Snowbirding 2017: Astrophotography

Practice makes perfect. I’m practicing.

I have more than the average amount of free time in my life and I like to put it to good use doing and learning things. Last September, I took an astrophotography class at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. You can read about the class and see some of the photos I took during our field trip in this blog post.

What I learned about shooting the night sky is that it’s very easy to do if you have the right equipment. Fortunately, I do: a DSLR with full manual mode, a very wide angle (10mm) lens, and a sturdy tripod. The hardest thing to do is to find skies dark enough to see enough stars to make the effort worthwhile.

We had dark enough skies in the North Cascades, despite ambient light from the nearby dam and occasional passing car. I don’t have dark enough skies at home, though — the glow from Wenatchee is surprisingly (and disappointingly) bright. And although I camped at more than a few places that should have been dark enough for night sky photography, most weren’t.

Or if I found a place that should have dark enough skies, the sky was overcast while I was there. Or the moon was in the sky, illuminating it so only the brightest stars showed.

Cibola
I like this shot of my RV parked on the levee along the Colorado River. I had to crop it square to get rid of the light from the town of Cibola, which is still in the shot.

I did have some success back in January when I camped out along the Colorado River near the Cibola National Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Arizona. I shared one of those photos in a blog post about the campsites I’ve been finding.

The one I didn’t share was a bit more challenging and I’m not sure if I successfully pulled it off. (Maybe you can tell me?) The bright point of light in the sky is Venus. I wanted to catch its reflection in the Colorado River, which I did. Unfortunately, although it was long past sunset, there was still a bit of a glow to the west. I think it’s from towns and homes off in the distance, but who knows?

Venus Reflected
It’s nearly impossible to include the horizon in a night photography shot without some sort of glow from terrestrial lighting.

I got a chance to practice again in Death Valley National Park, on my third night in the park. The first two nights were too cloudy and the moon was nearly full anyway. But the third night offered a window of opportunity between the end of twilight and before the waning gibbous moon came up. I was parked in Greenwater Valley with some mountains behind the camper. It was very dark outside and the sky was full of stars. I took eight shots. I think these two are the best.

Death Valley Night Sky
This was my first shot of the evening with the camera pointed pretty much straight up. It features the Milky Way with the Pleiades near the center and Orion’s Belt almost cropped off the top.

Death Valley Night Sky
In this shot, I pointed the camera up above the mountains behind the camper. You can see the big dipper just above the horizon. Once again, there’s the glow from something out there; it’s not the sun because I was pointed east.

I think photos are more interesting with something in the foreground. The one with my camper works for me. So does the one with Venus and its reflection. I guess the challenge is going someplace with something interesting to frame in the foreground and possibly “light paint” it with a lantern or something. It wouldn’t take much. The only light in my camper in the above shot was from a single tea light candle burning on the dining table inside. It looks as if I have multiple lights on!

I enjoy doing this, although I admit I’d likely enjoy it more with companions on the same sort of mission. Because my remote shutter release doesn’t work — I think it needs a new battery (again) — I have to use the camera’s self-timer as a shutter release. That adds 10 seconds to a 30 second exposure with about 30 seconds of processing time before an image finally appears. A lot of time standing around by myself in the dark. The field trip I took at the North Cascades class was a bit more of a crowd than I like, but at least it kept things interesting.

I hope to get at least one more chance to experiment with this kind of photography on my trip, but I’m not sure when. Most of my remaining destinations are not well known for their dark skies. I’ll see how I do.

My First Stab at Night Sky Photography

What I learned at a North Cascades Environmental Learning Center photography class.

I love the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center, which is not far from the Diablo Dam on Diablo Lake on the North Cascades Highway (Route 20). I got my first glimpse of it during a camping trip last summer and later that year returned to take a three-day course about mushrooms. This year, I returned for one night of Base Camp right before an overnight seminar titled “Wilderness Photography: Washington Pass at Night.” Here’s the course description, since I can assume the link to the course page will eventually break:

In the grandeur of the North Cascades, moonless nights with clear skies offer fantastic opportunities to capture vivid images of the galaxy.

Join photographer Andy Porter on this specially-scheduled evening expedition to capture images of the Milky Way on this moonless night. We’ll begin the adventure with a short evening workshop on night photography at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. Then we’ll head to Washington Pass where, under the towering peaks of Liberty Bell and the Early Winter Spires, Andy will guide us in capturing our own images of the night sky.

