Doing Wildlife Surveys

February 10, 2016 by Maria Langer

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.

The Job

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.

The canyons we flew in were often so narrow that the rotor blades could not fit safely within them. I often imagined someone out in the flat land near the canyons seeing the main rotor blades of a helicopter -- and nothing else -- sticking out of the ground.

The canyons we flew in were often so narrow that the rotor blades could not fit safely within them. I often imagined someone out in the flat land near the canyons seeing the main rotor blades of a helicopter — and nothing else — sticking out of the ground.

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

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.

Here's a close up of some of the canyon flying I did. The loops outside the canyon show where I had to circle back.

Here’s a close up of some of the canyon flying I did. The loops outside the canyon show where I had to circle back.

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.

On this 2 hr 43 min flight, I started at Winslow Airport flew down one canyon, crossed over to another canyon, and zipped straight back to get fuel. We only covered 104 miles but we were never more than 10 miles from the airport.

On this 2 hr 43 min flight, I started at Winslow Airport, flew down one canyon, crossed over to another canyon, and zipped straight back to get fuel. We only covered 104 miles but we were never more than 10 miles from the airport.

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.

This track log records most of three flights in the area between Flagstaff and Winslow: 377 miles in about 8.5 hours.

This track log records most of three flights in the area between Flagstaff and Winslow: 377 miles in about 8.5 hours.

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 Client

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.

Repeat Business

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.

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How does one weigh a log?

February 3, 2016 by Markus Lavenson


We all know it is the pilot’s responsibility to ensure the helicopter is flown in accordance to limitations, which in part requires knowing the helicopters takeoff weight. However, due to the versatile nature of helicopters it isn’t always as simple as back in flight school. We may find ourselves picking up a sling load such as a log. How does one weigh a log? A dozen passengers off a ship. Ever try to use a scale on a heaving ship? Or out in the bush of Alaska picking up crew and equipment.,What scale?  One aspect that goes along with flying the ultimate off-road vehicle is that we may find ourselves in places without scales.

If conducting an external load operation and the aircraft has a load meter installed, the pilot simply monitors the gauge as the load is lifted  A load meter is basically a scale, which measures the weight on the cargo hook. Prior to attempting the lift the pilot should do some quick math to determine the maximum allowable load, which must not be exceeded.  This maximum allowable load is the aircraft maximum gross weight subtracted by the aircraft actual takeoff weight without the external load. When hovering over the load, the pilot slowly increases collective, and tension is gradually increased on the sling. The load gauge is monitored to ensure it does not exceed the maximum allowable load, and the helicopter will not exceed its maximum gross weight. In this case the center of gravity is not a concern, as cargo hooks are positioned longitudinally to not appreciably affect CG. If the CG was calculated to be good without the load, it should be good with the load.

sling load

An AW139 lifts a daisy chain sling load on the North Slope of Alaska. This helicopter has a load cell and so the pilots were able to monitor and verify the weight of the cargo.



Most helicopters are not flying sling loads nor have a load cell installed, so we need another method of weight verification. Fortunately some performance charts can be used for this purpose. Performance charts are predictive, enabling a pilot to accurately determine variables prior to takeoff and many can be used in a variety of ways depending on which variables are known. The Sikorsky S-92 flight manual makes this an easy process, with the Indicated Torque Required to Hover in Ground Effect chart. One can predict what the indicated torque per engine will be for a specific weight, density altitude and wind condition. In this example, a negative 3,000-foot density altitude with a 10-knot headwind would equal 66 percent per engine torque for a gross weight of 23,000 pounds. For the same density altitude and wind condition, 83 percent per engine torque would indicate the maximum gross weight of 27,700 pounds is being exceeded. Using the chart it’s easy to see that that 1,000 pounds is equivalent to about 3.5 percent per engine torque, for a given density altitude and wind condition.

Using the Indicated Torque Required to Hover in Ground Effect, one can obtain the predicted torque for the S92 at a specific aircraft weight, density altitude and wind condition.

