All in a Half-day's Work

My Labor Day trip out to Atlanta with BoatPix was a last-minute deal. Initially I thought I was headed to New Bern, but they ended up needing me in Atlanta instead. That left me short of time to order and review those sectional charts, so I gave a few iPhone apps a try. In addition to a VFR charting app, one of the (GPS Lite from Mobile Arts) was a GPS tracker that could run in the background. On our last flight of the weekend, I started up GPS Lite after pre-flighting our helicopter during our first fuel stop of the day, and then again after having the phone on a charge on our last fuel stop. Just today I imported the tracks to Google Earth (if you’re into GE, you can download tours from the Clemson [KCEU] and Anderson [KAND] flights from this zip file).

We’d flown the southern end of Lake Hartwell for a full day on Saturday, and thought we’d work the northern end to see what the boat traffic was like there. Prior to landing at KCEU, we’d done a recon of the north end of the lake. Like the southern end, there were a few bridges (with wires) and multiple islands and dead-end coves. There were also lots of small campgrounds along the forested shorelines; given the close quarters, we wouldn’t be staying long in any one place lest we disturb the campers. The one difference was that it was narrower and lacked the wide open areas of the southern end. On the one hand, working a narrow area like that requires more planning so that you can maneuver for the photo shot with plenty of clearance from shoreline obstructions and other boat traffic. On the other hand, the boats pretty much line up for you, and they’re either coming or going. That’s what this track pretty much shows. Not much was happening near the Clemson campus (upper right corner), so we crossed over the bridge and shot a few boats as we worked south away from the campers. From there on we could fly long south-bound passes, weaving around boats headed the same direction, and then turn around and fly back north to catch boats headed the opposite way. It turned out to be productive, and it was much easier than I expected–the only thing that would throw a hitch in our rhythm would be an enthusiastic group that just happened to drop their skier right before we got to them.

That track covers 45 minutes during which we flew about 30 miles (after that my iPhone’s battery was drained). After the track ends, we kept working south for another hour before heading down to KAND for a fuel stop. That’s where the next track picks up, after our last fuel stop. The lower end of Lake Hartwell is much more open. Even in the narrow area south of the bridge, our track is shorter and less aligned. It was late in the day and we eventually had to move to an entirely different area. On the east side, our track wanders southeast out of a popular party cove, where we were able to follow a few boats out. But after shooting those guys, we again had to move. After about 45′, we turned west and climbed above the lake to head back to our base at Gainesville (KGVL).

Great flying that weekend. After I left, the helicopter went in for its 50-hr service and for an alternator squawk (we’d noticed on our pre-flight that afternoon that the belt was loose–turns out the mounting bracket had come loose). It’s since moved to Kentucky, and will soon be getting mothballed for the winter unless a student needs it.

Flying Fun Over Labor Day

This is just about a great weekend flying last weekend with BoatPix. Last week I got a call that there was an open seat for the Labor Day weekend in Atlanta (Gainesville actually, KGVL). Aside from the usual stress about flying in a new place, I really was able to look forward to this flight–I’ve got about 40 hrs of flight time in the R22 over the summer, so there’s no question that I can still fly. I know the basics of flying the photo contracts and what it’s like flying a full day. Joe, the CFI at KGVL turned out to be a great host, and, like the other BoatPix CFIs I’ve gotten to fly with, was into the work and knew what he was doing.

On top of it, the flying in Georgia was a little different than what we were doing along the California coast. On the inland lakes, the boats are smaller and we’re maneuvering a bit closer. Folks on the boat are able to see us and we can interact a bit more than we could with the larger boats that were operating offshore. It was also a long weekend, with sunny weather and a bunch of good people out having fun. We started off at Lake Hartwell–about 45 minutes east of KGVL–and spent Saturday there. Despite there being a Clemson game, the lake was packed. We spent a full day there before returning to KGVL right around sunset. Sunday we focused on nearby Lake Lanier, then moved over to Alatoona Lake (about 60 minutes west). Not my favorite place–Alatoona was smaller, narrower, had all kinds of obstructions on the lake (raised buoys mostly), and looked a little mucky. Monday we were back at Lake Lanier, working from north to south, and finished up the day back at Lake Lanier.

In total, I logged 24 hours–8 hours each day, starting around 9:00 and ending around 20:30. The last hour Monday was where I reached my mental and physical limit, and I was pretty relieved to be getting back to the airport that evening. Learned quite a lot about flying in hot, humid weather (a new one for me), dealing with the low level obstructions that you’d expect (the aforementioned buoys, birds, trees), cross-country flying in the South, and maneuvering with sometimes breezy conditions.

What was the best was the people, and I’m not kidding here. Almost everybody we photographed was pretty enthusiastic–not in the least because Joe was practically hanging out the helicopter waving at them. Got lots of people posing, waving, or dancing around. The jet skiers and fast boats were more than happy to show off for us, and we got some great shots of these guys sprouting massive rooster tails or flying over wakes.

Looks like I’m staying at home this weekend, but I’m looking forward to getting a few more weekends in before the cool weather sets in.

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).

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.

Free Shipping on FL005 Today

For any of you who’d been holding back on buying a shirt, the vendor is offering free shipping today only. Just enter the code SHIPNOW2 during checkout. It’s valid for any shop you buy from, but at least check out the ones on FL005 and the FL005 custom designer.

If you were wondering where the FL005 logo came from, it’s not just random. First, FL005 is flight level 005…or 500 feet. The symbol that makes up the zero on the left hand side is the cyclic control input you use on departure as you pass through ETL. The middle zero, well, that just had to be there. The symbol that makes up the 5 is the forward fuselage, mast, and blade of an R44. I’m not saying it doesn’t take a bit of imagination to see it. The colors are the same as on the gages. You can make your own shirt with this design, or combine it with any other, using the custom designer.


Third World Helicopters

Remember the Nigerian Helicopter built from old car parts? I recently saw 2 new entries to aviation industry from the developing world. The first is from a Chinese farmer who built his helicopter from wood, a steel frame, and a motorcycle engine. Apparently, the homemade aviation industry is ripping along in China. The Zimbabwian machine looks pretty ambitious. What really struck me about this one was the dual tail rotor assembly. Both of them claim to be flyable, and both make the Mini-500 that I saw a couple of weekends back (with 20-lbs of dumbbells for ballast, sitting on the floor in front of the pedals) look almost airworthy.


I’m not making fun of either of these attempts. I think it speaks to the universal thrill humans get at the idea of leaving the ground behind and seeing the world from above. Would be interesting to see if either of these home-made helicopters are really capable of flight, and whether the designers were able to overcome the many engineering challenges associated with rotary-wing aircraft. The low power-to-weight ratio of piston-driven engines was one of the challenges that kept early helicopters from even getting off the ground, where they would be subject to the aerodynamic challenges of spinning airfoils. Seeing as though these attempts all start with heavy components–like the junked car the Nigerian “inventor” used, or steel and wood blades and structures, it’s hard to believe these could really be getting too high up. Nevertheless, this last one, also from China, not only gets off the ground. If you believe the comments, he’s had it up above ETL. Unlike the first Chinese example, this farmer had help from detailed plans he obtained online.