Snowbirding 2018: Lake Havasu Adventure

It wasn’t supposed to be like that.

I spent Sunday through Wednesday camped out at Cattail Cove State Park on Lake Havasu, about five miles upstream from the Parker Dam on the Colorado River. I put the boat in the water as soon as I arrived and didn’t take it out until I was ready to leave. I was on the boat every day. (I think I’ve used my boat more in the past two months than I have since I bought it in 2011.)

You have to understand one important fact: the winter weather in southern Arizona is perfect. It’s clear every day and the sun warms the air consistently to temperatures in the high 60s to low 80s — unless a cold front happens to blow through and drop daytime temps to the low 60s. It gets chilly at night — I still need to turn the heater on when I get up in the morning — but that’s because all that daytime heating escapes back into space without a blanket of clouds to hold it close to earth. But day after day is beautiful, perfect for just about any outdoor activity.

On Tuesday, I decided to take the boat to Lake Havasu City for lunch. The weather was good, the wind was relatively calm. The city, with its famous relocated London Bridge attracting tourists, was a haven for boaters. There was plenty of docking space and lots of restaurants within walking distance.

This terrible photo is the only one I have of my boat anchored just past the swimming beach at Cattail Cove.

I packed a few things in my small day pack and walked out to the boat, which was anchored just off the beach. I’d set a stern anchor with a fender as a buoy so the boat wouldn’t swing around and get beached if water levels dropped — a trick I’d learned while camping on the Colorado River backwaters in December. The bow line was secured with rocks on shore. That meant I had to wade out to the boat. No big deal; I was wearing a short denim skirt and didn’t get it wet when I carried Penny, my bag, and the bow line out. Within a few minutes, Penny and I were settled in the boat, the stern line was disconnected, and the boat was idling out toward the lake.

I say “idling out” because my boat has no true idle. It’s a sport jet propulsion system — like in a Jet Ski or Waverunner — so it’s always moving. This worked fine at Cattail Cove because there was a big No Wake area all around the beach. As I puttered out toward the lake, I was warming my engine, which, in my opinion, let out a lot of smoke when it was cold. I’ll have it checked and serviced when I get home.

Once past the No Wake buoys, I opened it up to about full throttle. At 5000 RPM, that gives me about 32-35 miles per hour. As the boat accelerates, the front end comes way up out of the water with very little speed gain. Then the front end drops down and it moves, planing over the surface of the water. My little boat loves smooth water — the smoother the better, in fact — and the lake was smooth enough that morning.

I headed upriver, favoring the Arizona side and watching out for hazard buoys that marked underwater “reefs.” When you remember that Lake Havasu is basically a flooded canyon area, those reefs make sense: they’re rock formations that were once rock ridges high above the river surface. As the water levels rose, the ridges became submerged, but some of them are still quite close to the surface of the lake. These hazards are all marked at Lake Havasu — remember, it’s a popular boating destination — so you’d have to be a real idiot to run aground there.

I sped uplake, feeling the warm air blow through my loose sleeveless cotton shirt. I’d tied my hair up with a clip at the back of my head so I wouldn’t be combing knots out of it later in the day. Although the boat has a bimini top, it wasn’t hot enough to deploy it. I was enjoying the feel the sun on my skin. I had a good base tan, especially on my face and arms, after two months mostly outdoors in Arizona and wasn’t worried about burning.

According to my rough measurements on Google Maps, Lake Havasu was about 15 river miles away. That was the longest distance I’d taken the boat that winter. I had plenty of fuel, but knew that my oil situation was less than optimal. My boat’s two-cycle engine has an injector system that takes oil from a reservoir under the hood. I’d poured in the last of the extra oil the previous day but the reservoir was far from full. One of the things I wanted to do at Lake Havasu City was buy more oil.

The trip was uneventful. The landscape around the lake is rugged, rocky desert. There are only a few places where roads can reach the lakeshore and that’s where you’ll find remote desert communities of manufactured homes and RVs. Black Meadow Landing is a community directly across the lake from Cattail Cove. Havasu Palms is another community on the California side about halfway to Lake Havasu City. On the Arizona side, there are numerous boat-in campsites, many of which have ramadas and toilets.

Many of the small coves had fishing boats in them. There was a bass tournament going on — or coming soon; I never did get the whole story — and lots of folks were fishing. There were also numerous pleasure boats speeding one way or another and, closer to the city, quite a few patio boats.

Signs of civilization started up suddenly, right after a construction site. Soon there were buildings and roads and parks on the Arizona side. I reached a No Wake area and cut speed, letting the boat settle back into the water. Then I putted along into the narrow, manmade channel that led to the city’s centerpiece: London Bridge.

Lake Havasu City
The lay of the land at Lake Havasu City. The canal exists solely so London Bridge has water to cross.