Using the Indicated Torque Required to Hover in Ground Effect, one can obtain the predicted torque for the S92 at a specific aircraft weight, density altitude and wind condition.


If the aircraft lacks this type of chart, a little m,ore work is necessary. The takeoff and maximum continuous power Hover in Ground Effect charts also provide maximum weights for a range of density altitudes. This gives a start for making your own quick reference chart, and after a couple dozen flights you can add more data points with other power settings. Say you flew 500 lbs under gross weight with a 1000-foot density altitude; simply note the torque in a stable in ground effect hover and enter the torque, density altitude, and weight on your quick reference chart. Over time, you will have created a chart to use as an aid when you are unsure of the aircraft takeoff weight. An external load pilot, without a load cell may opt to use a HOGE (hover out of ground effect) chart instead of a HIGE chart. Experienced pilots with a lot of time-in-type already have a pretty good idea of the power required for specific weights and density altitudes, which is essentially what this quick reference chart provides.

The pilot should also note the cyclic position necessary to maintain a stable position over the ground, providing an indication of the aircraft’s center of gravity. An excessive lateral or longitudinal deviation from a normal position can indicate a CG out of normal range. Wind can also effect the cyclic position, but experience in type will help you learn what a normal cyclic flight control position should be in a variety of conditions. For example, a farther forward and left cyclic position than normal would indicate an aft and right CG, which a left quartering headwind could also cause.

These methods are certainly not a substitute for a proper weight and balance calculation using accurate weights. They are a means of verifying your calculations, particularly when in situations where the weights provided may be in question. It is also a means of understanding the performance of your helicopter better.

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Conquering thy hazards and taming thy risks

January 27, 2016 by Matt Johnson

There are many definitions for the word “hazard.” Once definition states that, “a hazard is a present condition or circumstance that could lead or contribute to an unplanned or undesired event such as an accident.”

Many aviation risks are born of hazardous conditions and attitudes that are the direct result of a cultural acceptance that has promulgated over a period of time. Operational mindsets, including the mission-type mentality often involve the “that’s the way we do it” or “that’s how we’ve always done it” or even “we have got to get this done” type of organizational, or even personal inadequacy. Bad habits such as this and the lack of organizational leadership have given birth to many unnecessary risks that have led to numerous fatal accidents. Many organizations or pilots operating this way have no idea what right looks like.

Why does it occur?

As the old saying goes, ignorance is bliss. The reality is that many operators only know “right” after an accident or incident and everything has been brought to the forefront. Normally this happens through an investigative body or in some form of an outside audit. You know the operators that say “we haven’t had an accident in 20-plus years, we obviously are doing things right.” In many cases it is only by the grace of God that the holes didn’t line-up for those operators with a negligent mindset.

How to fix it

I would  never suggest that all risks can be eliminated. However, I believe that many of the risks we face in our industry can be eliminated with the identification and subsequent conquering of organizational hazards. As alluded earlier, you don’t know what you don’t know. The way to educate yourself about the hazards within your organization or your own workflow involves work, time, and serious commitment. Additionally, you have to seek out those with some specialized knowledge.

Fortunately, much of the work is already out there and readily available. In the air medical industry Flight Risk-Assessment Tools (FRAT) are not only utilized but mandated by regulation. I am amazed to more outside that community know nothing of FRATs or how to use them. Or if they have heard of them they thing they are too small of a unit to use something like that. Sadly, I’ve heard that exact statement on more than one occasion. No unit is too small to collectively weigh the risks involved for a particular flight or shift. Not doing so is negligent. There is much to be learned and adopted from other sectors of the aviation industry.

In a perfect world and with a workable budget, a good place to start is with an outside analysis of the organization. This will give the organization an idea of what hazards are present and more importantly, how to mitigate those hazards. While most operators have absolutely no desire to have an outsider look at their organization in great detail, the function of an external audit is to ensure that an organization’s internal controls, processes, guidelines, and policies are not only adequate and effective but that they are in compliance. This level of compliance involves governmental requirements (federal aviation regulations), industry standards, and organizational/departmental policies. Much of a proper audit will identify the hazards and subsequent risks that are blind to the organization.

