Flying with the Mustache Kid

Another rides event, another opportunity to take hundreds of strangers flying.

Yesterday, a fellow cherry drying pilot named Gary and I offered helicopter rides at Wenatchee Pangborn Airport’s annual Aviation Day event. This was our third time doing this event together and I think we make a great team. I’ve also been offering rides at the annual Wenatchee Wings and Wheels event since 2012, but I’m kept a lot busier at this event now that Wings and Wheels is held in an East Wenatchee park. Airport events are always the best ones for rides. In fact, this is my best event every year and tops all the events I’ve ever done, including the big Air Fair event in Buckeye that I did for many years when I lived in Arizona.

And big is important. There’s nothing worse than setting up to give helicopter rides and then have just a few takers, leaving the aircraft sitting idle on the ground for most of the day.

Girls Can Fly

Anyone who knows me very well also knows that I don’t like gender distinctions. I’m a firm believer that a woman can do anything a man can and I’ve proven that in three (so far) male dominated fields. I don’t belong to women’s organizations for this reason. They seem to use gender as an excuse for not succeeding. You can read a lot more about my gender-related opinions here.

That said, I very much enjoy taking girls — especially pre-teen girls — for helicopter rides. In the predominately conservative areas in which I’ve lived — Arizona and now Central Washington State — I’m sad to see that people are still surprised that the pilot is a woman. And that their kids, as you might expect, are equally surprised. I make a point of reminding them that women can be pilots, too. I don’t want them to think about gender boundaries and “glass ceilings” that they later, consciously or unconsciously, might use as an excuse to fail. I want them to take on the challenges and achieve the goals they want to achieve, regardless of whether most of the people on the same path are men. I consider it a privilege to show them what’s possible by my own example, at least in the world of aviation.

Rides events are good for the community, too. They make it possible for helicopter operators to offer people without a lot of extra cash the chance to experience helicopter flight without breaking the bank*. At just $40/person, they can even take their kids for a flight. (It was my first helicopter flight at age 7 or 8 that made me interested in flying and ultimately become a helicopter pilot.) Even if kids don’t walk away wanting to become pilots, a helicopter (or airplane) flight helps expand their world. They see familiar places from a new perspective. The world of aviation — which may have been mysterious and unapproachable — is suddenly exposed to them as something that’s neither difficult nor scary. And the ones who talk to me about wanting to fly get my standard mini lecture on how important it is to pay attention in school so they learn the math, science, and geography they need to fly.

I’d estimate, based on conversations with my passengers, that about 50% of them have never been on a helicopter. A surprising percent of them — at least 10% — have never been on any kind of aircraft. And I’m not just talking about kids here; I’ve had people in their 30s and 40s tell me they’ve never been airborne. It’s an honor to be the one who takes these people flying for the first time and I do my best to make it a positive, memorable experience.

Which could explain why I have so many repeat customers. A couple who flew with me yesterday with their 3-1/2 year old son told me that this was their third time flying with me as a family. That means their son was 1-1/2 years old the first time. I asked if he remembered the flights and the dad assured me that he did and talked about it a lot.

I could go on and on all day about why I enjoy offering rides at big events like Aviation Day in Wenatchee. I could tell stories about all the passengers I remember — and there are quite a few of them. But it’s a beautiful day and I’m thinking of taking my kayak out on the river with friends. So I’ll leave you with this video I threw together yesterday evening, after sitting in the pilot seat for 8 hours with only 2 breaks.

My new GoPro camera setup shoots video footage from two vantage points. I’ve been putting them together to create picture-in-picture videos, with audio. The idea is to be able to create videos for passengers of their flight. Videos I can put on YouTube so they can share them with their friends.

Flying with the Mustache Kid
One of more than 40 flights I did yesterday.

This particular flight stood out in my mind. It was early in the afternoon and I’d been flying for more than 4 hours straight with just a 15-minute break to refuel and swallow a hot dog. I was past my first wave of tiredness, into the punchy second wind I usually get when the flying is automatic and I’m just trying to enjoy the flights with my passengers. Certain passengers really get me going when I’m like this and the kid with the neon green t-shirt and painted on mustache was definitely one of them. I have no idea how old he was, but he couldn’t have been older than 6 or 7. He was a talker — very articulate with a good vocabulary. He was also attentive, seeing and hearing far more than most passengers probably do. He sat right next to me and we talked for the entire flight.

