It has its ups and downs.
By “gig,” I mean a helicopter rides job. You know — like at a carnival or air show.
Flying M Air makes approximately 20% of its money doing helicopter rides at outdoor events. These events, which range from small-town celebrations (Robson’s Mining World (see photo), Yarnell Daze, Old Congress Days) to county fairs (Mohave County Fair) to full-blown air shows (Thunderbird Balloon Classic and Air Show) are probably the hardest work I have to do. Not only do I have to arrange the event with its management and ensure that I have a safe landing zone nearby, but I have to get together a ground crew of reliable, amiable people to handle money collection, passenger briefings, and loading/unloading. And then I have to do the ups and downs.
I’ve been fortunate in the past to find two good local teams to help out. Darlene and Dave live in Wickenburg and have helped out on two events so far. John and Lorna live in Maine but spend their winters here in Wickenburg and have helped out on winter events for the past two or three years. And of course, I always have Mike, who oversees the whole ground operation.
The ground crew is just about as important as the pilot in this kind of work. They need to be responsible, alert individuals who pay attention to what’s going on around them. We do “hot loading” at these events — that means the engine is running while people are getting on and off the helicopter. That means the rotors are spinning. While the main rotor isn’t much of a concern — it’s spinning 10-12 feet above the ground where it’s not likely to hit anyone walking nearby — the tail rotor is a major concern. It’s spinning back there at head level and even though there’s a guard and warning signs on the helicopter, it’s still possible for someone to walk into it. I need my ground crew to make sure no one walks behind the helicopter at any time. I want my ground crew to use physical force if necessary — grab the guy! — to keep a person from walking back there. Not everyone is prepared to do that.
(A side note here: one of the ways I help protect people from the tail rotor is to park with the tail rotor away from where people might be. In other words, I park facing the crowd. Then there’s no reason to go around the back of the helicopter. This may seem like common sense, but it’s amazing how few helicopter pilots don’t stick to this rule. They’ll park facing into the wind (because it’s easier for them) or park facing a runway (for reasons I don’t begin to understand). Having attended the Robinson Factory Safety Course twice, I clearly remember the story of a Long Beach mishap that occurred primarily because the pilot parked with his tail rotor facing his passengers. I’d rather learn from other people’s mistakes than my own.)
I also need a money person who is friendly and a good sales person. I once did a gig with a real wimp taking the money. She just stood there, waiting for people to come up. She spoke in a whisper and did nothing to convince the people who walked up to her table that what they really wanted that day was a helicopter ride. I think that if I had Darlene or Lorna at the table that weekend, I would have taken at least 30 more people for flights. That’s more money for the business and less time sitting on the ground, spinning, waiting for passengers.
The ups and downs are my part. I generally do 6-8 minute rides, but we’ve recently had some success with 3-4 minute rides. That’s a lot of takeoffs (ups) and landings (downs). The challenge here is that I’m usually working in a relatively small space and often have only one way in and out. Obstacles include other activities (I won’t fly over a fair or gathering of people), buildings, wires, fences, and trees. So every takeoff is a maximum performance takeoff and every landing is a confined space landing. And one of the two may be with a tailwind. While I don’t mind taking off with a tailwind (up to 10 knots seems to be okay, depending on my load), I don’t like landing with one. And cross-wind operations are always tricky, especially if the winds are gusting. My goal is to make it look easy no matter what the conditions are, to assure my passengers, through experience alone, that they are in good hands.
With all this comes huge responsibility. Not only do I need to make the ride fun for my passengers, but I need to make it safe. A mishap — even a small one — would be a very bad thing. I think of myself as an ambassador for the helicopter industry. What I do might be the only helicopter operation some of my passengers ever witness. I want them to tell others how good it was, how safe they felt, how much confidence they had in their pilot. And — oh, yes — how much they want to do it again.
I know it’s my experience at the Grand Canyon back in the summer of 2004 that made me pretty darn good at doing ups and downs. At the GC, we operated in very challenging conditions — high winds in the early season, hot temperatures in the mid season, and low visibility in the late season. Although we never operated in unsafe conditions, we certainly operated in many conditions that the average pilot would not normally fly in. The flying was highly restricted, requiring certain takeoff, flight, and landing paths. You couldn’t for example, change your approach to landing just because the wind had shifted; you needed to wait for the tower to change that path. And when you’re operating at high altitude (the airport was 6300 feet) with full loads (I often was within 100 pounds of max gross weight), you learn how to handle power and milk the system for what you need. My goal on every flight was to make every single landing perfect. Of course, I wasn’t able to do that, but by aiming for perfection every single time, I got very good at it. I took that experience away with me and use it on every flight I do.
Now compare this kind of work to a Sedona day trip, like the ones I do from Wickenburg and the Phoenix area. I meet the passengers myself, give them a safety briefing, and load them on the helicopter with the engine off. I then start up, warm up, and take off. The flight is about an hour and neither flying nor navigation require much skill. I point out places of interest and enjoy the scenery with my passengers. Then I land at the airport, cool down, shut down, and escort my passengers to the terminal for whatever activities they have planned. A few hours later, I do the same thing to return to our starting point. As far as real “work” is concerned, a charter has very little. And the revenue is based on flight time, so I’m guaranteed a certain amount of profit for each flight.
Gigs, on the other hand, have a ton of work and a very unreliable revenue stream. When things are going well, I can indeed make more per hour than I can with a charter. But I should, shouldn’t I? I have a lot more work to do (all those ups and downs!) and need to cover the expenses of my ground crew and the gig itself. And there’s always the gig that goes bad — like the Spring Break gig in Lake Havasu I tried two years ago. I took a bath on that gig, losing over $1,600 in ferry time, permits, fees, and hotel costs. Live and learn — but ouch! That one hurt.
But hey — that’s what I signed up for when I started this business. And I still get a lot of pleasure out of taking passengers for their very first helicopter rides.