People Archive

Doing Wildlife Surveys

Wednesday, February 10th, 2016

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.

Runways are for beauty queens

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015

“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.

Flying on coconut time

Wednesday, April 29th, 2015

Fresh coconuts everywhere! We hadn’t had any fresh food in the last couple weeks, unless you count coleslaw; nothing lasts longer at sea than cabbage and carrots. I started up the Bell-Soloy helicopter to begin shuttling crew to a Pacific island atoll. We were going grocery shopping.


An uninhabited Pacific atoll

An uninhabited Pacific atoll


It was 1988 and we had been at sea almost two months and the holds were far from full. My job was to fly the helicopter in search of tuna, and then help catch them by herding them into the net. We were to fill the Maria Rosana II with about 1,300 tons of tuna. She was a fast 225-foot tuna clipper with a crew of 23, five speedboats, and a helicopter. We used a seine net almost a mile long and 500 feet deep, with one end attached to the skiff and the other to the ship. When setting the net, the skiff was released and the tuna boat would make a huge circle back to the skiff. A cable, which ran through metal rings all along the bottom of the net, was then winched, closing off the bottom of the net. The net was then pulled through a power block until the tuna were packed tight. They were then scooped out and funneled through a chute into a hold for freezing. Simple enough, except tuna are 47 mph fast and lately schools had been hard to find. Holds full or not, we would soon be low on ship fuel and have to return to port. After months of hard work, we could now have a little enjoyment. After all, how many people get to land on uninhabited Pacific atolls?

After shuttling several guys to the island, I shut down the helicopter and started walking around. The birds had never seen humans and were unafraid of us; we had to zigzag to avoid stepping on them. As I walked the oceanside I saw multitudes of fish and some very large and inquisitive moray eels. The lagoon side was full of baby sharks. It was pristine and untouched.

Back at the helicopter, the guys had already accumulated a very large pile of coconuts. The copilot side door had been installed (no dual controls), so we were able to fill that entire side of the cockpit with about 20 coconuts.  I then flew back to the ship, landed and then reached over to pop the door open, watching most the coconuts roll out onto the deck. The mechanic then reached in and got the few remaining stragglers. After many trips we had a few hundred coconuts all over the helideck. The helideck had a metal lip about 4 inches high around the edge and was cambered, which caused the coconuts to roll away from the helicopter. Soon, there was barely enough room to land.


Just before start up and flying coconuts to the boat

Just before start up and flying coconuts to the boat


Later that day our pleasure was ruined by learning we had to waste a day meeting up with a sister ship to get a needed part. Seems one of the refrigeration solenoid valves was bad. Our mood was quickly restored when some genius figured out gin went really well with coconut milk, likely the helicopter mechanic.

The next day, I flew to the other boat to get the part and while the other pilot cleared the deck, we chatted on the radio.

“Oh by the way, the stabilizer is busted” he said. The stabilizer is a U-shaped hydraulic flume tank near the stern, married to the inside hull of the boat. Tuna clippers are long and sleek; so without a working stabilizer there isn’t much roll stability.

I knew what that meant. But I asked how bad it was anyway.

“Well she is rolling a bit in this swell, just pick your moment and you should be okay.”

“How much is rolling a bit?” I said. He was really getting my attention now.

“Oh, about 30 degree each way, but she’ll settle down once in a while for you to land. No problem, just get the timing right.”

Nearing the boat, I could see they had recently set the net and were laying stern-to in a following swell. This was worst possible position and she was rolling heavily, but I noticed there were pauses. I made an approach, trying to gauge and anticipate the roll. Once over the actual helideck, it was a combination of looking at the horizon and down at the landing area. The deck was moving up and down a manageable 6 feet, but the roll was bad. It was necessary to wait until the deck was fairly level and within the slope limitations of the helicopter, and then get it down fast before the next roll.  As soon as the floats touched down, I quickly bottomed the collective before the next roll. The mechanic rushed out with cargo straps, cinching us to the deck, and I began the two-minute cool down. The ship then took a big roll, which was not a lot of fun; an idling helicopter on a 30-degree slope 35 feet above the ocean. I doubt I could ever get used to that. Soon we shut down and I went into the bridge to look at the inclinometer gauge, which measures the amount of roll. I could hardly believe it, but it was showing regular rolls to 28-degrees both ways; a 56-degree swing.

