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Wind in my Sales

Jan. 27th, 2017 | 09:01 pm

On Halloween 2008 I took my demo ride/. Five years later to the day I picked up N4204X at Orlando Executive Airport and CFI Kent Stevens and I had an adventure piloting it back to Tucson. On our four day trip we hit a sudden squal line, set down in Tallahassee, which was overbooked due to an NCAA men's basketball game. We made the best of it, got motel rooms, and had some awesome seafood.

During those three years of helicopter ownership I graduated from being a private pilot certificate holder to a commercial certificate holder. Although it actually happened the day before, it took so much out of me I couldn't even begin to post about it until the 13th.

I turned my fun of flying a helicopter and discussing all things helicopter into a job. I made the helicopter available for photography flights. We partnered with Groupon to make 30 minute "Tour of Tucson" flights. At first I would schedule them whenever people wanted to fly and I'd do the preflight inspection, wheel the aircraft out, fuel it, and do a thirty-minute flight. Eventually I got smarter and booked them in blocks of three on weekend mornings. I had managed to turn fun flying into a chore that destroyed my ability to go out Friday or Saturday nights -- and I couldn't go out Sunday because the next day was the day job. We had a company ("Tango Three") and business cards, and T-shirts, and caps, and a web-site and all manner of cool things.

However, all good things must come to an end. The Tucson market did not provide sufficient income opportunities to pay for the daily depreciation (aka "mortgage") of the helicopter. It was draining money faster than we were making it, and when it was making money I felt like it was draining my free time and my enjoyment of flying.

Having owned a helicopter -- something I'd never dreamed I could ever accomplish -- for three years, in late October we put it up for sale and in November had a buyer lined up. December saw the buyer fly out to test-fly it. He liked it. One of the photographers, a guy out of Reno, had a flight scheduled for December 30th and I knew he'd not be happy the helicopter sold out from under his reservation. I wanted to fly to Inde Motorsports Ranch but I also didn't want to destroy a quarter of a million dollars of a potential pending sale.

The buyer bought. The funds transferred. I towed the helicopter out of its hangar one last time on a cold foggy morning in mid December. He wanted me to do the start but I wanted him to do it so he'd be confident at the very next fuel stop two hours later. He did fine. It was going to Louisiana. There was supposed to be a CFI buddy who chickened out at the last minute. The buyer was a pilot with 130+ hours in helicopters but over 5,000 in fixed-wing aircraft. He was planning to fly at 8,500 feet. Us helicopter pilots wouldn't do that... but I can see a fixed-wing guy wanting to do that.

I had given him a briefing of the area. I told him they'd likely send him out to The Fairgrounds, fly heading 120... and then I listened to LiveATC as he made his call to Clearance Delivery and then to Tucson Tower. Sure enough they asked him if he was familiar with The Fairgrounds... and he said no. Wait, what? I just briefed... oh never mind. Anyway he took off, flew away, and I listened while he was still in Tucson airspace.

That was the last I've seen of N4204X. He made it home safely, and as I drove home I took the opportunity to let the broker know the aircraft and buyer had left, and cancel the insurance. It was the saddest day I've had -- especially because it has to do with something that's always made me happy -- helicopters.

The market didn't just not support us... it did not support helicopter flight training or rental in Tucson. When I started in 2008 there were several flight outfits. When we ended up in December we were the last one. Now unless you want to pay $900-$1300 for a Bell Jetranger (sightseeing, not instruction nor rental) you will not be flying in a helicopter in Tucson.

I look forward to flying in North Las Vegas with 702 Helicopters or in Scottsdale.

It's been a trip. It's not over... but it's the next phase.


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Wind in my sails

Sep. 12th, 2016 | 09:06 pm

Sunday the 11th we talked about the weather.  The Navigator had been looking up stuff on Skyvector and NOAA and other sites and said Tuesday was going to really be a windy horrible day.  We'd been planning to leave Monday so that seemed fine.  I should have checked to see HOW horrible Tuesday would be and what that would be on Monday.  My previous lookup of the weather had shown some pockets of wind but nothing major.  I should have checked first thing Monday morning.  Clue.

We went to the airport (KVGT) to find our aircraft was ready and called in for fuel.  As they had not stored my previous credit card info (thank you for caring about my privacy?) I had to read it back to them on the phone.  While I did that The Navigator told Brian and his crew that Tuesday was going to majorly suck.  They looked up the weather and started calling flights off left and right.  Clue.

We took off and headed toward the BofA building in North Las Vegas (leave KVGT head 220) and when instructed called Las Vegas.  We were approved for entry into Class Bravo airspace and approved for the Boulder Highway transition.  We were asked to go particularly low to avoid other helicopter traffic and given we were over a 4-lane highway I obliged.  The controllers were super-nice to us after that.

The plan was to take a new route back, going through Prescott Arizona, Ernest Love Field.  Along the way we'd pass by Kingman (KIGM).  I noticed that the headwinds were pretty rough... and were getting buffetted a bit (20sG30s) so I said why not stop at Kingman for fuel.  Smart move.

On our way to Kingman it was pretty windy.  Those 20sG30s were kicking us around a bit and I had to slow us down to 70-80 knots of airspeed.  That's brutally slow but at least it made things palatable.  Mostly.  Just outside of Kingman is a pass where the road goes between two mountains and I should have been way above them... realized it maybe seconds in time... and climbed climbed climbed but we still got hit hard a couple of times.

