On Free Rides

Stop asking for them.

Yesterday, I flew for an hour at an event I do every year. It was only an hour because the wind came up, as forecasted, and the turbulence was getting bad enough to start getting me sick. I pulled the plug after only three flights.

River Reflections
The best part of yesterday’s event was the flight to my landing zone in the park before the wind kicked up. The Columbia River was smooth as glass and the few clouds reflected perfectly on its surface.

One of my passengers was a guy who’d been calling me periodically for over two years. He’s handicapped and moves around in a wheelchair. Back when he first called me, he told he only had a few months to live. One of the things on his bucket list was to go flying in a helicopter with his young daughter. Trouble was, he couldn’t afford the $545/hour rate I charged for tours.

News flash: most people can’t. Hell, even I can’t afford that. But that’s the rate I have to charge if I expect to cover all my costs and make a living.

The One-Hour Minimum

I normally have a one-hour minimum for my flights. There’s a good reason for this.

First, you need to understand that I don’t have an office or hangar at the airport that I sit in every day. That would be a huge waste of time and money since there simply isn’t enough business in this area to keep me busy. I’m lucky to get a few tourism-related flights a month — and that’s only during the spring, summer, and autumn. I make most of my living as a cherry drying pilot; if I had to depend on tours and photo flights to make a living, I’d be bankrupt in less than a year. Instead, I keep the helicopter in my garage at home and pull it out on the relatively rare occasion that a client books a flight with me.

Before every flight, I spend about 20 minutes preflighting the helicopter. Then I spend 10 minutes dragging it out of the garage, 2-3 minutes warming it up, and 3-4 minutes flying to the airport before taking another 2-3 minutes to shut it down. If you’re doing the math, you can see that I’ve already had the engine running — burning fuel and oil and clicking the Hobbs meter — for 7 to 10 minutes — without getting paid. Now I wait 10 to 30 minutes for my passengers. I still haven’t seen a dime. I greet my passengers, give them a preflight briefing, and get them on board. Maybe that’s 5 minutes. Now another 2-3 minutes to start up. I do the flight. I come back. 2-3 minutes to shut down. I go inside the airport terminal with them. I collect the money they owe me. They leave. I go back outside. 2-3 minutes to start up, 3-4 minutes to fly home, 2-3 minutes to shut down. Another 10 minutes to drag the helicopter back inside and another 10 minutes to do a post flight inspection.

Have you been paying attention to the numbers here? My time — not including the actual flight — adds up to about 60 to 80 minutes. This is all time that I’m not compensated for. In fact, if the passenger doesn’t show up at the airport at all, I’ve just wasted all that time, as well as the additional time I’ve waited in case they were late.

And the uncompensated helicopter time — time when I’m actually spending real money to have the helicopter running — is 14 to 20 minutes.

Now imagine that the actual ride I gave was only 15 minutes, as so many people have requested. Say they pay me 1/4 of my $545/hour rate or $136. If we round that uncompensated running time to 15 minutes and add it to the compensated running time of 15 minutes, that means I’m getting $136 for a half hour of running time or only $272 per hour.

That’s less that my operating costs, so I’m losing money.

And isn’t my time worth something?

So no, I don’t do flights less than an hour long — except for certain circumstances.

Special Half-Hour Tours

Half-hour tours are a special circumstance. I sometimes offer these on days when I know I’m going to be out with the helicopter.

Suppose someone books a winery tour at 11 AM on a Saturday. I know I have to be at the airport with the helicopter at 11, so I can offer half-hour tours, perhaps starting at 9 AM, for $295 (slightly more than what a half hour would cost). With up to three people on board, that’s a lot more affordable for most folks. And since I have to be at the airport anyway for that other flight, it doesn’t take any additional uncompensated time. Well, maybe waiting time, but not with the engine running.

So I make the offer on my company website or Facebook page. I figure that if folks are serious about going for a flight, they’ll be watching for special offers. But I’ve only sold a few so far, so half the time, I don’t even bother offering them.

Rides at Events

The other thing I do is rides at events. I have a few events I do every year, including the Wenatchee Wings and Wheels car show in East Wentachee that I did yesterday.

