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.

The FAA’s Irrational Application of a Rule

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t.

What’s the Big Deal?

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

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

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

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

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

Responses

I got a number of responses to the column.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hi, Scott. Thanks for writing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And life will go on.

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

Thanks for your concern. Best wishes with your endeavors.

Maria

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

Another Pilot Who Thinks He Owns the Whole Airport

Yes, it’s another rant.

Way back in January 2009, I told the story of a flight with family from Wickenburg, AZ (where I lived at the time) to Sedona, AZ. I’d landed at one of the public pads and another helicopter pilot hadn’t been happy about where I parked. He decided to “teach me a lesson” by flying within 15 feet of my waiting passengers, showering them with dust, small pebbles, and flying debris. I reported his sorry ass to the FAA for unsafe flying.

Since then, I haven’t had any similar run ins with any pilots, in airplanes or helicopters. Generally we’re all pretty safety conscious and courteous.

Until today. Today I got a lecture and delivered one in return.

The Setup

It happened at Wenatchee Airport. I’d just dropped off three charter passengers at the jet center on the other side of the airport. I made all my radio calls and hopped across the runway to get some fuel.

Wenatchee has a self-serve fuel island. It’s southwest of the general aviation terminal, southeast of transient parking. I usually come in from the south; that day, I’d come in from the southwest.

I’ve been fueling at the airport for years now and I have an approach and landing routine. The hose is on the southeast side, so if you want to fuel, that’s where you want to park. So I usually come in from the south and hover taxi as close as I can get to the hose reel. They have a heavy JetA hose on the reel and it’s a bear to haul over to the helicopter, so the closer I can get, the better off I am. Because I have two tanks, one on each side, I normally park facing the pumps. If I think I’m going to be more than a few minutes — in other words, I’m going to take a bathroom break or chat with the mechanics or FBO guys — I’ll park a little to one side so another aircraft can get in for fuel.

I very seldom hover taxi around the northwest side of the fuel island. Normally, there are a few light planes parked right there and I’ve seen their wings rock. Besides, to get all the way around, that would mean flying with my tail facing the FBO building. And as anyone who has taken the Robinson Safety Course can tell you, putting your tail rotor facing where some people might be is never a good idea.

As I came in toward the fuel island, I could see a helicopter parked near it on the southeast side. It wasn’t near enough to get fuel — which made sense because it was a turbine (Bell 407) and JetA is not available at the fuel island. As I got closer, it saw that it was far enough from the fuel island for me to fly between it and the island so I did. I landed on the east side, facing the pump. Normally, since I didn’t expect to spend much time there, I would have parked right in front of the hose with my tail pointing away, but that would have put my tail rotor close to the Bell. So I parked to the side.

The Setup
Here’s a Google satellite image edited to show where I was parked (red) and he was parked (blue). (I have no artistic abilities, so I had to draw stick figure helicopters.) I “enhanced” the yellow tie-down lines so you can see them better. Usually, there are planes parked on the upper ones I enhanced; there was only one there today. There were no aircraft at all on the ramp behind the Bell for at least 500 feet.

The Attitude

As I started the shut down process, I saw a guy come out of the FBO building, walk to the Bell, which was now to my left, and then walk back toward the building. I assumed the Bell was the power line survey ship that I’d been talking to earlier in the area and thought the guy might be the pilot. I was right. When he shut down, he walked over. I assumed he was going to initiate a friendly chat — after all, we’d given each other position reports just an hour before — but I was wrong.

He came to tell me that it was dangerous to fly upwind from a parked helicopter. I replied that we did it all the time at the airport — we do! You should see when four of us crowd around the pumps! — and that I hadn’t given it a second thought. I honestly didn’t think it was a problem. But he did. He pointed out that his helicopter blades weren’t tied down and that his helicopter was worth $4 million.

