My First Helicopter Ride
Updated: Sep 28, 2019
Throughout life there are many ‘firsts’ we experience, but few of the early ones are remembered and then only if the event traumatized us or had such a profound impact that it changed the course of our lives. On a cool, clear summer morning at Yakima Municipal Airport in 1957 I stood next to a bright yellow Bell G-47 helicopter as long time family friend Tom Wilkerson did his preflight. Tom taught my dad to fly right after WWII and by 1957 Tom had traded in his Steraman Crop Duster biplane for this machine. This was to be one of those golden moments that I treasure. I was all of 11 years old and about to see my world view radically altered.
Every detail of those moments is deeply etched in my mind. I can smell the mixture of avgas, crop dusting chemicals and the crisp sagebrush musk that floated across the airfield from the fringing desert. The bubble was shined with MirrorGlaze adding its sweet fragrance to the mix. Soon it was time to climb in. Tom showed me how the shoulder harness and seat belt worked and soon I was sitting next to him as his hands moved over the center instrument pedestal. The plexiglas doors had been removed adding to the intimate feeling of the small cockpit. Tom yelled “Clear” and the Lycoming starter whined as the engine turned over and then caught with a growl. Slowly the rotor blades began to turn. My nostrils took in the new smell of high octane avgas burning in the slowly accelerating engine just behind my back.
Tom let the engine come up to idle while he intently watched the cylinder head temperature climb, oil pressure come up and we sat for a short while as the machine came alive. A mixture of engine buzz, rotor shuffle and blade tip whistle filled my ears. He turned to me and asked, “You ready?” He rolled the throttle on and soon the helicopter took on a more serious stance. The engine tach read 3100 rpm. He switched the magnetos, first left then right, then back to both, each time noting the rpm drop. He made a quick call to the tower and we were ready to go...
Tom had many thousands of hours of flight time by 1957 and his command of the G-47 was something to behold. Power came up as he pulled up on the collective pitch and we rose straight up 3 feet. At that instant I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life! It was magical, It was intoxicating. I couldn’t take it all in fast enough. All 5 senses were on overload. As a kid I often had dreams of flying, like Superman, skimming low over my neighborhood and this was exactly like those wonderful dreams only THIS was real. We hovered out in front of the hangar parking ramp to a taxiway. Tom moved us around in perfect control as we lined up for take off. I watched his hands and feet on the controls. Tiny movements. That’s all it took and we began to accelerate down the taxiway in front of the control tower. The world was drifting by just like in my dreams.
We headed out across the farm country around Yakima, never getting more than a few hundred feet. I could see everything. I could see relationships of roads to houses, creek beds and pastures. The world lay out before me and it was clear that flying a helicopter was the best way to command this view of things. It was a magic carpet ride. Cows in the fields passed under us, a smokestack loomed up ahead. Tom put the Bell in a steep bank as we pivoted around the top of the stack allowing us to look down inside. Amazing! Moving away from the edge of the city, we dropped down very low and followed a creek bed banking and turning to follow its serpentine path between two crop growing fields. He then began a low level run over a field of alfalfa skimming the green rows by a few feet. When we came to the end of the row, Tom abruptly pulled the nose of the helicopter up and we zoomed over a set of telephone wires. Our airspeed quickly dropped off with our nose pointed steeply up. Just as I though we were going to fall backward and crash he kicked in left peddle and in just a second we were pointed in the opposite direction back down the direction we had just flown. Tom said that was a ‘crop dusting turn’ Wild! We raced down the field at 70 knots skimming along a few feet off the ground and made another crop dusting turn swooping up and clear of the telephone wires at the other end of the field. Now I really was hooked.
60 minutes of the most amazing hour of my young life had just flown by and the thrill and excitement of that flight exposed me to something I feel was genetically there all along. And this event simply catalyzed and awakened what was to be a very long love affair with these machines.
We returned to the airfield and from that point on, I could not think about anything else but that yellow Bell helicopter. I asked Tom for the Operator’s Manual, training manuals, manuals on the theory of helicopter aerodynamics, anything he had I wanted to read and absorb. I spent hours and hours laying on his living room floor engrossed in those manuals as I listened to Victory At Sea on his killer stereo system.
By the time I was in High School, I had read everything I could find on helicopters. I even got my hands on a set of Bensen Gyrocopter rotor blades and a McCulloch 72hp target drone engine
and began building a gyrocopter of my own design. Before it was finished I joined the US Army and
headed off to Flight School to learn to fly helicopters. The gyrocopter never flew, but my dream came true and I enjoyed a very long and exciting career in Army Aviation.