Last Flights of the Season

Santa drop-off, burgers with friends, and the special apple delivery.

I don’t care what the calendar says — winter is definitely upon the Wenatchee Valley where I live. After an early snowfall not long after Halloween and a subsequent thaw, the typical winter weather moved in, with four days out of seven filling the valley with fog. Sometimes my home, which sits about 800 feet above the river, was under it, other times it was in it, and a few times it was above it. The temperature hovered between 25 and 35 degrees day and night, so it wasn’t that cold. But it could be dreary, which is bad medicine for a sun-lover like me. I honestly don’t understand how people can live on the west side of the Cascades where it’s gloomy far more often than sunny all year around.

I normally go south for the winter and this year is no different. But I had some business to take care of at home, including my annual Santa flight, and couldn’t get back to the sun until after that. Scheduled for December 4, I fully expected it to be my last flight of the year. But sometimes I get lucky. Here’s a quick rundown of the three flights I finished the season with.

The Santa Flight

Pybus Public Market is a venue on the waterfront near downtown Wenatchee, WA. Once a steel mill, it was completely renovated about five years ago and now houses several restaurants and shops and hosts indoor and outdoor merchants for seasonal farmers markets and other events. It’s a really great public space, and a destination for locals and tourists, with plenty of events and things to do and see. Anyone who visits Wenatchee and doesn’t stop by Pybus is really missing something special.

Me and Santa
Here I am with Santa in 2012. Penny came along on the flight — she loves to fly in the helicopter. Note the polo shirt I’m wearing. Even with Santa’s door off, I wasn’t cold in December in Phoenix.

When I lived in Arizona, I was one of several helicopter owners/operators who volunteered to fly Santa in to the Deer Valley Airport restaurant in north Phoenix. The restaurant — which I highly recommend if you’re in the area; get the gyro sandwich — was privately owned by a Greek family and one of their sons would don a Santa suit on Saturdays and Sundays. For the four weekends leading up to Christmas, he’d get flown in by one of the local helicopter operators where a crowd of parents and children waited and cheered his arrival. We’d take turns picking Santa up at one of the FBOs at the airport, flying him north out of the airspace, and then turning around and returning — so it looked like we were flying in from the North Pole — and landing in front of the crowd. Once inside, Santa would sit on a big chair and kids would sit on his lap and tell him what they wanted for Christmas while parent cameras snapped. Then, I assume, the whole family would stick around for lunch. I blogged about the first time I did this, back in 2011; my wasband came along and took photos and you can see them in the blog post.

N630ML at Pybus Market
My helicopter is parked on display inside Pybus Public Market back in 2014. You can read the blog post about that here.

So when I moved to the Wenatchee area and fell in love with Pybus, it made sense to offer up the helicopter for Santa’s big arrival the weekend after Thanksgiving. Usually, Santa arrived in a fire truck, but most people agreed a helicopter would be way more exciting. I worked with Steve, the manager there, and set up a safe landing zone — or “heliport,” if you go by the definition that the county illogically clings to (long idiotic story there) — at the south end of the building. I picked up Santa at the airport and flew him in while a small crowd looked on. That was in 2013, the year I bought property for my new home in Malaga.

In subsequent years, Santa and I repeated the performance with bigger crowds every year. Weather was usually a factor though, and I remember one year waiting until the last possible minute to decide whether the flight was a go or no-go. But we made it each year and, when the weather was bad, I departed as soon as the crowd was inside the building so I could get the helicopter put away before the weather closed in again.

In 2016 — last year — the helicopter was in Arizona for its mandatory overhaul so I couldn’t do the flight. There is another red helicopter based in Wenatchee, however, and I knew the owner. I asked him to do it and he was game. But the weather did not cooperate at all and he couldn’t make the flight. Santa arrived on a fire truck that year.

This year, however, the helicopter was back in Washington and ready to go. I watched the weather all week and found it hard to believe the forecast for Sunday was as good as it was. On Friday morning, I went with Steve to the local radio station and talked up the upcoming flight. Steve said some really nice things about me and the other person who’d come along for the radio spot. Afterwards, I suggested that if the weather was good, Steve and I would go down to Blustery’s in Vantage for lunch. Bring a friend or two, I suggested. I was in no hurry to put the helicopter away if the weather was going to be good.

