The Big Sandy Shoot

Maria Speaks Episode 23: The Big Sandy Shoot

It’s been quite a while — about three months, in fact, since I did my last podcast. This morning, I got an e-mail message from a listener named Anne-Marie of Seneca Design and Training, reminding me that I was neglecting my podcasting duties. So I’m going to try to get back into the swing of things and deliver a new podcast at least once a week. But I do need your help. If you want to hear more podcasts, do what Anne-Marie did: e-mail me. Use the Contact Me page on my Web site, Tell me what kind of content you want to listen to and I’ll see what I can do to deliver.

If you’re new to Maria Speaks and don’t know much about me, you might want to visit my Web site at It’s been recently redone — again — and that’s a long story — and it combines my book support site with my blog. You can get a better idea of what I do and write about so you can come up with special requests. This past week, I wrote about the Dan Brown plagiarism case, how spelling checkers are making me lazy, and my AmazonConnect author blog.

Today, I’m going to fill you in on my rather unorthodox and interesting weekend with an audio blog entry.


Another entry from The Truth is Stranger than Fiction files.

I spent most of Friday and Saturday watching and listening to men shoot machine guns out in the desert.

Let me go back to the beginning.

Months ago, my friend Ryan, who I met at Wickenburg airport a few years back, told me he wanted to get me involved in an annual “shoot” out in Wickieup.

Wickieup, for those of you who don’t have an Arizona atlas handy, is a small town on the Big Sandy Wash (or River, depending on who you speak to), about 75 northwest of Wickenburg on route 93. Basically, if you’re driving from Wickenburg to Las Vegas (or back) and you didn’t buy gas or corn nuts or use the toilet in Wickenburg (or Kingman), you stop at Wickieup. It’s a ranching community, too, with lots of nice people and even its own 4H Club.

Ryan took care of all the arrangements. Our mutual friend, Ed (more Ryan’s friend than mine), was planning to fly up in his Sikorsky S-55 turbine conversion, a monster of a helicopter that I’d first seen down at Falcon Field (where he’s based) at an airshow we’d both been part of at Falcon Field two years ago. Ed is getting up there in years (he’s past 70 now) and although he still flies, he lost his commercial insurance and gave up his part 135 certificate. He’s a really experienced pilot and the only one I know to have his helicopter hit by a train. But that’s another story.

The plan was for Ed to fly up to Wickenburg for fuel on his way to Wickieup. Ryan and another guy would be on board. They’d pick up my EZ-Up (a shade thing) and other big gear and take it up for me. Then we’d fly up to the shoot in loose formation, making a bit of an “entrance” when we arrived.

On Friday, I had my gear packed. A stuff sack full of camping gear that included a tent, sleeping bag, air matress, and pump and the EZ-Up. I had a change of clothes and some other gear packed into my helicopter, which I’d filled with fuel and parked on one of the heli-spots.

S-55 Cargo ShipAround 11 AM, I saw Ed’s helicopter coming. It was impossible not to. The damn thing is about 20 feet tall and big enough to hold a Jeep. But when it landed, I saw that it didn’t have a jeep inside it. Instead, it had all the gear its three passengers needed for their overnight stay. And as you can see by the photo, guys don’t know how to pack light. (Yes, that is a full-sized futon and a bar-be-que grill.) I told the folks at the airport that the helicopter was my cargo ship.

After Ed fueled, we both started up and he took off. Ryan rode with me and we quickly caught up with the bigger ship. Although larger and turbine-powered, the S-55 is slow. Its cruise speed is about 80 and I’m not sure, but I think that’s 80 MPH, not knots. It was hard to form up with him without passing him. Ryan wanted me to fly circles around him, but I thought that would be rude, so I didn’t.

Ed's S-55 in FlightGlenn, Ed’s passenger up in the cockpit (you have to climb about 12 feet to get up there) was getting some stick time, and we could really tell. The ship didn’t hold altitude very well and seemed a bit “wiggly.” But Glenn is a fixed-wing guy, so you really can’t fault him. It takes a gentle touch to fly a helicopter, even one as big as Ed’s. Ryan got this nice air-to-air photo of them in flight; that’s Harquahala Mountain in the background.

Flying that slow was a bit boring, so I took Ryan on a side trip to see Waters-Sunset Mine. That’s a place I advertise tours for, but haven’t gotten any takers yet. When we finished zipping out there, I scanned the sky for the dot that would be Ed’s S-55. I found it and zipped on over to get back into formation. I don’t even think they missed us, despite the fact that we were gone for about 10-15 minutes.

