Another No Fly Decision

Smoke in the area forces me to cancel a scenic flight.

I’ll start this one with a story.

Flashback: Grand Canyon 2004

When I flew for Papillon at the Grand Canyon, Mother Nature threw all kinds of weather at us. In the spring, it was wind, sometimes blowing as hard as 50 miles per hour, causing all kinds of mechanical turbulence on our prescribed tour routes over the forest and Canyon. In the early summer, it was heat and high density altitude, which made the departure and arrival in our rather confined landing zone challenging. Then there were the fast-moving monsoon storms that sped across the terrain, sometimes blocking our path across the canyon and forcing us to shut down when lightning near the airport made it unsafe to refuel. (And yes, we did fly within 20 miles of thunderstorms.) That lightning would often start fires in the forest along the Grand Canyon’s rims, filling the air with thick smoke that made it nearly impossible to see.

Special VFR at GCN
Here’s an early morning view on one of those smokey days at the Canyon. The R22 on the left is mine, parked at transient helicopter parking at Grand Canyon Airport. I used to commute to work by helicopter once in a while; I needed a special VFR clearance to get into the Class D airspace that day. The tall building in the haze is Papillon’s base with its tower.

Honestly: flying at the Grand Canyon is the best experience a helicopter pilot can get. There isn’t much that you don’t experience as far as flying conditions go.

On one late afternoon in August, the area was full of storms and smoke from numerous wildfires. I took off in trail behind at least six other helicopters with another four behind me for one of the short tours. The passengers had come off a bus and their tour had likely been booked years in advance. All 11 helicopters were flying with the same group.

When we reached the Dragon Corridor, where we were supposed to cross the Canyon, we found our way blocked by a thunderstorm that made it impossible to see the other side of the canyon. So one by one we made our radio calls, turned around, went back past the airport, and crossed over the Canyon in the Zuni Corridor. There was a short tour on that side that we’d been taught but Papillon didn’t sell. I’d never flown it, so I basically followed the helicopter in front of me, making the same calls he did when I reached vaguely recalled reporting points.

The air was thick with smoke. The visibility was definitely less than five miles, although it had to be more than three miles for flight to be legal. But maybe that’s what it was at the airport. It wasn’t that over the canyon. At one point, I lost sight of the strobe light of the helicopter in front of me and had to find my way back without him. (We did not have GPSs on board.) I only got a little lost and was very glad to finally see Grand Canyon Airport’s tower. I adjusted my course to put me where I was supposed to be, made my radio call, and landed.

They shut down flights for the day after that.

Afterwards, I went up to the Chief Pilot’s office. His name was Chuck and he’d always struck me as someone who was very reasonable. I complained about the visibility and asked him why we were taking people on scenic flights when we could barely see. His response stuck with me: “If they’re willing to pay and it’s safe to fly, we’ll fly them.”

I swore I’d never take that attitude with passengers in my tour business. Indeed, years later I turned down a flight I could have done because I was certain that wind and turbulence would have made my passengers miserable.

And I’ve turned down flight since. Today is one of those days.

Today: Smoke in the Wenatchee Valley

The hour-long tour for one of my client’s vice presidents and his out-of-town guests has been on my calendar for about two months. I have the passengers names and weights and have done my weight and balance calculations. I know where they want to go and what they want to see.

The smoke started blowing in last week, which is kind of weird because (1) there aren’t any fires nearby and (2) there isn’t much wind. Apparently the fires are mostly in British Columbia (Canada), which isn’t very far from here, was well as in northwestern Washington State, on the other side of the Cascades. There was a rumor going around that there’s a fire in Blewett Pass, which is actually quite close, but I can’t find any information anywhere about that, and I have good sources to check.

Smoke from the Airliner
As this photo from my friend shows, the smoke was a thick blanket up to about 14,000-18,000 feet.

So the smoke is drifting down from Canada on a light breeze. It’s settling in the Columbia River Valley at Wenatchee. And elsewhere. A friend who who took a Horizon Airlines flight out on Thursday sent a picture from 20,000 feet and there was a blanket of smoke right beneath the plane. It was so bad I blogged about it.