I could go into a lot of detail about my stay at the NCELC and the other things I did while I was there, but I’ll try to stay focused for this post. But I do need to talk briefly about the weather, since it did play a major part in how the course went.

The weather was not very good. It was overcast all day and rained more than a few times. Although the clouds were relatively high, there wasn’t a single clear patch in the sky. It was like this all day, which really didn’t surprise me — it rains every single time I come to this area. I like the rain, mostly because I don’t get much of it at home, but I really wish it wouldn’t rain in the mountains when I’m there.

Diablo Dam to Washington Pass
Washington Pass is a 35-mile drive southeast from Diablo Dam on Route 20.

Of course, we weren’t supposed to take pictures in the Diablo Lake area. We were supposed to go to Washington Pass, about 35 miles east. I’d driven through the Pass the day before on my way to the NCELC and it had been partly cloudy, with smoke from a fire I later discovered was burning near Mazama. But the weather information we had showed that Washington Pass was likely just as bad as it was where we were. And there’s nothing worse than making a 70-mile round trip drive to take pictures and not being able to do so.

There was a short classroom session after dinner. Andy introduced himself and showed off a few slides of his work. Most featured an easily identifiable foreground object that was often lighted — like a tent with kids in it or the roots of a fallen log — and a magnificent night sky. He briefly explained how he accomplished the lighted part of the shot by illuminating it for only about a second during the long exposure required to get the night sky. He also admitted to doing a lot of post processing and even showed us before and after shots.

Then he gave us the details on how we needed to set up our cameras for nighttime shooting. Here’s a brief version of his instructions. I’m not giving away any secrets here — all this information is available in a wide variety of places online.

Required Equipment

Before I detail the settings, let me start with the basics. If you don’t have this equipment, you probably can’t do this kind of photography. Or at least I won’t be able to explain how.

  • Camera. At the very minimum, you need a camera capable of setting aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and focus manually. Most DSLRs can do this, although lower end models might have limitations. These days, I shoot with a Nikon D7000, but I’m pretty sure my old Nikon D80 could do the job. And yes, a film camera could work, but the ability to immediately see results and adjust settings make it really impractical.
  • Wide-angle lens. The wider the field of view, the better off you’ll be. In case you don’t know, the lower the focal length, the wider the field of view. I used a 10-24 mm lens for this shoot and set it to 10 mm. Because I don’t have a full-frame sensor in my Nikon camera, that’s equivalent to a 15 mm focal length. There were people shooting with everything from 10 mm to 28 mm in the class.
  • Tripod. You need a good, sturdy tripod. There’s no getting around it. I use a Manfrotto with a ball head and I love its flexibility. If you have options, use one that can be extended so it’s tall enough for you to look through the lens and check image results without having to bend over. Sturdy is especially important if there’s any wind — although this isn’t something you’d likely attempt with anything stronger than a light breeze.
  • Cable or remote shutter release. My camera won’t support a cable release, but it does support a remote shutter release, which I have. If you don’t have either, there is a workaround: use the camera’s self-timer to release the shutter. (This is what I wound up doing when my remote crapped out for some unknown reason during the shoot.) Under no circumstances should you be pressing the shutter release button by hand; it will definitely shake the camera, even on a tripod.

What’s interesting to me is that just about all of the people who took part in the class — and I think there were nearly 20 of us — had brought a bunch of camera equipment. I didn’t bring all of mine, but I did bring my camera body and three lenses. In reality, all we needed was what I listed above. So when it was time to get on the van to drive out to our shooting destination, I secured my camera on my tripod, rested the top of the tripod on my shoulder, and left the rest of my gear behind. I like traveling light.

Camera Settings

The tricky part of shooting the night sky is setting up the camera properly. Andy, our instructor, had us do this in the classroom so we wouldn’t be fiddling with settings in the dark. If you set the camera up right in advance, there’s only one thing you might have to change out in the field.

  • Widest field of view. If you’re using a zoom lens, zoom out to the widest field of view (smallest focal length number). Again, I used 10 mm.
  • Widest aperture. Set your lens so it’s wide open (smallest f-stop number). This enables the camera to take in as much light as possible during the exposure. For my lens, that was f3.5.

  • Manual focus. This can be a setting on your lens or camera or both. (It’s both on mine.) You definitely do not want the camera trying to automatically focus, especially if your camera won’t make an exposure unless focus is locked in.
  • Lock it in!

