Our second try at this venue is a success.
This past weekend, we headed up to the Mohave County Fair in Kingman, AZ, to sell helicopter rides. It was the second time we’d participated at the fair, and although we didn’t take as many passengers as last year, we did do better financially.
This was a “trial” event in several respects.
First, I’d bought a 21-foot travel trailer specifically for events like this one. This was a three-day event (at least for us) and there were four of us. Two hotel rooms for two nights plus three meals a day would have cost a fortune, eating into our profits. And Mike had to drive up to Kingman anyway — we had a lot of gear to bring with us and I wouldn’t be able to take four people plus luggage plus gear in the helicopter. So he pulled the trailer up and we parked it, like last year, at the edge of our landing zone. It comfortably fit all four of us for the weekend and allowed me to stock up on breakfast and lunch foods so we wouldn’t have to go out to eat every meal.
Some minor problems we noticed with the camper setup: if one or more of the crew doesn’t understand the importance of water conservation, a single shower can wipe out the contents of the freshwater tank — and fill the graywater tank. This happened on two occasions; one of the crewmembers liked long showers. In the future, we need to brief the crew about this. While we had access to fresh water at this venue, it’s unlikely that we’ll have access to water at every venue. That means 40 gallons has to last the whole stay. Also, if the location is cold at night, we’ll need more blankets or have to run the heater overnight. The tent-like bed covers don’t do a good job of keeping out the cold. (In fact, my tent does a better job.) So climbing into bed and closing the privacy curtain on a cold night is a very bad idea. And the tent areas certainly didn’t keep the outdoor sounds outdoors. The worst was from a carnival ride nearby called Crazy Loops (or something like that). It was a vertical circle with a roller-coaster-like track running on the inside. They’d load up the people and then rock the cars back and forth on the circle until they finally reached the top. Then the operator would stop the cars, inverted, giving all the passengers a good chance to scream their brains out. He’d release the cars and they’d do a loop or two, complete with more screams, before he let them come to a stop at the bottom. Inside, at 10 PM when we were trying to sleep, we’d hear the screams and the loud rushing sound of the cars as they moved on the tracks. We also heard the rock music from another nearby ride, which seemed to get louder at night. We’ll be stocking earplugs for the next gig.
Otherwise, the camper was perfect. Small, easy to tow and park, lightweight so it doesn’t suck fuel out of the truck. Mike only burned 1/2 tank of fuel on the 130 mile drive — and I guarantee that he wasn’t driving at fuel conservation speeds. The fridge held all the food we needed and more. There was plenty of storage space for each person’s clothing and toiletries. The dining area and sofa made two separate hanging out places. Comfy for four people, a dog, and a bird.
Another trial was our use of complete strangers for ground crew. I’d found a helicopter student pilot at a Phoenix-area flight school and asked him to bring his wife. I needed two people: one to help Mike load and the other to take the money. But I was hoping to do this without having to convert the sofa into a bed at night. The solution: invite another couple.
They did their jobs okay — we kept track of all the money and maintained a safe landing zone. But they were a bit too meek to really sell the rides. You see, when a person is sitting on the fence (so to speak) about taking a ride, the person at the counter has to go into hard sell mode and make them want it. These folks couldn’t do it. Mike and I, when we were near the sell table, had no trouble convincing visitors to the table to fly. But more than once, while sitting in the helicopter waiting, I saw people approach the table, talk to my ground crew, and then walk off. While I’m not saying they should be able to sell to everyone who comes by, I think that a more aggressive or less laid back sales person would have gotten us more business. It might have something to do with age — they were in their early twenties. I think some young people just lack the confidence or courage to step up and play the ball hard.
Ah, if only I could import a few New Yorkers for the job.
But they were certainly pleasant and easy to live with for a few days. And that’s important, too. Who wants to be stuck at a fairgrounds with people they can’t stand?
This also turned out to be a trial for a new pricing structure. Last year, we did the rides at $25 per person and barely broke even. This year, I was offering the same ride (well, maybe a tiny bit shorter) for $35 per person, with a reduction to $30 per person if there were three people on board. I had banners hung on the fence with this pricing information. Friday was a bust because high winds kept me from flying. (I don’t like to do rides with winds 25 knots gusting to 35 knots. Oddly enough, my passengers don’t like it either.) But on Saturday, things were slow to pick up. I’d hired two people to help out and all I could imagine was the tiny revenue stream going into their pockets while I took a loss. So I introduced another pricing scheme, a “Show Special.” We’d do rides just around the fairgrounds for $15 per person. We took down the other pricing banners and my ground crew started selling rides.
Mind you, I felt terribly guilty about selling these rides. They were about 3-1/2 minutes long — that’s all! — but people we lining up to get on board. And no one was disappointed. We still sold a bunch of “extended rides” at the old pricing. So I kept flying and the money kept coming in. We did the same on Sunday, too. I don’t know how many people I flew — I didn’t keep count and my ground crew weren’t using the tickets I’d bought for the event consistently. But I figure I must have flown at least 120 people.
