A Desert Flying Gig: Day One

The first day of a gig for a regular client doesn’t go exactly as planned.

The initial request for nearly a week’s worth of work for a regular client came about two weeks ago. I checked my calendar; it was wide open. I penciled them in. Then I reminded my contact that I’d spent far more time waiting than flying during the last two jobs I’d done for them. I couldn’t keep the helicopter offline from other work for them unless I flew at least as many hours as I waited — or charged a waiting fee.

She got back to me the same day. It would be two days: just Tuesday and Thursday. And she’d get back to me with the exact times I would be needed so I could plan my days accordingly.

I felt good about that. I’d been flying for the client pretty steadily for about four years — perhaps four jobs a year. The work was unusual and rather challenging at times. A friend who filled in for me once when I wasn’t available said he’d never do it again. That may have been partly because it’s in a remote place out in the desert about 20 flying miles from my home in Wickenburg. My friend lives in Phoenix.

Of course, my helicopter doesn’t live in Wickenburg anymore either. It spends part of its life in the Phoenix area, 30 minutes away by air or an hour away by car. There isn’t enough business in Wickenburg to keep it there.

But this client doesn’t mind paying me to bring it up to them and I’m usually glad to get the work.

I got an update via email the next day. It outlined a schedule that would have me there from 8 AM to at least 3 PM on Monday through Thursday. I felt doubtful as I entered the times for each day on my calendar.

I brought the helicopter up to Wickenburg on Sunday. I’d topped off the tanks in Phoenix and they were still full enough that I wouldn’t need more fuel.

I parked it on one of the two west end helispots that had been painted at one end of the jet parking area at my request nearly ten years before. Back then, there were five helicopters operating regularly out of Wickenburg: a LifeNet medevac helicopter based at the airport, my little R22, and three Hughes 500 models owned by three guys who lived in town and had more money to burn than I did. Since then, LifeNet moved out of town, I’d graduated to an R44 and then moved the helicopter out of town, a Hughes 500C moved out of town, and a Hughes 500D was sold. With the addition of a little Schweitzer 300, there are only two helicopters left in town. I could tell you more about the slow death spiral of life in Wickenburg, but it really isn’t worth wasting words on.

Day 1

I was at the airport first thing Monday morning, untying the helicopter’s blades, doing a preflight, and getting ready to go. It had dropped into the high thirties overnight and was in the 40s at 7:15 AM. The sun had just come up about a half hour before. I could feel its warmth through the cockpit bubble as I settled into my seat and got ready to start the engine.

Six seconds of priming after a night out in the cold — that was my estimate. I gave it just that, then pushed the starter button, holding the mixture knob ready to push in. Seven would have been better, I realized as I coaxed it to life. The engine caught; I pushed the mixture to full rich; I turned on the switches for the clutch, strobe, and alternator; and I modulated the throttle to keep the engine RPM as close to 55% as I could while the tightening belts tried to drag the engine down. The blades started to spin. The belt squealing sound I’d grown accustomed to on every startup for the past seven years faded and ceased. I brought the throttle down a bit and the RPMs settled to just under 60%.

I turned on the radio and GPS. A twin had come in while I walked out to the helicopter; it was parked in front of the terminal building, effectively blocking any other aircraft that might want to come into the jet parking area. Probably just a drop off or pick up. I punched my destination waypoint into the GPS. The clutch light went out and I brought the RPMs up to 68% for warmup.

Warming up an R44 means waiting for all engine gauges to be in the green. Oil temperature can be a bit slow on a very cold day — the kind of day when the oil drips off the dipstick life taffy when you check it. It wasn’t that cold and the oil temperature was in the green quickly. That left the slow gauge: cylinder head temperature (CHT). The gauge was new; I’d replaced the old one after one too many flights with it sticking in the cold position longer than just a minute or so. As a Part 135 operator, everything on the helicopter has to be in full working order, so having a finicky gauge was not an option. It cost $466 for the gauge and labor to replace it. The new gauge indicated warmup a lot quicker than the old one ever did — even when new. On a cold day, it cuts 2 to 3 minutes off my warmup time.

