The Long Road Home

I make my way home from my winter travels, slowly but surely.

I’m writing this in my RV at a campsite in Maryhill State Park in Washington State. As I so often do when traveling through the area, I arrived late enough in the afternoon to stop for the night. Yes, home is only a 3-hour drive from here, but I don’t like driving at night. I have come to use Maryhill as a sort of post-trip celebration spot, a place I wind down from a long trip and start getting myself mentally prepared for my return to home.

As usual, the campground is nearly empty and I got a nice pull-through spot along the river. There’s electricity and a sewer dump at my site, but the water is still turned off for the winter. That’s okay; I filled up my fresh water tank in Las Vegas before I left and have plenty of water left.

Away from the Camper

Las Vegas is where I went after my helicopter mishap on February 24. My truck, camper, and boat were waiting there for me in a “storage” site at the Sam’s Town KOA. Although I generally avoid KOA camping, I really do like the one in Vegas for what it is: city camping. With my small rig, I can take one of the double-width sites along the edge of the campground property and not be right on top of my neighbor. I’d parked the boat beside the truck and camper before coming home in mid February to fetch the helicopter and take it down to California for a frost contract. I was able to plug in to power, which saved a ton of propane for the fridge, and the KOA folks charged only $15/day while I was gone. It was good to leave my stuff in a place I knew it would be safe.

The original idea was to go right back to Vegas after tucking the helicopter into a hangar at Yolo County Airport, but the weather in the Sacramento area turned cold and I wound up in a Woodland motel for a week in case I had to fly for frost control.

I spent my days goofing off, going as far as Calistoga for a mud bath and facial one day. (I am a sucker a good facial.) I managed to visit two wineries for tastings before heading back.

When I finally got to fly, the flight was very short with a bad end.

After being discharged from the hospital’s emergency room, my friend Sean took me to see the wreckage and we pulled out the last few personal possessions I had in there. (Sean had already collected quite a few things.) We stowed them in the hangar. Then I drove my rental car to Sacramento Airport, dropped it off, and waited in the terminal for a Southwest flight back to Vegas. With no helicopter or frost contract, there was no reason to stay in Woodland.

In Las Vegas

I was back in my RV by 6 PM. As you might imagine, I had a little trouble getting to sleep. Every time I closed my eyes, I’d see those damn trees in front of me. But putting the TV on seemed to help. And I eventually got a decent night sleep.

I took a full inventory of my bruises the next morning in the shower. That day — Sunday — is when the soreness really kicked in. I later learned that the helicopter impacted the ground at least twice before coming to rest against a small berm in the field where I crashed. I must have been like a rag doll in there with my muscles all tensed up from the adrenaline rush. (I don’t remember any of it, but without a head injury, I don’t think I passed out. It’s just blank.) Once my muscles relaxed a little, every single one of them got sore. The ibuprofen I was taking took the edge off.

I started the active part of my day by repositioning my truck, camper, and boat to a site on the south side of the RV park. It was a nice site with grass behind it — which is good since the camper’s door is in back. I hooked everything up — electricity, water, and sewer — since I’d be staying for the week.

I went to the convention center to meet up with my friend Zac from HAI (Helicopter Association International). The show wasn’t open yet, but he was in charge of guiding the helicopters in to land in the Convention Center parking lot. From there, they were wheeled into the building to be put on display. He got me an exhibitor pass so I could come in for a behind the scenes look at the show getting set up. Later, I joined him outside to watch (and broadcast on Periscope) a few of the helicopters that came in. It was fascinating and a lot of fun, but the walking really took a toll on me. By 5 PM, I was spent.

Show Girl
Eve didn’t like the location of the booth so she hired a model to attract attention to it during the show.

On Monday, I helped my friend’s Jim and Eve, who own Rotorcraft Enterprises, set up their booth at the show. Jim invented Start Pac, a battery device for helping to start turbine engines. He has since branched off into a bunch of other related products, including an APU for jets, a Start Pac for locomotive engines, and small battery devices to provide power when testing avionics on an aircraft. Jim’s a great guy — a former airline pilot who started flying helicopters in retirement. Like me, he lived in Wickenburg and left. I’m sure I’ve written about him elsewhere in this blog.