    This is where I really wish I had some gaffer’s tape with me. This is special tape used in film production; it makes it possible to secure things like you would with any tape, but when you pull the tape off, no sticky residue is left behind. This would have been very helpful for me to lock that focus ring down, preventing me from accidentally moving it during the shoot.

    Focus to infinity. This is actually a lot trickier than it sounds and it took a while for us to all get it right. Simply dialing the focus ring as far as it goes on the infinity side isn’t necessarily correct. You need to play with it a little at a variety of settings out near the infinity symbol (∞). After each setting, snap a photo of something at least 50 feet away and then check it in the review window. Zoom in to see how crisp it is. Then try another setting to see if it’s crisper. Repeat this process until it’s dialed in perfectly. On my lens, the tick mark was lined up with the center of the infinity symbol but it might be different for yours. If you don’t have focus distance symbols on your lens, you might have to use autofocus to get the right focus setting before setting manual focus. I’m pretty sure that’s what Andy helped a few people do.

  • Manual exposure mode. You must set the camera for manual exposure so you’re in charge of how it takes the photo.
  • Calculating shutter speed with the 500 Rule

    If you want to do the math, it’s pretty simple: 500 ÷ Focal Length ÷ Crop Value

    So if you have a high-end camera with a full frame sensor and you’re using a 12 mm lens, the math is:
    500 ÷ 12 ÷ 1 = 41.66, which you can round down to 40.

    With my camera’s 1.5 crop sensor and 10 mm lens, the math is:
    500 ÷ 10 ÷ 1.5 = 33.33, which I rounded down to 30.

    Maximum shutter speed per the 500 Rule. Okay, this is where it gets a little complicated. Andy gave us a handout with a table of settings for the 500 rule, but never explained what the rule was or why it’s important. I did a little research this morning to learn more. We all know that the earth rotates, which means that the stars appear to move across the night sky. They move slowly so we don’t actually see them moving, but if your camera’s exposure is too long, you’ll get star trails — lines made by the stars as their light moves across the camera’s focal plane. To avoid star trails — which is what we wanted to do — you need to set your maximum shutter speed in accordance with the camera sensor size and lens focal length. You can learn more about this on Petapixel, which is also where you can find a table of values. Keep in mind that the shutter speed is in seconds, not fractions of a second. So when I set my camera’s shutter speed, it appeared as 30" in the settings screen. Exposures longer than that require the “bulb” setting on my camera, which means I’d have to manually open and close the shutter based on time I keep with a stopwatch or something.

  • ISO to 2000. This is a good starting point. Of all the settings, this is the one you might be fiddling with in the dark, so make sure you know how to change it. On my camera, it can be done with a combination of buttons and dials but it’s actually a lot easier to just go into the settings menu. I found that my best shots were done at 5000; more on that in a while.

Shooting

Once we had set up our cameras, we all climbed onto the NCELC’s shuttle bus, filling every seat. Andy took a few people in his car. Although it was difficult to see the sky through the tall trees around the campus, it was still pretty cloudy and none of us had very high hopes of getting good photos. They’d decided to try a closer viewpoint: the Diablo Dam Overlook. This offered views of the main lake and dam, as well as up the Thunder Creek arm of the lake and Colonial Peak. With few trees, we’d have a clear view of the sky.

As we drove over the dam, I was looking out the window and saw a single point of light. “I see a star!” I called out. Other people looked but I’m not sure if they saw anything.

Get away from the lights!

Incredibly — to me, anyway — one of the class attendees had to ask the instructor where the Milky Way was. He could see it, but he didn’t know that that the bright band of stars he was looking at was what’s referred to as the Milky Way — the galaxy our tiny planet is part of. This made me sad. I remember my grandfather pointing out the Milky Way when I was five or six years old, sitting with him on the front lawn of his house in suburban New Jersey, long before light pollution hid it from view. Yet this man, in his seventies (!), had spent so much time in the city that he couldn’t even identify the Milky Way when he saw it in the night sky.

Less than ten minutes later, we were at the overlook, which was understandably deserted. It was well after 9 PM and quite dark. But once our eyes had adjusted after the lights from the bus we saw it above us: the Milky Way.

I beelined it to the corner of the overlook where I’d get a good shot up the Thunder Creek arm. My camera was already on my tripod; all I had to do was extend the legs and neck and get it in position. I might have been the first person to take a shot.

