Phoenix to Sacramento by Helicopter

Another ferry flight with a pilot friend.

[Note: I’ve been working on this post for the past two weeks. Just so busy with other things! Finally got it done today. Better late than never, no? (Cynics need not answer that one.)]

For the fifth February in a row, my company, Flying M Air, has been contracted by an almond grower to provide frost protection for one of his Sacramento-area ranches. Frost protection is one of the lesser-known services a helicopter pilot can provide. We basically fly low-level up and down rows of trees to pull warm air from a thermal inversion down into the tree branches where developing crops — in this case, almonds — are growing. Almonds are susceptible to frost damage for a 4 to 8 week period starting around the time that flowers are pollinated. Because the temperatures are most likely to be lowest at night, most of the flying is done then or, more likely, right around dawn.

Before the Trip

My helicopter had been in Chandler, AZ (near Phoenix) since October when I dropped it off for its 12-year/2200 hour overhaul. Although it technically didn’t need to go in for overhaul until January 2017, I needed it done by mid-February for this work. The overhaul, which I blogged about here, takes a minimum of three months to complete, so I made sure the excellent maintenance crew at Quantum Helicopters got an early start. I don’t fly much in the winter anyway and planned to fill my downtime with some snowbirding, most of which would be in Arizona and southern California. I like snow, but not months of it, and I really do need to be in the sun in the winter time. I’ve structured my work life to give me time to go south every winter.

Paul from Overhaul
Director of Maintenance Paul Mansfield pulls my R44 out of the Quantum hangar after its overhaul on February 20, 2017. At that point, I hadn’t flown for four months and I was ready.

I picked up the helicopter on Monday, February 20 and spent much of the week flying it around Arizona with friends: up the Salt River, to Wickenburg, to Bisbee for an overnight trip, and to Sedona for breakfast. Along the way, I got to fly some familiar routes and see some familiar sights: along the red rock formations of Sedona, down the Hassayampa River Canyon, over the Salt River lakes, and over herds of wild horses in the Gila River bed. I needed to put some time on the helicopter to make sure there weren’t any problems before I left the area.

A lot about the helicopter felt or sounded different — and I tell you, you really get to know an aircraft when you’ve put over 2000 hours on it in 12 years. The auxiliary fuel pump sounded different, the blades sounded different, and the engine start up felt different. I immediately noticed that it was running at a higher cylinder head temperature. The guys who worked on it assured me that was normal until the rings on the newly rebuilt engine were set and I took it off mineral oil, which was recommended for the first 50 hours. The belts were also too loose when the clutch was disengaged and needed to be adjusted. And my strobe light, which had been working intermittently when I dropped it off, was now not working more often than it was. These were all minor things and I had them taken care of on Friday afternoon, when I flew it back from Wickenburg to Chandler. While I was there, the head of maintenance offered to do an oil change and, since the oil was getting dirty, I let his crew do it. I suspect the strobe light fix — which required a new part — was the most bothersome of all the fine-tuning work they did. They’d keep it in their hangar overnight.

My Ride
My ride from Chandler to Mesa with Captain Woody at the controls.

While they got to work, my friend Woody picked Penny and me up in Chandler in his company’s newly leased R44 — with air conditioning, that he had turned on, likely to impress me (it worked) — and flew me to Falcon Field in Mesa, where his company is based. For some reason, I decided to live broadcast the flight via Periscope — how often do I get to be a passenger? — and Periscope decided to feature it. Soon 450+ people were watching our progress across the Chandler/Gilbert/Mesa area. By the time we’d landed, over 4,000 people had seen all or part of it. I think Woody got a kick out of that.

Woody, Jan, and Tiffani operate Canyon State Aero, a helicopter flight school that also does tours and aerial photo work. They have a modest fleet of Schweizer 300s, plus the newly added R44 and an R22 that should arrive next week. I hung around the office while they finished up paperwork and other things, occasionally answering their questions about R44s and R22s. I’m hoping to see that R44 again in Washington this summer for cherry drying.

Afterwards, Jan, Tiffani, and I went out for dinner. We tried for seafood and wound up with Chinese food. Back at their house, we talked and drank wine and watched some amazing time-lapse videos of the desert on Netflix while Penny played with their dogs and stared at their cats. I had an allergic reaction to something — likely the cats — and made the mistake of taking two Benadryl. That pretty much knocked me out for the night.

I woke up early (as usual), feeling refreshed and allergy-free. Woody showed up around 7:30 AM. After some coffee and goodbye hugs all around, Woody, Penny, and I hopped into Woody’s Prius and headed back to Chandler. We hoped to be off the ground by 9 AM.

Getting Started

I’d planned the flight via Foreflight, with fuel stops at Twentynine Palms and Porterville, CA. The total time was estimated at about 6-1/2 hours with a slight headwind. It was a variation of a flight I’d done a few times before, starting with a solo R22 flight in the 2003 from my Wickenburg home to Placerville, CA and ending, most recently, with the 2013 trip that took my helicopter out of its Arizona hangar for the last time and brought it to California for its first frost season. This was the first time I’d be doing the route from Chandler and I worried a bit about making it all the way to Twentynine Palms for fuel. There aren’t any fuel options between Blythe and Twentynine Palms, so having almost enough fuel to get there wasn’t an option. But Foreflight and my own personal experience with the helicopter said I could do it, so that’s what I planned.

Planned Route
Our planned route, as shown on the SkyVector website. Good thing we didn’t fly today when I plotted that for illustration here; there’s a 22 knot headwind.

