Just Say No to Traffic Patterns

Why waste time flying around the airport or hogging up the runway when you just want to get on the ground?

Note: A version of this post originally appeared in AOPA’s Hover Power blog. If you’re a helicopter pilot, you owe it to yourself to check in there regularly to read great articles written by experienced helicopter pilots.

Over the past nine or so years, I’ve done more than my fair share of long cross-country flights with newly minted commercial pilots or CFIs. In most cases, the purpose of the flight was to reposition my helicopter at a temporary base of operations 500 or more miles away and the typically 300-hour pilot on board with me was interested in building R44 time. I was on board as a passenger and got a chance to observe the things these pilots did — or didn’t do. I think the fact that I’ve never been a flight instructor gives me a unique perspective on what I observed.

One thing I’ve come to realize is that typical flight training does very little to prepare students for a commercial flying career. Instead, students are taught to perform maneuvers “by the book,” often so they can teach those maneuvers to their own students in the future. While it’s obviously important to know how to perform maneuvers properly, there are other concerns that are important to commercial pilots. In my upcoming posts for Hover Power, I’ll tackle a few of them, starting with traffic patterns.

I can tell lots of stories about new commercial pilots and CFIs entering traffic patterns to land for fuel at nontowered airports in the middle of nowhere. I can even tell you about the pilot who landed on the numbers of an empty airport’s runway, hover-taxied to the taxiway, and then hover-taxied a half mile down the taxiway to reach the midfield fuel island. They did this because that’s what they had been trained to do. That’s all they knew about landing at airports.

Our flight training teaches us a few things about airport operations, most of which are school-established routines at the handful of airports where we train. There’s a procedure for departing flight school helipads and there may be a procedure for traveling to a practice field nearby. Once there, it’s traffic patterns, over and over. Normal landing and takeoff, steep approach, maximum performance takeoff, run-on landing, quick stop, autorotation–all of these standard maneuvers are taught as part of a traffic pattern. It gets ingrained into our minds that any time we want to land at an airport, we need to enter a traffic pattern.

The reality is very different. Remember, FAR Part 91.129 (f)(2) states, “Avoid the flow of fixed-wing aircraft, if operating a helicopter.” Your flight school may have complied with this requirement by doing a modified traffic pattern at the airport, operating at a lower altitude than the typical airplane traffic pattern altitude of 1,000 feet, or landing on a taxiway rather than a runway. But despite any modifications, it’s still a traffic pattern.

But is a traffic pattern required for landing? No.

Experienced commercial pilots — and their savvier clients — know that traffic patterns waste time. And while the pilot might not be concerned about an extra few minutes to make a landing, the person paying for the flight will be. Why waste time flying around the airport before landing at it? Instead, fly directly to or near your destination and land there.

Before I go on, take a moment to consider why airplanes use traffic patterns. They enter on a 45-degree angle to the pattern to help them see other traffic already in the pattern. They then follow the same course as the other planes so there are no surprises. This is especially important at nontowered airports that don’t have controllers keeping an eye out for traffic conflicts.

But helicopters are avoiding this flow, normally by flying beneath the airplane TPA. As long as they stay away from areas where airplanes might be flying — remember, avoid the flow — they don’t need to worry much about airplane traffic. Instead, they need to look out for other helicopters and obstacles closer to the ground. If a runway crossing is required, special vigilance is needed to make sure an airplane (or helicopter) isn’t using the runway to take off or land. Obviously, communication is important, especially at a busy airport when a runway crossing is involved.

Now you might be thinking that this advice only applies to nontowered airports, where the pilot is free to do what he thinks is best for the flight. But this can also apply to towered airports.

Airport controllers who are accustomed to helicopter traffic and understand helicopter capabilities may instruct you to fly to and land at your destination on the field. You must be prepared to do this, even at an airport you’ve never been to before. That’s part of what your preflight planning is all about. Consult airport diagrams or even satellite images of the airport. Know where you’ll be flying from and where you need to park. Imagine the route to that spot. Be sure to take note of where the tower is–it’s often a great landmark for navigating while close to the ground. Never assume the controller will put you in a traffic pattern. And don’t be afraid to admit you’re unfamiliar if you didn’t do your homework or if things in real life look different from how they looked on paper or a computer screen.

What if a controller does instruct you to enter a traffic pattern and you don’t want to? As amazing as this might seem to new pilots, you can ask the controller to allow you to go direct to your airport destination.