After the part had been loaded, I climbed back in and started the turbine. After bringing the rpm up to 100 percent, I signaled the mechanic to release the last remaining cargo strap. Waiting for the ship to level, I then applied max power and nosed her over.

After I cleared the ship, I radioed the other pilot. “Hey man, how long has it been like that?”

“It went out at the beginning of the trip about a month and half ago,” he said.

“ Well, if there was a tuna boat helicopter pilot hall of fame I would vote for you.”

“Ha, well the first week is rough, but you get used to it,” he said.

I wasn’t so sure I would get used to it.  Rick was one of our most senior pilots and had been doing this for more than six years and was very good.  I was sure glad our stabilizer was working, and made a mental note to buy some drinks for our chief engineer the next time we hit the beach.

The rest of the trip was uneventful, until we blew up one of the helicopter’s floats with a ¼ stick of dynamite….buts that’s for another blog.

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

Flying to the ship

Flying to the ship

Oshkosh or bust

Thursday, August 14th, 2014

I’m forever spoiled. Everyone talks about flying an airplane to EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, but arriving in a helicopter is a far better experience. I’m burdened with knowing this now, thanks to Sporty’s Pilot Shop’s John Zimmerman, my ride to the show this year.


John owns a beautiful R44 he flies for fun and the occasional work purpose. Being a gadget geek, his is kitted out with a Garmin 430, a handheld Garmin 496, and that day we were carrying two iPads, and Sporty’s new Iridium Go! satellite hotspot. It also has air conditioning, which is a luxury well worth having. So while many would scoff at the suggestion that a helicopter is a cross-country aircraft, with some nice instrumentation and create comforts, it turns out to be well suited to the task.


The trip started with an early morning airline flight to Cincinnati, where I met John. The first two miles were over the eerily quiet Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport. The helicopter proved to be a good vantage point to see the juxtaposition of miles upon miles of runways for the dozen or so regional jets parked at the various terminals.


From there it was another 348 miles on to Oshkosh, including two stops. Since helicopters and their pilots are most comfortable at lower altitudes, trips like this are a joy. The world isn’t going by very fast, which leaves that much more time for taking it all in. Lounging around at 75 knots groundspeed, the trip took more than four hours, but it felt like much less.


The best part of the trip, and what airplane pilots miss out on, is the arrival to the show. In an airplane there is a mass convergence on one spot southwest of the airport as everyone forms a line and heads in. You have to listen closely to air traffic control, respond quickly, and follow the controller’s directions precisely. The arrival procedures in a helicopter are much more civilized. Simply listen to ATIS, monitor the tower, maintain 1,800 feet, and land. Transients can park at Pioneer field, outside the main show site. From the time we shut down to the time our ride arrived was 10 minutes. There’s no walking, no humping heavy bags. They pulled off the main road and we jumped in and left. Clearly the folks at EAA know helicopter pilots, and the arrival suits them perfectly.


With the R44’s fuel-burn rate, and lackluster groundspeed in headwinds, it might not be the most efficient cross-country machine. It is, however, a lot of fun, which is all that matters when you are on your way to Oshkosh.


Friday, December 10th, 2010

I learned to fly helicopters in the early 1980s. Back then I read a story about a helicopter pilot who rescued an airplane pilot who had crashed on the ice of Lake Erie. The helicopter pilot was flying along the shore of the lake in a Hughes 300C when he heard on the radio that the Coast Guard helicopter had turned back because of weather. He decided to head out over the lake and look for the downed pilot.