When Sunday arrived, the weather was perfect for a flight: clear, no fog, light wind. I picked up Santa at Wenatchee Airport and we touched down in the parking area — “heliport”? — there right on time. Here’s a video of my arrival on the Wenatchee World’s Facebook page.

Santa's Arrival by Helicopter at Pybus
Here’s Santa stepping out of the helicopter at Pybus. I have a sneaking suspicion this Pybus website photo is from the 2015 flight because I don’t remember anyone being in the doorway when I arrived this year.

After Santa and most of the crowd went inside, I shut down the engine so a few of the onlookers could come closer to the helicopter. I gave the kids postcards that featured an air-to-air photo of the helicopter over a lake that could be along the Columbia River. Kids got their photos taken with the helicopter. I answered the usual questions about speed and fuel burn and how long it takes to become a pilot.

Onlookers Checking Out the Helicopter
The helicopter at Pybus Public Market after last Sunday’s Santa flight. I like to give kids a chance to see the helicopter up close.

Will Fly for Food

Once the crowd around the helicopter broke up a little, we cleared the landing zone and Steve and a friend climbed on board. I started up and, a few moments later, took off over the river.

I cannot stress enough how perfect the weather was for flying. The cool air and recent engine overhaul worked together to give me amazing performance; cruising at 110 knots was easy. With very little wind, the flight was smooth and I could easily steer the helicopter anywhere I wanted to go. It was my first day flying in over six weeks and it really reminded me why I’d gotten “addicted” to flying and why I loved it so much. I felt as if I could have flown all day, stopping only when I needed fuel, and exploring every bit of the area that I loved.

We flew downriver over the two bridges and along the shoreline. I detoured to the south a bit to fly past my home, which Steve had never seen. Then we got back over the river and continued down toward our destination, about 30 miles (as the crow flies) away. It was nice flying with friends again — I haven’t been doing as many pleasure flights as I like these days — and seeing familiar terrain through their eyes. We saw the fire damage from the two early summer fires, one of which had come frighteningly close to where I live, new orchards and vineyards going in near Spanish Castle, and rock formations along the river. I dropped down low for a better look at the two huge herds of elk on West Bar, then flew up the Ancient Lakes side of Potholes Coulee and down the Dusty Lakes side. We went “backstage” at the Gorge Amphitheater, which was buttoned down for the winter, and past the Inn and yurts at Cave B Estate Winery. I flew past the rock climbers at Frenchman’s Coulee and pointed out the sand dunes near there that are virtually unknown to the folks in the area because they can’t be seen from any road.

Around then is when the wind picked up a little bit, adding some mild turbulence to the flight that made Steve a little nervous — unless he was just kidding? As I descended toward Vantage, I could see some whitecaps on the water surface below us. I crossed over the top of the I-90 bridge and made a right descending turn to my usual parking spot — or “heliport”? — at Blustery’s, crossing over the freeway just 100 feet up. As I set down — rather sloppily in a strong crosswind — I wondered if it was open because there was only one car there. But as I cooled down the engine for shutdown, we saw the OPEN sign. A few minutes later, we were inside, placing our orders.

Steve and Annette at Blustery's
Steve and his friend Annette with the helicopter at Blustery’s in Vantage, WA.

The folks who work in Blustery’s know me and always seem glad to see me. I know they know the helicopter is out there in the parking lot when I come, but none of them have ever said a word about it. One of these days, I’m going to take them up for a quick ride.

I ate my favorite three-meals-in-one-burger: the Logger Burger. It has two burger patties, bacon, ham, cheese, and a a fried egg. It’s huge and very tasty. And messy. I didn’t think I could finish it all, but I did. I pretty much skipped the fries. Steve picked up the tab, of course. That’s one of my rules: when I fly you for a meal on my dime, I fully expect you to pick up the tab for that meal. Folks who don’t get that, don’t get a second flight.

