Night Flight Around Phoenix

Good practice for me, great fun for my passengers.

When a Phoenix-based helicopter tour company began the slow spiral of death (for the company, that is), its owner canceled at least one charter. That customer tracked me down and called in a near panic, looking for a replacement flight.

He said the flight was for his aunt and uncle for their anniversary. He’d planned it months ago and now the tour company he’d booked it with had cancelled it. He was anxious to get another company to do the trip. Could I do it?

The trip was an hour long, nighttime flight around Phoenix, starting from Scottsdale Airport.

I live in Wickenburg and my helicopter lives there, too. It’s about a 30-minute flight from Wickenburg to Scottsdale. But since most of my work has been coming from the Phoenix area these days, I have special pricing for that area. The first hour of the flight is enough to cover my ferry time plus a profitable hour of flight with passengers. In other words, it covers two hours of flight. There’s a one-hour minimum, so the flight is worthwhile for me. Every subsequent hour is at a reduced rate more in line with my local rates. This seems to work just fine with people down in the Valley. I’m still the least expensive game in town, so they’re satisfied. And I get what I need to make money. Everyone is happy.

Mike and I flew down to Scottsdale to arrive at 5 PM. We locked up the helicopter on the ramp and walked to P.F. Chang’s for dinner. I brought along my Terminal Area Chart for Phoenix and studied it with Mike as we waited for our food. Where would I take them for an hour? Which airports would I have to communicate with? Which frequencies would I have to monitor or speak on? Who would I contact for Phoenix Sky Harbor airspace? Where would we go?

I decided on a route that would take me north from Scottsdale and then west, on the north side of the Deer Valley Airport airspace (so I wouldn’t have to talk to the tower there). From there, we’d continue west, then southwest and follow the Loop 101 from the Arrowhead Mall area to the new Glendale Arena, in Glendale Airport’s airspace. We continue down to I-10 and turn east. That’s when I’d have to talk to Sky Harbor and enter their space. We’d follow I-10 to Central Avenue (that’s the main road in Phoenix where the tall building are) and turn north up Central, flying only a few hundred feet off the building rooftops. We’d exit Phoenix airspace near Camelback Mountain, turning east to pass on the north side of Camelback. At that point, we’d be within 10 minutes of Scottsdale Airport. I’d check the remaining time and, if I needed to fly more, I’d head south toward Falcon Field and spend some time over Mesa before flying back to Scottsdale.

I was nervous but not terribly so. Sky Harbor was the big challenge. I didn’t know how busy they’d be and whether they’d grant a request to a helicopter. Light wasn’t an issue. I’ve done a good bit of night flying and have never had any doubt about which way is up. Even though it would be dark at 6:30 PM, the flight time, the moon would be rising soon afterward and the city was already full of light from the ground. I just had to be careful north of Deer Valley where it wasn’t very developed and there were a few small mountains that would look like pools of blackness in the night. I’d learned on other night flights in the Phoenix and Wickenburg areas never to fly into areas that were completely black — they were usually desert mountains.

We finished dinner and walked back to the airport. The terminal, which was open until 10:00 PM, was completely empty. The restaurant there was closed — it has changed hands yet again — and the charter plane and car rental desks were deserted. This was at 6:15 PM on a Saturday night. We waited. I admired the photos in the waiting area: poster-sized blowups of aerial photos taken throughout the state. Nice. The Lake Powell photo was similar to one Mike had taken only a few weeks before. But there was a lot more water in the photo in the terminal. There was probably a lot more water in all of Arizona back on those days.

It was 6:40 and I was just about to call the customer to find out where my passengers were when a car pulled up in the parking lot. Two surprisingly young people literally ran into the building. Both were dressed up as if ready to go out for dinner. He was excited and talked a mile a minute. He told me that he hadn’t known about it until just a while ago. Everyone else knew, but it was a surprise to him.

I left Mike in the terminal to find his way to the FBO where a plasma TV with the Mets game on awaited him. We made our way out onto the ramp, which was terribly dark. I took photos of them in front of the helicopter with a disposable camera. I gave them the safety briefing and strapped them in. He sat up front. She sat behind him. She was wearing lots of perfume and it smelled nice.

While I started up, he flipped open the phone and let the light from its screen illuminate my hands. He started asking questions as I started the engine. We warmed it up and I answered them the best I could. His wife, who didn’t speak English as well, asked questions in their language. He explained in English and whatever language it was that the spoke. Indian? Arabic? Pakistani? Iranian? Heck, I had no clue. Something middle-eastern.

I talked to the tower and we lifted off, heading north as I’d planned. The moon, full and round and bright, rose just as we departed. Coincidentally, we flew right past the housing development where they lived, east of Deer Valley Airport. They tried to see their house from the air, but it was too dark. We were too high for my landing light to help them.

They asked lots of questions. I answered them. I pointed out landmarks I knew — highways, malls, airports, stadiums. He pointed out where his first business had been and told me how the area had changed since he’d first moved here in 1970. When I had to talk to a tower, I flipped the pilot isolation switch so I could communicate without interrupting them (or letting them interrupt me). There was some confusion with Sky Harbor — I made the mistake of contacting Phoenix Approach when I should have called Phoenix Tower — but when I got the right guy on the radio, my request was cleared without problem. Sky Harbor — and all the other Phoenix area airports, for that matter — were pretty dead. I could see all the other aircraft — planes are actually easier to see at night than during the day, especially when you’re flying below them and their lights are bright against the night sky.

We flew east on I-10 and then up Central Avenue. Flying right through downtown Phoenix was a real thrill for all of us. I’d only done it twice before, and only one of those times was at night many years ago. Of course, Phoenix isn’t like New York — it’s pretty dead at night. I couldn’t imagine flying up Broadway in Manhattan at night but would love to try it sometime.

When we got to Camelback, we had some time. So I headed southeast, passing just west of Falcon Field’s airspace. It was dead there, too. I got a few miles south and started my turn. The controller game me permission to cross midfield. I hadn’t flipped the isolation switch, so my passengers heard the whole exchange. As we passed the tower there, he said to his wife, “She just to talked to a woman in there” — he pointed at the tower — “and she told us we cross the runways here.” I never realized how cool it might be to a passenger to see and hear what goes on between pilots and air traffic controllers.

We crossed the darkness of the indian reservation just southeast of Scottsdale and I called the tower. It was dead there, too. The controller told me to report 1/2 mile out. I relied on the rotating beacon to find the airport — it’s nearly impossible to make out among the lights when approaching from that direction, day or night. I called a mile out (per my GPS; it sure looked closer) and he cleared me to land. I touched down right in front of the terminal building.

Mike met us and helped my passengers out. He took some photos of them and I gave out my card and a few postcards. He escorted them to the terminal while I waited, engine running. I didn’t need to shut down with Mike along. He returned a moment later, climbed in with our dinner leftovers, and strapped in. Moments later, we were on our way home in the moonlight.

It was a great flight. I hope I get more calls for nighttime flights around Phoenix soon.

What do you think?