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 on ABC Evening News, Feb. 16, 1971

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.

“Essentially, being a helicopter pilot is a service job — you can get courier work or an industry job, collecting news, working for a logging company, Alaskan fishing, Las Vegas, that sort of thing — but the environment is pretty romantic.”

Swarner, who has worked as an emergency medical technician to put himself through school and supplement his income as a flight instructor — a necessity made evident by the 47-cent paycheck hanging in the instructors' offices at Sierra's — hopes to eventually pilot for the air-ambulance company that currently employs him as a flight paramedic. That work requires more improvisation than running a trade route, says Swarner, the sort of improvisation for which helicopters are made.

I can feel beads of sweat clinging to my hairline as I sit inside the cockpit of a Schweizer 300CB with headphones over my ears and the helicopter blades beating the air overhead. Swarner communicates with the radio tower in a string of high-tech gibberish, and I hear the engine power mount. Suddenly, we are lifting in the air, nose down, flying over the ground, which can be seen between the toes of my shoes. The grass beneath us flattens out, creating pale ripples across the field where countless California ground squirrels run for their burrows. For a moment, it's as if we are chasing them down, and I can't help imagining Disney war footage looking something like this. Then we are in clear, open air, the freeway and airport becoming nothing more than geometry on the ground. Swarner dips and dives, turns and swirls, sharing the joy of the machine. The San Francisco skyline opens up as we rush over Angel Island. I am enraptured. Never in all my years of seeking heights — climbing bridges, hang gliding, sky diving, hot air ballooning, or even static-wing flight — has the Bay Area looked so glorious. There's something about the agility, the dragonflylike dexterity, of the helicopter and its clear cockpit that is wholly liberating.

Swarner tells me to take over the cyclic control, which sits between my legs like the grip of a gun; he promises to shadow me all the way. I'm not ready, but I remember that few people are. I tighten on the grip and lean forward, ostensibly to see more clearly. The helicopter lurches. I'm not ready. Swarner corrects us, and his voice comes over the intercom, “You can fly it with your fingertips.”

He demonstrates. I try again. We dip.

“Keep your eye on the rotor,” he says. I can't remember where that is. I look between my feet, then, correcting myself, fix my vision on the blurred disc overhead. “Keep it level with the horizon.” I can't remember where that is either. I fix on a ridge of mountains poking out of the loveliest finger of fog I've ever seen. We fly toward the Golden Gate Bridge. Swarner asks that I hug the coastline, unless I enjoy swimming. I make the adjustment, the merest pressure on the cyclic, and we glide to the west. We tool around Alcatraz, and Swarner hovers, then we head back toward the airport, over the slough, which looks like a spongy game of Chutes and Ladders. On descent, Swarner rolls off the throttle, simulating engine failure, and in a complicated synchronization of minute movements of pedals, cyclic, and collective (it looks like an emergency brake but controls the pitch of the blades and power of the engine) he sets the helicopter down like dust settling on a book. He lifts again, showing me the effect of engine failure at four feet. Again, we land soft as can be.

“You can't do that in a plane,” says Swarner. “Or this …” Swarner lifts off again, twirling just a few feet off the ground, dipping and turning and swaying as the squirrels scurry before us. It's strange to feel as light as a feather inside 1,300 pounds of machinery, but there it is. Witchcraft.

After a brief lesson in hovering, during which I learn firsthand the effects of “salad-bowl oscillation,” I am beyond stressed, reduced to laughing uncontrollably as the helicopter pitches forward and back, side to side. Such is my faith in Swarner and the helicopter's responsiveness that I frequently relinquish control without checking Swarner's readiness. Great flight instructors, I've been told, always act as if they have more faith than you could ever muster. And so it seems.

I might not be a natural, but I can't imagine a better way to fly.

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