PRC
The airport diagram for Prescott. The X marks the location of the restaurant and we were coming in from the west. Runways 21L and 21R were active. The tower instructed us to fly all the way around the south end of the airport, at least three miles out, to get into a pattern for Runway 21.

I’ll never forget the flight I had one day as a passenger on my friend Jim’s Hughes 500c. Jim was a retired airline pilot who had been flying helicopters for at least 10 years. We were flying into Prescott Airport (PRC) in Arizona for lunch. When Jim called the tower, he asked for landing at the restaurant. The controller told Jim to enter a traffic pattern that would have required him to fly all the way around the airport, taking him at least 10 minutes out of his way. “Negative,” Jim barked into his microphone. “One-Two-Three-Alpha-Bravo is a helicopter. We want to land direct at the restaurant.” A new pilot at the time, I was shocked by his tone of voice. There was an uncomfortable silence and then the controller came back on and told him he could fly direct to restaurant parking.

Will the tower always grant your request? It depends on the situation. If a runway crossing is involved and the airport is busy with traffic, they might not. It might be safer or more convenient for them to keep you in a pattern with the airplanes. But it can’t hurt to ask, although I don’t think I’d be as aggressive as Jim was that day.

One of the big challenges of becoming a commercial helicopter pilot is thinking like a commercial helicopter pilot. There are things we can do that seem to conflict with what we were taught. Landing at airports without the formality of a traffic pattern is one of them.

Maximum Performance Takeoffs and Judgement Calls

Just because you can perform a maneuver, doesn’t mean you should.

Note: A version of this post originally appeared in AOPA’s Hover Power blog. If you’re a helicopter pilot, you owe it to yourself to check in there regularly to read great articles written by experienced helicopter pilots.

In the summer of 2014, I was part of a helicopter rides gig at an airport event. There were three of us in Robinson R44 helicopters, working out of the same rather small landing zone, surrounded on three sides by parked planes and spectators. We timed our rides so that only one of us was on the ground at a time, sharing a 3-person ground crew consisting of a money person and two loaders. Yes, we did hot loading. (Techniques for doing that safely is fodder for an entirely different blog post.) The landing zone was secure so we didn’t need to worry about people wandering into our flight path or behind an idling helicopter.

The landing zone opened out into the airport taxiway, so there was a perfect departure path for textbook takeoffs: 5-10 feet off the ground to 45 knots, pitch to 60, and climb out. It was an almost ideal setup for rides and we did quite a few.

One of the pilots, however, was consulting a different page of the textbook: the one for maximum performance takeoffs. Rather than turning back to the taxiway and departing over it, he pulled pitch right over the landing zone, climbed straight up, and then took off toward the taxiway, over parked planes and some spectators. Each time he did it, he climbed straight up a little higher before moving out.

I was on my way in each time he departed and I witnessed him do this at least four times before I told him to stop. (I was the point of contact for the gig so I was in charge.) His immediate response on the radio was a simple “Okay.” But then he came back and asked why he couldn’t do a maximum performance takeoff.

It boggled my mind that he didn’t understand why what he was doing was not a good idea. The radio was busy and I kept it brief: “Because there’s no reason to.”

The Purpose

The Advanced Flight Maneuvers chapter of the FAA’s Helicopter Flying Handbook (FAA-H-8083-21A; download for free from the FAA) describes a maximum performance takeoff as follows:

A maximum performance takeoff is used to climb at a steep angle to clear barriers in the flightpath. It can be used when taking off from small areas surrounded by high obstacles. Allow for a vertical takeoff, although not preferred, if obstruction clearance could be in doubt. Before attempting a maximum performance takeoff, know thoroughly the capabilities and limitations of the equipment. Also consider the wind velocity, temperature, density altitude, gross weight, center of gravity (CG) location, and other factors affecting pilot technique and the performance of the helicopter.

This type of takeoff has a specific purpose: to clear barriers in the flight path. A pilot might use it when departing from a confined landing zone or if tailwind and load conditions make a departure away from obstacles unsafe.

The Risks

This is an “advanced” maneuver not only because it requires more skill than a normal takeoff but because it has additional risks. The Helicopter Flying Handbook goes on to say:

In light or no wind conditions, it might be necessary to operate in the crosshatched or shaded areas of the height/velocity diagram during the beginning of this maneuver. Therefore, be aware of the calculated risk when operating in these areas. An engine failure at a low altitude and airspeed could place the helicopter in a dangerous position, requiring a high degree of skill in making a safe autorotative landing.

Deadman's Curve
Height Velocity diagram for a Robinson R44 Raven II. Flying straight up puts you right in the “Deadman’s Curve.”