London Bridge — which was the real London Bridge from London, England — was brought out to the Arizona desert as a tourist attraction. Of course, Lake Havasu City didn’t need a bridge. There was nothing for a bridge to cross. So the folks who arranged to buy and move the bridge turned a peninsula of land jutting out into the lake into an island by digging a canal. They then assembled London Bridge in the city to reach the island. You can learn more about it on Wikipedia, which also includes a great photo of the city right after the bridge was assembled.

(The island, by the way, used to have Lake Havasu City Airport on it. They moved the airport about ten miles north of town and redeveloped the land with parks and resorts and condos.)

Penny at the Bow
Penny at the bow of the boat as we puttered up the canal toward London Bridge.

My boat is difficult to control at slow speeds, but I managed to set the throttle at a low enough speed to satisfy No Wake rules while maintaining control. This turned out to be about the same speed as a kayaker who was in front of me for most of my drive through the canal. Finally, I saw the bridge and the restaurants and shops clustered around it. There were numerous empty boat slips on the right. Signs said they were public. I aimed the boat into one of them, cut the engine, and drifted in.

Boat at London Bridge
I parked my boat next to a sailboat in one of the empty slips near London Bridge.

Penny was out of the boat before I’d even had a chance to tie up. After securing the fore and aft lines for the boat, I gathered my things and joined her on the floating dock. I fastened her leash and led the way out, through an unlocked gate to a sidewalk where tourists wandered and locals power-walked. I was in search of pizza.

You see, I’d gotten my hands on a Lake Havasu City dining guide and had found a pizza restaurant right near where I parked. I hadn’t had pizza in months. But although it was in the guide, it didn’t seem to exist. I couldn’t find it, anyway. So I kept walking. Soon, I’d walked under the bridge and was running out of options.

There was a fish and chips place with outdoor seating near the bridge and I homed in on it. I fastened Penny to the fence near a table and went in to order. My timing was perfect; a tour boat from Laughlin had just arrived and let off its passengers. Although a loud (possibly drunk?) guy from the boat was in front of me on line, a long line quickly grew behind me. I ordered fish and chips (of course) and a Bloody Mary and went out to wait for my food with Penny.

It was a perfect day for people watching. More than half the folks in the area were seniors who either lived there or were visiting for the day. There was a London style telephone booth near the water that a lot of tourists liked to stand in to pose for photos and I watched them one after another. Other folks milled around while exercise minded folks hurried through. There really isn’t that much to do in the bridge area other than shop in tourist shops.

London Bridge
The view from my seat at the fish and chips restaurant on a rare moment with no one on the sidewalk.

My lunch arrived and it was very good. I used malt vinegar on my fries; I really do prefer it over catsup.

As I ate, the wind started to kick up. I got into a conversation with the couple at the next table who were there with a dog. Although I thought at first that they were a married couple, I soon realized that they were either friends or dating. When I offered him the bowl of water the waitress had brought for Penny, he said that his dog preferred iced tea, put the dog on his lap, and let the dog lap tea out of his cup. (Ick.) He then told me that he’d been living in Havasu for a few years and he thought it was paradise. (Coincidentally, that’s what the Welcome to Lake Havasu City signs said.) Then he offered to drive me down to Cattail Cove if I thought it was too windy to make the trip in my little boat. His companion was very agreeable did a lot of nodding.

I thanked them but told them I thought it would be okay.

London Bridge
Another shot of London Bridge. The Union Jacks are a nice touch.

A while later, I left in search of ice cream. Instead, I found a Hobie dealer and got to see the full line of Hobie paddle kayaks I’ve been thinking about for the past few years. These boats are very cool. They’re sit-on kayaks with comfortable, removable seats and drop-in pedal propulsion systems. Some models are even compatible with an add-on sail kit and petite outriggers. Before I bought my first kayaks, I considered one of these. But they don’t come cheap and I was worried that I wouldn’t use it. Now I’m thinking that I might, especially if I could figure out a way to take it south with me without towing a trailer or putting it on the roof. In any case, it was good to see them and be able to ask a knowledgeable person questions. The folks there were very helpful, even after I told them I couldn’t buy from them due to inability to transport it. The place is called Southwest Kayaks and they rent kayaks, too; I recommend them if you’re in the Lake Havasu City area. If I’d been staying in the area, I would have rented a kayak with a sail kit just to give it a try.

I went to various places to take photos of the bridge. By that time, the wind was really blowing. We headed back to the boat, stopping only to buy an ice cream cone for me (and a taste for Penny) and take a few more photos. Then we were back on the boat and I was casting off with the engine put-putting in “idle” speed out into the channel. This time, Penny’s life jacket was on and mine was on my seat as a back rest.

Penny Life Vest
I swung around for one last photo of the bridge before leaving Lake Havasu City.

The water in the channel was smooth enough, but I could sure feel the wind at my back as I retraced my route back out toward the main lake. When I got out of the channel, I could see whitecaps on the water. All the boats I saw were coming in from the lake.