It was about 3 PM when we headed out on the return flight. The wind down there was still blowing pretty hard — it’s almost always windy on the river there — but I pointed the helicopter into the wind and let it help us climb out. I flew along the cliff face on the west side of the river, looking for the bighorn sheep I knew might be there. When I spotted one, I made a 360° turn to loop around and make sure my passengers could see it. It turned out that there were two of them, running off to the west with their white butts making them easy to see among the golden grass and sagebrush. We continued onward over the tops of the cliffs there, looking for more wildlife but coming up empty. This time of year, the elk move to lower elevations along the river, which is why we’d seen so many at West Bar, across the river from Crescent Bar. We descended closer to the river near the old Alcoa aluminum plant, where I made my radio call for landing at the airport. A short while later, we were on the ground.

I put the helicopter away, thinking it was the last time I’d fly it for the year.

The Apple Express

I was toiling over my to-do list at 7:30 AM on Tuesday when my phone rang. It was the helicopter pilot for one of my clients. I’d done such a good job flying them around a few years back that they’d decided they needed their own helicopter and had bought one. Tyson, a vet who’d learned to fly in the Army, had been hired to fly it and we’d become friends. I still flew for them occasionally, but not as often as I’d like to. They’re really nice folks and I always learn a lot about agriculture when we fly together.

Tyson’s helicopter was in pieces in Hillsboro, OR, for some scheduled maintenance. Normally, that was fine — his employers rarely flew in the colder months. But this morning, they had an emergency. They had to get 240 pounds of apples to a packing plant in Pasco, WA and had a tight deadline. Making the 2-1/2 hour drive was not going to get them there on time. They wanted to fly them. Could I take them on my helicopter?

After a miserable Monday, that day’s weather was perfect. There was some patchy fog low over the river here and there, but a quick check of the weather along my flight path showed it was good to go. So I said yes, got dressed, and hustled to get the helicopter ready for departure.

Tyson came with me, mostly because he knew the landing zone — “heliport”? — better than I did. We left Wenatchee Airport together and landed at the landing zone his employer had set up behind their facility in Wenatchee. On our descent, we spotted a bald eagle perched on a pole beside an empty osprey nest.

Apples in Helicopter
The boxes of apples filled the back seat area of the helicopter.

The apples were in 20-pound boxes and they absolutely filled the back seat area of the helicopter. Honestly, I didn’t think they’d all fit. But we got them in, closed the doors, strapped ourselves back in, and headed southeast on a direct course for the packing plant northwest of Pasco Airport, 86 nautical miles away. That meant an immediate climb to clear the cliffs just south of my home. I hadn’t flown that way in a long time; I prefer following the river whenever I can, but when a client is paying for flight time, you go direct whenever possible.

Just beyond the ridge, the valley was filled with low clouds. I maintained altitude as we flew over them, crossed the river again, and cut across the Quincy basin. The clouds disappeared. The air was calm and the flight was smooth. Tyson and I chatted about all kinds of things. It was nice to have company on the flight. We crossed Saddle Mountain and I maintained altitude to cross the Hanford Reserve, which has been in the news too much lately. The chart requests that pilots maintain 1800 feet MSL over that area and I’m all for that, especially since our flight path took us pretty darn close to the nuclear power plant at the south end of the reserve. The clouds were over the river there again and visibility at nearby Richland Airport was down to 1 mile. I exited the reserve area and started my descent, flying over those clouds.

I called in to Tri-Cities Airport for permission to land. Even though we weren’t landing at the airport, our landing zone was within Tri-Cities’ airspace so communication with the tower was required to enter the space. We saw the facility when were were still a few miles out and Tyson guided me to the landing zone on the southwest side, a gravel parking area. I flew low over some wires and set down smoothly in the middle of the area.

I was expecting someone to come out and receive the boxes, but no one appeared. So Tyson and I offloaded them ourselves, setting them out in a row on the gravel so my downwash on departure wouldn’t knock over a stack. Tyson walked off toward the building and found someone to talk to about the boxes while I took a few photos and secured the back doors. Then he climbed back on board and we departed to the northwest, after chatting with the Tri-Cities tower controller again.

