People Archive

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.

Colorful characters

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009


It seems that almost all industries and groups have their share of larger than life personalities. For some, the publicity is good and for others it does not bode so well. Aviation has its share of colorful characters and the helicopter industry seems to attract them.


You might remember back in early February a helicopter pilot named David Martz whose antics and famous passenger got him in the news. On board his helicopter that day was rock star Tommy Lee. An LAPD helicopter pilot/officer reported that Martz flew too close to his aircraft, was flying erratically, and disobeyed orders from the air traffic control tower.


The LAPD pilot told Martz to land at Van Nays airport. When local officers arrived, the helicopter was shut down and Martz and Lee were gone. A search of the area found Martz at a local hotel bar drinking. He told the officers he started drinking as soon as he landed. A breathalyzer test was inconclusive as to whether Martz was under the influence while flying. Lee was later tracked down, questioned, and released.


This incident put a public spotlight on Martz’s past. In 2006, he landed a helicopter on a Hollywood Hills public street, in front of Lee’s house, and took Lee and a guest to a rock concert. He was charged with reckless flying.


In 2007, he was photographed grabbing a topless woman while flying a helicopter. The FAA received an e-mail and photographs describing the incident. However, they decided not to pursue it because there was no formal complaint filed and there was no proof he was flying when the photos were taken.


Recently, a video surfaced of Martz and a porn star flying over San Diego. A statement from the FAA says the tape shows Martz participating in lewd behavior while flying his helicopter. The agency issued an emergency revocation of his pilot certificate.


I have heard many different opinions on this pilot. Some said he was just enjoying the freedom of aviation and does not deserve to be harassed by the FAA. Others said he is reckless, gives the industry a bad image, and is an out of control risk taker. I am personally someone who believes the government should interfere in our lives as little as possible. However, there are times when public safety requires some form of intervention.


In this case, landing on a public street without authorization or adequate safety controls endangers the public. Flying over a populated area with such distractions can present unnecessary and unwarranted risk to persons on the ground. I understand that this is not the first or only time this type of activity has happened in an aircraft, but putting a video on the Internet really shows bad judgment.

Pedal power

Tuesday, March 24th, 2009

The idea of a human-powered helicopter has intrigued many engineers and pilots. Although a practical application really does not exist, it is a good exercise in the development of highly efficient airfoils and light weight structures. As such, many colleges and universities have put together teams of engineering students to develop and build a human-powered helicopter.

A human-powered aircraft is defined as a vehicle that can carry at least one person using only what power is provided by the person(s) on board, usually by pedaling. Early attempts mainly involved airplanes. For example, the best known human-powered airplane is the Gossamer Albatross, which flew across the English Channel in 1979. Helicopters which require much more power to hover present a much bigger challenge. The two biggest problems are weight reduction and designing a highly efficient rotor system. Efficiency means that the rotors must generate a lot of lift with very little drag.

In 1980, to help further and support the idea of a human powered helicopter, the American Helicopter Society established the Igor I. Sikorsky human-powered helicopter competition. A prize of $20,000 was offered for a successful controlled flight lasting for 60 seconds and reaching an altitude of 3 meters while remaining in an area 10 meters square.

The first vehicle that actually got airborne was the Da Vinci III in 1989, designed and built by students at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in California. For high rotor efficiency, the students knew that it would be important for the blades to work with as much air as possible. A big rotor handles a large amount of air and thus requires less energy to produce lift. The Da Vinci III had a 100-foot rotor diameter and a tip speed of 50 feet per second. In order to reduce weight, rotor tip propellers provided thrust. This eliminated the need for a transmission and anti torque system. The approximate weight of the aircraft with pilot was 230 lbs. It flew for 7.1 seconds and reached a height of 8 inches. However, the helicopter was unstable and required students on the ground to assist with control. No attempt was ever made to correct the instability.

The current world record for human-powered helicopters is held by an aircraft named Yuri I, built by a team from the Nihon Aero Student Group (NASG). It used four two-blade rotor systems (10 meter diameter each) operating at 20 rpm. In 1994, it achieved a height of 20 cm for 19.46 seconds unassisted and unofficially reached 70 cm during a flight lasting 24 seconds.

As far as I can tell, the most recent attempt, although unsuccessful, at a human-powered helicopter was on August 10, 2004, by a group of engineering students at the University of British Columbia. Although their project seems to be on hold, their Web site is still up.

Many have attempted to fly human-powered helicopters both before and after the creation of the Sikorsky Prize. So far no one has met all of the Sikorsky prize’s requirements.

Lexy’s adventure

Monday, March 9th, 2009

As a parent, I often wonder if my children will develop a passion for flying. I have two daughters, Madi who is 8 years old and Lexy who is 13. Both of them have been around airplanes and helicopters from the time they were babies. In fact, Madi got a helicopter ride before she was born. My wife was four months pregnant, when we flew an R44 from California to Pennsylvania (see AOPA PILOT, September 2000).

Sometimes I think spending so much time around aircraft has given them a different perspective than their friends. Like the time my wife and I decided to rent a C172 and take them around the area to look at the fall colors. They were excited, however, after takeoff we looked in the back and they were both sleeping. My wife commented, “I am not sure they understand the difference between this and the car.”

Last year I had an opportunity to take Lexy with me on a ferry flight from Dallas, TX to Long Beach, CA in an AS350 Astar helicopter. This time she wasn’t content just being a passenger, she wanted to try flying. The first day was a short flight to El Paso, TX. So once clear of DFW’s class B airspace, I gave her the controls. She could hold it steady for a short time before I would take over, straighten it out, and give it back to her. She was determined to make the helicopter do what she wanted and after about 20 minutes she could basically hold it straight and level. After an hour or so she was bored and started asking a lot of questions. I showed her how to read the Garmin GPS, hold heading and altitude and after practicing the rest of the day she got pretty good.

The next day she started out flying right away and flew almost the entire day. I watched, somewhat amazed, as she held a steady course and would tell me how she was using the information she was reading off the GPS. After a while she was eager to learn more and I showed her the sectional map. She would take a break from flying for 5 or 10 minutes and study it. Along our course about 20 nm south of Deming, NM was a tethered balloon to 15,000 feet msl. It was marked on the sectional as a restricted area and she noticed we were heading right for it. When we got closer, she spotted the balloon glimmering in the sun and turned north to avoid the area.

By the time we arrived in the Los Angeles area, she was really comfortable flying and a big help with threading our way through the crowded airspace. We parked the helicopter at Long Beach airport and flew home on the airlines. The next day she came home from school looking very sad. I asked her what was wrong and she said that none of her friends believed that she flew a helicopter. Luckily, we took lots of pictures for her to show them.