So You Want to Be a Helicopter Pilot, Part 11: Don’t Bite the Hand that Feeds You

The helicopter pilot community is very small.

[Note: It’s been a little more than two years since I wrote the previous post in this series. But this one is important and I hope readers learn from it.]

As you make your way up the ladder in your flying career, you may be fortunate enough to be taken under another pilot’s wing (so to speak) for additional training or assistance. Or maybe someone has given you the opportunity to get some valuable experience for free or a really low cost. The people who give you the benefit of their knowledge and experience or offer you opportunities that’ll help you move forward are the people you should remember and value throughout your career. In many instances, they can make the difference between success or failure or can help you understand the direction you want to take to have the most fulfilling career.

The other day I was reminded that not everyone understands the value of opportunities and the people that make them possible. I thought I’d tell the story of what happened to some friends of mine to teach a valuable lesson.

The Opportunity

As some of the low-time pilots who read this blog might know, I occasionally make long cross-country flights to reposition my helicopter for seasonal work. In most cases, I am not compensated for this flight time so I’m eager to have someone on board willing to share the cost. Although I prefer non-pilot passengers — I actually like to fly — I’m not opposed to taking low-time pilots interested in building R44 stick time. I make this time available at about half of what they might pay a flight school. It’s a good deal for both of us: they get cheap flight time in an R44 and I get part of my repositioning costs covered.

I find pilots interested in making these flights through the use of a mailing list. Pilots sign up and I periodically send out offer information. It’s a small list and I don’t spam it. They might get one or two opportunities a year. List members can opt out at any time. (If you’re interested in getting on this list, read about it here.)

I’d been doing quite a few long flights with friends or solo so I hadn’t posted anything for a while. I was going to post a trip from Sacramento to Wenatchee back in April but I wound up doing it with a friend. But when some flight school owner friends of mine were looking for someone to help them cover the cost of getting their R44 instrument ship from Mesa, AZ to Wenatchee, WA in early June, I offered to put out a notice on my list, referring interested pilots to call them. They offered a lot more value than I ever could; with a CFII on board, it could be a training flight, an R44 endorsement flight, or even an instrument training flight.

It seemed to work. Only three hours after sending out the offer, my friends were contacted by a pilot who was not only interested in doing the flight, but also interested in some instrument training before and after it. My flight school friends were thrilled and said they owed me a favor for helping them out. I was just glad to have helped them and whoever was taking advantage of the offer.

I didn’t know the person who had signed up for this opportunity. All I knew was that it was a woman. I didn’t personally know any of the pilots on my list.

Time went by. Coincidentally, on Thursday, the day before the flight, I happened to be chatting with another pilot friend of mine from Los Angeles who had come up to Washington to pick up a piece of equipment he bought from me. One of his pilots, who had come along for the ride, would be working with me on a cherry drying contract later in the month. We talked about the cost of repositioning helicopters and how we often let low-time pilots fly for a discount. Somehow or another the conversation got around to bad experiences and my friend mentioned a woman pilot who had “flaked out” on him a few times, saying she’d do a flight but then calling with crazy excuses right before the scheduled flight time and not showing up. He said that although he had actually flown with her a few times, she’d also stood up one of his other pilot friends. I asked for her name and he told me. I texted it to my flight school friend’s CFII, who would be flying to Washington. It was the same woman.

I started to get a bad feeling.

Screwed Over, in Slow Motion

At this point, you can probably guess what happened next. The short version is, she didn’t show up for the flight. But there is a long version, too, and it’s worth telling because it makes the situation even worse.

On Thursday evening, the night she was supposed to arrive in Phoenix, she texted to say that she was at the airport but she had screwed up on the flight date and was a day early for the flight.

Okay, my friends thought. Things happen.

She promised to be on a flight Friday morning — the morning they were supposed to leave. Keep in mind that although the Mesa to Wenatchee flight can be done in one day — I’ve done it twice with a second pilot — you need an early start to make it. The flight time is 9-11 hours, depending on wind and fuel stops. That’s a long day at the stick for one pilot but very doable for two,especially on a June day that seems to last forever. But not if you can’t get off the ground until afternoon. Her flight was supposed to get into Phoenix at 11 AM.