Helicopter and Delivered Apples
Before departing, I took a photo of the helicopter in its landing zone with the apples we delivered. I have a lot of photos of my helicopter in various unusual landing zones. (Or do I mean “heliports”? I’ll have to ask the folks at the Chelan County building department, since they apparently know more about helicopters than I do .)

Track Log
Our track log for the apple delivery flight. I use Foreflight to automatically track the exact path of all of my flights these days.

We returned by almost the same exact route, although I did pass on the west side of the nuclear power plant on my way back. By then, just about all of the low clouds had cleared. It was still calm and smooth. I flew much higher than I usually did, even after leaving the Hanford area, and was treated to unobstructed views of Mount Rainier and Mount Adams. The only other interesting thing we noted on the way back was a C-130 transport flying below our altitude on a practice run for a drop zone east of our flight path. Tyson knew the frequency they’d be talking on and we tuned in. Soon, we heard air traffic control notify the huge plane about traffic 10 miles west at 3300 feet northwest bound — us. Tyson and I kept an eye on it until we were well clear of the area.

I crossed the ridge behind my house again and started the steep descent to the airport. When I set down, I had mixed feelings. I was sad that this would definitely be my last flight of the year — I had meetings on Wednesday and was leaving town on Thursday — but happy that I’d gotten this unexpected flight on such a great day for flying.

Another No Fly Decision

Smoke in the area forces me to cancel a scenic flight.

I’ll start this one with a story.

Flashback: Grand Canyon 2004

When I flew for Papillon at the Grand Canyon, Mother Nature threw all kinds of weather at us. In the spring, it was wind, sometimes blowing as hard as 50 miles per hour, causing all kinds of mechanical turbulence on our prescribed tour routes over the forest and Canyon. In the early summer, it was heat and high density altitude, which made the departure and arrival in our rather confined landing zone challenging. Then there were the fast-moving monsoon storms that sped across the terrain, sometimes blocking our path across the canyon and forcing us to shut down when lightning near the airport made it unsafe to refuel. (And yes, we did fly within 20 miles of thunderstorms.) That lightning would often start fires in the forest along the Grand Canyon’s rims, filling the air with thick smoke that made it nearly impossible to see.

Special VFR at GCN
Here’s an early morning view on one of those smokey days at the Canyon. The R22 on the left is mine, parked at transient helicopter parking at Grand Canyon Airport. I used to commute to work by helicopter once in a while; I needed a special VFR clearance to get into the Class D airspace that day. The tall building in the haze is Papillon’s base with its tower.

Honestly: flying at the Grand Canyon is the best experience a helicopter pilot can get. There isn’t much that you don’t experience as far as flying conditions go.

On one late afternoon in August, the area was full of storms and smoke from numerous wildfires. I took off in trail behind at least six other helicopters with another four behind me for one of the short tours. The passengers had come off a bus and their tour had likely been booked years in advance. All 11 helicopters were flying with the same group.

When we reached the Dragon Corridor, where we were supposed to cross the Canyon, we found our way blocked by a thunderstorm that made it impossible to see the other side of the canyon. So one by one we made our radio calls, turned around, went back past the airport, and crossed over the Canyon in the Zuni Corridor. There was a short tour on that side that we’d been taught but Papillon didn’t sell. I’d never flown it, so I basically followed the helicopter in front of me, making the same calls he did when I reached vaguely recalled reporting points.

The air was thick with smoke. The visibility was definitely less than five miles, although it had to be more than three miles for flight to be legal. But maybe that’s what it was at the airport. It wasn’t that over the canyon. At one point, I lost sight of the strobe light of the helicopter in front of me and had to find my way back without him. (We did not have GPSs on board.) I only got a little lost and was very glad to finally see Grand Canyon Airport’s tower. I adjusted my course to put me where I was supposed to be, made my radio call, and landed.

They shut down flights for the day after that.

Afterwards, I went up to the Chief Pilot’s office. His name was Chuck and he’d always struck me as someone who was very reasonable. I complained about the visibility and asked him why we were taking people on scenic flights when we could barely see. His response stuck with me: “If they’re willing to pay and it’s safe to fly, we’ll fly them.”