For nearly all facets of our industry, organizations can find best practices other organizations have already implemented for improving their own risk management practices. While you may not agree with all of the recommended industry practices, many of them do have a great deal of merit and warrant serious consideration.

Is it possible to conquer all hazards? Not likely, but not making an effort to find out what you don’t know about your organization or your own flying could be the first link in an accident chain. Industry best practices are out there. Seek them out and tame many of the risks in your operations.

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What’s in a name?

January 20, 2016 by Ian Twombly

AgustaWestland is no more. Well, it still exists, but we’ve been told to now call it Finmeccanica Helicopters. This is a bit of a “me too” moment after the announcement last year that Eurocopter parent Airbus would be naming all its machines Airbus Helicopters. To be fair, the Finmeccanica transition has been in place for some time, and the name change is one part of a larger plan to realign the business units.

It’s AOPA’s policy to identify aircraft via the preference of the current type certificate holder. It’s something we spend too much time thinking about. Cessna’s recent acquistion of Beechcraft is a good example. Do we call it Cessna-Beechcraft, Textron Aviation, or just stick with Cessna? The folks at Textron (or is it Cessna?) don’t make it much easier. In ads you’re seeing Textron Aviation, but they want individual products refered to as Cessnas and Beechcraft. While confusing, the reasoning is sound. The names Cessna and Beechcraft carry weight, and dropping them would mean dropping a century worth of credibility, history, and maybe even a little romance. Meanwhile, keeping them and bringing in Textron gives the feeling there is more to it. Even if you don’t know what Textron is, you sense there’s a bigger presence there somewhere, which is exactly what they are going for.

Then there’s Airbus and Finmeccanica. Both decided to drop their longstanding brands and go straight to the parent company. With Airbus we lost Eurocopter and a few other notable brands, and replaced it with the decidedly boring bus in the sky. If you set out to kill the romance of aviation, inserting “bus” is an effective way to do it. While the name change does offer the benefit of cleaning up what had become a really confusing nomenclature (the Dauphin will be replaced by the H160, for example) buying or flying an “Airbus” just isn’t as thrilling as  Eurocopter, Aerospatiale, and so on.

With Finmeccanica the challenge is a little more subtle. The company had already inserted itself into the AgustaWestland name by tagging on “a Finmeccanica company.” This worked well. You got the idea there was more to AW, but you kept the 90-year history of Agusta and 50-year history of Westland. It was a modern marriage that flowed off the tongue nicely. No more. The parent has spoken, and we’ll now have the Finmeccanica 189, 139, and others. Although, the website still calls them the AW189, AW139, respectively. I guess that means we’ll have to call them the Finmeccanica AW189, AW obviously short for AgustaWestland.

Interestingly, Lockheed Martin chose to take a meshed approach when it acquired Sikorsky last year by ditching Sikorsky’s winged S logo and replacing it with Lockheed Martin’s star. They also added the tagline “A Lockheed Martin company.” Given recent history, it may only be a matter of time before we have the Lockheed Martin S-76 though.

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Staying Alive in a Two Dimensional World

November 11, 2015 by Markus Lavenson

Winter is coming, so I thought it a good time to touch on an optical illusion called flat light. Though it is more prevalent during winter months, it can occur any time of year.

For VFR flight, we need to see enough of the ground as a reference to control the aircraft and to avoid terrain, which is the problem with this illusion. Those of us who fly in Arctic regions take flat light very seriously, but it can also occur at lower latitudes.

If you haven’t experienced it personally, flat light can be difficult to appreciate. While horizontal visibility may often be very good–like being able to see a mountain range 50 miles away–when looking down one is unable to focus on the ground.  Imagine being able to see the ground, without having the depth perception necessary to determine exactly how far away it really is. In a flat light condition your height above the ground determination may be off by as much as 2,000 feet!

