People Archive

Oshkosh or bust

Thursday, August 14th, 2014

I’m forever spoiled. Everyone talks about flying an airplane to EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, but arriving in a helicopter is a far better experience. I’m burdened with knowing this now, thanks to Sporty’s Pilot Shop’s John Zimmerman, my ride to the show this year.


John owns a beautiful R44 he flies for fun and the occasional work purpose. Being a gadget geek, his is kitted out with a Garmin 430, a handheld Garmin 496, and that day we were carrying two iPads, and Sporty’s new Iridium Go! satellite hotspot. It also has air conditioning, which is a luxury well worth having. So while many would scoff at the suggestion that a helicopter is a cross-country aircraft, with some nice instrumentation and create comforts, it turns out to be well suited to the task.


The trip started with an early morning airline flight to Cincinnati, where I met John. The first two miles were over the eerily quiet Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport. The helicopter proved to be a good vantage point to see the juxtaposition of miles upon miles of runways for the dozen or so regional jets parked at the various terminals.


From there it was another 348 miles on to Oshkosh, including two stops. Since helicopters and their pilots are most comfortable at lower altitudes, trips like this are a joy. The world isn’t going by very fast, which leaves that much more time for taking it all in. Lounging around at 75 knots groundspeed, the trip took more than four hours, but it felt like much less.


The best part of the trip, and what airplane pilots miss out on, is the arrival to the show. In an airplane there is a mass convergence on one spot southwest of the airport as everyone forms a line and heads in. You have to listen closely to air traffic control, respond quickly, and follow the controller’s directions precisely. The arrival procedures in a helicopter are much more civilized. Simply listen to ATIS, monitor the tower, maintain 1,800 feet, and land. Transients can park at Pioneer field, outside the main show site. From the time we shut down to the time our ride arrived was 10 minutes. There’s no walking, no humping heavy bags. They pulled off the main road and we jumped in and left. Clearly the folks at EAA know helicopter pilots, and the arrival suits them perfectly.


With the R44’s fuel-burn rate, and lackluster groundspeed in headwinds, it might not be the most efficient cross-country machine. It is, however, a lot of fun, which is all that matters when you are on your way to Oshkosh.


Friday, December 10th, 2010

I learned to fly helicopters in the early 1980s. Back then I read a story about a helicopter pilot who rescued an airplane pilot who had crashed on the ice of Lake Erie. The helicopter pilot was flying along the shore of the lake in a Hughes 300C when he heard on the radio that the Coast Guard helicopter had turned back because of weather. He decided to head out over the lake and look for the downed pilot.

The traffic-reporting helicopter did not have any navigational radios so the pilot asked the Coast Guard for directional information. Ice had built up on the blades and airframe, and his skids contacted the water a few times when he lost depth perception because of fatigue. After several attempts, in total darkness, he found the pilot. After getting him onboard, he flew back and landed on the shoreline with less than five minutes of fuel remaining. The helicopter pilot was awarded the Avco/Aviation/Space Writers Association Heroism Award.

There is no doubt that his actions probably saved the downed pilot’s life. However, had he crashed while attempting this rescue would he have been viewed as an excessive risk-taker or a hero who tried despite the odds? I wonder in today’s environment of risk assessments and safety management systems if perceptions would have been different?

Frank Robinson

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

In the early 1970s, an engineer named Frank Robinson wanted to build a small two-seat personal helicopter. He pitched the concept to major manufactures, but none saw any market potential in the civilian market – the big money was in military machines. So in 1973, Robinson left his job at Hughes Aircraft and started the Robinson Helicopter Company in his home. His living room was set up with drafting tables and the garage was full of tools and machining equipment.

His son, Kurt Robinson, told me he came home from high school one day and found a tail-rotor blade baking in the family oven. Frank had built a device to regulate the oven’s temperature to a high degree of accuracy to bond parts. Kurt said the upside was his reputation in the neighborhood for making the best pizzas. When the box said to bake at 350 degrees, it was exactly 350 degrees.