By the time we’d finished setting up, I was spent (again), but I went with them to lunch at a German restaurant near their office. Eating a good meal really picked me up. But I still went right back to the RV to relax. I slept a lot better that night.

Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday were spent at Heli Expo. I chatted with Pat Cox and Tim Tucker at Robinson to tell them about the crash and show pictures. They were very interested and even dragged Kurt Robinson over to see them. They were certain that the helicopter’s bladder tanks, which I’d whined about installing, had saved my life. I talked to the folks at Hillsboro Aviation, which had sold me my R44 back in 2004, about a new helicopter; I’m still waiting for a price quote but seriously doubt I’ll replace it with a new one. (They’re a lot more expensive now!) I walked the entire show floor and found a neat video solution for tours and YouTube videos; I might take the plunge and get a setup this summer. I met up with numerous friends, including one of the few people who had flown my helicopter without me on board and my first flight instructor, who now works for the FAA. I also walked the show floor early one morning, before it was open to the public, to get some really great photos of some of the helicopters there without people hanging all over them. I posted them all to Twitter.

The MD Booth
There’s nothing quite like walking a trade show floor before the public is let in. This is a panorama of the MD Helicopter’s booth on Thursday morning.

I treated myself to dinner at the MGM grand on Wednesday evening before heading back to my camper. And I took a break from the show at midday on Thursday to treat myself to a cocktail and lunch at the Wynn resort. So much of my traveling this winter has been low budget, so it was nice to get a few doses of luxury.

A Parisol Down
I sat along the pond at the Wynn’s Parasol Down cocktail lounge. It was a nice, peaceful escape from the Heli Expo show.

On Thursday afternoon, the show closed promptly at 4 PM. By 4:15, they were wheeling helicopters out the door. I joined my friend Zac again with Jim and another Start Pac employee tagging along to watch the departures. I broadcast on Persicope and they featured the video so I soon had hundreds of viewers. I think a total of 10 helicopters left. The rest would leave the following day. Zac invited me back but I’d had enough.

Leaving Las Vegas

The next morning I had breakfast at nearby Sam’s Town Casino, then packed up leisurely and was on the road by 10 AM. It was wicked windy out as I headed down I-15 toward Los Angeles.

Camping at Lake Isabella
My campsite on the shore of Lake Isabella.

Although I usually drive through Death Valley on my way to Sacramento with my rig, I decided to take a more southern route this time, hoping to avoid snow in the mountain passes near Lake Tahoe. I was aiming for Lake Isabella, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. I arrived about a hour before sunset and got a nice campsite right on the lake.

Lake Isabella at Dawn
I shot this from my camper’s back door at dawn at Lake Isabella. It was an amazingly beautiful morning.

The following morning, I was back on the road. I think it was then that I realized how much I just wanted to be done traveling. So I made my way out of the mountains and joined route 99 north. I took that all the way to Sacramento, then hopped on I-80 to Davis.

In California Again

I stopped at the same hospital I’d been in the week before and checked myself into the ER. A number of friends had suggested that blood clots could be an issue. The bruises on my lower legs were horrendous with a few painful spots. Although I no longer needed ibuprofen for pain, I was starting to wonder whether I had a bigger problem than just bruises.

I stayed for about two hours. They did blood work and used ultrasound to scan my legs for clots. I got a clean bill of health but the doctor suggested that I get it checked again in a week.

I spent the night camped out at the hangar at Yolo County Airport. I parked right next to it. Around 2 AM, Sean arrived and sat in his car, waiting for a call to fly. I didn’t realize he was there until I woke at 4 AM. It was foggy out and the ASOS (Automated Surface Observation System) was reporting freezing fog. Even if he got a call, he couldn’t fly.

