom’s house once so he could get pictures of it from the air. Then we landed, shut down, and put the helicopter away. Tom hurried home. Mike and I were too tired to go out for dinner, so it was a hot shower and leftovers for us. Neither of us minded.

I want to thank Jason Hardiman for inviting us to Buckeye for their event. I also want to congratulate him and the town of Buckeye for putting on a great family event. It was a pleasure to participate, and not just because I made some money. I always like taking people for helicopter rides and since more than half of the people I flew had never been in a helicopter before, it was even more fulfilling for me.

What do you think?