131 Passengers

Maria Speaks Episode 16: 131 Passengers.

This episode is straight from my blog, Maria’s WebLog. It discusses how I spent the last weekend in October. It wasn’t a typical weekend.


It all started during a conversation with Tom at Gold Coast Helicopters in Glendale about 10 days ago. He mentioned that they were going to be giving helicopter rides at the Thunderbird Balloon and Air Classic. That’s a huge annual event that includes balloons, warbirds, aerobatics, rides for the kids, and all kind of vendors. The event usually draws over 100,000 people and it lasts from Friday afternoon through Sunday afternoon.

“You flying the JetRanger?” I asked.

“No, just the R22.”

An R22, as you may know, is a 2-place helicopter. I owned one for about four years. It’s a great little helicopter, but it has one big drawback: it can only accommodate one passenger. That’s the main reason I sold mine and bought an R44, which can accommodate three passengers.

“You’re going to lose a lot of business to couples and families who want to ride together,” I warned, knowing this firsthand. It was a frustration I used to deal with regularly.

What followed was me suggesting that I bring my R44 down and fly with them to take groups of 2 or 3 passengers. I had already tentatively planned to spend Saturday of that weekend in Congress, doing rides at the Trading Post there. But that was tentative and could be easily changed. Tom and I talked money and decided on a reasonable number. Then he told me he’d ask Bill (the owner) and get back to me.

He called the next day. I was up at Howard Mesa, waiting for the gas guys to arrive, and my cell phone battery was getting low. So we kept it short. Bill had said yes. I should come down and meet with them Thursday before the show.

I flew down to Glendale on Thursday and met Tom face to face for the first time. He let me fly their R22 to the other side of the ramp to reposition it — the first time I was at the controls of an R22 in nearly a year. (I didn’t embarrass myself.) We talked business. We talked people in the business. We knew a lot of the same people and a lot of the same stories that went with them.

He told me to come back on Friday for a meeting at 1 PM. The air show was starting that afternoon. I should tell the controller I was with the show. Otherwise, he probably wouldn’t let me land on the ramp.

I was back the next day with my banners and signs and scale. I wasn’t sure what the GC guys had, so I brought along some of my gear. I had two yellow banners that said “Helicopter Rides” in big letters and some plastic signs that said “Helicopter Rides Today.” I also had my original A-frame sign that said “Helicopter Rides” with an arrow on both sides. I didn’t bring the flags.

I didn’t need the flags. GC had an excellent location for selling tickets. Their JetRanger and their other R22 was parked right in front of the terminal on the ramp. They had an EZ-Up set up between them with a table. My yellow banners decorated two sides of the EZ-UP and my A-frame sign went out in the aisle between booths, pointing in. It was a nice setup.

The airport was packed with other static displays of aircraft, as well as booths for food, aviation-related items, and a few simple rides for the kids. On the north end of the ramp was a parking area for the warbirds that would be participating in the air show. Beyond that was a ramp where 2 F-16s waited for their turn to fly.

There was some confusion, at first, over where we would base the helicopters. The place we thought we’d use was inside “the box” — the area set aside for aerobatics use. But we hopped in Tom’s car and drove around the airport, looking for another place. We found four. The best of the possibilities was right next to the F-16s. We went back and asked all the necessary people — five of them, I think — if it was okay to operate there. Then we talked to the Air Boss, who would be running the show while the airport was closed to traffic, and told him what we’d do. He assigned us call signs of Ride-Hopper-One (me) and Ride-Hopper-Two (the R22) and told us all he wanted to know was when we were departing and when we were returning. “Otherwise, I don’t want to hear anything from you.”

F-16sWe had no problem with that. I repositioned my helicopter to the north end of the ramp and set it down beside the two F-16s.

Heritage FlightThe airport closed at 3 PM and the Air Boss took over. A bunch of the performers took turns practicing their routines. It was mostly aerobatic stuff. The kind of flying that makes you wonder why people think helicopter pilots are crazy. These guys, purposely inverting their aircraft and letting it go out of control in tumbling dives are the ones who are crazy. But it was pretty cool to watch, as long as you didn’t try to think yourself into the cockpit. There was also a bunch of tight formation flying, including a flight with the F-16 and two other fighters: the Heritage Flight. (Not a bad shot with my new camera, huh?)

The gates opened to the public at 4 PM.

I did two flights that afternoon with 2 passengers each. The route was about 12 miles round trip. I’d take off from the ramp and follow the power lines between the Glendale and Luke airspaces. Then I’d either go northwest along Grand Avenue to Bell Road or continue north toward Sun City (which is laid out in a bunch of circles that look pretty cool from the air). Then I’d loop around to the right or left and come back pretty much the same way I’d left. The ride ranged from 8 to 12 minutes. GC helicopters was selling them for $45 per person, which I thought was a little high. (I was eventually proved wrong.)

We did rides while the air show was going on. Since we never crossed into the performance area, there was no danger. It was really weird to see a performer’s smoke trail on the return flight to the airport. We also did rides during the brief period when they reopened the airport to regular traffic. One time, on the second day, the Spitfire, which had to make a right traffic pattern during performances, flew over us. My passengers loved it. Late that afternoon, the GC guys brought their R22 over and I think they did a bunch of rides, too.

