Flying with Miss Veedol

My first photo flight of the year.

Early Tuesday morning, I lifted off from the ramp at Wenatchee Pangborn Memorial Airport in East Wenatchee, WA on an air-to-air photo flight with Miss Veedol for Voortex Productions and the Wenatchee Chamber of Commerce.

The Miss Veedol was the first airplane to fly non-stop across the Pacific ocean. A 1931 Bellanca J-300 Long Distance Special piloted by Clyde Pangborn and Hugh Herndon Jr., it took off in Japan with 915 gallons of fuel, jettisoned the landing gear to improve aerodynamics, and crash landed 41 hours later at Fancher Field in East Wenatchee, making history. You can learn more about it and its eventual demise on Wikipedia and the Spirit of Wenatchee website.

I recommend you watch this in full-screen mode.

The Miss Veedol I flew with on Tuesday is a replica of the original aircraft that is based at Wenatchee Airport. This isn’t the first time I flew with it — we did a video flight way back in January 2014. Footage from that flight (and a few others) was incorporated into the amazing We Are Wenatchee Part I video. (This video still brings tears to my eyes; I’m so glad I live here and so proud to be part of the team that made the video. I hope you’ll check out Part II and Part III, too.) It was a difficult flight, mostly because it was bitter cold and I was having trouble keeping up with the plane.

But Tuesday was a completely different story. It was a gorgeous morning when we gathered just before dawn. I parked near Miss Veedol’s hangar and discussed the flight plan with my clients from Voortex Productions and Miss Veedol’s pilots. Then we split up. I got the helicopter going while they started up Miss Veedol’s big radial engine. The two photographers climbed on board — I had already taken their doors off — I backed the helicopter away from where Miss Veedol would be taxiing, and then I followed her down the taxiway while the photographers shot photos. By that time the sun was up, illuminating the plane’s orange wings and fuselage and casting long shadows. We circled the plane in the run up area, then moved beside it as it taxied to the runway. We took off in formation, with the helicopter slightly above and behind the plane.

The conditions were nearly perfect for the flight. Light wind, blue sky, gorgeous early morning light. It was just after 6 AM when we reached the river and headed up on the East Wenatchee side. The plane would go up one side of the river and down the other while a photographer and videographer captured images and footage.

Miss Veedol Over Columbia River
Miss Veedol with the city of Wenatchee in the background. The snow-covered mountains are the Enchantments, west of Wenatchee in the foothills of the Cascades. Most of the snow will be gone by late June. (I can see the tops of these mountains from my home.) Photo by Charley Voohris.

One of the most frustrating things to me when I do photo flights is that I can’t take photos. I see the shot but I don’t have a camera handy and, even if I did, it would be impossible to work it properly with just one hand. I have to wonder if the photographers see the same shots I do. I like flying with Charley because he usually does see the same thing I do — or something even better — and gets the shot.

Miss Veedol Over Shadows
I distinctly recall when we were in position for this shot because the shadows beneath the plane made its orange color really pop in the early morning light. Photo by Charley Voorhis.

One of our target areas was a rock formation called Saddle Rock at the top of a hill overlooking Wenatchee. Every time we do an aerial photo flight, we spend time up and around Saddle Rock. (You can see it in the closing shot of We Are Wenatchee Part I above — seriously, you must watch that video.) Part of our mission was to get photos of Miss Veedol around Saddle Rock. Charley succeeded in getting several really good shots as we circled Saddle Rock twice.

Miss Veedol Flies up a Canyon
Spring time is always green here, but this year it’s especially green with all the rain we’ve had. I followed Miss Veedol up this canyon on our second pass for Saddle Rock. I love the textures and contrasts in this shot. Photo by Charley Voorhis.

Another target area was the Senator George Sellar Bridge — which I usually refer to as the South End Bridge. We circled twice at the end of the shoot.

Miss Veedol at the Columbia River Bridge
Charley managed to perfectly frame Miss Veedol between the Senator George Sellar Bridge and the historic Columbia River Bridge. Photo by Charley Voorhis.

Our Flight Path
Our flight path, captured by Foreflight.

After circling the bridges, Miss Veedol headed back to the airport for a few touch and goes before taxiing back to her hangar. We went back for a few more shots at Saddle Rock. By that time there was just enough tailwind to make hovering flight a tad difficult pointing in the direction we needed to point but I think they got the shots they needed. We did a quick run to the north end of Wenatchee and then back to the south, circling Pybus Public Market once. Then it was back to the airport.

Total flight time was 1.3 hours.

I want to thank Charley Voorhis at Voortex Productions and the Wenatchee Chamber of Commerce for allowing me to show these photos on social media and in my blog. It was a great flight and I look forward to our next one!

I Have No Patience for Lazy Writers

A brief rant.

This morning, I got this email from someone who is apparently farming out parts of his books to people with better description skills than he has:

You are the perfect person to help me. I’m writing a book about birding adventures that I had in 2011. One tense incident happened along the Rio Grande when armed cartel waded across the Rio Grande. To make a long story short, for the next forty-five minutes or so two helicopters (border patrol) circled overhead. Here is my question:

How would you accurately describe the sound these helicopters make?

Border Patrol at Rio Grande
Photo of Border Patrol helicopter over Rio Grande from gallery on U.S. Customs and Border Protection website.

For the record, I’ve never been birding along the Rio Grande while Border Patrol helicopters circled overhead for 45 minutes. How would I know what it sounds like?

