Jack the Dog Earns His Wings

We go flying in the helicopter and take Jack with us.

The phone call came last night at about 7 pm. It was Robin from Prescott, another R44 owner.

“We finally have a day off tomorrow,” he told me. “Want to go flying?”

Of course I did. I always want to go flying. I suggested Red Creek, a dirt strip along the Verde River. He’d never been there and was interested in seeing the place.

I told him I’d fly up to Prescott and meet him and his wife Linda at around 11 AM. We’d fly down to Red Creek and have a picnic lunch and a short hike.

Mike and I debated asking various friends to come along. My helicopter has four seats; it seemed a shame to waste two of them with such a fun destination. But we couldn’t decide who to ask.

In the morning, I made an outrageous suggestion: “How about if we take Jack?”

Jack is our dog. He’s part Border Collie and part Australian Shepherd. We call him a Border Shepherd and, if we say it with a straight face, people think its a real breed. He’d been in a small plane once, but he’d never been in a helicopter. He’s a pretty smart dog, although he tends to get excited easily. He loves roaming around in the desert and this destination would be perfect for him.

A while later, Jack was wearing the harness we’d bought for him months ago and sitting on a blanket in the back of my helicopter. Mike used a piece of rope and a carabiner to fasten the harness to the seat belt. The idea was for him to sit in the seat behind me so Mike could reach around back or take a look at him easily if he had to. But he’s so squirmy, he managed to sit in either seat.

I fired up the helicopter and took off. Jack was calm. It was like he was in the car, going for a ride. But the view out the window was…well, somewhat distant.

We flew up to Prescott and eventually got clearance to land at the bottleneck. I saw Robin and Linda in front of their hangar with their helicopter parked nearby. There were two planes on the ramp there. I flew in between them. One wasn’t tied down and its wings rocked, but not dangerously. (Why a pilot would park an airplane with its wings lined up right over the tie-down chains yet not tie it down is beyond me.) I set down on the ramp. Mike got out to talk to Robin and Linda. When he came back, they got into their helicopter and started up. Robin made the call for a flight of two helicopters departing to the northeast, low level. That would keep us from having to cross the runways. We got clearance and took off.

Once clear of the Class D airspace, we switched to the helicopter air-to-air frequency, which is 123.025. Robin told me to lead. He fell in behind me, a comfortable distance away and slightly higher than me. It was a real pleasure to fly with a pilot who knew how to give me some space.

We flew southeast, eventually intersecting with I-17 where it comes down off the plateau into Camp Verde. Then we followed the Verde River south. We didn’t fly down in the canyon, hugging the twisting river. Instead, we kept up a bit, overflying the goosenecks. The river was flowing swiftly beneath us, but after leaving the vicinity of Camp Verde, we didn’t see a soul. Well, there were a few cars by the Childs Power Plant. But after that, no one.

I pointed out the canyon that led to Payson. Then I pointed out an odd-shaped butte that was near our destination. I flew in first, checking the windsock at the east end of the strip. The wind was blowing from upriver. I made my approach from the south, crossed the strip, and landed in the tie-down area near the picnic table.

Robin Lands his R44 Beside MineMike already had Jack out of the helicopter as I was cooling the engine down when Robin came in for a landing. Although I thought there was enough space beside me, Robin didn’t think the spot looked level enough. He wound up parking a few dozen yards east, on the same side of the strip.

We met over at the picnic table. Oddly enough, we’d both brought along fried chicken. Ours was from Safeway, theirs was from Fry’s. And chocolate chip cookes. And soda and water.

A plane flew over and we thought it might land. I’d parked with my helicopter’s tail a little close to the runway. After guessing at a few frequencies, I finally reached the pilot on my handheld radio and asked him if he was landing. He told us he wasn’t; the runway was too short. And sandy and bumpy, I could have added. If he was in doubt, he definitely would have messed up a landing in his Cessna 172.

In case another airplane came by, we used Robin’s wheels to move my helicopter a bit farther away from the strip.

