My Long, Dry Summer

Two very different summers.

Forgive me readers for I have sinned. It has been nearly three weeks since my last blog post.

All joking aside, I haven’t blogged for two reasons:

  • I’ve been very busy. Let’s face it, I’m usually a pretty busy person. If there isn’t something I have to do, I make something to do. (This is a throwback to my crazy divorce days when I was eager to find things to take my mind off my future wasband’s hurtful insanity.) I’m never at a loss for projects to keep me busy.
  • I haven’t been inspired. I need a reason to blog. An idea, a thought. Something I read online that I want to respond to. An interesting thing that happened to me. And this summer has been pretty dry in more ways than one.

So I guess you might consider this a blog post that, in part, explains why I haven’t been blogging. And it also fills you in on what I’ve been up to this dry, dry summer.

The Projects

I live on 10 acres of land on a shelf overlooking the Columbia River Valley. I absolutely love it here. I’ve got everything I’ve ever wanted in a home: space, views, privacy, and plenty of land to do whatever I like with. I bought the land back in 2013, the day after my divorce papers came through, and immediately started developing it for my home. The building began in 2014 and I completed my living space — well, enough to move in, anyway — in spring 2015.

My House
My home sits on a shelf overlooking the Columbia River Valley near Wenatchee, WA. (And yes, this is a drone photo.)

My home isn’t a typical stick-built house. It’s a “pole building” that’s primarily a 2800 square foot garage to store my vehicles and other stuff — which I admittedly have too much of — with a 1200 square foot finished living space on top. I was originally going to build a much smaller garage with a more modest living space and then build a house to go with it, but in the interest of saving time and money, I built just one big building and didn’t skimp on the amenities in my living space. It’s very comfortable for one or two people — although I admit I really do enjoy the utter freedom and flexibility of living alone so I’m unlikely to share my space anytime soon.

My Great Room
My great room, with windows overlooking that wonderful view.

I did much of the work on the living space myself and I haven’t quite finished. For example, I still have to finish the trim up on the loft and in my bedroom, I still have to finish some tile work around my shower stall, I still have to dress up the stairs a bit, and I really do want to tile the entrance hall. Recently, I decided that instead of using the loft as a guest bedroom, I wanted to move my desk up there and make it my office so I’ve got some furniture moving ahead of me. And yes, I’m still unpacking. I really did pack too much stuff from my old Arizona home.

Other than minor building-related projects, I have the usual chores related to owning a home: mowing the lawn, gardening, making repairs to things that break or just need attention. So far, everything I’ve needed fix has been something I can fix myself, so it’s just a matter of finding the problem, figuring out what needs to be done, and doing it. I have a lot of tools now — I actually have a whole workshop in my garage — so I seldom need to buy or borrow anything to get a job done.

Weed control is a serious concern here; the county requires us to control our noxious weeds. I’ve been at war with the kochia since my very first week as a landowner and I’m definitely winning. This year I’ve started working on the knapweed that seems to have begun appearing since the kochia has been killed off. I also identified and destroyed some tumbleweed, which I absolutely abhor since trying to deal with it at some northern Arizona vacation property years ago. The trick is to cut or pull out these weeds before they go to seed. This year, I also bought my third (and last) weed sprayer, a 15-gallon ATV-mounted tank with a DC pump. Yes, I use various chemicals to spray the weeds along my 1,000+ feet of road frontage and in my driveway. (Lecture me all you want about “natural” mixtures of salt and vinegar, but nothing works quite like Roundup or some of the specialized broadleaf killers they sell at the local farm supply store.)

The Big Projects

I do have two large self-inflicted projects, and they are related.

One is a platform for a 12 x 14 cabin tent that I’ll be setting up for “glamping.” I ordered the tent from the Colorado Yurt Company. Built to my specifications, it should arrive here on Wednesday. It’ll have canvas and screen sides so whoever is staying in it can configure it as they see fit — these days, I’d roll up the canvas on at least three sides and enjoy the views and airflow through the screen. It also has a 12 x 8 foot covered porch. Of course, all this has to be built on a custom platform, which I’ve constructed, with the assistance of two pilot friends, out near my lookout point bench. The whole thing is made from pressure-treated lumber with Trex decking. Assembled with screws, it can be disassembled and moved at any time. (This is actually a good thing since I’ve already decided I want to move it for next year.) It’ll be furnished with a queen bed, night tables, dresser, and table and chairs (on the deck). I can’t wait to sleep in it!

Tent Platform
Here’s the platform as it looked last week. The only thing left to do is lay the rest of the Trex and then put up the vertical supports.

My Portable Potty Building
Here’s my portable potty, under construction in my garage. One of the benefits of having a huge garage is being able to do projects like this in relative comfort.

