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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.  

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.  

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."    

Phil Scott's second book, The Pioneers of Flight (Princeton University Press), was published in 1999.

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