Balloon GlowThen the sun set and the balloon pilots started setting up for the big evening event: the desert glow. By 6:30, 19 balloons were floating right over the taxiway, using their burners to light up the night. The ramp was open to the public and thousands of people were wandering around right beneath the massive envelopes. It was magic.

I flew home in the dark, disappointed by the amount of work I’d done. Four passengers was not enough to even cover my transportation costs.

The next day — Saturday, October 29 — was distinctly different. Mike and I blew out of Wickenburg at 5:30 AM to arrive at the airport by 6 AM. It was dark in Wickenburg — especially dark since a power outage had affected the airport and none of the lights there worked. But I took off into the dark and soon saw the glow of Phoenix ahead. At 6 AM, I was three miles outside of Glendale. I made a radio call, which was answered by airport management. They told me the airport was closed. I told them I was part of the show. They told me to use caution when I landed.

I set down between the R22 and 2 F-16s again. The rent-a-cop the Air Force had hired to watch their birds overnight was standing exactly where he’d been the night before.

The balloons were already inflating for their morning flights. This was when the balloon owners actually made money — they sold hour-long rides as part of the show. Mike and I had taken a balloon ride back in New Jersey at an event like this years ago. It was expensive but something everyone should experience at least once.

Balloon ClassicI started flying at 7 AM, when the balloons were just lifting off. They drifted to the west-northwest, toward Luke Air Force Base. My pattern was a bit more north, so although I flew between a few of them, most of them were to my south. The view on the return part of our loop was incredible — dozens of balloons hanging in the early morning sky.

I flew on and off throughout the morning. The R22 did, too. Then somewhere around the middle of the day, things got busy. I flew nonstop for several hours, taking a break for fuel and another break when the F-16s flew. (For some reason, they didn’t want us in the air while the F-16 were flying.) Just after sunset, after finishing my last ride for the day, I consulted the tiny notebook where I’d been ticking off the passengers. 84 passengers. Wow.

I had a little excitement just after that last ride. The show had included a pair of rocket powered cars that sped down the runway, drag-strip style. I was still in the helicopter, listening to the radio, when someone told the Air Boss that one of the rocket cars had gone off the runway. The Air Boss acknowledged his words, but said nothing else. The other guy came back and said, “Well, can’t you send someone down there to make sure he’s alright?”

“I have no one to send,” the Air Boss replied.

“Ride-Hopper-One is spinning with no passengers,” I said. “Do you want me to go down and take a look?”

“Could you do that?” the Air Boss replied.

“Will do.”

I took off and sped down the taxiway while thousands of spectators watched me. It was dark and my navigation lights and landing lights were on. I probably looked like a blur of lights to them. I got down to the end of the runway around the same time as a pickup truck. The rocket car was pointed on an angle to the extended centerline, about 100 feet past the end of the runway. It was upright. Someone who looked like he could have been the driver was walking around. I reported all this to the Air Boss, along with the information that the pickup truck was there to help.

“We’re sending a fire truck down there,” the Air Boss said over the radio.

I started back along the runway. “The car is upright and there’s no smoke or flames,” I added.

I came back to my parking space on the ramp, set down, and shut down.

Mike and I watched the balloon glow together, walking among the balloons. It was still going on when we climbed back into Zero-Mike-Lima and went home. The next day, we arrived at the airport at 7 AM. Some of the balloons were already lifting off. The day got off to a slow start for us. But by 11 AM, we were cranking. I flew nonstop for several hours, then sent in the word that I was getting seriously tired and that they should stop selling tickets. By the time I finished at about 2 PM, I’d flown another 43 passengers.

I should say here that two things really amazed me. One was that folks thought nothing of spending $45 per person to take every member of the family for a ride. Mike thinks at least a dozen of the people I flew were kids under the age of 5. How many of those kids will remember the ride? A bunch of them were really excited and happy. One little red-headed boy had a smile bigger than the Cheshire Cat’s. I’m so accustomed to people balking at $30 or $32 per person for a flight that the idea of them lining up to spend $45 on multiple family members really surprised me.

The other thing that amazed me is how good kids are at buckling their seat belts. I don’t have kids and never had. I don’t spend much time at all with kids. But every once in a while, Mike would sit a kid in the front seat beside me for a flight. I’d tell him (they were mostly boys) to reach over and get his seat belt. He’d immediately locate the buckle (not just the strap), adjust it in the strap, and fasten it. Kids did this better than adults! I even watched one sharp 6-year-old untwist the belt before buckling it. Mike says it’s because kids that age are geniuses. They absorb everything they’re taught. I wish they could stay that way.

We managed to escape from Glendale right before one of the F-16s fired up for its part of the show. I called the Air Boss as I hovered into position for departure. “Ride-Hopper-One departing to the northwest.”

“Ride-Hopper-One, proceed as requested. This will probably be your last flight until the F-16 lands.”

“This is my last flight for the day,” I told him. “I’m going home. You guys have been great. Thanks.”

“My pleasure,” the Air Boss replied.

On my way back to Wickenburg, I pointed out the small herd of bison I’d spotted in a pasture less than a mile from Glendale Airport.

What do you think?