Helicopter flying

R22 trainingAfter my recent helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon, a subscriber emailed me a warning: “beware helicopters, Peter – they are very addictive.”

Now, I must be honest, I have never really been attracted much to these highly complex and, to some eyes, ugly flying machines. I always thought you needed at least three arms and three legs to fly them, or be some sort of genius when it comes to co-ordination. Someone told me that flying a helicopter was like balancing on one leg, standing on top of a sunscreen-slicked beach ball, while patting your head and rubbing your belly all at the same time.

And the jokes about helicopters are numerous, from old chestnuts about being so ugly they don’t fly – the ground just repels them…to the more technical: real planes have one stick to fly them – bulldozers and helicopters need two. And so on. But as one helicopter pilot put it to me: “to fly is heavenly, to hover is divine”.

And what about safety? Aren’t helicopters much more dangerous than fixed wing aircraft? Not according to USA accident statistics; helicopters, they say, are in fact significantly safer per hour of flight than most GA single engine fixed wing planes.

With all these thoughts whirling (geddit??) in my mind, I went to a very well-known helicopter school at Moorabbin Airport and with a senior instructor, toured their facility. All very professional. I even sat in a Hughes (or is it Schweizer?) 300 two-seat helicopter and listened to a basic briefing about how it flies. The aircraft seemed fairly well worn, after the brand new Foxbat I’d just been flight testing, with almost 7,000 hours on the meter. But hey, if it’s survived that long, most of it in a training school, it can’t be that difficult to fly. Can it?

So next week I’m going to take a Trial Instruction Flight (TIF) to see if I can stand on the beach ball without falling over.

Meanwhile, I have been watching a series of long but fascinating videos on YouTube, posted by a guy called Michael Carr, based near Nashville in Tennessee. He takes us through all his lessons in a Robinson R22 two-seat helicopter, from the very first to eventually taking his father as his first passenger. The videos are uncut GoPro footage and are about an hour long each. They have wired-in sound from the radio/intercom so you can hear both Michael and his instructor. They are best viewed full-screen in high definition – that way you can almost feel the helicopter moving underneath you and see the control movements and instruments.

As usual, click the photo to take you to the first of Michael’s videos. But beware: they can be very addictive!

Grand Canyon helicopter flight

Grand Canyon 01Today I was lucky enough to take a helicopter flight over the Grand Canyon in Arizona, USA. I can’t say it’s been a lifelong dream – but it should have been. The experience was about as mind-boggling as it can get in an aircraft.

I’m not normally much of a fan of helicopters – too noisy and too many bits to go wrong – but this was one time my prejudices were completely blown away(!).

Grand Canyon 02My beloved and I took to the air with four other passengers, very ably flown by Brett our pilot, for the 45 minute trip in a Eurocopter 130, belonging to Papillon Helicopters. This is a 6-seater + pilot helicopter with state of the art controls and avionics and, as it turned out, a great music and commentary soundtrack played through our Bose headsets. Pilot Brett also answered questions on the way and pointed out additional items of interest.

We took off gently from the south rim airport and the one potentially scary bit, if you don’t have a head for heights, is the initially low-level approach over the forest towards the canyon’s edge. At about 60 knots we passed directly over the rim into empty space and about 5,500 feet of clear air down to the canyon floor below. Quite a few loudish noises from some of the passengers! All added to by the crucial bit of ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ playing in the headsets.

The trip took us up the canyon and eventually across to the 1,000 feet higher north rim, which is much more difficult and lengthy to access by road. We turned up and along a few deep crevices and then Brett turned gently homeward and we re-crossed the canyon towards the south to return to the airport.

All in all, this was an amazing experience, particularly as we were lucky enough to sit in the front two seats next to the pilot. Papillon Helicopters are the consummate professionals in both passenger check-in and the flight itself. Not cheap but an experience of a lifetime. Foxbatpilot rating 11/10

PS – when I get back, I’ll edit and post a short video of the experience. Watch this space!