See for yourself:

(Keep in mind that he was wearing and playing with the microphone boom on a $1,000 Bose aviation headset for the entire flight. Note to other pilots: buy cheap headsets for rides events.)

As you might be able to tell from my responsive chatter, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Mustache Kid. I’m not sure if he’ll remember this flight as well as I will, but I hope his family finds the video online — I’ll also post it on Flying M Air’s Facebook page — and shows it to him. It’s the kind of thing I think he’d enjoy showing his kids someday.

And many thanks to my companion pilot Gary, who flew even longer than I did; the ground crew (Lorri, Alex, and Nate), who did an amazing job getting passengers on and off the helicopters quickly and safely; and the folks at Pangborn Airport, especially Tina, who makes sure I get the event on my calendar every year.

For more flight videos, be sure to check out Flying M Air’s channel on Facebook. I’ll try to put together a few more videos like this one soon.


* Normally, I have a 1-hour minimum for flights. It’s just not worth it to preflight the helicopter, get it out, fly it to the airport, wait around for the passengers, do the flight, collect the money, refuel, and fly the helicopter back for a 10-minute flight. Think about it: would you be interested in spending up to 2 hours of your day and about $120 in operating costs for 10 minutes of actual revenue flight time that might get you $80 or $120? Obviously, I couldn’t survive if I did so. But gather together 50 or more people who want those short flights and take them all in one day and it becomes a profitable endeavor — and a lot of hard work.

A Jeep Trip to Mission Ridge

A surprisingly wonderful midday out.

I’ve been debating what to do this winter. I don’t have much work here in the Wenatchee area other than writing, which I can do anywhere. I will likely be heading down to California in January anyway to record a new course for Lynda.com. I’ve been thinking about spending a month or two in Arizona — after all, I do still own a home there — and I have friends to visit and hike with. But local friends are encouraging me to stick around and even do something crazy (for me): take up downhill skiing.

So I have options.

Heli Skiing

A chat with a pilot friend yesterday morning got me thinking about heli skiing — where you use a helicopter as a ski lift to take you (very) quickly to the top of the slopes. And that got me thinking of my friend Don and Mission Ridge.

Don is an avid skier. He’s rejoicing over the early opening of the local ski resort, Mission Ridge, and is determined to be one of the first on line for the lift on Saturday.

Don’s been talking to me on and off about offering heli skiing at Mission Ridge. He says I can drop off skiers at the microwave towers at the top of the ridge. And then he offered to drive up there with me.

I didn’t realize we could drive up. But since there are towers up there, of course you can drive up. I didn’t know how to get there but offered to drive. I met him with my Jeep at his house at about 10:30 AM. The plan was to scout for a landing zone so I could propose a heli-skiing service to the folks at Mission Ridge.

Top of Mission Ridge
This ski trail map by the folks at Mission Ridge really exaggerates the mountains and distances. The arrow points to my proposed landing zone.

The Drive Up

We took two cars — my Jeep and Don’s truck — to the turnoff for Jumpoff Road off of Stemilt Loop Road. No sense in me driving all the way back to Don’s house when we were done, especially since the Jumpoff turn was closer to my place than his.

Jumpoff, by the way, is the name of the ridge behind my home. There’s a basalt cliff face to the south of me that soars at least 500 feet straight up. The top of that is called Jumpoff Ridge. There’s a road that winds up the side of the mountain near Stemilt Hill to the west of me. From there, another road turns off to follow power lines up the mountain. And then another road breaks off to the microwave towers overlooking the resort on Wenatchee Mountain, elevation 6742 feet.

It was not a short drive. It wasn’t smooth, either. Although the first road, Jumpoff Ridge Road, was relatively smooth and well-maintained, the next two roads weren’t maintained at all. The power line road was pretty straight in most places, but was filled with large rocks that forced me to drive slowly. Most of it was in clearings filled with bunch grass and sagebrush much like I have at my home. Whenever we left the power line, the road got windy and sometimes steep. That’s where it made its way through forests of tall pine trees.

Snow appeared on the road after the first seven or eight miles and was a few inches thick a bit farther up. I had to switch into four wheel drive at a particularly steep spot. My tire tracks were the first ones in the snow, which may have fallen overnight. Although we were on a ridge for much of the time, low clouds made it impossible to see very far in any direction. Indeed, by the time we reached the first antenna installation, a light freezing fog was blowing past. Beneath it, out to the south, we could see glimpses of where the valley dropped down toward Ellensburg.

