Flight of Fantasy

Learning to fly a helicopter is a lesson in exhilaration

The thing is, helicopters are different from planes. An airplane by its nature wants to fly, and if not interfered with too strongly by unusual events or by a deliberately incompetent pilot, it will fly. A helicopter does not want to fly. It is maintained in the air by a variety of forces and controls working in opposition to each other, and if there is any disturbance in this delicate balance, the helicopter stops flying, immediately and disastrously.

There is no such thing as a gliding helicopter. This is why being a helicopter pilot is so different from being an airplane pilot, and why, in general, airplane pilots are open, clear-eyed, buoyant extroverts, and helicopter pilots are brooders, introspective anticipators of trouble. They know if something bad has not happened, it is about to.

-- Harry Reasoner, during commentary onABC Evening News, Feb. 16, 1971

A whirlybird's-eye view of the Golden Gate.
Robert Swarner
A whirlybird's-eye view of the Golden Gate.
A helicopter's agility and clear cockpit are liberating.
Robert Swarner
A helicopter's agility and clear cockpit are liberating.

I step into the makeshift cubicle of Robert Swarner, a 31-year-old helicopter flight instructor at Sierra's Academy of Aeronautics, and slide behind a large, metal desk, which, coupled with an oversize plant, leaves little room for humans. Peering over a partition, I assure myself that the cubicles of Swarner's fellow instructors are no less cramped or more academically specialized. In fact, but for the large overhead view of the Oakland airport hanging on one wall, one would never guess this weary workplace was a portico to adventure.

"I have to get the toy helicopter; it's a very important piece of equipment," jokes Swarner, dressed in his bright blue jumpsuit and silver-embroidered epaulets, as he squeezes between the desk and the tree. As promised, the toy helicopter agreeably augments the mechanical schematics blinking on the screen of Swarner's laptop computer. I'm grateful for it. As a person who somehow still believes record players and telephones are witchcraft, I need all the help I can get.

Trusting that I believe in the basic physical principles that allow airplanes to lift off the ground, Swarner begins his orientation: lift, drag, torque, main and tail rotors, cyclic control, flight envelopes, the collective, the anti-torque pedals, vectoring the thrust, feathering the blades .... While he's talking I try to chase away the definition of "helicopter" I recently read in a pilot's journal: "Noun; a flying machine that remains airborne by beating the surrounding air into submission, an act which is thought by some to require constant intervention by the Almighty, leading to the Helo crew slogan, "To hover is divine.'"

"Hovering is the most difficult thing to master," says Swarner, bringing me back to Earth by holding his shoe above the table by its lace. "The helicopter hangs underneath the rotor like a pendulum, swaying. It's the natural inclination of the student to overcompensate at the height of the arc, causing a sort of salad-bowl oscillation." The shoe swings wildly over the table. "The only way to break the pattern is with syncopated rhythm." It suddenly makes sense.

"All right! Let's teach you how to drive in three dimensions," Swarner says.

Swarner leads me down a broad road, skirting the north side of Oakland International Airport, to the main academy building, a peach-colored stucco structure that once housed a hotel in which Amelia Earhart frequently stayed. The 36-year-old Sierra's Academy of Aeronautics is one of the only flight schools in the U.S. that shares Class B and C airspace with an international airport, offering pilots more than twice the amount of air traffic control experience available at most "tower only" airports. And because Sierra's is an accredited career school, government grants are available to its students. Nearly 700 full-time students are enrolled at Sierra's. Inside, young pilot hopefuls in starched white shirts, black ties, and gold epaulets sit at tables overlooking the tarmac. A few give Swarner, in his blue jumpsuit and dark sunglasses, a sideways glance.

"Some students think helicopter pilots are kind of the ugly stepchildren of flight school," explains Swarner. "The guys in the white shirts want to be airplane captains; helicopter pilots want to make it up as they go."

"Airplanes drive on the runway and fly through the air to another runway. That's it. I've landed on hills, in fields, on rooftops, and behind truck stops. A helicopter is very versatile, so you just never know."

Swarner talks about an airborne "road trip" he and his former paramedic teacher took while ferrying two Robinson R22 helicopters to Jonesboro, Ark.

"We got caught behind a bank of fog in Texas, so we landed behind this truck stop and went in for hamburgers. When we were inside, we met a Vietnam vet who used to fly, and he offered to take our cell phone number so he could give us weather reports as he drove ahead. You can't put that sort of stuff in a lesson syllabus."

On an earlier job, Swarner shuttled bank notes between the Oakland airport and a processing center rooftop in Fremont, a 14-minute flight four nights a week, with a two-hour dinner break.

"At 9:25 every night they'd appear on the roof with the bags," chuckles Swarner, only copping to the cinematic romance of the situation under duress.

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