Then we went into Kingman, 20ktsG30s winds ... a friendly local was on the frequency advising us of the FBO being willing to deliver fuel.  I didn't want to set down next to the self-serve fuel ramp with those winds.  We landed, cooled off, got out, the local offered us a ride, we were wet with sweat and declined, and walked to the FBO with 20kts+ wind howling at us.

At the FBO I looked up distances and figured out while we could normally make Tucson just fine (I've made KTUS<-->KHII<-->KVGT many a time and KIGM is just as far as KHII...) but figured planning for another Wickenburg stop wouldn't hurt.  We topped off... I sampled the fuel... (as I had all times except for Wickenburg the first time) and we took off into the 20kts wind and then southeast toward our destination.

It was a great flight.  Except we were getting seriously buffeted the whole time and again it was 70-80ktia and ugly.  Ground thermals were not helping.  I hated it.  The Navigator was powering through it.

Wickenburg.  We started to see white fluffy clouds.  That means things are good.  We got in, landed (The Navigator pointed out where the fuel ramp was because I had the airport map 180° off in my mind) and fueled up.  Then we went to start it.  No start.  Again.  No start.  Again.  Got a start... but it died.  Again... but now no reaction from the starter.  That's right.  One hope away from hope the starter was DEAD DEAD DEAD.  I said something positive, I'm sure.

Got out of the aircraft, called Dave the mechanic.  He said it would take 60-90 minutes to get there.  I thought he was kidding.  We went to hang in the (empty) FBO during that time.  When I say empty I mean the only things in there were magazines, a toilet, an empty fridge with stale donuts, and no ice or cold water.

Then Dave showed up, having flown R22 N164LE (in which I'd trained!) to the ramp.  He had his toolback out and everything.  Panel open he asked me to start it up.  I expected -zero- from the starter but lo and behold it ALMOST started.  I could have cried.  We both sighed deeply and I tried again.  This time it DID START so I said I was not going to turn it off and would he get The Navigator.  Dave volunteered to take the controls from the left seat while I did so.  Gladly.  He did.  I did.

I brought out The Navigator and explained how Hot Loading was going to occur
o Stay beyond this line
o Dave will come get you
o Hand on your head not only to hold hat on but to remind you to bend down
o Get in, seat belt, Dave will help with this
o Headset, Dave will help or I will
o Dave will depart without getting decapitated
o We depart

The plan worked according to... plan.  and we departed for Tucson.  One and a half hours.  Forecast less winds, just some rain.  That was also not to be.

We went by Buckeye so I could listen to their AWOS.  I didn't mention before but I'd read their NOTAMs and there was nothing there about no fuel... so I wanted to see if they'd fixed that.  Also there was going to be a TFR over downtown PHX for a baseball game... so going by Buckeye meant we'd ignore all that.

We went by Buckeye... all runways and taxiways closed till the end of the month.  WHAT????
Then Estrellla.   Ak Chin.   Casa Grande....
At this point we're seeing huge storms southeast of us so we're not heading to the I-10 freeway... which means we have to stay way west to avoid Pinal Airpark (KMZJ) parachute drop zone "Kodiak".  So we're over the desert... everything's just gotten soaked, and then we get hit with a rainshower.  Fortunately it was only water.

We continue on in southbound and west of Tucson and around Maran (KAVQ) I'm thinking we could go back to the freeway... but... no... Marana says "The storm is on top of us".  We keep going south.

We ended up going toward KRYN and 5 miles out I called them... winds at 19kts... no breaks to be caught today.  There were rays of sunshine to the east so we headed to Tucson and landed with plenty of fuel with our health, lives, and safety preserved.

If I had to do it over:
1. Fuel to full at every point
2. Have ALL alternate airports on the kneeboard, not just the near ones, also the ones you may strive to get to
3. If there's going to be 20g30 winds then stay in Las Vegas for another two or three days and make it a great time!!!

The last conclusion I think best represents "get there itis".  We didn't have a "get there itis" of getting home... but one of beating the storm... and that's stupid... because storms don't build up in a minute... they take days.

The aircraft was great.
The Navigator was great.
The pilot needs to do a better job of planning (and also of sampling fuel)
Don't abuse the starter.  (Since then the aircraft got a 100hr/annual and fuel issues were addressed for easier starts)


hardest flight I've ever had... and the only way to have made it better was not to have done it that way.


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More lessons learned

Sep. 8th, 2016 | 08:34 pm

When I first started flying I was told that there were "plateaus", much as there are in working out, losing weight, etc. and at those plateaus people who know things turn into complete idiots.  I was told pilots make huge mistakes at about 100 hours... 200 hours... 500 hours.  I could not imagine that I would ever do any of those things, and when I passed 100 hours without a major mistake I was pretty happy with myself... and same at 200 hours.

This weekend was a trip to Las Vegas.  It's either a long trip or a short trip depending on your point of view.  The short part of it is that it's a 3.2hr trip with one fuel stop.  The long part of it is that most of the flight is over sheer Arizona desert without any cities, water, or fuel to be found.  Good planning is a must.  I've done this flight several times before and this time would be a little different.

First, I brought a friend to keep me company and to navigate -- Respectfully, henceforth, The Navigator.  Second, this time instead of giving someone my flight plan and saying "Hey if I don't call you by such-and-such time call 911" I file a flight plan.  Flight plans are not required for visual flight over land not crossing the ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone - AKA the border).  I've only once filed a flight plan while doing a Stage-3 check with CFI James and we didn't close it out prior to setting down... and he turned the radio off to debrief me... and long story short it's a good thing a Company pilot was on the ramp next to us to let Tower know we were on the ground OK or it would have been search and rescue (SAR) dispatch time.

