Madness Over Miami


April 18, 1993|By DAVE BARRY

Today's aviation topic is: How to fly a helicopter. Although flying a helicopter may seem very difficult, the truth is that if you can drive a car, you can, with just a few minutes of instruction, take the controls of one of these amazing machines. Of course you would immediately crash and die. This is why you need to remember:

Rule 1 of helicopter piloting: Always have somebody sitting right next to you who actually knows how to fly the helicopter and can snatch the controls away from you.

Because the truth is that helicopters are nothing at all like cars. Cars work because of basic scientific principles that everybody understands, such as internal combustion and parallel parking. Whereas scientists still have no idea what holds helicopters up. This leads us to:

Rule 2 of helicopter piloting: Maybe you should forget the entire thing.

This was what I was thinking on a recent Saturday morning as I stood outside a small airport in South Florida, where I was about to take my first helicopter lesson. This was not my idea. This was the idea of Pam Gallina-Raissiguier, a pilot who flies radio reporters over Miami during rush hour so they can alert drivers to traffic problems.

Pam is active in an international organization of women helicopter pilots called the "Whirly Girls." She thought it would be a great idea for me to take a helicopter lesson.

I began having severe doubts when I saw Pam's helicopter. This was a small helicopter. It looked like it should have a little slot where you insert quarters to make it go up and down.

"Don't we need a larger helicopter?" I asked Pam. "With doors?"

"Get in," said Pam.

You don't defy a direct order from a Whirly Girl.

Now we're in the helicopter, and Pam is explaining the controls to me over the headset, but there's static and the engine is making a lot of noise.

"What?" I say.

But Pam is not listening. She is moving a control thing and whooooaaaaaa we are shooting up in the air.

Now Pam is giving me the main control thing.

Rule 3 of helicopter piloting: If anybody tries to give you the main control thing, refuse to take it.

Pam says: "You don't need hardly any pressure to. . ."


"That was too much pressure," Pam says.

Now I am flying the helicopter. I am flying the helicopter. I am flying it by not moving a single body part, for fear of jiggling the control thing. I look like the Lincoln Memorial statue of Abraham Lincoln, only more rigid.

"Make a right turn," Pam is saying.

I gingerly move the control thing to the right and the helicopter leans over toward my side. I instantly move the thing back.

"I'm not turning right," I inform Pam.

"What?" she says.

"Only left turns," I tell her. When you've been flying helicopters as long as I have, you know your limits.

She takes the control thing back. That is the good news. The bad news is, she's now saying something about auto-rotation. "Do you like amusement park rides?"

I say: "No, I dooooooooooooo. . ."

Rule 4 of helicopter piloting: "Auto-rotation" means "coming down out of the sky at about the same speed and aerodynamic stability as that of a forklift dropped from a bomber."

Now we're close to the ground (although my stomach is still at 500 feet), and Pam is completing my training by having me hover the helicopter.

Rule 5 of helicopter piloting: You can't hover the helicopter.

The idea is to hang over one spot on the ground. I am hovering over an area approximately the size of Australia. I am swooping around sideways and backward like a crazed bumblebee. Even Pam looks nervous.

So I am very happy when we finally get back on the ground. Pam tells me I did great, and she'd be glad to take me up again. I tell her that sounds like a fun idea.

Rule 6 of helicopter piloting: Sometimes you have to lie.

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