These are advertised events and, in many cases, helicopter rides is a main draw. People will come just for the ride. I usually (these days) charge $40/person for a ride that’s 8-10 minutes long. I can make this work financially by not flying with less than 2 people on board and doing a lot of rides. If my ground crew is good and there’s a big crowd of people, I can sometimes average more than my usual hourly rate. It’s not my favorite kind of flying to do, but I really do enjoy being able to take kids flying — this is often the only way it’s affordable for their parents.

And that’s what I kept suggesting to my wheelchair-bound caller. I gave him information about the next upcoming event each time he called. I guess that after a while, he realized that being in a wheelchair didn’t mean I’d do a special flight just for him. (Let’s be real here: if I did a special flight for everyone who called me with a sad story, I’d be broke and have my own sad story.) I didn’t hear from him for a while and, in all honesty, forgot about him. But when I saw him roll up yesterday, I made the connection. He was finally getting his ride with his daughter at a price he was willing and able to pay. He told me numerous times during the flight how much it meant to him and I was happy for them both.

Before his son lifted him out of the helicopter seat to get him back in his wheelchair, he leaned in toward me and said, “You know, I only have six months to live.”

Some People Don’t Give Up

They hung around while I did the few other flights. When I shut down for the day and helped my ground crew load signs and chairs into their SUV, he followed us.

“You know, if you ever go flying and want company,” he started.

Oh, how I wish I had a dollar for everyone who said that to me!

He went on to say that he’d tell all the people in his “group” about it and it would “blow up.” I think he was trying to say that he would promote my services to his group of — well, I never did find out what his “group” was — and they would all come flying with me. But would they be looking for free flights, too? Did he think I wanted my phone to start ringing with more people looking for free flights with me?

How can I run a business if everyone thinks they can get my services for free?

What he doesn’t understand — and what most people apparently don’t understand — is that it costs money to fly the helicopter.

And no, it’s not just gas. It’s oil ($7/quart every 5-8 hours), it’s maintenance (like $300 for an oil change every 50 hours), it’s 100-hour inspections (about $2500 if I’m lucky and they don’t find any problems). It’s a radio altimeter and ADS-B required by the FAA at a cost of $15,000 and $4,000 respectively. It’s insurance at about $15,000 per year. It’s an overhaul every 12 years or 2200 hours at a cost of $220,000. And let’s try to remember that none of it would be possible if I didn’t cough up $346,000 in 2005 to buy the helicopter in the first place.

That’s a shit-ton of money. Maybe it helps explain why I get so pissed off when people expect me to fly them around for free or the cost of fuel?

If I’m going to fly for pleasure, I’m not going to fly it with a pushy stranger full of empty promises. I’m going to fly with a friend or someone else I really like. Or I’m going to fly alone.

I’ve blogged about this in various ways before. I’m not sure if I was ever this blunt. Maybe I’m in a bad mood because I took a loss for yesterday’s event.

Or maybe I’m just sick and tired of people trying to get me to spend my hard-earned money giving them something for free.

In any case, thanks for reading. Rant over.

The Guns in My Life

Not all gun owners are nuts.

I read something on Twitter this morning that really struck a nerve:

Monitoring? What did he mean by monitoring?

I read some of the comments and found this one:

I don’t think she meant “special” in a positive way. And that really got under my skin.

You see, I’m a gun owner. And although I like to think I’m special, I’m not special in the way Michelle seems to think all gun owners are.

And that’s why I decided to write this post. You see, I’m not the only person in my family who owns a gun and none of them are “special” in the sense that we need to be monitored.

My Father’s Guns

My father worked as a police officer in our small northern New Jersey town of Cresskill from around the time I was born in the early 1960s to his retirement. As you might expect, he owned a gun and I grew up with at least one gun in the house.

I say “at least” because I honestly don’t know how many guns he had. We were taught at a young age not to touch his gun and we didn’t. When he got home from work, he’d put it on the top shelf of a tall bookcase in the foyer or sometimes on top of the refrigerator when he came home for dinner. (He worked three different shifts: 8-4, 4-12, and “midnights” (12-8).) I knew the gun was dangerous and I knew I wasn’t supposed to touch it. I never did.

Well, that isn’t exactly true.

Every autumn, the town held what was called a “Turkey Shoot.” It was held at the local shooting range. They’d put up targets and participants would shoot. The targets were scored and the high score would win frozen turkeys. I think it was a fund raiser, but how would I know? I was a kid.