The CFII texted me that she’d been delayed and would arrive the next morning. They’d probably arrive late Saturday in Wenatchee. I mentioned what my LA friend had told me about the pilot.

She didn’t arrive at 11 AM Friday. On Friday afternoon, she texted to tell them she’d be arriving on an 11 PM flight. That pushed back the departure date to Saturday.

On Saturday morning, when she didn’t arrive, my friends contacted her again. She told them a story about the bank freezing her account and not being able to pay for her plane ticket. But she could get on a flight later in the day. Would they wait for her?

By this time, they could see the writing on the wall. The answer was no. Even if she did show up, they wouldn’t let her get on the helicopter.

At about this time, I got a text from my flight school owner friends:

Text from Tiff

(Yes, this text came from a woman.)

I called them. She was seething. Her husband, who was also on the phone, was just annoyed. I got the story I recounted above.

In an effort to make them feel better, I told them about the guy who’d backed out of one of my flights two days before the departure date. I obviously hadn’t been able to fill his spot for the 12-hour flight on such short notice. “So you see,” I told them, “I’ve been screwed over, too. But you got screwed over in slow motion.”

An hour later, the helicopter was in the air, northbound, with the CFII who’d been scheduled to come along with another of the school’s employees. (At least he’d get a chance to build some time.) It would arrive in Wenatchee around 5 PM Sunday evening.

The Fallout

There’s a lot of fallout from this pilot jerking around my friends over the course of three days last week.

First, this pilot has been removed from my list. She’ll never get any notifications from me again, period. I’m not going to set myself up as the victim for another flake out performance.

Second, the word is out about this pilot. My LA friend and his friend already knew about her and will never work with her again. Now my friends and I know about her, too. If she ever approaches any of us for work or anything else, if she’s lucky we’ll just say no and send her on her way. If anyone asks any of us about her — for example, a potential employer or someone else looking to fill a seat with a paying pilot — we’ll be sure to tell this story. And, as word spreads, she’ll find that it’s more and more difficult to get opportunities of any kind — including job opportunities — as a helicopter pilot. There may not be a formal blacklist, but the informal graylist exists and is very effective. I alluded to this in the previous post of this series, which was about networking.

Third, my friends’ helicopter arrived in Wenatchee a day later than it was supposed to. Although that didn’t turn out to be a problem in the grand scheme of things, it did cause minor issues with various reservations that had to be changed.

Fourth, my friends were unable to get any revenue at all for the flight. That added significantly to the cost of the job they have to do in Wenatchee, thus cutting deeply into their bottom line.

Fifth, I will now require a non-refundable deposit for any time-building flights in my helicopter. I did this for a while after I was screwed over by an inconsiderate pilot years ago, but dropped the requirement when all subsequent pilots honored their part of the deal. Now it goes into full force again. I refuse to let someone break a promise to me that’ll cost me hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.

Yes, it’s another example of one person ruining it for the rest of us.

What’s Even Worse

What pisses me off to no end about this is that the pilot who screwed over my friends is a woman. And if there’s one thing female pilots don’t need is other female pilots who “flake out” and otherwise act irresponsibly.

Female pilots are already under a microscope. We’re already dealing with sexist crap from various employers or coworkers or clients. They treat us differently because they see us differently. And that doesn’t help any of us

Other responsible female pilots — including me! — work hard to prove that we’re just as good as the men in our jobs. And then a dimwit like this comes along and flakes out with a proven pattern of unreliable behavior and bullshit excuses. She makes all of us look bad. She brings all of us down a notch. She makes it just a little bit harder for the rest of us to be taken seriously.

Maybe that’s why my friend’s text was so angry. Maybe she saw as well as I did how this dingbat made the rest of us look in this male dominated industry.

The Takeaway

Once again, I’ve managed to tell a long story to make a point. Did the point get lost somewhere? Sometimes it does.

The point is this: when someone in the industry is doing you a favor, treat them with the respect they deserve. If you cross them, remember that the helicopter pilot community is very small and word travels very fast.