I saw a marina on the right and headed toward it with thoughts of buying fuel and oil. But then I looked at my fuel gauge and realized that at nearly half full I had enough to get back to Cattail Cove. I should have enough oil, too. The wind would only get worse and taking 30 minutes to fuel and get oil I probably didn’t need would just make for a rougher ride all the way back. So I turned back toward the lake and increased speed a little to hurry through the No Wake area. When I passed the last No Wake buoy, I hit the throttle and the boat climbed out of the water into planing cruise.

But it was not a good cruise. The water was beyond just choppy and the boat would periodically surge out of the water while the engine screamed with nothing to pump through it. The hull repeatedly hit the water hard: bam, bam, bam. The fuel gauge swung wildly from nearly empty to half full — what was the real level? And then I heard the first beep.

You see, the oil reservoir has a warning system to let you know when you need to add oil. It beeps when it’s low. When I’m in rough water, the oil level sloshes around and, if it’s low enough, causes that warning system to beep. That basically tells me that I need to add oil pretty soon. If I don’t, the level will get so low that it’ll beep constantly, which is not only annoying, but stresses me out about running out of oil and destroying my engine.

So just like that, my boat told me what it wanted: go back and get more oil. And some fuel probably would be a good idea, too.

I happened to turn on the tracking feature in the GaiaGPS app on my phone when leaving the No Wake area the first time; you can see the start of the track in the middle of the loop here. You can also see where I turned around, went back to the marina, and then headed back out down the lake.

I turned around and headed into the wind. That was not fun. With the wind at my back, when water splashed up, it splashed away from the boat. But when I was driving into it, the splashes went right into me. I had to slow down to minimize the splashing but somehow that didn’t minimize how wet I was getting.

Then I was past the No Wake buoys and was supposed to slow down a lot more. I slowed down a little more. I honestly didn’t see a reason to maintain No Wake speed. Not only would that have kept me at a virtual standstill driving into the wind, but there was a lot more wave activity from the wind than from my little boat no matter what the speed was.

Eventually, I made it into the marina. It was sheltered there and I had no trouble tying up at the dock. I went right inside to inquire about oil and bought a quart; I usually buy it by the gallon but they didn’t have gallon sized bottles. Then I hit the ladies room. Then I went back to the boat, added the quart of oil, and topped off the fuel. About 20 minutes after arriving, I was ready to get back on the lake.

Of course, just as I expected, things out there were worse. The wind was blowing at around 19 miles per hour. How do I know this? Because at one point I was driving at 19 miles an hour (per my phone’s GPS) away from the wind and my hair and clothes weren’t blowing around. That was seriously weird.

We rode back at the fastest speed I could drive without the boat repeatedly screaming out of the water. That was usually around 15 to 20 miles per hour. At one point, the water seemed calmer and I got it up to 30 miles per hour. But then later I had to slow down again.

The whole time, Penny sat on the seat beside me. I think she wanted to be done with our adventure more than I did.

I drove close to shore, hoping that there would be some shelter from the wind and waves, but it was impossible to avoid them. The wind blasted down the lake, turning the whole surface into a choppy, white capped mess. I thought more than a few times about how nice it would have been to get back to Cattail Cove in a car with that couple from the restaurant and their iced tea sipping dog.

Other than the wind, the weather couldn’t be better. It was still bright and sunny without a cloud in the sky. The air was warm and I saw no need to put on a long-sleeved shirt. The boat wasn’t taking on any water so there was no danger. I did worry a bit — probably needlessly — about the hull banging down on the water surface so many times and mentally rehearsed what I’d have to do if something broke. And there were still a few boats out on the lake so if I had a serious problem and needed help I probably wouldn’t have to wait long.

I finally saw the trailer homes at Black Meadow Landing. Then the buoys at Cattail Cove came into view. I slipped between them and cut speed, maneuvering against the wind to my stern anchor buoy and line. I killed the engine as I reached out and caught the line, then held tight and let the anchor bring us to a stop.

The water in the cove bounced around a little. No one was on the beach. No one was in sight. The wind was howling there, too.

I tied off the line and the boat swung around, leaving the bow over deep water. I could see the bottom, but I knew it was deeper than I wanted to jump into. I repositioned the anchor twice, tossing it toward shallower water each time. Soon, it became obvious that I’d have to get my clothes wet. When I did finally jump in, expecting the water to be up to my thighs, it was up to my waist. And it was cold.

I had half a mind to let Penny swim to shore, but I didn’t. After tying the boat’s bow line to rocks on the beach, I went back to get her and my bag. I walked back to the campsite with my skirt completely soaked and dripping. No one was outside to see me.

It had been a bit more of an adventure than I like, but it was still a great day out.

Photo/Video Flight: Parker 250

A last minute gig turns out to be a fun little adventure — that pays.

I was sitting at my computer at 1:15 PM on Friday, scanning and shredding documents for my paperless filling system, when the phone rang. Caller ID said it was Barry. I couldn’t remember who Barry was, but knew we’d been in touch in the past — hence his number in my phone’s address book — so I answered it with my professional voice: “Flying M, Maria speaking.”

