Sunrise Flight

I re-experience the magic of getting out to fly at dawn.

The alarm went off at 4:40 AM. Normally, I don’t set an alarm. I’m usually awake by 5 AM without one. In fact, that morning, I was awake at 3:30. But I fell back to sleep and was very surprised when the alarm brought me back to consciousness.

I had enough time to jump in the shower, dress, and make coffee in a to-go cup. Alex the bird and the horses would have to wait. My flight was at 6 AM and I still needed to do a preflight and pull the helicopter out to the ramp.

It was cold and dark as I drove away from the house. I’d taken the doors and windows off my Jeep about two months ago and still haven’t put them back on. The temperature was in the 50s, and I really felt it as I sped down West Wickenburg Way (the old California Highway) to the airport.

The moon was full, casting a blue-white light over the desert landscape. I love to fly in the light of a full moon. The ground is so dark out here in the desert that the moonlight really illuminates things. Sometimes, as I fly back to Wickenburg from moonlight dinner tour in the Phoenix area, I can see the helicopter’s shadow moving along 700 feet below us — a tiny gray dot darting across the washes and along the rolling hills.

I rolled up to my hangar, pointed the Jeep’s headlights at the door, and turned off the Jeep, leaving the headlights on. I fiddled with the combination padlock on the door to get it open, then turned off the headlights. I rolled the right side door open and flicked on the overhead lights. I seldom come to the hangar at night, so I use the lights rarely. They’re bright and fully illuminate the contents of my hangar: Mike’s airplane, my motorcycles, some furniture in storage, my airport “office,” and my helicopter, sitting on its ground handling equipment, always ready to roll out to the ramp.

I did a preflight, checking under panels for fluid levels, tele-temp colors, and unusual signs of wear or tear. I climbed my 10-foot ladder to examine the rotor hub. I checked the tail rotor and the oil level. One of the good things about flying the same aircraft all the time — and being the only person to fly that aircraft — is that you really get to know it. When there’s something wrong, it jumps out at you. Like the tiny crack I found in the plastic part of my clutch activator’s down-limit switch the year before. The crack was only about 1/4 inch long, but I saw it on a preflight. (That turned out to be another case of $1000 in labor to replace a $12 part.)

By then, it was 5:30 AM. Time to get out on the ramp. I hopped in the golf cart that was attached to the helicopter’s tow bar, and began backing out. It’s a tricky maneuver; I have to back straight out about 3/4 of the way to the hangar across from mine to make sure the tail rotor clears Mike’s airplane and the hangar door. Then a sharp turn toward the ramp, which swings the tail out. When the helicopter and cart are parallel to the row of hangars, I’m ready to roll.

But not yet. I had to get out of the cart, switch off the lights, and roll the door closed. I left my Jeep parked as is. It wasn’t blocking anything except my left hangar door and I’d be back before 7 AM.

The sky to the east was beginning to lighten. According to my computer, dawn in Wickenburg would be at 6:17 AM. The goal was to be in flight, flying east when the sun broke over the horizon. I could see now that there was a cloud out there, not far above the horizon. The sun would make its appearance, then slip behind that cloud. The cloud didn’t seem too dense, so I was pretty sure much of the light would penetrate, keeping the sky bright as the sun continued to climb. That was my prediction, anyway.

Zero Mike Lima before DawnI rolled up to the fuel island, set the parking break on the cart, and got out to disconnect the ground handling equipment. That means unfastening the four ratchet straps on the front of the skids, moving the tow bar away, and taking the ground handling wheels off the back of the skids. (You can see a photo of what the ground handling equipment looks like on my helicopter in this article.) It’s a bothersome routine — it would be so much nicer to just land on a rolling platform like Ray and Dave do — but I have it down to a science and can do it quite quickly.

I added 15 gallons of fuel to the main tank. I was expecting three passengers — a dad and his two young sons — and could actually top off the tanks if I wanted to. But I don’t like putting on more fuel than I need (including reserves, of course). With the added fuel, we’d have enough to fly 2 hours. Our flight would take 30 minutes.

Done with all my preflight stuff, I waited. It was 5:45 AM.

