One Gig, One Dozen Off-Airport Landing Zones

Testing my skills out in the desert.

For the sake of my clients’ privacy, I won’t go into too many details about where I flew or why I flew there. But I will say this: it was the most challenging day of flying I had in a long time.

LZ 3
LZ 4
LZ 5
LZ 6
LZ 8

No, I wasn’t chasing desert racers or boats on Lake Havasu. And I wasn’t flying around a bunch of photographers who don’t speak much English. I was flying miners around their claims in the desert mountains.

Their claims spanned a mountainous area at least 80 square miles in size. My job was to show them the sites from the air and, if they wanted to land and there was a suitable landing zone, land so they could check things out on the ground. Of course, all this was going on 100+ nautical miles from my Wickenburg base at about 500 to 1500 feet elevation on an 85°F day. And since I had three passenger seats, each flight had three passengers.

Fortunately, there were no fatties. (Well, maybe one.)

I started collecting photos of the landing zones but gave up after the seventh one. I tried to send each photo to TwitPic as I took them, but I didn’t have cell phone service for most of the day. In fact, my BlackBerry’s battery nearly drained just searching for a signal all day. The doors are open on the helicopter in most of the photos because it was so damn sunny and hot. I left the doors wide open each time we stopped just to keep air flowing through the helicopter. Otherwise, we would have been baked.

I wish I’d brought a better camera with me. These photos are all from my BlackBerry. The one with the cactus flower is supposed to be artistic. I can pull off that kind of shot much better with my Nikon and a wide angle lens.

The landing zones ranged from smooth, almost level clearings to old dirt mining roads. Some spots were wide open; others were relatively tight. Some spots were definitely slopes. I hate slope landings. I mean I really hate slope landings. The fact that I did about 10 of them yesterday says a lot about what I’m willing to do for money. No, none of the slopes were too dangerous. I just prefer more level ground. And, near the end of the day when I was really tired and probably a bit dehydrated, I was having a lot of trouble making those damn slope landings. At one place we stopped, I tried four different spots before I found one I liked.

Some of the landing zones were quite close to the mine features my clients wanted to explore. Others weren’t. At two sites, my clients had quite a climb to get where they wanted. They didn’t seem to mind — which was nice of them. Some folks expect fancy one-skid landings on mountain sides — which they won’t get from me. These folks were my kind of people — “safety first,” the leader told me at the start of the day.

The weather was as close to perfect as you can get — if you don’t mind mid-March desert heat. Perfectly clear blue skies, with just enough of a breeze to keep us cool without making for sloppy low-speed flying.

My helicopter performed like a champ — despite the heat. The density altitude was about 4,000 feet for most of the day. I started the day with about 3/4 tanks of fuel, fully expecting to need at least one refueling stop. But since we shut down at nearly every landing zone, I didn’t burn much fuel.

The first round of flights started at 9 AM and went until about 2 PM. We took an hour for lunch. I was glad they brought enough for me, since we ate it right out in the desert where they’d left their trucks. (No restaurant for miles.) Then I made another round of flights, finishing up at about 5:15 PM.

Of course, I didn’t have enough fuel to get home and, when I reached the nearest airport, it was closed. So I had to call out for the fuel guy and pay an extra $25 to get my main tank topped off.

I got back to Wickenburg about 20 minutes after sunset. It was dark when I left my hangar and made my way home.

I slept very well.

What do you think?