This time I filed a flight plan that allowed for a delay of 30 minutes in leaving (0900MST schedule 0930 communicated to Flight Services) and 4hr for a flight time that normally takes 3.2hrs.  I did it using Skyvector (http://www.skyvector.com) and once you set up a flight plan you can click on a link to file... they send you a link to activate it... and you also get a link to deactivate it.  Awesome.

I fueled up for the first leg to Buckey AZ (KBXK) and added an additional 30 minutes.  That's the flight, the reserve (20m), and another 10m.  I should have topped off the tanks -- two people, not much weight, no reason not to.  I got all NOTAMs all TFRs all PIREPs and everything else necessary to make a safe flight.  We took off at 0920 and headed to Buckeye.  Everything was copacetic until we got close and their AWOS announced a NOTAM that "Drew is unavailable Thursday through Sunday."  I don't know who Drew is or why he's not there.   Poor guy.  As I called in on the CTAF saying that we're going into the fuel ramp another pilot on frequency radioed helpfully that "Fuel is unavailable."  Oh.  Fuel.  Not "Drew".  Got it.  I had alternates picked out but... instead of going to Goodyear (KGYR) which is going backward... but 4.6 miles away... I wanted to go to Wickenburg which is continuing along the way.  The problem is that I hadn't put Wickenburg on my kneeboard so didn't know its IATA/ICAO code (E25) nor the distance.

The Navigator pulled out the Phoenix Sectional Chart, and despite my incorrect instructions on how to flip it (keep in mind I'm flying the helicopter... flying first... aviate, navigate, communicate) found it and at the same time Helpful Other Pilot helped me out when I asked and said it's E25.  I punched it into the Garmin GNS530 and the distance/timing looked reasonable so I headed there.  So... mistake#2 is not listing alternates I'm *likely* to *want* to go to... not just list alternates that I *could* go to but wouldn't unless things are bad.

We headed to E25 and when we were 2 miles out the low fuel light came on.  I hate that light.  It means I messed up.  It should never ever come on in flight.  It's a failure of the pilot to anticipate flight conditions and properly plan the flight.  I flew in a way that would give us a place to set down if we had to and we landed at the fuel ramp in Wickenburg.

We then fueld up and I made mistake#3.  I did not sample the fuel.  Seriously, here we are in the middle of northwest Phoenix, having exhausted most of our fuel supply (we had 12 minutes of fuel left) and I just took on a full load and didn't sample it.  We then flew toward Las Vegas although at this point I realized the aircraft was consuming more fuel than I had anticipated based on past experiences and was planning a POSSIBLE precautionary stop at Laughlin/Bullhead City (KIFP) along the way.  We headed to the Colorado River and there were magnificent sites, mesas, mountains, rivers, and of course The Colorado.  I believe we would have made it to North Las Vegas with no issues but already recognizing that poor planning/possible ego had caused one error I decided to do the stop to ensure there were no issue.  I had KIFP on my kneeboard and an airport diagram ready for use.  This turned out to be useful as the tower controller wanted us on a left downwind (fixed-wing aircraft pattern) for the runway until he saw us... Good planning here.

We stopped at KIFP, refueled the aircraft, and got back in.  An MD-500 landed so we watched him come down, then headed north, up the river, toward Hoover Dam.  This segment was amazing, with great scenery of water-cut mountains, the dam, the new bridge, and Lake Meade all around.  At Boulder City (KBVU) I announced our presence, and went through Railroad Pass higher than ever before -- actually above the pass -- to get Las Vegas and North Las Vegas ("Northtown") ATIS.  Called into Las Vegas helicopter control on 123.82 and they vectored us over the Boulder Highway to Northtown.

We landed at Northtown, perfect setdown along the middle of the H of the south helipad at the west ramp and got our stuff... said thank you to the people inside.  By prior arrangement Brian and Bianca of 702Helicopters (http://www.702helicopters.com) let us park there and are very nice about providing any resources/facilities necessary.  It's a lot better than going to a random FBO and being told to "park away from the Cessnas."  The Navigator picked up her gear and we headed for the gate to call a rideshare driver and go unwind.

--That was Thursday.  KTUS-->E25-->KIFP-->KVGT--
Coming up next, the return trip, which was a LOT hairier.   No fuel light tho.


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The six Ps.

Aug. 31st, 2016 | 03:14 pm

The six Ps: Piss Poor Planning Prevents Proper Performance.

Better put: Plan to succeed, and your plan will succeed.

One of the things we're taught (and it's true!) is that everything in a helicopter is a tradeoff.  We use lightweight materials because heavier ones cost more to lift, hover, suspend, and move.  We use the smallest engine that will work for the same reason.  We take the minimum necessary fuel+reserve to do the mission for the same reason.

In fact when planning a flight, having reviewed all the external paramters like weather, forecast, TFRs, NOTAMs, charts, etc., it's crucial to calculate several things.  We do a planned flight to figure out fuel burn and then figure fuel loading and weight.  We then do a load calculation to figure out how we fare compared to maximum take-off weight (MTOW).  Then we do a center of gravity (CG) calculation to ensure that at the start of the flight (full fuel) and end of the flight (only reserve left) we are still within the manufacturer guidelines for proper CG.