And this is where patience is important. Each of my shots was 30 seconds long. Once the shutter closed, the image did not immediately appear. The camera, which is nothing more than a computer with a camera attached to it, had to process all the information it had just collected. I think this took longer than the exposure time — perhaps as long as another 40 seconds. So from the time I started my shot to the time I was actually able to see it in the review screen at the back of the camera was more than a minute.

Thunder Arm at Night
A look up Thunder Arm at night. The cars driving by on the road often ruined shots by illuminating landscape features we wanted to be kept dark.

My first shot came out dark. Yes, I could see the stars, but no, I couldn’t see them well. I thought it might have something to do with my reading glasses, which seem to make things look darker than they are. But Andy took a look and recommended bumping up the ISO, which he’d originally advised me to start at 1600. So I tried 2000. It wasn’t much better.

Meanwhile, other photographers were snapping away, emitting occasional oohs and aahs and cursing at the cars that drove past the view point, illuminating foreground items we wanted to be kept dark. One woman near me had very good luck with her camera ISO set to 5000 so I gave it a try. (My camera goes up to over 24000.) That looked much better, so I stuck with if for the rest of the shoot.

Keep in mind that the higher the ISO setting, the more light is processed in the camera. There is a cost to this, however. High ISO settings lead to grainy images or “noise” (digital artifacts) in the images. Ideally, you want to keep the ISO as low as possible to get the shot you want. But since you can’t open the lens any wider (aperture setting) and can’t lengthen the exposure any longer (shutter speed setting), the ISO is the only thing you can change to vary the brightness of your shot.

I moved around to a variety of places. The Milky Way was mostly overhead, but it did dip down to the horizon in the south. A handful of light clouds drifted by, sometimes obscuring stars.

Diablo Dam at Night
I took a few shots of the dam. The lights reflected off the clouds, reddening them. I think this is the image where digital noise is most apparent, especially in the clouds. (A few people mistook the reddish clouds in their pictures for the aurora. Sorry, but no.)

We shot for well over an hour. I captured about 40 images. I haven’t looked at all of them on my big computer yet; these are pretty much decent random images I grabbed for this blog post. All of these are edited to make the stars “pop” more than they do in the original. If you have good image editing skills, you’ll definitely use them if you do night sky photography. I prefer to minimize editing.

Sky Through Trees
This was shot almost straight up. I think the trees and clouds offer a sense of three dimensionality.

For the most part, the photographers were good to work with. The only real problem we had was with light — too many of them wore headlamps. The trouble with headlamps is that they point wherever you look. So if you look up, your light flashes up, possibly illuminating trees or other foreground object people want dark. This got a bit frustrating and, more than a few times, I called out, “Lights down, please!” One photographer seemed to think that no lights should be on at all and rudely yelled at anyone who used a light, even if it was pointed down at the ground. Sorry, but when walking on uneven terrain in the dark I’m going to use a light — in my case, my phone’s flashlight. If the light doesn’t shine on the subject, it should not affect the photo.

The End of the Shoot… and Beyond

We went back to campus in two groups. I was in the first one. I’d had enough. My remote shutter control had died about halfway through the shoot and I had to rely on the camera’s self-timer to activate the shutter, adding another 20 seconds to each shot. I was burned out and, unlike most of my companions, I live in a dark sky area and can try this again anytime, right at home.

There was no follow-up lesson — although I really think there should have been the following morning. A chance to review and critique what we’d done. I did spend some time at breakfast with other students and got signed up for a Washington State Astrophotography group on Facebook. I’ve already swapped photos and comments with a few classmates there.

Could my images be brighter? I think so. Next time I try this, I’ll do more experimentation with ISO settings. I might need to pop it up some more.

And yes, there will be a next time. I’m thinking of giving it a go on my deck tonight. And I’m definitely looking for companions on overnight outings, possibly with the Turtleback. Washington Pass would make an excellent subject area, especially with the fresh snow I saw on the peaks on my way home. Anyone game for an overnight road trip this coming week?

[Another] Predawn Flight to Scottsdale

Flying before the day begins.

I had an early flight in Scottsdale yesterday. Three passengers wanted a custom tour of the Phoenix area.

The man who booked it kept asking to do it earlier and earlier. First 8 AM. Then 7:30 AM. Then 7:00 AM. And then 6:30 AM. “We’ll meet you at 6:15 AM,” he finally said. “Will the pilot be ready to fly right away?”