The airport at Wickenburg is kind of magical at that time of the morning. The ramp, lighted by a handful of overhead lights, illuminates the few planes parked outside. Every once in a while, one of the lights goes out, leaving the space beneath it in shadows until it recovers from its temporary ills and comes back to life. The rotating beacon — now a cell tower — sweeps its white and green light over the vicinity. If you listen hard, you can hear its motor. You can also hear the sounds of life in the industrial park across the runway: distant banging and clanking one of the small manufacturing facilities, the steady beeep-beeep-beeep of a truck backing up, some voices carried on the breeze. In the past, I’ve heard the mournful mooing of a free-range cow on the ranch (soon to be a housing development) across the road or the call of a coyote.

Zero Mike Lima at DawnIt was the light that fascinated me that morning. The light from the fuel island cast on my helicopter combined with the light of the coming dawn behind it. I pulled out my digital camera — which I keep in my purse — and took a few photos with the flash turned off, using the fuel island equipment and camera self-timer as substitutes for a tripod and cable release. The resulting photos weren’t bad, as you can see for yourself.

As 6 AM approached, I waited over by the terminal building. Before long, a car pulled in and my passengers got out. The sons were somewhere between 8 and 12 years old. The younger one didn’t look very enthusiastic. I gave them the safety briefing as we walked out to the helicopter. The older son sat in front — an arrangement that seemed to make the younger son very happy as he climbed in back next to his dad. I showed them how to work the doors, then closed them in. A few moments, later, I had the engine going and we were talking over the headsets while the engine warmed up.

To the east, the sky had brightened considerably. The cloud hanging out there would make the sunrise interesting. Our normal cloudless skies are wonderful if you like sun — and you’d better, if you come to Arizona — but they make for boring sunrises and sunsets. Today they’d have a bit of a treat. The sun was already illuminating the bottom of the cloud, although there wasn’t much color to its light.

We took off and headed east. I climbed more than I normally would to give them the best view I could muster. It was already too bright for the lights of Phoenix to be very noticeable, which was kind of unfortunate for them. One of the things I like to do at night is launch from Wickenburg Airport, which is in a pretty dark area of the desert, and climb up to reveal the lights of Phoenix stretching from 30 to 60 miles away in a perfect example of urban sprawl light pollution. Terrible for people wanting to look at the stars, but quite beautiful from the air, especially when climbing from the darkness on the edge of nowhere.

My goal was to get as far as Lake Pleasant before sunrise. I made the goal. The lake was in sight with the brightening sky reflecting off its smooth surface when the sun peeked over the horizon.

Of course, that’s also when you could see the streaks on the Plexiglas of my cockpit bubble. That low-lying sun will show how badly I cleaned the bubble, even if I did a good job. At least there wasn’t any dust to make it worse.

I made a gentle turn to the left, leaving the sun behind us. Now we were facing Wickenburg again and could see it in the distance. We also saw Vulture Peak and the full moon as it was descending toward the horizon. The sun cast long shadows in the desert between the hills and mountains. Details of the terrain emerged: a gravel pit, some trailers parked on BLM land, a windmill and tank. I steered us toward Vulture Peak, which my companions planned to climb later in the day. We flew past the east side of the peak, then past the guest ranch where they were staying. A while later, we were touching down gently on one of the heli-spots at the airport. We’d been in the air about 30 minutes.

As I cooled down the engine, my passengers told me how much they’d enjoyed the flight. Even the little guy in the back, who wasn’t scared anymore. I escorted them all back to the terminal and we said goodbye.

It was still early — about 6:45 AM — but the airport’s nighttime magic was gone. Although I was the only one left on the ramp, it didn’t have the same deserted feeling it had had less than an hour before.

I rolled my cart over to the helicopter to put it away. At home, Alex the Bird and the horses were waiting for breakfast.

One thought on “Sunrise Flight

  1. Great story — I almost feel like I was with you as I saw you returning to the airport around 7 am while I was sitting on the deck reading the Saturday morning paper on West Jones Road off Steinway. Saw a red helicopter to the west a bit and said “Maria’s up early today!!” thanks.

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