A Few Desert Gigs

I spend two Saturdays doing rides in remote desert locations.

One of the things I like to do to earn a little money with the helicopter is short rides at outdoor events. We did great at the Thunderbird Balloon Classic back in October, but that was held down near Phoenix and attended by people with money to burn. Up here on the edge of nowhere, people are a little tighter with their hard-earned money. As a result, I have to price the rides affordably and give each passenger a lot of bang for the buck. The margins are lower at these outdoor events, but I get a lot of satisfaction giving people their first helicopter ride or showing them something they can only see from the air.

The past two Saturdays each had gigs like that.

On December 30, I flew at the ghost town of Stanton. Stanton was a mining town established in the 1800s. At one point, it was a thriving community, with an opera house, hotel, and stage stop. Situated at the foot of the Weaver Mountains alongside Antelope Creek, it was a gold mining community. Legend has it that a man looking for a lost burro climbed to the top of what would later be known as Rich Hill and found gold nuggets the size of potatoes. Like any idiot from that time, he couldn’t keep quiet about his find and, before long, miners were flocking to the area to cash in. The town grew. It was named after a man named Stanton who, I believe, was involved somehow in the Wickenburg Massacre. (More on that another time.) The town was eventually abandoned when it became too difficult or costly to pull out more gold. Later, a group called the Lost Dutchman’s Mining Association bought the townsite. They installed caretakers, which prevented the town from being vandalized like most ghost towns in Arizona were. (For example, there’s really nothing left of nearby Octave, another ghost town.) As a result, the Saloon/Opera House, hotel, and stage stop still stand. They’re actually in use to this very day, maintained by the Lost Dutchmen group. And a campground has sprung up around the property, giving the group members a place to camp out during the winter months.

I’d flown at Stanton before and although it wasn’t a lucrative gig, it made a small profit and was a lot of fun. The Lost Dutchman have “outings” at Stanton a few times a year. The year-end outing is the big one. Everyone wants to see the “Potato Patch” at the top of Rich Hill but no one wants the all-day hike to get up there. I can get them up there and back in 8 minutes, so that’s what I did.

Flying at StantonSo on December 30, at 12:30 PM, I arrived at Stanton as scheduled and landed on a seldom-used road near the campground. My ground crew — Mike, John, and Lorna — got out and set up a little table. I shut down and waited for the crowd to gather. They came in pairs and trios and when I had at least 4 people waiting, I started up again. Lorna took the money — $30, including tax, per person. Mike and John gave the safety briefings and loaded up the passengers. Then I took off toward Wickenburg, climbing, climbing, climbing. I rounded the south end of Rich Hill and climbed up its east side. The passengers had excellent views of what was left of Octave and the mining activity going on in that canyon. Finally, 2000 feet above Stantons’ elevation, I rounded the north end of Rich Hill, still climbing. We were over the next valley, with Stanton far below us in the mouth of the canyon. I pointed out the Potato Patch and the miner types oohed and aahed. I started the descent, coming down at a rate of more than 1,000 feet per minute. On the way down, I pointed out Wickenburg, far to the south, and Congress, to the west. Also, North Ranch (which, you may recall, the management claims occupants are too old for helicopter rides) and the dairy farm. Even at a 1,200 feet per minute descent rate, I can’t get to Stanton without overflying it and turning back, making an elongated spiral to my landing zone.

We flew 22 people that day. Not bad for a gig less than 15 miles from Wickenburg. Even with a side trip to Lake Pleasant before the flight, we made some money.

On January 7, I was back in the desert with my ground crew. This time, we went to Robson’s Mining World in Aguila. This was my third gig out there for their anniversary celebration. Every year was a little better and this year, I’d dropped my price from $35 per person to only $30. I think that made a big difference. We gave about 50 rides.

The setup for this event was a little more deluxe. Robson’s was having its annual Anniversary celebration and they had lots of activities and food and vendors inside their “town.” John and Lorna took their truck out there, so we were able to bring a long a lot of extra supplies. Flags, banners, a table, some extra fuel. Our setup, alongside the road, was very noticable, especially since we got there early enough to keep the space in front of our table clear of cars.

Flying at Robson's Mining WorldI flew for a few hours, taking a break for lunch before starting up again and flying some more. The route started from our desert clearing, which was just big enough for Zero-Mike-Lima to fit comfortably, to the east alongside the base of the mountain behind Robson’s. I climbed as I flew, pointing out where Wickenburg would be if we could see it (we couldn’t), Vulture Peak, Congress, and Alamo Lake if we could see it (we couldn’t). Then I came along the back side of the mountain, crossing over a saddle on the west side. (There were a couple of guys and a dog working an old mine shaft up there and I wonder what they think of the helicopter flying over them every 10 to 12 minutes or so.) I came through the canyon where Robson’s is nestled, pointing out the trail to the petroglyphs along the way. I flew jsut to the east of town, where everyone could see me but not be bothered by the sound of the helicopter, before circling around to land back in my LZ.

The passengers were all thrilled. They always are. It’s a rewarding job.

When it seemed as if we were done and the event was winding down, I shut down and took a walk with Mike, John, and Lorna to enjoy the event. The crowds were gone and it was pleasant. We bought $1 ice cream cones (brings back memories, doesn’t it?) and watched the old engines run out back.

Later, when we were ready to leave, there were a few people gathered around the helicopter taking photos. Two men who were part of a party of three people wanted rides. Since they were going back to Wickenburg, I offered to take them there for the same $30 each. (That’s where being a Part 135 operator really pays off; I can do that kind of stuff.) They agreed and while their friend drove to Wickenburg, we took off, overflying Robson’s one more time as we headed back to Wickenburg.

I should be doing similar events like this down in Buckeye and up in Yarnell over the next few months. I’m hoping to pick up a few new gigs in the meantime.

If you’re reading this in Arizona and think you have at least a dozen people interested in taking rides at $30 to $40 per person (prices depend on distance to the gig), give me a call. You can learn more at the Flying M Air Web site.

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