I assured him that the pilot would be ready to fly within 10 minutes of meeting them. I didn’t mention that the pilot would be me. I hung up, glad he hadn’t shifted the flight another fifteen minutes earlier.

The helicopter was in Wickenburg. Although I’ve been storing it in Deer Valley for most of this season, I took the month of March off. There were a few reasons for it, including two trips (that were eventually postponed). So I had to fly the helicopter down to Scottsdale from Wickenburg — a 35-minute flight — before meeting the clients. When I calculated my departure time, I realized I’d have to leave my house by 5:00 AM to make it on time.

I set my alarm for 4:20 AM. I woke up at 3:30 AM. I showered and thoroughly enjoyed a cup of coffee with Alex the Bird and Jack the Dog. Then I packed up my laptop and flight manifest, shut off the lights, and stepped out to start my day.

It was dark outside. The moon had set, but I could see stars. That meant it was clear. The weather forecast looked as good as it usually does, so I wasn’t expecting any difficulties on the flight. The only questions were about the client: Had he lied about the weights of the passengers? Would he really give me 90 minutes of flight time, making the trip worthwhile? (He wasn’t paying for my ferry time, so a short flight would make the trip a loss.) Would he really be at the airport by 6:15?

I drove to the airport in my Ford truck, passing just a few cars and trucks along the way. The green-white-green-white sweep of the rotating beacon cut through the night as I pulled into the drive. I paused long enough to enter a combination on a keypad and wait while the metal gate rolled aside with a beep-beep-beep. Then I steered the truck down the asphalt drive, turned into the first row of hangars, made a broad U-turn, and parked in front of my hangar’s left door, with my headlights facing out. Even though the motion-sensor lights we’d installed over the hangar door went on, I’d need my truck’s headlights to see the combination on the padlock that secured the hangar. Once unlocked, I rolled the right door all the way open on the track and flicked on the lights. The big box hangar filled with light and the steady hum of the overhead fluorescents. I killed the lights on my truck before they killed the battery.

I’d done most of my preflight the afternoon before, after washing the helicopter and putting it away. I’d debated leaving it out overnight, but decided against it in case the client cancelled at the last minute. If I’d left it out, it would have saved me 15 minutes of time that morning. Instead, I had to use the ground handling equipment — a golf cart, a tow bar, and a set of ground handling wheels — to get the helicopter out onto the ramp. I backed the golf cart out of the hangar, towing the helicopter out nose first. Then I turned off the lights in the hangar and rolled the big door shut, securing it with the padlock again.

It was quiet and dark as I backed the cart out onto the ramp. Some of the overhead lights out on the ramp don’t work. It didn’t matter much to me — I wouldn’t park under any of them anyway. I needed room for my rotors to spin; it simply didn’t make sense to park next to a pole. But the ramp was too dark to see what I was doing. I had to turn on the golf cart’s headlights to unhook the tow bar. I’d never used them before and was rather surprised to find that they worked.

With the ground handling equipment out of the way, I climbed into the cockpit and went through my startup procedure. It took two tries to start the engine; not enough priming the first time for the cold. The engine roared to life and I flicked the appropriate switches to get the blades turning, battery charging, and radios working. I clearly heard the relatively high-pitched whine the engine — or something else back there — makes when it’s cold out. I knew from experience that the sound would go away as the engine warmed up. I turned on the navigation lights, which also illuminated the instruments. The green position light beneath my door reflected in the dusty surface of my side window.

I plugged my iPod into the intercom system. I’d listen to music on the way down.

It took a long time for the engine to warm up. While I waited, the guy in the hangar across from mine drove up and parked in front of his hangar. It was 5:30 in the morning — a full hour before sunrise — and the guy didn’t have a plane. What the hell was he doing there? He spent more time at the airport than most aircraft owners did, usually just sitting in his truck and talking on the phone. It creeped me out.

When the cylinder head temperature had sufficiently warmed, I did my mag check and needle split. I loosened the frictions and brought the engine and rotor RPM up to 102%. I was ready to go.

It was still very dark.

I made my radio call: “Wickenburg traffic, helicopter Six-Three-Zero-Mike-Lima is on the ramp, departing to the southeast.” I flicked on my landing lights, surprised, as always, by the sudden glow and the brightness of the dust particles swirling around in my downwash. Then I lifted into a hover, used the pedals to point the nose at the taxiway, and eased forward, climbing gently. When I reached the taxiway, now eight feet off the ground, I banked right and followed the pavement on a heading of 50°.