The traffic-reporting helicopter did not have any navigational radios so the pilot asked the Coast Guard for directional information. Ice had built up on the blades and airframe, and his skids contacted the water a few times when he lost depth perception because of fatigue. After several attempts, in total darkness, he found the pilot. After getting him onboard, he flew back and landed on the shoreline with less than five minutes of fuel remaining. The helicopter pilot was awarded the Avco/Aviation/Space Writers Association Heroism Award.

There is no doubt that his actions probably saved the downed pilot’s life. However, had he crashed while attempting this rescue would he have been viewed as an excessive risk-taker or a hero who tried despite the odds? I wonder in today’s environment of risk assessments and safety management systems if perceptions would have been different?

Frank Robinson

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

In the early 1970s, an engineer named Frank Robinson wanted to build a small two-seat personal helicopter. He pitched the concept to major manufactures, but none saw any market potential in the civilian market – the big money was in military machines. So in 1973, Robinson left his job at Hughes Aircraft and started the Robinson Helicopter Company in his home. His living room was set up with drafting tables and the garage was full of tools and machining equipment.

His son, Kurt Robinson, told me he came home from high school one day and found a tail-rotor blade baking in the family oven. Frank had built a device to regulate the oven’s temperature to a high degree of accuracy to bond parts. Kurt said the upside was his reputation in the neighborhood for making the best pizzas. When the box said to bake at 350 degrees, it was exactly 350 degrees.

Robinson rented a small hangar at the Torrance airport and began assembling and testing his helicopter. Robinson flew the first prototype himself in August 1975. After seven-plus years of designing, building, and testing the Robinson R22 received FAA certification in 1979. Much to Robinson’s surprise the R22 became an instant hit in the flight training market and soon became the world’s top-selling civil helicopter. As the R22’s design matured, Robinson started working on a bigger four-place helicopter. The R44 was certified in late 1992 and it became so popular it eventually out sold the R22. Many wondered what was next for the small company that had become one of general aviation’s biggest success stories. The answer came in 2007 when the company announced development of a five-place single-engine turbine helicopter. The R66 is scheduled for FAA certification at the end of October 2010.

Last August, with the R66 on track for certification, Frank Robinson announced he was retiring at age 80. Frank’s son, Kurt, who joined Robinson Helicopter in 1987, became the new CEO of the privately held company. Kurt will be leading a team that will continue to grow the company.

Frank has won numerous awards and donated millions of dollars to charities and aviation educational programs. He is a full member of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots and a Fellow of the American Helicopter Society. I have had the pleasure of knowing Frank for about 20 years and during that time have come to know him as one of the most brilliant engineers and businessmen in the rotorcraft industry. There is no question he has had an enormous impact on the light civilian helicopter industry. I wish him a long and happy retirement.

Kurt and Frank Robinson

Robinson R66—First flight

Monday, September 13th, 2010

I just spent the last two days flying Robinson Helicopter’s new light turbine helicopter, the R66. Although it is still in experimental category, FAA certification is expected in the next 30 days as Robinson and the FAA work out some final details.

Having a couple of thousand hours in the Bell 206 light turbine series helicopter made for an easy direct comparison. Last year Bell announced that it would cease production of the five-place Bell 206B JetRanger, citing the R66 as one reason. Company founder Frank Robinson’s design goals are not just well-engineered products, but cost effective as well. The R66, the company’s first turbine helicopter, exemplifies this objective extremely well, and after flying it, I think Bell made the right decision.

The R66 is powered by a Rolls-Royce RR300 (model number 250-C300/A1), a new engine based to the proven 250-series engine (same engine used in the 206B). It is mounted below the transmission deck at a 37-degree angle which gives easy access for maintenance. The engine produces 300 shaft horsepower and is derated to 270 shp for a five-minute take off rating and 224 shp for max continuous operation. Starting is simple; igniter switch to enable (a nice feature that allows you to motor the starter without firing the igniters–no more need to pull the igniter circuit breaker); press-and-release the start button (it’s latched so no need to hold it down), at 15 percent N1 push the fuel control in and monitor engine light off and acceleration. At 65- to 67-percent N1 the starter disengages and the generator is switched on.

