Time Building In San Francisco

I got to fly a few hours with BoatPix down in San Francisco over the July 4th weekend. Time building with BoatPix comes in one of 2 flavors–in my case, I was sitting in on their photo contract, with the eventual goal of taking a contract pilot position with them. This happens weekends and holidays only, and you’re flying around taking pictures of boats. You need to at least be a commercial pilot for this, preferably a CFI.

Our plan was for the 500-hr CFI to demonstrate a few of the maneuvers we’d be using in the Bay, then we’d head out to shoot a sailboat race near the Golden Gate Bridge. The weather wasn’t working in my favor though, and we quickly scrapped that plan and diverted to Lake Berryessa. Totally different environment (hot, higher, calm, and sunny) compared to the Bay (cold, low, windy, and foggy), but turned out to be a good learning environment. He’d flown it several times this year, so we knew where the obstructions were (wires on the southern inlets). I was able to grab a bit of fair quality video–I haven’t exactly had much of a chance to test my video set up, and it’s stowed so I can’t check it in flight. Okay, it’s a downright shitty video, but you can kind of get the idea of what the flying was like.


I have to admit I was pretty nervous going out for this flight. Probably 85% of my flying is in the pattern, 14% off-airport, and the remaining 1% is maneuvering close to the ground. What surprised me though is that I had all the skills I needed to do it. By the end of the day, I was getting comfortable with maintaining my airspeed during the circuits around our subjects, had a good sight picture for our altitude over the surface, and maintaining good separation from the moving boat.

After a few hours at Lake Berryessa, we flew back to Napa (KAPC) to refuel (they pass out free bottles of wine if you fuel up enough there) and take a break. Then we flew into the delta east of our base at Concord (KCCR). This is a cool area–all these interweaving waterways, islands in the middle of swamps with a restaurant and bar, and ad hoc assemblies of boaters just hanging out. Here we also saw everything from the big dollar yachts to houseboats that were held together with plywood and wire. Flying here was even more challenging than over the lake, because most of the water ways were narrow. This concentrates the traffic (more evasive maneuvering) and put us over land during some passes (obstructions, wires). We got to working together pretty well, with both of us reconning the area, verbalizing instructions and the plan for making the photo pass, dropping in and taking the shot, and calling obstructions again.

After an hour or so, we made our turn back to KCCR and fought a headwind back to base. Definitely the most challenging flying I’ve ever done, and the longest I’ve been in the seat flying in one day. I was surprised at how quickly my basic skills came back and how much I learned. In one day we hit 2 class D airports, were on with NorCal Approach, went from sea level to 3200′ DA, flew low level and cross-country, and saw a few things I’d never seen before (that’s another post tho).

Utility Helicopters on the Columbia

No flying for me this week, but I did get to go watch a pair of helicopters setting high voltage transmission lines. Out here, wind and hydroelectric power is pretty easy to come by, and most days you can see trains or trucks moving the components for wind turbines east. With that, there’s the need for expanding transmission capabilities. Getting power lines along the Columbia River Gorge back to the west side is a challenge because of rough, remote terrain. In this area, it’s easiest to do it with helicopters.

I watched an Erickson Skycrane setting the steel transmission towers. An MD500 orbited the area, checking out the set before the Skycrane released the tower, then moving to the next base to make sure it was ready for the upper part of the tower. Check out the downwash from the Skycrane…these towers are >200 feet high, and the Skycrane is easily kicking dust up. Later in the afternoon, a couple of F15s did a low-level pass over the river before pulling up and cutting back to the north. Not many days you can see a Skycrane and jets doing what they do best.


Wildfire in New England

Saw on my news alerts that there’s a wildfire burning Mount Major in New Hampshire. The video has a few good shots of the helicopters working the fire. Other than that, this post has not much to do with helicopters.

I used to hike all over the White Mountains in New Hampshire when I was living in Massachusetts, and I’d hit Mt Major every few years because it was close and a pretty easy day hike. One of my first up-close experiences with helicopters was on Mt Techumseh on an early spring hike. Waterville Valley Ski Area sits on one side of Mt Techumseh, and the top has a mess of ski lift equipment and towers. As I was getting toward the summit, a Bell whipped up the slope with sling, dropped it at the top, set down for a minute, and went back down. I hoofed it up the rest of the way and got to watch him set down again. The dog and I were probably only 50 yards from his LZ. When they finished doing what they were doing, the pilot saw us and came over. Gave me a little brief on the hazards of the tail rotor and told me what they were doing (repairing some radio equipment).

At the time I was also in a bit of a career crisis, and had looked at what it would take to get into flying. I already had a mound of debt from 10 years of school and living in Boston, and taking on more debt wasn’t a consideration. But I remember the pilot talking about the responsibility and freedom of getting to fly. “Best job in the world.”

If I’d really been thinking, I’d at least have gotten a ride off the mountain with him. Instead, the dog and I glissaded down the patchy snow on the ski slopes. Good day either way.

HOT Spots

This week I’m headed down to San Francisco to do a few hours of time building with BoatPix. In preparation, I’ve been reviewing the airspace (much busier than I’m used to) and the airport layout. The airport looks like it has a fair bit of helicopter traffic, and you can see several “helicopter alighting areas” (lower left corner). One thing I wasn’t familiar with were the 4 areas marked “HOT.” No airport I’d ever flown out of had anything like this, and I had no idea what they were. The legend for the airport diagrams wasn’t much help either–it just identifies them as Hot spots.

Right after the legend though, there’s an index of all the HOT Spots, similar to how you’d see alternate minimums or departure procedures listed in the TERPs. The preface describes the HOT spots as movement areas with a history or risk of collision or runway incursion. Makes sense–all these HOT spots are at complex intersections or intersections with high intersection angles. The number then refers to an index of explanations for each spot. In this case, 2 of the spots identify areas where pilots often make wrong turns, another is for the complex intersection of Rwy 01R-19L, Twy J, Twy A, Twy C, and Twy K, and the last is a hold-short area for 32L. The FAA lists about 90 airports that have identified HOT spots.

Unfamiliar airport, airspace, and aircraft, not to mention that I have only 6 hours in the R22 in the last 30 days. Should be a daunting flight. Wish me luck and good weather.