A Machine that Shouldn't Exist
I used to hate helicopters. I was an aviation buff when I was younger. I loved airliners especially. They tore down the runway and pulled themselves into the sky with silvery screams. Soaring at thirty thousand feet, they left multiple cloud trails behind them. Returning from the blue, they gracefully floated down from the sky with quiet power. But not helicopters.
They seemed the most ungainly machines I had ever seen. They beat the air with what sounded like a sonic clatter. When they took off, they didn't smoothly roll down the runway and pick up the speed necessary for lift. They defied all logic and rose into the air, offending my sense of what was right in this world. All aircraft are supposed to get up to speed and start flying the natural way. Pretty ridiculous eh? Nevertheless, that was what I thought.
Anything that Flies
So my brother Robert and I were at an airshow at Nut Tree airport, before it was turned into a shopping mall years later. There was a Bell helicopter just like the MASH helicopter, taking off and landing periodically, giving rides for twenty dollars. I think I mentioned something to my brother about it, probably about how I didn't like helicopters. And my brother challenged me.
He said that if I would go for a ride, he would pay for it. He wanted to prove to me that it wasn't what I thought it was. That I would enjoy it. For me, any chance to fly was an opportunity I couldn't miss, but because of my ridiculous idea that Helicopters really weren't aircraft, I had no pleasure in the prospect of climbing aboard one of those things. I didn't care either way. Nor was I afraid. I thought about it and after a while I told him I wanted to try it. He made sure that I didn't feel obligated to do it because he said so, (I think he would rather not have spent the money), and we walked over to the evil-shouldn't-be-flying machine.
This wouldn't be my first helicopter ride. The first one was when I was 4 or 5 years old. My mother and I were traveling, I think we were going to Holland. We were at the wrong airport for some reason. Someone arranged for us to be flown from the San Francisco International airport to the Oakland International airport I believe. All I can remember was that it was very cold and noisy. I couldn't even see out and I wonder how aware I was of the fact that we were in a helicopter then. Now that I think about it, I bet that experience was what caused my bias, I just never put the two together
It's Like Flying
On the grass field at Nut Tree, I got into the contraption, strapped myself in and the pilot checked me. There were no doors on the bubble canopy, and I thought that would be fun. It didn't take long before the blades were spinning and as light as a feather, we lifted off the ground and rushed into the sky. To the right were some very tall eucalyptus trees, and as we rose, we turned and moved toward them and soared right over the treetops. That was the single most exhilarating aspect of the flight. I felt like I was flying myself, as in a dream when you take off and fly over building tops, sometimes just grazing them with your chest. This was the defining moment for me. At that moment, I understood helicopter flight, what a miracle it is.
We continued to rise and float over the airport, in a way that no fixed wing aircraft ever could and suddenly we were hovering over the freeway. It looked like we were standing still, and the slower speed of our travel as we gained altitude, had me thinking we were not moving very much. I think we were at three thousand feet. It was a wonder to look down past my feet at the freeway below, where cars rushed by on their single tracks, all clumped together while we were completely free, going where ever we wanted. We didn't need no stinkin' runway! That was when I looked over at the air speed and saw we were actually doing seventy. I couldn't believe it. I thought we were hovering. I wanted to be disappointed, but instead I felt awe. I think I was realizing how flexible the helicopter actually was. It can hover, take off from where it stands and fly in any direction and any altitude it pleases without consequences. An airplane stays clear from obstacles and the ground because it must maintain a minimum forward speed, and its options for landing are limited by the terrain, most often needing a runway. But a helicopter can land anywhere and fly anywhere.
Impressed Despite Myself
Needless to say, I was very impressed that day, and have loved helicopters as much as "regular" aircraft ever since. I always hail back to that experience when considering doing something I have never done before, knowing that if I do not understand what something is, I can not make a judgment about it until I have immersed myself in the experience.
Helicopters are Awesome
For a long time after, I struggled with my career path. I was dead set on becoming an airline pilot, but after encountering another helicopter, a Reach medical helicopter in the middle of an intersection, I leaned toward becoming a helicopter pilot. Unfortunately, that dream has been delayed by various circumstances and my own apathy, but I knew a black pilot who got his ratings in his thirties or forties and has a successful flying career today. I know it is never too late to start, and in a few years I may find myself flying a chopper too. Helicopters are awesome.
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