Picking the R66 up to a hover is smooth and it feels a little bigger and a little heavier than the piston-powered R44, which it is. I flew with Doug Tompkins, Robinson’s chief pilot who did all the experimental test flying on the R66. We were hovering at 64-percent torque and as we approached 60 knots during the take off Doug suggested pulling 100-percent torque. I started raising the collective, before I got to 90 percent the VSI was pegged at 2,000 feet per minute and at 100 percent we were climbing like a banshee. It didn’t take long to feel comfortable with the helicopter and we moved on to autorotations. These were predictable and basically a lot of fun. I did 180-degree, 90-degree, and out-of-ground-effect hovering autorotations to a full touchdown. It is just like the R44, only easier.

Another noticeable feature is comfort; the cabin is eight inches wider than the R44. The cyclic flight control retains Robinson’s T-bar arrangement. Not only does this ease transitioning from the R44 to the R66, but the T-bar is exceedingly comfortable in flight.

There is not doubt this helicopter will do very well. Once again Frank Robinson has found a need and filled it. The agile and turbine-powered R66 will do the jobs that a piston engine simply can’t, such as high-altitude flying. It will also find great acceptance in parts of the world where avgas is hard to get or just not available. And for those operators and contracts that require a turbine engine, the R66 will fit perfectly.

There is a lot more to say about this helicopter so look for a full feature article in an upcoming issue of AOPA Pilot magazine.

Guy del Giudice

Friday, June 11th, 2010

Last week was a sad time for many of us in Dallas, Texas. I lost a friend and colleague in a helicopter accident. Guy del Giudice and I worked together at CareFlite; he was also its chief pilot. Also, killed in the crash was CareFlite mechanic Steve Durler and, although I didn’t know him personally, I understand he was very well liked.

Guy was flying a Bell 222 helicopter on a maintenance check flight. At the same time I happened to be flying a news helicopter when I heard Guy call Grand Prairie Tower for a south departure–I work for SKY Helicopter which is under contract with the Fort Worth/Dallas-based CBS affiliate KTVT Channel 11. The photographer and I were covering another news story when we were diverted to a fatal CareFlite helicopter crash south of the Grand Prairie airport. Hovering over the accident site I recognized the aircraft as the Bell 222 and knew immediately that my friend had perished.

The helicopter’s rotor system was located about 100 yards from the fuselage. What exactly caused it to separate from the helicopter in flight is not yet clear. I have no doubt that if anything could have been done to recover from this failure, Guy was the type of pilot who could have done it. He took his profession very seriously and was one of the most skilled pilots I have had the privilege of flying with. EMS crews are like family and all my friends at CareFlite are saddened beyond words. The helicopter industry has lost a talented pilot and a great person.

Above reproach?

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

Commenting on my gross weight blog, Harold wrote:

“Leave the flying to he who is in the cockpit and the finger-pointing blogs to another publication please.”

That got me thinking, when is it (if at all) appropriate to comment, criticize, or even intervene on another pilots actions or behavior? I understand and agree with Harold to a point, but I don’t believe the complete answer is all that clear.

I have studied and written about helicopter accidents for many years. I think most of them have a lesson that can help us all be better pilots. I try to write about these in a way that states the facts without expressly passing judgment (gross weight included) and let the readers draw what they want from the situation. Believe me, I have made my share of mistakes but I have been lucky because they didn’t result in an accident. I have viewed them as learning experiences, because had something been just a little different I might not have been so lucky. I like to tell people that I can’t promise I won’t make a mistake, but I can promise I won’t make the same one twice. Having studied many accidents it is clear that there are no new accidents only the same ones repeated over and over, just in a different manner.

