The Cockpit of Dreams
March 1 2004 by Fred Mackerodt
Flight School: Picking A Training Helicopter
There are four helicopters that are used to do the majority of flying instruction:
w Schweizer 300. This used to be the only game in town for moderately priced training before the advent of the Robinson helicopters in the mid-1970s. The Schweizer is a time-proven, solid machine. Like the Robinsons, it is a piston-engine-powered helicopter.
It is comfortable, roomy and offers terrific visibility. But if you train in a Schweizer, make sure you find one with an automatic throttle governor. I spent 10 hours in a Schweizer without a governor a decade ago, and I can assure you that you’ll have plenty to keep you busy without worrying if the engine is running at the proper speed for the situation. Cost: about $200 an hour. To buy one new, about $250,000 well equipped, including the throttle governor.
w Robinson R22. An extremely popular training helicopter. A more modern two-seat machine than the Schweizer, but a bit cramped if you’re tall or thickly set. In fact, you can’t legally fly an R22 if you weigh more than 240 pounds. And since it is the lightest of the training helicopters, it is more susceptible to turbulence. Figure on $180 per hour for instruction, $180,000 to purchase new.
w Robinson R44. While still piston-powered, it is a four-seat machine and more comfortable than its smaller sibling. The R44 runs $450 an hour for training use and $400,000 new. All Robinsons come equipped with throttle governors.
w Bell Jetranger. The turbine-powered helicopter of choice for training. More than 8,000 have been built since it was introduced in 1966. It has earned the title of the safest single-engine flying machine. Given its relative ubiquity, the Jetranger might be the Chevrolet of turbine helicopters, but it is the Cadillac of training helicopters. Seats five comfortably.
Its Allison turbine gives it plenty of reserve power in case of emergency. The inertia stored in its heavy rotor is there to cushion emergency landings, known as “autorotations.” However, such features come with a cost: $600 to $950 an hour for instruction; as much as $1 million to purchase new.
The field of sprouting green turf comes up faster and faster, filling the windshield of the downwardly hurtling Bell Jetranger to the point where I can begin to distinguish the individual blades of grass. The instructor’s voice booms louder and louder in my headset: “Collective! Collective!”
I tighten my sweaty grip on the bat-sized handle on my left and pull it upward. The 33-foot blades swinging overhead at a governed 400 rpm change pitch and bite into the air, braking the descent and preventing a half-million dollars worth of aluminum from crashing into the ground. But as I arrest the descent, the 1,800-pound helicopter veers wildly to the right, a torque reaction to the biting of the rotor.
“Left pedal! Left pedal!”
I jam my left foot against the pedal, changing the pitch on the 5-foot vertical rotor on the end of the tail boom that prevents the helicopter from spinning like a pinwheel. But by now the bright red machine is swinging to all four points of the compass like a giant Christmas ornament blowing in the wind.
“Cyclic! Cyclic! Small movements! Small movements!”
I jerk the stick between my knees and with each jerk the helicopter instantly responds, adding to the chaos.
As some intrepid executives can attest, flying a helicopter is like nothing else in the world. Bob Lutz, the 70-year-old vice chairman of General Motors and dean of the automotive industry, commutes occasionally to and from work in an MD-500E turbine helicopter, “gazing with satisfaction,” he says, “at the snarled traffic below.” Lutz says it is his second favorite possession, right behind his L-39 ex-Soviet jet.
I have flown multiengine aircraft for 2,000 hours and I can tell you that piloting a helicopter is completely different and uniquely rewarding. Making one hover in place has been likened to balancing your feet on a greased beach ball. That’s not far from the truth.
With a fixed-wing aircraft, the pilot basically lets the plane do its thing, merely guiding it along the way. Helicopters are inherently unstable and your hands, feet and mind are actively engaged keeping the machine in the air every second of the flight. You are at one with the machine. Rather than climb into a helicopter, you strap it on. When you finally get the feel of it, you begin to control the machine with your will. It becomes as much a part of you as your arms and your legs.