And this is what my problem was. The pilot had purposely and unnecessarily decided to operate in the shaded area of the height velocity diagram with passengers on board over an airport ramp area filled with other aircraft and spectators.

Seeing what he was doing automatically put my brain into “what if” mode. If the engine failed when the helicopter was 50-75 feet off the ground with virtually no forward airspeed, that helicopter would come straight down, likely killing everyone on board. As moving parts came loose, they’d go flying through the air, striking aircraft and people. There were easily over 1,000 people, including many children, at the event. My imagination painted a very ugly picture of the aftermath.

What were the chances of such a thing happening? Admittedly very low. Engine failures in Robinson helicopters are rare.

But the risks inherent in this type of takeoff outweigh the risks associated with a normal takeoff that keeps the helicopter outside the shaded area of the height velocity diagram. Why take the risk?

Just Because You Can Do Something Doesn’t Mean You Should

This all comes back to one of the most important things we need to consider when flying: judgment.

I know why the pilot was doing the maximum performance takeoffs: he was putting on a show for the spectators. Everyone thinks helicopters are cool and everyone wants to see helicopters do something that airplanes can’t. Flying straight up is a good example. This pilot had decided to give the spectators a show.

While there’s nothing wrong with an experienced pilot showing off the capabilities of a helicopter, should that be done with passengers on board? In a crowded area? While performing a maneuver that puts the helicopter in a flight regime we’re taught to avoid?

A responsible pilot would say no.

A September 1999 article in AOPA’s Flight Training magazine by Robert N. Rossier discusses “Hazardous Attitudes.” In it, he describes the macho attitude. He says:

At the extreme end of the spectrum, people with a hazardous macho attitude will feel a need to continually prove that they are better pilots than others and will take foolish chances to demonstrate their superior ability.

Could this pilot’s desire to show off in front of spectators be a symptom of a macho attitude? Could it have affected his judgment? I think it is and it did.

Helicopters can perform a wide range of maneuvers that are simply impossible for other aircraft. As helicopter pilots, we’re often tempted to show off to others. But a responsible pilot knows how to ignore temptation and use good judgment when he flies. That’s the best way to stay safe.

Snowbirding 2016: Return to Wickenburg

I return for a few more days with friends — and make some new friends.

Posts in the Snowbirding 2016 Series:
Introduction
The Colorado River Backwaters
Quartzsite
Wickenburg
Phoenix
Home
Back to the Backwaters
Return to Wickenburg
Valley of Fire
Death Valley
– Back to Work

I left my Colorado River backwaters campsite and was on I-10 heading east by 11 AM on Tuesday morning — a full two days earlier than I originally expected. But that was okay — I was heading back to Wickenburg, the the comparable luxury of my friends’ guest house.

Getting There

It was about 100 miles or so of driving without much traffic. By noon, I was hungry. I wound up stopping for lunch at a place in Salome that turned out to be a biker bar. Whatever. I ordered a burger and sweet potato fries and ate it out in the shade on the patio. My friend Jim texted me with a lunch invitation just as I was taking delivery of my food. I felt bad having to turn him down.

The rest of the drive was completely uneventful. I drove into the outskirts of town a little after one.

Unfortunately, although Jim and Cyndi have 10+ acres of land, their driveway is narrow and twisty and likely not navigable by my truck pulling the Mobile Mansion. I had to park my rig somewhere relatively close by that would also be safe and free. I came up with what I like to think is an ingenious solution: a piece of unused pavement inside a locked fence. Sadly, I don’t feel at liberty to say more — I think I’d get into some serious hot water if lots of people started parking RVs there. Let’s just say that it falls under the “ask for forgiveness, not for permission” rule of life. When I finally told the property manager that the RV parked there for two days was mine, he was cool about it, but if I’d asked in advance, he probably would have said no.

At Jim and Cyndi’s

After parking the Mobile Mansion and offloading the things I needed with me for the next five days, I drove over to Jim and Cyndi’s house. I let myself in through the garage — neither of them were home — and let their dogs out into the yard to play with Penny. Then I settled into the same room in the guest house I’d stayed a few weeks before.

Jim and Cyndi cooked dinner for us that night: spaghetti with a thick and meaty sauce. Wickenburg treated us to an amazing sunset. I retired early to the guest house to do laundry and relax. I was asleep very early.

Wickenburg Sunset
Sunset at Wickenburg.