We finally caught sight of Wickieup and, a while later, the shoot site. The owner of the site owns a whole section of land — that’s a square mile, for those of you who don’t know western real estate lingo — on the west side of the Aquarius Mountains. The area there is full of ridgelines with deep washes between them. The place is set up so shooters are on one ridge and shoot across to the side of another ridge. Below is wash; above is higher ridge. It’s standard desert landscape at about 2900 feet elevation: cacti, mesquite, palo verde, etc. The whole place is surrounded by BLM land, so there’s no complaining neighbors to worry about.

As we came in, another helicopter landed. It was a MD 520N that turned out to be a rich guy’s toy. More on that later.

Close to the EdgeWe parked on the west side of the ridge where the shooters were lined up, already hard at work using up their ammo. The problem with the field was that although it was at least 20 acres, there weren’t many level spots out on the west end. North and south sides were high with a slope between them. Erosion had added a few 12 to 18-inch deep ruts in the middle. Ed landed on the south side, right along the edge. I tried to land near the 520N on the north side, but couldn’t find a place I thought was level. (Understand that I am completely paranoid about dynamic rollover.) I wound up on the south side behind Ed, with one of my skids hanging about a foot over the edge of a cliff. (Yes, my tailcone is hanging out into space in the photo.) Although I shut down there, I didn’t waste any time moving it. I kept imagining the darn thing falling backwards and tumbling over the cliff and trying to explain to my insurance company why I’d parked there. Ryan and I found a level-ish spot on the north side and moved it. I made Ryan sit beside me for extra weight on the front end. He’s a big boy and I figured he’d help prevent us from toppling over backward.

Here’s where it gets weird.

The ShootersJust about all the guys at the shoot were shooting machine guns. What kind of machine guns? Damned if I know. All kinds of machine guns. They were mostly under shade structures (like my EZ-Up), shooting across the wash at “reactive targets” set up on the other side. A reactive target is one that blows up when you hit it. (Heck, I wish I could make this stuff up.) You can actually see smoke from a reactive target in the photo below.

The RangeEvery once in a while, an extremely skilled R/C aircraft pilot would take a delta wing airplane, made out of styrofoam, and launch it into the firing zone. The guys with the machine guns would try to shoot it out of the sky. It was actually pretty funny to watch because although there were at least 20 guys at a time firing all kind of machine guns at the darn thing, it took a very long time — 5 minutes or more — for someone to hit it. Sometimes no one hit it and the pilot would bring it back in for more fuel.

My Youngest PassengersI was set up for rides and, after scarfing down a terribly spicy thing I wasn’t allowed to call a hot dog, I flew a few passengers. It was $35 per person with a 2 person minimum for an 8-10 minute ride. I flew two really nice guys who were so nice that one of them, Kent, paid for the three kids from the 4H food booth to go for a flight. (Kent later e-mailed me this photo of me getting the kids settled in on board.) They ranged in ages from about 6 to 10 (maybe; I don’t know kid’s ages) and the youngest one’s eyeballs looked about to pop out when I took off. But I took them down to Wickieup so they could see their school and house from the air. They got a real kick out of seeing cows and horses in the wash.

The rich guy started giving rides. For free. It’s hard to compete with that. I went with Ed and a guy named Mike to Kingman to get fuel and take care of some other business. I was POed about the free rides, but there was nothing I could do about it. I gave Ed some stick time — I had the duals with me and installed them — and he couldn’t get over the fact that the three of us could cruise with full fuel at 110 knots at only 22 inches of manifold pressure.

You gotta understand that Ed is flying a helicopter built in 1954. That’s more than 50 years ago. His helicopter is older than I am. I should hope that a 2005 helicopter has a bit better performance with lower operating costs.

When we returned, I took a few more people for flights, but never enough to keep me flying nonstop. That was okay, because I didn’t have a ground crew, so I had to do all the money work and safety briefings.

The shooting stopped at 5 PM for dinner.

I did my last flight around sunset and spent a few minutes putting up my tent and setting up the mattress. Ed came by and kept me company. Then we walked back to the rented “toy hauler” Roger Senior (one of Glenn’s friends) had rented, where Ryan and Glenn were making dinner. They made an excellent meal of grilled sea scallops wrapped in bacon and marinated New York Strip steaks. Sheesh. It was good eating. We were just about finished with dinner when the night shooting began.

Here’s where it gets really weird.

Because it had rained less than a week ago and there was some moisture out in the desert, the shooters were allowed to use tracer rounds. So now the guys had bullets that basically glowed in the dark. The targets had been replenished — wouldn’t want to run out of dynamite, would we? — and were all marked with glow sticks. And these guys were shooting away at them in the dark, with visible bullets that left streaks of red or green. It was like a really big budget war movie scene. Lots of gunfire punctuated, now and then, with an explosion.