The problem stems from the limitations of how we perceive our world. Our brain acts as a video processor and models an image based on raw data received from the retina via the optical nerve. We only see .0035 percent of the electromagnetic spectrum, visible light in the near ultraviolet class, and that data is badly pixilated with a hole in it. The hole, commonly referred to as the blind spot, is due to a lack of light receptors where the optic nerve attaches to the retina. Even when we close one eye we don’t see the blind spot because our brain is very good at interpolating data. It simply fills in the picture with what it calculates should be there. An interesting experiment demonstrating the brain’s imaging capability is when people are fitted with special glasses, turning the images they see upside down. After a time, the brain makes the correction and everything is right side up.  That is until the glasses are taken off, when the image once again goes upside down until the brain can once again adapt.

If that wasn’t problematic enough, the best part of our field of view with good resolution is very narrow. Based around the retina center, it is about 1 degree, or about an inch using the distance from the pilot to the aircraft instrument panel. Now you know why our instructors always stressed a proper scan! As humans, we are stuck with these sensory capabilities, which unfortunately don’t serve well flying in a flat light environment.

Flat light typically occurs during winter with overcast skies and a snow-covered ground. The combination of a very reflective white surface and a lack of direct sunlight turns our 3-dimensional world into one that looks 2-dimensional. There are no shadows or contrast, which are necessary for depth perception. Rock, trees, rivers, buildings, and roads can all provide the pilot with a much needed depth reference. Knowing this, a prudent pilot flying over a large flat white valley may opt to fly along an area with objects providing contrast, such as a rocky ridgeline.

One of the things that makes flat light so dangerous is its insidious nature. The pilot thinks he can see the ground and judge the altitude. Others may be convinced that if it’s daytime and there isn’t a ground obscuration, such as fog or blowing snow that they will be able to see the ground well enough to avoid crashing into it.


Loss of direct sunlight due to an overcast cloud layer over flat terrain covered with snow results in ideal conditions for flat light.

Losing sunlight over flat terrain covered with snow is an ideal conditions for flat light.

The closer one is to the ground the more dangerous the situation, as during takeoffs and landings.  You may have just landed on snow covered terrain with the sun shining, only to find 15 minutes later the sun has dipped below a ridge or been covered by a passing cloud.  You are now enveloped in a shadow of flat light where an attempted takeoff could be very dangerous. This is a case where you are better off being on the ground wishing you were in the air, rather than being in the air wishing you were on the ground.

There was an incident in 1999, when a company crashed three helicopters in one day and all on the same glacier due to flat light. The first helicopter encountered flat light on the glacier and experienced a hard landing, injuring the pilot and passengers. With the first aircraft overdue, a second helicopter was dispatched to search, which also crashed on the same ice field. A third helicopter began to search for the two missing aircraft, which also ended up crashing on the same glacier. The pilot of the third helicopter reported that he thought he was 500 feet above the ground when the aircraft impacted the ground.

These were experienced pilots who had been flying tours over this glacier day after day. They didn’t become less experienced in a day and the glacier didn’t change. What changed were the lighting conditions. It can be hard to accept that at times one can see the ground without enough depth perception to know how far below it really is. Without instrumentation such as a radar altimeter or TAWS (terrain avoidance warning system), the pilot won’t even realize it’s happening.

Anywhere, anytime

Vermilion Bay, on the shores of Louisiana, is so notorious with Gulf of Mexico helicopter pilots that it is commonly referred to as “Vertigo Bay.” The bay’s water has a reddish brown color, and when coupled with an overcast cloud layer, low visibility, and no wind it presents a significant hazard to VFR flight. It is the same effect you get in a room with a full-sized wall mirror when it gives the illusion of the room being much bigger than it really is. Vertigo Bay is so large that with visibility less than 5 miles you can’t see land, and without any wind the highly reflective mirror-like water provides no contrast, but instead reflects the cloud layer from above. When these adverse conditions exist, VFR helicopter pilots circumnavigate the bay sticking close to the contrast of the shoreline.