The fog was still thick when the sun rose. I got dressed for the day and went into the hangar to organize my personal possessions from the helicopter. I packed them in my truck for the ride home and said goodbye to Sean. I would not be back next year for a frost contract, but there’s a chance he’ll join me in Washington for cherry season this year.

The fog was localized; there was none north of Woodland.

I tried to retrieve my cockpit cover from the salvage guy, but it was Sunday and his place was closed.

I drove up to Williams to have lunch with another pilot fired of mine who was on a frost contract up there. I tolerated his mansplaining about how he finds his orchards in the dark. I deserved the lecture. But, at the same time, it didn’t really matter. I changed the subject.

I thought I might need to meet with the insurance adjuster and Sacramento FAA guy, but they didn’t need to meet with me. That meant I had no reason to stay in the area. So I left. I hopped on I-5, set the cruise control for 62, and headed north.

In Oregon

I tried hard to get to the Seven Feathers Casino in Oregon. Casinos make excellent overnight spots for RVers. They have big parking lots and good security. And being able to go in for dinner or breakfast the next morning is a real plus. But as the sun was getting close to setting, Seven Feathers was still about a hundred miles away and, like I said, I don’t like driving at night. (Besides, I suspect the boat trailer’s running lights aren’t working, although I know the turn signals and brake lights are.) So I wound up in a Walmart parking lot in Medford with about a dozen other RVers.

I walked over to the Outback Steakhouse and treated myself to a blooming onion, which I used to really like. They’re a lot greasier than I remember; I only ate about 1/3 of it.

The next morning, I was back on the road as soon as the sun was up and the overnight frost started to melt. Someone on Twitter had mentioned that the I-5 corridor was IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) and he wasn’t kidding. I drove for two hours through big patches of fog.

My first destination was McMinville Airport where a 2005 R44 was for sale. I had an appointment to meet with the owner at 11 AM. It was a 4-hour drive from Medford and I was a little late because I had to stop for fuel. I saw the helicopter, which is only a few months newer than mine was and it looked fine — but not like mine inside. I still haven’t decided if I’ll put an offer in on it.

From there, I drove another hour north to an Apple Store in Tigard. I had a heck of a time finding parking — the store was in one of those modern outdoor malls designed to look like a downtown area. Nice place and I would have loved to spend the day shopping there, but I had a mission. I needed to buy a new iMac. The one I have at home, which is now 7-1/2 years old, refuses to start. It had been on the fritz for about a year, but it’s now dead. I think it’s a logic board or possible a video card problem. It doesn’t matter. I’m replacing it.

I wound up with a 27-inch iMac. I had to wait while they expanded the RAM from 8 GB to 16 GB. I had lunch at PF Changs while I waited. I ate too much. There was a bit of a challenge getting the computer out to my truck, but the Apple Store folks were helpful. Then I was on my way again.

I hit some early rush hour traffic in Portland — by this time, it was about 3:45 — before getting on I-84 eastbound. This is a really pretty drive along the Columbia River in Oregon, past numerous waterfalls in the Gorge area. I tried two state park campgrounds along the way but both were “closed for winter.” I knew Maryhill would be open. I stopped for fuel one last time in Biggs, OR, then crossed the river and pulled into the site I am in now.

I fed Penny but skipped dinner; I was still full from lunch.

Today’s Drive

The sun is now up, illuminating the basalt cliffs west of the park. The wind turbines up there are glowing bright white but are motionless in the still air. The frost on the ground is just starting to melt. My camper is warm; the small electric heater I brought along has been running all night. My next door neighbors pulled out a few minutes ago; we’ll leave in less than an hour.

Campground View
The view out my back door this morning. Note the frost on my boat cover and grass.

It’s an easy drive up route 97 to I-90 near Ellensburg. From there, I’ll head east to Vantage, cross the river, and come up back roads from George through Quincy to Wenatchee. I might stop at Fred Meyer for groceries to save myself a trip later on.

My house sitter left last night so I’ll have my home to myself. The cats will come out to greet us. I’ll collect this morning’s eggs.

