We fly by small plane to Chandler to pick up my helicopter.
I brought my helicopter down to Williams-Gateway Airport (KIWA, commonly known as “Willie” around here) in Chandler, AZ the other day. My Robinson mechanic, Kelly, is based there. There were a few things I wanted him to take care of before mid-month when all hell breaks loose and I spend more time in the pilot seat than the seat in front of my computer. I wrote about that ferry flight here.
Although I was perfectly willing to let Kelly keep the helicopter until my next big gig, I picked up two smaller gigs for the weekend. And since Mike needed to be at Sky Harbor by 9 AM on Saturday for a flight to San Diego, it made sense for me to drive him down in my Toyota “airport car,” leave the car at Willie, and fly back. That would get me back to Wickenburg in time for the first gig.
That was the plan, anyway.
On Friday, Mike cancelled his plans to go to San Diego. I won’t go into why. It was supposed to be a day trip anyway, so it wasn’t a big deal. And his plane ticket, surprisingly, was fully refundable.
So I told him that he’d have to fly me down to Willie in his plane.
Mike’s one of two partners on a 1974 (I think) Grumman Tiger. It’s a beautiful little plane, immaculately cared for by its previous owner and Mike and his partner. I don’t know anything about planes but when I show it to someone who does, they’re always impressed. (The photo here shows Mike and his mom in the plane at Wickenburg about a year and a half ago.)
Sadly, the thing has become a sort of “hangar queen,” spending all of its time in the hangar and very little of it in the air. In fact, I don’t think it flew more than 20 hours in the past 12 months.
Mike’s always saying that he doesn’t have time to fly. On Saturday morning, with his travel plans swept away, he did. And he had a destination, too.
But Mike had never flown into Willie, which was on the opposite corner of the Phoenix Class Bravo airspace from us. So he decided to ask our friend Ray, a Mooney pilot who has taken me to Willie at least twice, to come with us. Ray, who will take advantage of any excuse to fly — even as a passenger — agreed to come.
The Flight Down
I sat in the back for the flight down. I busied myself with using my Treo to take photos as the flight progressed, immediately sending them to my TumbleLog from the plane. I did that until the Treo decided it wasn’t going to take photos anymore. (I don’t know what caused the problem, but after syncing with my computer, it recovered. Go figure.) Unfortunately, the PowerShot I usually keep in my purse is at Canon being repaired — I seem to be camera challenged these days — so the photos end abruptly as we reached the Estrella Mountains.
The first thing we all noticed after takeoff was the thermal inversion. It was at least 10°F cooler on the ground in Wickenburg than it was 2000 feet up. Because it was early — around 7:30 AM — it wasn’t that hot yet, so the inversion didn’t bother us.
The flight was smooth. Mike did the flying. Ray did the navigating.
Ray never flies directly to Willie. He usually flies a roundabout route that takes us past Buckeye (due south of Wickenburg) around the south end of the Estrella Mountains, past the south side of Chandler Airport’s airspace (that’s CHD), and into Willie. Once we even went all the way down to Casa Grande and the Sanford VOR. I don’t care how we go, as long as we get there.
Since Ray was navigating, we took Ray’s route.
The flight was uneventful. I do wish I had some photos of the landing, however. The tower landed us on Runway 12R while a Cessna took off from Runway 30C. I never saw a tower do that before.
Mike parked the plane right next to a large bizjet on the ramp in front of the terminal. A ramp guy came out as we started climbing out. He wanted to know how long we’d be there. Ten minutes, we assured him. Mike told he we’d come to pick up a helicopter.
“The red R44?” he asked.
I wondered how he knew but didn’t ask.
He escorted us into the terminal — everyone at Willie needs to be escorted if they don’t have an official ramp pass — and we made our way into the helicopter company’s office to pay my bill. Then we all walked to the hangar two buildings down where my helicopter was waiting. Unfortunately, the door to the interior of the hangar was locked and I didn’t have the combination for the keypad. At least I didn’t think I did. When we were unsuccessful at getting someone to open the door, I guessed at the combination. I got it right on the first try. Nothing like high security.
The helicopter company guy showed up as I was doing a quick preflight. Mike told him we were stealing the helicopter and I think he may have believed him for a moment. Then I produced the keys, which I’d gotten from the office, and finished up my preflight. Mike, the hangar guy, and I rolled it outside while Ray supervised. Then the hangar guy brought them back to Mike’s plane while I started the engine and warmed up.
The Race is On
Mike’s plane is faster than my helicopter. He can cruise at 130 knots, although he seldom flies faster than 110 or 120 knots. I can cruise at 110 knots, which I almost always do when I’m alone flying point to point. I suspected that I could beat them to Buckeye simply by taking a shorter route.
We’d both agreed to meet at Buckeye Airport, where fuel was about 50¢ a gallon cheaper than in Wickenburg. While I won’t usually fly out of my way to get a bargain on fuel, Buckeye was on one of my possible routes home — although I admit not the most direct. But I wasn’t going the way they were — around the south end of the Estrellas. I was going almost direct to Buckeye.