In addition to those hard rules, we also have some other rules we use.  One of them is "performance is affected by loading so minimize your loading."  Our biggest loads are passengers and fuel.  While we can't slim down the passengers, we can plan for minimum necessary fuel to complete the mission.  That means if we're planning for a 1.0hr flight, load up fuel for 1.333hr (1.0hr flight+20min helicopter day VFR reserve).

On today's flight I was flying a photographer who takes pictures of 25-27 sites throughout the Tucson valley and surrounding area.  Usually it takes 1-2 orbits to get all the shots he needs of each site, and we're off to the next.  The typical flight time has been as low as 46 and as high as 56 minutes.  For this flight the winds were 16G23 (16 knots gusting to 23 knots) so figuring we'd be working against the wind half the time I budgeted for more fuel and took on enough for 1.5hrs.  The photographer is a light person and there were only two of us, so I could have put more in but was minimizing weight as per standard operating procedure.

As we started doing the orbits we needed more work to get the pictures.  The wind wasn't just pushing us away on the one side and closer on the other, but because the aircraft was pointed mostly toward the wind ('in trim') we just didn't have 90° shots from all four sides.  Eventually though we got them all.  Over time that extra orbit here and there added up and I started to watch as we hit an hour of flight time and still had a few sites to do.  The site before the last is the furthest out... and then we cut 20 miles across the desert to the last site... and then 20 miles back to the airport.  With the door off for the photographer our speed is limited by the factory recommendations to 100 knots, so that is 24 minutes of cruise for those 40 miles.

As we headed southwest to the last site we passed a construction site and the photographer wanted to do that one too... but being concerned about our airtime vs fuel I said we couldn't afford to do it.  As it was not on his list (nor was he getting paid for it) he was fine with that.  We cruised across the desert toward the northern side of the Tucson Mountains.  As we crossed, the wind compressed between the hills hit us like a hammer and I had to yank us back from 100 knots to about 60 while the clutch belts tightened after the main rotor experienced the hit as well.  That was the only real turbulence we felt but yeah we felt it.

At that point we were three miles from Marana Regional Airport (KAVQ) and I pondered the possibility of stopping there for some AVGAS.  Sure, we'd lose 30 minutes, but it would remove any question of sufficiency of fuel.  In the end I decided that as we only had one site to do we should be fine.

We hit the last site immediately, he got the pictures done in 1.5 orbits, and we headed toward Tucson.  Since I'd mentioned the fuel when rejecting the construction site, he noticed the needles were getting really close to the E.  I pointed out the low-fuel light and said that when that thing came on we'd still have 20 minutes (give or take) and we were showing 12 minutes to the airport.  However, that's because had we flown line-of-sight it would have been 12 minutes.  In reality we had to go east to cross back to the east side of the Tucson Mountains, and that meant that for a good 5-7 minutes it remained showing 12 minutes to the airport while we transitted the mountains.

Finally on the east side, we picked up Tucson ATIS and called Tucson Approach.  They had us IDENT and located us on radar.  They directed us to A-Mountain which was conveniently right along the direct flight path so no objections came from us, and then they turned us over to Tucson Tower.  Tower was equally accommodating, advising us to proceed direct.

A couple of minutes later, with 7 minutes showing enroute to Tucson the low-fuel light came on.  I let the photographer know that we were well within parameters.  We then flew in at top speed, and did the fastest approach I've done in a while.  Soft set-down, called tower to let them know landing assured, and proceeded to do the cooldown.  The cooldown proceeded for 2+ minutes and I shut the engine off when that was over, never having ran out of fuel.

There was no accident or incident here, but there certainly was an educational event.  I made a series of judgment calls that could have led us into a serious situation.  These led me to reflect on how to better handle this next time -- not just for photo flights, but in general.

1. We've been taught to always take on minimal fuel for the mission plus the reserve.   Going forward I'm gong to take maximal fuel to keep us right below MTOW unless we need high density-altitude (DA) operations requiring a lower weight.  (For example, in-ground-effect (IGE) hover can occur at higher DAs with lower weights).  That means that for this flight instead of taking less than 2hrs of fuel, I'd have taken the full 3hrs of fuel (depending on altitude, pressure, humidity, etc.)

2. When fuel is low, DO DIVERT TO A NEARBY AIRPORT.  It would have been a one-time cost of 30 minutes of my time to divert to Maran (or Pinal Airpark, KMZJ) but I didn't make that choise.  Next time I will not take that risk and I will do the safe thing.  Safety first is not just about "on the ground" or "in the air" but also about resource planning.

3. When a strong wind is in effect, add a wind-factor to expected times.  Particularly in a photography situation where we can't just orbit and keep the body of the aircraft perpendicular to the target, it will take longer to do the shoot.  Also as half the time we're in a headwind and half in a tailwind, but you can't win back in a tailwind what you lose in a headwind, remember we are going to be
effectively traveling SLOWER.

I have worked with some excellent certificated flight instructors (CFIs) and they have taught me a lot.  It would be nice if I could return the favor by letting them know that as they instruct other "newbies" they should focus on these real-world situation.  It could waste someone's 30 minutes or so... and gain them a lifetime.