Robinson rented a small hangar at the Torrance airport and began assembling and testing his helicopter. Robinson flew the first prototype himself in August 1975. After seven-plus years of designing, building, and testing the Robinson R22 received FAA certification in 1979. Much to Robinson’s surprise the R22 became an instant hit in the flight training market and soon became the world’s top-selling civil helicopter. As the R22’s design matured, Robinson started working on a bigger four-place helicopter. The R44 was certified in late 1992 and it became so popular it eventually out sold the R22. Many wondered what was next for the small company that had become one of general aviation’s biggest success stories. The answer came in 2007 when the company announced development of a five-place single-engine turbine helicopter. The R66 is scheduled for FAA certification at the end of October 2010.

Last August, with the R66 on track for certification, Frank Robinson announced he was retiring at age 80. Frank’s son, Kurt, who joined Robinson Helicopter in 1987, became the new CEO of the privately held company. Kurt will be leading a team that will continue to grow the company.

Frank has won numerous awards and donated millions of dollars to charities and aviation educational programs. He is a full member of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots and a Fellow of the American Helicopter Society. I have had the pleasure of knowing Frank for about 20 years and during that time have come to know him as one of the most brilliant engineers and businessmen in the rotorcraft industry. There is no question he has had an enormous impact on the light civilian helicopter industry. I wish him a long and happy retirement.

Kurt and Frank Robinson

Robinson R66—First flight

Monday, September 13th, 2010

I just spent the last two days flying Robinson Helicopter’s new light turbine helicopter, the R66. Although it is still in experimental category, FAA certification is expected in the next 30 days as Robinson and the FAA work out some final details.

Having a couple of thousand hours in the Bell 206 light turbine series helicopter made for an easy direct comparison. Last year Bell announced that it would cease production of the five-place Bell 206B JetRanger, citing the R66 as one reason. Company founder Frank Robinson’s design goals are not just well-engineered products, but cost effective as well. The R66, the company’s first turbine helicopter, exemplifies this objective extremely well, and after flying it, I think Bell made the right decision.

The R66 is powered by a Rolls-Royce RR300 (model number 250-C300/A1), a new engine based to the proven 250-series engine (same engine used in the 206B). It is mounted below the transmission deck at a 37-degree angle which gives easy access for maintenance. The engine produces 300 shaft horsepower and is derated to 270 shp for a five-minute take off rating and 224 shp for max continuous operation. Starting is simple; igniter switch to enable (a nice feature that allows you to motor the starter without firing the igniters–no more need to pull the igniter circuit breaker); press-and-release the start button (it’s latched so no need to hold it down), at 15 percent N1 push the fuel control in and monitor engine light off and acceleration. At 65- to 67-percent N1 the starter disengages and the generator is switched on.

Picking the R66 up to a hover is smooth and it feels a little bigger and a little heavier than the piston-powered R44, which it is. I flew with Doug Tompkins, Robinson’s chief pilot who did all the experimental test flying on the R66. We were hovering at 64-percent torque and as we approached 60 knots during the take off Doug suggested pulling 100-percent torque. I started raising the collective, before I got to 90 percent the VSI was pegged at 2,000 feet per minute and at 100 percent we were climbing like a banshee. It didn’t take long to feel comfortable with the helicopter and we moved on to autorotations. These were predictable and basically a lot of fun. I did 180-degree, 90-degree, and out-of-ground-effect hovering autorotations to a full touchdown. It is just like the R44, only easier.

Another noticeable feature is comfort; the cabin is eight inches wider than the R44. The cyclic flight control retains Robinson’s T-bar arrangement. Not only does this ease transitioning from the R44 to the R66, but the T-bar is exceedingly comfortable in flight.

