Simply put, I am not a risk-taker. Years ago when an ex-girlfriend told me she wanted to jump out of an airplane, I supported her decision… with my two feet planted firmly on the ground.
This week, however, I turned over a new leaf. Before leaving my apartment Tuesday morning to board the world’s only somersaulting helicopter, I left my apartment without even double-checking to see if I had left the coffee pot on. What can I say? I like to live dangerously.
Fortunately, I made my decision to ride the helicopter of doom early in the morning, before I was able to think rationally. I strolled out of bed, donned my pretend Evil Knievel jumpsuit and headed for the Lakeland Regional Airport where pilot extraordinaire Chuck “Malibu” Aaron awaited.
The Lakeland Air Show, aka Sun n’ Fun, is dubbed Spring Break for Pilots, although when most associate getting nauseous at spring break, it’s generally from consuming too much liquor, not for doing barrel rolls in a helicopter. But to each his own.
I intentionally didn’t watch the entire video of Chuck’s mid-air antics, knowing that it would have adversely swayed my decision to get on board but I knew I was in good hands. Chuck has over thirty years experience in the air, from crop dusting to NASA shuttle recovery. He was the driving force behind Red Bull’s BO-105CBS, the Bölkow. Along with its twin aircraft, they’re the FAA’s only approved aerobatic helicopters. Needless to say, it was one of Sun n’ Fun’s featured attractions.
Some six years ago, Chuck got together with the owner of Red Bull and discussed the possibility of helicopter aerobatics. He knew it was a long shot, what with all the FAA regulations and helicopter modifications, never mind the nerves it takes to actually fly a helicopter upside down. It took Chuck about eighteen months to pass it through the FAA and then another few months before he could convince himself such feats were even possible.
“It took me fifty tries. Literally fifty times and I would chicken out at the top of the loop and roll out,” Chuck told me. “One day I was up there getting to my chicken point with full intentions of rolling out. I got to the top and said I’m gonna go for it today. I pulled it back, did the loop and was so excited about how easy it was, I did it ten more times right there. After that, everything came easy.”
He’s a daring soul.
“Are you excited?” asked one Red Bull representative as I walked onto the tarmac. Hesitant? Yes. Fearful? Absolutely. Excited? Eh… not so much. I’m not sure what I feared more, the ride itself or the look of disapproval on my mother’s face when she read that I actually boarded the chopper.
I’d lie if I said I didn’t feel queasy after about the eighth roll. At least I think it was that many. I kind of lost track (not consciousness though). Midway through the ride, I wanted to stop and ask Chuck if I could grab my video camera to film the adventure, but the words just wouldn’t come out. I decided it’d best to just sit back and ‘enjoy’ the ride. According to Chuck, we did a couple loops, a couple of rolls, a split ‘S’ where we climbed rolling at a 45-degree angle and some other maneuvers that defy logic… and gravity.
I did my best to maintain composure as I was suspended upside down in a vehicle that has absolutely no business being upside down, but the flight was just another day at the office for Chuck, the world’s most unique helicopter pilot. After all, how many people do you know ever thought it would be a good idea for a helicopter to do somersaults, then see that dream into fruition?
“You did terrific, I was proud of you,” said Chuck somewhat patronizingly as I got off the aircraft, doing my best to maintain some semblance of manhood.
Aside from being a real-life daredevil, Chuck is a genuinely nice guy, probably from years of feeling sorry for all the people seated to his left turning green. He’s the spitting image of Rip Taylor, minus the confetti and flamboyance. Last time I checked, Taylor never logged 17,000 hours of helicopter experience.
I’ll be perfectly honest. I spent the rest of the day recovering, having been physically rattled like never before. I’ve been in airplanes, helicopters, speedboats, bar fights, sports cars, roller coasters and even had my fair share of dysfunctional relationships. None of them left me quite as rattled as the Bölkow.
Would I do it again? Maybe, but probably not. Who, other than Chuck needs to experience that twice in their lifetime? But at least now I can walk around town with my head held high, saying I’m one of the ‘fortunate’ few to have ever had the pleasure of being in a helicopter upside down… several… times… over… gulp.