Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads

Occurs to me that the past few roadtrip posts have been very explicitly non road roadtrips. So be it. Had another one a couple of days ago, when I got to ride along with Anna for her helicopter lesson.

Last fall I took Anna and a couple other co-workers out to Calaveras County in the Debonair. A quick little flight out to check up on how the Skyranger restoration was going, get a ride into town, have lunch and head home. Pleasant little excursion. A few weeks after I got back from the ice, Anna caught me in the hallway and gave me the news: she was hooked (“Oh – so, sorry!”) and close to soloing (“Sweet!”). Helicopters (“What?!?”). Yeah.

Now, me? When I aviate, I like the wings to move at the same speed and in the same general direction as the rest of the aircraft. There are all sorts of wisdom-filled observations fixed wing pilots make about their swivel-topped compatriots. Like how a whirlybird is merely a collection of 15,000 precision-machined parts flying in loose formation until they can find an excuse to part ways. Or how there don’t seem to be any antique helicopter fly ins.

But Anna wanted to thank me, and wanted to do so by taking me flying. In a helicopter. With her instructor, of course, since she’s not got her license yet. And who was I to say no to a chance to do some aviating?

Today’s lesson was in a Robinson R-44. Four seat, light piston engine – the whirlybird equivalent of a Cessna 172, or Honda Civic. Anna and instructor John Pyle were up front; Anna’s friend Mike and I were in back. Peering over John’s shoulder, it was comforting how familiar all the instruments on the panel were; with very little exception, it looked just like the gauges up front on most airplanes I’ve flown. Engine start and pre-taxi checklist as well – it all felt very normal until right after John got clearance to taxi to the runup area.

Then, we went…. Up.

It’s hard to explain how it unnatural the next few moments felt. As someone who’s been aviating for a quarter of a century (how can it be that long?!?), I’ve developed some – how shall we say? – expectations about how aircraft move and feel. And those expectations left me completely unprepared for the next few moments. It was as though, excusing herself from the dinner table, my daughter slid her chair back, casually levitated and floated corporeally over to family room couch. What? Just? Happened? There?

By the time Mr. Cerebral Cortex had convinced Mr. Visceral Reflex that this was how things were supposed to be, John had settled us down at “the spot”, an open area near the terminal where Anna had begun working through the pre-flight runup. But I was still reflecting on the strangeness of the situation when John, looking ever so much like Jean Luc Picard in flight suit and aviator glasses, gave Anna the command: “You have the controls – take us out of here.” And away we went again, up, up into the glorious blue, but in a manner that had the aforementioned Mr. Cortex assuring the rest of my brain that It was okay, we can just pretend that we’re riding in a great glass elevator, right?

Things got much more normal after the initial climb, though. Helicopters like to have some forward velocity as energy in the bank in case of engine problems. It’s a common misperception that, should a helicopter’s engine fail, it will drop out of the sky like a rock. Doesn’t happen. We’ve all seen maple seeds whirlybird their way to the ground, right? Helicopters have a very sophisticated way of doing the same thing, called “autorotation”. John was going to demonstrate that a bit later this morning – but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Anyhow, away we were, thwacking our way through the air, northbound over Highway 101 at 110 knots. Honestly, it was quieter than I’d expected – the rotor noise felt positively understated. And at this point it again felt entirely normal; best as I can tell, once you’ve got forward airspeed, with the throttle, collective pitch, and flux capacitor calibrated (I’m making that last part up), a helicopter flies very much like an airplane. I watched Anna make tiny corrections, felt how the craft responded, and thought “Hey, I could do this!” (Mr. Cortex snapped out of his reverie looking out the window to voice an urgent objection).

We were on a standard Bay Tour – I’d done the route dozens of times in a plane: up 101 over SFO, looking down at 747s and the like landing and taking off under us, then across the hills and low over the glittering spires of downtown. The icons of the city at our feet – the Transamerica Tower, Lombard, and Fisherman’s Wharf. Here though, there was a strange bit of comfort: when flying an airplane, you’re constantly asking yourself “ If the engine quit Right Now, where would I land?”, and low, over the city, there aren’t a lot of comforting answers. In a helicopter, though, we might as well have been in Kansas. That parking lot, that playground, that rooftop er, heliport. Wow – a whole new world of possibilities (Mr. Cortex reminded me what I’d said earlier about those “15,000 precision-machined parts”).