On Being an Early Riser

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

For a long time now, I’ve been an early riser. Sometimes, a very early riser.

While I clearly remember my college days when it was nearly impossible for me to wake up in time for an 8 AM class and my early professional career days when I dreaded hearing the alarm go off at 6:30 AM, I can’t remember when I made the switch from late riser to early riser. I suppose it was a gradual change as I aged, embraced my freelance lifestyle, and allowed my life to go off-schedule.

For the past 20 or more years, I haven’t had much of a need to set an alarm or wake up at a certain time. Every day is different. Although I do occasionally have early appointments or even earlier planes to catch — my favorite flight out of Wenatchee when I’m traveling leaves at 5:40 AM; yes, I do set an alarm for that — there usually isn’t any reason to get out of bed by a certain time.

I go to sleep when I’m tired and wake up naturally when my body is done sleeping. Or thinks it’s done sleeping. Yet these days, I’m invariably up before 6 AM, often before 5 AM, and occasionally before 4 AM. (If you read the blog post about my recent cruise, you learned that I was up most mornings by 4 AM.) I am naturally an early riser.

Some folks seem to think this is a problem. They have encouraged me to stay up later in an effort to shift my body’s clock forward a few hours so it’s more in line with everyone else’s. I’ve tried this. No matter what time I go to sleep, I’m awake before 6 AM — even if I stay up until a crazy time like 3 AM. And I don’t know about you, but I operate better on six hours of sleep than three. It’s fortunate that I apparently don’t need eight.

I like being an early riser. I like getting up around dawn in the summer or in the darkness of a winter morning. I like the quiet and the solitude of those early hours before most people are awake. I like hearing the crickets in the dark as I brew my morning coffee and my rooster crowing almost precisely a half hour before dawn. I even like the sound of the sprayers in the orchards below my home during the summer months, and seeing the headlights of the tractors as they make their way between rows of trees in the dark.

Do you want a more detailed description of a summer sunrise at my home? Read “Sunrise from Lookout Point.”

I like watching each new day being born — the gradual brightening of the sky, the fading of the stars and city lights, the glow to the east, the golden hour sunlight light tentatively touching the mountaintops to the west and then slowly blanketing their slopes all the way down into the valley.

Morning View
I never get tired of the morning view out my windows.

I like the fact that I can experience all of this at my own home, at my own convenience. I like taking my morning coffee out onto the deck and looking out over the new day as cool air caresses my skin and hair and the aroma of a recent rain or my fresh cut lawn competes with the smell of what’s in my mug.

I’m a morning person and get most of my work done in the morning. That’s good and bad. It’s good because it leaves the rest of the day wide open. But it can be bad if I have a lot to do and I run out of steam by 2 PM. I try to manage this drawback by scheduling appointments in the afternoon whenever possible, leaving the morning open to accomplish the things I need to do.

My usual routine consists of morning coffee as soon as I get up — whenever that is — and quiet time to reflect and write in my journal. Then I sit down at my computer and do some writing or paperwork or both. “Paperwork” usually consists of bill paying and filing, website maintenance, correspondence, client communication, and marketing material creation for my businesses. That usually takes me to 10 or 11 AM. Then I switch into more active work around my home or in my garden. There’s always something that needs to be done, especially as I finish up construction work that includes the tedious task of trimming doors, etc.

If I have scheduled an appointment or have errands to run in town, I’ll clean up, dress appropriately, and head down into town with Penny. I always have a list of destinations on a Post-It note stuck to my windshield so I don’t forget anything — I live 10 miles from town and I don’t like to make the trip more than once a day if I don’t have to. I keep shopping lists on my smartphone for the same reason. I can get a lot done on one trip into town if I stay focused and organized.

By 6 PM — especially in the winter when it’s already dark — I’m pretty much physically and mentally done for the day. That’s the time I set aside for socializing with friends and relaxing. I even find it difficult to write during this time, although I’ve been trying hard lately to make that my blogging time, leaving the morning open for writing jobs that bring in revenue. If I went to town earlier in the day, I sometimes meet up with friends in the late afternoon or early evening: wine at Pybus Market, cocktails at the Sidecar Lounge, dinner at Tastebuds, or a movie at Liberty or Gateway Cinema. If I’m home, I sometimes try a new recipe — I’ve recently rediscovered my love of cooking — and read the news or waste time on social media while eating it.

