Joy-Flying on a Saturday Afternoon

It’s days like this when I feel very privileged.

I spent most of yesterday morning at my desk, editing videos I recorded the previous afternoon. It was boring, tedious work, made even more unpleasant by a stupid little nagging headache I’d had for more than 24 hours. In general, I was feeling under the weather and I couldn’t understand why. It was a nice day and I had most of the windows in my RV open for fresh air. Even Alex the Bird was behaving.

I worked on a book for a while, then decided I needed a break. I’d head into town and pick up a few groceries, along with an ice cream sundae. That would make me feel better.

The supermarket parking lot was unusually crowded. That’s when I realized it was Memorial Day Weekend. (One of the oddities of being a freelancer is being completely oblivious to things like weekends and holidays.) The parking lot was crowded and so was the store. I realized that many of the people shopping for their holiday weekend groceries were young people who were likely camped out at Crescent Bar.

View Quincy, WA in a larger map

Crescent Bar is a mostly manmade island extending down along the Columbia River just before it enters a gorge. There’s a campground, a few trailer parks, some condos, a golf course, boat ramps, and a cherry orchard (belonging to one of my clients) down there. On weekends, it’s a popular destination for water lovers.

Seeing these people filling their shopping carts with chips and salsa and hamburger buns gave me a brainstorm. Why not take a little flight down to the river and around Quincy Lakes? And maybe even past the Gorge Amphitheater? Hell, I was a helicopter pilot. I had a helicopter parked at an ag strip within sight of my RV. Why the hell wasn’t I flying it?

(For the record, one reason I wasn’t flying it is because it costs a fortune to fly and I’m not made of money — although too many people think I am. Still, occasionally I do need to treat myself to a flight that doesn’t have a “mission” attached to it. Today would be that day.)

So I drove back the RV, stowed my groceries, and hopped back in the truck. A while later, I was standing on the truck’s bed, gently pulling off the blade covers. After a quick preflight, I climbed on board, and started the engine. I did some paperwork while everything was warming up. Then I donned my headset, waved to the ag pilots who were hanging out by the office door, and took off.

Where I live in Quincy is a good 700 feet higher in elevation than the Columbia River. The river flows in a gorge carved out by massive ice age flooding. Quincy sits on a sort of shelf full of irrigated farmland; there’s another, higher shelf to the north covered with wheat fields. The area is fascinating from a geologic perspective. You can really appreciate it when you fly over and through it in a helicopter — which I’d done numerous times in the past two years. I like flying along the towering basalt cliffs and over the various formations formed by those floods.

I hooked up with the road and descended with it through a valley that dropped in steps down to the river. I was cruising at 110 knots. I slipped over the final step and descended down to about 200 feet over the river. There were lots of boats and jet skis speeding around. The campground was full. I circled a small island where some people were camped out, then sped off downriver.

Crescent Bar

I snapped this photo of the south end of Crescent Bar as I left the area. Quincy’s farmland is spread out on the shelf above the cliffs on the left side of this photo. (View a larger version in my photo gallery.)

Farther downriver, I swung to the east and climbed over the edge of the gorge. I sped over Dusty Lake, where Mike and I had gone hiking with Mike’s cousin Rick and his friend last year. A few fishermen stood on the southwest side of the lake and looked up at me as I zipped past. Then, dodging wires, I climbed back up to Quincy’s level and headed southwest. The Gorge Amphitheater was packed with cars, tents, and people. A show was going on. I kept my distance as I swooped past, then dropped behind the stage and headed back upriver over a rock shelf covered with ancient potholes. Then I was abeam Quincy Lakes again and chose another of the two flood-carved canyons to fly up.

Quincy Lakes

This is Ancient Lake, fed by a waterfall that, in turn, is fed by runoff irrigation water. Quincy’s farmland is spread out on the shelf beyond these cliffs. (View a larger version in my photo gallery.)

I zipped back over the farmland south of Quincy. I noticed that my GPS wasn’t working quite right — a restart was required to fix it — but I knew my way back to the ag strip without it. The ag pilots were just leaving when I touched down. I’d been out for just a half hour. My mood was considerably brightened and my headache was just about gone.

Because of a gusty little wind coming out of the west, flying wasn’t smooth enough to make the flight perfect, but it was good to get out and about. What I really like is flying on those windless mornings or afternoons, when the river is glassy, reflecting the cliffs and clouds. When it’s like that, I can fly low over the water and around the canyons in effortless control of the aircraft. That’s magic.

As you can see, I got two reasonably good photos of the area while I was flying. I used a Nikon Coolpix camera for these shots. Although I really don’t like the camera in general — it doesn’t seem to work as well as the Canon Powershots I had before it — it’s easy enough to use with one hand (my left) as I fly. I can’t really frame a shot — I literally point and shoot and hope for the best. On these shots, the light was low and soft enough to prevent glare through the cockpit bubble. I lucked out.

5 thoughts on “Joy-Flying on a Saturday Afternoon

  1. I’m in awe. You can fly a copter AND take pictures. And get the exposure spot on. In tricky light. Impressive.

    The one time I flew a helicopter, (piloted, not rode in) I realized I was completely uncoordinated. Anything that requires the independent movement of both hand and both feet and attention to a dozen different variables is far beyond my abilities!

    Well done!

    • Jeane: Oh, heck, the camera did all the work. I hold it in my left hand kind of awkwardly and can almost see the LCD panel in the back. I point it with one hand and press the shutter with my forefinger. Sometimes I get lucky. What your comment really tells me is that my camera is a lot better for the job than I think it is. Thanks, though!

      As for the two hands and feet thing…well, in cruise flight, I can release the collective, freeing up my left hand. Too bad I’m not left-handed.

    • Jason: I have three signed so far and at least one other promise to sign (whatever that’s worth). The first three-week contract starts on Saturday. I’m lined up with about 6 weeks of work so far. That’s about what I expected. If I get my last 3-week contract again this year, I’ll be very happy — but very surprised.

  2. Thanks for sharing this. Shooting form a helecoptor or hot air baloon is one of the things I allways wanted to do. Stunning shots, and a good read

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