Doing helicopter rides at a fair or any other event is hard work. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. And this venue was very difficult. Although the landing zone was nice and big, it was bordered on one side (closeby) with a 6-foot chainlink fence, on another side with parked cars, and another side with our camper and the carnival beyond it. Overflying the carnival or the cars was not an option. That left the fence or the empty part of the parking lot, which had wires at the far end and I-40 beyond it. The wind was blowing from that direction, making it great for taking off but really crappy (and very tricky) for landing. And since the area wasn’t paved, I created huge dust clouds every time I landed. The dust would blow right into the carnival area, making a few of the ride operators pretty pissed off. (Last year, the wind was blowing the opposite direction, keeping dust out of the carnival but giving me a tailwind for takeoffs. I prefer that. If you can take off with a tailwind, you know you can land with a headwind.)
Of course, we did have water and a sprinkler to try to keep the dust down. It worked reasonably well, especially when I was doing longer rides. Mike had the sprinkler set up in the landing zone and would turn it on while I was flying. As I came in for landing, he’d turn it off. When I was out for 8 minutes at a stretch, the ground got good and soaked. But when I was out for 3-1/2 minutes followed by 5 minutes unloading/loading, my idle downwash did more drying than the wind did. Mike managed to flag down the fair’s water truck once and that made a world of difference — for about 2 hours.
Here’s now the whole thing worked.
I’d wait at idle RPM (68% or so) in the landing zone. No dust at idle speeds. Jen and Mike and Aaron would sell tickets. Mike would give the safety briefing, using the briefing card. Then he and Aaron would walk the passengers out to the helicopter. Mike would take two to the other side while Aaron took one to my side. They’d load the people up, make sure their seat belts were fastened, give them their headsets, and secure their doors. Then they’d walk clear of the helicopter and give me a thumbs up to indicate that I was good to go.
I’d greet the passengers, soothe anyone who was nervous, throttle up to full RPM, and say “Here we go.” Then I’d check the area for stray people, lift up, turn 90 to 180 °, and take off over the fence. So yes — every takeoff was a maximum performance takeoff. And that was the first big challenge, given that today’s population is very fat so I was heavy (but not over max gross weight) for every flight. Kingman is at about 3500 feet and it was in the 80s each day. The wind helped on takeoff but could not be relied upon.
I’d climb out over an unused horse racing track and over I-40, turning left as I flew. When I got up to altitude (at least 400 feet), I’d either continue the left turn back toward the fairgrounds for the short tour or follow I-40 through the pass to downtown Kingman. I’d point out things of interest along the way, customizing my “tour” for my audience. For example, if I had a little kid on board, I point out trucks and trains (“Don’t they look small?”) and if I had adults who lived in Kingman on board, I’d point out old Route 66 and certain intersections to help them get their bearings.
I’d circle around on both flights to come up along the east side of the fairgrounds, where I’d start my descent. Then, depending on how the wind was blowing, I’d either come in over the track or circle out over I-40 again and come in from there. I always had a cross wind or, in some instances, a tail wind, so I had to be careful about descent rates. And, when the wind gusted, I had to really work the pedals to keep the helicopter steady. Didn’t want to look sloppy and scare off spectators that were potential customers. I’d approach over all that dirt and, if I didn’t get within 10 feet of the wet area, I’d send up a huge cloud that probably took a ton of paint off my rotor blades.
I’d set down and ask my passengers how they liked it. Then I’d hand out helicopter toys to kids under 12. Mike and Aaron would offload the passengers, send them back to the entrance of the landing zone, and wave the next group over.
We worked until it got dark on Saturday and called it quits at 3 PM on Sunday.
We packed up and flew home soon afterward. I did one last minute ride for two passengers while Mike pulled out of the fairgrounds with the camper and our two helpers waited for their ride home. Then a quick trip to the airport for fuel and off we went. We got back to Wickenburg around 5:30 PM.
In all, it was a good weekend — although I think it could have been better. I was able to pay my helpers and make some money for Flying M Air. We’ll probably do the fair again next year. But after doing some quick calculations on costs, I realized that it was unlikely that we could make money at the upcoming Graham County Fair in Safford — especially since it was so far away. I canceled our appearance yesterday.
Today, I spent a half hour vacuuming fine gravel from the floor of my helicopter and washing the dust and fingerprints off the windows. I didn’t have time to wash the whole helicopter — I’ll do that tomorrow before it gets hot.
Next big event: the Goodyear Balloon Classic and Air Show (formerly the Thunderbird Balloon Classic). That should be a good gig. Best of all, I’ll be landing on pavement and the folks who hired me will provide the ground crew.