LAX West Helipad Departure (and Commercial Approaches)

The one weekend I flew with BoatPix back in August I hit as many airports as I did during my entire flight training. One of them was LAX, which, if you haven’t seen it, has a pretty cool helipad to land on. We were flying by LAX on the way home to SNA (John Wayne/Orange Co) and needed to clean the helicopter’s bubble anyway, so…. Unfortunately, my camera has some issues with sun glare, and pointing it directly into the setting sun fried its sensor for the entire approach. Maybe I’ll get to do that approach another time, but the basic challenge on the approach is that Tower wants you above the runway complexes that flank the helipad in the center of the airport. You  bring the helicopter in high over the runways, then make a steep descent for a pinnacle landing to the helipad. (Although it’s a steep descent, the actual approach maintains a normal angle–the idea behind the steep descent was to get to an altitude where I could make a normal approach.)lax helipad

The departure is not as much fun, but it’s still very cool. This time, your flight path has to parallel the two runways that flank you (25 to the south, and 24 to the north). Eventually, you have to cross paths with departing airliners that are using those runways though. For this, the tower keeps you low along the shoreline until you clear the airspace. This turns out to not be that unusual, and earlier that weekend we were working off the departure end of North Island Naval Air Station (where we were moved out of the way of a C5 that was outbound).

The last part of this video shows me doing a less than smooth approach into SNA. I’m still stuck on the flight school mentality where I fly a pattern to land. If you’re working on your commercial ticket, you need to get experience breaking out of the downwind/base/final and 60 KIAS/200 fpm approach mentality. Yeah, I never did them during training; the school was more worried about noise complaints from the homeowners who bought houses next to the airport. To pull them off now takes a bit of brain power–something that’s running short when you haven’t flow a lot recently and you’re at an unfamiliar airport. There’s nothing difficult about them, it just requires you to break some ingrained habits.


A Rather Elegant Statement of Fact

From Lyn Burks on Just Helicopters, talking about how the market for low-time helicopter pilots has changed post-Silver State:

A record number of helicopter pilots were produced from 2005 to 2008. At the exact same time, the collapse in the economy in 2008 brought the traditional pilot pipelines to a screeching halt. More pilots with less upward mobility = fierce competition.

It’s absolutely true: with the booming economy several years ago, you could get hired as a CFI outside of the school you trained at, you could build 100 hrs a month as an instructor, and you could get hired off to your first job flying a turbine helicopter at 1200 hrs and 2 years from when you started. I personally witnessed it happen, and was optimistic that things were going to be the same for me. Weren’t we all?  These days, I’ve had school owners ask me why they’d hire me when I’d be taking away a job from one of their CFIs, the school I went to has cut back on their instructor staff, and 1200 hr pilots are getting laid off from their CFI positions rather than getting hired away. Sorry, I too want to be irrationally exuberant again.

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.

A Test on Your Night Regs Knowledge

I always hated memorization, and never did very well in classes that required a lot of regurgitation. So the regs that require me to memorize the different definitions of night have always been a bother to me. (If anybody has some nifty mnemonic or memory aid for keeping them straight, please let me know or add it here; I tried coming up with a few, which are posted in the Night Definitions lesson plan.) In a recent AOPA Pilot Test Pilot article (which I love because it’s usually challenging, but also hate because it’s often obscure trivia), they offered a scenario that addresses the night regulations. I’ve tweaked it a little, but see if you can come up with the answer without consulting your FAR/AIM.

A private pilot is flying with several passengers in the contiguous US. His last night landings (3 touch and gos) were 30 days ago. Can he continue the flight after the sun goes down without violating the FARs?

If you need a refresher, I just added a short lesson plan that summarizes the differences between the definitions used for “night”, and hopefully will add a complete lesson plan on night operations soon.

Here’s another one that I’m working on to reinforce knowledge of night regulations. I think I’ve thought it through, but what do you think the answer is? Is it a question you’d use to test your students knowledge of these regulations?

