The aroma of damp grass, JP-8 jet fuel, and musty farts coating the inside of the helicopter by generations of terrified flight students rises to my nose. I breathe loudly. Each huff echoes like a dying pug’s last gasp.
Meatybob keys the ICS, our intercommunications system.
“You sound like a pervert.”
I close my mouth.
Around me, the helicopter turns fuel into heat and noise.
Meatybob sits on the instructor’s side of the cramped chopper. He’s redneck-skinny and weighs barely 20 pounds more than me. His call sign is a play on his animal sciences major in college, but I just find it fun to say:
He’s been in Florida for two years as an instructor, having been a former cargo helicopter pilot for the Marines. I’m his umpteenth on-wing, somewhere in the 30s. His track record is immaculate: His students have consistently selected their first choice for fleet helicopter assignments upon winging.
I’m in the left seat. I’m halfway through flight school—12 months in—with the promise of earning my wings of gold at the end of this stage. My whole family wants to fly out for the ceremony.
Too far ahead to think about.
I adjust the shoulder straps digging into my collarbone through my uniform. My olive-drab flight suit has acquired its aviation patina through the previous trials of Primary flight training in Texas. But my patches are new. They haven’t yet frayed, torn, or been dragged through bright-red hydraulic fluid. My favorite is the round shoulder patch of my squadron’s signature devil baby brandishing a pitchfork. We’re the Hellions. Our motto: “Get lucky.”
Meatybob keys the mic.
“Ground, Lucky 156 commencing low work on Spot Echo.”
Ground clears us to lift.
The helo springs from the safety of the tarmac into the clean air above. She purrs patiently in her hover. Meatybob could probably fly this bird blindfolded.
I only know we’re hovering because of my new vantage point five feet over the airfield. My vision fills with the stark edges of black tarmac bisecting green grass. A wall of conifers stands sentinel in the distance under a blue sky dotted with puffy clouds.
My cue-ball helmet bobs up and down with the steady beat of the bird. Above us, the two slender blades of the TH-57B Bell Sea Ranger spin into the blur of what’s called the rotor disc.
She’s not as loud as I thought she’d be. The orange-and-white chopper is a training helicopter, resilient to the daily attempts by student pilots to crash it, and powered by a single engine—turbofan. It sounds fancier than it is. Helicopters stay airborne through the magical combination of physics, aerodynamics, and mechanical engineering. For an English major like me, flight makes sense only when broken down Barney-style: suck, squeeze, bang, blow.
“All right,” my instructor says over the ICS, “we’ll start with one control at a time.”
The butterflies in my stomach migrate to my throat. I wish I’d scarfed a few gummy worms at breakfast; my high school drama teacher was always adamant they’d eat those damn butterflies. Weeks of ground school, hours of reading monotonous flight manuals, and the memorizing of course rules and emergency procedures—including all notes, warnings, and cautions—have led to this sortie.
My first helicopter flight.
As is the tradition of a student pilot’s first flight, I bet Meatybob a case of beer I’d be able to keep the helicopter hovering inside one of several large white boxes painted on the airfield. Some students actually won the bet. I was nervous, but confident. The boxes were massive.
“When you’re ready,” Meatybob says, “we’ll start with the collective.”
I look down to my left. The collective sits like an emergency brake in a car, angled slightly upward, black nonstick coating the throttle. Its main function is to move the helicopter in the vertical axis by adjusting power to the rotor head. Pull up on the collective, she goes up. Push down, and down she goes. Simple.
I wrap my left hand firmly around the collective. I swallow, then fix my eyes on the horizon.
“I have the collective.”
“You have the collective.”
“I have the collective.”
The three-way transfer of controls sounds silly, but it guarantees there’s no confusion over who’s flying.
Meatybob raises his hand to show it’s free.
The bird does nothing. She sits in the sky five feet off the deck, humming and waiting. My gloved hand grips the metal cylinder tightly. I’m technically now flying a helicopter.
“Bring us up to 10 feet,” Meatybob commands.
I raise the collective with a tiny jerk. The helicopter leaps toward the clouds. I reduce collective slightly. The white needle of the radar altimeter bounces just above the second hashmark: 10 feet. A trickle of excitement runs down my spine. The agile aircraft is as eager to please as I am.
“Now bring us back down.”
My left arm stiffens as I push downward, careful to smooth the descent. When the bird settles into her previous position, I pull up slightly, stopping our fall.
That was easy.
I transfer control of the collective back to Meatybob.
“OK, let’s try the pedals,” he says. “Ready?”
I’m buzzing with anticipation. “Yes, sir.”
Meatybob gives me the pedals, oversized metal tubes, each stamped with the word “Bell.” The chunky foot controls determine yaw, allowing a helicopter to spin on the spot.
“Let’s do a left 360,” Meatybob says.
I stomp on the left pedal. The horizon blurs past as we turn quickly. Too fast. I tap the right to slow our rate of turn. The trees come back into focus as we now inch our way around. Too slow.
“Keep it going,” Meatybob prompts.
I gradually feed in left pedal this time and our bird continues her circle. Other students practice in my vicinity: Helicopters take off from the duty runway, refuel in the hot pits, and hover in the grass adjacent to us, but I don’t focus on them. I’m absorbed in my circle. We complete our 360 and Meatybob takes the pedals back.
I exhale. I hadn’t realized I was holding my breath.
The final swap will be the cyclic—the full-sized joystick bolted between my legs. This is the hardest control to master, as the cyclic allows movement both forward and back, and side to side. Our cyclic looks badass, adorned with red Top Gun-style buttons and a beefy trigger. Never mind the trigger is only for radio calls.
At five-foot-two and three-quarters, I am so short I must resort to wedging a stack of in-flight publications under my kneeboard. This allows my hand to rest level with the black plastic grip and not the metal shaft of the cyclic. My forearm can now relax on my raised kneeboard, preventing my elbow from flopping around. A triangle is the most stable position.
Meatybob looks at the fingers of my right hand.
“Try not to squeeze the black out of the stick,” he warns.
I release my death grip and flex my fingers, one at a time. Think light thoughts, butterfly kisses.
Sweat soaks the collar of my flight suit.
“OK,” I say. “Let’s do this.”
“You have the cyclic.”
“I have the cyclic.”
“You have the cyclic.”
As soon as Meatybob stops speaking, pilot-induced oscillations rack the airframe. The helicopter sidesteps left, then back right. I concentrate on correcting the movement with tiny pushes and pulls of the stick.
“Keep her in the middle. Small circles.”
I physically can’t answer—my mouth can’t form words. I concentrate so fiercely on not crashing, there’s little mental capacity left for anything else.
The bird keeps skittering around. I bust the white-painted box within seconds. There goes my case of beer. The oscillations grow stronger, left and right, and now up and down. The tarmac rises to meet my gaze, then a sudden glimpse of trees and sky. Then grass blowing under the rotor wash. I’m a drunken yo-yo, swinging on a broken string.
“Relax your grip. Keep working,” Meatybob instructs.
I fight with the cyclic in a desperate attempt to salvage my hover. I jam the stick forward, then back. Nothing works. I fear the tail skid will impact the ground, and by now we’re also heading toward the tree line. I’m not even over tarmac anymore.
Panic creeps in. I can’t control this circus ride. The bucking bronco is loose.
“I have the controls.”
Thank god for Meatybob. In a heartbeat, he’s hovering effortlessly back over our spot. He lands and reduces the throttle to flight idle.
I sit in silence as the bird’s engine whines down. My gloved hands are shaking. I can’t look Meatybob in the face. How many times have his students tried to kill him in this helicopter?
“Well, some pilots are naturals,” he says.