Highly reflective mirror-like water will reflect the cloud layer from above, making it difficult for the pilot to judge the height visually.  This is the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska, and though the water is reflecting the cloud layer from above, the sandbars, ship and distant ice pack help provide contrast for the pilot.

Highly reflective mirror-like water will reflect the cloud layer from above, making it difficult for the pilot to judge the height visually. This is the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska, and although the water is reflecting the cloud layer from above, the sandbars, ship and distant ice pack help provide contrast.

Avoidance is the certainly the best remedy for flat light. Understanding the environmental conditions where flat light can exist helps the pilot in early recognition and avoidance. Study the terrain along the planned route of flight, including possible areas where you may divert. Review weather reports and forecasts to determine what lighting conditions will exist on the flight. Avoid flying over large expanses of water without wind to ripple the surface and direct sunlight to provide contrast. Stay clear of takeoffs or landings or any low-level flight over large areas of white snow without some direct sunlight. Flat light is a condition where a conservative approach is best, using your superior judgment to avoid the necessity of using your superior skill.

(These views and opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Era.)

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I can hear the radios and smell the smoke

October 9, 2015 by Markus Lavenson

Meet Joe Kline.

I first met Kline 15 years ago, and recently had the pleasure of seeing him again. His art brings to life and honors those who lived and died flying the helicopters of the Vietnam War.

Joe is an acclaimed artist painting military aircraft and the people who crewed them. His primary focus is on Army helicopters of Vietnam where he served in the 101st Airborne. His paintings grace the rooms of several museums, including the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.


Joe’s father was a bombardier on a B-25 Mitchell during World War II, so it was only natural he grew up with a passion for military aviation. During the Vietnam War Joe joined the Army and tested high for a mechanical aptitude. He was assigned to helicopter maintenance unit in Qui Nhon, but he wanted to fly.  Joe soon got his wish and was transferred to Camp Eagle in Hue. He was now in the esteemed 101st Airborne, as a crew chief and door gunner of a Bell UH1 Huey.

While in the 101st Joe saw a lot of action and was involved in the Lam Son 719 offensive in 1971, where 10 percent of the total helicopter losses of the war occurred. While he managed to get some photographs, there wasn’t a lot of time nor was it the place for his artistic talents. The 101st did not encourage nose art on the aircraft, but Joe did manage to design and paint a few unit emblems.

Joe Kline

Joe Kline

Joe now honors those who served by creating historically accurate paintings. He tells me he must be completely accurate, if a rivet is out of place or a control surface in the incorrect position for a particular regime of flight, he will hear about it from someone.

Joe gets the most satisfaction when his art touches people and helps them reconnect. He once painted a Huey, hovering full of ground troops taking an RPG (rocket propelled grenade) while a gunship provided cover from above. Like all his paintings, this was a true event that took place in 1967. It appeared on the cover of Vietnam magazine and was recognized by one of the survivors. The gunship pilot saw the picture and began reaching out to the others.  He eventually reunited with the copilot of the downed Huey, and in turn contacted other survivors of that tragic day.

In addition to reuniting people, Joe gets satisfaction when a veteran stares at his work and quietly says, “I can hear the radios and smell the smoke.”

You see some of Joe’s work at

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The indispensable AFD

October 2, 2015 by Matt Johnson

I’m not talking about the handy little green book that so many of us lugged around for years prior to the advent of wonderful flight apps like Foreflight.

I’m talking about an AFD in a totally different realm of aviation-the Aviation Forecast Discussion. The AFD has become an absolutely indispensable part of my daily and subsequent on-going weather “go-to” resources as a helicopter pilot.

What is it?