I think I watch too much television these days — more than an hour a day when I’m home in the evening — and it bugs me; my wasband was a slave to the television, channel surfing for hours every evening when he could have been working to achieve one of the life goals he claimed to have. I worry I might end up like him: unproductive and stuck in a rut.

I love to read, but if I do it in bed, I’m usually asleep within minutes. So I try not to read in bed before 9 PM.

I’m usually asleep by 10 PM — unless I’m out with friends or entertaining.

I don’t think I can adequately express how happy I am to be single and have full control of my life and time. There’s no one trying to put me on his schedule or make me share his time-consuming responsibilities. I do the things I want or need to do when I want or need to do them. I don’t have to schedule my life around someone else’s.

Best of all, I can wake up any time I like and not have to tiptoe around my home because someone else is sleeping.

I admit that I’m very fortunate to have the flexible lifestyle I have. But it isn’t “luck.” I’m a firm believer in the notion that we make our own luck. I worked hard to get where I am today and having this lifestyle is the reward for all that work. I’m a morning person and I earned the right to enjoy my mornings.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Washington Healthplanfinder FAIL

When automatic payments go seriously wrong.

I usually get email while traveling and generally keep up with anything important. Although I wasn’t surprised to get an email from Washington Healthplanfinder, my health insurance agent here in Washington State, to say that my monthly payment had been automatically withdrawn from my account, I was surprised at the amount:

Withdrawal Confirmation

Note the amount: $1,116.15. My monthly premium is $375.14.

I immediately called Washington Healthcarefinder. After pressing numbers to navigate through four different menus — just to ask a billing question — and waiting five minutes on hold, a typical script-reading customer service representative answered. I told her about the problem. After asking for various information to assure I was who I said I was, she read a script that told me that emails had gone out in error. She asked if my bank had processed the withdrawal.

I admitted I hadn’t checked, and whipped out my iPad to check with my bank’s app while she was still on the phone. The transaction had not been processed.

She read another script that assured me that it wouldn’t be processed. That it was just the email that was an error. I suggested that if this was a widespread problem that an email should go out to notify subscribers of the error. She didn’t have a script for that so she didn’t have anything to say. I hung up.

Two days later, on Wednesday, I got an email from my bank confirming a withdrawal from Washington Healthcare Finder:

Withdrawal Confirmation

Note the amount: $1,116.15.

I just about went ballistic. I called the bank to have the charge reversed and was told that I’d have to fill out a series of forms to get the process started.

Washington Healthcare Finder’s offices were still closed that early, but later in the day, I managed to get yet another idiotic, script-reading customer service representative on the phone. I was not kind, especially when her script informed me that the process could take several days while their accounting department researched the problem. There was lots of time wasted on hold, which further pissed me off. When she got back on the phone, I told her that their error had cost me more than an hour of my time with two calls to them and one to my bank. I asked if I would be getting compensated for my time. She said they wouldn’t compensate me for my time, but they’d “compensate me for the overcharge.”

“That’s not compensation,” I roared over the phone. “That’s a refund for your freaking error!”

Because she obviously didn’t understand the difference, she had nothing to say. I hung up.

But not before I demanded that she turn off automatic payments for my account.

Later yesterday morning — yes, two days after the initial email about the incorrect amount went out, I got this:

Notice of Error

Is there any way they could have screwed this up more?

I’m fortunate in that I had enough money in my account to cover this unexpected withdrawal. Other people who routinely carry smaller checking account balances would likely bounce checks to other payees, setting up a nighmarish experience of explaining the problem for every bounced check and getting overdraft fees reversed. Hours of a person’s time could be wasted on this.

I recently set up automatic withdrawals for a number of organizations I do business with. It should make it easy to pay on time without any additional effort. But I’m going to re-think that strategy and make my payments through my bank’s billpay feature. This puts absolute control in my hands and would certainly prevent something like this from happening again.