There is not doubt this helicopter will do very well. Once again Frank Robinson has found a need and filled it. The agile and turbine-powered R66 will do the jobs that a piston engine simply can’t, such as high-altitude flying. It will also find great acceptance in parts of the world where avgas is hard to get or just not available. And for those operators and contracts that require a turbine engine, the R66 will fit perfectly.

There is a lot more to say about this helicopter so look for a full feature article in an upcoming issue of AOPA Pilot magazine.

Guy del Giudice

Friday, June 11th, 2010

Last week was a sad time for many of us in Dallas, Texas. I lost a friend and colleague in a helicopter accident. Guy del Giudice and I worked together at CareFlite; he was also its chief pilot. Also, killed in the crash was CareFlite mechanic Steve Durler and, although I didn’t know him personally, I understand he was very well liked.

Guy was flying a Bell 222 helicopter on a maintenance check flight. At the same time I happened to be flying a news helicopter when I heard Guy call Grand Prairie Tower for a south departure–I work for SKY Helicopter which is under contract with the Fort Worth/Dallas-based CBS affiliate KTVT Channel 11. The photographer and I were covering another news story when we were diverted to a fatal CareFlite helicopter crash south of the Grand Prairie airport. Hovering over the accident site I recognized the aircraft as the Bell 222 and knew immediately that my friend had perished.

The helicopter’s rotor system was located about 100 yards from the fuselage. What exactly caused it to separate from the helicopter in flight is not yet clear. I have no doubt that if anything could have been done to recover from this failure, Guy was the type of pilot who could have done it. He took his profession very seriously and was one of the most skilled pilots I have had the privilege of flying with. EMS crews are like family and all my friends at CareFlite are saddened beyond words. The helicopter industry has lost a talented pilot and a great person.

Above reproach?

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

Commenting on my gross weight blog, Harold wrote:

“Leave the flying to he who is in the cockpit and the finger-pointing blogs to another publication please.”

That got me thinking, when is it (if at all) appropriate to comment, criticize, or even intervene on another pilots actions or behavior? I understand and agree with Harold to a point, but I don’t believe the complete answer is all that clear.

I have studied and written about helicopter accidents for many years. I think most of them have a lesson that can help us all be better pilots. I try to write about these in a way that states the facts without expressly passing judgment (gross weight included) and let the readers draw what they want from the situation. Believe me, I have made my share of mistakes but I have been lucky because they didn’t result in an accident. I have viewed them as learning experiences, because had something been just a little different I might not have been so lucky. I like to tell people that I can’t promise I won’t make a mistake, but I can promise I won’t make the same one twice. Having studied many accidents it is clear that there are no new accidents only the same ones repeated over and over, just in a different manner.

I also believe that simply being a licensed pilot does not make you above reproach. Listed below are three examples of pilot behavior that other people knew was dangerous. A link to the complete NTSB report is included because all the details can’t be listed here.

A pilot flying a news helicopter was well known as a hotdog and the photographer riding with him had expressed concern. His last radio transmission was “watch this” as he pulled the helicopter vertical and severed the tail boom killing himself and the photographer.

A very experienced tour pilot flying in the Grand Canyon was well known for being a skilled pilot and for his aggressive flying. He had earned the nickname “Kamikaze.” At high density altitude he slammed into a canyon wall killing himself and six passengers.

A pilot continued to fail phase checks, check rides, and pre-employment rides. He eventually got a job where his flight skills were not evaluated prior to being hired. He crashed an R22 killing himself and a passenger on an introductory flight.

I really appreciate all the professional comments that people post. So if this subject interests you please take the time to read all the details and let us all know your thoughts. I believe that approaching this topic in the correct way can be a powerful learning tool for those so inclined to listen.

My intent is not to point fingers but to get pilots thinking about how easily an accident can happen. I know that reviewing accidents has helped me be a better pilot. However, I am very curious if other pilots find this helpful.

One final thought. I have been involved as an expert witness for helicopter accident cases in court and believe me the intense scrutiny pilots endure is not pleasant. Seeing that has given me another reason to believe that being ultra conservative to avoid an accident is well worth it.

