Another Great Gig in Buckeye

Another great day of flying at the Buckeye Air Fair.

One of the things I like to do with my helicopter is to appear at outdoor events to offer inexpensive 8-10 minute helicopter rides in the area. I’ve done this as often as possible, notably at Robson’s Mining World, the Thunderbird Balloon Classic, the Mohave Country Fair, the ghost town of Stanton, Yarnell Daze, a shoot in Wickieup, and the Buckeye Air Fair.

We went back to Buckeye yesterday. The weather was better than last year — not nearly as windy — and although the forecast called for cloudy skies, it was mostly sunny. That drew in a lot more aircraft. That and the fact that the folks at Buckeye obviously know a thing or two about advertising their airport events to pilots.

It was a great event. There was an Albatross on static display, as well as a Groen Brothers gyroplane and a few other planes. Two medivac helicopters showed up for static display after I started flying and left before I’d finished, so I didn’t have a chance to talk to them. There was a bouncy thing for kids and someone selling pinwheels and kites. There were multiple food vendors selling barbeque, fry bread, chicken, hot dogs, and other stuff. A flight school was there, soliciting students. Game and Fish had a big trailer with some kind of display about shooting safety. (I guess they want to make sure Arizonans don’t mistake an elderly man for a quail while hunting.) They raffled off all kinds of prizes, including helicopter rides. Pilots flew in and out and were expertly guided to safe parking using a separate ground frequency. And there were parachute jumps, all landing at the northeast corner of the field. Sorry: no car show. After all, this was an airport event.

The event started late — from my point of view, anyway — at 10 AM. But Mike and I were there and set up by 9:15 AM. Although they’d originally positioned us on a dead-end taxiway near the parachute jump zone, I wasn’t too comfortable about that. I don’t think the jumpers would have been, either. So they moved us to a closed-off taxiway. It was an excellent location, clearly visible from the event’s entrance, yet easily secured. I parked with the helicopter’s nose facing the crowd and its tail pointing out toward the taxiway. There was no real possibility of onlookers walking behind the helicopter because there was no reason to go out there. Heavy-duty orange construction cones blocked off the taxiway on either side so planes wouldn’t be tempted to use it while I was out. The folks at Buckeye graciously provided a folding table and three chairs for us to set up shop.

It was a good thing we set up early. The crowd started coming in at 9:30 and I immediately have my first ride of the day. To say that I didn’t shut down until 4:30 is an overstatement, but only because I had to shut down twice for fuel, food, and a bathroom stop. My two breaks were only 15 minutes long; I flew the rest of the day. One of Mike’s co-workers, Steve (recently moved her from Iowa), showed up at about 10:30 to help out. Not a moment too soon; by then, the crowd was building.

The route started at the airport, headed south along the taxiway, and then east to the town of Buckeye. It passed over farm fields that were freshly sown with cotton or corn and alfalfa fields being harvested. Closer to town, you could clearly see that some farmers had sold out to developers and houses were being planted instead of crops. We circled back, crossing over a large (but not huge) dairy farm and more farm fields before landing back at the airport. My arrivals and departures were one of the big attractions at the show; at one point, I came in and saw at least 50 people lined up along the ramp area, watching me. Good thing the helicopter was clean.

When I first started out, the winds were less than 5 knots, so I’d come in for landing from the south. This would keep me away from any jumper activity. But as the winds picked up out of the southwest, I realized the folly of landing, sometimes heavy, with a tailwind and I began coming in from the north. I had to listen closely to the radio to make sure there weren’t any jumpers on their way down. If they were, I made a wide approach to the north east and landed along the taxiway, giving them plenty of space. It was nerve-racking to see those parachutes in the sky, high over my main rotor disc. I had to keep reminding myself that the wind would push them to their target well east of my position.

What was really amazing about this gig was that Mike and Steve were able to get three passengers on just about every flight. I price the flights — in this case, $35 per person including tax — so that if I took one person, I’d lose money; if I took two people, I’d make money; and if I took three people, I’d make pretty darn good money. Mike was able to put three on board for each flight because we had a pool of waiting customers from about 10:30 AM on that consisted of singles, couples, and trios. He sold tickets that were numbered and would use them to keep the order of the tickets sold. Then, if he had a couple flying next, he’d ask for a single with the lowest number and put him on board, too. This was not only an efficient way to keep the line from getting too long, but it was good for business.

That’s even more amazing than that is that I had at least one kid aboard for more than 75% of the flights. Flying kids is great for two reasons: first, I like to give kids what is normally their first helicopter flight experience. This goes back to my first helicopter flight experience (which I really should write about in this blog one day). I’m always happy when parents treat their kids to a ride. It tells me that they don’t have fears about flying that they’ll transfer to their kids. It also gives kids the opportunity to experience something truly different, to open their minds to the kinds of things they can do with their lives.

The second reason flying kids is great is because they’re light — usually under 100 pounds. So even with three people on board and 3/4 tanks fuel, I have no performance problems at all. That makes the flying easier — especially take offs and landings.

Once again, we didn’t finish flying until the fair was over and the airport had emptied out. Starting at around 2 PM, each time I landed, I’d notice fewer cars in the parking lot, fewer people walking around, and fewer vendors. By 3 PM, the only people left were the people waiting to fly. They were, for the most part, patient. I think they realized that if I started rushing the rides, they wouldn’t get as good a ride as the people who’d gone earlier in the day. I gave everyone pretty much the same ride, but would occasionally veer off to the south or north to show them their house if it was within range. I did a few flights to the west on request, using the helicopter’s timer to make sure I didn’t stay out too long or too short a time.

I haven’t done all the math, but I’m pretty sure I flew between 90 and 100 people. That comes pretty close to my daily record, which was set on a Saturday at the Mohave County Fair last September.

As for the money…well, let’s just say that I can keep the helicopter for another month. Isn’t that what it’s all about?

I’d like to thank the folks at Buckeye for putting on such a great event for the community and for allowing me to be part of it. And I look forward to next year.

What do you think?