If you’re curious about our exact route, you can find it here on Gaia GPS. I tracked it with their app on my phone.

After about an hour of driving, Don opened his backpack and pulled out a snack. He fed me cheese, crackers, and smoked turkey as I drove. That was a good thing since I’d forgotten to eat breakfast.

We made one stop along the way. There was a weird trail across the road and Don wanted to check it out. While he did that, I made a pit stop behind a tree. Then we were on our way again.

The drive to the end of the road took about 1-1/2 hours. We’d driven 15.7 miles and climbed more than 3000 feet in elevation.

At Wenatchee Mountain

At the end of the road was the Communication Facility at Wenatchee Mountain. It consists of two small buildings — both locked up tight — and a bunch of antennas. I shut off the Jeep and we all got out — Penny, too — to take a look. It was surprisingly windy up there — it wasn’t windy down below — and the wind chill must have brought it down to the teens. Exposed skin froze quickly, but the rest of me was pretty warm in heavy jeans and three layers (cotton shirt, fleece sweatshirt, and the junky polyester winter shell I’d bought at Costco for just $20). I was wearing a scarf (of course) which I soon used to cover my head and ears. (My hair, which is longer now than it’s been in about 30 years, does a good job keeping my ears warm, but not when it’s windy.)

I was thrilled to see a large, level spot that would be perfect for landing the helicopter — provided the snow wasn’t too deep there. There wasn’t much snow on the ground that day — the wind had blown the powder mostly away. I assumed the wind would almost always be coming from the south so I’d have to land into that direction. There was a clearing between trees to the north that would make that easy. And the departure off the top of the ridge to the south would be a piece of cake. A quick turn back to the north and then an autorotative descent to the starting point. I suspected I’d be able to turn a ride with two passengers on board in less than 10 minutes. With at least $50/person, I few hours each weekend morning could be lucrative enough to make me stay in Wenatchee all winter.

Wenatchee Mountain
Here’s a topo map of the top of the mountain. The terrain drops off sharply to the north, south, and west.

We turned to the larger of the two buildings and the lookout point to its south. The view from Wenatchee Mountain was breathtaking in almost every direction. There were still clouds off to the southwest, trying to drift over the ridge but not quite making it. The entire ski resort lay spread out before us — we could see trails, lifts, and buildings along the way.

Christmas Card Image
The small pine trees at the northwest edge of the mountaintop were still wearing the snow coats they’d acquired the night before. Wenatchee sits in the valley in the center left of this shot. I think this is a perfect Christmas Card photo, don’t you?

Panorama
Did you say you wanted a panorama? Here you go. You should see it in full size. I think this will look great enlarged and hung over my stairs — I really didn’t want that Monument Valley canvas triptich anyway.

Don explained how skiers would get up to the spot where we stood: a ride up on Lift 2 followed by a trip along the boundary and a climb on foot to where we stood. He said the area where the Jeep was parked was a natural snow bowl surrounded by a windbreak. He was clearly excited about the prospect of getting up there by helicopter. Despite the wind, I was getting excited about the possibility of bringing him and others.

Dognaldo in the Jeep
Don in the Jeep at the top of Wenatchee Mountain.

We hung out for a while and I took a bunch of photos while he shot off some bottle rockets to encourage snowfall. Before we started the drive back, I took a picture of Don in the Jeep, making a face at me.

Clear Lake

We took a slightly different route back that avoided much of the power line and wound down the side of the mountain toward Stemilt Hill, completely avoiding Jumpoff Ridge Road. Our path took us past an area where the mostly eaten carcass of an elk lay and an eagle sat stood up in a tree. I suspected that we’d interrupted his meal.

I stopped the Jeep but left it running and left Penny inside. Don and I each tried to approach the eagle to get a better photo. We spooked him, of course, and I got a decent shot of it taking off.

Eagle in a Tree Eagle Taking Off
An eagle watched us from a perch in a tree, then took off when we got too close.

We continued down the mountain, snacking on chocolate chips and honey roasted nuts. The road wound into the forest and took us close to Clear Lake, where Don suggested we stop for a look.

On the Shore of Clear Lake
On the shore of Clear Lake.