The weather was absolutely perfect for flying. I’d been monitoring various forecasts for points along our route and it all looked good with the possibility of some wind in the Tehachapi area and a slight chance of rain near our destination. Visibility was good. It would be a bit cool — even in the California desert — but the helicopter has good heat if we needed it. I was looking forward to a good, although somewhat long, flight.

Woody would fly. Woody’s an airline pilot nearing retirement. He’s got a bunch of hours in helicopters and recently got his R44 endorsement. Now he was interested in building some time in R44s. We agreed that he’d pay for fuel — which accounts for less than 1/3 of my operating costs — for the whole trip in exchange for stick time. I didn’t need the time — I have about 3500 hours in helicopters (R44, R22, 206L) — and I’d been flying around all week. And I really don’t mind being a passenger once in a while, especially with a good pilot at the controls. Still, I sat in the PIC seat and he sat in the seat beside me, using the dual controls.

Penny, of course, sat in the back. The back of the helicopter was completely full of stuff, including the wheeling toolbox I’d brought along to hold helicopter parts and accessories — think headsets, charts, log books, etc. — while the overhaul crew stripped down the helicopter to its frame, my luggage, Woody’s luggage, Woody’s pilot uniform, a box of Medifast food (long story), and Penny’s travel bag. I’d forgotten to bring along a bed for Penny, so I folded up my cotton sweatshirt and put that on top of the toolbox for her. She perched up there and slept for most of the flight.

Chandler to Twentynine Palms

I took off from Chandler, crossed the runway per the tower’s instructions, and struck out almost due west. As soon as I got to cruising altitude — 500 feet above the ground (AGL), which was 1700 feet above sea level (MSL) — I offered the controls to Woody. He took them and I settled back for the first leg of the flight.

We flew west along the south side of South Mountain, where we saw a flight of four Stearman airplanes. Woody was pretty sure he knew one of the pilots, but since we didn’t know what frequency they were on, we couldn’t raise them on the radio. (We tried 122.85, 122.75, and 123.45, which are common air-to-air frequencies around Phoenix.) I was kind of surprised to see that we were gaining on them and eventually passed them. (Did I mention that my helicopter is now about 10% faster than it was before the overhaul and now cruises easily at 110-115 knots?) We crossed the north end of the Estrella Mountains just south of Phoenix International Raceway (PIR), mostly to avoid having to talk to the tower at Goodyear. We did tune in, though, and that’s how we learned that Luke Approach was closed so we wouldn’t have to talk to them to cross Luke’s Special Air traffic Rule (SATR). Woody wasted no time getting right on course; I’d already dialed my Garmin 430 GPS in to KTNP for Twentynine Palms.

Flight of Four Stearman
Flight of four Stearman planes, in formation.

Captain Woody
Captain Woody flying past some mountains in California near the Colorado River.

There wasn’t much of anything exciting for the next two hours. We crossed over Buckeye Airport as another plane was coming in, flew north of the steaming cooling towers of the Palo Verde Nuclear Power Plant, paralleled I-10 for a while, and then drifted north of it, crossing SR60 just east of where it joined I-10. Then we crossed a little mountain range and entered the Colorado River Valley about halfway between Parker and Blythe. The Colorado River was a ribbon of blue snaking from north to south beneath us. Then we were in the southern reaches of California’s Mohave Desert, crossing a sandy desert landscape that looked as inhospitable as the Sahara but without the tall dunes. Woody kept pretty close to the GPS track, but did detour around the tallest parts of any mountains in our path. Our altitude varied from 300 to 1000 feet AGL, depending on where we were. For a good portion of the flight, we were the only living things in sight.

Rice Valley
There’s a whole lot of nothing in the California desert between Joshua Tree National Park and the Colorado River.

I did a lot of talking, telling Woody about the helipad on top of Harquahala Mountain where I’d landed my R22 years ago and later my R44, and sharing some of the stories of my flights with low-time pilots who had done ferry flights with me over the years. We agreed that most helicopter pilots didn’t get much real-life experience as they built time as flight instructors. He asked me a bunch of questions about my time working for Papillon at the Grand Canyon. I told him about the excellent learning opportunities a season at the Canyon offered, but lamented about the fact that some of my coworkers had been either immature or cocky head cases. We talked a little about pilots we’d known who had died flying. We agreed that it was ironic that so many people said “he was a great pilot” about pilots who had died in crashes; if he was so great, why was he dead? (There are old pilots and bold pilots but no old, bold pilots.)

We flew through the very northernmost edge of Joshua Tree National Forest, along a road there. When the park fell away to the south, the abandoned buildings started up, one after the other. It was as if hundreds of people had made sad little homes on five-acre lots out there, only to abandon them to the desert wind years later. Many of them had completely blown away, leaving only concrete slabs and scattered debris. I remembered this part of the flight very clearly from my other trips through the area and didn’t take any photos this time around. But if you look on a zoomed-in satellite image of 29 Palms Highway east of Twentynine Palms, you’ll see what I’m talking about. It’s kind of eerie.

East of 29Palms
A satellite image from Google of an area east of Twentynine Palms shows a sample of the scores of abandoned or wrecked buildings out in the desert.

We reached the airport in just over two hours — which is about 15 minutes quicker than I’d planned for. (All my flight plans are for 100 knots airspeed; I’d rather over-estimate time than underestimate it, especially when flying out in the desert.) Woody landed in front of the pumps. We cooled down the engine and shut down. Woody handled the fueling while I cleaned the windows and then added a quart of oil. An old guy with a taildragger flew in and came to a stop nearby; he’d wait for us to leave before refueling. A friend of his drove into the airport and they chatted for a while. They came over to look at the helicopter and Penny, who I’d let out to get some exercise and take a pee. Woody used the bathroom and I took a picture of the helicopter. Then we all climbed back on board, I started up, and I took off to the west.