I swore I’d never take that attitude with passengers in my tour business. Indeed, years later I turned down a flight I could have done because I was certain that wind and turbulence would have made my passengers miserable.

And I’ve turned down flight since. Today is one of those days.

Today: Smoke in the Wenatchee Valley

The hour-long tour for one of my client’s vice presidents and his out-of-town guests has been on my calendar for about two months. I have the passengers names and weights and have done my weight and balance calculations. I know where they want to go and what they want to see.

The smoke started blowing in last week, which is kind of weird because (1) there aren’t any fires nearby and (2) there isn’t much wind. Apparently the fires are mostly in British Columbia (Canada), which isn’t very far from here, was well as in northwestern Washington State, on the other side of the Cascades. There was a rumor going around that there’s a fire in Blewett Pass, which is actually quite close, but I can’t find any information anywhere about that, and I have good sources to check.

Smoke from the Airliner
As this photo from my friend shows, the smoke was a thick blanket up to about 14,000-18,000 feet.

So the smoke is drifting down from Canada on a light breeze. It’s settling in the Columbia River Valley at Wenatchee. And elsewhere. A friend who who took a Horizon Airlines flight out on Thursday sent a picture from 20,000 feet and there was a blanket of smoke right beneath the plane. It was so bad I blogged about it.

For the first few days, it was a light haze. But yesterday it settled in so thick that not only could I smell the smoke, but I couldn’t see the river from my house, let alone the airport on the shelf right above it. Sure enough, the airport was reporting 1-1/4 mile visibility. Instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), meaning that it wasn’t legal for me to fly without getting a special VFR clearance from Seattle.

Bad View
I shot this photo from my deck yesterday when the visibility was at its worse.

Foreflight Weather
Turning on ForeFlight’s visibility layer displays visibility in miles at each airport that provides this data. Clicking the number displays details.

I emailed my client yesterday, asking him to check in with me an hour before the flight. But I wound up calling him this morning, two hours before the flight. I’d used ForeFlight, the basis of my electronic flight bag, to check conditions at Pangborn Memorial Airport, which I could barely see across the river. It was reporting visibility at 2-1/2 miles: IMC.

Could I fly in these conditions? Technically, yes. I could get a Special VFR clearance to leave my home (which is within Pangborn’s Class E airspace) and fly up to Baker Flats where my client would be waiting. That’s in Class G airspace where only 1/2 mile visibility is required for helicopters during the day. I could then do the whole tour, making sure I stayed out of class E airspace or get another clearance if I wanted to enter Class E. So yes, it’s legal.

But is it safe? Well, since I would always remain within sight of the ground and whatever’s at least a half mile in from of me and I can fly at virtually any speed to keep it safe, then yes, it’s safe.

So by Papillon’s standards — at least those back in 2004 when I flew there — I shouldn’t hesitate to do the flight. After all, it’s money in the bank, right?

I don’t think that way. It’s all about passenger experience. Other than me getting paid for a hour of flight time, what’s the benefit? The tour would be terrible — my passengers wouldn’t be able to see more than a mile or two during the entire flight. What’s “scenic” about that?

My client understood perfectly. He was happy to cancel. We agreed that we’d keep an eye on conditions and that if, by some miracle, a wind kicked up and blew some of the smoke out, we could try in the afternoon. Or maybe tomorrow. I’ve got nothing on my schedule. But it’s more likely that we won’t do it at all since his guests are leaving town on the 6 AM flight tomorrow morning. (Provided Horizon can get the last flight in tonight.)

In the meantime, I don’t mind staying home today. It’s better indoors with the windows shut than outside breathing that crap we’re importing from Canada.

The FAA’s Irrational Application of a Rule

A little about my Vertical column and the responses to it.

If you’re a helicopter pilot, you’re likely familiar with Vertical Magazine. Simply put, it’s the premiere helicopter pilot/operator publication, with great articles and amazing photography. It not only informs those of us in the helicopter industry, but it keeps us enthusiastic about being part of what’s admittedly a rather elite club.