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Mothers' Day 2016

May. 11th, 2016 | 10:03 am

In april of last year I achieved the milestone of being certificated as a commercial pilot.  This means that as of that date I'm able to exercise commercial pilot privileges for the purposes of being remunerated for various (limited) flights.   Contrary to popular belief I can't ferry people from point-A to point-B or do charter or on-demand flights -- those all require "Part 135" certification (http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?tpl=/ecfrbrowse/Title14/14cfr135_main_02.tpl)

However, I'm able to do photography flights, cropdusting (ha!), and most importantly nonstop flights within 25 statute miles of home base under Part 91.147.  To that end the company I work for, Tango Three, has partnered with Groupon to create a program where we'll do "30 minute tour of Tucson" flights.  That has blown up beyond our wildest expectations.  Because the Groupon passengers are not interested in helicopters per se but rather "whatever experience is offered" they don't convert to regular customers... don't refer anyone else to us... so it's all a one-shot deal.  We do those three at a time (one fueling for 3 flights) every weekend day.  That is working out great.

We reserve special weekend days for potential full-fare passengers.  Mothers' Day was one such day.  My friend is a mother and her sons are all working so she got a "happy mothers' day ... off to work" and was left to her own devices.   Accordingly I invited her to come with me to go get coffee and breakfast/lunch in Phoenix.

We took off from Tucson International around 1130.  While we requested a northbound departure along the Campbell-2 departure corridor we were instead sent to A-Mountain (Sentinel Peak http://tinyurl.com/zp5x4on).  From there it was pretty simple to go direct following Interstate-10 northwest past Marana (KAVQ), Pinal Airpark (KMZJ), Eloy (E60) and over to Mesa/Phoenix Gateway airport (KIWA).  South of Eloy we elected to bisect Eloy and Coolidge (P08) and avoid parachuters at Eloy and traffic at Coolidge.  Our arrival into the Gateway area was just a few minutes after we passed Pegasus Air Park (https://www.google.com/maps/@33.2125,-111.6172222,2240m/data=!3m1!1e3).  This is a quaint airpark that has not taken off (no pun intended).  Never any traffic, nobody on the common traffic advisory frequency (CTAF - 123.0) etc.

We called Gateway, advised ATIS information Zulu, cleared for taxiway Yankee (Yes, AM familiar:) and landed into the wind to park at the FBO.  There were 4 AV-8B Harriers and one Erickson Aircrane (N237AC) parked on the tarmac.  Pictures of the latter at http://www.airport-data.com/aircraft/photo/001192644.html.

As it was around noon we had coffee (decaf for me), ate lunch, watched the Harrier pilots start up and go, and then do low-level takeoffs, and then wanted to head home.  By now the helicopter had been filled with fuel, which I confirmed was 100LL AVGAS, not Jet-A.  The former makes the engine work great.  The latter would be disastrous.  As the aircraft has had its fuel mixture settings changed, I've been working on not flooding it.  This time it was easy... 1/4 second prime, then started right up.  Next time I'm going to try zero priming.  We called Gateway Tower for permission to leave... asked for a westbound departure (into the wind) then SW.  They thought we said NW... but we got that cleared up in the air.

Once we were clear of their airspace they said "Frequency change approved" but there being nobody else to talk to... we stayed with them.  However, as we approached Pegasus again I saw an aircraft lifting off from there.  He was just off the runway.  I immediately turned left to remain on the north side of the runway... switched the radio over to 123.0... and identified our callsign, position, altitude, and intent.  I also apologized for not having been on frequency earlier.  The gentleman replied that he had us in sight and that we were no factor.  There was a second aircraft behind him.  Both identified as "Husky" which I later looked up as an Aviat Husky, a bush plane.  The gentlemen were headed to Marana (KAVQ) and we were going to Tucson (KTUS).  I asked for their speed and they said 102-105kts... which is what we were doing... so rather than keeping an eye out for them or having a lot of CTAF work where we're constantly updating each other on location while being thousands of vertical feet apart, we set about going a bit more to the south to head over La Cholla airpark and approach Tucson from the north.  While a bit bumpy, that flight was uneventful, required much less radio work, and was a beautiful way to see the Tortolita mountains.

Moral of the story: when approaching an uncontrolled airport even if you've never ever seen traffic there before - switch to its CTAF and announce your position.  Lesson learned.


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Vegas Trip, Cross-Country Flight Planning, and then some

Mar. 20th, 2016 | 02:12 pm

This weekend I needed a break and had planned to take a trip to Las Vegas.  Originally slated from Thursday through Monday, it had to be delayed because the emergency locator transmitter (ELT) had been out for repair and been returned but was not yet installed in the aircraft.  George, the guy who owns the hangar and the Bell Jetrangers, installed the ELT and it was good to go but logistics had already booked a leak-detector at the house (172,000 gallons of water gone nowhere and $3,200 in charges, yikes!) and I'd cancelled the hotel reservation...

The flight was therefore rescheduled to Friday and I had a straight-line course plotted out from Tucson to Lake Havasu City to go have lunch with Nick (and refuel the aircraft) enroute to North Las Vegas.  This route goes right over Buckeye, another favorite refueling point.  However, Tucson Tower did not clear me direct to that route (300°) but rather wanted me to head to "A-Mountain then on course" which meant I was further north.  Subsequently I would be too close to the Kodiak Military Drop Zone at Pinal Airpark (KMZJ).  Option 1 - head further west and away from everything then head northwest.  Option 2 - head northeast toward the I-10 freeway, and pass along the east side of Marana (KAVQ) and Pinal and continue toward Buckeye.   I liked this option more because there were many more airports along the way, there was a three-lane per side freeway and a two lane frontage road below me ("where to go") and I could save fuel/time by not climbing mountains to the west.