At TNP
Zero-Mike-Lima at Twentynine Palms.

Twentynine Palms to Porterville

The next stop was Porterville, which was in California’s Central Valley. Unfortunately, we couldn’t fly a direct path to the Porterville because of the restricted airspace between it and Twentynine Palms. So I plotted a course that took us to Apple Valley and Victorville and on to Rosamond before climbing over the pass at Tehachapi and then dropping down into the Central Valley. The route would keep us clear of all the restricted airspace, including Edwards Air Force Base, which is east of Rosamond at the edge of a not-so-dry lake bed.

The desert west of Twentynine Palms was almost as empty as the desert east of it — but not quite. There were homes and small communities scattered about the immediate area, growing ever more rare as we continued west. After a lot of mostly empty desert, the population climbed as we passed near Lucerne and Apple Valley. Woody talked to Victorville’s tower and got permission to cross over the top — we were the only one the controller talked to the whole time we were tuned in. There were dozens of planes mothballed on the tarmac beneath us.

Planes at Victorville
Some of the planes stored at Victorville.

We passed near El Mirage Lake, another dry lake bed that Woody knew from gliders or racing or something I’ve forgotten. Then more empty desert in an area the chart warned us had Unmanned Aerial System operations below 14000 feet. We tuned into Joshua Approach’s frequency as the chart suggested, but never did hear anything about drones.

Then we were south of Edwards Air Force Base and could see the huge dry lake bed where they occasionally landed the space shuttle off in the distance. But because of all the rain California had been having, it looked more wet than dry.

We turned the corner of the restricted airspace and Woody steered us northwest, over the town of Rosamond, where I had the misfortune of being stuck overnight once back in 2003, and toward the windmills on the south side of Tehachapi Pass. There had been windmills — or, more properly, wind turbines — on that hillside for as long as I could remember, but every time I came through the area, there seemed to be more. This time, I decided to share the view on Periscope. Although my voice couldn’t be heard above the sound of the helicopter’s engine and blades, I moved the camera around a lot, showing off the turbines, Woody, and even Penny perched atop the rolling toolbox in back.

Green Foothills
The foothills of the Sierra Nevada, on the west side, just north of Tehachapi. Despite the gray day, they were very green.

We crossed over the pass and began the descent down the other side into California’s Central Valley. It was like a completely different day. On the south side of the pass, in the desert, it had been mostly sunny, bright, and warm. But on the north side, it was mostly cloudy, gray, and cool. But the foothills were so lush and green!

Our flight plan had us heading northwest bound through the valley with our next fuel stop in Porterville. As usual, I tuned in the radio for the next closest airport so we could listen in on any traffic and make a radio call if necessary. There wasn’t much to hear or report on.

When we landed at Porterville, we found a nice looking Bell 47 already parked there. We squeezed in in front of it. While Woody handled the fueling, I wiped down the windows, and Penny began exploring our surroundings, the helicopter’s owner and a friend came out. “You’re from Washington!” the helicopter’s owners — whose name I’ve already forgotten (sorry!) — exclaimed. It turns out that he reads this blog and put two and two together when he saw me. (After all, how many red R44s are piloted by a woman who often travels with a small dog?) We all chatted for a while and Woody asked for a picture of us with my helicopter. Penny made new friends, too — a pair of small dogs that hang out in the airport office. Woody and I visited the rest rooms before climbing back on board, starting up, and continuing our trip.

Maria and Woody
Woody and I posed for a photo with the helicopter at Porterville.

Porterville to Woodland

The last leg of the trip wasn’t very exciting. We flew over a lot of farmland — California’s Central Valley is a major food producer — including more than a few almond orchards in full bloom. We’d already been in the air for more than four hours and I was ready to be at the destination.

Airport
One of the many general aviation airports we passed near or over as we made our way northwest through California’s Central Valley.

One by one the small general aviation airports ticked by beneath us or within sight: Visalia, Selma, Fresno Chandler, Madera, Chowchilla, Oakdale, Lodi, Franklin.

Just past Stockton is when I began to notice the flooding below us. Farmland inundated with water. A broken levee. Closed roads. When we reached the Sacramento River and ship channel, we saw a sea of silty water with occasional “islands” of homes and equipment yards. It was sobering.

California Flooding California Flooding
California Flooding California Flooding
California Flooding California Flooding
A few shots (through Plexiglas) of the flooding we flew over just south of Sacramento, CA.

Just past Davis, I asked for and took the controls. I wanted to overfly Yolo County Airport, where I was based last year. The orchard I’m contracted to cover for frost season is adjacent to it; I wanted to fly by and see the condition of the orchard and trees. There was no flooding down there — at least not that I could see — and the trees were in full bloom. Pallets of beehives were scattered among the trees. Business as usual.

I steered us north and zeroed in on our final destination, a small privately owned airport nearby where my camper was already set up and waiting for me. A while later, I was touching down at the fuel pumps, ready for Woody to top off the tanks after our long trip. Once that was done, I started it back up and hover-taxied to a parking spot on the ramp.

Then I was on to my next adventure with Woody and Penny: getting a cab to take me to where my truck was waiting, having dinner at one of my favorite restaurants in town (I highly recommend the venison osso buco), and driving Woody to Sacramento International Airport for his flight back to Arizona. I returned to the helicopter to retrieve my luggage not long after dark and, a few minutes later, was letting myself into my camper where I was soon dead asleep after the long day.