Vertical MagazineIf you read the June/July issue (download here as a pdf), you may have seen page 10’s Talking Point column. And if you know this blog, you probably realized that the Maria Langer who wrote that month’s column is the same Maria Langer who has been blogging here since 2003. Yeah: me.

I haven’t blogged about this yet because, frankly, I still can’t believe it happened.

While I wasn’t paying attention, the FAA issued FAR Part 135.160, which requires Part 135 on demand charter operators like me to install a radio altimeter. The rule has a loophole, which my Primary Operations Inspector (POI) at the Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) told me about: a waiver was available for helicopters less than 2,950 pounds max gross weight. My R44 has a max gross weight of 2,500 pounds and is VFR-only. Surely I’d get the waiver.

I didn’t.

What’s the Big Deal?

If you’re not familiar with what a radio altimeter is, you likely don’t understand how incredibly idiotic it is to require one in an R44. Here’s the deal. A radio altimeter — which is also sometimes called a radar altimeter — uses radio waves to measure the exact height of an aircraft over the ground. It then sends this data to a readout on the aircraft’s instrument panel so the pilot has this information handy.

Of course, a Robinson R44, which is what I fly, is a VFR-only aircraft. That means it’s only legal to fly in VFR (visual flight rules) conditions. That means you can see out the aircraft window. And that’s what Robinson pilots — all VFR pilots, for that matter — do when they want to know how high off the ground they are. They look. After all, they’re supposed to be looking outside anyway.

So for the FAA to require this kind of instrument on an aircraft that’s never going to need one makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Being the gadget person I am, I might not mind having a new toy in the cockpit. The trouble is, my cockpit’s panel must be modified to accommodate it, thus reducing my forward visibility, and the damn thing is going to cost me $14,500 to buy and have installed. And the helicopter will be offline for about a week while the mechanic tears it apart and drills holes in the fuselage to put it in.

There’s more to the story, but it’s mostly covered in the Vertical column. Go read it now; it’s on page 10. It’s short — they wouldn’t let me have more than 1,000 words. (I know; I gave them 1,200 and they cut 200 out.) See if you can read my frustration between the lines.

Responses

I got a number of responses to the column.

credits
This is kind of cool: they listed me as a contributing editor in that issue’s masthead.

The very first was from my friend Mike in Florida. He sent me an email message that included the Contributing Editor list you see here and a link to the article with his congratulations. Mike has also written for Vertical; he has a ton of experience and great writing skills.

A handful of other folks I knew texted or emailed me that they’d seen it. That was gratifying. I really do like writing for publication and should make a conscious effort to do it more often.

Then, the other day, about two weeks after it was first published, I got a call from someone at Helicopter Association International (HAI). HAI is a professional organization for helicopter pilots and operators. I used to be a member. It cost $600 a year and the only thing I got from them was a wooden membership plaque and a lot of paper. Safety posters, manuals, letters, newsletters, magazines. All kinds of crap to add to the clutter that had already taken over my life. When I dropped my membership after two or three years, they called to find out why. I told them they did nothing for small operators like me. They promised to change and conned me into joining for another year. Nothing changed. I was throwing my money away. I dropped my membership for good.

The HAI guy who called started by asking why I hadn’t come to HAI with the radio altimeter issue. After all, part of their member benefits was to be the voice of helicopter operators in Washington DC. Wrong question. I told him I wasn’t a member and then explained, in many, many words, why I’d quit. Then we talked a bit about the radio altimeter issue. He said he’d been working on it for a few days and he certainly did know a lot about it. He said that he wasn’t sure, but thought that HAI, which had been involved in the rulemaking comment process, had assumed it would only apply to medical helicopters. He said I shouldn’t get my hopes up but he and HAI were going to work on it. He wanted to stay in touch. Whatever. I gave him my email address.

When I hung up, I wondered why they were trying to close the barn door after the horse had already gotten out. After all, the FAA was not going to change the rule, especially after so many operators had already gone to such great expense to meet the requirement. HAI had dropped the ball for its small operators yet again. At least I hadn’t paid them to do it on my behalf.