In the Robinson helicopters, unlike most piston-powered fixed-wing aircraft, we do not lean the fuel/air mixture as we go up in altitude.  Consequently there's no fuel savings in climbing.  To the contrary... when we climb we're trading a reduced airspeed for a climb rate, so we lose airspeed and time.  If we have to come back down the other side of the mountain we'll get some of it back but never all of it (second law of thermodynamics).  This means that if I eventually want to be at 783ft above mean sea level (MSL) which is where Lake Havasu City airport (KHII) is, there's a good reason to avoid extra climbing.  Thus the route to the east over I-10 was taken.

After crossing Marana and Pinal I continued heading toward Buckeye, passing to the west side of Picacho Peak and far away from Eloy Airport (E60) and their all-day skydiving fun.   At Buckeye they also have skydiving and their automated weather system (AWOS) has a notice to airmen (NOTAM) indicating that there may be jump operations from 13,500ft on the east side of the airport.  These were not in operation when I came by and I crossed east to west.  Some gravelly-sounding old-timer got on the radio and chided me for being east of the airport when there could be skydiviers there.  Seeing as I'd called out my position on the common traffic advisory frequency (CTAF) ten miles out, seven point five, and five miles out as well as right before crossing and right after crossing... it was evident there was no jump plane, no jump people, and no jump activity.  I responded professionally, thanked the guy for the head's up, and went along my merry way resolved to avoid the east side of Buckeye airport.

The entire route between Tucson to Buckeye to Lake Havasu to North Las Vegas goes through various military operating areas (MOAs) that we're allowed to fly through.  Most are inactive during the weekend.  There are no restricted areas to avoid, and once out west of Buckeye nobody to talk to for 50 miles or so.

About 70 miles out of KHII was up around 6000ft having crossed a mountain that looked cool enough not to go around and I heard some KHII traffic on the radio.  I called for a radio check and got two responses -- I was loud and clear.  It's good to know the radio has that kindo f reach!

When I got within tenminutes I called Desert Skies FBO to let them know I was inbound and wold like parking and fuel.  They said they'd send a Follow-Me vehicle.  I then proceeded inbound, crossed the active east to west at 500ft above ground level (AGL) and then detoured north a bit to dump altitude.  I returned south to follow the FM car, and park it.  Nick drove up, and we went and had lunch.  "College Streeet Brewhouse" was great.  I had the steak sandwich.  Nick had the chicken croissante.  The view was great (spring break in Lake Havasu...) and so was the iced tea.  It's amazing how many great brewhouses I get to when I'm flying, where I can't even taste a sample.

On the return to the airport, I was given the fuel reeipt.  Turns out I used 16.1 gallons per hour (GPH) on the flight.  That's the first full-tank to full-tank flight I've done since Manny reset the fuel/air mixture on the Lycoming IO540 engine.  It was good to get a baseline number.  There's no significant flight-planning difference between 16.1 GPH and 17.6 GPH (what it was previously getting) except we can plan an extra 3 gallons over two hours.  The main tank holds 29.5 gallons and the auxiliary tank 17.0 gallons.  Together, that 46.5 gallons at 16.5GPH (my eventual trip average) is 2.8 hours.  Subtract 0.33 (reserve of 20 minutes) and 2.49 hours or 2 hours 29.3 minutes -- just shy of 2.5 hours (plus reserve).   That's excellent for planning purposes.

I'd also asked them to clean the windshield of all the bugs, and had tipped at the counter.  My comment at that time was "Well if they did it please give this to whomever did it, and if they didn't please shame them into doing it."  The latter panned out.

My bubble clear of bugs, my fuel bladders filled, my personal bladders emptied, and the hot sun beating down in the 25°C (77°F) day I started up the aircraft and made for a northbound departure.  Once aloft I headed for Boulder City airport (KBVU).  There are several ways to enter Las Vegas airspace and the two easiest ones are either Boulder City or Lake Meade.  The latter has a VFR entry at 3500 ft but the last time I tried that they said "unable" and wanted me to climb to 7000ft.  Builder City is closer, quicker, and safer.

Along the way I was not over the Colorado Rier most of the time, and crossed it a couple of times.  Most notably I crossed it just south of Laughlin/Bullhead City airport (KIFP) after talking with their Class Delta tower controller.  He wanted me to pass on his west side... likely because the tower is east of the landing runway, and I did.  I got to fly over all the new hotels and casinos.  Then I continued till I saw a good break in the mountains on the west and took that route so I could head north to KBVU.  That's not the most direct route but it does provide lots of good clear flat ground underneanth ("where would you go?").

From Boulder I called out my position to the Railroad Pass, entered in, and then picked up McCarran airport (KLAS) ATIS, and called hlicopter control on 123.82.   I let them know I was going to follow the Boulder Highway to "Northtown" (local slang for North Las Vegas airport, KVGT) at or below 2900.  They cleared me to enter Class Bravo airspace, assigned me a discrete beacon ("squawk") code,   As I approached the "Spaghetti Bowl" (where I-15 and US-95 meet) they advised of a metro PD helicopter one mile west and told me to climb to 3500 to avoid.  They then turned me over to KVGT.

My call into KVGT was simple - "North Las Vegas Tower, Helicopter 04X with you 3500 looking for the Metro traffic, inbound for Rancho ramp with Foxtrot."  They cleared me to come in on the west side, so I did just that.  On final approach I could swear there were already two birds on the two helipads.  I asked Tower to confirm but they couldn't see from their vantage point.  I said if I couldn't park there I'd do a missed approach and go to the South Ramp.  They approved.  Sure enough there were two helicopters and I called for the Go-Around and did a climb out then a slow 270° left to the South Ramp.

