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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 2)

Recently, though, some manufacturers have sprouted to take advantage of the low-end market--folks without professional piloting goals or the need for an ultra-high-end airborne limo, those middle-class people who simply think it would be a neat experience to have a helicopter, or, at least, to know how to fly one. For those aspiring souls, Tokyo's Rhyme Co. has spent more than 15 years developing a build-it-yourself one-person rotorcraft that stands eight feet tall, weighs 160 pounds empty and cruises at 50 mph. Called the BDH-4, the kit, still in the testing stages, could cost less than $30,000 to build once it's produced.  

More sublime and less ridiculous is Robinson Helicopter's family of light helos, which are manufactured in Torrance, California. The two-seat R22 runs about $148,000 and the four-seat R44 goes for a modest $277,000. Introduced in the early 1990s, these two models have become the top-selling civilian helicopters in the world. They are particularly popular with flight schools, mainly because the design is simple, reliable and easy, and relatively inexpensive to maintain.  

Of course, if you've got a budget that just shot north after your Internet company's IPO and a hankering for a personal carriage that's rarer than a Bugatti Royale, you might want to look into a Bell 609 tilt-rotor, built by Bell Helicopter Textron Inc. A smaller version of the Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey, in which twenty-first-century Marines could storm the shores of Tripoli, the Bell 609 retails for a mere $8 million to $10 million. The beauty of this beast is that after it takes off vertically, like a normal helicopter, its twin rotors swivel forward, and in airplane mode it flies six very special guests in total luxury at a screaming 300 mph. Know any better way to get from Wall Street to the White House south lawn in an hour?  

According to Bell spokesman Bob Leder, some 40 clients, primarily firms, in 18 nations have ordered 77 tilt-rotors--including former Dallas Mavericks owner Don Carter, Greg Norman (again) and, yes, Ross Jr. That's a pretty thick order book for a new aircraft, especially considering that deliveries won't begin until 2002. A bit of a wait? Well, not really, when you consider that only test pilots know how to fly the damn thing. "There are a lot of new technologies in a tilt-rotor," says Leder. "We see most [future tilt-rotor] pilots initially coming in with helicopter backgrounds rather than with fixed-wing experience." Bell is developing a training syllabus, and will put the first novice tilt-rotor fliers through the program at Alliance Airport, north of its Fort Worth, Texas, facilities.  

It's hard to believe that private helicopters remain so rare and expensive. You'd think that, with the thousands flown and used up by the Army, you'd be able to find surplus helicopters on every grass strip in America. Isn't that what happened with surplus airplanes after the Second World War? But a source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says that manufacturers have successfully lobbied Congress to prevent the armed forces from selling old helicopters to civilians, since that would undercut their efforts to market directly to those buyers.  

After all, that's what killed many airplane manufacturers after the Second World War. Who wanted a North American Navion when he could get a practically new P-51 Mustang for half the Navion's price? Why would you want to buy a Bell 412 for a couple of million bucks when you can fly home the same thing, a Bell UH-1, or "Huey," that you bought for a couple grand at a government auction?  

The source adds that there is a black market in spare parts, which normally have strictly controlled life spans and are subject to meticulous bookkeeping. One way to control their availability is to keep a tight grip on old military machines. Even the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association has had trouble getting a couple of Hueys to put on static display; apparently, the government wants to remove some of the parts, fearing that the group will sell them.  

Even so, you will occasionally stumble upon a vintage veteran helicopter and its proud owner. Take Oscar Max Hall, a Vietnam vet who fell in love with a helicopter that he flew early in his Army career, the H-21 Shawnee. Even then the Shawnee, better known by its nickname, the Flying Banana, was an ancient piston-engine machine. After the war, Hall began a career as a civil engineer in Springdale, Arkansas, but he could never get the Flying Banana out of his mind.

After flying in the Gulf War--at the age of 55, he was reportedly the oldest pilot on active duty--Hall set out to have one of his very own. He located several models that the Army had sold in 1971 to an aircraft salvage company in Fairbanks, Alaska. Hall bought a couple of basket cases and brought them back to Arkansas on a custom-built, 55-foot-long flatbed trailer, driving 9,000 miles.

Today, 13,000 man hours and "a significant sum" later, Hall is living his dream--but even he's not taking his prized possession out for a few quick circuits around the farm. Since completing the helicopter in 1996, he's flown it only about 100 hours, and that's mostly to and from air shows. For fun flying he has a fixed-wing Cessna. "The helicopter," Hall notes, "is strictly a hobby that my wife says is out of control."    

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