I also believe that simply being a licensed pilot does not make you above reproach. Listed below are three examples of pilot behavior that other people knew was dangerous. A link to the complete NTSB report is included because all the details can’t be listed here.

A pilot flying a news helicopter was well known as a hotdog and the photographer riding with him had expressed concern. His last radio transmission was “watch this” as he pulled the helicopter vertical and severed the tail boom killing himself and the photographer.

A very experienced tour pilot flying in the Grand Canyon was well known for being a skilled pilot and for his aggressive flying. He had earned the nickname “Kamikaze.” At high density altitude he slammed into a canyon wall killing himself and six passengers.

A pilot continued to fail phase checks, check rides, and pre-employment rides. He eventually got a job where his flight skills were not evaluated prior to being hired. He crashed an R22 killing himself and a passenger on an introductory flight.

I really appreciate all the professional comments that people post. So if this subject interests you please take the time to read all the details and let us all know your thoughts. I believe that approaching this topic in the correct way can be a powerful learning tool for those so inclined to listen.

My intent is not to point fingers but to get pilots thinking about how easily an accident can happen. I know that reviewing accidents has helped me be a better pilot. However, I am very curious if other pilots find this helpful.

One final thought. I have been involved as an expert witness for helicopter accident cases in court and believe me the intense scrutiny pilots endure is not pleasant. Seeing that has given me another reason to believe that being ultra conservative to avoid an accident is well worth it.

Lyn Burks

Thursday, November 12th, 2009


Lyn Burks has a passion for the helicopter industry. His aviation career began in early 1991 at the age of 23. Although he was a U.S. Marine from 1985 to 1989, he is civilian trained in Robinson Helicopters. During his initial years in the industry, he worked full time for a municipal fire rescue department. In 1999 he retired as a fire captain and entered aviation full time. Burks holds an ATP/CFII helicopter with nearly 6,000 hours of flying experience and recently he semi-retired from full- time employment as a corporate pilot flying an Agusta A109E. In addition to corporate flying, he has experience in several sectors of the helicopter industry including ENG, charter, utility, instruction, and a five-year stint in EMS flying the S76C+. Burks also is a helicopter industry recruiter who has written several online EBooks and articles about helicopter careers and organizes an annual career development and networking seminar.

Lyn Burks with an A109E

Lyn Burks with an A109E

Burks’ Web site,, has become an industry icon. The site was created in 1998 by retired helicopter pilot Bill Kellogg as a small free access Web information center and a place for people interested in helicopters to exchange ideas. In 2001 Burks took over the Web site and has expanded it into a leading online resource for the helicopter industry. He is also the owner and developer of another popular helicopter Web site, hosts and administers two forums. The original one does not require a login and is very loosely moderated; nevertheless, professional courtesy is strongly suggested. However, beware that the discussions can sometimes be very heated and some of the posts are can get very critical of others. Although there are rules, rumors and gossip show up frequently. It can be very entertaining at times, however if you post something even a little controversial you should be thick skinned as some of the responses can be harsh.


The second forum requires a login, username, and password. As such, the topics and posts are much more professional and technical in nature. According to Burks, it is more suited for first-time users.


Burks recently expanded his network in two new directions with different media content. The first is the addition of Justhelicopters.TV, which is a Web site dedicated to helicopter industry related video content. The second is a media partnership with Rotorcraft Professional magazine, which is a popular helicopter industry trade journal. Burks says, “From print to Web to video, our goal is to offer something to everyone who enjoys and works in the world of helicopters.” is an ongoing project and has remained a free access site. The site contains a comprehensive list of helicopter resources, including articles, photo galleries, job postings, operator directories, flight schools, and salary information. Burks is continually adding and updating content and relies upon input from the helicopter community to keep the information current and pertinent.


You can visit the site at