Yet this guy was apparently there and can’t describe it. He figures that since I’m a helicopter pilot and a writer, I can describe it for him. So he sends me this email message.

Here’s a tip: if you can’t accurately describe something with words, you shouldn’t be a writer.

And yes, I addressed this in my blog back in 2009: “Writing Tips: Writing Accurate Descriptions.” If you do read that post, pay close attention to the first paragraph under the heading “Do Your Homework,” since it pretty much covers my thoughts on getting email messages like this one.

Lake Berryessa and the Glory Hole

Not something you see every day.

I spent a few weeks in the Sacramento area of California — as I have been since 2013 when I brought my helicopter there for its first frost control contract — in late February and early March. I’ve gotten to know the area pretty well over the past five years and as I continue to explore new places, I also return to the old ones. Lake Berryessa, the largest lake in Napa County, is one of these places.

I first discovered it during a drive up Putah Creek, starting in Winters, CA. From there, I made a stop at the Lake Solano Campground (which I eventually stayed at for the first time this year) and noted its crazy collection of peacocks. Farther up the road, I passed numerous parking areas for fishing and hiking and picnicking. Still farther, the road crossed the creek, wound up a hill, and passed the Monticello Dam, which holds in the waters of Lake Berryessa. Penny and I have hiked in various places along the shore, driven much of the west side’s shoreline, and even flown over it numerous times in my helicopter.

Aerial View of Lake Berryesssa
An aerial view of Lake Berryessa, shot with a GoPro on my helicopter back in March 2014. The water was very low.

For the first four years I’ve been in the area, the lake level was low — very low. This isn’t surprising given the serious drought that affected nearly all of California. All of the lakes I flew over were low. But this year things were different. This year, all the lakes are full, nearly full, or even — in some cases — overflowing. Lake Berryessa is one of the lakes with too much water.

Man-made lakes — basically, any lake that holds water in with a dam — usually have flood control features built in that guide excess water safely out of the lake and into a receiving stream or river. This is normally done with the use of a spillway that can be opened or is automatically utilized before the water level reaches the top of the dam.

Spillways come in different styles. The most common is a sort of water chute that excess water flows down, away from the dam. Most dams have this kind of spillway. The Oroville Dam, which has been in the news a lot lately, has spillways like this, one of which was severely damaged by floodwaters.

Another less common type is an open bell mouth spillway. That’s the type at Lake Berryessa. It’s a round concrete hole not far from the road and the dam. From Wikipedia:

Near the dam on the southeast side of the reservoir is an open bell-mouth spillway, 72 feet (22 m) in diameter, which is known as the Glory Hole. The pipe has a straight drop of 200 feet (61 m), and the diameter shrinks down to about 28 feet (8.5 m). The spillway has a maximum capacity of 48,000 cfs (1360 cms). The spillway operates when there is excess water in the reservoir; in 2017 after heavy rains it started flowing, for the first time since 2006.

Monticello Dam w/Glory Hole
In looking through my archive of photos from 2014, I found a GoPro photo of the dam from the air that clearly shows the Glory Hole when it isn’t in use.

It was in the news in February because the lake had finally filled, after 11 years, and water was flowing into the Glory Hole. Of course, I had to go see it. So when I got the helicopter into California and needed to a “maintenance flight” to check a few things, I headed over there. Sure enough, water was flowing into the hole and a small gathering of people along the road were looking in. I flew by a week later and the water was still flowing in.

I wanted to see it again from the ground, so I returned on Saturday. By that time, Penny and I were on our way home from nearly four months on the road so I had the Turtleback on my truck. Once again, I’m so glad I downgraded from my big fifth wheel; parking in the very crowded parking area was remarkably easy.

There were a lot of people there. It was, after all, Saturday and the Glory Hole had been on the news quite a bit. It made a good, easy, and free point of interest for sightseers.

Glory Hole from the Road
The Glory Hole, photographed from the road. That’s the dam to the right. The water is pretty close to the top.

Penny and I joined the crowd and walked along the road for a good look. The chain link fence made it difficult to get a good photo. The hole is right next to the road and pretty much fills the camera lens. But I did my best.

A guy was out there with a Phantom 4 drone so I decided to give my drone (AKA flying camera) a shot when he was done. I went pack to the truck, put Penny inside, and pulled out my drone. Within about 5 minutes, I had it all set up in a clear area between parked cars and the fence downstream from the dam. When I was sure the other drone had landed, I launched mine.

Understand that I’m still learning how to use my Mavic Pro. I’m also very careful. Immediately after launching, I took it up over the lake, away from people. Then I captured some still and video shots of the Glory Hole from the air, including a short pass where I flew directly over the hole with the camera pointing straight down.

Glory Hole from the Air
I really don’t know why the water looks so green in this shot. I don’t think it’s the camera. It must be something to do with the light.

I tweeted the video clip and got a lot of positive feedback about it. I also got a request to contact the folks at a video licensing company who want to represent me on the resale of the clip to news other media organizations. I’ll all for that, provided my FAA Commercial UAS Pilot certificate has come through; it’s not legal to sell drone photography without it. Need to get home and check my mail to see if the paperwork is there; I applied back in January so I should be good.

I need more practice using my Mavic and I intend to get some on my way home. I had it out again this morning from my campsite at Bodega Bay. I’m hoping to put together a little montage when I get home and share it here on the blog. Stay tuned.

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