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Straight Up, With A Twist

Vietnam Vets and Pro Golfers Agree: Helicopters Are the Way to Fly
Phil Scott
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Bacon, May/Jun 00

Lowell Tucker hit the steaming jungles of Vietnam on his twenty-first birthday. He has no idea how many helicopter missions he flew during his tour of duty, just the number of hours: 1,300 in one year, all of them in combat. Tucker was there for the 1968 Tet offensive, a nonstop three-week battle. The night before Tet began, he and his four-man Huey helicopter crew had been sent to Khe Sanh to evacuate a Green Beret outpost that had been overrun by the North Vietnamese. And then there were the covert missions flying Green Berets into and out of Laos.  

"It was always easy to get them in," Tucker says laconically. "But to get them out..." He pauses. "You'd have half a dozen Americans running around on the ground, so it didn't take too long for somebody to figure it out. Plus you had two big Hueys flopping around overhead. What was too exciting was when [the Green Berets] had to whisper to you over the radio, the Vietcong were so close."  

After the war, Tucker kept right on flying. So did a majority of the 40,000 or so helicopter pilots who flew into--and out of--Vietnam. According to the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association, 50 percent are still flying. Vietnam did for helicopters what the Second World War did for airplanes. At the end of the hostilities, both wars dumped a tremendous number of pilots into civilian life.  

The Second World War caused a boom in civil aviation that peaked in the late 1970s; former Army Air Force pilots leaned toward aviation careers or bought their own airplanes or both. But the same doesn't quite hold true for Vietnam vets. While they still dominate the ranks of the professional helicopter pilots--Tucker himself has carved out a lucrative career selling the machines--owning a helicopter for one's private use remains a rarity. Individuals own only 1,986 of the approximately 11,382 civilian helicopters in the United States, according to Air Track, a Hilliard, Florida­based company that keeps tabs on worldwide aircraft ownership. Of those 1,986 helicopters, only a fraction--maybe 5 percent--are used for pleasure.  

But the Sunday fliers are out there: Clint Eastwood flies his own helicopter, and Harrison Ford got his license in 1998. Greg Norman plays the vertical flight game in a Bell 430, while fellow golfer Nick Price owns a Bell 407. Ross Perot Jr. flies a Bell JetRanger. In 1982, he and Jay Coburn, a Dallas business executive, were the first to fly a helicopter around the world. They traveled 24,699 miles in 29 days, at an average speed of 117 mph, in a Bell 206L Long Ranger christened Spirit of Texas, which now resides in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. (Perot Jr. declined to be interviewed for this article. "He doesn't use the helicopter much for personal transportation," his company's spokesman explained.)  

To understand why only the rich or enlisted fly helicopters for fun, it helps to know a bit of history. First, some terms of endearment.  

"We call them helicopters," says Cap Parlier, a former helicopter test pilot for the Hughes and McDonnell-Douglas helicopter companies. He is now the chancellor (or "the head dude," as the retired Marine lieutenant colonel is known to the student body) of the Prescott, Arizona, campus of an aviation and aerospace school called Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. "People will use the vernacular 'chopper,' " he says. "[It] comes from the early days, when they made a chopping sound, but most of us don't use that term anymore. 'Copter'? That's not something that most helicopter pilots use." He will, however, acquiesce to an occasional "helo."  

The concept of vertical flight has been around since about 1000 b.c., when the Chinese constructed a top-like toy that went straight up as it spun. In the West, Leonardo da Vinci in the fifteenth century envisioned a platform with a huge screw set on end, turned by a team of men running in circles with the speed of gazelles and the strength of gorillas. The flaw in that design is that no such men exist. A few centuries later, in 1871, a French marine engineer named Alphonse Pénaud designed a toy similar to the Chinese top; what he called a hélicoptère was powered by a team of less-than-superhuman rubber bands. One such Pénaud helicopter was said to have spurred the Wright brothers' interest in building more practical flying machines.

Their 1903 success, in turn, influenced a young Russian engineer named Igor Sikorsky to try his hand at vertical flight. The technical obstacles proved so great, however, that Sikorsky dropped helicopters and started building extraordinarily large airliners, which became heavy bombers for the Russian army during the First World War. After the Russian Revolution, Sikorsky fled to the United States and formed a company to build extraordinarily large seaplanes, whose range and luxurious appointments completed man's conquest of the globe by air.  

In 1923, Spain's Juan de la Cierva invented the autogyro, which had a tail and an engine in the nose like a normal airplane but, instead of a wing overhead, had a rotor. It could take off and alight in extremely short distances (such as the White House lawn, to name one notable site) and it could fly very slowly, though it could not hover or land vertically.  

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