At least twice when we attended this event, my father let us shoot his gun at the target. He never handed us the gun. Instead, he held the gun with us to point and shoot. I remember it being heavy and the trigger being hard to pull. I don’t remember if I won a turkey. Again, I was a kid.

Girl Scouts

When I was in Girl Scouts, we learned to shoot rifles. This was at an indoor range in the nearby town of Tenafly (I think). The rifles were probably World War II surplus. They could hold one shot and had a bolt action. Again, I was a kid and don’t remember much about it.

I also don’t know why learning to shoot rifles was a Girl Scout activity in my area around 1970, but today I think it’s kind of cool.

I do remember that they taught us to shoot from multiple positions including prone and sitting cross-legged. I was a pretty decent shot.

My Uncle’s Guns

My uncle was a flag-waving veteran of the Korean War, although the closest he got to Korea was the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. He became quite a gun collector and kept most of them in a big gun safe down in his basement, right at the foot of the basement stairs. I vaguely remember him showing some of them to me. Most of them were collector’s items.

In his younger days, he was also a hunter. For years, he had a bearskin rug on the floor in his living room. He’d got the bear on the same trip my dad had shot a deer. (That’s when I first ate venison.)

He was a little crazy with the guns sometimes, but I don’t think he was unsafe. One day when I was just out of college, I visited his family with my boyfriend, who had a very “plain vanilla” family life. My uncle’s family was anything but “plain vanilla.” My uncle staged a fight with his son, my cousin, with my cousin yelling at him from down in the basement stairs. My uncle pulled out a gun and shot it down the stairs from the kitchen. Yes, in his house. The gunshot was loud! But the bullet was a blank. He’d apparently set the whole thing up to give my boyfriend something to talk about when he got home.

I don’t know how many guns he had, but I suspect it was more than 20. I don’t know what happened to them when he passed away.

My First Gun

I got my first gun in the early 2000s, not long after moving from the New Jersey suburbs to Arizona. My future wasband telecommuted to work back in New Jersey, which required him to be away from home 7 to 10 days every month. While he was gone, I was alone with a deaf dog in a house that creaked a lot more than I was used to. I used to lay awake at night, convinced that the creaking I was hearing was someone creeping up the stairs. Keep in mind that the house was at the end of a gravel road, pretty far from the neighbors so it wasn’t as if help could arrive quickly if there was an intruder.

At my request, my future wasband bought us a gun to keep in the bedroom. It was a 38 special revolver.

Of course, being responsible (not “special”) gun owners, we immediately sought training to make sure we could use it safely. The only training we found in the area was a Concealed Weapons Permit class. It was a weekend long and included lots of information about guns, including safety and legality. The guy who taught it with his wife — both of whom wore camouflage outfits to class — was very pro-carry. Remember, Arizona is an open carry state, meaning you can wear or carry a visible gun in most places. The concealed weapons permit enabled holders to carry a gun concealed by clothing or in a purse or backpack. Some people think this is important. I was the only woman in the class and they kept trying to convince me that I’d be safer if I carried a gun with me at all times. I said I wasn’t interested. They said, “Well, what about if you’re in a mall parking lot late at night, parked way out on the edge, and a gang of guys comes toward you.” I replied, “I’d never put myself in a situation like that. I’m not an idiot.”

The class was informative, opening my eyes to a different gun mentality than mine. It also included range time where we had to qualify before passing. Since I was the only woman in the class, I got a bit of attention. I was told that with a little practice, I could be a good shooter. Great.

A side benefit of having a concealed weapons permit was that I could worry a lot less about rules when I took my gun to the range or elsewhere. For example, suppose I’ve got the gun out of sight in my car’s glove box when I get pulled over for speeding. The gun would be considered “concealed” and without a permit to carry it that way, I could get in deep trouble. The course explained how to handle such a situation and the permit made it legal to have the gun in the glove box to begin with.

Beretta 21A Bobcat
My Beretta isn’t very practical, but it holds a place in my heart as my first gun. And yes, that’s my hand holding it.