Out over the bay, a few times around Alcatraz, then low, low over the water. Breathtaking. Up past the Golden Gate Bridge, almost impossibly red against the blue sky, and over the Presidio. I was sure John wasn’t just doing this for Anna’s benefit – he’d converted enough fixed-wing pilots over to helicopters (Mr. Cortex: “No.”)

Down past Mavericks and Half Moon Bay, over the hill at Crystal Springs and east across the bay. I was in heaven, gawking out the window, but Anna was getting a real workout: “Okay, in this airspace we need to stay below 1500’ to keep out of SFO, and above 1300’ to be clear of San Carlos. To the right of the mall, but left of the hill. Keep us at 110 knots and… hang on, let me get this radio call for you.”

Then we were over the East Bay, Mission Peak sliding by, under our feet. John said he was going to demonstrate a “pinnacle”. Okay, sure – it wasn’t my lesson, so I wasn’t going to interrupt to ask what that meant, and figured I’d find out soon enough. He pointed to the top of one of those grassy golden-topped peaks just past the Calaveras Reservoir. He came at it sideways, in a flat curving arc, calling out a verbal checklist as he approached: “Friction off, wind from the right, area clear, pitch back, collective up… checking for obstacles, aaaaaand….. here we are.” Quietly (if you ignore the air-thwacking rotor bit) at rest on a grassy mountain top in the middle of nowhere. “Picnic, anyone?” John was clearly in salesman mode, and he was having fun.

He lifted us off again – Anna’s hands were in her lap for the “demonstration” portion of this flight – and said he was going to demonstrate a confined space landing.

Back during preflight, John had heard me describe autorotation and rotor inertia to Mike, so he availed himself of the opportunity for a demonstration. Rather than climbing away from our mountain perch, John swung the nose around so we could see the deep canyon below us and gently popped the throttle to idle.

Down we glided, steep canyon walls rising on either side of us as John pointed out features of the rapidly-approaching landscape. The glide – and it really was a glide – was far more gentle than I’d expected, but as we followed the twists and turns of the ever-narrowing canyon, I found it increasingly hard to pay attention to the scenery (Mr Cortex had shut down and was curled in a ball whimpering something about minimum obstacle clearances) You see, when a fixed wing aircraft pilot encounters the sort of sight picture we were looking at, it usually means they’ve made some really bad decisions are about to die.

It was really hard to remind myself that, in helicopters, this was a perfectly normal view. Spectacular, but normal. More of the verbal checklist, but I was too distracted to follow (Mr Cortex: “Trees… everywhere…”), and then, just as on the mountain top, we were there. Settled gently onto a sandbar in a stream at the bottom of a winding rocky canyon. We could have shut down, pulled out a cooler and gone fishing, were we so inclined.

John did the actual takeoff again, but handed the controls over to Anna while we were still way down inside the canyon: “Continue climbing, and just follow the stream.” It felt more like a video game than any real aviating I’d ever done as we banked and turned to trace the sinuous, slowly widening path. But those were real rocks. Now, John’s got more hours of helicopter instruction under his belt than I’ve got hours of, I don’t know, breathing, but my breath did come a little easier once we emerged into open air back at the reservoir.

Then we were up again, over Mission Peak, and back into that familiar flies-like-an-airplane mode as Anna brought us west across the bay and into the traffic pattern for Palo Alto. A short game of where’s-our-traffic with the tower controller, and we pirouetted down, back into the parking spot we’d left just over an hour ago.


I’d never considered flying helicopters before, but now? Now I understand what it’s all about. Not going to happen anytime soon, but honestly, I could imagine it. Some day. First, though, I’ll need to coax Mr. Cerebral Cortex out from under the bed, where he’s been hiding ever since we got home.

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