And when the R/C aircraft pilot let out one of his planes — complete with glow sticks so you could see it fly — the guys went absolutely bonkers. They still had trouble hitting the darn thing, even with all that firepower and the bullet streaks to guide them.

My only regret is that I didn’t even try to get pictures. If they’d come out, they would have been outrageous. This was a scene too sureal to describe.

Glenn had brought something very impressive that I wish I could tell you more about. All I remember is him saying that it’s the fastest firing machine gun available except for a “mini gun” (whatever that is). It was originally mounted on an aircraft during some war and relied on the slipstream to keep it cool. At the shoot, they could only shoot about 100 shots at a time before it got too hot.

Every time these guys fired off a bunch of shots that glowed away into the dark night, they’d turn around and look at spectators with a grin that resembled that on a cat that ate the cream off the milk. (Am I dating myself with that one? It really is what they looked like.)

Of course, I got a chance to shoot a machine gun, too. Glenn and Ryan insisted that I take my turn sitting on the plastic bucket before this thing’s tipod mount. I had to put my feet against it to stop the recoil. Ryan held the bullet “in feed” and Glenn held its “out feed” — I’m making these phrases up — I don’t know what it’s called — while I used my thumbs to push the trigger. It was cool. I admit it. But not cool enough to spend $30K on my own gun.

Later, Roger Junior shot the same gun and got the barrel to glow red.

There was a guy sitting in the space next to us shooting a 50 mm thing. Every time he shot, Ryan would say, “Buck-fifty, buck-fifty, buck-fifty, buck-fifty,” because that’s what every round on that gun cost. It made a huge noise that must have impressed everyone.

Ed took his turn at the gun. He and I had the same basic impression — these guys were nuts! But they were having a good time and no one was getting hurt. And it was kind of cool — even the small fires that started out in the desert.

And every once in a while, there would be an explosion or a flare lighting the whole scene with an eerie red light.

It was nearly 9:00 PM when Ed claimed he was tired and wanted to hit the sack. He was sleeping on a futon in his helicopter. (Yes, there is enough room in that thing.) Ryan still needed to pitch his tent. I needed to find my helicopter in the dark to retrieve a flashlight from it. So we left the guns behind and headed out to the west end. We all took care of business.

At 9:00 PM sharp, an airhorn sounded and all fire stopped. By that time, I was in my tent, wishing I would have gotten a little more air in my air mattress. I fully expected the shooters to have a little post-shooting party, but by 10 PM, the place was quiet.

I got a decent night sleep — it was my first night in a tent in about three years — but wished I’d brought along my long johns.

I emerged from the tent at 5 AM. It was still dark, but I needed the outhouse. I looked out over the range and saw the glow sticks on the three airplanes they’d shot down the night before.

Heli CampingLater, I followed Ryan to the rented camper where he promised to make coffee. The sun came up. I went back to my tent and took a picture I hope to use for a “heli-camping” brochure. My tent looks really small in the photo.

Ryan made sausage, potato, and eggs in a dutch oven. Half our group didn’t eat eggs. (What’s that about?) So just Ryan, Ed, and I ate the eggs.

The shooting started up. I took a few passengers up. Mike arrived with his truck. He was pretty impressed with the firepower and agreed with me (and Ed) that it was weird. Ed, Glenn, and Ryan flew away in the S-55. The rich guy was already gone — he’d left after breakfast. We did a few rides sporatically throughout the afternoon.

I made a fuel run with a passenger and took 45 minutes to find a quart of AeroShell W100 oil in Kingman (the airport manager is going to get a letter about that).

Back at the range, a good sized fire broke out and shooting was stopped. (Never fear, the fire burned out quickly; and even if it didn’t, the organizers had a great fire crew.) I finally got the non-stop flow of passengers I needed to turn a profit. I’m still not sure if I got enough — Mike went to a hockey game with a bunch of the money so I don’t know the final take. I do know that as of 3 PM, I was down a few hundred dollars because of the ferry time, fuel trips, and 2-passenger loads — some of the guys were so big I couldn’t take more than two at a time.

My conclusions about all of this:

  • Guys are even stranger than I thought.
  • Machine guns make a lot of noise. Even more noise than a helicopter.
  • Dynamite sounds like a helicopter backfiring when heard through Bose headsets. Pilots doing a mag check should not do it when there’s the possibility of them hearing explosions during the test. (I did one mag check three times.)
  • It’s important to limit the number of 40 minute fuel runs I make when doing rides. (Duh.)
  • Never — and I do mean never — leave Wickenburg airport without at least a quart of W100Plus on board.
  • When sleeping in a tent, fill the air mattress all the way and bring long johns.

Will I do this again? Hell yes!

What do you think?