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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

(continued from page 1)

After an absence of nearly three decades, Sikorsky returned to rotary-wing flight. In 1939, seated in an odd-looking open-cockpit craft, placidly wearing his trademark gray suit and fedora while a blade whirled a few inches overhead, Sikorsky accomplished what Leonardo da Vinci and scores of others had failed to do: he hovered, with all the finesse of a hummingbird. OK, all the finesse of a drunken hummingbird. But it worked.  

That first generation of helicopters was powered by the best engines of the day: heavy, unreliable piston motors that squandered the helicopter's useful load and played hell with its chances of remaining safely in the air. The second generation of helicopters, however, was equipped with the new, lightweight, tremendously powerful and supremely reliable turbine engine. Oh, sure, the turbines made everything hideously expensive, but with them the helicopter was an almost perfected technology.  

Why had it taken so much longer for vertical flight to catch up with fixed-wing flight? While airplanes and helicopters both fly, they do so in significantly different ways. An airplane starts flying when the forward momentum provided by its engine creates swift enough airflow over the wing to cause lift. It turns, climbs or descends by deflecting that airflow with control surfaces. Like a shark, an airplane must always move forward--or it dies. But in a helicopter it's not the forward motion of the aircraft that causes lift; rather, it's the movement of the wing itself.

Yes, the rotor, that big propeller on top, is considered a wing. And what a highly complex wing it is. With control columns held in both hands, the pilot can change the angle of those blades to make the helicopter climb, hover, fly forward or travel backward. No wonder Sikorsky gave up early in his career. Oh, and one other thing. That rotor on the tail? It's not just for maintaining directional control--it also keeps the torque developed by that big overhead fan (and Newton's Third Law) from twirling the fuselage. Without it, you'd be spinning around in circles as if you were in an airborne Tilt-A-Whirl.  

All of this means that flying helicopters is hard work. Ranked in terms of aeronautical difficulty, they rate up there with carrier-based fighter jets and lunar modules. Like a fixed-wing license, a helicopter license silently asserts that the bearer has intelligence, super reflexes and nerves of steel--only more so.  

The helicopter's supreme maneuverability comes at a price, though. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to keep that rotor spinning, and, in the bargain, it means that a helicopter must sacrifice qualities such as range, speed and endurance. On top of all that, you're talking about an inordinate amount of moving parts per square inch, and that translates into a high-buck item that makes other internal-combustion hobbyhorses seem economical by comparison. If a helicopter--one the size and luxury of a fine sport-utility vehicle, one that your friends wouldn't scoff at the thought of cruising around the estate in--sets you back only $1 million, you're not really trying. A nice little Bell 407 (capable of 161 mph), for instance, retails for about $1.3 million, while a 170-mph American Eurocopter AS 365 goes for $4.6 million. With that kind of cash, you can get a Learjet that maxes out at close to Mach 1.  

Anyone who can afford to drop a few million on a helicopter usually won't settle for seating friends on a couple of aluminum-and-canvas benches. While helicopter customers prefer anonymity, their choice of custom options remains the stuff of legend. Minibars with a fridge? Airline-style galleys? Stereo systems? That's all been done. Cell phones? Gold-plated seatbelt buckles? So five minutes ago.  

While leather upholstery remains de rigueur, one buyer asked for--and received--fabrics dyed a special blue to match the Wedgwood service he preferred to use in the cabin. Another wanted his Aerospatial Dauphin's interior to match that of his Falcon 900 corporate jet. Sometimes it's the out-of-sight details that please the customer. One wanted a snug, comfy toilet squeezed discreetly inside. Another had his helicopter equipped with armor plate thick enough to stop small-arms fire. A nervous Third World despot? Read on.  

More and more helicopter owners are coming up against angry neighbors, people who are less than enamored with waking to the sounds of Apocalypse Now. Former Rite Aid chief executive officer Martin Grass received $6,000 in fines for flying his $3.5 million helicopter from his estate outside Baltimore to the Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, office--20 minutes as the helicopter flies but an interminable 90 minutes in a stretched limo. Grass's neighbors complained that the low-flying craft shattered their rural placidity and rattled their windows. One farmer claimed that his hens stopped laying eggs. Even Harrison Ford found himself grounded while making a movie in Alexandria, Virginia. A local ordinance bans all but EMS helicopters. One Tampa, Florida, helicommuter found an amicable solution to his neighbor's complaints--he bought the neighbor's house and had it bulldozed. No neighbors, no noise complaints.  

You don't have to be able to fly a helicopter to own one; you can always hire a pilot. But if you want to master the controls, helicopters are almost as expensive to learn to fly as they are to buy. For instance, Whirl-Away Helicopters in Sellersburg, Indiana, charges $195 per hour for instruction in its Bell 47--the same tiny, wheezing Korean War­era piston job that Radar could always hear coming in "M*A*S*H." As with aspiring fixed-wing aviators, helicopter pilots need at least 40 hours of flight time before they can earn their license; at Whirl-Away, that would cost a minimum of $7,800. (In contrast, an hour in an airplane with an instructor typically goes for around $100.) Those who go to the expense and trouble of learning to fly helicopters usually do it to earn their daily bread. The next hurdle: insurance companies generally won't cover a commercial helicopter pilot unless the pilot has logged upwards of 1,500 hours. And where can a nice middle-class someone amass that much turbine time without having to rob several banks? In the Army.  

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