Like most kids, as a little girl I dreamed of having the ability to fly. I would practice thinking that I could figure it out if I just kept trying; jumping out of trees, off the piano bench, until one day, spurred by a bet from my brother, I leapt off the roof of our front porch. Sometimes in dreams I would figure it out. Starting with hop, skip, and jump I’d learn how to hang there for awhile, and on the next bound I could sail higher into the air until I was fully in control of my flight, soaring like Peter Pan. As I grew older I resigned to flying only in my dreams.
After graduating high school I flew the coop and headed to Minneapolis to attend college. I had been accepted into the Carlson School of Management, a prestigious business school at the University of Minnesota. I had always dreamed of being a maroon and gold Gopher and had decided at an early age that the U of M was my destiny.
Now business school, on the other hand, wasn’t really my thing. One day in my sophomore year before class I was surfing the internet in the school computer lab and came across a helicopter school. I don’t remember the website or how I stumbled upon it, but I do remember being late for class as I ran outside (where my phone got service) to call my mom and tell her my new plan.
“Mom, I’ve figured out what I’m going to do with my life.” I said
“What’s that?” she asked calmly.
“I’m going to be a helicopter pilot.”
I assured my parents that I would finish my degree before moving to California to attend helicopter school. But in that moment I had decided the next step for my future. In the meantime I figured I might as well study something I would enjoy, so I switched majors and transferred to the college of liberal arts to seek an English degree.
Three months after graduating I was on my way to California with a tech writing job lined up in Silicon Valley. I never considered learning to fly anywhere other than California. The yearlong temperate climate seemed like the ideal place for this sort of adventure. The school I chose was run out of an airport in Watsonville about 40 miles south of my apartment in San Jose.
I planned my move in correlation with the fall ground class. Upon completion of the class and approximately 20 hours in the air it was expected a student would be prepared for the written exam. Another 30 hours logged in the air, flight exam and a private pilot’s license would be mine. After our first ground class I was told that we could start flying anytime, just schedule a two-hour time slot with an instructor. My appointment was set for Tuesday 5:00pm.
My flight instructor, Kris, was a lanky blonde guy who graduated high school the same year as me. He was pursuing his aviation degree at a nearby community college, and flying was his passion. We spent some time in his office discussing aerodynamics and going over the regular pre-flight routine. He diagramed a helicopter on his white board and explained some basic principles of flight. The spinning rotor blades pull air down through the rotor mast creating lift. He diagramed the “full down auto-rotation” maneuver that would save a pilot’s life if the engine were to fail. In such a case the pilot dives toward the ground picking up enough speed so that the wind keeps the rotors spinning.
Instead of pulling air down through the rotors, the full down auto-rotation relies on the speed of the descent to force air up through the rotors for lift. With the rotors spinning, as the pilot nears the ground they can pull up and have a reasonably gentle landing. Kris described it as managing energy. When you start the descent you’re trading elevation for power. As you get closer to the ground you use that power of the spinning blades to slow down the aircraft for a safe landing.
As we walked out the back door onto the tarmac where a Robinson 22 sat waiting, I don’t remember being nervous, but I do remember the powerful beat of my steady heart. Kris led me through the preflight checklist as we examined the oil, inspected the engine, rotors, lights; we looked at every nut, bolt, and moving part on the aircraft. With everything clearing inspection we opened the doors and climbed inside.
The preflight checklist continued as we checked gauges, lights, and finally put the rotors in motion. The time had come to put on our headsets so we could hear each other over the growing roar of the engine. As the rotors picked up speed we continued a series of tests to make sure the controls were functioning properly. Kris assured me that I would get a chance to take over controls, but first he’d get us up into the air.
We each had our own set of controls; all of my appendages were busy. Each foot was on a pedal controlling the pitch of the tail rotor. My left hand could raise or lower the Collective which would thereby change the pitch of the individual rotor blades. A throttle at the end of the collective controlled the RPM of the blades. The cyclic, a joy-stick like rod that determined the pitch of the rotor mast, rested in my right hand. I could feel the control’s slight adjustments; Kris delicately kept us straight as we grew “light on the skids”.
We rose up to hover approximately five feet off the ground. Kris explained the spinning rotors created a disc above our heads, and that the disc was what was flying. We were just hanging from it. The adjustments he made with both hands and both feet were ever so slight in order to avoid over-correcting, as there was a delay between the movement of the spinning disc and our own movement.
