Adventures as a Tour Pilot: The Screaming 8-Year-Old

Makes me glad I never had kids.

The title of this post says most of what I want to report, so I won’t stretch this one out longer than it needs to be.

About two weeks ago, I booked a Phoenix Tour with a woman. The flight, which lasts 50 to 60 minutes, circles the Phoenix area and includes incredible views of north Phoenix, Peoria, Lake Pleasant, Glendale, downtown Phoenix, Scottsdale, and Deer Valley. The tour was for her grandson, who was celebrating his eighth birthday. I wasn’t available on the day she wanted to book, so she booked for the following Saturday, a week after the boy’s birthday. Cost of the flight: $495 plus tax for up to 3 people.

I met the family at 11 AM sharp yesterday. It was Grandma (who booked and paid for the flight), Grandpa, Mom, and The Kid. Everyone looked happy and excited. Mom reported that The Kid was so excited that he’d run into the car, still carrying the TV remote.

I walked them all out to the ramp where the helicopter was waiting. I’d just repositioned it there from its hangar. Three small airplanes were parked nearby. They were surrounded by kids. Apparently, some lucky Boy Scouts were getting airplane rides.

We reached the helicopter but The Kid stopped eight feet short. “I don’t think I want to go,” he said softly.

Over the next ten minutes, that small statement ballooned into yelling and screaming tantrum that even included knee shaking (think cartoons, possibly Sponge Bob). I struggled to complete a safety briefing, wondering why I was bothering. Surely this wasn’t going to happen. But Mom and Grandpa climbed in, leaving Grandma to reason with The Kid. A Sheriff Department helicopter landed on the pad next to ours and I hustled them to the other side of my helicopter for added safety. The other helicopter hot-fueled while Mom climbed out and managed to convince The Kid to board.

I did not want the child beside me. Normally, an eight-year-old is fine up front — hell, I had my first helicopter ride at age 8! — but this kid was a complete unknown. What if he grabbed the controls or opened his door? I wanted no part of that. So he sat in back beside his mother. Grandpa sat up front beside me.

I reached back and locked The Kid’s door.

The Sheriff Department helicopter lifted into a hover, then took off. The kid screamed. “DON’T TILT! I DON’T WANT TO TILT!”

I assured him I wouldn’t tilt, wondering how I was going to make turns without banking.

I started the engine. The Kid started yelling again. He didn’t want to go. He wanted to get out. I left Mom to reason with him. I listened to the ATIS and tower as I warmed up. I chatted with Grandpa, trying hard to ignore the monster sitting behind him.

The Kid refused to put on his headset. I was kind of glad about that. I wouldn’t have to hear him.

I called the tower and got a clearance. I picked up into a hover. The Kid started screaming that he wanted to go down.

“Is he okay?” I asked. I repeated that question four times. Mom and Grandpa ignored me. So I took off.

I wanted to depart to the north, across the runways. My instructions had been to depart to the south, turn to the left (The Kid’s side), and cross the runway midfield at 2000 feet. Normally, I’d make the 500 foot climb in a tight climbing turn. Because of The Kid’s tilt restriction, that was not an option. Instead, I swung way wide in a gradual climbing turn. The kid was still screaming, but I had managed to tune him out. I leveled out over the terminal and crossed the runway at exactly 2000 feet MSL, heading north.

We were a half mile north of the airport when The Kid’s tantrum switch apparently turned to the OFF position. Unfortunately, his screaming switch was apparently non-functioning, because he kept yelling at the top of his lungs. “LOOK! A TRUCK! LOOK! WATER!”

At least he wasn’t afraid anymore.

I headed out toward Lake Pleasant. New River and a bunch of streams were flowing. After a few minutes, The Kid put on his headset and I now had his screaming piped directly into my ears, courtesy of the voice-activated intercom. “LOOK! A COW! LOOK! A STREAM!”

I had two options. I could flick the pilot isolation switch and rudely ignore him and my other two passengers or I could turn down the intercom volume. I elected to turn down the volume. Sadly, I could still hear him.

We circled over the New Waddell Dam and headed south toward Glendale Stadium. I chatted with Grandpa. Somewhere along the way The Kid removed his headset again. Whew!

Things had pretty much settled down and it looked as if the tour would finish fine. I actually forgot about my troublesome passenger, who was still pointing out things he saw on the ground to Mom. But then I made a fatal error. I turned to the left.