My instructor prides himself on being hands-off: He won’t intervene until the absolute last minute to avert a disaster. It’s my first afternoon flying his Bell Jetranger and I am testing his resolve.
“I’ve got it,” he says, finally taking the controls. Under his control, the helicopter begins to float serenely in place three feet above the ground, its turbine whirring steadily at 33,000 rpm behind my left ear. “Loosen up for a few minutes,” he exhales, “and we’ll try it again.”
What does it take to learn to fly a helicopter? By Federal law, 40 hours of instruction, including 10 hours solo, without an instructor’s sure hands. In reality, it requires 60 hours or more-in some cases, much more. All this training costs anywhere from $160 to over $1,000 per hour, depending on the kind of equipment you’d like to learn on (see sidebar, right) and who’s doing the teaching.
Where to start? Do an Internet search for “helicopter instruction” and you will see a slew of possibilities. When you find a source, interview the prospective instructor as you would a psychiatrist. Believe me, it can get very personal in that small cockpit.
When you earn your license and start hitting the skies, you’ll join an exclusive group. In addition to Lutz, the membership includes Michael Bloomberg, the media baron and mayor of the city of New York. He’s flown helicopters since the 1970s and currently pilots a state-of-the-art Agusta 109E. Wayne Huizenga, the owner of the Miami Dolphins, founder of Waste Management and former CEO of Blockbuster Entertainment, has been known to commute by helicopter between his office in Fort Lauderdale and his personal country club, The Floridian, up the coast in Stuart.
Among the Hollywood set, Clint Eastwood has flown helicopters for years and is a vocal promoter of rotary-winged flight. Harrison Ford owns and flies both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.
And then there are the helicopter pilots you don’t know, like my 67-year-old friend Jerry Qwint. A retired surgeon and director of North Jersey Bank who recently got his license, Jerry credits flying his Robinson R44 with taking years off his life. “I was becoming an old man when I began flying helicopters,” he says. “Now all that has changed.” You have to be there to understand.
Never been in a helicopter and want to try it? Charter one on your next business trip, say when you’re flying into an airport that serves New York City and you want to go directly to one of the three heliports in Manhattan. TAG Aviation specializes in helicopters, and Kevin Keith is the man to talk to. He’s at 800-331-1930.
And where am I with my helicopter adventure? I’m a few hours away from my license check ride, and the machine is quickly becoming a part of me. I’ve flown seven hours solo and I’m sure that experience has changed me forever. If my finances can stand it, there is definitely going to be a Bell Jetranger in my garage.
Why Helicopters Make Sense
IS A HELICOPTER RIGHT for your business?
Just visit the Wall Street heliport on a weekday morning and watch the titans of industry moving in and out. These people are at the top of their industries. In other words, they must know something.
Whether you fly it yourself or hire a professional to do the piloting, helicopters can be tremendous time-savers. They’re extremely versatile, especially in urban areas such as New York and Los Angeles, where a trip across town in traffic can take ages. Just imagine: no bridges, no tunnels, no traffic and a beeline to get where you’re going. A helicopter can cut a two-hour car trip down to minutes. They’re especially handy for a CEO who frequently visits multiple facilities within a hundred miles or so.
Space or real estate problems? Land on the roof. No kidding, a lot of people do it. And in addition to saving real estate, it’s a great way to improve executive security. In essence, the executive being transported never leaves the security of a company plant or factory. And there’s usually nothing to hit on the roof, making it doubly secure. There are reams of information available on heliport rules and regulations on the Internet.
Are they safe? Probably safer than driving. U.S. presidents wouldn’t helicopter to Camp David if taking a limousine were even a little bit safer.
There also are some intriguing tax benefits to owning a helicopter, which are too detailed to go into here. Ask your CFO for the details. And while you’re at it, take him or her for a test flight.