Of course, the one thing the tent doesn’t come with is a bathroom. One option was renting a portable toilet — you know, those blue buildings you see at outdoor events. I’d rented one while my home was under construction — mostly for the builders, since I had my own bathroom in the RV I was living in at the time — and learned that if they give you a newish one and maintain it weekly, it isn’t nasty at all. But it does cost $90/month and I’d have to look at it all summer. And it isn’t quite the experience I want my guests to have. So I cooked up the idea of building a portable bathroom with an RV toilet and holding tank. I got the trailer kit at Harbor Freight, framed out the building on it, and bought a holding tank and RV toilet. I’m about 75% done at this point; I’ll do the plumbing this week, test it, and then put on the walls, door, and roof. I can then put it in position anywhere on my property when needed and tow it back to one of my RV dump ports when I need to. Over the winter, I can drain it and store it in my garage. This is a complex project — mostly because of the plumbing work involved — but I’m enjoying the challenge of making something I cooked up in my head become reality. (Like my home.)

Other Activities

I do occasionally find time to socialize with friends.

My Funny Little Boat
Here’s my funny little boat, parked at the dock near Pybus Market in downtown Wenatchee. (Every time I use the boat, I’m reminded of my wasband’s second divorce lawyer, who tried desperately in court to get me to admit that it was worth more than the $1,500 I’d paid for it. He even claimed my wasband would pay me $1,000 for it — which I accepted — but my wasband backed down; he obviously didn’t want it. It’s just an example of the divorce court antics, likely fueled by my wasband’s old whore, that I witnessed back in 2013. I wound up getting the boat in the divorce — it was mine, after all — without having to pay him a penny.)

I’ve had the boat out twice this summer so far. I have to admit that I was surprised that it started so easily on our first outing; I’m terrible about maintaining things I don’t use regularly and the battery was completely dead when I put the charger on it in June. Neither of our outings were interesting; in both cases, I was taking friends out for a ride. We did the usual: motor at full throttle — for a whopping 32 miles per hour — up the river to the Rocky Reach Dam and then drift back for a while on the current. It isn’t much of a boat, but it does get me out on the water and I really do enjoy that. I might take it out to other stretches of the river when cherry season ends and I’m pretty sure I’ll be taking it with me to Arizona this winter; I already bought the hitch extender I need to hook it up behind my truck with the camper on top. I’m really looking forward to getting it on the Colorado River and some of the Salt River lakes near Phoenix.

Packing Cherries
The cherry packing line at my friends’ orchard. It’s actually a lot of fun when you do it with friends and there’s some good music playing.

I also helped some friends pack rainier cherries earlier this month. They have two cherry orchards and have arranged to sell rainier cherries directly to a Seattle area supermarket chain. I worked with about a dozen people to sort and pack cherries over a two-day period. It was a paying job, but I took a 15-pound box of cherries instead of cash. I’ve got about a pound left.

Later that week, my cherry packing friends invited me to join them and and a big group of other friends to watch a production of The Sound of Music at Leavenworth Summer Theater. Not only was their future daughter-in-law playing the lead character, Maria, but it was her birthday. It was nice chatting with cast members after the show. And you really can’t beat a musical production nicely produced outdoors on a warm summer night.

I’ve also done a bit of entertaining, from having a few neighbors over for wine and homemade cheese on the deck to full-blown barbecues where I’ve made my famous smoked ribs. I really enjoy having people over to share my home with them.

The Animals

Of course, some of my time has been taken up with caring for my growing menagerie.

Penny turned 5 — can you believe it? — this year and has become quite the spoiled little mutt, going with me nearly every where I go. She loves to come with me in the helicopter but has learned that when I’m wearing my flight suit, it’s likely to be a very boring long ride over cherry trees so she stays clear when I put it on.

After losing my chickens twice to a neighborhood dog last year, I started a new flock of chickens in March with 18 chicks. I built them a big chicken coop and it has been working out very well. The chickens just started laying about two weeks ago; I’m now getting 6 eggs a day and expect that to go up to about 16. I’ll be selling off most of the hens as layers — there’s actually a decent market for that around here — and keep just 5 or 6. In the meantime, I bought eight more chicks to get them started before winter. My goal is to keep a young flock and keep selling off the layers before they’re a year old. I’ll always have fresh eggs and the money I get from hen sales will cover all my costs.

Solo the Cat
This is Solo, one of my three mousers-in-training.

I also added three kittens to my home. They are mousers-in-training and currently live in the garage. They’ll keep the mouse population down — it’s impossible to keep up in the garage and garden without resorting to poison — which, in turn, should keep the snake population down. (I had to kill a rattler the other day; my first kill since 2014.) I’ve had limited success with feral “barn cats” in the past, but Penny tends to annoy them to the point that they leave. I figured that raising kittens with Penny will prevent them from wanting to run off. It seems to be working so far; she plays with them quite often and one of them really seems to like it. But the youngest of the batch is probably going back to where I got her; she doesn’t seem to understand what the litter box is for and I’m tired of cleaning cat crap off the concrete floor.

And for the folks wondering about the winter when I’m away, the chickens and the cats will be fine. I have a good, reliable housesitter.

As for wildlife, with five hummingbird feeders hanging from my deck, I get lots of hummingbird activity. And the bighorn sheep, which came down from the cliffs daily late last summer, have just started appearing every few days. It’ll be interesting to see if they become a nuisance again.