Postscript

The arrangement I had with Woody worked out for both of us, especially since fuel prices have come way down in recent months. He got more than six hours of flight time that cost him less than $500; I saved about $500 on fuel, got company for my flight, and even got treated to dinner with cocktails when we arrived at our destination. And because Woody is an airline pilot, he was able to catch a company flight back to Phoenix at no cost. Win win.

I didn’t mind letting Woody do the flying. I’d put about 10 hours on the helicopter since picking it up from overhaul and knew I’d be putting more time on it soon. Sometimes its nice to be a passenger — especially when you have confidence in the flying capabilities of the guy at the controls. (With a certain “Sunday pilot” flying, I’d rather remain on the ground.) I got to sit back, take a few photos, and enjoy the scenery.

Best of all, my helicopter is now officially back at work, earning me money — even while parked in a deluxe hangar in California.

Some Thoughts on Drone Photography

If you can’t beat them, join them.

Phantom 4
The Phantom 4 is a flying camera.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the rise of unmanned aerial systems (UAS), more commonly referred to as “drones,” these days, mostly because I’ve been able to get some good hands-on experience with the prosumer DJI Phantom 4. The Phantom 4 is marketed as a flying camera and I honestly think it’s a good categorization. Clearly it was designed for photography and it has given me a new appreciation for drones, which I don’t generally like.

Drone Threats

As a helicopter pilot, I’ve felt a rather unique threat from the rise of drones (no pun intended). I want to take a moment to explain, mostly because although my general opinion of drones has changed, my views about their threats have not.

Safety

First and foremost are my safety concerns. There are too many drone “pilots” who fly irresponsibly in places they should not be, including near airports and at altitudes that should be reserved for manned aerial flights. The FAA has attempted to reduce the risk of drone/aircraft collisions by setting a maximum altitude of 400 feet for drones. This is far from a perfect solution for two reasons:

  • Irresponsible drone pilots ignore the restrictions and fly higher than 400 feet above the ground. I have witnessed this more than once, although I’m glad to report that I wasn’t flying at the time.
  • Helicopters generally don’t have a minimum operating altitude so we can fly below 400 feet. Even my Part 135 certificate, which sets some limitations for on-demand charter flights, specifies a minimum altitude of 300 feet — this means I can legally be sharing 100 feet of airspace with UAS with charter passengers on board.

Drones are small. They can fly at speeds in excess of 50 miles per hour. I fly in speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour. That’s a closing rate, for a head-on collision, of 150 miles per hour. Does anyone really think I can “see and avoid” something the size of a 12-pack of beer coming at me at 150 miles per hour?

And if pilots are irresponsible enough to disobey FAA regulations, are they responsible enough to stay clear of aircraft?

Other drone-specific regulations regularly ignored:

  • Staying clear of temporary flight restriction (TFR) areas. There have been many reported instances of drones flying around wildfires being worked by firefighting aircraft. In some cases, these violations of airspace have caused the grounding of aircraft.
  • Staying clear of other restricted airspace. The one that worries me most is flights close to airports.
  • Keeping the drone within sight. That’s not easy to do when the drone has a range of more than 3 miles and it’s so small.
  • Not flying over people. I have witnessed this first hand many times at outdoor gatherings.
  • Obtaining FAR Part 107 certification for commercial use of drones. This certification helps ensure that drone pilots are real pilots who know and understand FAA regulations and important aviation and aeronautical concepts.

I can go on and on, but why bother? The fact is that although many drone pilots are responsible enough to learn and obey the rules for operating their drones, enough of them aren’t responsible at all. They make pilots — especially low-level pilots like those flying helicopters — worried about their safety.

Economics

The second threat I’m feeling is economic.

I’ll be blunt: over the past 15 or so years, I’ve earned a reasonable portion of my flying revenue from photography and survey flights. Drones are increasingly being used for both roles, thus cutting into my potential market.

I currently charge $545/hour for photo flights. Although I can cover a lot of territory in an hour and give two photographers a platform for aerial photos at the same time, not everyone sees the benefit. For about the same price, a photographer can buy a decent entry level photo drone and get the shots he needs. And then use the same drone another day without a further investment.

Or make a larger drone investment and get a better drone and better camera.

I’ll admit it: in many instances, a drone can get a better shot. A perfect example is a dawn photo shoot I did with a good client about two years ago. They’d staged the Wenatchee Symphony Orchestra at a local park, Ohme Gardens, and wanted sweeping aerial images of them playing. On our first pass, our downwash blew away their sheet music. (Oops.) We eventually got the shots they wanted, but I recall saying to my client, “You should have used a drone for this one.”

Aerial Orchestra
Here’s a still image from one of the aerial sequences we did that morning. Watch the whole video here; all the aerial shots were done from my helicopter.

But another client needed aerial video and still images all along the Columbia River from Wenatchee to Chelan, then up the Wenatchee River to Leavenworth and up Lake Chelan to Stehekin. This was well over a hundred miles to cover and some of it was inaccessible by car. We got all of the shots in less than three hours of flight time. It would have taken weeks to get that footage with a drone — and even then, some of it would have been impossible to get.

And a four-hour shoot from Seattle to Mount Rainier along often remote areas of the Green River? I can’t even imagine doing that with a drone.

But not everyone sees that. So I see drones threatening part of my livelihood.