A little history of this place: if I got the story right, the airstrip was carved in by Jason Rovey’s grandfather, who used to run cattle on that land. Back then, he flew in and out in the Citabria Jason still flies out of Wickenburg. I happened to stumble across the place while flying in the area in my R22 years ago, but later met Jason and learned more about it. We flew in a few years back with four helicopters (my R22, two Bell 47s, and an R44).

The strip is maintained by the people who use it. They take care of the runway manually, with rakes and shovels that they leave at the site. I’ve been told that a lot of people from the airpark at Carefree use the place. In addition to the maintenance tools, there’s a picnic table, an ammo box with a sign-in book, some lawn chairs, a horseshoe pit with horseshoes, a barbeque pit, and water bottles. The one thing the place could really use is some shade–it’s mighty sunny there with very few trees taller than a person. There are plenty of cacti, though, including tall saguaro and lots of prickly pear.

Mike and Jack at the Verde RiverAfter lunch, we took a short hike down to the river. It was rushing pretty good and the sound of the flowing water was great. There’s plenty of space down there to camp and we hope to come back in the spring, when it’s warmer at night, to camp out. I’m hoping Jason and his fiance, Becky, can join us. Jason still flies in with the Citabria that’s older than he is. But somehow, I don’t think we’ll camp by the river. I think we’ll be up by the runway, by that picnic table.

And I know we won’t come in the summer because it’s too darn hot and Jason says the place is full of rattlesnakes.

The ShackAfter scouting around down by the river, we followed an old road up to a shack built high above the river. There were some cattle pens there and the place was pretty beat up. Supports for the porch roof had collapsed and the metal roof panels hung down against the side of the building. The concrete pad the place was built on had 1964 scratched into the cement. Inside, the building showed signs of recent use, including a new set of steps leading up to one of the bunks and a sleeping bag in decent condition.

We made our way back to the picnic table and spent some time drinking water and soda and chatting. Jack sniffed around the prickly pear cacti, looking for rodents (likely) or lizards (unlikely this time of year). He’d had a lot of fun wading in Red Creek and the river and was just dirty enough for Robin and Linda to tease me about the mess he’d make in the helicopter.

We left a short while later. It was almost 3 PM. Mike wanted to follow Red Creek back toward I-17 to see how close you could get to the airstrip with a truck. He had ideas about bringing the horses in. There was a ranch about 3 miles up the creek and a good road ran to it. The rest was rugged and would require a quad or hearty Jeep. Or horses — they are the best ground-based, off-road vehicles, after all.

Robin followed us for a while, then we went southwest and he split off to the northwest, toward Prescott.

The ride got bumpy as we flew over one mountain or canyon after another. We crossed I-17 right near Black Canyon City, then continued almost due west to Wickenburg.

Jack Enjoys the ViewJack spent most of the ride back lounging in the back of the helicopter, stretched out on both seats. He was tired after all his running around. Mike shot this photo of him looking out the window as we neared the airport. That’s Wickenburg down below — one of the motels and Denny’s, with the newly built apartments and condos below them. It almost looks as if Jack was enjoying the view. Almost.

Will we take Jack flying again? Of course! He passed the test and has earned his wings.

3 thoughts on “Jack the Dog Earns His Wings

  1. Hi Maria,

    I live over in Dewey and fly a C-170 & C-180, both of which I’ve had into Red Creek. Great story. I also know Jason & Becky. My brother flies helicopters (R22 & R44) up in the Aleutians (Umnak Island of volcano fame last summer – July 2008), running a cow ranch. He just recently got his commercial heli rating back in NYC. Always good to know others appreciate the same kind of fun.

    • I think your brother has been in touch. Maybe he just sent me a CD full of photos? In any case, maybe I’ll see you out at Red Creek one day. We don’t get out there often — lately, I can’t afford to fly the helicopter much just for fun — but it’s definitely one of my favorite places to fly into.

What do you think?