The Weather

The weather this summer has been absolutely amazing. Day after day of blue skies and temperatures in the 80s and 90s. I don’t even think we topped 100°F this year. While that’s good for the folks who grow cherries and alfalfa or come to the area for vacation, it’s isn’t good for the helicopter pilots who live or travel here to dry cherries. And that would be me.

This Week's Weather
This is the upcoming forecast for Wenatchee per the National Weather Service. But it could be the forecast for nearly any week over the past month or so. No rain.

My main source of income these days is from my cherry drying work. (Don’t know what that is? Read this old blog post, which explains it. Or watch this video to see me in action.) My business has been growing steadily since around 2011. I now build a team of up to six pilots to cover the hundreds of acres of cherry orchards I have under contract.

This year, my season began on June 1 and will end on August 16. During that time, I’m pretty much stuck in this area, waiting for it to rain. The season got off to a promising start: my team, which consisted of just me and one other pilot in early June, flew a total of about 5 hours. But then the rest of the team began assembling and the skies dried up. None of us have flown in over a month.

Needless to say, my first-year pilots are pretty pissed off about that. But I warned them. When asked how many hours we could expect to fly, I told them the truth: 0 to 40. As I explained to them, if you can’t make it work financially with just the standby pay, you shouldn’t sign up. That might be all you get. And for two of the pilots who have come and gone so far, that’s exactly what they got: standby pay. And at this point, it looks like another two pilots will be in the same boat.

Fortunately for all of us, the standby pay isn’t too shabby. If you can keep your costs down, you can make good money. The smart folks who do this work with me treat their contracts as a sort of paid vacation. With perfect weather and no chance of rain, they can hike, go out on the water, fish, or do any number of local things while getting paid by the day to just hang around with a helicopter parked nearby. But when it rains, they’d better be at their helicopter with their phone handy and ready to fly.

What folks don’t seem to understand is that the weather here can change quickly. This is my tenth summer in the Wenatchee area and I’ve seen days like today where there isn’t any forecasted chance of rain, cloud up steadily. Soon there are isolated thunderstorms dumping rain on orchards. That’s why I can’t leave the area. Even with a forecast like the one shown above, I know that things can change. And I know that if I don’t have a helicopter over an orchard within 15 minutes of a call, I’m going to lose a client.

So yes, I take it very seriously.

I should mention that although this is my worst (so far) cherry drying season, last year was definitely my best. Although it didn’t rain much early in the season, by this time last year it was raining all day for several days in a row. We flew like crazy, sometimes drying the same orchard four or five times in a day. The growers were miserable and I could hear it in their voices when they called. We were doing our best with prompt responses and constant flying, but at a certain point even we couldn’t save the crop. A lot of cherries went unpicked.

But that’s the way it is in agriculture: you get good years and bad years. A good year in cherries is extremely profitable for growers — which is why they grow cherries. A bad year? Well that’s what insurance is for.

Water Tank
The Girl Scout motto is “Be Prepared” and I really do believe it’s a good idea.

Meanwhile, the dry weather this year has turned the area into a tinderbox. Dry lightning started a fire in the hills beyond the cliffs behind my house back in late June. Although there was no evacuation notice for my road, I admit I got a bit uneasy watching a pair of single engine air tankers on floats scoop up water down on the Columbia River and climb up to drop it just out of sight behind my home. Things got even scarier when they were joined by a pair of Hueys with buckets that dipped in my neighbor’s irrigation pond and climbed up right over my home. Not only did I test my fire suppression system, but I put my 425-gallon portable water tank on a utility trailer I have, filled it with water, and prepared to connect it to a pump and generator as my own private fire department. Then the wind shifted and the fire went elsewhere, burning thousands of acres before they finally put it out. The tank of water is still on the trailer, just in case I need it. I’d be pretty pissed off if a fire took out my new tent platform.

Vacation Plans

Fortunately, my season will end right before the eclipse. Like last year, I’ll have my camper on my truck, all packed and ready to go when that last day rolls along. Then I’ll be off for my first vacation.

This year, I’m heading south to a remote area of Oregon where I hope to watch the eclipse from the shores of a small lake. Then I’ll make a leisurely drive back home, stopping in Walla Walla for some wine tasting and Palouse Falls for some night photography. I’ll be back in Wenatchee in time for a charter flight booked months ago.

Other trips planned:

  • Five or so days with a friend at his place on Lopez Island. We’re still sitting on the fence on whether I should fly us out there in the helicopter or drive. (Guess which way I’m leaning?)
  • A weekend-long mushroom foray with the Puget Sound Mycological Society near Mount Rainier. I’ll be taking my camper this year so I can camp out in the national forest before or after the event. Or both.
  • A trip back east for the fall colors in Vermont, a visit with my brother in New Jersey, and a museum visit in Washington DC. This one is tentative; I’d really be cramming it in between charter flights and events and am not sure I want the stress of making such a long trip with so much on my plate at home.

Three Weeks Left

In the meantime, I’m stuck at home, keeping very busy, waiting for my season to end, praying for some rain. It doesn’t seem likely.

Anyone who thought I was nuts for leaving Arizona for “wet, wet Washington” should get an idea of the reality here: our summers can be even drier than Arizona’s.

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.