Flying Cameras

My generally poor opinion of drones was significantly changed this past week. What changed it? Getting my hands on a Phantom 4 and seeing the quality of the photos and videos

My friend Jim — a gadget guy if there ever was one — has one of these drones. He started off by showing me some of the video he’d shot on an RV vacation in the southwest with his wife last summer. I was immediately struck by how rock-solid and clear the images were. I’ve created footage with a GoPro mounted in various places on my helicopter and have seen footage created with high-quality professional video cameras from my helicopter both with and without gyro-stabilized mounts — Jim’s footage was as good as or better than any of that.

From a flying camera that costs less than $1,000. To put things in perspective, that’s less than my Nikon DSLR, which doesn’t fly.

Then Jim and I took the drone out for a few flights. It was remarkably easy to fly, even if you choose to do so manually. The controller has two sticks that were immediately familiar to me as a helicopter pilot. The left stick handles ascent/descent (like a helicopter’s collective) and yaw (like a helicopter’s anti torque pedals) while the right stick handles direction of flight (like a helicopter’s cyclic). The drone is amazingly responsive, but what really blows me away is that releasing the controls brings the drone to a controlled hover at its current altitude. And if that isn’t enough, several program modes and tools make it possible to program a flight. The damn thing can literally fly itself.

Phantom 4
Jim’s Phantom 4, awaiting takeoff near Vulture Peak in Wickenburg, AZ. I got a chance to experiment with both manual and automatic flying modes.

I could go on and on about the Phantom 4’s feature set — which I understand is shared by many competing products these days — but I won’t. I’ll let you explore them for yourself. There’s plenty of information online.

I will say this, however: As someone who has been involved in tech for a long time — hell, I wrote books about computers for 22 years starting way back in 1990 — I’m not easily impressed. The Phantom 4 completely blew me away.

Me? A Drone Pilot?

Jim, in the meantime, is looking to upgrade and offered me a sweet deal on his Phantom 4 with lots of accessories. That got me excited about owning one of these flying cameras. So excited that I watched all of the Phantom 4 tutorials on DJI’s website, worked through the FAA’s UAS pilot online training, and took (and passed) the FAA’s Part 107 pilot test. All I need is a meeting with the FAA and a sign off to become a certificated UAS pilot.

What does that mean? I’ll be legal to conduct commercial UAS flights. That means I can create (and sell) some of the photos and images I collect with a flying camera like the Phantom.

But I have other ideas for how I can make drone photography part of my professional life. Stay tuned; I’ll be sharing more on this topic in the months to come.

After all, if you can’t beat them, join them.

Helicopter Flight from Washington to Arizona, Day 2: Desert Heat and Familiar Terrain

Descending into the desert’s warmth and well-known flight routes.

I woke at around 5 AM. Actually, Penny woke me up that early. She left the bed and for a while I just lay there, half asleep, wondering where she’d gotten to in the vast attic guest room. Then I remembered that I hadn’t closed the door and realized that she might have gone downstairs. I jumped out of bed and headed down to find her.

She was in the kitchen at the back door with the other three dogs. I opened the door to let them all out. The morning was cool and the sky was clear with the waning gibbous moon hanging high in the western sky. The autumn leaves rustled in the gentle breeze. I waited patiently, then got the dogs back in, one at a time, and closed the door.

Megg was awake, getting ready for work. We talked quietly in the kitchen for a few minutes before she headed off to the shower and I headed back upstairs.

A while later, Megg was upstairs to say goodbye. I wasn’t sure how long we’d stay — it depended on when Jeremy could be ready — and she knew she wouldn’t be home until at least 10 AM. I hoped to be in the air by then. So we said goodbye, possibly until July, and she headed off to work.

Meanwhile Jeremy was still asleep and I wanted coffee. Megg had told me about a place walking distance from her home, Alchemy Coffee. I checked it out on Google Maps and saw that it was only 0.6 miles away and opened at 6:30 AM. I got dressed, grabbed my coat and Penny’s leash, and headed out for a walk — or more like a mission — in the predawn light.

Salt Lake City Capitol Building
I got a neat view of the Capitol building as I walked back to Megg’s house. There was something kind of surreal about the way the first light illuminated the flag outside.

Megg lives in Salt Lake City proper, not far from Capitol Hill. If you think it would be very urban, you’d be wrong. It’s a really nice residential neighborhood with lots of houses of various styles and ages. Sidewalks on both sides of the street keep you off the road as you wander past front yards, often under overhanging trees. It wasn’t a long walk at all, but there was one steep hill, about two blocks long, just as Megg had warned me. I passed within two blocks of the Capitol building and arrived at Alchemy right around 7 AM.

I had my latte and an almond danish while sitting at an outside table with Penny. By that time, it was fully light, although the sun hadn’t cleared the mountains to the east yet. The coffee shop did a brisk business, with about half of its patrons parking briefly at the curb while they ran in for their coffee.

I caught up on Twitter and Facebook activity while I slowly drained my cup. I also checked in for my flight out of Phoenix the next day, very pleased that I’d gotten a First Class upgrade again. I switched my seat from an aisle to a window seat using the Alaska Airlines app. (Does anyone other than me remember the red paper tickets we used to have and waiting on line to change a seat?)

I texted Jeremy to let him know that I wanted to head out by 9 AM. He agreed that an early start would be best. Then I headed back on a slightly different route, really enjoying the variety of architecture along the way.

Back at the house, I let the dogs out again as Megg had asked me to. Her son was still asleep and I tried not to bother him. Jeremy was packing up. When he was ready to go — I’d already packed up before leaving for coffee — I used my phone to call an Uber. A car was at the curb less than 5 minutes later.

We talked Uber along the way. I’d recently become an Uber driver but didn’t drive much, mostly because demand was so low in Wenatchee that it was a waste of time to hang out in town waiting for a call. I learned a few things from the driver’s point of view. Unfortunately, he had trouble finding Skypark and I had to direct him the last mile or so. The fare was only around $12, which I thought was good for a 7-mile drive.