Lyn Burks

Thursday, November 12th, 2009


Lyn Burks has a passion for the helicopter industry. His aviation career began in early 1991 at the age of 23. Although he was a U.S. Marine from 1985 to 1989, he is civilian trained in Robinson Helicopters. During his initial years in the industry, he worked full time for a municipal fire rescue department. In 1999 he retired as a fire captain and entered aviation full time. Burks holds an ATP/CFII helicopter with nearly 6,000 hours of flying experience and recently he semi-retired from full- time employment as a corporate pilot flying an Agusta A109E. In addition to corporate flying, he has experience in several sectors of the helicopter industry including ENG, charter, utility, instruction, and a five-year stint in EMS flying the S76C+. Burks also is a helicopter industry recruiter who has written several online EBooks and articles about helicopter careers and organizes an annual career development and networking seminar.

Lyn Burks with an A109E

Lyn Burks with an A109E

Burks’ Web site,, has become an industry icon. The site was created in 1998 by retired helicopter pilot Bill Kellogg as a small free access Web information center and a place for people interested in helicopters to exchange ideas. In 2001 Burks took over the Web site and has expanded it into a leading online resource for the helicopter industry. He is also the owner and developer of another popular helicopter Web site, hosts and administers two forums. The original one does not require a login and is very loosely moderated; nevertheless, professional courtesy is strongly suggested. However, beware that the discussions can sometimes be very heated and some of the posts are can get very critical of others. Although there are rules, rumors and gossip show up frequently. It can be very entertaining at times, however if you post something even a little controversial you should be thick skinned as some of the responses can be harsh.


The second forum requires a login, username, and password. As such, the topics and posts are much more professional and technical in nature. According to Burks, it is more suited for first-time users.


Burks recently expanded his network in two new directions with different media content. The first is the addition of Justhelicopters.TV, which is a Web site dedicated to helicopter industry related video content. The second is a media partnership with Rotorcraft Professional magazine, which is a popular helicopter industry trade journal. Burks says, “From print to Web to video, our goal is to offer something to everyone who enjoys and works in the world of helicopters.” is an ongoing project and has remained a free access site. The site contains a comprehensive list of helicopter resources, including articles, photo galleries, job postings, operator directories, flight schools, and salary information. Burks is continually adding and updating content and relies upon input from the helicopter community to keep the information current and pertinent.


You can visit the site at

Infamous flights

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

Just recently (July 23, 2009) a couple booked a sightseeing tour of the Bruges region of Belgium. In flight, one of the passengers pressed a gun to the pilot’s temple. He then took away the pilot’s headset and ordered him to land at a nearby prison. Once on the ground, three inmates climbed on board the helicopter. Forcing the pilot to land near Bruges, the escapees carjacked a vehicle and drove away. They remain at large.

Using a helicopter to escape from prison is nothing new. The first known case happened on August 19, 1971, in Santa Martha Acatitla, Mexico. New York businessman Joel David Kaplan was convicted of killing his business partner, Louis Vidal Jr., in Mexico City. Catching the guards by complete surprise, a helicopter landed in the prison yard where he and fellow inmate Carlos Antonio Contreras Castro, a Venezuelan counterfeiter, escaped prison and the country of Mexico.

Kaplan maintained his claim of innocence. Whether he killed his business partner or not is hard to know as much controversy and unanswered questions surrounded his trial. He went on to write a book about his experience, The 10-Second Jailbreak. The 1975 action film Breakout starring Charles Bronson, Jill Ireland, and Robert Duvall was based on his escape.

Since then, prison escapes by helicopter have become quite popular, especially in Europe. Worldwide since 1971 there has been 24 attempts (5 in the U.S.) to break out of prison using a helicopter. Of those, 19 were successful; however, most were recaptured sometime later. In 23 of these the prisoner(s) attempted to escape by getting onboard the aircraft. In the other one, guns and bulletproof vests were dropped to inmates who were then able to take three guards hostage. Twenty-four hours later they surrendered.