Barry had the foresight to remind me who he was when he identified himself. He’s another helicopter operator out of Falcon Field in Mesa. I’d done a video gig for one of his clients back in 2009. He was supposed to use his Bell 206B JetRanger to do a video flight with a regular client out at the Parker 250 off-road race the next morning. Unfortunately, the JetRanger was due for scheduled maintenance and his 206L LongRanger was just not right for the job. Was I available to go out there today for a shoot starting at dawn?

The first time I flew the Parker 425 was in 2008. All of the aerial footage in this video was shot from my helicopter.

I’d been to Parker to shoot the Parker 425 several times in the past. It’s a weird little town at the edge of the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) reservation that attracts mostly snowbirds. There isn’t much there beyond a Casino resort and a Walmart. The airport is owned and operated by CRIT. Hotel accommodations in the area are limited, especially when there’s a race in town.

Lodging was my first concern. I’d stayed in some pretty crappy places there. Places so bad, I told myself that a sleeping bag in the airport terminal would be better.

“It depends on if I can get a place to stay,” I told him.

He laughed almost nervously. “Well, the clients have rented a house. They were going to give me and the pilot our own room to share. You can have that room.” He hesitated and then added: “It would be private.”

“Ground transportation?”

“Call them when you get to the airport and they’ll pick you up. The only thing is, you need to get there by 5 PM because that’s when the airport closes for fuel.”

I consulted my watch and did some quick calculations. If I left my house at 3 PM, I’d have plenty of time to load and prep the helicopter and get to Parker before 5. I thought about what was going on at home: nothing. With my soon-to-be ex-husband out of the picture, I wouldn’t have to deal with his disapproving glare and whining complaints when I told him I had accepted an overnight flying gig. (Even if I invited him to come along, he’d use it as an example of how I always do what I want — ignoring the fact that flying for hire was how I earned my living and I needed to take jobs when they came up.) The only question was Penny the Tiny Dog, and I did have several options for dealing with her.

“Sure,” I told him. “I can do it.”

“Great,” he said, sounding relieved. “Let me get them on the phone and confirm that it’ll work for them. I’ll call you back as soon as I get a green light.”

Prepping for the Trip

I hung up and called Bar S Animal Hospital. They’re our local vet and they do animal boarding. Penny’s stayed there twice. Yes, no problem. They could take her. I told them I’d be there by 3.

Then I pulled out my overnight bag and packed a change of clothes, including warm layers for the dawn flight. It would be around 31°F in Parker at dawn and although I planned to have just the door behind me off, I knew it would get cold in the helicopter. I didn’t want to repeat the previous week’s shivering cold flights.

I gathered together Penny’s stuff: her bed, a toy, and a bone. She knew something was up, but I played it cool and she lost interest.

Barry called again. He said he’d left messages for the clients. We talked money. He told me what to charge; it was slightly more than my regular rate. He didn’t want a cut. He was just glad I could do the work. He didn’t want to let the client down. I told him I was going to jump in the shower but I’d be expecting the launch call.

The call came after I was showered and dressed. It was one of the clients. He told me to come on out and give him a call when I got to the airport. As easy as that.

The Flight to Parker

A while later, around 3 PM, I was at Wickenburg Airport, prepping the helicopter. I’d dropped Penny off and prepaid for her stay. I preflighted the helicopter in the hangar, out of the cold wind that was blowing across the airport. I loaded my Bruce’s Custom Covers door storage bag and the rock climbing harness I offer photographers who want better range of motion than a seat belt allows. Then I tossed in my overnight bag and leather jacket, closed everything up, and dragged the helicopter out to the ramp.

My route to Parker
My route here to Parker. Click here to access an interactive map.

By 3:35, the hangar was locked up and I was airborne, heading due west. Despite the wind, the flight was quite smooth. I headed toward Cunningham Pass, which cut through the Harcuvar Mountains, and then made a beeline to Parker. There was a whole lot of empty desert along the way — I flew over only 2 paved roads on the 74 NM flight. My only detour was to drop into the dry wash along the race route where folks had set up RVs to observe the race. I flew low level past them, returning their waves and smelling the burning wood of their campfires.

Typical Parker 250 Campsite
A typical Parker 250 campsite out in the desert. This was shot on raceday; the track is on the right, down in the wash.

There was a plane turning final as I crossed the runway at Parker and set down on the ramp. I shut down and pulled out my step stool and blade tie-downs. It was about 4:30 PM. I figured it would probably be a good idea to place a fuel order before I settled down.

Fuel Woes

Although it’s tempting to follow the river, the fastest route between Parker and Lake Havasu City is over the mountains.

And that’s when I was reminded how badly the FBO at Parker airport is managed. There was just one person in the office: a woman who claimed to be a secretary. She told me that everyone else had gone home with the flu. There was no one to drive the fuel truck. No, I couldn’t drive it for her. And no, I couldn’t use the self-serve island. If I wanted fuel, I’d have to go to Lake Havasu City.

