August 3, 2009
Tom Haines flying the Bell JetRanger.
“Well, this isn’t so difficult,” I thought to myself as the Bell JetRanger tooled along a few hundred feet above the thinning Nashville suburbs. “I guess I’m pretty good at flying helicopters.” But even as this smug thought attempted to eke its way into my psyche, I knew I had the wrong perception. Although this was essentially my first time flying a turbine helicopter in cruise, I knew all would be quite different when maneuvering close to the ground. To really ratchet up the challenge, make it a light piston helicopter near the ground.
Whatever confidence I might have had evaporated 90 minutes later when pilot Tim McAdams suggested we practice some approaches at rural Folsom Field in Cullman, Alabama, en route to Birmingham, our first stop on this cross-country adventure. We flew a normal pattern to the 5,000-foot runway with me learning how important the footwork comes in controlling a helicopter. Whereas in cruise my feet were flat on the floor and the cyclic and collective mostly still, now I was attempting to use all three controls to keep the helicopter lined up with the runway while descending, hovering, and then flaring just above the pavement. God help you if your nose gets itchy while all this is going on. It all happened in less time than it takes you to read this sentence. Were it not for McAdam’s expertise, we would have been a ball of aluminum alongside the runway.
I’ve known McAdams for 20 years. He’s the rare pilot who has racked up thousands of hours of turbine helicopter time without ever having served in the military. He started out flying and selling Robinson R22s, which will teach you a thing or two about finessing a helicopter onto the ground. In the intervening 25 years he has flown dozens of models of helicopters in stints in sightseeing, aeromedical, and corporate operations. Today, he writes our new “ Hover Power” helicopter blog on AOPA Online and is director of sales and marketing for Sagem Avionics, which makes aftermarket glass cockpit upgrades for airplanes and helicopters. Among his duties is showcasing the company’s new primary flight display and multifunction display upgrades for a host of helicopters, including the venerable JetRanger.
The ship we were ferrying back to Sagem’s U.S. headquarters in Dallas had been in Nashville for a military aviation show. The Army was interested in testing the night vision goggle compatibility of the Sagem displays, so our route to Dallas included an overnight stop in Andalusia, Alabama, near Fort Rucker. There, McAdams flew at night with Army representatives wearing NVGs. I rode in the back on one flight, the night over rural Alabama dark as a cave. I could see the radar altimeter on the Sagem display showing us a mere 300 feet over the invisible terrain, yet the Army pilot wearing NVGs flew along as confidently as if it were broad daylight. I held my breath, sure we were going to plow into a ridgeline. The Army guys came away impressed with the system, wondering how they can find money to upgrade their fleet of 120 JetRangers from conventional panels to glass cockpits so that pilots learning in the Bells can easily transition to more sophisticated mission helicopters.
The next morning we launched into clear blue skies for Dallas with planned stops in Jackson, Mississippi, and Shreveport, Louisiana. As predicted, the weather over western Alabama and Mississippi turned scuzzy. Here’s a benefit of rotary flight. As we approached a couple of low ridges with clouds draped just above, I simply lowered the collective slightly and pulled aft on the cyclic to slow to nearly a hover while we assessed the situation. A little turn to the north took us away from the lowest conditions as we progressed westward, keeping a careful eye out for radio and cellphone towers. Below, mile after mile of pine forest passed by, every meadow and clear-cut area dotted with deer stands and sawmills.
The dual Sagem PFDs and single MFD along with the integrated engine display system provided tremendous situational awareness, easing workload on what could otherwise become a tedious flight, especially in a helicopter without an autopilot. Each of the five legs on the flight from Nashville to Dallas was about two hours with the helicopter motoring along at just over 100 knots, never more than 1,000 feet agl. The rotor rpm stayed at 100 percent; torque on the 400-shaft-horsepower Allison 250 engine showed 80 percent while burning about 26 gallons per hour. The JetRanger proved a wonderful perch from which to see the Deep South. We crossed the Mississippi River near Vicksburg, the Big Muddy living up to her name after weeks of rain. We slowed to watch a tug pushing an enormous load up the river.
Leaving the delta behind, we headed toward Shreveport for fuel and then to Dallas, where we returned N311F to Walter Fuller at his home at Dallas Airpark, a beautiful fly-in community north of DFW. “Tweety Bird,” as Fuller calls the old JetRanger, is his pride and joy. He uses it for short flights around the Dallas region, visiting relatives and taking friends for rides. It was the first time that Fuller had seen his 1974 helicopter with its completed new glass cockpit, dual Garmin 430s, and satellite weather. He was amazed at the transformation and anxious to take it up for a flight.
I caught a Southwest flight back to Baltimore, spending the time wondering how I can get another helicopter fix. It’s true that helicopter flight can become addictive. I hope you too get to experience it soon.
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