For the first few days, it was a light haze. But yesterday it settled in so thick that not only could I smell the smoke, but I couldn’t see the river from my house, let alone the airport on the shelf right above it. Sure enough, the airport was reporting 1-1/4 mile visibility. Instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), meaning that it wasn’t legal for me to fly without getting a special VFR clearance from Seattle.

Bad View
I shot this photo from my deck yesterday when the visibility was at its worse.

Foreflight Weather
Turning on ForeFlight’s visibility layer displays visibility in miles at each airport that provides this data. Clicking the number displays details.

I emailed my client yesterday, asking him to check in with me an hour before the flight. But I wound up calling him this morning, two hours before the flight. I’d used ForeFlight, the basis of my electronic flight bag, to check conditions at Pangborn Memorial Airport, which I could barely see across the river. It was reporting visibility at 2-1/2 miles: IMC.

Could I fly in these conditions? Technically, yes. I could get a Special VFR clearance to leave my home (which is within Pangborn’s Class E airspace) and fly up to Baker Flats where my client would be waiting. That’s in Class G airspace where only 1/2 mile visibility is required for helicopters during the day. I could then do the whole tour, making sure I stayed out of class E airspace or get another clearance if I wanted to enter Class E. So yes, it’s legal.

But is it safe? Well, since I would always remain within sight of the ground and whatever’s at least a half mile in from of me and I can fly at virtually any speed to keep it safe, then yes, it’s safe.

So by Papillon’s standards — at least those back in 2004 when I flew there — I shouldn’t hesitate to do the flight. After all, it’s money in the bank, right?

I don’t think that way. It’s all about passenger experience. Other than me getting paid for a hour of flight time, what’s the benefit? The tour would be terrible — my passengers wouldn’t be able to see more than a mile or two during the entire flight. What’s “scenic” about that?

My client understood perfectly. He was happy to cancel. We agreed that we’d keep an eye on conditions and that if, by some miracle, a wind kicked up and blew some of the smoke out, we could try in the afternoon. Or maybe tomorrow. I’ve got nothing on my schedule. But it’s more likely that we won’t do it at all since his guests are leaving town on the 6 AM flight tomorrow morning. (Provided Horizon can get the last flight in tonight.)

In the meantime, I don’t mind staying home today. It’s better indoors with the windows shut than outside breathing that crap we’re importing from Canada.

Good Advice from a Raven

My life philosophy summed up…on a bookmark.

I was in Death Valley National Park in February for the second year in a row. I spent about a week exploring some of the less visited parts of the park, including Ibex Dunes and the Racetrack. I’m really loving having a truck camper for my winter travels rather than the big fifth wheel I used to haul around. It really makes it easier to explore and to camp comfortably in remote places while waiting for changes in weather or light for photography.

I did spend a little time at Furnace Creek, which is the center of tourism in the park. In addition to having two meals at the Inn at Furnace Creek‘s excellent restaurant, I visited the Ranger Station. I had some questions about roads and camping and there’s nothing better than asking a ranger. While I was in there, I took a look at some of the gift shop items. I’m always on the lookout for small educational items for my neighbor’s autistic grandson — I got him some neat science exploration items at the North Cascades National Park last year — and odds and ends to help me remember the trip.

I was feeling more spendy than usual that day, mostly because rumors were flying about the Trump administration cutting budgets for National Parks and selling off public land for private use. I wanted to support the parks beyond buying my annual pass every year. I picked out a t-shirt and a refrigerator magnet and a book about night photography. And then I saw the “Advice” bookmarks.

I need to point out that I very seldom read printed books these days. I’ve come to prefer ebooks and have been making use of the ebook loans available from the two libraries I’m a member of. So a bookmark is a very silly thing for me to buy.

