Where There’s Smoke…

…well, there are no fires here.

When you live out west, the weather forecast can include information related to smoke. And that’s the situation this week, for good reason:

This is not the kind of forecast I like to see.

The smoke drifted in yesterday morning, looking like a low thin cloud layer. Throughout the day, it thickened and settled into the valley I can see from my house.

Normal View
Smokey View
My normal view (top) includes glimpses of the North Cascades, at least 50 miles away. Add wildfire smoke and you get my view this morning (bottom), which is barely four miles.

As the northwest’s weather guru, Cliff Mass, blogged yesterday, the smoke is mostly from fires in British Columbia, which isn’t too far from here. There are two fires in northwestern Washington and I heard a rumor that there was one much closer at Blewett Pass, but have not been able to confirm that. Fortunately, they’re not here — although there’s plenty ready to burn if a spark or ember touched down.

Sunrises and sunsets have been minor events lately, with the sun looking like a Sunkist navel orange as it hovers on the horizon. It reminds me of the sunsets back in New York that I admired so much. I remember the one on July 10, 1983 that I drove down to the West End 2 parking lot at Jones Beach to photograph. An orange ball like the one in the sky here today sunk into the western horizon, silhouetting Manhattan skyscrapers in the distance. I got more than photos that day, but that’s a story not worth telling anymore.

Smokey Sunrise, Untouched
Here’s what the sun looked like about 1/2 hour after sunrise. This is an unedited (except for cropping) cell phone photo.

Oddly, back in those days I never realized that that orange ball sunset was caused by air pollution. Ick.

I was supposed to make a day trip by helicopter to visit a friend of mine out on Lopez Island today. It’s an 80-minute flight and I can land in my friend’s yard. I haven’t seen him in months and was really looking forward to it. But when I checked the weather this morning and discovered that the smoke was moving out his way, too, I had second thoughts. My email to him at 6 AM asking whether there was smoke and his response confirming there was was enough for me to change my plans and stay home. If it’s smokey here and smokey there then it’s likely to be smokey en route. And the last thing I wanted to do today was spend nearly 3 hours in a helicopter flying through smoke. (The journey is usually almost as good as what awaited at the destination.)

So I’m home for the day. I went out this morning to pick blueberries and glean rainier cherries with a friend. But we were back by 11. It’s hot and sticky out in the filtered sunlight, with a level of humidity I like to avoid. I’ll do some work in my garage with my new jumbo fan pointed at me. When I get tired of that, I’ll come back upstairs, take a shower, have a snack, and do things in air conditioned comfort.

Or take a nap.

But you can bet I won’t be outside, breathing the dirty air sent down from Canada.

Another Pilot Who Thinks He Owns the Whole Airport

Yes, it’s another rant.

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

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

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

The Setup

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Attitude

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rebuttal

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

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

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

Did he think he owned the whole damn airport?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone seemed to breathe a sigh of relief.

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

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

We all laughed.

I went outside, started up, and flew home.

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

More about the Wind Machines

A few new videos.

Back in April 2015, I blogged about the wind machines commonly used for frost control in the Wenatchee Valley. Resembling tall fans, different versions of these machines can be found in agricultural areas throughout the west wherever frost — especially early spring frost — is an issue. Around here, they’re often in low areas subject to thermal inversions.

Wind Machine
The wind machines that were running this morning. That’s the Mission Ridge Ski resort in the background. Photo shot with my Mavic Pro.

The machines are fans that generate wind. The blades spin fast — faster than you might think watching the video below — to circulate the air. The fan heads rotate to constantly change the direction of the wind. The net result is that the air is circulated, bringing warm air from above down into the crops.

In the almond orchards of California, they use helicopters to do this. I think it’s because the orchards are so big that they simply can’t install and maintain as many wind machines as they need. The helicopters are likely a lot cheaper in the long run, especially when you have a few years in a row when they’re not needed. I’ve been on frost control contracts for the past five winters now and have yet to turn a rotor blade over an almond tree. (Global climate change?)

This winter was particularly long, setting the tree fruit back two to four weeks. The cherry trees are still blooming around here; last year, the cherries were already beginning to redden in the orchards closest to my home. Nighttime temperatures at my home have been in the low 40s. But in the orchards below me, pockets of colder air form. And this morning, they got cold enough to trigger the temperature-set auto start feature on the wind machines in the closest orchards.

I don’t know exactly when they started. I was up at 4:30, reading before getting out of bed, and I didn’t hear them. But by the time I made my coffee at 5 AM, I could hear them faintly through the walls and windows of my my home. I stepped out on the deck for a better look in the predawn light. The sound was louder and I could see two of the machines to the west spinning. My ears told me that one to the northeast, which I can only see from a handful of spots on my deck, was also spinning.

Here’s the zoomed in video I shot with my phone. When I shut up, you can hear the wind machines.

I did a Periscope — that’s a live Twitter video — of the wind machines. A handful of people tuned in and I answered questions as they came up. I was frustrated that I couldn’t zoom in. I signed off, used the video feature on my phone to capture a short zoomed-in clip, and posted it on Twitter. Then the sun rose and the light got good and I did another Periscope that was mostly to show off how beautiful the area was. The wind machines droned in the background of my voice as I described various things and answered questions.

I went inside, washed some pots from cheesemaking, and listened to the radio. I could hear the wind machines faintly through the walls and windows. I was sort of bummed out that I couldn’t give people a better view.

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And then I remembered my Mavic Pro.

It took only two or three minutes to set it up. I launched it from my deck, got the video camera going, and sent it to the wind machines, stopping before it got so close that the wind could affect it. The light was beautiful and the image the Mavic sent back to me was clear. I hovered for a while to capture a good clip and then flew around a little, just taking in the view with the camera running. I stopped the video camera, took some stills, and then flew home for some more video of my home and the area around it.

Back inside, I made a fresh cup of coffee and spent a few minutes editing the video and setting it to music. It’s unfortunate that the Mavic doesn’t capture sound, but I understand why: it would be capturing its own buzzing sound, which isn’t pleasant. So music will have to do.

A side note here: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how much I like living here. I realized — and I think I mentioned in one of those Periscope videos — that I like it here more than anywhere else I’ve lived. I’m not sure if it’s because of the place itself or the fact that I have a home with an amazing view built to exactly meet my needs or because after a stifling relationship that went on a lot longer than it should have I finally have the freedom to do what I want to do with my life and time.

Whatever the reason, I just want to remind readers that we all have just one life and it will eventually end. Don’t waste it stuck in a rut or in a place you’re not happy.