Of course the 38 Special wasn’t really my gun. It was my future wasband’s. I wound up buying something quite a bit smaller, easier to handle, and less practical: a Beretta 21A Bobcat. It’s a semi-automatic handgun with a magazine that holds 7 22 caliber rounds. I bought it brand new in a gun shop and, yes, I did go through a background check process before it was sold to me. It’s less practical for three main reasons:

  • If I ever did have to use it to stop a serious attacker, I’d basically have to empty it into his body to stop him/her. 22 rounds aren’t very big.
  • It’s extremely picky about ammunition and will jam if I don’t buy the right stuff. A recent trip to the range for some additional training confirmed what I remembered about it: there’s a popular (and not cheap) brand of ammo it simply chokes on. No one wants a gun that will jam when it’s needed.
  • I’m not nearly as accurate firing it as I am with a bigger gun. I think that could be resolved with more practice, though.

But since I really don’t need a gun, I never saw a reason to replace it.

And it does have a nice feature that I thought was handy for horseback riding out in the desert: it’s rather unique flip up barrel makes it easy to load a single 22 long “snake shot” round. That turns the little gun into a small shotgun suitable for killing rattlesnakes or deterring coyotes out on the trail.

My wasband eventually replaced the 38 special with a Glock. I don’t know which one, but I do know that I was more accurate with the Glock than the Beretta.

The Big Sandy Shoot

As I’ve blogged about here and here, there’s a twice-yearly event called the Big Sandy Shoot, which his held on some private property in the middle of the Arizona desert. It’s a gathering of gun enthusiasts who get to fire a wide range of weapons at reactive targets. There are strict safety rules with range officers to enforce them. No one gets hurt, although the tracer rounds they use at night have been known to start fires.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, a “reactive target” is one that literally explodes when hit.

These are hobbyists, mostly, although I suspect more than a few of them are “special.” (Ever see a cannon made out of a fire extinguisher that fires bowling balls? I have.) They’re really into their guns and showing off. It’s interesting, but a bit too hard core for my taste. Since I’ve already blogged about it, I’ll let you read those blog posts to learn how crazy it is.

My Brother’s Guns

My brother shoots for a hobby. He owns fifteen guns — as he just informed me in answer to my texted question — and he’s quite proficient using them. He regularly competes using an STI Edge handgun. According to him:

It’s specifically for competition. I have different barrels for it so I can shoot 9mm, .40 Cal and .22 with it.

My shotgun is a Benelli M2 and my rifle was built by a company called JP

Back in 2013, when I was visiting my brother and his wife, I went with them to one of their competitions. (They both shoot.) It was professionally managed and extremely safety oriented. Rules were followed with no exception — range officers made sure of it. I could see why he enjoyed it. It was challenging stuff, with a variety of target types and scenarios. It got him outdoors year-round, with other people who enjoyed the same hobby. Beats parking his ass on a sofa watching TV, no?

Keep in mind that my brother lives in New Jersey where gun laws are pretty strict. (My uncle lived in New Jersey, too.) I don’t know the details on how he’s required to register, store, transport, or shoot them. But I do know that he competes all along the eastern seaboard.

He and his wife divorced a few years ago. They still see each other occasionally at the range and at competitions.

I tried to find a YouTube video of him shooting but came up empty. He sent me a 30-second video of himself at a competition shooting a rifle but I don’t think it’s up to me to share it online. If he sends me a YouTube link, I’ll add it to this post.

My Shotgun

Concealed Carry Permit
I got a concealed carry permit good for Washington State when I moved here.

When I moved to Washington state, which I believe is also an open carry state, I brought my little Beretta with me. Then I did the paperwork to get a concealed carry permit here. It’s actually easier here than in Arizona; no class is required. (I think that’s wrong.) I carry it in my wallet, even though I don’t carry the gun.

Reminton 870
My Remington 870 Tactical shotgun. I had it sitting by the front deck door with a box of ammo for weeks after the second dog attack.

But when I started having serious worries about coyotes coming into my property to steal chickens or possibly my dog, I started thinking that maybe I needed a more practical weapon. And when my neighbor’s dog got into my chicken yard and slaughtered a total of 18 laying hens and two roosters (over two visits), I made my decision. I bought a shotgun.

The shotgun I bought was a Remington 870 Tactical. It’s a pump action 12-gauge shotgun that can hold 7 rounds. (I don’t keep it loaded.) And no kidding here: I bought it at a local store called Hooked on Toys and yes, they did do a background check on me before completing the sale.

