Hughes 500C, Honolulu, HI

I started flying in 1987 by walking into an random hangar at GAI and asking if someone could teach me to fly helicopters. The owners smiled and said "Sure! Give us all of your money." Five years and $15,000 later, I was a rated private pilot.

I trained with Army pilots (VietNam era, and later), civilian CFIs and airline transport pilots. All great pilots. All great characters. The people stories are just as interesting as the flying stories.

I did most of my training in an ill fated R22 Alpha. It survived a tail boom strike when a low time student hauled back on the cyclic during a vertical takeoff. The instructor got it back on the ground in one piece, but it was ugly. The machine was rebuilt, (the tail number was the only original remnant). That same helicopter was later destroyed when another low time solo student learned the hard way about dynamic rollover. He was distracted by the low RPM warning horn during hover, didn't realize that one of the skids was caught on the asphalt, and proceeded to roll it over on its side. Very ugly. That tail number should not fly again.

I was temporarily disoriented once, helicopter pilots are never really lost. Unable to find any suitable landmarks, I remembered what my father told me when I didn't know where I was: stop and ask for directions. So I turned into the wind and performed a normal approach into a construction site. One of the guys walked over and told me I was off the sectional, no wonder I couldn't find a landmark. He asked if I was following the roads, I told him I could. He told me take the road to our left south 3 miles, turn right and go past three traffic lights, turn right and continue until I saw a 7-Eleven on my on the left and... I said that won't work. Just tell me as the crow flies. He pointed south east. I thanked him and messed up his hair with the rotor wash.

We held an outdoor party one spring at my house. I thought it might be fun to take some of our guests for helicopter rides. The neighbors thought different. I was visited by the local police, who, of course had no jurisdiction and could do nothing. A few days later, a gentleman from the FAA called and asked about the landings into my property. I told him I was operating within the guidelines of FAR part 91. He agreed, but told me I was in violation of airport and heliport certification. It turns out that if more than 10 takeoffs and landings are made from any field within 30 days, it must be designated as an airport or heliport. The result: he sent me an application for private heliports and told me not to land there until I was granted the designation.

The helicopter pictured above is a Hughes 500C, a single engine, light turbine aircraft that can seat five persons. There is a military version primarily used for observation. I rented the Hughes during a vacation in Hawaii. Many tourists charter helicopters for sightseeing. If I'm paying $550/hour for rental, I want to log the flight time!

Few FBOs will hand over a $500,000 machine to an unknown pilot, so the owner/CFI flew left seat. Basically, he fired it up, raised it to a five foot hover and said "you've got it". I found the Hughes easier to fly than either a Robinson R22 or a Bell JetRanger. The cyclic is not hydraulically assisted like the Bell, so it can be more work if the cyclic trim is not used effectively.

Almost all of Oahu is under class B airspace, so the instructor worked the radio. Operating in class B can be fun sometimes. You hear warnings like "Zero Echo Mike, be advised of fixed wing traffic to your left". The aircraft the controller was referring to was an L10-11.

If you are interested in becoming a pilot, I prepared a short helicopter FAQ.

There are lots of other stories:

  • Autorotating into a suburban homeowners yard
  • Estimating the flank speed of white tail deer
  • Almost backing into an idling Bell Longranger
  • Eventful night flight along the Potomac river