The lake is really just a small reservoir used to irrigate orchards on Stemilt Hill. Irrigation was turned off that time of year and the lake looked about half full. It was also frozen. Frozen enough to walk on. We figure the ice was anywhere from 3 to 6 inches thick.

Understand that our area of Washington was hit with a cold snap about a week ago that lasted a full week. We’re just coming out of it now. Low temperatures at my place have been in the teens for most of that time with highs below freezing. Today was the warmest day in a while, reaching about 35°F. I’m talking cold.

So it was no surprise to me that a lake at least 2,000 feet higher in elevation than where I live should be frozen. What was a surprise was (1) how thick that ice was and (2) how many rocks were sitting on the ice.


I shot this video of Don with my iPhone. Look at it in full screen with sound full up.

We walked around on the ice. Don slid around. We both agreed that if we had ice skates, we could be skating. He tossed large rocks across the ice so we could listen to the weird sounds they made. He fired a shot from his 22 pistol into the ice away from us. Later, we went to find the spot the bullet hit. A scratch was dug about an inch and a half into the ice and the bullet was nowhere to be seen.

I took a lot of artsy photos. At least I tried to. Later, I stuffed Penny into my jacket to keep her warm while we walked along the edge of the lake.

Clear Lake, Frozen
Clear Lake was frozen. Suitable for skating frozen.

Parting Company

We climbed back in the Jeep and followed the road the rest of the way down the mountain. It intersected with Stemilt Loop Road less than a half mile from where we’d left Don’s truck.

We talked briefly about trying to set up a meeting with the folks at Mission Ridge. I’m not sure if they’ll go for the heli-skiing idea, but it doesn’t really matter. I’d enjoyed our day out no matter what came of our “research.”

We said our goodbyes and went our separate ways. Fifteen minutes later, I was home. Not only did the four hour midday break leave me with a head full of good memories from an outing with a friend, but I had lots of ideas for places to camp and take my ATV and Jeep when spring and summer return. It never ceases to amaze me how many truly incredible spots are so close to where I live.

Boating with Friends

Another nice day out on the river.

On Thursday, I took my boat out for the first time this season. It was a girls day out: me, Stephanie, Megan, and Penny the Tiny Dog.

My BoatMy little boat in a photo from 2012. It’s a 1995 SeaRay Sea Rayder F-16. It’s a fun little boat, but it definitely looks faster than it is.

I admit I wasn’t very responsible about winterizing the boat. I was supposed to disconnect the battery and I didn’t. I did, however, remember to put fuel stabilizer in the half-empty fuel tank. Then I parked it in my hangar and pretty much forgot about it.

About a week ago, I pulled the battery and brought it to Les Schwab. The previous owner, Ron, had bought the battery there years ago. One of the benefits of having a Les Schwab battery is that they’ll test and charge it for you for free. A friend of mine dropped it off there for me and I picked it up a few days later. It took a charge and tested good. On Thursday morning, I reinstalled it, closed the engine lid, and crossed my fingers.

The Boat’s Role in my Divorce Saga

Oddly, my little boat played a role in my divorce trial drama last year.

My wasband apparently believed it was worth more than I’d paid for it. He, or more likely, his mommy, decided to try to trick me into admitting it was worth more by offering me $1,000 for it in court. Because I’d only paid $1,500 for it and had since had a mishap that reduced its value, I accepted the offer.

But when he learned that he’d have to get it from Washington to Arizona and pay for storage until he could do so, he took back the offer and I got to keep it.

The exchange between his lawyer, my lawyer, and me must have made a nice show for the judge. My friends and family certainly laughed about it afterwards

His loss. But then again, I suspect his mommy isn’t the kind of person who likes to have fun outdoors. She’d rather spend her time living life vicariously by reading my tweets and blog posts. Are you enjoying this one?

I towed the boat behind my Jeep to the gas station where I topped off the tank with premium fuel. I always do that for vehicles that have been left sitting too long. Then I crossed the bridge to Wenatchee, drove to the boat ramp behind Pybus Market, and launched it. I got there 30 minutes early so it would be in the water when my friends arrived and, with luck, I’d be able to get it running. I didn’t want my friends to have to wait while I launched it and cranked it and possibly couldn’t start it. I figured that if it wouldn’t start, they wouldn’t have to waste too much of their time.