And then I’ll go inside and run the water for a nice, hot bath.

There’s no place like home.

16 thoughts on “The Long Road Home

  1. Nobody deserves mansplaining. Even if you set the house on fire making creme rule with a butane torch. It’s what they do instead of lapsing into humanity, acknowledging that they too aren’t perfect and it could as easily been them. Hope the bath was wonderfully soothing.

    • It’s just that guy. He’s like that.

      One of the things I’ve learned over the past few years is that some people are just the way they are. If I like them enough, I deal with it. If I don’t, I avoid them. Although he wasn’t nearly as sympathetic as I’d hoped he’d be, I know he feels bad about what happened. He was trying to teach me. But it’s too late for me to learn that lesson. I’m done flying over orchards in the dark.

  2. I’m so glad you’re okay, and safely home. I missed the helicopter crash post while I was out near Quartzsite, and my first thought was dear little Penny. Rest, relax and rest some more.

  3. A great piece of writing Maria. (Richard Ford and Hemmingway can achieve that frank, ‘self, as observed’ objectivity but it is a very rare gift).
    There is a wistful tone, perhaps, but after the last ten days you have had, why the hell not!?

    Because you are absolutely sure of who you are, there is no ‘woe is me’ but just your usual, straight and honest description of events and people. A rare gift to us in this era of silly ego-massage and rampant narcissism.

    Your many friends and readers are wishing you a rapid recovery.

    • Honestly, there are two emotions completely overwhelming me right now: anger at myself for doing something so stupid and sadness at losing helicopter that I really loved. I’m home now, soaking in the tub, and very glad to be here. But within an hour or two, I’ll be back at work around the house, getting my chickens ready for spring, putting away the RV and boat, and searching for a replacement so I can start flying again.

  4. Great photo of Lake Isabella, the pastels are beautiful and the lighting is great, just gorgeous.

    I’m glad that you can keep your crash in perspective, it’s tempting to think of incidents like these as random disasters or a piece of particularly bad luck, but you are being honest with yourself and your readers about the cause. In the wider perspective, considering the fact that you (and Penny) are OK , it means you didn’t break anything that can’t be fixed or replaced. An expensive lesson for sure, but one that you will never forget and to your credit you are putting it out there for others to learn from.

    If I can put my $.02 in, I hope that you will consider doing all (or at least most) of your future flying with a flight helmet instead of just headphones and sunglasses. You got your gong rung harder than you know, if your “missing time” and narrative of other unremembered conversations and actions in the post-crash time period are any indication. These are all symptoms of a severe concussion, and traumatic injuries to the brain are cumulative. Seeing as you do virtually all of your flying single pilot, a helmet (especially with visor down) is good protection for the one truly irreplaceable (and tragically un-repairable) non-redundant component that keeps the rotor side up. Even if it just prevents a bird strike from decorating your corneas with half-digested road-kill from a buzzards insides, a good flight helmet, though undoubtedly less comfortable, is cheap insurance for your noggin.

    Sorry Ann T. , I’m a man-splainer through and through (it drives my wife nuts). There may be occasions, however rare, when suffering through the droning voice of experience is preferable to learning a lesson through personal experience. Knowing what the insides of a buzzard smell and taste like is one that I am fine learning vicariously, even though it was a story that my first “old-school” Army instructor pilot never got tired of telling. :)

    • You’re right about the helmet. I’ll wear one for cherry drying again this year. Promise. My excuse for not wearing it — no bluetooth — is pretty lame.

      As for Lake Isabella, it was an amazing morning with perfect light and a few low clouds that really made the scene beautiful. Right place, right time.

    • I do need to add one thing, though. Although the hospital told me (on my second visit) that I had had a concussion, it was not caused by a blow to the head. Instead, it was likely caused by my brain rattling around inside my skull — kind of like what happens to guys in the military who are in close proximity to IEDs that go off. I have no sign of injury at all on my head — no lumps, bumps, or sore spots. I had a low-grade headache that went away with ibuprfen for about a week; nothing now. A helmet would not prevent that kind of concussion.

