Friday, January 25, 2008

Why I Hate Helicopters

Most people you know who’ve been on a helicopter have done it as part of a touristy jaunt through the Grand Canyon or Hawaiian islands. Those kind of trips are brief, fun and end with great photos. The other likely option is an emergency medical evacuation, in which case there are happy drugs involved and no one remembers the trip. Either way, helicopters are a positive experience.

Unless you’re in the Army, and me. My current position (Entourage!) requires frequent Blackhawk helicopter flights all about our area of operations.

When I first joined the Army, I was excited to fly around in a helicopter and do ‘air assaults’ like Chuck Norris in Delta Force. My first flight was at night, and while I remember thinking “Are those tree tops at eye level?” it was over before I knew what was happening. The second trip was in Iraq, also at night.

My last helicopter flight from my first Iraq tour was during the day, and we flew low. Way too low. Low enough to smell the cow patties and wave at farmers. The only time we cleared 20 feet was for power lines, and we’d pop over those in a motion similar to the worst part of a roller coaster, then go back to mowing some guy’s lawn. We’d did the up and down motion over and over and over. When we landed, the landing zone was the size of a postage stamp and surrounded by giant barriers just begging to clip the rotor. I got out and swore to avoid helicopters for the rest of my days. So much for that.

A typical flight involves an early arrival at the helicopter landing zone (HLZ). Then we wait.

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We wait until the ‘bird’ arrives. It can take a while.

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Once the bird lands, we get the joy of rotor wash. The birds kick up a great deal of dust and wind, enough to push the unwary off balance. I swear the pilots giggle like school girls when they brown us out.

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Then we run onto the helicopter and pray there’s a free seat, as we never know who’s on the bird before us. Sometimes the coordination is right and we sit wherever, sometimes a crew member with a manifest from 2003 cock blocks everyone trying to get on board. Once seated, we fumble with the many straps for the seatbelt as the pilots and crewmembers giggle at us.

The crewmen know not everyone loves flying, yet I saw one crew member with a patch on his helmet that read “Gravity is a Harsh Mistress.” That is not the reinforcement I need as I fumble with three different latches for the Houdini-designed seatbelts.

Here are a few recent fun fun trips:

I got to sit in a Big Boy seat behind the pilots, which meant I got headphones to listen to the crew talk to each other. I also got to see out the front window.

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Cool, right? Wrong. The in-flight conversation between the pilots went something like this:
Pilot 1: Hey why is that gauge at zero?
Pilot 2: Oh it’s broken, just tap it with your finger.
Pilot 1: Nope, still at zero.
Pilot 2: Don’t worry about it, crossed wire somewhere.
Me (Inside Voice): Ahhhhhhhh!
Pilot 1: OK, hey any idea where we’re supposed to land?
Pilot 2: No not really….hey, there’s a yellow cone. Let’s land there.
Me (Inside Voice): Ahhhhhhhhh!

Were they giggling? Damn right they were.

Then we had one flight where we banked left and right to the point where we were perpendicular to the ground. When we went into a dive the co-pilot raised his hands like he was on a roller coaster. Yes. Really. Then they shot flares! For no reason! Giggle!

On my first flight as an Entourage! I sat on the outermost seat, and the doors were open the whole flight. Why, God? Why? In that seat, all the rotor wash is directed into my face. I could barely breathe, my helmet wanted to fly off and my eye balls dried out. By the time it was all over, I looked like Heath Leger’s Joker. That seat is called the “Hell Hole” for obvious reasons.

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