Stephanie showed up just after I parked the Jeep and was climbing on board. She admitted to a certain fear of water and I handed over my old jet ski vest, which I’d brought along. She climbed aboard and took a seat while I crossed my fingers again and began cranking the engine.

It caught on the second try. I don’t know why I was so worried about it.

I left the engine idle while securely tied to the dock. Being a weekday morning, there weren’t any other boats coming or going. That’s one of the things that amazes me about the Columbia River. It’s a huge river — really a chain of dam-formed lakes — and the water is usually calm and blue and very inviting. Yet there are relatively few boats on it. Even on weekends, the boat ramp parking lot is seldom full.

I let the engine run for 10 minutes, then shut it down. No sense wasting fuel or talking over its sound. I opened the Bimini top and Stephanie and I sat in the shade. The temperature was perfect — in the high 70s, I think — and there was a gentle breeze. Beyond the boat ramp, the river, which was running high with spring thaw in the mountains, rushed by at what I’d later clock at 5-1/2 miles per hour.

In the Boat
Megan took this photo of me and Stephanie with Penny as we headed upriver.

Megan showed up with a big cooler full of food a while later. We loaded it on board. Megan grabbed the bow rope while I started the engine. We cast off. I backed up gingerly, then shifted into forward and steered us out of the little lagoon.

We headed upriver, as I always do, at about 25 miles per hour. It was very cool out on the water and I was glad I’d brought along a long-sleeved shirt. I pointed out a few points of interest along the way, including the swimming lagoon at Walla Walla Point Park, where they also rent kayaks and paddle boards, and the estuary where I’ll be paddling with other friends later today.

Along the RiverAnother one of Megan’s photos. It was a really beautiful day with light wind and few clouds in a clear blue sky.

We headed up the Wenatchee River a bit. The water was high and moving quickly — quite a difference from when I’d been there with my friend Janet the previous summer. I went as far as the second bridge before turning around and heading back out to the Columbia. We continued upriver, past the north end bridge. After a while, the water began to get turbulent from the water release at the Rocky Reach Dam. Because I didn’t want to spook Stephanie — and I know how crazy the water gets closer to the dam — I decided to stop there. I pulled the power back to idle and cut the engine.

Wonderful silence.

That’s the trouble with motor boats. When you’re moving they make a lot of noise. So what I typically do on a boat outing is drive the boat upriver to a certain point, then cut the engine and drift back.

Megan Selflie
Megan captured this selfie as we drifted downriver. The water was glassy smooth in many places.

Stephanie opened her picnic cooler and produced a bottle of pinot gris and glasses. She pours wine at Kestrel Vintners‘ tasting room in Leavenworth. I couldn’t drink — I’m on call during daylight hours for cherry season — but both Stephanie and Megan had some. Then Megan started pulling food out of her cooler. Soon we were sitting in the drifting boat as it gentle spun its way down the river, eating and talking and enjoying the scenery.

The river was moving pretty quickly — 5-1/2 miles per hour according to a GPS app on my phone — and it took about an hour for us to drift back past the boat launch. Since we weren’t ready to go in and there was still a lot of river between us and the next dam, we kept drifting. Megan and Stephanie took pictures. I lounged in my seat in the shade or on the engine compartment lid out in the sun. I’d worn short shorts with the hope of getting some sun on my legs. I’ve got a great tan on my arms and upper chest — hell, I live in tank tops this time of year — but my legs are terribly white.

South End Bridges
Stephanie’s shot looking back at the south end bridges.

Soon we passed under the south end bridges. Megan wanted to know if we could see my home from the River. I knew that I could see that part of the river from my home so I figured I should be able to see my home from the river. I looked up and spotted it — the building under construction is visible from literally miles away — and gave them landmarks on the top of the cliff and then below it. I’m not sure if they saw it, but they said they did. I know my friend Judy has been monitoring construction from her home right across the river from me.

We got as far as the Billingsley Hydro Park, which is another local boat launch facility on the East Wenatchee side of the river, and I figured we’d gone far enough. It was nearly 1 PM and I had to put the boat away, buy a concrete box (long story), and meet with an HVAC contractor at 3. We stowed the dishes and glasses and napkins and I started the engine. Five minutes later, we were pulling up to the boat launch lagoon and I was easing the boat alongside the dock. Fifteen minutes later, the boat was out of the water and we were snapping on the cover and bungeeing it to the trailer.

It had been a great day out. We all agreed that we needed to do it again soon.