On Wednesday, Jim and I went down to Phoenix to get the speakers on one of his cars fixed. We went to Fry’s Electronics on Thunderbird, which is one of the few stores in the Phoenix area that I really miss. I bought a CD head cleaner and a new battery operated vacuum for the Mobile Mansion. We sat around in the cafe, waiting for the repair to be done. Afterwards, he took me to a burger place on Bell Road that he really likes. Then another stop in Wickenburg for some errands while I did some shopping and met up with some old friends. Along the way, I passed by where my old neighbor works and had to introduce myself — he didn’t recognize me after the nearly three years since I’d moved out of town.

I made dinner that night. I had some pork tenderloin and salad and bought some macaroni and cheese to go with it. I’d invited my friends, Janet and Steve, to join us — they were also staying in town and had brought their horses by earlier in the day to stay at Jim’s place — but they’d had a late lunch. They did join us after dinner, where we all sat around Jim’s gas fire pit talking and drinking wine or beer. Steve’s dad, Archie, was also visiting. I love Archie and hadn’t seen him in at least 10 years so it was really good to give him a hug and catch up with him.

On Thursday, I took Jim out to Wickenburg airport and another friend’s house to introduce him to some of the local area pilots. Jim is a retired airline captain and I think he’s having trouble keeping himself busy. Two of my airport friends are also retired airline pilots; the others are simply involved with aviation. Three of them are building planes. We spent a few hours meeting and greeting folks. Hopefully, Jim forms some good friendships with guys he has a lot of common with.

That afternoon, the other guesthouse guest arrived. Ron is a photographer based in Cottonwood, AZ. Jim and Cyndi had purchased one of his works months before and had suggested that he get a booth to sell at Gold Rush Days, Wickenburg’s big annual event. My friend Janet, who is an artist, was also selling her work there; that’s why she and Steve were in town. Ron turned out to be a really friendly, down-to-earth guy who was a pleasure to hang out with. Jim and Cyndi took us to dinner at our favorite Wickenburg restaurant that’s not in Wickenburg, Nichols West.

On Friday morning, I helped Jim and Cyndi set up a booth in town for Cyndi to sell the jewelry she makes. Then, while Jim headed down to Phoenix on an errand, I hit the art show around the library in town. It was surprisingly busy; I didn’t expect the Gold Rush kickoff to begin until Saturday after the big parade. I visited Janet’s booth and Ron’s booth; both looked great. (Janet later won first prize for Best Booth.) I saw two metal sculptures I thought would look great hanging on the front wall of my home: different versions of a sun face over four feet in diameter. The one I liked better had a hefty price tag and I decided to give it some more thought before splurging.

Afterwards, I headed back to the house. I was tired — I hadn’t been sleeping well — and although I wanted to get my truck washed, I decided to put it off until I got to California and took the kayaks off the roof. (Yes, I drove around with the kayaks up there for five days.) I spent the afternoon napping and reading and being lazy. I’d begun reading a Robert Galbraith book and found it difficult to put down. I need that kind of reading to keep my attention.

That evening, two of Jim and Cyndi’s friends joined us for a trip up to the T-Bird Cafe in Peeples Valley for pizza. Ron didn’t come. He’d begun feeling under the weather earlier in the day and just wanted to rest. I had a great pizza topped with all kinds of meat — I love meat on my pizza; you can keep the veggies — and we all brought back some for Ron. But he was asleep, knocked out by the cold medicine.

English Breakfast
English breakfast at Nichols West. Yum.

On Saturday, I went up to Nichols West for breakfast. Simon, the owner, is British and there’s an item called English Breakfast on the menu. I’d had it before and liked it, so I went back for more. I highly recommend it.

Penny on the Trail
Penny, the tiny trail dog.

Afterwards, I headed up to Granite Lake with Penny for a hike. It was early — not even 10 AM when we arrived — and still cool. We parked on the back side of the lake and, after walking along the lake’s edge for a few minutes, struck out along a trail heading northwest. That soon joined up with another trail that climbed into the saddle between Granite Mountain and the smaller hills to the west. There were horse tracks along the trail, along with patches of ice, snow, and mud. The trees were a mix of evergreens, manzanita, and other high desert varieties. Granite boulders were everywhere. A trickle of snowmelt formed a tiny stream that wound down the hillside, sometimes across the trail, to the lake.

Cat tails
I did a bit of photography around Granite Lake.