The most common method of acquiring a helicopter for a jailbreak is having an accomplice highjack one with a professional pilot. However, that’s not always the case.

In France a woman known by the flight school as Lena Rigon started taking helicopter flight lessons. Many at the flight school admired her for her strong dedication while also raising two kids without a father. However, that opinion changed when they learned that she was in fact Nadine Vaujour, wife of one of France’s most guarded prisoners, Michel Vaujour, who was in incarcerated for attempted murder and armed robbery.

On May 26, 1986, Vaujour made his way to the prison roof by threatening guards with a fake pistol and nectarines painted as grenades. Once on the roof, his new helicopter pilot wife picked him up. They landed at a nearby soccer field and fled using a waiting car. Later that year Nadine was found hiding at a villa in southwestern France and arrested. Shortly after her arrest, Michel was shot in the head and lapsed into a coma during a failed bank robbery.

Another inmate from France holds the record for planning the highest number of escapes by helicopter. Pascal Payet gained notoriety in 2001 for using a helicopter to escape from Luynes prison in southern France. Then in 2003, while still on the run, he organized another escape for fellow inmates from the same Luynes prison. He was eventually captured, but then escaped for the third time from Grasse prison using a helicopter that was hijacked by four masked men. Payet and his accomplices then fled the scene and the pilot was released unharmed.

Obviously, police departments are not alone in recognizing the advantages of helicopter air support.

Force multiplier

Thursday, July 9th, 2009


In 1949, the New York City Police Department acquired a Bell 47 helicopter, launching the first air support division in the world. What started as a simple aerial observation platform has evolved into a high-tech police asset. Today’s law enforcement helicopter has high-definition, multi-sensor, gyro-stabilized, camera systems, tracking devices and microwave downlink capability to name a few.


One highly effective camera that severely limits a criminal’s ability to hide at night is a thermal-imaging system. This type of camera sees in the infrared spectrum, which detects differences in temperature. For example, a suspect hiding in a group of bushes glows on the screen from body heat. These systems are very effective as the Albuquerque Police Department’s air unit demonstrated when directing ground officers to apprehend a fleeing suspect. The TFO (tactical flight officer) saw him remove a gun from his belt and throw it on the roof of a building. The heat from the suspect’s body had warmed the gun enough that the air unit’s thermal camera saw the abandoned weapon.


This chase won second place in FLIR Systems (one of the camera manufacturers) 2007 vision awards. This and other chases using FLIR cameras can be seen on the Web site under the vision awards tab (


Another valuable tool for police helicopters is a moving map system. When responding to a call, the TFO simply keys in the street address and it appears on the map with heading and distance information for the pilot. As the helicopter flies directly to the location its position is over laid on a detailed street map. Once overhead, the TFO can give precise information regarding streets, directions and intersections to the ground crews.


To see all of this in action, my wife and I rode along with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). The air support unit began in 1956 with one helicopter and has grown to a fleet of 20. Our pilot was Bob Harrell and the TFO was Mark Burdine. That night they were assigned to the San Fernando Valley. Bob was busy flying the aircraft, listening to police radios, and talking to ATC. At the same time Burdine was communicating with headquarters, managing the equipment and directing ground crews.


They responded to one particular call where a patrol car was attempting to stop a car that was identified as a vehicle used in a previous armed robbery. We flew an intercept course to join up with the ground officers. Arriving at the scene in just a few minutes the car had pulled over in a parking lot and the officers were waiting for back-up before approaching the vehicle. We circled a few hundred feet overhead keeping a powerful spotlight on the car. Once back-up arrived, the officers were able to approach the car and take the suspects into custody safely. The spotlight allows the officers to clearly see what is going on, but makes it hard for the suspects to see the officers.