Leg 4: Salt Lake City to Bryce Canyon

After preflighting and adding a quart of oil — I added either a quart or half quart at every fuel stop — we loaded up the helicopter, climbed on board, and started up. It was probably about 9:15 when we got airborne.

TAC for Salt Lake
This closeup of the Salt Lake TAC shows how close Skypark is to Salt Lake City’s surface airspace.

The first challenge was crossing through the surface area of Salt Lake City’s Class Bravo airport along the I-15 freeway. I had to get clearance and I wasn’t able to make contract until I was airborne. Because Skylark is right next to Salt Lake City’s surface airspace, I had to head due east to make contact and get clearance. I called on the wrong frequency (of course) and had to switch to another one, which I managed to screw up once. So I was orbiting a bit out there until we got it sorted out and I got the clearance I needed. Then it was an easy flight south.

The only thing I regret is not turning on the GoPro. Although I had remembered to turn on the wifi and camera, I’d forgotten to turn the camera on. It’s a real shame because I think I could have gotten a few nice shots as we flew past downtown Salt Lake City.

The last tower I had to talk to — at least for a while — was Provo. Again, I asked for and got clearance to follow I-15 south. Using a landmark like a freeway makes it very easy to tell a tower what you want and make sure you both know exactly where you’re supposed to be.

Leg Four
The fourth leg of our trip, recorded by ForeFlight.

Past Provo and abeam Spanish Fork, I veered to the east a bit to enter the valley that would take me along route 89 to Bryce Canyon. That put us in a series of long, relatively narrow valleys between mountain ranges that rose up to 9,000+ feet on the west and 11,000+ feet on the east. There were a few towns along the way and lots of farmland. Very rural, almost remote. And then another narrower, more remote valley with 11,000+ foot mountains on either side. It was 213 nautical miles from Skypark to Bryce Canyon and it took us nearly 2-1/2 hours to cover that distance. I’d been hoping to refuel at Page, AZ, but it didn’t look like we’d make it so we stopped at Bryce.

Bryce Hangar
The old log hangar at Bryce Canyon Airport.

The last time I’d been to Bryce Canyon Airport had been way back in January 2013 on a photo flight with a good client. He’d been assigned by Airpano to get pictures of Bryce Canyon in winter for their panoramic image project. We flew up from Phoenix and wound up getting snowed in for two nights before we could do the shoot. You can read a bit about it here. On that last visit, the airport guy had been extraordinarily helpful with weather-related problems — so helpful that my client and I had each tipped him $100. I still have the t-shirt he gave me when I wanted to buy one; I call it my “hundred dollar t-shirt.” I was looking forward to seeing him, just to see if he remembered me. But he wasn’t there. It was a different guy who was older and not quite as friendly. I think he was put off by Penny, who first came into his office off-leash. Oops.

Anyway, he fueled us up while we used the bathroom. I was out on the ramp again chatting with him when the local sheriff’s office guy came up, in uniform. I wondered if we’d done something wrong but couldn’t imagine what it might be. But he was just there to chat with his airport buddy, to kill time on a nice day.

And it was a nice day — unseasonably warm for October, especially at Bryce’s 7590-foot elevation. The kind of day you’d want to sit out in the sun on one of the chairs they had on the FBO porch. In the 50s, at least. I didn’t even need my jacket.

Leg 5: Bryce Canyon to Sedona

Of course, Bryce Canyon Airport is only a few miles from Bryce Canyon National Park, so there’s no chance we’d leave there without a nice little flyby. I felt bad for Jeremy, who’d really hoped to visit friends and his daughter on the way south. I thought of Bryce Canyon, which he’d never been to, as a sort of consolation prize.

Bryce Canyon is really a misnomer; it’s not a canyon at all. It’s basically a cliff face where Mother Nature has eroded rocks with wind and rain, exposing the red sandstone layers and carving out towers called hoodoos. These are visible from various lookout points along a rim road on the top of the cliff as well as from the air to the southeast of the park itself. At least one tour operator does helicopter tours there. Although the airspace is clearly marked for the National Park, I know the rules: pilots are requested to avoid flight within 2,000 feet of the ground or cliffs (or hoodoos) within that area. That doesn’t mean flight is forbidden. So a quick flyby wouldn’t break any rules and likely wouldn’t bother many tourists. After all, there’s a tour operator likely flying by multiple times in a day for a lot longer and a lot closer.

And I did keep it quick. I made a big loop out toward Tropic and then came in closer with Jeremy’s side facing the park. He shot a bunch of photos. The nosecam didn’t really get any good shots, but one was sharable. Then we continued on our way.

Bryce
Keep in mind that I was turning when the nosecam captured this image of Bryce Canyon.

It was around then that I first caught sight of Navajo Mountain. This is a huge landmark for me. It means coming home, returning to a place that I know very well: Lake Powell. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent over the lake with photographers on board. Easily over 200. I missed it and I wanted to fly it again, but I wasn’t interested in flying over it with a nearly timed-out engine that was making metal shavings. I’ve tentatively planned a photo shoot there in April 2017, before I bring the helicopter back to Washington from its California frost contract. If you’re interested, you might want to check this out. And tell your friends.

West of Page
Typical terrain west of Page, AZ. If you look closely at the horizon, you should be able to see Navajo Mountain off it in the distance.