I was on the trail for at least 30 minutes when I realized that I’d hiked it before. I tried to remember when I was last there and who I was with. I know I wasn’t there alone. I started wondering whether I’d hiked it with my wasband years before. I remembered that we hadn’t gone far on the trail — I certainly went a lot farther that Saturday — and recall being winded by the climb. That put it before my big 2012 weight loss, when I was really out of shape. I was still married; had we hiked the trail together? Was a hike with my wasband that unmemorable? Unless I find photos or a blog post, I’ll likely never know. It’s probably better that way.

Penny and I hiked for a little more than a mile and half before taking a break and then turning around to go back. Although only two people had passed us on the way up, we passed quite a few people on the way back. It was much later in the day and I’d taken my time on the way out, stopping many times to take photos. Back at the truck, the lot was full of cars.

Sonic Squeeze
Sonic drive-ins apparently aren’t designed for full-size trucks.

I did a little shopping in Prescott before heading back to Wickenburg. On the way, I stopped at the Sonic drive-in for a shake and wasn’t surprised to discover that my truck didn’t fit into the drive-in parking space, even with the mirrors folded in. Sheesh.

Back in Wickenburg, I stopped at the art show in town. I’d decided to pick up one of the two sun faces I’d seen the previous day. But I was spared the expense: they’d both been sold.

Firepit
The fire pit at Jim and Cyndi’s house.

I spent a lot of the evening getting ready for my departure the next day. That meant doing laundry, organizing my stuff, and packing the truck. Jim and Cyndi made spaghetti with Jim’s excellent meat sauce for dinner. Ron, feeling better even after a full day at the show, joined us. Afterwards, we sat around the fire pit and talked. It was a nice, restful evening.

Coffee and Donuts

The next morning, I finished packing and doing laundry and cleaned up the guest house. By 8 AM, I was ready to go. I said goodbye to Cyndi — who was still in her robe — and headed out to pick up the Mobile Mansion. It took a few tries to get it hooked up — I can’t understand why sometimes I line it up just right on the first try and other times it takes a dozen tries — but then it was securely connected and I was ready to move out.

The Birth of Coffee and Donuts at Wickenburg Municipal Airport

There’s a back story for this and I’ll try to make it quick. My company, Flying M Air, LLC, took over the fuel manager contract at Wickenburg Airport in January 2003. It was a sweet deal that included full access to the terminal building and the ability to sell refreshments and pilot supplies. All I had to do was provide a warm body to pump fuel. I split the profits on all fuel sales with the city, which actually bought the fuel. Under this contract, I netted about $60K a year — with employees working 12 hours a day 365 days a year. The contract made a ton of money in the winter when the jets came in and lost some money every summer when it was too hot to fly.

(Around this time, my future wasband was between jobs and wanted to start a consulting business. I set him up in the terminal and paid him $20/hour — which was double what I paid my other employees — to be the warm body, leaving him free to do office work for his consulting business while he was there. He lasted less than a week, claiming there were too many distractions. Needless to say, that consulting business never got off the ground.)

Anyway, when I first got the contract, I naively thought that if I brought more planes to the airport, I’d sell more fuel. So I started providing donuts and coffee every Sunday morning. Donations covered all costs — which is a good thing, because the pilots who came seldom bought fuel. By the time I sold the contract in the summer of 2004, sick of dealing with the town and disappointed that my future wasband wasn’t interested in working there, it had become a tradition.

I had one more stop to make: Wickenburg Airport. I’d promised Jim that I’d introduce him to “the gang” at the weekly coffee and donuts event.

I rolled into the parking lot in my truck with the Mobile Mansion in tow. There was a crowd of people behind the terminal building, where a keypad-operated door let them into the lounge and kitchen. I was amazed by the number of people who had gathered. I knew some of them, but most of them seemed to know me — after they recognized me! (I look a bit different from the old days: considerably slimmer with long hair.) I got lots of hugs. One of my friends asked how long coffee and donuts had been a thing at the airport and was very surprised to learn it had been 13 years.

Jim showed up in his Jeep and I introduced him around. He already knew a few of the people. I’m hoping he makes socializing with the airport’s pilots a regular part of his retirement routine. I know he misses flying — despite his denials — and there are a few pilots who would welcome a companion on a trip for a $100 hamburger.

Heading Out

By 9:30 AM, I was ready to get on the road. I wanted to be at my next stop by early afternoon and it would be a four-hour drive. I said my goodbyes and after a tight squeeze getting out of the parking lot, hit the road, northbound.

I have to say that the best thing about this trip to Wickenburg was running into so many people I know, getting so many big hugs, and having so many people tell me how great and happy I look.

“Divorce suits you well,” one of my real estate friends said.

I laughed. “No shit.”