Lake Havasu City was a 26NM flight that would take me about 15 minutes. Each way. I called my client and told him what was up. I needed fuel for the next day; there was no doubt about that. I told him I’d be back in 45 minutes. Then I re-stowed all my gear, started up, and headed north.

Mountains South of Havasu
A shot of the mountains I had to cross on a direct path between Parker and Lake Havasu City. I shot this with my iPhone from inside the helicopter; pardon the glare.

Lake Havasu
Lake Havasu City, shot from the air south of town; pardon the glare.

My route took me over some pretty rugged mountain terrain that was beautifully lit in the late afternoon sun. Once over the mountains, I had a clear view of Lake Havasu and the city beyond it. Compared to Parker, it was a thriving metropolis. I sped past London Bridge and covered the distance between town and the airport quickly. Since it was getting close to 5 PM, I called ahead to make sure a fuel truck would be available. Desert Skies, the excellent FBO there, told me to look for the truck. When I got close to the ramp, I saw it and landed nearby.

The fuel guy must have sensed my urgency, because he pulled into position as soon as my blades stopped. I helped him by grounding the aircraft and moving his stepladder for him. He gave me a ride back to the terminal to pay and I took the opportunity to use the ladies room. Then I was done, heading back to the helicopter, winding it back up, and heading south to Parker again.

No Fuel
This sign was on the Pilot Lounge door when I returned to Parker from Havasu.

I touched down exactly 45 minutes after talking to my client. The sun would set in about 10 minutes.

I figured I had 2-1/2 hours of fuel on board before I’d have to go back to Havasu for more. And when I saw the sign on the pilot lounge door, I realized that CRIT would not be providing fuel the next day.

The Frat House

N630ML in Last Light
Here’s my helicopter parked on the ramp at Parker just as the sun was setting.

I had the blades tied down and was waiting outside the airport fence with my overnight bag, leather jacket, and bottle of oil (to keep warm overnight for easier pouring in the morning) when my client pulled up in a big, black van with vanity plates. I climbed in back with three members of the video crew, including the videographer I’d be flying with the next day. They all introduced themselves and I almost immediately forgot their names. (I am so bad with names and faces.) We drove to the house they’d rented in a small gated community on the Colorado River upriver from Parker, making one stop along the way.

The house was on a little canal with access to the river. It had four bedrooms, one bathroom, and a great room. A patio out back on the canal had a barbecue grill, table, chairs, and stairs down to the water. I asked where I’d be sleeping and was offered a small bedroom with a large — maybe California King? — bed, large closet, and television. There were teddy bears on the night tables. The bed was rumbled and I suspected someone else had slept in it the night before.

Turns out the house was owned by snowbirds who, for $2100/weekend, would vacate and rent to groups. Apparently most of the homes in the neighborhood were handled the same way; at least five of the race crews were camped out in nearby homes. Although the owners cleaned out most of their personal possessions, possibly locking them up in the garage and behind one locked door, there were still a few weird items around — like the teddy bears.

The group quickly expanded to eight guys ranging in age from around 20 to 50. They all wore black shirts, most of which had the company logo on it. They were nice guys and all introduced themselves to me. After a quick discussion about dinner, four of them took off in the van to pick up groceries. The rest of us sat around drinking beer or bottled water and eating Fritos and Ruffles chips.

No need to go into details on the evening, but I do recall thinking that this was the closest I’d ever get to living in a frat house. Somehow groceries got organized and beer got put away in the fridge. Burgers and brats got cooked, buns got toasted, and tubs of macaroni and potato salad got served out. My contribution was slicing the tomatoes and a red onion. I had a bratwurst with lots of mustard and some macaroni salad. I also polished off half a bottle of wine.

More guys showed up — this time from my client’s client — and I could tell they were trying to figure out where the only woman fit into the puzzle. When I introduced myself to one of the race team guys as the pilot, he nodded thoughtfully and looked around for the pilot, obviously thinking I said that I was with the pilot. Then his eyebrows rose and he looked at me. “You’re the pilot?” he asked. “The helicopter pilot?” I nodded and admitted that I was.

The Frat House
Here’s an iPhone 5 panorama of the “frat house” with most of the folks who showed up for dinner.

There was a lot of chatter about the next day’s plan. I’d be working with the videographer, who worked with a handheld RED camera, and a still photographer. When I told them I preferred the videographer to sit behind me so that I could see the car we were chasing, they agreed it was the best way to go. The photographer would sit on the opposite side of the helicopter and get his shots after the videographer was satisfied. We agreed to leave the house at 6:30 so we could be in the air by the race start time of 7:15 AM.

Somewhere along the line, they let me know that they might need me on Sunday, too. It all depended on whether their main target vehicle survived Saturday’s race. Was that okay with me? Although I was hoping to get home on Saturday early enough to rescue Penny from boarding, I was certainly not opposed to making a few extra bucks on a second day of flying. (Again, it was great not to have to call a hostile spouse to get approval.) So I told them it was fine with me.

I disappeared into my bedroom at around 10 PM. The guys were still talking loudly and the walls were paper thin. I was lying in bed, reading before shutting off the light when the crowd started thinning out. The house was quiet when I went to sleep.