My normal tour route takes me past Glendale’s University of Arizona Stadium (where the Cardinals play) along the Loop 101 and turns to the left at I-10 south of there. I normally bank at least 15 degrees to make the turn. Since I thought the kid was okay, I did the turn as I usually did.

And he started screaming again.

I changed my route. Instead of making another left turn to go up Central Avenue — normally the highlight of the trip — I told Phoenix Tower I would transition east along McDowell. That removed two 90° turns from the tour without significantly changing the total time in flight. The kid calmed down a bit along this 5-10 minute stretch. But when I turned left at the Loop 101 to head toward Scottsdale, he started screaming all over again.

Fuck this, I thought to myself.

Instead of overflying Scottsdale Airport (as I usually do), I punched Deer Valley’s identifier into my GPS. I adjusted my course, told Scottsdale Tower I’d transition through the southwest edge of their airspace, and cut about 5 minutes out of the tour time.

By this time, the kid was out of control. Any movement whatsoever was enough to get him screaming. We flew right past his house — Mom and Grandpa both saw it — but The Kid was more interested in screaming his brains out than looking.

I came in for a landing at the helipad where we’d started 45 minutes before. Even when we were on the ground cooling down, The Kid was acting up. He insisted we were moving backwards.

I shut down, got the blades stopped, and walked them back to the terminal building. Grandpa handed me some folded up paper money as he shook my hand. “Thanks for your patience,” he said.

While I appreciated the $20 tip, it would take a lot more money — and a gag — for me to take that kid flying ever again.

9 thoughts on “Adventures as a Tour Pilot: The Screaming 8-Year-Old

  1. Maria,

    You have alot more restraint and patience than I would have. I do not have kids and stories like this really confirm that I made a good choice. I am not saying I might regret it later in life, but I am content for now!

  2. The things you are going to have to do to pay for that RV ;) Fortunately I couldn’t have kids because I just don’t have the patience. I probably would have lost my temper and scraped the flight. Kudos to you for keeping your wits about you.

    • Donald: It was the Grandfather who made it possible. He was really enjoying the flight and seemed to be able to tune out the kid. I like to think that I was doing the flight for him.

  3. You are such a good communicator that my teeth were on edge reading your account. Did that child really ask for it or were the adults knocking themselves out to love him their way?

    Having been a fearful child myself I could also identify with him. It was I who talked members of my family into taking a helicopter ride at a Fairgrounds many moons ago and then feeling annoyed with their nervous fears while I thoroughly enjoyed myself!

    • Here’s the prequel: The family had taken him to an airshow in 2009 and he made a big fuss over wanting to do a helicopter ride there. For some reason, they didn’t do it. The grandmother decided it would make a great gift. The kid was happy and excited right up to the point when we got to the helicopter. Then he slowly began to freak out.

      In retrospect, the kid may have had a problem. He seemed normal enough, but who knows? Or it could have been his way of trying to get attention and the family was so used to it that they could ignore it. That’s how it seemed. But then again, he could have REALLY been afraid and they were so used to ignoring his nonsense that they treated it as business as usual. The old “boy who cries wolf” situation.

      No matter WHY he was like that, I don’t think his family should have gone through with the flight. If they knew there might be problems, they should never have booked. But once problems developed, they should have tried to back out. I would have gladly refunded their money. I’ve never seen a kid act up so much before a flight. And I’ve never had a nervous kid not calm down once we were airborne. They ALWAYS calm down once the novelty wears off and they realize how smooth the flight is.

      If the kid has problems, he should get help and the family should stop trying to ignore them. It’s simply not fair to the other people (like me) dragged into the situation. I could easily imagine him acting up in a restaurant or store. Clearly, it was all about him — at least in his mind.

  4. Love the story. I’m not so sure I would have taken off in the first place with a potentially unstable child. (He sounded a lot like me as a child. I cried for them to stop the kiddie Ferris Wheel at Coney Island.) You’re definitely a trooper! From a business standpoint, do you think people would be less inclined to book trips if they knew they could possibly become the subject of a blog post describing in detail what a pain in the ass they were? Do you decide that you will never fly with that client again, and hope that the story will serve as a code of conduct for future clients? Or do you just write what you want and let people deal with their feelings about it on their own?

What do you think?