Saturday, May 17, 2014

Bill Hand: Otto the deadly helicopter

By Bill Hand, Sun Journal Staff
Published: Saturday, May 17, 2014 at 17:49 PM.

I was recently given an opportunity to go for a ride with some of the pilots of the older aircraft, a day prior to the Cherry Point Air Show. I made it back to the paper but, I’ll tell you, if I were a cat I’d be shy about three lives.

Before they took us out on the tarmac to hop our rides, we had to sign the traditional accident waivers. Airplanes can be dangerous, it told you. Climb into an airplane, you might just die. Well, I didn’t need a legal waiver to tell me that. There is not a law in nature that says a steel tube with propellers and a pair of wings should be able to stay in the air.

At the end of the waiver it read, “Executed this ___ day of ___, 2014.”

Nice touch of irony there, leathernecks.

I was assigned to ride Otto.

Now, Otto is a helicopter. Or at least, it wants to be. Roger Bius, the pilot, described Otto as a flying version of the Keystone Kops. Its job is to hop and skip, dive and tumble, and do such awe inspiring acts as playing in the air with a 70-pound yoyo.

I need to describe this helicopter to you. It is a little more Barnum and Bailey than Keystone and Kop: It was brought in on a trailer and I swear, I was waiting for a herd of clowns to come climbing out.

Three of us — a Marine, a Guy Who Wasn’t A Marine, and I — stood to catch the pre-flight lecture. He explained the ride he would give: climbing high into the air at 70 degrees then dropping suddenly — “Like a roller coaster!” is how he described it. Then we would climb at 90 degrees and drop. Then we would pop high into the air, spin on our axis, and plummet like an elevator: maybe the one in “Omen II” where at the bottom of its fall the cables came through and chopped the doctor in half.

As I listened, I gave Otto a close look-over and wondered if I should have prepared for this flight by going down to the local grocery store and putting a quarter in the slot of the helicopter they had. After all, they were about the same size.

This truncated chopper was a wonder: small enough to store in a basic living room and reminding me strangely of a bath toy, it consisted of a cockpit about five feet across, mounted on top of a souped-up lawn mower engine. All this was attached to a few tubes of pipe and a pair of rotors.

The doors, at least, weren’t flimsy.

In fact, they weren’t there. It had none.

Once aboard I was buckled in. I noticed that, inside our little bubble, the pilot and I were seated seven millimeters from each other. Maybe closer. If either of us hiccupped, we would knock the other out of the helicopter. The lack of A door was located immediately to my right: Immediate, as in, “Come to me immediately and I mean ten minutes ago.” If I let my hand dangle off the seat, it was outside the craft.

Now, let me tell you, I have no deep love affair with heights or aircraft that defy the laws of nature by actually going into the air. Further, I knew from our preflight that this helicopter had started life with the San Antonio Police. And I’ve seen enough movies to know what happens to police helicopters: they’re always being blown up by super villains, terrorists, thugs and unexpected flying hummingbirds.

Mr. Bius assured me the seat belt would hold me in place. My brain said, “No problem. Got that.” My heart, however, took a moment from scaling my throat to scream, “Are you crazy? There’s no door on this thing, and it ought to be floating around in some five-year-old’s bubble bath!”

We went up and it only took me a moment to find my courage and announce that, no way above God’s green earth was Mr. Bius going to be doing any stunt flying with me in there.

Instead we went for a smooth little ride at 500 feet, across trees where I could look down and see the little pin prick that was our shadow skirting over really shallow water and trees. We would make frequent turns in the air, banking always in my direction I think, so that the only thing keeping me from falling out was a strap 1/16th inch thick, two inches wide, and held together with a fastener that I could accidentally undo by looking at it.

He probably thought it strange that I kept climbing into his lap in those moments.

In any case, we eventually landed from my tame and harrowing flight and my pilot, before I exited (which I could do by shifting ¼ inch to my right) smiled gamely and said, “Don’t worry about it. Roller coasters aren’t for everyone.”

Hey, I like roller coasters.

I just like them to be on tracks that are connected to the ground.

Story and photo:

Otto the helicopter rises from the field at Cherry Point, carrying its prey.
 Photo by Bill Hand/Sun Journal Staff

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