Planning the flight, packing the helicopter.
Tomorrow, my “co-pilot” and I start our journey by helicopter from Wickenburg, AZ to Seattle, WA. If everything goes according to plan, Louis will be doing most of the flying while I sit back and enjoy the ride as a passenger seated in the pilot seat. I won’t fly from the right seat, but Louis, who is a certified flight instructor (CFI) has no qualms about doing so. In fact, he might even prefer it.
I plan on having my door off for at least a few legs of the flight so I can take photos of the interesting things we pass. I also have the POV.1 camera hooked up to the helicopter’s nose and hope to get some decent video.
There are at least three ways to make this trip. I’ve sketched them in on this map for reference:
- The direct route (red on the map) would take us northwest through Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and Oregon before hitting Washington state. I think it calculates out to 9 flying hours. The big problem with this route is that there’s nothing along the way — just a lot of barren desert. The airports are few and far between and the fuel stops are even more rare. In fact, if we went that way, we’d be basically flying from one fuel stop to the next with few, if any, other landing opportunities in between. If we had a problem and had to land off-airport, we’d be in the Middle of Nowhere (note the capitals — I’m talking about the actual place) and it could take a while to get help. Think Steve Fossett.
- The common route (for lack of a better identifier; green on the map) would take us west until we passed the southern end of the Sierra Mountains, then north over the pass at Tehatchapi or Grapevine into California’s Central Valley. That’s the route I have most experience with. The Central Valley isn’t terribly interesting after the first ten minutes of flight since the whole thing is just a bunch of farmland. My experience there has usually included some pretty dismal visibility with lots of haze that gets worse the higher you go until you pop out the top, where it’s crystal clear but you can’t really see the ground. If you stay low — maybe about 500 feet — you have to worry about towers and cropdusters appearing suddenly out of the haze. Beyond that, the flight crosses some small mountains on its way into western Oregon, crosses the Columbia River east of Hood River, and passes Mt. St. Helens on the west side. This route calculates out to about 10 hours of flight time.
- The scenic route (blue on the map) starts out the same as the common route with a trip west across the Arizona and California deserts. But it keeps going west near Grapevine, straight to the coast. It then pretty much hugs the coast all the way up to the middle of the Oregon Coast before heading northeast through Portland and then on to Seattle. Highlights of this trip include Hearst Castle (San Simeon), Monterey, Half Moon Bay, the Golden Gate (and San Francisco), Mendocino, etc. This route calculates out to just over 12 hours.
We’re planning on the scenic route. Of course, if visibility on the coast turns bad, we’ll head inland and wind up in the Central Valley anyway.
The flight plan for a trip like this might seem daunting, but as Louis pointed out, it’s just a series of shorter flights. I figure we can fly for about 3 hours on full tanks of fuel, so I like to plan my fuel stops no less than 2-1/4 hours and no more than 2-3/4 hours apart.
There are lots of good fuel planning tools on the Web for small aircraft. 100LL.com is one of my favorites, although AirNav, which I don’t particularly care for because of its commercial policies — when I ran the Wickenburg FBO, AirNav would not include us unless we paid to be included, so it’s not complete — usually has more up-to-date pricing.
- Use the WAC to get an idea of the route you want to fly.
- Identify possible obstacles like Restricted areas and mountain ranges that might get in your way.
- Identify possible refueling airports.
- List the identifiers of the airports along your route of travel.
- Use Duats to create a flight plan with the airports you noted.
- Check the amount of time the route will take to fly.
- If necessary, adjust the route to stretch it out or shorten it up to within 20 minutes (for a helicopter) of your expected endurance. That becomes a flight leg.
- Use AOPA’s Airport Directory to check for facilities at potential fuel stop airports at the end of the route. (Restaurants are important.)
- Use 100LL.com or AirNav to get the best pricing for fuel at the fuel stops.
- Repeat this process for each leg of the trip, being sure to consider alternates along the way.
I figure this 12+ hour trip will consist of six legs. The first is Wickenburg to Apple Valley or Hesperia, CA. (Hesperia has much better fuel prices.) The second is from there to San Luis Obispo on the coast, which has good fuel prices and a restaurant. Next is from there to Healdsburg, CA, just north of San Francisco in Sonoma Valley. Good fuel prices and not far from our coastal route. That’s about as far as I’ve gotten as I type this. We’ll plan the rest later today.
Some other things to consider include:
- Detours because of weather. Weather is a wildcard when you fly up the California coast. We have to be prepared to detour inland if the fog rolls in.
- Places to spend the night. We’ll stop somewhere in northern California — hopefully with a hotel within walking distance or a courtesy/crew car we can borrow for the night. Then Portland, because I have business there the next morning.
- Emergency landings. I follow roads for a reason. If we have to make an unexpected off-airport landing, I want to do it someplace relatively close to a road, where we can hitch a ride to a place we can find help.
- Water crossings. My helicopter does not have floats. That means we need to be within gliding distance of land or have floatation devices on board. The only place I expect that to be a problem is at the Golden Gate. I’m packing two life jackets and I expect us to wear them during coastal flying.
Other Things to Bring
In addition to our luggage for the 3-day trip, I’m also bringing a few extras for the helicopter:
- Blade tie-downs. We’ll be tying down the blades each night. I have a collapsable step-stool that’s just high enough for me to reach the blades. Louis is very tall, so it should be perfect for him.
- Oil. I usually carry a spare quart, but I’ll bring along four quarts on this trip. I expect to use 2 or 3 of them.
- Ground handling wheels. I don’t usually bring them because they’re so darn big and heavy, but they’ll be on board for this trip. I’ll also be bringing a custom front wheel that Walt at N & W Helicopter Wheels made for me.
- Bubble cover. I’ll probably use this to cover the helicopter so I don’t have to remove the camera on its nose. Out of sight, out of mind.
- Door cover. This is a fuzzy fabric cover I made for the doors on my old R22. I’ll bring one along to cover my door when I stow it in back during the flight. It’ll help protect the Plexiglas.
- Life jackets. See above.
- Small cooler with snacks and lots of water. I prefer chilled water over warm water, so I’m more likely to stay hydrated if I have the water on ice.
- iPod. Hey, it works with my audio system, so why not?
I’ll also have the usual collection of first aid and survival gear on board, as well as a complete set of charts and Airport/Facilities Directories for all the airspace we fly through.
Follow Me on Twitter!
I’ll have my Treo along and since it doesn’t interfere with the navigation equipment, I’ll be tweeting my progress. Look for the L: tweets — for example, L:Parker, AZ, L:Rice, CA. I might even send some pictures taken with the phone. The quality won’t be the best, but it should give you an idea of what we’re seeing. Just keep in mind that if I’m out of cell phone coverage area, the tweets might not appear in the proper order. If you follow along on a map, don’t think we’re zig-zagging around.
And, as you might expect, I’ll be blogging each night, with better quality photos to show off the highlights of the trip.
My Longest Cross-Country Flight So Far
This is my longest cross-country flight so far. Before this, my longest flight was to Placerville, CA, which I did twice; it took 6 hours in the R44. I’ve also gone as far northeast as Farmington, NM, which is about 4 hours away.
I’m extremely excited about the flight and despite forecasts of wind and hot temperatures, I’m really looking forward to it. I hope I have some good experiences to report here.