The bed was comfortable and I slept well.

In the middle of the night, I woke to hear someone snoring next door. The walls were very thin.

Rise and Shine

I was up at 5 AM and figured I’d take the opportunity to use the bathroom before it became in high demand. It was weird to see an empty beer bottle on the vanity.

Frat house.

By 5:30 AM everyone was awake and stirring. About half of the guys had slept in the living room, sprawled out on sofas and an inflatable bed. Without blankets. But they were in remarkably good spirits. I suspect they’d dealt with worse conditions in the past.

I spent about 10 minutes cleaning up beer bottles, plates, and other garbage from the day before. I filled two trash bags. I considered loading the dishwasher but decided that would be too much like being a den mother. Let them deal with that.

They had excellent instant oatmeal cups with nuts and fruit and a coffee maker that I couldn’t get to work. I used the coffee maker that came with the house to brew a pot of Folgers. Only three of us drank it. There was no milk. By 6:10 AM, everyone was out of the house except the three of us who’d be in the helicopter.

I packed up all my things. I wasn’t sure whether they’d need me Sunday and I didn’t want to leave anything behind in case they didn’t. After all, while the race was going on, there was no way for me to get back to the house. Best to have my overnight bag with me.

It was dark when we stepped out of the house at 6:30 AM. Sunrise wasn’t until about 7:45. We weren’t sure why they expected us to be in the air when the race started a full half hour before sunrise. Although the RED camera could handle low light, our six target UTVs wouldn’t be starting until after all the motorcycles and ATVs had left. Still, we went to the airport and I prepped the helicopter for flight.

It was also cold. About 30°F.

I took care of the oil first, worried that it would get cold and thicken back up. Then removed the blade tie-downs. Then did a preflight inspection with a flashlight. Then removed two doors and put them away. And finally set up my GoPro nosecam.

I was disappointed about having to use the nosecam instead of the skidcam, but that was my fault. Although I put the RAM mount piece on the skid, I left the remaining mount components, including the GoPro housing, at home. So I couldn’t assemble the skidcam, which would have given me the same view as the videographer. Instead, I hooked up the nosecam with the remote back and set it up to turn it on/off with my iPhone in the cockpit. I’d shoot 1080p video until the SD card filled or the battery died.

The Flights

We were airborne by 7:15, with the videographer behind me and the still photographer beside me. The starting line was less than a mile from the airport, so we were there within seconds. I circled and we looked down at the action. The motorcycles were leaving, 30 seconds apart. It would be at least 15 minutes before our target vehicles left. We went back to the airport and sat idling on the ramp for a while.

When we took off to check again, the motorcycles were almost done starting, but the ATVs were behind them. We went back to the airport and shut down. No sense burning fuel we’d need later.

Barry called. We chatted about the job. I told him about the fuel situation and the possibility of a second day. He was as bugged as I was about the fuel and apologetic about the second day. “No worries,” I told him. Everything was under control.

One of the video crew members advised us that the target vehicles would likely be off the line in 30 minutes. We all got out to stretch our legs. The local medevac guy showed up and chatted with us. The King Air they fly turned up a while later and he got busy. By that time, we figured it was worth another try so I started back up and we launched again.

We spent about 10 minutes circling the starting line, waiting for them to launch the UTVs. They apparently waited more than just 30 seconds between the last ATV and the first UTV. The two camera guys got shots of the non-action.

Starting Line
The starting line with the UTVs lined up and waiting to go.

Our main target was about 10 cars back, but another target was first in line. When they released him, we took off after them. It was finally showtime.

Chasing desert racers is my absolute favorite kind of flying. I’m out over the mostly empty desert so I don’t have to worry about low flying causing a hazard to people or property on the ground. Although there are wires in the area, I quickly learn where they are. I focus on the vehicle and the instructions from my client. My goal is to get the helicopter into position for whatever kind of shot the videographer needs — without doing anything that could get us killed.

And when the vehicles are moving fast, I can get a pretty good rush.

We began in a 200-foot hover beside the starting line with the car on the videographer’s side of the aircraft and his camera focused on it. Then, when it was released, I pivoted while it made the first turn and then pushed the cyclic forward gently to get some forward movement. Without adjusting the collective, we began a descent, gathering speed along the way. When we were about 100 feet off the ground, I pulled pitch to arrest the descent while maintaining speed. And then I just chased the car, matching its speed, pulling in front of it or behind it as instructed and crabbing, if necessary, to give the videographer the best shot.

My focus was absolute; I was the autopilot. I wasn’t thinking about all the divorce crap that has been fucking up my brain for the past eight months. I was just thinking about the vehicle I was chasing, the instructions from the videographer, and the wires I knew were up ahead. The helicopter was an extension of my mind and body. It did exactly what I needed it to, without me having to give it much thought at all.

I was in the zone.

We chased that car for a while with it on our right side. Then, when the videographer was done, I popped over the top of the track and put the car on our left side for the still photographer. He got a bunch of shots. When he was done, I pulled up and around to go back for the next target.