For starters, have you ever read a terminal forecast and wondered what the heck were they thinking when they made the forecast? Now you can know exactly what they were thinking. The Aviation Forecast Discussion quite simply is a discussion on the particular elements that made a particular TAF or set of TAF’s for a geographical region. I’m not suggesting this is a new product but in my experience it surely seems to be a great source that many pilots know nothing about. AFDs are issued by each Weather Forecast Office (WFO) and essentially describe weather conditions within their particular region.

As described on the NOAA Aviation Weather Center’s website the AFD, “provides the local office forecaster’s thoughts, reasoning, and uncertainty factors considered for aviation weather, ceiling, and visibility information contained in the TAFs.” Wow! This is a powerful statement. This is more than a TAF that has been “translated” via an app or other software process. The AFD offers insight from the forecaster on why one may see the presence (or lack thereof) of various conditions in a TAF. Additionally, the AFD may very well contain various aviation related weather issues that cannot be encoded into the TAF. Conveniently the AFD is typically generated every 6 hours to coincide with the release of the latest TAF for a particular WFO.

Let’s take a look

Let’s take a look at one example. On a warm summer late afternoon in the Southwestern Ohio Valley this is the colorful radar snapshot of what I saw on the screen.


And this was the most recent TAF for the area:

KCVG 041730Z 0418/0524 25006KT P6SM VCTS BKN050CB
FM050100 VRB03KT P6SM SCT060
FM051300 13004KT P6SM SCT040
FM051900 09005KT P6SM BKN050

By looking at the radar snapshot and the TAF it was obvious the forecaster had some uncertainty about when the storm may move out of the area as indicated by the “VCTS” in the trend section of the TAF and not listed at any particular timeframe.

When going to the AFD for that area and taking a quick read it was obvious why the TAF appeared the way that it did and the radar showed something totally different (for a particular timeframe).

This is what the AFD contained:


BINGO! The AFD told me many things that clarified the current conditions that I was observing. As predicted in the TAF the conditions would in fact improve, but isolated showers and thunderstorms were popping up across the area due to a continued warm and unstable airmass. This made it difficult for the forecaster to be more precise in the TAF as evidenced by the statement, “tough to time the storms in to any of the TAF sites though so will stick with the trend of covering the threat with a VCTS through the daytime period.” What was evident based on the TAF and the AFD was that the thunderstorm activity was dissipating much slower than expected but one could in fact expect improving conditions as it related to the showers and storms. (But note the possibility of “patchy MVFR” and the probability that the same airmass will be in place the following day.) 

How to find the AFD for your area

The AFD can be easily accessed. Simply go to and click on “FORECASTS” and scroll down to “Aviation Forecast Discussion.” From there simply click on the region you are most interested in.

After clicking on your region you will get a textual discussion from that particular WFO giving you an idea of what to expect.

It’s free, it’s basic and just a few sentences from the AFD can give you an idea of the “big picture” of what to expect for a small geographic area.

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The need for speed

September 24, 2015 by Ian Twombly

There was news from AgustaWestland last week that the company’s forthcoming AW609 Tiltrotor broke a speed record from Yeovil, England to Samarate, Italy. The entire 627 nautical miles took two hours and 18 minutes, resulting in an average speed of about 273 knots. That’s a pretty impressive clip.

With the Tiltrotor expected to be in the $30 million range, not to mention a few thousand an hour to operate, the time savings has to be seriously compelling to justify the expense.

Although this flight went between two AgustaWestland facilities, it could just have easily been two customer factories, or a CEO’s home and weekend estate. So it’s as good as any to use as a case study. Alternative modes of getting to the airport would have been required on both ends;  let’s look at how that would work.


Yeovil is served by either Bristol or Bournemouth. Let’s give our alternate method the best chance and say we base a Citation X out of Bournemouth. We bought it used, so we had a bit left over for an Agusta AW109 that we keep at our office. It’s a best-case scenario of helicopter to fastest business jet in the world. We’ll also assume both the jet and helicopter are primed and ready to go.