On approach to the South Ramp it was steep but not rushed, and I had a thought that I should sidestep just in case I was getting into a vortext ring state (VRS) condition.  I performed it flawlessly without any extra thought and watched my rate of descent cut in half.  I caught that VRS before it was even a thing.  Perfect set-down and packed my stuff off and went walking to the 702 Helicopters hangar.  They were really nice and apologized for having both helicopters out on the ramp.  They then offered to take the helicopter into the hangar overnight.  I happily accepted!

One Uber ride later I was checking into my hotel.
Five hours later it was clear I needed to get back.
0800 I was at 702 Helicopters pulling out the aircraft.  I called 702-261-3803 and got fuel delivered.  They took my CC# over the phone and emailed me a receipt.

I got KVGT ATIS, KLAS ATIS, called KVGT tower to ask for transition along the Boulder Highway to Boulder with Class Bravo services.  They had me hold while they got me a squawk code.  Then I was cleared to depart south.  I then called KLAS tower (123.82) and they cleared me to enter Class Bravo and proceed along the Boulder Highway.

Then KBVU, headed east just north of it, crossed the Colorado River in a craggly spot with no flat land, and followed US 93 to just about north of Buckeye.  At KBXK arrived from the west, did a mid-field transition, and then a right corkscrew to the fuel ramp.   The facilities are nice, the friedge stocked with cold water (and snacks) and self-serve fuel delivered my last round of fueling for this trip.

I then replenished the camelbag water bottle with the patented spout, the vacum lined thermos bottle with the backup ice water, and headed off to Tucson.

The flight inbound was bereft of any notable events... I flew in, I landed, I put the aircraft in the hangar, and I left.

What a weekend.E

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Commercial Flying

Jan. 26th, 2016 | 05:52 pm

I earned my FAA commercial pilot certificate in early 2014.  Since then I've been wanting to actually do commercial flying, that is flying for money!

The FAA has a lot of rules about this, and the simple rule is that if you're an air-carrier or a charter operation you operate under particular rules but otherwise you're limited to commercial flying.

Specifically I'm limited to 14 CFR 91.147 flying, which is nonstop flights no more than 25 statute miles from the airport.  That means no picking up passengers, no dropping off passengers, and no going further than 25sm.

Getting the word out has been difficult.  We tried advertising with the University of Arizona athletic program but that did not pan out.  We the tried Groupon and lo and behold people have already bought 24 rides in the 5 days since we started.

Yesterday I flew my first Groupon flight.  That makes it my first ever 91.147 commercial flight for pay with people who did not previously know me or us or of us!  I scanned the Groupon code at the beginning, thus eliminating the entry of a Tip portion.  I didn't repeat that mistake today, and today was my first ever commercial flight for pay for which I got tipped!   If you're wondering how much, I'm just going to say it was generous and it was then and is now appreciated!

So some milestones
- solo
- private pilot
- commercial pilot
- 91.147 pilot
- 91.147 pilot with tips (yay!)
- 7.25 years of flying
- 382 flights
- 477 hours
- 796 takeoffs and landings

Upcoming milestone:
- At 500 hours I can work on getting Part 135 certified so that I can do charter ("on-demand") operations, fly people to Sky Harbor airport or pick them up, do the same with Inde Motorsports Ranch, etc.

That's all for now.


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Catching up

Dec. 31st, 2014 | 05:09 pm

It's been a while because not much noteworthy happened but now lots has so this is a placeholder to remind me to fill in the blanks.

1. Flew to Las Vegas for Christmas. Gila Bend now has 100LL but because of winds went via Buckeye (KBXK) which was awesome. Fresh hot coffee. Love it. Gusty over the Colorado River. more later.

2. Flew back. Gusty over the Colorado River and OAT showed -1. I'd not even known it had a "-" sign!!! Back through KBXK due to winds. Longest hover approach ever, probably could have done a traffic pattern instead but there were two fixed-wing aircraft I hadn't got a fix on doing pattern work. Fuel and out of there. more later.

3. Aircraft got a ramp check in prep for its 91.147 LOA work. The MAP gauge is wrong in its color bars (green range is wrong and yellow range is wrong). The FAA said it had failed a ramp check October 2012 when the gauge didn't match the POH. The gauge was then fixed January 2013.

Well guess what, _I_ noticed the POH was for a Raven I and put a Raven II POH in there... and that is why the gauge no longer matches the POH. We'll be fixing those color stripes asap. more later.

Off to ready Kenny's flight notes. Great start for a new year! more later

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Out of gas

Nov. 1st, 2014 | 08:14 pm

I write in this journal to remember important milestones in my journey to have fun in the helicopter. If you've been following for six years and one day then you know that goal is pretty much met.

The R44 is still out on a contract assignment and the weather appeared to be decent for the first half of the day so I resolved to get the R22 (N991KE) and go flying. I texted a potential passenger, got an approval, and showed up at the airport. (To be frank, I texted several people in sequence, but went with the first viable candidate.)

When I got there, CFI Phil was already there, and he helped me move the helicopter out from the hangar to the fuel trailer. The fuel indication was about 4 gallons (eep!). We know it's "off" so I said "let's add 5 gallons and see what it shows." We added 5 gallons (4.5indicated as the gauge is off by 10% high) and it showed 17 gallons. HOLY CRAP! Clearly there's stiction on the foat. Wow.

Anyway I started doing the preflight inspection only to have Manny the Mechanic come up and give us the bad news. Today is November 1st, and the aircraft transponder certification expired... yesterday.