But what captured my attention on the bookmarks was the bullet point pieces of “advice.” I looked at a few of them and agreed that many of the points were things I believed and would share with friends as advice. But each of them also shared a few points that I didn’t necessarily agree with. For example, “Advice from a Tree” suggested “Sink your roots into the Earth.” Anyone who knows me can verify that I never do that. Indeed, I get bored wherever I am after about 10 years. “Advice from a Bat” included “Enjoy the nightlife.” Again, anyone who really knows me knows that I’m a morning person and seldom indulge in late night activities.

bookmark.jpg“Advice from a Raven” was different, though. Each of its seven points rang true with me:

  • Be curious. I am always asking questions and trying to learn new things.
  • Use your wits. I enjoy solving problems — stay tuned for the upcoming blog post on how I recently solved my water problem — and thinking things through.
  • Don’t be a picky eater. Do I even need to explain this? I’ll try anything at least once.
  • Take time to play. Half a year should be enough time, eh?
  • Be adaptable. When life serves me lemons, I make lemonade. I’ve been served a lot of lemons over the past ten to fifteen years and have reinvented myself as necessary to move forward.
  • Make your voice heard. I think I’ve taken this one too seriously at times; voicing my opinion has occasionally gotten me in trouble. But if you don’t speak up, how are people to know what you really think? Honesty is the best policy.
  • Don’t let life ruffle your feathers. This one took some learning, but I got some pretty good lessons about five years ago, continuing until recently. I used to get angry, but now I don’t. This actually reminds me of another quote I saw somewhere: “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass; it’s about learning how to dance in the rain.”

It was worth $3 to remind me not only of this good advice for anyone, but of my 2017 Death Valley adventure. So I bought it.

I’ve always liked ravens. They are one of the most intelligent animals. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat quietly in a remote, off-trail location at the Grand Canyon, just watching them fly or interact with each other. And how many times I’ve heard the sound of the wind in their wings in the utter silence of my old northern Arizona vacation cabin.

I don’t often see ravens here. We have magpies instead. They’re prettier but don’t seem to have the same personality.

If you’re interested in seeing other bookmarks and souvenir items in this series, check out the shop at Your True Nature website.

Online Advertising Blues

Or how to lose half a day in front of a computer.

I am the owner of a small business, Flying M Air, LLC. I do just about everything for the company except maintain the aircraft: schedule flights, preflight the aircraft, fly, take payment from passengers, manage the drug testing program, work with the FAA, meet with clients, negotiate contracts, arrange for special events, hire contract workers, record transactions, handle invoicing and receivables, pay bills, create print marketing materials like business cards and rack cards, etc. I also handle the online presence for the company, including the company website, Facebook, and Twitter.

(You might wonder how I have the skills to do all this stuff. The truth is, I have a BBA in Accounting and lots of business training from college. I also wrote books about computers for 20+ years, including several about building websites and using Twitter. Sadly I never studied helicopter repair.)

Today, I lost half a day to marketing and related online chores that were mind-bogglingly time consuming.

You see, I scheduled an event with a local resort, Cave B Estate Winery & Resort in Quincy, WA. Cave B is one of the destinations I take people on winery tours, although I admit I don’t go there very often. For the same price, folks can go to Tsillan Cellars in Chelan, which they seem to prefer. Cave B has a better restaurant and a more interesting atmosphere in a beautiful place. Tsillan Cellars is also in a beautiful place, but it’s a bit touristy for my taste. I actually don’t care which one I fly to since I can’t drink wine at either one. I just like to fly people to wineries.

But the new manager at Cave B Resort is very eager to get the helicopter onsite as an interesting activity for guests. So we set up a 6-hour event there for Saturday, July 2. I’d land in the field as I usually do and offer 15-minute helicopter tours of the area for $75/person. While that might seem kind of steep, it’s pretty much in line with my usual rates. Besides, the folks who stay at Cave B aren’t exactly cheapskates. (I just looked into booking a room for my upcoming birthday and decided that it was a bit too rich for my blood, at least this year. I think I’ll settle for a spa day.)

Setting up this event required me to complete a bunch of tasks on my computer:

  • Tour Flyer
    I threw together this flyer based on a template in Microsoft Word.