Another twin — a sky something? — called turning downwind as I throttled up to 75% RPM, did a mag check and a needle split. All good. I checked the doors to make sure they were closed and loosened the friction on the controls while scanning the sky for the arrival. Then I got on the radio and made my call:

“Wickenburg traffic, helicopter Six-Three-Zero-Mike-Lima on the west end helipads departing to the west. Looking for the downwind traffic.”

I caught sight of him rather low as he spoke: “We’re abeam the approach end of runway Two-Three. There’s a Columbia about ten minutes behind us.”

“Zero-Mike-Lima has you in sight. Departing to the west.” I’d picked it up into a hover as I spoke and turned 90 degrees to scan for other traffic. Then I just pushed the cyclic forward and took off.

The twin called final a minute or so later. Then the Columbia came on the radio, 15 miles west. I reported just leaving the airport, westbound, and that I’d stay at or below 3,000 feet, which would put me no higher than 600 feet above the ground. If the Columbia was that low, I was probably the least of his problems.

The sun at my back, I aimed for a tilted mountain range I could see off in the distance. The flight was over very familiar ground. A few hills, a few cattle tanks, some cattle. A ranch outpost with a small dirt strip. No homes, no paved roads. The kind of land that shocks city dwellers the first time they see it. Especially when they realize how vast and empty it is.

The desert was flat for most of the way, reminiscent of the sea floor that it had once been. The ground was a light sand color, studded with creosote and mesquite bushes. In some places, thin winding channels had been cut into the desert floor by the movement of water after heavy rains; they looked like so many varicose veins scarring the landscape. I’d once overflown this area after the remnants of a hurricane had dumped eight inches of rain in a day; several inches of standing water had reflected sunlight back into the sky, mile after mile.

I kept about 400 feet above the ground for the first ten miles or so. There were power lines up ahead — tall towers with multiple strands of thick wires that were remarkably difficult to see sometimes. I didn’t like to fly low until I passed them. Once they were behind me, I dropped 200 feet, skirting over the desert at 110 knots. Here and there, a rock outcropping rose 50 feet or so off the sandy desert floor. Tall saguaro cacti threw long shadows in the early morning light.


Ahead, I saw my destination — a rag-tag group of weather-worn wooden buildings at the base of the tilted mountain. Completely off the grid, it had been built years ago on the site of an old mine as a mining museum.

Number 7The original owner was apparently obsessed with collecting old mining and farming equipment — I can’t imagine a larger collection anywhere else in the world. It’s mostly heavy metal stuff made of iron so thick that even the rust can’t hurt it. White numbered boards precariously attached to some of the more interesting items serve as reminders of the walking tour visitors were encouraged to take.

But there’s more than just old mining and farming equipment. There’s a row of buildings set up as an old western town with a wooden boardwalk. A cafe, “opera house,” print shop display, blacksmith display, and firehouse complete with circa 1950s firetruck makes up the downtown. There’s a chapel overlooking the desert and a huge, three-story hotel at the far end of town. The whole place is powered by solar cells and a diesel generator.

The place changed hands and is now leased to an outfit trying to run it as a western destination. Trouble is, no one wants to come there. Even with horses and a real cowboy, there’s not enough to attract even the most hardcore western enthusiast. They’d rather see the Grand Canyon or Sedona or stay in a Phoenix resort. The place mostly plays host to marriage encounters run by church groups in small cities throughout central Arizona.

And my client.

My client has connections to the owner and has been using the place as a headquarters for corporate retreats and product testing. They invite clients, they show off their products. And they ask me to come on out to help them test their products.

I won’t go into detail here. Let’s just say that they produce high-tech wireless networking equipment with a specific non-consumer application. They mount stuff in my helicopter and I take their techs flying while they study computer screens and read off packet information. Sometimes we do photo flights. Sometimes I give people rides.