Is it possible for a pilot to have made >3 full-stop landings after sunset and have logged night time in the last 90 days, but not be able to legally carry passengers for a nighttime flight?

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.

Networking vs The Resume

Dave Smith, the Chief Pilot for Helicopter Academy, recently posted this comment in the Careers section of wikiRFM:

It is my firm belief that we should avoid the widespread fixation on resumes and concentrate instead on effective broad-spectrum career-development methods. My model for this is the book What Color is Your Parachute; the key notion is that resumes are a waste of time, networking and job research are far more important and effective.

I mostly agree with this. I’m biased toward the resume (which should always be accompanied by a cover letter) because it’s been productive for me, and because a good resume can easily be created with enough time and attention. Dave is definitely right that the resume has it’s limitations, and in reality, a resume is the lowest common denominator when it comes to job searches.

For a resume to work, at least 3 conditions have to be met:

  1. Your resume has to reach the right person;
  2. Your resume has to fit you into a need or job they have;
  3. Your resume has to say the right things to get their attention.

Now, even if your resume meets those 3 criteria, resumes often go to complete strangers. Before they’re going to offer you a job, they’ll want to know a lot more about you and your skills. Sending just a resume isn’t much different than cold-calling prospective employers, whether it’s for an advertised position or not.

There are also some specific limitations for each of those conditions. Getting your resume to the right person isn’t easy. A large employer will have a human resources (HR) department screening all the resumes, while a small employer may have only a single individual (who’s inundated with resumes). For these reasons, your resume has to get in front of the right person at the right time, or it’s likely to go ignored. This is especially true for entry-level jobs.

What are the right things for your resume to say? This isn’t a very deep field and most of us are going to have very similar qualifications. So a resume that says the right things (1700 hrs PIC, 500 hrs turbine, etc…) is going to look just about the same as many other resumes. You may be lucky to have some extraordinary experience, but the vast majority of us aren’t so fortunate.

While there might be some exceptions, most resumes you send are going to lead to nothing. You cast a wide net of resumes and hope for the best. (This isn’t an excuse to send out the same resume/cover letter to 100 companies, as this strategy is very often unproductive.) Or you can invest a lot of effort in a few resumes and hope for the best.

Networking and research to get into the right job/company are more effective approaches, but they take time to work. Your network is everybody you know—former colleagues, other students, your instructors, friends, head hunters, people you meet hanging around the airport. You keep in touch with them, see what they’re up to, and tell them what you’re up to. Expand your network to include people in their network whenever you have the opportunity. Here’s how it works…

In my pharmaceutical industry job, I had to turn down a project somebody offered me. Just didn’t have the time for it. Right away though, I recommended 2 former colleagues, briefly summarized why they would fit the employer’s needs, and provided them with my friends’ contact information. One of my friends—who had been sending resumes all over for over 18 months—was able to accept the project that I turned down. Why’d I do it? Next time he has work that he can’t take on, I expect he’ll reciprocate.

That’s why networking is so effective. In this case, I helped my contacts get to the right person, at the right time, with an intro got the employer’s attention. I also provided a personal recommendation that let the employer know more than they would have gleaned from any resume, and since I’m a pretty good guy, they’re trusting that I wouldn’t recommend somebody who I didn’t respect. Here’s another example:

While I was flying with a CFI (Mike, from BoatPix) during a photo flight, we were on the CTAF and he recognized the call sign for a company that he’d been interested in getting a job with. They switched over to the air-to-air frequency, and he introduced himself. Turned out, the other pilot was the chief pilot, who Mike had met through his neighbor. The CP remembered Mike, told him they were looking to replace another pilot, and that he’d be in touch. Several days later, the CP emailed this CFI with his company’s requirements.

I like this second case because it illustrates the indirect way that networking can sometimes go, and that the personal connection can mean more than experience. Not only was this the product of a couple of chance encounters, but turns out that Mike didn’t meet all the hiring minimums—which the CP directly told him they “can waive for the right candidate.” No, Mike didn’t get a job offer, and one might not materialize out of this contact right now; the point is that Mike now has a lead to follow. If it works out, he’s going to fill a job that was never advertised.