    Create a flyer in PDF format that could be used at the resort to let guests know that tours were available that day. I cheated: I used one of the Templates that came with Word 2011 (which I’m still using on my Mac). I already had pictures; I just had to put in the text and make it fit. It took about 30 minutes to complete and I had to make one change after sending it to Cave B’s manager. They’ll print it out on a color printer and, hopefully, put one in each room on Friday.

  • Use Square‘s item feature to set up an item for the tours so I could easily charge passengers for the flights and sell them online. I’ve been experimenting with online sales lately as a tool to get impulse buyers to buy in advance in certain predetermined time slots. So setting up the item also required me to set up the time slots and then create an inventory feature to prevent me from overselling a time slot. This took another 30 minutes or so. This had to be done before I finished the flyer so I could include the URL in the flyer.
  • Use bit.ly to create a custom short URL for Flying M Air’s online store. No one could remember the regular URL; maybe they can remember bitly.com/FlyingMAir. This took about 5 minutes. Of course, this also had to be done before the flyer was done so the URL could be included.
  • Tour Announcement
    Here’s the top part of the web page I created to announce the special event.

    Create a “blog post” on Flying M Air’s website (which was built with the WordPress CMS) to announce the event, provide details, and include the link for buying tickets. Once the post was published, I had to go back and add a featured image so it would appear in the slideshow of items at the top of the Home page. I also had to add an expiration date so that it would stop appearing as a “special” on the site after July 2 at 5 PM. Doing all this took at least another 30 minutes. My WordPress site is designed to automatically post a link to new items on Twitter for both Flying M Air and my own personal account, so at least I didn’t have to fiddle with Twitter.

  • Create a new event on Facebook for the Cave B Tours. That meant using pretty much the same photo, description, and link I’d put in the flyer in a Facebook form. Because Facebook requires a “Category” for each event and they’re not very creative with the category names, there’s now a “Festival” at Cave B that day. (Sheesh.) This took at least another 20 minutes.
  • Share the event with my friends on Facebook. Why not, right? Five minutes.
  • Post details on Cave B’s Facebook page for the event. I got lazy and put in a screen shot of the flyer. 5 minutes.
  • When I realized that I could probably sell the flight to and from Cave B that I’d have to deadhead for the event, I created a “Be Spontaneous” special offer on Flying M Air’s website, offering up the roundtrip flight for half price: $272.50. That’s less than my cost and a real smoking deal for anyone who wants two great helicopter flights and six hours at Cave B. (I’m thinking lunch, tasting, and a hike.) This took about 30 minutes.
  • I also had to set up an item in Square for this offer so I could make it easy to charge for or sell it online. No special URL was required, but I did have to put the link to the item in Flying M Air’s online store in the special offer post. Twenty minutes.
  • While I was fiddling with my website, I checked the Special Offers category and discovered a whole bunch of expired offers. So I recategorized them as Expired Offers. Then I spent some time adding a subscription form to the Special Offers page and made sure that page appeared in the slider at the top of the Home page. Anyone who subscribes automatically gets new posts by email; this is a great way to learn about special offers as they become available. I know I spent at least an hour on this.

Of course, while I was working on this, I was also taking calls from a potential client (in the U.K., of all places), texting back and forth with photographers that could help me close a deal with her, and writing reminders for the other things I needed to do at my desk: order wall mount display cabinets from Ikea, choose a garage door opener option (after researching the three options), and send out invitations for a outing on my boat the next day. So I wasn’t 100% focused on the tasks at hand.

I was only mildly surprised when I looked up after that last task and saw that it was after 1 PM.

The whole morning was shot. (No wonder I was hungry.)

But this is typical when I sit in front of my computer — and is why I spend a lot less time in front of my computer these days. Business tasks need to be done and I’m the one that has to do them. It’s a fact of life and I’m not complaining. Just trying to point out that marketing a business isn’t as easy as putting up a website and waiting for the phone to ring — especially with so much social media to deal with.