Flying Cheaper from Wickenburg

People will take the long drive to save a few bucks.

For the fourth time this summer, a Flying M Air customer has opted to drive from the Phoenix area up to Wickenburg just to take a helicopter flight with me. That’s over an hour of drive time each way.

You’d think I might be flattered, but I’m not. They’ve all done it for practical reasons, namely, to save money.

It’s Cheaper from Wickenburg

Downtown PhoenixMy tours out of the Phoenix area — including Scottsdale, Deer Valley, and Glendale — start at $795 for up to three people. That’s not per person; it’s per flight. (It costs the same for me to fly no matter how many I have on board, so why screw around with complex per-person pricing and minimum passenger numbers?) That price will get you a great 50-60 minute tour of the entire Phoenix area, including a flight right down Central Avenue at building rooftop level.

The Phoenix tour is a relatively popular tour in the winter months, when Phoenix and Scottsdale attract visitors who aren’t trying to cash in on low summertime hotel rates. But in the summer, most of my business — including tours out of Phoenix — dries up. I’m glad because I really do hate flying when it’s 100+° outside and the thermals over the desert are putting invisible potholes in my path. (This is my last summer in Wickenburg, folks.)

N630ML in FlightBut since I’m based in Wickenburg and I don’t have to fly anywhere to do a tour from Wickenburg, my prices out of Wickenburg are considerably lower. For example, I can do a 25-minute tour of the area for only $195 for up to three people. (Sign up soon; the price is jumping to $225 when the 2007/2008 season starts in October.) I offer short tours like that in Wickenburg in an effort to provide a service that locals can afford. But apparently the folks who find my brochures down in Phoenix — and there seem to be an awful lot of them — are willing to trek up here in their rental cars to take the shorter tour.

Making the Long Drive More Pleasant

While I appreciate their business and am glad to save them money, I feel a little bad that I’ve let them make the long drive, especially in the summer. Wickenburg is operating at half speed in the summertime, with fewer people around and many businesses closed for the summer. I don’t want them to drive all the way up here just for me. I want them to get a little taste of Wickenburg before making the long drive back.

I also want them to make a pleasant drive. So I start off by giving them directions from Phoenix. I tell them not to follow Google Maps or MapQuest driving directions. Those driving directions take them up Grand Avenue (Route 60) from its intersection with either Loop 101 in Glendale or I-17 in Phoenix. Grand Avenue seems to have a traffic light every 500 feet. The drive up here following those directions would easily take 2 frustrating hours.

N630MLInstead, if they’re anywhere near I-17 or Loop 101, I send them to I-17 north and tell them to get off on Carefree Highway (Route 74). Head west for about 35 miles on a traffic light free, two-lane road that goes past Lake Pleasant and through some beautiful and still pristine Sonoran desert landscape. Lake Pleasant’s overlook makes a nice stop on the way or on the way back, I tell them. At the end of Route 74, make a right on Grand Avenue and drive 10 more miles to Wickenburg. Go through three traffic lights. About 2 miles past the third traffic light is the airport, on the right. I’ll be waiting by the red helicopter, I add.

Questions from the Visitors

When they arrive, I usually get questions. The one I get most often is, “What do people all the way out here do for a living?”

I tell them that most folks are retired. I also mention the treatment facilities and guest ranches in town, which are year-round and seasonal employers. I then tell them that my husband drives 72 miles each way to get to work in Phoenix every day.

“Why do you live up here?” they counter.

I tell them that when we moved to Wickenburg ten years ago, it was a nice little town where everyone knew everyone else. There was lots of open space and many people had horses. It really appealed to us after living so long in the New York metro area.

Some of them catch my use of past tense. “Was? What about now?”

“Things change,” I tell them. “They tell me you can’t stop progress.”

Making the Long Drive Worth It

Then I give them my safety briefing and walk them out to the helicopter. My door is off to keep the air flowing into the cockpit — the vents just don’t cut it when the Arizona sun is blazing down on a summer day. I strap them in and show them how to use the doors. Then I climb in and start up. We leave their doors open until the helicopter is warmed up and ready to go. Then I watch them shut them and test each one to make sure it’s really closed.

Downtown WickenburgWe go for a flight around the area and I point out the three main guest ranches (which are closed for the summer), Vulture Mine (which is closed for the summer), Downtown Wickenburg, the Hassayampa River Preserve (which has limited hours in the summer), the river (which may or may not be flowing; usually not), and Box Canyon. If it’s a weekend, they’re usually thrilled to see people driving quads and trucks down in the narrow slot canyon where the water always flows. They’re always impressed by some of the larger homes on the south and northeast sides of town, especially the one with the heliport and the big yellow house that looks so unusual here. We sometimes see cows from the air, but seldom see anyone on horseback. It’s just too darn hot in the summer.

We land at the airport and they’re happy. My passengers are always happy. I think that’s the most rewarding part of being a helicopter pilot — having happy passengers at the end of every flight.

Taking Care of Business

We go into the terminal’s air conditioned comfort to cool off and settle up the bill. I pull out the brochure for the Desert Caballeros Western Museum and urge them to visit if they have time. “It doesn’t look like much from the street,” I warn them, “But it’s incredible inside. Two floors of exhibits and western art.”

If it’s near lunchtime, I recommend some local restaurants, usually Screamers for a great burger or Anita’s for vast quantities of American-style Mexican food at good prices. If it’s dinner time, I recommend House Berlin, our local German restaurant. Henry Wickenburg was German, I tell them. (A white lie; he was actually Prussian but Germany didn’t exist back then.)

Then I watch them leave. I cool off for another ten minutes or so, chattering with whoever is on duty at the airport terminal to pass the time, trying not to make a nuisance of myself. Then I go back out and put the helicopter away in its hangar.

What do you think?