Chasing Cars
We’re chasing the car behind the one in this nosecam image. You can see the dust kicked up by the motorcycles and ATVs ahead of us on the track hanging low over the desert.

It’s not unusual to bank 45° to 60° at 50 knots or more while turning to pick up the next target. This is really aggressive flying, but done with smooth control inputs, the R44 handles it admirably. In this shot, we were probably 50 to 100 feet off the desert floor.

We did this repeatedly, one target after another. We found the first four targets without trouble and spent most of the time with the main target, shooting it from all kinds of angles. My clients really liked the look of the shots toward the sun where the dust was really illuminated. I did a lot of crabbing, hovering, and pivoting. The wind was calm and the air was cool so performance was not an issue at all — even with three of us on board and nearly full tanks of fuel. The same flying on a 90° day would have been impossible with our load.

Down in the Wash
Again, we’re chasing the car behind these. A good portion of the track runs in dry washes like this one.

Little by little, we made our way down the 80-miles of the track: flat desert, dry wash, more flat desert, powerline road, more flat desert, deep canyon, and more flat desert. The GoPro battery died less than an hour into the flight — I think that remote backpack drains the main battery because I know it was fully charged when I put it on the helicopter — so I don’t have any footage from the more interesting segments of the track.

I did mention the wires, right? The track follows these powerlines to the edge of a wash and then dives down into the wash. It’s tempting to follow the vehicles down, but the wires don’t go down at the same angle, so you need to stay high to clear them when making the right hand turn.

Track Log on a Map
Here’s the actual GPS track from our flight. You can also view an interactive version of this with photos.

We hopped from one vehicle to the next, back and forth on the track. Our main target vehicle broke an axle or something while we were videoing it; we got footage of the team getting out to check the damage. Another one of our targets got a flat tire; we captured one team member changing it. We picked up the last two targets on the return side of the track. We followed one of our targets — which turned out to be the leader — all the way into “the python,” a segment of track that winds around a sandy area near the airport, complete with banked curves and jumps.

And then we were done. The Hobbs meter showed I’d flown exactly 2.5 hours.

Warming Up, Heading Out

I flew back to the airport, which was only about a mile away, and landed. We fetched the doors and my overnight bag from my clients’ car and they prepped to move on to their ground base somewhere along the track. I locked up the helicopter and they dropped me off at McDonalds on their way out.

I got the last breakfast order in and took my food and orange juice to a booth in a sunny window to warm up. I made a few phone calls. I relaxed. Then I went back to the helicopter, which was parked facing south, and relaxed in the pilot seat, reading on my iPad. The cockpit was warm and cozy.

I realized how nice it was to just take it easy without having to be anywhere or answer to anyone.

A jet came in. The jet pilots came by to chat with me. Their passengers arrived at 1 PM — the same time I got a text from the client decision maker. They would not need me on Sunday. I was released.

I didn’t waste any time getting the helicopter started. A few minutes later, I was heading northeast along the Colorado River to Lake Havasu City. I’d have to refuel before heading back to Wickenburg.

While I waited for the line guy to fuel, I went into the BBQ place next to the FBO and got some ribs to go. I settled my bill at the FBO and walked back to the helicopter, swinging my take out bag beside me.

It was then that I suddenly realized that I really love my life. That’s something I need to blog about soon.

I checked the oil and the fuel caps, then climbed into the helicopter and started up. I was munching fried okra and sipping iced tea when I pointed the nose east for the 86NM flight back to Wickenburg. It was a long flight over remote terrain — I’d only cross two paved roads and one tiny settlement (the Wayside Inn) along the way. I’d be there 50 minutes later.

I put the helicopter away and pulled all my gear out of it. I totaled the billable flight time: 5.2 hours. Not bad for an unexpected, spur-of-the-moment gig.

I stopped at a friends hangar and spent some time chatting with a few people there. Then I fetched Penny and we went home. It felt good to get a hot shower and relax with a glass of wine in front of the fire.

Doing Gigs

It has its ups and downs.

By “gig,” I mean a helicopter rides job. You know — like at a carnival or air show.

At Robson's Mining WorldFlying M Air makes approximately 20% of its money doing helicopter rides at outdoor events. These events, which range from small-town celebrations (Robson’s Mining World (see photo), Yarnell Daze, Old Congress Days) to county fairs (Mohave County Fair) to full-blown air shows (Thunderbird Balloon Classic and Air Show) are probably the hardest work I have to do. Not only do I have to arrange the event with its management and ensure that I have a safe landing zone nearby, but I have to get together a ground crew of reliable, amiable people to handle money collection, passenger briefings, and loading/unloading. And then I have to do the ups and downs.

I’ve been fortunate in the past to find two good local teams to help out. Darlene and Dave live in Wickenburg and have helped out on two events so far. John and Lorna live in Maine but spend their winters here in Wickenburg and have helped out on winter events for the past two or three years. And of course, I always have Mike, who oversees the whole ground operation.