We took an almost direct route to Page, AZ from there, taking a slight detour to visit the Wahweap Hoodoos. Then we flew past the Glen Canyon Dam, over Horseshoe Bend, and down toward Lees Ferry. I skirted the edge of the Grand Canyon Airspace, flying over the Navajo Reservation, seeing wild horses and the remains of old hogans. All of this was familiar to me but new to Jeremy. For some reason, the helicopter felt lighter, happier, faster. Probably my imagination, but maybe it knew it was returning to familiar terrain?

Horseshoe Bend
Horseshoe bend from about 700 feet up. Not nearly as impressive as it is from much higher looking almost straight down.

Vermillion Cliffs
Lees Ferry with the Vermillion Cliffs behind them.

Marble Canyon
Marble Canyon looks like a giant crack in the earth as it winds across the plateau toward the Grand Canyon.

We reached the Little Colorado River Gorge and I flew along the top of it, keeping the nosecam in mind for a different view. I think I could have gotten better shots from higher up, with the camera pointing more down. Next time?

Little Colorado River Gorge
The Little Colorado River Gorge, heading toward the Grand Canyon.

Then we climbed up onto the Coconino Plateau and I steered almost due south toward Sedona. There’s a lot of nothing out there, but Jeremy managed to spot some wild horses where I’d never seen wild horses before.

Closer to Flagstaff, the air was smoky. There were fires burning but because there were no TFRs in the area, I assumed they were controlled burns. We dropped down into Oak Creek Canyon just west of Flagstaff Airport’s airspace. It was a bit bumpy as we followed the canyon down. We were flying into the sun again, so the nosecam didn’t capture any good images. I can’t remember, but I’m pretty sure this was Jeremy’s first time in Sedona. I think he was impressed by the red rocks.

Leg 5
The fifth leg of our trip, as recorded by ForeFlight.

We lined up to land along the taxiway. I was just looking for parking on the ramp when I remembered that they liked helicopters to park in the remote helicopter landing area far to the southwest corner of the field. I decided to try landing with the planes, which was much closer to the terminal and restaurant. I chose a spot in the last row, isolated from the parked planes, with my tail rotor out toward the taxiway so I didn’t have to worry about anyone walking behind me. In the old days, someone would get on the radio and tell me to move. But that day there was silence. There was someone mowing out by the helipads and I figured they either didn’t care or weren’t using them that day. So I shut down.

Of course, the woman operating the mower came out to scold me when the blades had stopped. She claimed it was “safer” for me to park down in no man’s land. (Okay, not what she called the helipads.) Safer? I couldn’t see how, especially since it required us to walk along an active taxiway to get to the terminal. I feigned ignorance and said we’d be gone soon anyway. Knowing she couldn’t expect me to start it back up just to move it for an hour-long stay, she left us, looking frustrated and annoyed.

Parking at Sedona
I don’t see what’s so unsafe about this parking spot.

I ordered fuel and we chatted with the pilot of a Cessna on floats that was on a cross-country from Minnesota (if I remember correctly) to California. Seaplanes are pretty rare in Arizona (although the state does have more boats per capita than any other state in the country).

We went to the restaurant and got a table outside so Penny could sit with us. Our waiter, whose name was Ferrari, was very pleasant but not a very good waiter. It took forever for him to bring our drinks. (Penny actually got water before we did.) We were all famished so I ordered an appetizer to share. We both ordered salads. The food, when it came, was good and really hit the spot. I shared some of the chicken from my salad with Penny. I also had one of their mango cake desserts, which was just as delicious as I remembered it being. Jeremy picked up the extremely large tab, I paid for gas, and we headed back out to the helicopter.

Leg 6: Sedona to Phoenix

By this time, my dinner date in Wickenburg had been cancelled and I’d made arrangements to meet my friend Mike at his airpark home near Phoenix instead. He had to go to work so time was limited. Still, I couldn’t resist detouring through Wickenburg. Since my old house was sold in 2015, I’d become friends with the new owners. They’d made some improvements to the house since moving in and although I’d seen a few pictures, I hadn’t actually seen the house itself since I left it in May 2013. I thought it might be nice to do a flyby. Maybe Jeremy could get some nice aerial photos that I could pass along to the new owners.

So we left Sedona flying northwest, along the red rock cliffs. Although the light wasn’t quite right for photos, I did manage to get a few good images.

Sedona from Airport Mesa
Here’s a look at Sedona right after departing northwest bound from the airport, which sits atop a Mesa.

Sedona's Red Rock
The red rocks of Sedona, west of town.

After crossing Sycamore Canyon, I headed toward Prescott on a path that took us within sight of Jerome. From there, we transitioned the southeast side of Prescott’s airspace and followed the Hassayampa River all the way down to Route 93 in Wickenburg. I adjusted my course to intercept Cemetery Wash and followed that up past my old home. It looked great from the air — the new owners are really taking good care of it. I was amazed by the size of the Mexican fan palm in the side yard — I remember planting that tree when it was shorter than me and now it stands at least 30 feet tall. I circled the house and Jeremy shot photos. I still haven’t seen them, but I’m sure he got at least one good one to share.

From there, we headed southwest toward Vulture Peak. I did a quick flyby, pointing out the trail that wound up to the saddle for Jeremy’s benefit. I looked forward to hiking the peak in a few months when I was back in town with friends.

Then I headed southeast toward Hangars Haciendas, the airpark where my friends Mike and Cheryl live. I worked the GPS and radio. I had to connect with Luke Approach to enter and transition the jet training area northwest of Glendale. That was the biggest challenge since I was flying only about 700 feet up — my usual cruise altitude — and had to call from so far out that they couldn’t pick up my transmission. That meant climbing. We finally connected and I got a squawk code and transition instructions. They asked for my destination and I told them Hangars Haciendas.

