My morning spent upside down with Chuck Aaron and the Red Bull Bölkow aerobatic helicopter (video)

The things I do for subject material.

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.

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29 Replies to “My morning spent upside down with Chuck Aaron and the Red Bull Bölkow aerobatic helicopter (video)”

  1. Awesome ride, never saw a chopper do that stuff before. I hope you were compensated handsomely!

  2. The experience alone was reward enough. Bla bla bla.

    A couple of my pieces lately have made print in Creative Loafing lately, including the roller derby piece.

    This was actually an assignment they sent me on and needless to say… I drew the short straw.

    Hey, I should have the t-shirts by early next week so I’ll drop you an e-mail.

    For the rest of you, they’ll be on sale shortly…. and they’re NICE!

  3. Freakishly awesome! You rolled in a chopper, but you wouldn’t rock n roll with the Roller Derby gals?

    I have much more respect for Red Bull now….

  4. Chris

    Well at least it beats having Heidi Fleiss performing oral sex to pleasure you ? LOL,LOL,LOL !!!

    I’ve been up in a heli’ eight times in my life. Seven times in the course of duty (military) and once as a tourist seeing the Grand Canyon the first time I came to the US on holiday. That was a hell of a sight being up that high and appreciating the view for what it was worth !

    AVP Tour women’s beach volleyball. So forgive me if I disappear for a moment . The girlfriend is an avid fan of the sport. And myself I simply enjoy the nuances of it all. I mean what’s not to like seeing females scantly clad bouncing up and down in the sand on a beach ?

    Alan Parkins

  5. You are the man, Rev!!! I don’t like being in a helicopter, let alone one that thinks it’s in the X Games.

    A one of a kind experience with which to impress the ladies! Not that you need any help there, CH.

    And now, t-shirts?

  6. Al… it was my second time up in a helicopter, my first time being in one upside down.

    Sorry I didn’t give you a ring as I was so close to Dundee, but I was green after the flight anyway.

  7. Han the Man… working on some pricing now but I don’t see these original, one-of-a-kind SportsChump t-shirts going for any more than $2 billion apiece.

    It’s the least I can do to help the deficit… or buy the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

  8. I did hang with the derby girls, Elizabeth.

    My only question is how many of them would have climbed up into that helicopter.

    I’m guessing about 80%.

  9. Chris

    I’m down south with the girlfriend business and pleasure. Will be working down here ’til Wednesday before returning home. Pleasure side was getting to watch the women’s AVP pro volleyball tournament on the beach in Ft Lauderdale. The girlfriend is an avid fan and follower of the sport. And it helps that she and some of her friend are accordingly attired as befits such an occasion . Bikinis and very little else that can be left to the imagination .

    Well the Spurs went down to the Mavs in a good game. But I do believe that they can sneak a win in game two of the series .

    Pavlik lost his middleweight title to Sergio Martinez. Well that’s another Buckeye who ain’t worth crap (Pavlik- Youngstown-Oh) !

    Philly Cheesesteak Or Just Plain Philly ……….?

    Alan Parkins

  10. What dangerous stunt will Creative Loafing have you do next? Bungy jumping from the Skyway bridge or maybe even the most frightening stunt of all, window shopping on St.Pete’s Baywalk?

  11. Dude……that’s insane! Good for you though. I don’t think I would have done that.

  12. I agree with you on the Spurs, Al. Seemed like they just gave up late. Although the Mavs, like I said, do have some firepower on that roster.

    Be sure to take some pictures of the volleyball tour.

  13. Aero… I’m not sure but they sent me a funny e-mail after I turned in the piece.

    Their editor said they’d keep me in mind when they have another assignment that’s sure to kill the writer.

    So I have that going for me… which is nice.

  14. Al…

    I don’t know that anything will compare to the tension of those Knicks-Heat, Chicago-Detroit or Boston-LA series but Miami-Boston is off to a nice start.

    Besides, Stern doesn’t let anyone throw punches anymore so you’re likely to see more healthy squabbles are your local Le Petit Academy.

  15. Chris

    Man you’re forgetting the throw down at the Palace of Auburn Hills . Pacers Pistons started out as an altercation between the two teams. That was ’til Artest decided he’d rearrange the face of Pistons’ fan. How could you have forgotten that ?

    A New Vice , A New Reason To Love The Women of The AVP Tour ……….

    Here’s my AVP volleyball piece. Because of ESPN and the AVP restrictions once the event started you couldn’t take pics. So I threw this together with an assist of a friend .

    Alan Parkins

  16. Al… I don’t think anyone will forget where they were when Artest decided to run into the stands and exact revenge on a fan that threw beer on him.

    By the way, what did you think about 30 for 30’s latest piece on Iverson?

  17. Al… I’m not sure who looked worse, the Sox over the past four days or the Nuggets last night.

    Adrian Dantley is clearly not the answer. Down ten only to come back and take the lead, then give it back?

    No excuses for that and THAT’S why I wrote that this Nuggest teams ain’t going anywhere.

  18. Chris

    In all honesty that was a night when Artest probably had come of his meds ? Or if memory serves me correctly wasn’t he drinking while he was with the Pacers or was it merely his time with the Bulls ?

    As for the piece on Iverson , I simply don’t know what to make of it all ! From his days in G’town under John Thompson to his career in the NBA , he’s always carried baggage. I tell you something, Spirit Airlines would make a ‘mint’ off him charging $45-00 bag for each carry on LOL,LOL,LOL !!!

    Alan Parkins

  19. Chris

    If TO & D-Mac reunite in DC , does that mean that there’s a still a chance for an actual Middle Eastern peace settlement and the Palestinians will be allowed the return of their lands seized over the last decade ? Because this is the seismic shift you’re talking about should that scenario become a reality . Next thing you know Ahmadinejad and Nethanyu will be breaking bread and bit_h slappin’ ho’s together ! What’s next I ask ?

    Alan Parkins

  20. Al… maybe Artest was mad that night because he felt that was a perfectly good waste of Hennessey.

    Apparently, Iverson is still having personal problems.

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