AIN Blog: Fun With Helicopters

 - March 4, 2014, 7:15 AM
Pete Gillies
Pete Gillies, chief pilot at Western Helicopters. (Photo: Matt Thurber)

The annual Helicopter Association International Heli-Expo show is one of the most enjoyable shows that I attend each year. It’s not because the show is all about helicopters, but more about the unique nature of those who have dedicated their lives to the whirlybird industry. Helicopter people are not only intensely committed to all things rotary-winged but at the same time they’re a fun-loving bunch, and this is such a small segment of the aviation industry that there are few degrees of separation between all of the participants.

Heli-Expo is also fun because it’s the only show where anyone can come early and leave late to watch the arrivals and departures of the helicopters that are on exhibit. It was a real thrill to see the talented pilots position their steeds so precisely as they landed and took off from the heliport in back of the Anaheim Convention Center. And it must have been somewhat intimidating to fly in front of the watching crowds and all the other pilots while maneuvering ever so carefully among the arriving and departing helicopters. (My photos of some arrivals and departures are available here on Flickr, and complete coverage of the show is available here.)

Every year, all the helicopter hardware and the interesting people in the exhibition halls inspire me to want to learn how to fly helicopters. In nearly 40 years of flying, I’ve logged only a handful of helicopter hours, but I’d like to add to that column in my logbook.

This year, in preparation for Heli-Expo, I signed up for some dual in a Hughes 300 with my good friend Pete Gillies, chief pilot at Western Helicopters in Rialto, Calif. Pete is an extraordinarily gifted flight instructor, and I base this on his uncanny ability to teach me how to hover the 300 in a short period of time. Or maybe the 300 is just an easy helicopter, but Pete’s ability to break down the fundamentals and clear up the myths and mysteries of helicopter flight made me instantly comfortable flying in his right seat.

I also brought my college-age daughter and her friend for an introductory lesson with Pete, and they had a terrific time. I warned my daughter that after she spent some time at the controls of the 300, she would be dreaming of flying helicopters, and indeed she admitted later, her subsequent dreams were filled with collectives and cyclics.

It’s been only a few days since Heli-Expo ended, but my dreams are also trending toward helicopters, and I hope I can spend more time learning how to tame these fascinating machines.