Taking an helicopter for a spin in the sky isn't as simple as it looks in action movies. You can't just run up, jump in the seat, rev the engine and fly off. If only it were that simple.
“The aviation world is full of procedures”, the instructor tells me as we walk to the door. I can see rows of helicopters of different sizes parked out there through the hangar windows. “Procedures are there to make us, the environment, and everyone else safer. Accidents still happen, they'll always do,” he says “but a lot less of them occur when the procedures are strictly followed.”
We will be flying the Hughes 300, which is its common name, but is in fact a Hughes 269 (don't ask) training helicopter with dual commands.
While fuelling, the instructor tells me that this model is a favourite of the air forces of many countries who use it to start trainees off on vertical manoeuvres. It's small, easily manoeuvrable and it just plain simply works. Back in 1964 the US military brought in the 269A to replace the TH-23. By '69 they already had 792 units delivered, and it remained the primary helicopter pilot trainer until it was replaced in 1988. Quite a good score if you ask me. All in all, this model has trained 60,000 U.S. military pilots. Heck, Kris Kristofferson was trained on this chopper and he did alright! The 300's good reputation made it popular for civilian training purposes as well.
Fuelling a chopper, like everything else in avionics, has its own procedure. You must ground (“earth” for our UK friends) the aircraft before you can proceed with the fuelling. The grounding wire comes attached to the gas hose from the gas pump which is prudently situated 100 meters away, therefore making sure that if you ever forget to put out your cigarette while refuelling, you won't take the whole airport with you to Valhalla.
To fill ‘er up, I was expecting some kind of serious high tech connector that goes Pssst-klunk! when you futz around with it, but the 300 has a simple gas cap on top of the tank. You unscrew the cap, stick the nozzle in and squeeze the handle as if you were filling up a lawnmower. Even more disappointing is that, while at the gas station you may take for granted that the anti-spill safety will pop when your tank is full, here it just won't work. You have to keep your eye on the gauge, which will work only when the battery is on.
The instructor tells me to fill the tank with a specific amount of fuel because we won’t need a lot for our training flight. The weight of this fuel has already been calculated, added to the aircraft's overall weight and then reported in our flight plan. Once we are done we winch the hoses back to the pump terminal.
We begin the pre-flight inspection together. I'm told that even if the chopper has been checked this morning, it might have been used since then and we really don't want to find out in mid-air that something is wrong. And yes, there are also procedures to follow up there, if the thing starts to drop out of the sky. But you don't want to be in that spot, right? Pre-flight procedures put all the chances on your side.
When I learned how to drive a car I was told to do a pre-inspection of the car before I got on the road with it. Well a pre-flight is just like that, but on steroids, and much more vital. We push and move and feel nearly every part of the aircraft from cabin to tail, up to the rotor and even check the oil. As with piloting, pre-flight inspection is a tactile, one could say almost sensual experience because you have to touch everything, feel it all. This is supposed to be solid, this is supposed to give easily, this is supposed to swing freely. Your life depends on this input and how receptive you are to it.
I'm no fool. I fully realize that I'm putting myself in a dangerous situation, the consequences of which could be dire, for no real good practical reason. I could have stayed in bed. Right now, I could be safely incinerating Splicers in Bioshock or be doing this whole flying trip on a flight simulator and be done with it. But I'm here because I've always dreamed of flying. I want to learn stuff and I want to do stuff and always push back my boundaries. That's why we humans built roads and bridges, galleons and whirligigs like this marvelous creature, and eat bear meat instead of being a bear’s lunch. Most of the time, anyway.
The engine starting procedures comes next.
Strapped in with the four point seat-belt, I'm really excited and ready to take off. Even the cold is almost forgotten. All this pre-flight experience only stoked my need to fly.
But that's not what happens. The instructor produces a card encased in plastic and starts following the pre-flight checks step by step. This is like liturgy, like going to mass. Although I find it anticlimactic, I realize all those procedures are the prayers to the pagan Gods of Aeronautics that will keep me safe every time I take off into the big bright blue.
But I can't stop a nagging interior dialogue that keeps asking : “Are you sure you can to fly this thing?”
I had to make sure the instructor wasn't making it all up! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TH-55_Osage