Flying with Cars, Take 2

Another gig at the Proving Grounds.

I spent yesterday afternoon sweating my brains out, flying in formation with cars.

I’d been hired once again to take a film crew around a proving ground tracks to get some footage for a internal marketing video. Last time, there had been one car. This time there were two. Last time it had been in September. This time, it was July.

The Flight Down

Mike came with me from Wickenburg. We topped off the tanks at the local airport here and took all four doors off. We’d filled a cooler with ice and bottled water and Gatorade to bring along. I also had a hand-held radio for Mike so he could listen in while we were flying. The flight from Wickenburg took about 50 minutes. It was hot — about 110°F/42°C — and even the wind through the open doorways did nothing to cool us. I had a small spray bottle and would douse my loose-fitting cotton shirt down with water as I flew. 2 minutes later, it would be completely dry again.

It was also bumpy. The desert, baked throughout the day by the broiling sun was sending waves of thermals straight up. But a 10 to 20 knot wind from the southwest was breaking all that up. As a result, the flight was like riding on a poorly maintained road with big, fat, soft tires. Bumpy but seldom jarringly so. Someone prone to motion sickness probably would have puked.

There were also dust devils: towering updrafts of swirling dust blown laterally across the desert floor. At any one time, looking out at the open desert, we could see at least two dozen of the damn things, some of them at least 500 feet tall. We were flying at about 500 feet above the ground, so dodging them became part of our flight path. If it looked like we’d hit one, I’d alter course to pass to the west behind it. This probably added a few minutes to the flight, but I wasn’t the least bit interested in getting very close to any of them.

By the time we got to the proving ground and landed on a piece of road where everyone waited, I was tired and red hot — literally! — my face was completely flushed — and partially dehydrated. It was a good thing we had an hour to kill before the film crew would be ready. I spent it drinking water and Gatorade in the air conditioned comfort of the facility’s lunch room.

The Film Crew

The film crew consisted of the same director and photographer as last time. The photographer had a big, professional video camera that he sat on his shoulder as he taped the action. The camera was attached by a cable to a small monitor that the director could hold in his hands during the flight.

The photographer was strapped in not only with a seat belt by with a rope that tied the harness he wore to the bar between the two front seats in the helicopter. In addition, they rigged up a come-along strap on the helicopter’s frame between the left and right side of the helicopter and had the camera attached to that by two separate straps. We clearly would not be dropping either the photographer or camera out of the helicopter.

Everyone on the film crew wore black shirts. These are obviously people unaccustomed to life in the desert. It doesn’t take long for a desert dweller to realize that black might look cool but it doesn’t feel cool with the sun shining down on you and a UV index of 10. They also drank a lot of Pepsi. No matter how many of us “locals” recommended water, they’d guzzle Pepsi and some weak tea looking concoction they kept in one-gallon plastic water jugs. I didn’t ask what it was.

Throughout the flight, the director would yell commands to me and the photographer through the helicopter’s intercom system. He had to yell because the photographer was hanging out of the helicopter to get his shots and his microphone was out in the 20 to 80 knot wind (depending on our speed, of course). The director also yelled into a handheld radio that the driver was tuned into, giving him directions.

Of course, the most challenging thing about communication was not the wind noise but the language. They didn’t speak good English.

The Flying

The kind of flying this time around was mostly chasing the car around the speed track (a large paved oval with sharply banked curves) and the dirt track (a smaller oval with a dusty dirt surface). I’d fly alongside, anywhere from 10 to 100 feet off the ground, but usually around 30. Speed ranged from a hover to as fast as 80 knots.

If you’re a helicopter pilot, you know that this kind of operation puts me in the shaded area of the height-velocity diagram or so-called “dead man’s curve.” I’m full aware of the dangers of this kind of flying and communicated them to my passengers.

But frankly, my willingness to do this kind of flying is what got me the job two years ago. They’d asked two other local operators to do it and they both said no. I think that the fact that they were flight schools played heavily into the decision. Wouldn’t be a good example to set for newly minted CFIs. Besides, I really think that this kind of “extreme” flying is best done by experienced pilots. Although I only have about 1,800 hours right now, that’s a heck of a lot more than the typical 400-hour flight school CFI.

The challenging parts:

  • Going from a near hover to highway speed in a very short time.
  • Keeping an eye on the car and the obstacles around the track, including poles with wires, antenna towers, tents used to hide cars from passing aircraft (believe it or not), and road signs.
  • Flying alongside the car at 20 feet above the ground, making smooth “hops” over lower obstructions (signs, tents, etc.) as necessary,
  • Swooping past the front of the car and turning so the camera didn’t lose sight of the car until it was past us.
  • Getting back into shooting position quickly after a technical shot so the photographer could maximize his video time.
  • Understanding what my passengers wanted me to do, especially on those occasions when they couldn’t agree and gave conflicting commands.

The best shots probably came close to sunset, when we were working with one of the cars on the dirt track. The clear sky, low sun, and dust combine to make magical scenes. Most of the shots used in the video from last time were ones from the dirt track. My job was to keep the setting sun, car, and helicopter in a line so the photographer could get sunset footage.

The Machine

I really enjoy this kind of work. Flying a helicopter from point A to point B is mildly interesting, but doing the kind of flying needed to photograph moving cars (or boats, for that matter), is extremely challenging. It takes all of my concentration to deliver what the photographer and director want.

But what’s probably best about it is the way my arms and legs go into a certain autopilot mode. I think of what I want and my body reacts to make the helicopter do what needs to be done. There’s very little thought involved. I’m just part of the machine — the brain, so to speak. And when flying — or doing anything with a piece of equipment, I imagine — becomes so automatic and thought-free, that’s magic.

The Trip Home

We finished up just after sunset. Rather than shut down and go inside for some refreshments, I decided to keep it running and head home. I wanted to get home before it was too dark. I was exhausted — I’d flown over 4 hours that day, including a flight from Howard Mesa and the ferry flight to the track — and was depending on the last vestiges of adrenaline to power me home. So the film crew got all their straps and cables out, Mike got in, and we took off.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that the Low Fuel light was flickering 2 miles from the nearest airport. Another plane was on final when I came in for my approach. I meekly asked him if I could land first because of my fuel situation. He gracefully pulled his twin engine airplane into a 360 turn to the right to give me additional room. By the time I set down at the self-serve pump, the fuel light was shining brightly. I thanked the pilot of the plane again after he rolled out from his landing.

It was still 104°F/40°C most of the way home — an hour-long flight in growing darkness. I’m accustomed to flying at night — I think every pilot should be comfortable with that skill — so it wasn’t a big deal. It was also very smooth; hardly any wind until we neared Wickenburg.

The only problem was the dust that had evidently gotten into my eyes during the last bit of shooting. It really messed up my contact lenses.

What do you think?