We can ballpark the flight between Yeovil and Bournemouth at about 130 nautical miles. That would take about 15 minutes. Add in some ground time with the jet and we’re off U.K. soil in about 30 minutes total.

The destination helps traditional airplane travel because the facility is only a few miles from an airport. And given that the Citation X can make this trip in a little over an hour (call it an 70 minutes with a direct routing), things are looking good for jet travel, indeed.

After landing in Milan we have another 15 minutes on the ground before getting in the car for the 15-minute drive to the AgustaWestland facility–our final destination.

A bit of scratch-pad math puts this form of trip at one hour and 55 minutes. Of course, that’s with the world’s fastest business jet, a helicopter, a direct routing, and a destination only 15 minutes from an airport large enough to handle our jet.

No doubt a more traditional trip would involve an hour drive to the airport on the front end (Yeovil to Bournemouth), a slightly slower jet, some diversions in flight, and a longer drive on the back end. In all, it probably takes AW executives more like three hours or more to make that trip.

Thirty million is a big price to pay for saving an hour, but we shouldn’t underestimate people’s needs for aircraft that fit unique mission profiles. The sweet spot for the Tiltrotor is pretty small. The mission has to be long enough that traditional rotorcraft can’t compete, and short enough that a jet won’t blow it away. AW says the Tiltrotor offers rotorcraft capabilities with turboprop speeds. That’s pretty cool. But they also say that executives are the aircraft’s primary target customer, and said executive can buy a jet and a traditional helicopter for a lot less money.

Despite all this there are approximately 60 orders for the aircraft thus far, and barring significant missteps, I think that will increase. Once people see these operating in and out of downtown heliports, factories, and airports, their appeal will grow. I was on an airline flight last week out of Washington National and a V-22 Osprey flew down the Potomac River. People who had moments before been buried in their morning paper took notice. They pointed and made comments. There’s no denying the technology is enticing, and for that reason alone people will buy them. I know I would love to fly it!

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Bell opens new training academy

September 16, 2015 by admin

Bell Helicopter last month celebrated the grand opening of its new training academy in Fort Worth, Texas. Bell has long been known for superb factory training, both for simulation and especially in the aircraft. The facility is equipped with a dedicated tower and flight line, a maintenance training hangar, and advanced multimedia classrooms. The company said its 86,000 square foot facility represents the final part of its consolidation efforts in North Texas.

The academy offers basic, recurrent, and advanced training programs for the entire line of Bell models, including some no longer in production. It also offers non-destructive inspection training for technicians, and first responder safety ground training. Bell also provides offshore and rooftop specific training by way of a 30-foot elevated platform used for pinnacle take-off and landing maneuvers. It is an FAA, EASA and Transport Canada approved training facility. With the training academy now complete, Bell has consolidated more than one million square feet within their main corporate campus which they said will save close to $20 million in annual operating expenses.

Bell CEO John Garrison (foreground) and instructor Ric Forns in a Bell 47 at the grand opening.

Bell CEO John Garrison (foreground) and instructor Ric Forns in a Bell 47 at the grand opening.

Like all helicopter manufacturers, Bell has been hit recently with declining commercial aircraft sales, due in part because of the continued decline of crude oil prices. Military sales of the V-22 Osprey, praised for its performance in Iraq and Afghanistan, have steadily declined as well.  The Osprey is a tilt-rotor aircraft that hovers like a helicopter but can fly at high-altitude and speeds similar to a jet. It can carry two dozen troops and up to 20,000 pounds of additional cargo.

At the same time, the company is looking to the future with its 505 light single, a replacement for the ever-popular 206. Late last month the company officially opened its Lafayette, Louisana-based 505 production facility. Testing continues at Bell’s Mirabel, Quebec location.

–Scott Hotaling

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Runways are for beauty queens

September 2, 2015 by Markus Lavenson

“Hey, is that your helicopter?”