We started moving slowly, at 5 feet of altitude, towards the runway. Kris made the radio call and we were clear for takeoff. Once we reached the runway we took off at a jog gaining speed but no altitude, until we reached the speed at which we would gain maximum lift. The helicopter began to rise steadily and the ground disappeared below.
We were heading south toward Monterey Bay. The sun was starting to set, and the fog was rolling in from the ocean. A fog bank formed ahead of us, and we turned left towards the hills. Below us the ground was tinted orange from the sinking sun. Kris gave the controls over to me, directing me to keep us straight and even. I took a deep breath and remembered to loosen my grip on the cyclic. Fingertip pressure, that’s all it takes. We were floating above the earth. It was a peaceful feeling of stillness, as the headset turned the roar of the blades into a distant white noise. Awe struck me as I listened to my own breath.
“Are you having fun?!” Kris asked.
“Yeah, this is incredible.” I yelled back over the radio.
We turned north heading towards Santa Cruz. I could see the boardwalk stretch out into the ocean. The sun was setting fast. Already its orb had made contact with ocean, painting the water orange. We turned right towards the hills again when Kris asked me,
“Do you know why helicopters are better than airplanes?”
“Because airplanes can’t do this!” he responded as he took over the controls and started spiraling us down toward an open field high in the Santa Cruz Mountains. A pair of deer looked up as we neared a small opening. Our skids brushed the tall grass before we began to spiral our way back up into the sky. I resumed controls as we headed back towards the coast. The sun had nearly sunk. The lights of the city on below us; we followed the headlights on the freeway back to Watsonville.
As the weeks went on I continued flying. My proudest moment was the day that I successfully hovered. To keep the helicopter stationary approximately 5 feet off the ground was the goal. At that height there are many forces acting on the helicopter: constantly changing wind gusts, the air being pulled down through the blades and then the “ground effect” as that air bounces back towards us. With the delay between the instrument adjustments and our own movement it is easy to over-correct, which can send you into a pendulum like swing below the flying disc.
It was like a video game come to life. I sat 5 feet above the runway, eyes on the horizon, sliding back and forth and slowly forward until all competing forces fell into a balance. I held us there, stationary, 5 feet off the ground in a hover making minute adjustments with the cyclic, pedals, and collective. I was proud; my flight instructor Jared said that it took most pilots ten hours to get the hover down -- I had done it in five.
Despite my success, I grew troubled with my plan to be a professional pilot. A seed had been planted in my mind. It took root, shooting up over my head casting shadows of doubt all over my future plans. The isolation I felt in California fueled the urgency of this realization. I was in a sea of people and no one knew my name. I could disappear here - sink into the crowd never to resurface again. These thoughts frightened me. The ocean was my escape. I would look out into the distance, listening to the waves crashing against the rocky cliffs and imagine the silence of floating out beyond the horizon. I pondered the loneliness of the massiveness of the ocean.
A helicopter pilot lives a solitary life - moving from city to city following the call of job offers. Imagining this future didn’t feel good; the sacrifices were not worth the payout. A new vision glittered like gold in front of me: a farm where I could grow my own food, surrounded by friends and family in my homeland of Minnesota. They say distance makes the heart grow fonder, and I found that to be true. No city in sunny California warmed my heart like Minneapolis. I invited everyone I met to come to Minnesota, wanting to show them the place I loved so much: that diamond in the rough.
I stopped flying and walked away knowing that it was no longer part of my journey. The path had curved unexpectedly in a new direction. My heart was pulling me and I wanted to run with it, to keep up. The desire to fly brought me to California, and I was grateful for it, but there was something else that I needed to learn first. Being dropped into a new state, a new town, far from home - this gave me the opportunity to learn who I was, what I liked, and what I value. My new goal became “explore”. I was on a journey of self. Flying brought me there.
Looking back, it’s hard to believe that this story lives in my past. It was a magical episode that sits in my memory like a dream. With my feet planted firmly on the ground sometimes I forget it even happened, but when I see helicopters flying overhead I remember. I feel a connection, a knowingness about what it’s like to hover above the earth in a glass bubble amid the clear skies and pale blue ocean extending for as far as the eye can see.