I crossed the only paved road along the way and started slowing down when I was still a mile out. I didn’t bother checking the wind; I knew it was dead calm. I’d land in a dirt spot beside the mile and half dirt road that came in almost a straight line from the paved road to the “town.” It was about a quarter mile from the town’s gate and I knew I’d walk the distance several times over the next few days. I’d purposely worn comfortable walking shoes.

I still had too much speed as I came in for my final approach so I overshot it, dumping the collective and pulling back the cyclic to bleed off all that extra energy without dropping out of the sky. When I felt comfortable with my speed and angle of approach, I turned toward my spot. I knew dust would fly when I got close to the ground, but I also knew it wouldn’t be bad — yet. Only after several hours of ATVs and Tahoes driving on the dirt around the helicopter would the dust be loose enough to really start flying. Then the whirling dust on each takeoff and landing would take just a little bit more paint off my rotor blades. Before the end of the year, my main rotor blades would likely have to be repainted for the third time at a cost of roughly $1,500. It was something I wasn’t happy about; a cost of doing business off-airport, out in the desert.

I landed on the far north end of the landing zone, which I knew from experience was level. A small dust cloud rose and then descended as I touched down and reduced the throttle back to 68%. The nose of the helicopter pointed toward town; the tail pointed away, where it was less likely for people to be walking.

As the engine began cooling down, I made a note on my duty log sheet with the Hobbs meter time. It had taken 3/10 of an hour to get there — a mere 18 minutes. By car, it would have taken nearly 45 minutes.

A truck headed toward me from town. It was the cowboy who managed the place. He waved and kept going.

After two minutes, I cut the throttle to idle and flicked the clutch switch to disengage the belts. The blades started to slow. Thirty seconds later, I pulled the mixture and the engine died. I pulled off my headset and waited for the blades to stop on their own. No sense in using the rotor brake if I wasn’t in a hurry.

It was 7:40. I was 20 minutes early.

At Robson's

I grabbed my bag with my iPad and a few other things in it and made the first walk into town. By then, the temperature was already in the 60s and it felt good to be walking outdoors on such a fine morning.

I realized something was not quite right when I walked into the cafe, the usual base of operations. Normally, the place would be buzzing with my clients staff members and guests finishing up a buffet breakfast. But there were just two people seated at a table and I didn’t recognize either one. The woman who runs the place greeted me and told me “they” were making themselves breakfast because Rosa, the cook, wasn’t there until noon. I peeked into the kitchen and saw four people from my client’s company gathered around the big commercial stove. I smelled bacon.

I made myself some instant oatmeal and grabbed a glass of orange juice. After a while, the four men came out of the kitchen with hearty breakfasts in hand. They settled down at the table beside mine and started to talk.

I waited for a break in the conversation. “Is it just you four?” I asked.

“Yeah,” one of them said. “I’m surprised to see you here. Did you fly out?”

“Yes. They told me you’d need me at eight o’clock.”

The four men exchanged glances. “We’re not flying today,” the guy who’d originally spoke said. “We’re just here for setup. They know the routine. We fly out on Sunday night and set up the network on Monday morning. Everyone else arrives later today. We’ll fly tomorrow.”

Somehow, I wasn’t surprised that someone had screwed up.

“I’m sorry you came out here for nothing,” he said.

I shrugged. “I just did what I was told,” I said. “It’ll be on my bill.”

We all had a good laugh over that.

I finished my breakfast, bussed my plate, and said goodbye. Then I made the long walk back to the helicopter.

Flying back into the sun, I had to put on my baseball cap to keep the sun flickering through the main rotor blades from being a serious annoyance. This time, after crossing the power lines, I dropped down and joined up with the railroad track that runs between Wickenburg and Aguila. I followed it, low-level, reminding myself again and again that at 110 knots, I didn’t need to worry about a train coming up behind me. Two miles short of the airport, I pulled up away from the tracks, made my radio call, and crossed the hills separating the railroad from the airport. I crossed the runway low level and landed at the fuel pumps to top off my tanks before putting it away for the day.

At least I hadn’t spent the day waiting.

more to come….

What do you think?