Wickenburg at Night

This photo by Jon Davison of us landing at Wickenburg at night gives you an idea of what the view from the cockpit looks like with the runway lights on.

The landing light shined down on the taxiway and out ahead of me as I gathered speed and altitude. I was about a quarter of the way down the taxiway when I realized I’d neglected to turn on the runway lights. I pressed the mic switch seven times. Nothing happened. I tried again, more slowly. The runway lights came to life: two strands of glistening white pearls turning to orange and then to red as they receded into the distance. The taxiway lights, glowed blue in a pair of light strings to their right beneath me. Beyond them was the dark void of empty desert and the greedy dreams of a failed real estate project. Aligning myself with the taxiway lights, I climbed out into the night. I flicked the switch to kill the landing lights.

The lights of Wickenburg spread out before me like a handful of gems cast into the desert by a giant. As I gained altitude to clear the invisible mountains just south of the town’s center, the distant glow of the Phoenix area came into view on the horizon, blocked here and there by the dark shapes of mountains that lay between me and the city beyond. I continued to climb. My goal would be to clear all those little mountains so I wouldn’t have to worry about hitting them in the dark.

I’ve flown the route between Wickenburg and Scottsdale many times. I even flew it at least one other time before dawn. But this time, I was tuned in to the darkness and silence of the night. I pressed the play switch on my iPod, letting some classic rock accompany the steady hum of my engine and the beat of my rotor blades. I climbed to 4,000 feet MSL — more than fifteen hundred feet over the desert below me — and leveled out. I was clear of all mountains between me and my destination.

Once away from Wickenburg, below me was only the darkness of the empty desert. With no moon, there was barely enough starlight to make out the meandering lines of dry washes and the occasional dirt road. Without visual landmarks, I realized I didn’t know where I was. Was that the Santo Dominguez Wash? Or one of the lesser washes in the area? And how about those lights to the left? Campers? Or that ranch off Constellation Road, viewed from a different angle? Only my GPS and the view of Phoenix’s lights spread out in the distance before me assured me that I was heading in the right direction.

The sky brightened ever so slightly as I glided southeast. The air was calm and smooth; my helicopter could have been a skiff floating on glassy water. I crossed over a well-defined dirt road that had to be Castle Hot Springs Road. Then I recognized the lights of the Quintero golf course and vehicles on Carefree Highway. The brightening sky reflected in Lake Pleasant, far to my left.

After ten minutes of flying over empty desert, I was returning to civilization: the northern reaches of Peoria.

I descended through 3500 feet, feeling ridiculously high above the ground as the glow from lights below me started reflecting in the inside of my cockpit bubble. I turned up the brightness on my instrument lights just a bit. Still descending, I flicked the radio to listen to the ATIS at Deer Valley. It was 5:50 AM and the tower was still closed. The automated weather observation system reported calm winds and an altimeter setting of 30.04. I adjusted my altimeter while listening to the recorded voice of the controller who’d closed the tower the night before. The tower would open at 6 AM. I wondered whether I’d reach the airport before then. I tuned the radio to the common traffic advisory frequency for Deer Valley, made a radio call with my position ten miles out, and continued on a course that would take me right over the top.

Lights at Night

The lights of the Phoenix area, at night. Photo by Jon Davison.

To the south, the brightness of lights on the ground intensified. The area was packed with new subdivisions, some completed before the housing bubble burst while others still had empty, weed-filled lots beneath their street lamps. It was a sharp contrast to the empty desert I’d been flying over for most of the trip. It amazed me that people wanted to live like that — packed like sardines into bulldozer-groomed lots — when there was so much beautiful desert, with rolling hills, cactus, and natural landscaping only a half mile away. The wide open spaces are what drew us to Wickenburg in 1997, but even that small town wasn’t immune to the greed of developers. Town planning restrictions were overturned on a case-by-case basis — often against voter’s wishes — for favored developers, resulting in smaller and smaller lots. Land zoned as horse property was rezoned to keep horses out and make lots too small to have them anyway. The retirees bought second homes in town to escape the cold of the midwest, doubling the population — for half the year, anyway. A friendly little western town turned into a retirement community right before our eyes. All of our young friends moved on to places like Colorado and New Mexico and California, leaving us with the retirees.

But I’m not ready to retire from life.