And that’s when I realized he was talking down to the “Robbie Ranger” he saw on the ramp! To get rid of him — I really didn’t want to argue — I told him I wouldn’t do it again. Then I turned my back on him and continued with my fueling operations. He stormed off into the FBO.

As I fueled, I looked at his helicopter parked there and three things came into my mind:

  • I wasn’t that close. I’ve been a lot closer to a lot more aircraft than that — usually for fueling operations. No one has ever complained. Hell, I was closer to the fuel island than I’d ever gotten to his helicopter. Was he just cranky because of the heat or work and decided to take it out on the only other pilot around? (Extra points for talking down to a woman.)
  • If he was so damn worried about his blades, why hadn’t he tied them down? Probably because there really wasn’t much to worry about. Don’t you think they take more of a beating in flight through turbulence than they possibly could on an airplane ramp with the wind at about 6 mph? Even with a helicopter flying past?
  • Why the hell had he parked there? There were no pavement markings indicating that it was a parking space and he had the entire ramp behind him, stretching back at least 500 feet, without a single airplane or helicopter on it. He wasn’t even close to the building he’d walked into. (Hell, when I park at the airport without getting fuel, I park as close to the fence as possible so people can easily get past me without having to go around.)

I finished fueling and went inside. I asked the FBO manager to make sure that aircraft didn’t park so close to the fuel island if they weren’t refueling. I told him what had happened and he agreed that the guy shouldn’t have parked there. Then we talked about other things.

The Rebuttal

Until the pilot came out of the pilot lounge with his passenger. That’s when I told him that the next time he landed, he shouldn’t park so close to the fuel island.

And then he had the nerve to ask why I couldn’t just fly around him.

Huh? Is that the only place his helicopter can be parked? The rest of the ramp isn’t good enough for him? He has to park close enough to the fuel island to be an obstacle for anyone who comes in for fuel?

Did he think he owned the whole damn airport?

I told him that other aircraft come in for fuel and that he was in the way. That twins come in. That helicopters normally park facing the pump with their tails close to where he was.

He asked me why I was raising my voice. I don’t think I was, but at that point, who knows? I told him it was because I was trying to make him understand the situation.

He made some nasty comments about me being trained to fly but not having any courtesy. And then he left.

By that time, everyone in the FBO was watching. They pretty much agreed that he was a little asshole. (Yeah, he was a little guy. Could have been small man syndrome.) The FBO manager took down his N-number.

Setup PhotoWhen I went to get my phone, I took this picture. You can see his helicopter to the right side of the shack. There was no one parked behind him for at least 500 feet and absolutely no reason to park so closely to the business side of the fuel island.

I went out to close my passenger door, which could have blown off if he started up and moved closer to my helicopter — it did happen once before when some idiot landed right next to me while my door was open; I’m to blame though for leaving it open. I fetched my phone to make a phone call.

When I came back in, they were all watching him start up. I asked them to be witnesses if he hovered close to my helicopter. I wasn’t worried if he did because even though my blades were not tied down, they were positioned so they would not get damaged if blown. But if he did, it would be a further indication of his sucky attitude.

I made my phone call. While I was chatting, he lifted into a hover. I don’t know if he drifted any closer to my helicopter, but he did hover there for a lot longer than what should have been necessary. Then he took off into the wind past my helicopter.

Everyone seemed to breathe a sigh of relief.

I finished my call. I chatted with the FBO guys about the attitudes of helicopter pilots. I told them that people like me flying small pistons are at the bottom of the pile. Guys like that, flying small turbines, sometimes have serious attitude problems and often pick on those flying “lesser” ships. They have to take every opportunity they can to point out how much better their equipment is than ours. Then, when pilots get into mediums and heavies, they tend to be nicer to those of us on the bottom again. They’re secure in their positions and have nothing to prove so they treat us like equals.

“It’s just the guys flying small turbines who can be real dickheads sometimes,” I told them.

We all laughed.

I went outside, started up, and flew home.

And yeah: the helicopter he flies might have cost $4 million. But I own the one I fly.