A Search…

…but no rescue required.

I was sitting down at my desk, getting ready to start working on Chapter 6 of my Excel 2007 book (for the third time), when my phone rang. It was someone I knew from here in Wickenburg. He was wondering if I was available for a helicopter flight that day. It seemed that his son and his wife and young child had gone hiking and hadn’t come back.


Yes, I was available. I asked a bunch of questions, like whether the authorities were involved. He told me the police knew but hadn’t started looking yet. But he wanted to start looking right away. He thought they might be in the Granite Mountain area. That’s near Prescott, about 40 NM away.

I warned him that it could be expensive to search by helicopter. He said he didn’t care. I told him I could have the helicopter ready to fly in 30 minutes. I told him to give me a call if he wanted to go out. And we hung up.

He called back ten minutes later, just when I was warming up my Dell PC. He would meet me at the airport.

I dropped everything, threw on some jeans and practical shoes, grabbed my handheld GPS to track our search area, hopped in my Jeep, and drove off to the airport.

His mom, who I already knew, arrived at the airport as I was pulling the helicopter to the fuel island. I talked with her after I fueled up. Weather was closing in — an unusual thing here in Arizona — and the ceilings were dropping. Rain was a certainty. And to the north, where I needed to fly, the tops of the mountains were obscured by clouds. I’d checked the weather by computer before leaving home and things in Prescott looked okay for at least the next two hours. But I wanted to get up there as soon as possible.

Doug and his wife arrived a short while later. I gave them a preflight briefing, loaded them on board, and attempted to start the helicopter. For the first time ever, it took five tries to start. I’d flooded the engine while priming it.

We crossed the Weaver Mountains north of Wickenburg to the east northwest of Yarnell. We were flying right below cloud level up there. But ahead, at Granite Mountain, the sky was only partly cloudy.

We reached the mountain 20 minutes after leaving Wickenburg. It’s a one-hour drive. We circled around the west side to the north, had some trouble getting permission from Prescott tower to skirt their airspace as we flew around the mountain, and then started looking for the missing people’s truck.

Of course, there are a few things that made this a less-than-perfect search. First and foremost is that they weren’t sure that the missing people had come to Granite Mountain. They might have gone to some trail that ran from I-17 to the Verde River — which was at least 40 miles away. Second, the wind was howling up at Prescott, with gust spreads of 10 miles per hour or more. As the wind came over the arms of Granite Mountain, it bounced us around something fierce. Doug was getting airsick. My barf bags were under his seat.

We did a good amount of searching, but with thoughts of puke on my leather seats, I suggested we land at the airport and check in with other people who were monitoring the phones. I don’t think Doug was happy, but he didn’t argue. Five minutes later, we were on the ramp at Prescott airport, near the terminal and restaurant, and Doug was heading toward the buildings while I shut down.

In the restaurant, while Doug drank Sprite and his wife and I enjoyed other beverages, Doug checked in. The missing people’s truck had been found. At the Cave Creek trailhead, wherever that was. He didn’t get the coordinates. We hurried back to the helicopter, started up, and headed south.

The weather to the south wasn’t good. We hit rain right away. I joked about how the rain took the bugs off the main rotor blades. I didn’t mention that it also took the paint off.

It was a good 20-minute flight down the east side of the Bradshaw Mountains, which were completely socked in. It was really beautiful, seeing those clouds mingling with the mountains. You have to understand — clouds are not a usual feature here in Arizona. And when there are so many and they’re layered among the mountains, it’s really a sight to see.

Past Black Canyon City, I headed southeast, hoping to hook up with the road that runs from Cave Creek/Carefree to the lakes on the Verde River. That’s where Doug thought the trailhead might be. The wind was blowing, the rain was falling. And then I caught sight of a DPS (Department of Public Services) helicopter flying northbound. I tuned into the helicopter air-to-air frequency (123.025) and made a call.

“Police Helicopter north of Cave Creek, are you on one-two-three-point-two?”

“This is Ranger 42, north of Cave Creek.”

I told him who I was and who I had on board. I asked if he was searching for the missing people. He said he was and that he was heading toward the trailhead where their car had been found. He offered to give me the coordinates. I told him we’d just follow him.

Now keep in mind that I was flying a Robinson R44 helicopter. He was flying something else, something turbine with lots of rotor blades. I don’t know what it was. But I took off after him and tried like hell to keep up. We lost sight of him three times among the mountains we were crossing, but we finally caught sight of him in a low orbit around a parking area. The missing people’s truck was parked down there.

Ranger 42 told us he’d search to the west and suggested we take the east. Okay with us. So we followed a few roads in the area for about 15 minutes. Then we heard the media helicopters coming in. Channel 3 with Scott at the controls. Channel 10. Channel 15? I don’t know. All I know is that they were coming. And no matter how big the sky was, it would be a lot smaller with three more helicopters.

Doug suggested that I land in the parking area, let him off, and let his nephew, who had found the truck, on board. Then he proceeded to puke repeatedly into the barf bags I’d had the foresight to remove from under his seat before we left Prescott. In the back, his wife was fine.

We landed. Doug got out. His nephew climbed in. I gave him a safety briefing, made sure he fastened his seat belt, told him not to get sick because we were out of barf bags, and took off.

We spent the next 30 minutes searching to the northeast of the parking area. Ranger 42 and two other helicopters that had shown up had landed to coordinate the search efforts. They graciously offered to leave room down in the parking area for me, but I preferred to stay out of their way. So we followed trails and roads up and down mountains and canyons.

After searching to the east, we crossed over and went west. I watched my fuel levels. I had about 1/4 tanks when we got back to the landing zone and found one of the police helicopters spinning up. I reported in.

“Ranger 42 is departing the area,” the pilot told me. “The missing people have been found.”

The missing guy’s mom, who was sitting behind me, was thrilled. We listened to the media helicopters talking to the police helicopters. It seems they’d gotten lost the evening before just as it was getting dark and had simply pitched a tent and spent the night in it. In the morning, they’d stumbled upon someone’s home and the woman who had lived there had driven them back to the parking area. Found.

Approaching the landing zone from the north, I watched the three helicopters there take off. I lined up for landing and settled down in the space they’d just vacated. My two passengers got out. I caught sight of a restroom in the parking area and decided to make use of it. Two minutes later, the engine was shut down and the blades were stopped and I was making a beeline for the toilet.

There were cops all over the place down there. One of them had approached me as I was shutting down and I said, “Please don’t give me a ticket.” After all, I’d landed in a parking lot for a trailhead. He laughed.

Everything was okay. Happy ending. Doug decided to drive back with someone else. I think he had enough of the helicopter. But his wife stuck with me. We climbed back on board, started the engine, and took off. The media helicopters were circling above us like vultures. I just followed the canyon south, climbing up out of their way while they jockeyed for position to land and interview the found people.

I headed southwest toward Deer Valley. I needed fuel to make it back to Wickenburg. But I hit a wall of rain that was just falling too hard for me to fly through with a passenger on board. I turned around and headed east. Things were clearer over the Verde River. When I cleared the canyon, I was able to turn back to the southwest.

The media helicopters weren’t far behind me. I heard them debate whether or not I had the found people on board with me. Apparently, the vehicles in the landing zone had driven off just as the first helicopter landed there. Doug’s wife and I had a good laugh.

We landed at Deer Valley and I arranged for fuel. Once fueled up, we took off to the northwest to return to Wickenburg. It was raining most of the way and we skirted below the clouds almost all the way to Wickenburg.

I showed my passenger her house from the air before we landed.

Time logged, 2.9 hours. And yes, I was paid for my time.

What do you think?