I descended to 2500 feet — a good 500 feet above where I normally flight during daylight hours — and leveled off. At five miles out, I made another call to Deer Valley traffic. I was now crossing into Deer Valley’s airspace; if the Tower had been occupied, I’d have to establish radio communication with the controller. I was the only one on the radio though — no one else spoke up. I crossed over the Central Arizona Project (CAP) canal where it meets the I-17 freeway. The sky, now quite bright, reflected in its smooth waters, drawing a bright line to the southeast.

Two miles from Deer Valley, I made another position call. No answer. I was close enough to see the tower; there was some light up there. Towers are normally kept dark so the controllers can see outside without bothersome reflections. A moment later, the airport’s two runways stretched out below me. I didn’t bother turning on the lights; I wasn’t landing and didn’t need them. But I could still see them quite clearly in the predawn light. It was about 5:58 AM and I expected the tower to open at any minute. I used the radio to announce that I was over the top and transitioning to Scottsdale. No answer. I glided on my way, descending down to 2300 feet.

Horizon

In this last shot by Jon Davison, you get an idea of how the horizon looks before dawn. (This shot was actually taken after sunset.)

Now the lights were bright below me as I flew over one subdivision after another. I crossed the Loop 101 freeway. Ahead of me, I could see the rotating beacon at Scottsdale Airport, about 12 miles away. The black bulk of the mountains on the horizon were well defined with sharp edges against the bright sky. Four Peaks was clearly identifiable by its four individual peaks.

I used my second radio to listen to Scottsdale’s ATIS while remaining tuned into Deer Valley. That airport was still closed, too. The automated weather system reported light winds and an altimeter setting just a few hundredths off from Deer Valley’s. The recorded controller’s voice warned of an unlighted 150-foot construction crane and advised that the tower would open at 6 AM. I flicked the recording off.

Now I was wondering about my client again, wondering whether he’d show up on time, whether he’d lied about his weight, whether he’d give me more than the 90 minutes of flight time he promised. I’d know soon enough.

The sound of a telephone dial tone came through the radio in three short bursts. Then the Deer Valley controller came on. He sounded tired and depressed, as if he’d just woken up to bad news, as he read the standard tower opening statement over the radio. It was long. I was still in his airspace, so I listened. At the end, he said, “Helicopter Zero-Mike-Lima, traffic ahead and to your left is a helicopter at twenty-five hundred feet. Frequency change approved.”

I’d already seen the helicopter flying west along the north side of the Loop 101. I replied: “Zero-Mike-Lima has that traffic in sight. Changing frequencies. Have a good day.”

I switched over to Scottsdale tower with the flick of a button. A female controller with a bright, bubbly voice was giving instructions to a jet preparing to take off.

I waited until she was finished and the pilot had replied, then made my call: “Scottsdale Tower, helicopter Six-Three-Zero-Mike-Lima is seven to the west off Deer Valley landing at the terminal.”

“Helicopter Zero-Mike-Lima, proceed inbound, report a half mile west.”

“Will report a half mile west, Zero-Mike-Lima.”

I continued inbound, crossing over Route 51. The sky was much brighter now; dawn was only 30 minutes off. I continued my descent to 2000 feet, roughly 500 feet over the ground. I listened to the tower talk with a female airplane pilot with the call sign “Traffic Watch” and wondered what kind of traffic she could watch from an airplane. Maybe I’d misheard them. She was using Runway 3.

Then I was less than a mile out and ready to start my final approach. I reported my position and was cleared to land on the ramp with the usual “use caution; ramp uncontrolled” and “remain west of the runway and taxiway at all times.” I repeated the “remain west” restriction as I steered to the south, descending. When I was abeam the approach end of runway 3, I swung northeast and lined up with the ramp, parallel to runway 3 and the taxiway beside it. I came in behind all the jets parked on the ramp and hover-taxied beyond them to transient parking for small airplanes. I set down at the end of the “Reserved” row and started my shutdown procedure.

In front of me, the terminal’s empty windows reflected the bright glow of the predawn sky, along with the flash of my helicopter’s strobe light. It wasn’t night anymore, but it wasn’t really day, either. It was that in-between time, the time of day when you put the secrets of the dark night behind you and prepare to embrace the day. It’s a special time, a time that’s always calm, always reflective. A time that makes me feel good to be alive.

I shut down and went inside the terminal. It was 6:10 AM.

And in case you’re wondering, the passengers did show up, they lied by a total of 50 pounds about their weights, and they flew with me for a full two hours.