When I was just getting started with my helicopter charter business in the early 2000s, I thought my business would revolve around tourism. As a result, I developed a sizable menu of tours ranging from 30 minutes to six days in length. When those didn’t sell as well as I needed them to, I spent (or wasted) a lot of money on advertising and marketing, trying (and failing) to differentiate myself from my larger competition. Finally, I opened my business up to other kinds of work that eventually taught me a valuable lesson: you make money with helicopters by having repeat customers. Tourists seldom come back for more.
Over time, I realized that three kinds of business were responsible for making my helicopter operation profitable: wildlife surveys, cherry drying, and frost control. Those niche markets — especially cherry drying — became my specialties. And since I have no intention of becoming a slave to my business, they keep me busy enough to keep the helicopter airworthy, give me a chance to fly, and earn me a living. What else could someone want?
In my next three blog posts on Hover Power, I’d like to share my experiences in these three areas. I’ll start with wildlife surveys.
I started doing wildlife survey work back in 2007 with my R44 Raven II. Since then, I’ve flown about 200 hours doing this kind of work, primarily for one client. I did most of it in Arizona and New Mexico, and basically lost the client when I moved to Washington state in 2013 — although I did do some work for them in California last spring and hope to again.
There are lots of kinds of wildlife survey work and I won’t profess to be an “expert” on any of them except the type I did: raptor surveys. Raptors are birds of prey. My client was primarily interested in eagles, hawks, and falcons. In each case, they’d been hired by a wind generator company to do government-required environmental impact studies. The government wanted to make sure that future wind turbines in an area did not hurt existing raptor populations.
In each case, my client would have a tablet computer or similar GPS-enabled device with the future wind farm drawn out on it. They were required to cover that area and a few miles beyond it. The total area was dozens of square miles or more in size. Fortunately, we didn’t have to search every inch of that for signs of raptors. Instead, we’d search the habitats where raptors were most likely to nest: cliff faces, canyons, and tall treetops.
For each flight, I’d take two observers on board. One would sit beside me and the other would sit behind me. It was their job to find and document birds or bird nests and to give me directions. My job was to fly where they told me to fly. When they found something, they’d mark the coordinates, take photos, and make notes. And then we’d move on.
The jobs were long. One of them lasted four days with us flying all day long every day. We’d spend the night in an area hotel and get right back to it in the morning after breakfast. We knocked off the New Mexico job in one 10-hour day, starting and ending with a 90-minute repositioning flight from the Phoenix area. Because it was done in the early spring when days were short, we took off before dawn and returned after sunset. That was a very long day.
Often, we’d do an area early in the spring and return later in the spring to check on what we’d found. The second round was usually quicker because we were checking on known nests. I should mention that in addition to us scouting from the air, the company often had guys scouting from the ground in areas where they could get a vehicle in. Sometimes we’d have to check on things that they’d found, too.
The flying was tedious and somewhat dangerous. Not swinging logs from a line dangerous or landing on oil platforms in poor visibility dangerous. More like flying in the Deadman’s Curve close to cliff faces at high density altitude with quartering tailwinds dangerous. The kind of flying where you’re dancing on the pedals and watching your power and if the engine quits you’re screwed. You need good flying skills, a good feel for the ship you’re flying, and a well-maintained aircraft.
Which is something you should have for most missions, right?
We’d take off from the closest airport with full tanks of fuel and go direct to our starting point. One of the observers would point me in the right direction. Sometimes, it would take 15 or 20 minutes (or more) to get to the starting point. It was usually a rock outcropping or cliff face or butte, but on one survey we did multiple times, it was a winding canyon. I’d fly up to the rocky wall (or descend down into the canyon) and get into position about 100 feet away. Then I’d follow the cliff face at about 20 knots ground speed, moving up or down as requested to get them the view they wanted.
When they saw a nest or bird, I’d have to either come to a stop or circle back for another look. What we did depended on conditions. If the wind was calm or it was a headwind and it wasn’t too hot and we didn’t have a heavy load, I could usually hover for them. Sometimes I’d even back up if I had to, since it was quicker than circling around. But if conditions were tougher for flying, I’d have to circle around, occasionally more than once.
For some flights, I had a GPS tracker app in my phone enabled. I’ve taken two of the tracks and put them on a topo map to give you a better idea of the kind of flying I did. The canyon flights near Winslow were especially challenging. I’d descend into the canyon just enough that the main rotor blades would stick out the top and and the cabin would be level with the tops of the canyon walls. The canyon, cut into the Coconino Plateau, twisted and turned, often onto itself. When I had to circle around, I’d have to climb out of the canyon to do it. On one flight, we were airborne for a total of 2 hours and 43 minutes and covered 104 miles, but never got more than 10 miles from the airport. After flying down the twisting canyons all day, I still felt the motion of the flight hours later in my hotel room.
I had a GoPro “nosecam” set up for the above flight and captured it in still images. Here’s a time-lapse of the whole thing.
When it was time to get fuel, I’d go to the nearest airport. That means I always needed to know which airport was nearest, where it was related to our current position, and how long it would take to get there. I also had to track my fuel consumption to make sure I had enough to get to the airport. Of course, we wanted to fly as long as possible to minimize repositioning time and fuel stops. I once timed it pretty close; the low fuel light came on just as we were touching down at the fuel pumps. During one long day we did three flight segments starting from Flagstaff and refueling twice at Winslow before returning to Flagstaff at the end of the day. Another time, there was no fuel anywhere near the survey area and I had to hire a driver to take my truck and its 82 gallon 100LL tank up to a landing zone and wait for us. I refueled twice before sending the truck home with an empty tank.
On one job we did in late spring between Kingman and Lake Mead in Arizona, it was hot with just enough wind to make slow flight with a tailwind difficult. On those flights, I had to start each flight with just 3/4 tanks of fuel to give us the performance we needed to complete the mission safely.
The observers for these jobs had more time sitting in helicopter passenger seats than I had flying — sometimes over a thousand hours in a year. Some of them had been in helicopter crashes. One had been in a near crash when the pilot got a low rotor horn and had to land where he was because he simply couldn’t climb out.
As a result, they knew all about what a helicopter could and couldn’t do. They also knew how to push a pilot to do what other pilots had done for them and how to back off if a pilot didn’t think a maneuver was safe. No pressure. I liked that.
They were usually biologists or environmental scientists, with the degrees to make them experts. They were not allowed to become pilots — even as a hobby — because their bosses wanted them looking for wildlife and not thinking about the flying. Similarly, I was supposed to concentrate solely on flying and not look for birds. I did see them occasionally — a bald eagle scooping a fish out of a lake, a falcon on top of a pinion tree, a golden eagle on a nest on a cliff face, and even a coati (which is not a bird) on a canyon ledge.
And I must have been a satisfactory pilot for them because they called me again and again for several years in a row and even used my services outside my normal area of operations, including New Mexico and, more recently, central California.
It was this work, which I believe I started in 2007 or 2008 — my log books aren’t available right now to look — that finally made my business profitable. For years, I’d been doing tours and photo flights and golf ball drops and taking in just enough money to cover basic expenses. My other career as a writer was subsidizing my flying business by making the big loan and insurance payments.
But suddenly I had a regular client who had me flying 40 to 60 hours a month for several months in a row several years in a row. My business was finally holding its own.
Things would get even better for my business in 2008. That’s when I started doing cherry drying work in Washington state. I’ll tell you more about that in my next blog post.