“Hey, is that your helicopter?”
Naturally, he had to be talking to me, being the only one in the room remotely looking like a helicopter pilot. I was wearing a nomex flight suit with black boots, surrounded by corporate pilots decked out in suits and ties. I stood out as much as my Bell 222 out on the ramp with a covey of corporate jets. We both looked out of place at the San Francisco International Airport FBO.
After I said it was, he asked, “How fast does it go?”
I thought jeez here we go again, what is it with jet guys? It’s like an Indy driver asking how fast a four-wheel drive truck can go.
“Oh, she will cruise about 130 knots,” I said. I heard a few snickers around the room from the younger copilots. The older captains seemed bored reading their newspapers.
Okay my turn I thought. “Which airplane are you flying?” I innocently asked, as he proudly pointed to one of the sleek jets.
“Nice. How slow can it fly?”
“What do you mean?” he asked, somewhat flustered.
“How slow can it fly?” I repeated.
He looked at me a little perplexed and said, “Well, in a landing configuration, we can do about 105 knots.”
“You’re kidding right? Is that as slow as you can possibly get that thing?” I said with feigned incredulity. I noticed the newspapers being lowered and the captains didn’t look bored anymore.
He said “No, that’s about as slow as they can fly,” looking around the room for a little help.
I said, while nodding my head sympathetically, “That is a severe limitation, but if you stick to runways you should be okay.”
“The helicopter is ultimate off-road vehicle,” I said. “I can put it on a mountaintop, highway, beach, or rooftop helipad anytime of day or night. I can pick up an accident victim having the worst day of her life and fly her to a trauma center in a matter of minutes. That helicopter is a single-pilot IFR capable aircraft that flies about 400 patients a year, and it rarely uses a runway. It isn’t the fast, but the slow that matters in my world.”
We all had a good laugh, and one of the captains said, “Well, nobody in this room is ever going to ask another helicopter pilot how fast their helicopter can fly.”
As I left the room I looked through the window at all the beautiful, though severely limited corporate jets and said, “Runways are for beauty queens.”
Out on the ramp, thinking about the comparison of airplanes and helicopters, I thought back to the 1980s when I had introduced a friend to helicopters for the first time.
We had met flying Beech 18s and a Cessna 182 for a skydiving operation on weekends. He had never been in a helicopter, so early one evening after flying a powerline patrol I took him up for a short ride. I removed the doors, my preferred way of flying in those days, and we enjoyed the cool Carolina air.
After flying around for a bit we returned to the airport and I figured I would demonstrate some of the unique abilities of the helicopter. On final approach to a runway, I bled off airspeed while maintaining altitude at 400 feet. As the airspeed indicator crept lower and lower, my friend sat straighter and straighter in his seat.
I said, “This must feel a little strange to you?”
“Yep,” was all he could muster.
Eventually, he was gripping the sides of the seats in true white-knuckle fashion as the airspeed indicator reached zero. We remained motionless at a high hover, with the runway right in front of us.
“Pretty cool, huh?” I said, as he stared at the airspeed indicator.
He said nothing.
“Isn’t this awesome?” I tried again.
“Everything I fly would be falling out of the sky,” he replied tersely.
After a minute, I noticed the blood was returning to his fingers. He was relaxing and getting used to the idea that airspeed was totally unnecessary for powered flight. I then lowered the collective slightly, dropped the nose and swooped in a shallow approach profile for the runway doing a quick stop at a taxiway intersection. I then continued down the runway at a hover taxi speed with a couple of 360-degree pedal turns thrown in for practice.
Minutes later, as we air-taxied behind one of the Beech 18s and gently set down on the grass, he said, “Okay, tell me about how long and how much to get my helicopter pilot license.” He had gone from white knuckles to wanting to fly helicopters, and in just a few minutes.
I believe deep down his heart was saying, “Yeah, runways are for beauty queens.”
This is all meant in good fun, and mainly, in awe of our machines. Have a “runways are for beauty queens” story? Share it below in the comments section.