Networking is the slow and steady approach. Although it might take longer, it’s usually less painful. Like a resume, the point of networking isn’t to get you a job today; it’s to make an impression so the right person thinks of you when they need to fill a job. Ideally, the jobs come to you rather than the other way around. Because of the personal relationship, your qualifications aren’t always what the employer remembers. It might simply be that your shared connection has been a good employee, or just having a face to put to your name. Either way, sometimes you can network your way past better-qualified candidates, to the top of a stack of resumes, or into a job custom-made for you. Unless you keep a long view though, all that small talk and hand shaking can seem like a waste of time.

Why bother with resumes then when networking is so great? Networking, resumes, and research (something I didn’t even touch) are all part of your tool kit when it comes to looking for a job. For those of us just getting a start, your network is probably pretty small and consists of a lot of folks in the same situation as you. This isn’t always the case, but if it is, your network isn’t terribly valuable right now. In addition, the odds are so stacked against a 200-hr pilot that discounting any job-hunting strategy will probably hurt you. I got my first job in the pharmaceutical industry by answering an ad in a newspaper. But early in your career is the time to be hanging out at the FBO, meeting all the pilots you can, and keeping in touch with other low-time pilots. At the same time, you should be contacting every prospective employer you can (either in person or using a cover letter). This sets the foundation for building an extensive network.

The other reason I wouldn’t blow off your resume is that it’s often the first thing a contact asks for when they’re considering you for a job. This is especially true when your contact is recommending you to her hiring manager. As you progress through your career, you should keep a ready a draft copy of your resume that you can spiff up and send of whenever somebody asks for one.

All that said, in a few weeks I’ll be adding a link to my Linked-In profile. You can learn about Linked-in here, and join my network by clicking the link to the right. You might have to register with them first, and it helps to fill in your profile. Also, consider going to the Heli-Success Networking Event in Las Vegas.

Helicopter Ground Handling Signals

I got busy. The first few weeks of this month I was in San Diego for work, and had the chance to fly with BoatPix again. I had the video camera with me again, and have about 10 hours of video that I’m sorting through. In the meantime though, I thought I’d post a short clip of our departure from KMYF. After we fueled up, the FBO attendant parked his truck, grabbed his batons, and took up station in front of us. Hand signals for directing traffic on the ground wasn’t something I’d ever studied, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. In this case, it was pretty straightforward–when he saw that we were ready to pick up, he “cleared” us to alight, then directed us to the right away from the parked traffic. I say “cleared” because we were at a towered airport and communicating with the tower. For the most part, it was nice to have another set of eyes since we were parked in the middle of the transient area, with an active movement area behind us.

Of the 5 airports that we worked out of, 4 of them had personnel on the ramp to direct traffic into parking spaces (the exception was KTOA, which didn’t have much traffic at all, and no jet traffic that we saw). The BoatPix CFI that I was flying with had visited most of these airports before and already had an out-of-the-way parking spot for our little Mariner. But the FBO’s ground handlers directed the jets and larger helicopters where they wanted them. The AIM (section 4-3-25) has a couple of pages on the hand signals, but–given that the first 2 figures show positioning of a signalman relative to an airliner–this isn’t something that garnered much attention during ground school. In addition, none of the signals covered in the AIM seem particularly important for helicopter operations. That said, the National Wildfire Coordinating Group has a guide to hand signals for helicopter ground operations.

This short video is just a prop for this post–the signalman basically tells us to lift up and not fly over anything that we wouldn’t have flown over anyway. I let the video run for another 30 seconds so you can see the Skycrane parked on the ramp. Check back over the next couple of weeks…now that I’m getting to fly some, I’ll have some video of the me learning some aerial photography techniques and transitioning from “flight school flying” to commercial flying.

httpv:// hand signals

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.