At Willie, helicopters use a different frequency to talk to the tower. I hover-taxiied to the edge of the Silver State ramp and requested a departure to the northwest. I immediately got clearance and took off. Mike was still on the ramp, engine running. I tuned into the frequency he’d use to talk to the tower — I didn’t know the ground frequency — and monitored it on my second comm. I was just exiting Willie’s airspace when I heard the tower clear him for departure. So I started with a 5 mile head start.
I was crossing I-10 north of Firebird Lake when the tower cleared him for a right turn. That put me at least 10 miles west of him.
The flight was uneventful. I flew south of South Mountain, crossed the Gila River, and passed over the top of the north end of the Estrellas. My route took me north of Chandler Airport and Stellar Airpark and south of Glendale and Goodyear Airports. I didn’t have to talk to a soul.
I tuned into Buckeye’s frequency early and made several attempts to raise Mike and Ray on the radio. I don’t know what frequency they were monitoring, but it wasn’t the one I was on.
There were jump planes at Buckeye, which is an active skydiving airport. I was coming in from the east, which is the side of the airport the jumpers land at. Hearing me on the radio worried the jump plane pilots. But I’m familiar with the operation and assured them I’d come in from north of I-10, thus avoiding the area completely. A jump plane taxiied into position for takeoff as the airport came into view. I landed on runway 17 moments after he departed and hover-taxiied to the fuel area.
Fueling at Buckeye
Buckeye has self-serve 100LL fuel, which is a good thing. It means you can get fuel 24 hours a day. It was partially because of this capability at Buckeye that I pushed Wickenburg so hard to get self-serve fuel when I ran the FBO there.
Unfortunately, the geniuses at Buckeye decided to shade the fuel pump with a shade structure about 10 feet tall. That’s right about the height of my main rotor blades. I have to get close enough for the hose to reach my fuel tanks but not close enough to hit the shade with my blades.
Once, in my R22, I didn’t park close enough. I had to restart the engine and move another two feet closer so the hose would reach.
So imagine this: I’m hover-taxiing into position at the fuel island. My main rotor blades are spinning at about 400 rpm. I’m moving forward very slowly about 3 feet off the ground, trying to estimate the distance between my blades and that damn shade. If the blades hit the shade, three things will happen: (1) ) my main rotor blades will be destroyed (and they cost $48K a pair), (2) the shade will be severely damaged, and (3) I will hit the ground hard and, if I’m unlucky, roll over and total the aircraft.
I got as close as I dared, set down, and started my shutdown procedure. When the blades came to a stop, I realized that I had about 10 feet to spare. And the hose does reach.
Next time I’m going to bring some paint with me and paint a mark on the pavement where my skid should line up.
I climbed out and went through the motions of introducing my credit card to the machine in the closet and telling it I wanted 30 gallons. Then I came out and did the pump thing. While I worked, a Cessna 172 landed and taxiied over to the ramp. Three big guys came out. One of them commented on the shade and the proximity of my main rotor blades to it.
I was finishing up when a flight instructor I know came out of the terminal building with a student. He told me that it’s very scary when helicopter flight students park at the pump because the wind kicks them around so much. He also said that the airport has an unpublished rule that says helicopters are supposed to park outside the fueling area, put wheels on, and roll into the area. That’s not an option for me, since I don’t carry ground handling wheels with me.
Mike and Ray landed a little while later. They parked on the ramp, since there’s only enough room at the fueling area for one aircraft and no one wants to park next to a helicopter.
Back to Wickenburg
I left Buckeye a short while later. One of the jump planes had come in for fuel and was waiting, engine running, on the ramp, effectively blocking my way. Since I won’t overfly other aircraft on departure, I had to go around him, over the dirt, to leave. I hope his window was open and that I blew a lot of dust in his cockpit. Jerk.
From Buckeye, I flew north, past new housing developments and into the open desert. I steered toward Vulture Peak, which I could clearly see in the distance. Wickenburg Airport is five miles north of this landmark, so aiming for it would take me directly home.
But when I reached the Hassayampa River, I got quite a surprise: there was water flowing in it. So I decided to make a detour and follow the river back to Wickenburg. I dropped down to about 150 AGL and followed the brown trickle northeast, curving to the left or right with the riverbed. I flew past people playing down there in 4WD trucks and quads and dirt bikes. I flew over a cow with a calf that couldn’t have been more than 3 days old. I flew past a bunch of people camping out in the sand. I climbed to cross power lines, then dropped back down as the riverbed approached the rocky hills of the Morristown area. When houses started lining the cliffs, I climbed up to a respectable 500 feet AGL and followed the river into town.
If you’re interested in what all this looks like on a chart, here’s one for you. The red line is my flight path, the blue one is Mike and Ray’s. I know the lines are kind of wiggly, but I just drew them using a trackpad. Wickenburg is the airport in the upper left corner, Buckeye is in the lower left corner, and Willie is in the lower-right corner.
My passengers arrived in Wickenburg just as I did. We had a nice tour of the town and they got some great photos of their property from the air. By noon, both Mike’s plane and my helicopter were tucked away in their hangar and I was hard at work on Chapter 17 of my Leopard book.