“What airport is that near?” the controller responded.

“It is an airport,” I replied. “A residential airpark southwest of Sky Harbor.”

Leg 6
The sixth leg of our trip, recorded by ForeFlight. This was the scenic, time-wasting portion of the flight.

Clearly, he had no clue where I was going, but he understood that I had to go through Goodyear’s airspace so he handed me off to that controller when I got closer. That guy cleared me to transition eastbound along I-10. There was a tense moment when he pointed out an aircraft in downwind and I couldn’t see it. I offered to stay north of I-10 and he accepted that. Jeremy saw the plane before I did and it really was no factor. But I could tell by the controller’s voice that he was concerned. I’m sure he was glad to cut me loose.

Of course, Hangars Haciendas does not appear on my Garmin GPS, although it is on ForeFlight. I used that to zero in on it. It was very difficult to find! I finally caught sight of it and eventually saw Mike, in his uniform, waving us in to his concrete hangar apron. I landed in the corner and immediately popped my door open. It was hot!

Mike Waves Me In
The nosecam caught this photo of my friend Mike waving me into parking on his hangar apron.

I cooled down the helicopter while Penny and Jeremy got out. It’s kind of funny when you think about it — the next stop would be the engine’s last stop before overhaul. Why bother doing a proper shutdown? Well, why not? Surely I could spare the extra two to three minutes to take care of an engine that had been so good to me for so long.

Parked at Mike's House
Zero-Mike-Lima parked in front of my friend Mike’s hangar.

Mike only had about 20 minutes to spare for us. He’d been on standby and had actually been called in to work. He needed to leave before 5 PM. So he wasted no time showing off his new plane and helicopter, both of which were tucked into his hangar. I also got a chance to see his home, which was still in its final construction phase the last time I’d been there. I didn’t get a chance to see his wife Cheryl because she was basking in the sun in Hawai’i that week. She’d be home later in the week, just before he left for China.

We parted ways a short while later. Mike drove off to the airport while Jeremy, Penny, and I went back to the helicopter for the last leg of our journey.

The Last Leg: Phoenix to Chandler

I have to say that the last leg was kind of bittersweet for me. Not only would it be the last time I flew until January or February, but it also marked the end of my helicopter’s first life. Its tired airframe, engine, rotor blades, and other components would be stripped down, rebuilt, and replaced. When I got it back, it would be the same helicopter, yet different.

We took off heading almost due east along the north side of South Mountain. Jeremy spotted another helicopter at our altitude nearby — he’s actually a pretty good flying companion — and I tuned into the Phoenix Air-to-Air frequency (123.025), which I hadn’t used in three years, to make a call. The pilot of the other helicopter, with a Firebird call sign — I’m thinking either DPS or Phoenix Police — responded immediately. They were doing some training work, hovering over a South Phoenix neighborhood. We exchanged pleasantries and I continued on my way.

South Mountain
Flying eastbound along the north side of South Mountain near Phoenix. I don’t miss Phoenix’s smog layer at all. That day was actually clearer that most.

After I crossed I-10 and made my first radio call to Chandler tower, I turned on the cockpit GoPro, which had been set up for the entire flight but never turned on. I figured I’d document this last leg of the flight. I started off chatty enough, but soon lapsed into silence. I guess I didn’t have much to say. You can see for yourself in the video below. It’s a shame that the setting sun over my right shoulder puts so much glare into the cockpit.


For some reason, I thought it was a good idea to document the last leg of our flight with a video.

Last Leg
The last leg of our flight was very short. See it on ForeFlight.

It was a very short flight — less than 15 minutes from takeoff to landing. Again, cooled down the engine before shutting down. I patted the controls and talked to the helicopter. (Yeah, I do talk to my machines, even though none of them have names or genders.) When the blades had stopped, I got out with Penny and went to find the Director of Maintenance, Paul.

Post Flight

Into the HangarPaul wheeled the helicopter into the hangar where the overhaul work would be done.

The next hour or so was spent helping Paul bring the helicopter into Quantum’s big hangar, talking to him about the little problems it had that needed attention, and discussing core and replacement options. Together, Jeremy and I unpacked the helicopter, separating everything in it into three piles: his luggage, my luggage, and the stuff that would stay with the helicopter in the wheeled box I’d brought along. I was glad that my day pack had been lightly packed for the trip because I did have to take a few things home with me — my GoPros, Penny’s bed, and my Square card reader equipment. Finally, everything was organized and packed for taking or leaving. The sun was down and we were ready to leave.

I didn’t take one last photo. After all, I’ll see Zero-Mike-Lima again in December. I know they’ll have started work by then and it’ll be partially stripped. That’s okay. I’d rather remember it from the last few photos I took during that final flight. I left it parked between two other R44s, knowing that it was in good hands.

The folks at Quantum gave us a lift to the hotel I’d reserved off I-10. The driver was studying to be a helicopter mechanic and working toward his private pilot license. He refused to take the tip I offered when he dropped us off.

We checked in and got information about a restaurant with an outside patio that was within walking distance of the hotel. I was very pleasantly surprised by how comfortable and clean my room was. This was a Quality Inn — which allows dogs — and the room rate was only $65 with tax. I had very low expectations and was so glad they delivered a much nicer room than I expected.

We walked to the restaurant, which turned out to be a very nice Italian place in a strip mall. We sat outside, where the evening air was comfortable and cool. I had two drinks to celebrate the end of the journey. We had a light dinner — mostly because we’d eaten so much at lunch — and walked back to the hotel.

I slept like a log.