      But you’re right: I should be wearing a helmet for the kind of work I do that is more risky that simple tours or charter flights. I won’t wear a helmet when flying with passengers because I don’t want to scare them. An exception might be the survey work I used to do a lot of; the guys I flew actually have their own helmets, although they prefer not to wear them.

  5. Looking at those crash photos I’m surprised you didn’t get cut up more than you did, there’s a lot of broken plexiglass and the windshield frame is really twisted and broken. It looks like your side landed down too, at least on the final bounce.There’s no side airbags in helicopters, so your head was probably bounced off that side window several times before it hit the dirt and stayed.

    Helmets are never as comfortable as just a headset, they’re hotter, heavier, and mess up your hair more. On the positive side, if you get one with dual visors (clear and tinted) you don’t have to wear sunglasses so you don’t get the twin pressure points where the sunglasses earpieces get pinched between the headset and your skull. That usually means you get better noise attenuation too, since the ear seal isn’t “broken” by the glasses, it makes a surprising amount of difference.

    I’ll admit that I seldom wore a flight helmet when flying pistons, the only time I thought it was worth it was for low level utility work, like cattle mustering. On the other hand, your R-44 is probably half again as fast as the Schweizer 300s I was mostly flying, and impact energy increases with the square of speed. I never wore one doing canyon tours either, IIRC they wouldn’t allow it at Papillion. It was required when doing game survey work for AZ Game & Fish, as were Nomex flight suits. Those suits get hot when worn over regular clothes, which most of the techs did. It may have something to do with the fact that their agency had ordered the nomex in blaze orange color, which looked exactly like the prisoner jumpsuits the state was using at the time. :) Human factors, I guess you could call it.

    I always wore a helmet for EMS work, the contract I started with had a big fight over the issue right before I started and ended up going with both helmets and flight suits. The argument was definitively ended when they took a mallard through the chin bubble of their A Star on a night flight. The duck guts covered the whole inside of the aircraft, it took forever to get the smell totally out. One of their most experienced flight nurses (who had been dead-set against helmets) was hit right in the face by the not-quite-dead-yet duck. She suffered fractured facial bones along with other face and eye injuries, some of which took a very long time to heal. As a result of that experience she was an ardent proponent of personal protective gear afterwards.

    When/if you go shopping for a helmet, make sure the earphones and mike are set up for the right impedance. There are different standards for straight civilian avionics gear versus stuff that has to be compatible with ex-military intercoms and radio systems. Since the latter tends to show up in aircraft frequently used on OAS / fire / government contracts, there’s still a lot of helmets that are set up for it and it’s not always compatible. Boring old white is probably the best color too when you’re working out west, it actually does make a difference in how hot the helmet gets when your head is parked in the broiling sun right under the greenhouse.

    • Sean,
      As the voice of much experience, you make a very strong case for helmets in low level helicopter work.

      I will not pretend to have anything like the flying hours that you and Maria have amassed, but I have had a similar distraction incident as that described by Maria.
      This happened in good daytime vis so there are absolutely no excuses in my case.
      Flying a simple four-point nav ex in a C152 I approached a MATZ which I needed to cross. Air tragic gave me a low level clearance and a new squawk. There was a fault in the transponder and it would not show the fourth digit however much I twiddled it. I became so obsessed with trying to correct the problem that I lost height and damn near flew into the 300′ factory chimney on a 600′ hill that had been my way point.
      I had prioritised conspicuity above aviation. Distractions happen. The lucky survive.

  6. Yikes, better lucky than good? I suspect that everybody who flies long enough eventually gets complacent enough to make this kind of mistake, but as you note, not everyone gets a chance to learn from the experience. :(

  7. Reviewing the crash photos, I realize that I probably assumed wrong as to which seat you were in at the time. Almost all my time in R-22s was working as a CFI, I doubt I logged even a handful of hours in the right seat.

What do you think?