Once again, I took it (and my Beretta) to the range to work with an instructor. A friend and I actually took a course together. The course was created by the NRA and had NRA materials, but the instructor was not an NRA employee and he assured us that the educational and political arms of the NRA are completely separate. (Although I thought that was okay at the time, I now want absolutely nothing to do with the NRA and will never pay for anything if there’s any possibility that part of my money might go to the NRA.) The course was informative and I got a chance to learn how to shoot the shotgun. I discovered that the kickback with the butt against my shoulder hurts like hell and I can be pretty accurate shooting from the hip. Hell, if you can’t hit a target with a shotgun, you probably shouldn’t be shooting a gun at all.

Fortunately, the neighbor’s dog has not returned. Could I shoot it? I don’t know. But the Animal Control folks say it’s legal for me to do so, as long as I kill it.

Not All Gun Owners are Dangerous Nuts

You might be able to see why I was bugged by Michelle’s tweet above. As you might imagine, I didn’t let it go uncommented:

But she’s not the only one making uninformed comments about gun owners. There’s a lot of it going around right now. It happens after every mass shooting.

And although I am a gun owner and have insight why other people own guns, I agree that we need to have some common-sense gun control laws. At a minimum, we need:

  • A ban on all guns and accessories that make it possible to fire more than 10 rounds without reloading. These devices should be absolutely illegal to own, let alone sell or use. There is absolutely no reason anyone needs this kind of equipment.
  • Registration for all guns, including those sold in secondary markets such as gun shows or private sales. If you own a gun, it should be registered. Period.
  • Background checks for all gun owners. The check should be done before each gun is purchased and should include criminal activity, domestic violence complaints, and mental health checks.
  • Training requirement for all gun owners. Before you purchase a gun, you should be required to take a qualified class in its use and operation and have a certificate to prove that you’ve taken the class. Additional refresher course training should be required periodically, perhaps every five years.

I don’t believe guns are bad. I believe people are bad. I also believe that we should not make it easy for bad people to do bad things with guns.

The situation we have in this country is absurd, with different laws in every state, many of which make it all too easy for people who are crazy to obtain weapons of mass killing capabilities — like the bump stock the Las Vegas shooter used to fire over 500 rounds without reloading. How can anyone think that’s okay?

The Second Amendment was written in a time when a high-tech gun fired one shot at a time. The Founding Fathers likely never imagined the kind of carnage that could be done with today’s weapons, so it’s pretty silly to keep referring to our “right” to have these kinds of weapons.

And no, a good guy with a gun isn’t the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun. It’s a good way for others to be injured in a crossfire or for the “good guy” to get mistaken for a bad guy and gunned down by police.

And yes, I’m a gun owner. But if the only solution to the gun violence epidemic in this country was to take away everyone’s gun — as they have done in other civilized countries — I’d hand mine over in a heartbeat.

Comments?

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October is Flu Shot Month

A reminder.

I just want to take a moment to remind folks that October is flu shot month. To help prevent flu this winter, it’s important to get your shot before month-end so the antibodies have a chance to get to work. You can learn more at the CDC Website.

For those of you who say “the flu isn’t so bad,” you’re probably not thinking about the flu. The flu kills people — up to 56,000 people in the U.S. in a recent year. Don’t confuse it with a bad cold. It’s not the same.

And please don’t get me started with conspiracy theories about vaccinations or disproved stories about vaccines being linked to autism. I will not allow you to use this blog to spread misinformation, so save your comments for those foolish enough to believe them. (I do believe in Darwin’s theories and survival of the fittest; with luck, idiots will die off, thus improving the gene pool.)

Herd Immunity
Herd immunity, illustrated. The red dots represent the potential infections. The higher the percentage of vaccinated population, the fewer infections.

If you don’t want to do it for yourself, do it for the people around you. Read up on herd immunity. The shot you get can prevent you from being a carrier that infects people who can’t get vaccinated, such as babies and people with real allergies to vaccine ingredients.

And finally, I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember ever having to pay for a flu shot. I usually get it at my local supermarket and often it comes with a coupon for 10% off my next grocery purchase. So yes, I’m getting paid to get my shot. So I can’t see how cost can be an issue.

You have no excuses. Get your flu shot this month.