On another call, the crew helped officers search a dark and assumedly abandon building. Here they were able to provide extra light in some areas and watch the perimeter. In the end, no one was hiding in there, but for the ground officers it’s a good feeling to know there is an extra set of eyes watching from above.


To make all this happen safely and effectively, the pilot and TFO each focused on their area of expertise and then worked together as a team to get the mission done. Seeing the professionalism and competence with which these guys did their job was impressive.


Mark Burdine (TFO), Beth McAdams, Bob Harrell (Pilot)LAPD's Astar cockpit at night

Arthur Young and the Bell 47

Friday, June 19th, 2009


There are many early pioneers who contributed to the development of the helicopter. The 1940s was a decade with many flying prototypes from Sikorsky, Hiller, and others. However, the first commercial helicopter certified was a Bell model 47. The design is credited to a young self-taught inventor who learned about helicopters by reading everything he could find in public libraries. His name was Arthur Young.


To test his ideas, Young set up a small aeronautical laboratory on a farm his family owned in Radnor, PA. Throughout the 1930s he experimented with many different designs and powerplants. He built so many models that crashed that he became very good at repairing them and could quickly resume flying. His biggest problem was stability. He first tried a pendulum device that could sense gravity and adjust the rotor system. It failed because any aircraft acceleration would affect the pendulum.


He finally found success with a stabilizer bar. The device used two weights on a bar mounted perpendicular to the blades, in the same plane of rotation. Acting like a gyro, it controlled cyclic pitch to keep the rotor plane fixed in space. With this system Young was able to hold extremely stable hovers with his electric-powered model.


Now that his model was flying well, he set out to interest a manufacturer in building a full-scale prototype. He was finding very little enthusiasm for his project until a friend mentioned his flying model to an engineer at Bell Aircraft Company. This led to a demonstration and a meeting with Larry Bell. Impressed with the concept, Bell gave Young a contract to build two prototypes. On November 24, 1941, Young and his new assistant, Bart Kelly, arrived at the Bell plant to start work.


After a series of political and technical issues were finally worked out, Young learned that Bell had withheld funding because of a concern about the aircraft’s ability to land safely with an engine failure. Young decided to demonstrate an autorotation with a raw egg as a passenger in his model. He started it at the top of a 30-foot ceiling and the small helicopter autorotated to the floor without breaking the egg. Bell restored the $250,000 funding and approved Young’s request for a bigger facility.


After relocating to a garage in Gardenville, NY (about 10 miles from Bell’s main plant) things started happening fast. Six months later the model 30 was ready to flight test. It was powered by a 160-hp Franklin air-cooled engine and had a 32-foot rotor diameter. Young would hover the model 30 while tethered to the ground. Many of these flights helped solve vibration issues. When it became time to release the helicopter’s tether, Bell assigned a test pilot name Floyd Carlson to the project.


After Carlson figured out how to hover the new machine, he began trying faster airspeeds. At different speeds he would encounter vibrations and Young would fix them. While flight testing continued, ship number two was being constructed. In September 1943, Carlson wrecked the helicopter when he struck the tail teaching himself autorotations. Ship number two, which had an enclosed cabin and a passenger seat, took over as the test aircraft.


In the spring of 1944 ship number one had been rebuilt and Young and his team decided to build a third prototype. The third model 30 was not authorized by Bell, but Young wanted to build it to make improvements he felt were needed. Some of these included a four-wheel landing gear, an advanced instrument panel, and a tubular tail boom.


The third model proved to be the best flying prototype, but it did not have an enclosed cabin. Young then came up with the idea of heating a large piece of Plexiglas and blowing it up like a bubble. Bell liked this model and gave Young the go ahead to produce a production prototype. On December 8, 1945, the first model 47 was completed. Shortly thereafter 10 more helicopters were built for training, product improvements, and demonstrations. Then on March 8, 1946, Bell was awarded the first commercial helicopter certification by the CAA.


The model 47 went on to star in several TV shows and movies. When production stopped in 1973, more than 5,000 versions were built.