The ground crew is just about as important as the pilot in this kind of work. They need to be responsible, alert individuals who pay attention to what’s going on around them. We do “hot loading” at these events — that means the engine is running while people are getting on and off the helicopter. That means the rotors are spinning. While the main rotor isn’t much of a concern — it’s spinning 10-12 feet above the ground where it’s not likely to hit anyone walking nearby — the tail rotor is a major concern. It’s spinning back there at head level and even though there’s a guard and warning signs on the helicopter, it’s still possible for someone to walk into it. I need my ground crew to make sure no one walks behind the helicopter at any time. I want my ground crew to use physical force if necessary — grab the guy! — to keep a person from walking back there. Not everyone is prepared to do that.

(A side note here: one of the ways I help protect people from the tail rotor is to park with the tail rotor away from where people might be. In other words, I park facing the crowd. Then there’s no reason to go around the back of the helicopter. This may seem like common sense, but it’s amazing how few helicopter pilots don’t stick to this rule. They’ll park facing into the wind (because it’s easier for them) or park facing a runway (for reasons I don’t begin to understand). Having attended the Robinson Factory Safety Course twice, I clearly remember the story of a Long Beach mishap that occurred primarily because the pilot parked with his tail rotor facing his passengers. I’d rather learn from other people’s mistakes than my own.)

I also need a money person who is friendly and a good sales person. I once did a gig with a real wimp taking the money. She just stood there, waiting for people to come up. She spoke in a whisper and did nothing to convince the people who walked up to her table that what they really wanted that day was a helicopter ride. I think that if I had Darlene or Lorna at the table that weekend, I would have taken at least 30 more people for flights. That’s more money for the business and less time sitting on the ground, spinning, waiting for passengers.

The ups and downs are my part. I generally do 6-8 minute rides, but we’ve recently had some success with 3-4 minute rides. That’s a lot of takeoffs (ups) and landings (downs). The challenge here is that I’m usually working in a relatively small space and often have only one way in and out. Obstacles include other activities (I won’t fly over a fair or gathering of people), buildings, wires, fences, and trees. So every takeoff is a maximum performance takeoff and every landing is a confined space landing. And one of the two may be with a tailwind. While I don’t mind taking off with a tailwind (up to 10 knots seems to be okay, depending on my load), I don’t like landing with one. And cross-wind operations are always tricky, especially if the winds are gusting. My goal is to make it look easy no matter what the conditions are, to assure my passengers, through experience alone, that they are in good hands.

With all this comes huge responsibility. Not only do I need to make the ride fun for my passengers, but I need to make it safe. A mishap — even a small one — would be a very bad thing. I think of myself as an ambassador for the helicopter industry. What I do might be the only helicopter operation some of my passengers ever witness. I want them to tell others how good it was, how safe they felt, how much confidence they had in their pilot. And — oh, yes — how much they want to do it again.

I know it’s my experience at the Grand Canyon back in the summer of 2004 that made me pretty darn good at doing ups and downs. At the GC, we operated in very challenging conditions — high winds in the early season, hot temperatures in the mid season, and low visibility in the late season. Although we never operated in unsafe conditions, we certainly operated in many conditions that the average pilot would not normally fly in. The flying was highly restricted, requiring certain takeoff, flight, and landing paths. You couldn’t for example, change your approach to landing just because the wind had shifted; you needed to wait for the tower to change that path. And when you’re operating at high altitude (the airport was 6300 feet) with full loads (I often was within 100 pounds of max gross weight), you learn how to handle power and milk the system for what you need. My goal on every flight was to make every single landing perfect. Of course, I wasn’t able to do that, but by aiming for perfection every single time, I got very good at it. I took that experience away with me and use it on every flight I do.

Now compare this kind of work to a Sedona day trip, like the ones I do from Wickenburg and the Phoenix area. I meet the passengers myself, give them a safety briefing, and load them on the helicopter with the engine off. I then start up, warm up, and take off. The flight is about an hour and neither flying nor navigation require much skill. I point out places of interest and enjoy the scenery with my passengers. Then I land at the airport, cool down, shut down, and escort my passengers to the terminal for whatever activities they have planned. A few hours later, I do the same thing to return to our starting point. As far as real “work” is concerned, a charter has very little. And the revenue is based on flight time, so I’m guaranteed a certain amount of profit for each flight.

Gigs, on the other hand, have a ton of work and a very unreliable revenue stream. When things are going well, I can indeed make more per hour than I can with a charter. But I should, shouldn’t I? I have a lot more work to do (all those ups and downs!) and need to cover the expenses of my ground crew and the gig itself. And there’s always the gig that goes bad — like the Spring Break gig in Lake Havasu I tried two years ago. I took a bath on that gig, losing over $1,600 in ferry time, permits, fees, and hotel costs. Live and learn — but ouch! That one hurt.

But hey — that’s what I signed up for when I started this business. And I still get a lot of pleasure out of taking passengers for their very first helicopter rides.