The most recent response came just today and it prompted me to write this blog post. It was an email from a Facebook friend. I actually got two versions of it; I think this is the one he sent first which he apparently thought he lost:

Hey Maria
My name is Scott ##### and I took a $40 ride with you at the 2006 Goodyear Airshow out to PIR and back.
In 2007 I started flight training. We’re “friends” on Facebook and I always enjoy your posts and writings on your blog.
I just finished reading your article in Vertical magazine and couldn’t resist contacting you with my comments.
What a horrible situation for you. I’m severely confused as to why a Federal, as in a single national government agency, interprets the rules differently at each FSDO. It should be the same across the United States! How frustrating I’m sure this is for you.
This industry is tough enough as it is and for a single pilot, single aircraft operator, you’ve been extremely successful. Now this?
At least you got the temporary A160 but you shouldn’t have to have the radar altimeter installed at all! To me it’s very cut and dry: 135.160 does not apply to VFR aircraft weighing less than 2,950 pounds! Where’s the Misinterpretation?
I guess you can’t just cancel your installation appointment at Quantum in December, but hopefully you can get around paying for equipment you’ll never use.
Good luck to you Maria.

First, I have to say how gratifying it is to have been instrumental in a person deciding to learn how to fly helicopters. Wow. Just wow.

Second, it’s cut and dry to me, too! And most of the folks I spoke to that don’t happen to work at the FAA. And there’s nothing I’d like more than to cancel my December appointment with Quantum to get the radio altimeter installed.

But I wrote him a more informative response and I thought I’d share it here. It says a few things I couldn’t say in Vertical. (Or maybe they were in the 200 words that had to be left on the cutting room floor.)

Hi, Scott. Thanks for writing.

Unfortunately, every word of my Vertical piece is true. The FAA will NOT give me the waiver. They don’t care that my helicopter is small or VFR-only or or that the panel is full or that the rule was written in such a way to exclude R44s like mine. They do not operate logically. I worked with AOPA and an aviation attorney. I got my Congressman and one of my Senators involved. I had an email correspondence going with THREE men with the FAA in Washington who are responsible for making the rule. My lawyer spoke to people in Washington, too. They won’t budge. In fact, they told my lawyer that they’re going to rewrite the guidance so R44 helicopters can’t be excluded.

Problem is, medical helicopters crashed and people made noise at the FAA. The FAA needed a fix to turn down the heat. Radio altimeter makers promised a solution that would work and lobbied hard for it. They’re all over the comments for the regulation proposal. And since they have more time and money to throw at it, they won. The FAA bought into their Band Aid — or at least made us buy into it — whether it can help us or not. They didn’t seem to care that the real fix was better pilot training, less pressure on pilots to fly in IMC conditions, and a company culture that values safety over profits.

Understand this: the FAA doesn’t care about small operators or even pilots. They exist to regulate and ensure safety — or at least the illusion of safety. Your best chance of having a successful aviation career is to stay off their radar.

I pissed off a lot of people with my radio altimeter fight and I suspect they gave me the temporary waiver just to shut me up. I got a call from HAI the other day and they say they’re going to follow up. Too little, too late. But at least someone else will be making noise since I, like my fellow Part 135 Robinson owners, have given up.

I’m nearing the end of my career. I figure I have about 10 years left as a pilot. So I don’t mind throwing myself under the bus in an effort to seek fairness and logic. I don’t recommend you doing the same.

Unless HAI or someone else is successful in talking reason into the FAA on this matter, I’ll be plunking down $14,500 in December to have this useless instrument installed. And then I’ll pull the circuit breaker and let the panel stay dark so it doesn’t distract me from what’s outside the cockpit — which is where every VFR pilot should be looking.

And life will go on.

I’m fortunate in that even though it will take YEARS for me to earn that money back with Part 135 work, my cherry drying and frost work puts enough money in the bank to make the expenditure possible. Without that, I’d likely have to cease charter operations and possibly close up shop. I suspect others have found themselves in that situation. So much for government helping small businesses.

Thanks for your concern. Best wishes with your endeavors.

Maria

And that’s about all I have to say on the matter.