An interesting photo gig.
I got the call about a month ago. From France. A photographer with a name I couldn’t easily pronounce wanted to photograph Quartzsite, AZ from the air during its busiest time of year. This year, that’s January 19 through 27.
Quartzsite, in case you’re not familiar with the place, is a small desert community about 20 miles east of the Colorado River, right on Interstate-10. During the summer, it’s a glorified truck stop, with gas stations, a handful of fast food joints, and a few of the necessities of everyday life for the 1,000 or so people who live there year-round. But in the winter, it’s home to numerous events, including gem and mineral shows, a huge RV show, and flea markets. That’s when the snowbirds flock to the place, filling in the otherwise empty campgrounds and spilling over to the millions of acres of BLM land around the town. The population swells to an estimated 100,000 people, most of whom are living in extravagant RVs and motorhomes.
From the air, this is simply amazing. Quartzsite is nestled in a valley between two small mountain ranges. I-10 cuts through it east/west while route 95 between Parker and Yuma cuts through it north/south. The town is a concentrated sea of white rooftops. Scattered all around, in every direction, grouped in the BLM-approved camping areas, are more white rooftops, sometimes arranged in circles or rows.
Sadly, I don’t have a single photo of the place that shows it off.
Back to France
I gave the Frenchman a quote. He’d have to pay for me to fly to Quartzsite, fly around there for his photos, and fly back. We estimated that at about 3 hours: 1 hour ferry, 1 hour photo shoot, and then 1 hour ferry. At $495/hour, which is my current going rate, it wasn’t going to be cheap. He didn’t book, but that didn’t surprise me. About 90% of the calls I get are from folks who are “fishing.”
Two weeks went by. I got CCed on a message to a Frenchman from Robinson Helicopter, Inc. They told him that the closest Robinson helicopter operator to Quartzsite was Flying M Air. In other words, me.
Another week went by. I got an e-mail message from the Frenchman. He wanted to know about dates and weather. I told him that the weather in Arizona this time of year is usually perfect. He tentatively scheduled a flight for January 25. But since he wouldn’t provide a credit card number, I wouldn’t guarantee it. If someone else put up a card for the same date and time, he’d be out of luck.
The Gig Happens — Suddenly
On Saturday morning, I got a call from Etienne. He was in Arizona. He wanted to do the flight that afternoon because the weather forecast for midweek wasn’t very good. Was I available?
Oddly enough, Mike and I had planned to go camping in Quartzsite that weekend but had decided, just the night before, to skip the overnight trip and just drive out there for the day on Sunday. So I was available after another flight booked for 10 AM.
Etienne picked up an RV from a rental place in Mesa, AZ and drove it up to Wickenburg. He parked it in the airport parking lot. We had a pow-wow to go over details on timing. Then he went into town to book a hotel room — don’t ask me why; I don’t understand either. At 3:15 PM, he was back.
We took off to the west with coats on and his door off.
I’d filled the helicopter’s fuel tanks to capacity. That’s close to 50 gallons of fuel. At my normal rate of consumption, that would last close to three hours. Unfortunately, we were expecting to be out for a full three hours. There’s no fuel between Wickenburg and Quartzsite. The closest fuel is Blythe, which is 20 minutes farther west. If we went there for fuel, it would add 40 minutes to his flight time. It would also have us crossing through very dark desert — and over several mountain ranges — long after sunset.
So I filled an approved fuel container with another 5+ gallons of fuel and tucked it into the back passenger area. There were two paved runways between Wickenburg and Quartzsite, as well as numerous other landing zones. If fuel got low on the way back, we could land, shut down, add 5 gallons, start up, and get back. Of course, if we spent a lot more time in Quartzsite than we expected to, we’d have to detour to Blythe anyway. Five gallons was only about 15-20 minutes of fuel.