You know I like to point out regulations, so here we go. The Mode C transponder reports not only the 4-digit octal code but also encodes the altitude. As per FARS 91.411 this has to be re-certificated every 24 months.


While we're not finger-pointing, who is responsible for this? The aircraft owner is responsible for DOING it. The Pilot In Command ("PIC" - me) is responsible for verifying it.

What did I learn? Next time - check the logs. Normally I check the Hobbs time, the SB for the main rotor blades, and compare to next-due-time. Now I will add checking transponder timeout to this...

We wheeled the aircraft back into the hangar -- now 17 gallons of fuel loaded -- and CFI Phil will fly it to get it recertificated on Monday.


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Red Rum! Red Rum!

Oct. 19th, 2014 | 08:31 pm

Halloween is fast approaching and with the theme of The Shining showing the writing of "Red Rum" on a mirror really reflecting the letters in reverse really spelling "murder" (with a free space for those who like shiny free things) that's been a popular meme used in everything from The Simpson's to shows that aren't funny.

Today I did not have anything to do with Red Rum, murder, Rum of any color, but I did have a good time at Red Rock! Red Rock Canyon is a national conservation area with unique and gorgeous red rocks, statuesque mountains of tall strong rock, and today at least one helicopter overflying.

I've been flying since October 30th, 2008. This is almost the six-year milepost, and through these years I've come to North Las Vegas Airport many times. I last did my commercial checkride here in April 2014. Throughout my many flights, I've seen many places like Hoover Dam, the Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, Lake Meade, Lake Havasu, etc. One of the places recommended to me is the Red Rock area... but I've never scheduled the flight to have someone show me the points of interest.

This time was different. I communicated with Brian from 702 Helicopters and let him know I would be in town and wanted to fly. He always has multiple helicopters available and we agreed that I could take N441JL, a Robinson R44 Raven I. Since I wanted someone to point out sights (and sites) he assigned Chris [Witter?] to fly with me at 0830.

I went to sleep at 2030, trying to get a full night's sleep. It was fitful (you try going to bed at 2030!) but I made it to 0700. Nice hot shower, coffee from the coffeeshop, and I was enroute to the airport early. The sun was in my eyes which reminded me that while I brought the FAA-required glasses (20/25 in my left eye means no FAA Second-Class medical certificate without it) I had no cap with a visor to shield my eyes.

I stoped at the 99 cent olnly store up the road and bought a red and white baseball cap. It went swimmingly with my red T-shirt. I then pulled up to the shop by which time (0829) Chris had already pulled N441JL to the ramp.

I parked, went in, came back to get my phone, went in, and we talked about the flight goals: have fun. See the sights. Identify the sites and reporting points. Get me comfortable with operating in the practice area(s). See Red Rock. Possibly take pictures. IMG_20141019_093726

The helicopter had 7 gallons of fuel from the previous night. Chris pulled the fuel trailer over and pumped in a full main fuel tank. That gave us 2 hrs of flight time. I went through the preflight check sequence and found nothing abnormal Chris didn't already know about. Sampled fuel, checked main-rotor hub/blades and we were ready to go. The startup checklist is home-brew and there are differences between it and the Robinson Pilot's Operating Handbook. I pointed them out to Chris from memory.

On this aircraft today there was an issue with the caburator temperature inlet gage showing high. Chris says it settles down in flight. The temperature/dew-point spread was 21C and therefore this was not a factor so I paid it no attention. On the carb-heat check I listened for engine roughness and reduced RPMs and was satisfied carb-heat assist works. Trivia question: was the aircraft worthy despite not having a working carb inlet temperature indicator? (My answer: Yes. Not on the required minimum equipment list and the POH controls what is required. However in a situation where carb heat IS indicated or close it would be stupid to fly without a working gage UNLESS pulling full carb heat at all times. The gage is of no value below 18" MAP, in which case you pull full carb heat. So if you commit to always full carb heat, the gage is irrelevant. The 22C spread today plus no visible moisture made this point moot.) I'm very pro-safety and not anti-authority. If carb heat was indicated we'd have flown with full carb heat and on pickup hover power check would have made a go/no-go decision.

I did spend some time on this because it wasn't a "simple decision". It was one involving all these factors and it was taken with full cognizance of what it means. I also discussed with Chris the Honolulu R22 crash where in my opinion the pilot failed to properly handle carb heat; her mechanic "friend" came up with a fanciful story; the FAA declined to send anyone out to verify the story; and in the end some schmo had his car plowed into by this pilot. These things do not do well to engender a respect for our industry. I am not going to be that guy (or girl).

Chris agreed. We were on the same page. We got Northtown ATIS information Alpha, called Tower, and went off on our merry way.

I'll complete this writeup (which requires finding lots of map links) shortly. So I don't forget:

- west departure, maintain 2900 or less prior to crossing the highway (US95?)
- Calico Bowl?
- Retention Basin
- southern practice area vs northern practice area
- Lone Mountain
- Red Rock
- Red Rock Visitor Center
- (something?) springs
- Blue Diamond Mine
- cool mountain fixtures, passes, pinnacles
- class Bravo shelves, minimums, physical points of demarcation to watch for

Flew over The JW Marriott where there was an Octoberfest bier garten set up on the lawn

Also notes:
- doors on
- perfect temperature (73F starting 83F ending but good times)
- perfect approach to landing pad
- rocking skids
- one of the coms failed weirdly

More when I get to it.


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