Naturally, he had to be talking to me, being the only one in the room remotely looking like a helicopter pilot. I was wearing a nomex flight suit with black boots, surrounded by corporate pilots decked out in suits and ties. I stood out as much as my Bell 222 out on the ramp with a covey of corporate jets. We both looked out of place at the San Francisco International Airport FBO.

After I said it was, he asked, “How fast does it go?”

I thought jeez here we go again, what is it with jet guys? It’s like an Indy driver asking how fast a four-wheel drive truck can go.

“Oh, she will cruise about 130 knots,” I said. I heard a few snickers around the room from the younger copilots. The older captains seemed bored reading their newspapers.

Okay my turn I thought.  “Which airplane are you flying?” I innocently asked, as he proudly pointed to one of the sleek jets.

“Nice. How slow can it fly?”

“What do you mean?” he asked, somewhat flustered.

“How slow can it fly?” I repeated.

He looked at me a little perplexed and said, “Well, in a landing configuration, we can do about 105 knots.”

“You’re kidding right?  Is that as slow as you can possibly get that thing?” I said with feigned incredulity. I noticed the newspapers being lowered and the captains didn’t look bored anymore.

He said “No, that’s about as slow as they can fly,” looking around the room for a little help.

I said, while nodding my head sympathetically, “That is a severe limitation, but if you stick to runways you should be okay.”

“The helicopter is ultimate off-road vehicle,” I said. “I can put it on a mountaintop, highway, beach, or rooftop helipad anytime of day or night. I can pick up an accident victim having the worst day of her life and fly her to a trauma center in a matter of minutes. That helicopter is a single-pilot IFR capable aircraft that flies about 400 patients a year, and it rarely uses a runway. It isn’t the fast, but the slow that matters in my world.”

We all had a good laugh, and one of the captains said, “Well, nobody in this room is ever going to ask another helicopter pilot how fast their helicopter can fly.”

As I left the room I looked through the window at all the beautiful, though severely limited corporate jets and said, “Runways are for beauty queens.”

Out on the ramp, thinking about the comparison of airplanes and helicopters, I thought back to the 1980s when I had introduced a friend to helicopters for the first time.

We had met flying Beech 18s and a Cessna 182 for a skydiving operation on weekends. He had never been in a helicopter, so early one evening after flying a powerline patrol I took him up for a short ride. I removed the doors, my preferred way of flying in those days, and we enjoyed the cool Carolina air.

After flying around for a bit we returned to the airport and I figured I would demonstrate some of the unique abilities of the helicopter. On final approach to a runway, I bled off airspeed while maintaining altitude at 400 feet. As the airspeed indicator crept lower and lower, my friend sat straighter and straighter in his seat.

I said, “This must feel a little strange to you?”

“Yep,” was all he could muster.

Eventually, he was gripping the sides of the seats in true white-knuckle fashion as the airspeed indicator reached zero. We remained motionless at a high hover, with the runway right in front of us.

“Pretty cool, huh?” I said, as he stared at the airspeed indicator.

He said nothing.

“Isn’t this awesome?” I tried again.

“Everything I fly would be falling out of the sky,”  he replied tersely.

After a minute, I noticed the blood was returning to his fingers. He was relaxing and getting used to the idea that airspeed was totally unnecessary for powered flight. I then lowered the collective slightly, dropped the nose and swooped in a shallow approach profile for the runway doing a quick stop at a taxiway intersection. I then continued down the runway at a hover taxi speed with a couple of 360-degree pedal turns thrown in for practice.

Minutes later, as we air-taxied behind one of the Beech 18s and gently set down on the grass, he said, “Okay, tell me about how long and how much to get my helicopter pilot license.” He had gone from white knuckles to wanting to fly helicopters, and in just a few minutes.

I believe deep down his heart was saying, “Yeah, runways are for beauty queens.”

This is all meant in good fun, and mainly, in awe of our machines. Have a “runways are for beauty queens” story?  Share it below in the comments section.

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