The flight out to Quartzsite was as boring as I remembered it. Etienne had asked me to show him Arizona. I warned him that the ferry flight didn’t have much of interest, but he assured me it would be interesting to him. I think that by the time we were on our way back, he agreed with me. The landscape is mostly flat, empty desert, with the exception of a few small communities, some of which have farms. We cruised over all of this about 700 feet off the ground, doing exactly 100 knots. Why 100? Because with a door off, that’s my maximum airspeed.
We crossed over two tiny mountain ranges: one just west of Salome and the other just west of the intersection of Route 60 (which we’d followed) and I-10. After the second one, Quartzsite came into view. We’d been in the air less than 50 minutes.
Etienne had envisioned a shot that included mountains in the foreground, Quartzsite in the middle, and the low-lying sun in the background. Problem: the mountains to the east that he was thinking of for his foreground were simply too far away to make the shot work. So we headed into town to see what he could do.
Thus began at least 90 minutes of aerial photography over Quartzsite.
At Etienne’s request, I started by climbing up to about 3,000 feet over the town. I circled the town several times while he shot down at it with two different cameras, each sporting a monster zoom lens. I spiraled down to get closer to the town while he snapped away. Then we flew up and down along the freeway and the BLM camping areas. Then out to the west, to get a shot of the town behind a sunlit mountain. Then lower over the camping areas, with me flying sideways at about 10-20 knots groundspeed so he could shoot right down at the campers.
By this time, most folks had returned from their day at the markets and were gathered around within their “circled wagon” compounds. It was impossible for them not to see and hear us, so there were a lot of people waving up at us. I think each group was competing to be included in the photos.
We broke off from that and started following campers on the Interstate or side roads as they moved to their campsites. We must have followed five different rigs, following above and behind them. I’m sure none of them realized they were being followed. (It reminded me of that scene in Goodfellas where Ray Liotta’s character is followed by a helicopter as he drives around the city.) Etienne was especially interested in rigs that included motorhomes pulling cars. We hit the jackpot when we found a motorhome pulling a pickup that had an ATV in the back of it. There must have been $400,000 worth of equipment down there, driving out into the dusty desert to dry camp.
We did some more shots all over town as the sun started sinking to the west. Etienne got some really interesting shots at the dry camping campground southeast of the I-10/95 intersection.
The sun finally disappeared, but Etienne still snapped photos.
My fuel situation was interesting: I was showing 1/3 tanks of fuel. If we broke off soon, we might still make it to Wickenburg without stopping.
I think Etienne read my mind. He announced that we were finished. I swung out to my right, added power, and headed back. I’d already programmed the GPS for Wickenburg and I made a beeline for it.
The flight back was almost as boring as the flight out had been. The only difference was the moon and the fuel situation.
The moon was nearly full, out in front of us to the east. Each time I passed over a body of water — the Central Arizona Project canal, a cattle tank, etc. — I’d see a quick flash of light as it caught the moon’s reflection. Beautiful.
The fuel situation kept me on edge, wondering if we’d make it all the way back. We were still excellent shape as we flew over the first paved strip at Salome. About 20 minutes later, we were still in reasonably good shape as we passed over the second paved strip at Aguila. And when we landed at Wickenburg in the darkness, we still had fuel and no low fuel light.
When I finally shut down, I was amazed to note that we’d flown 3.3 hours on the full tanks of fuel. Based on what we had left in the tanks — at least 5 gallons because of what the gauges said and there was no low fuel indicator — I figure we burned only about 13-14 gallons per hour. My normal burn rate is closer to 17 gallons per hour. But one look in the Pilot Operating Manual confirmed what I vaguely remembered: maximum range speed is 100 knots. So the fact that my speed was limited by the door being off helped us save fuel.
Since the airport was dark and the FBO office was closed, Etienne and I finished up the paperwork in his rented camper. He was shivering; sitting beside that open door all the way back had chilled him to the bone. I went back to the helicopter, put the door back on, and closed it up for the night.