A feathery white flash shoots past and just below the nose of the Robinson R44. "That was close," says pilot Patrick Pointu, the expression in his soft French accent unperturbed and barely audible in my headphones. We're fairly high when the near miss occurs but "high" means 50 to 75 feet above the Gulf of Mexico. If we had been low, at 10 to 20 feet above the waves, the gull would have had nowhere to go but through the Plexiglas surrounding the cockpit.
Birds are not the only risk on this flight, as our R44 is one of eight helicopters chasing high-speed boats racing on a 6.5-mile doglegged course off the sands of St. Petersburg Beach, Florida. While the Offshore Super Series (OSS) World Championship boat race is under way, the sky is alive with helicopters. The roar of turbines, rotors, and massive marine engines rumbles across the water. With birds, boats, and aircraft all maneuvering in very limited space, the risk of hitting feathers, fiberglass, or aluminum is very real. "We're taking a risk," says Pointu. "It's a calculated risk. You have to be really focused."
Helicopters and racing are not new to one another. For years rotor-wing aircraft have been hovering over Nascar races, acting as airborne relays, or carrying TV cameras to follow the action. At a Nascar race, fans quickly tend to forget the aircraft orbiting overhead. That won't happen at an OSS race.
At major boat races, fans are treated to a gaggle of helicopters churning the air as race boats churn the water into a froth. Back in the 1980s, as many as 30 to 35 helicopters would follow the championship races, the bulk of them carrying TV and still photographers. But those days passed as helicopter charter rates reached four figures for an hour of flight time. Still, on this late-November weekend, if there had not been a southern Florida Nascar race and an offshore race in the Keys, we may have had as many as 20 helicopters in the airspace off St. Pete Beach.
Many fans watching offshore races find the helicopters as fascinating as the boats. The fascination stems partly from the fact that, from their vantage point, some helicopters seem to be racing as they hop from boat to boat. Some spectators come solely for the helicopters — for them the boats are merely a sideshow.
But what about the boats? Offshore race boats have evolved from four-man crews in open cockpits to a driver and a throttle man under a canopy. The largest, the extreme catamarans, can now hit 200 mph. Despite being up to 50 feet long, racers can become completely airborne and can flip end over end with staggering fury. Impact forces can rip boats apart and render crewmembers unconscious, or worse. When the boats come to rest, they're frequently capsized, with the cockpit flooding like an aircraft's. Crews, hanging upside down in five-point harnesses, can drown even though the boats are designed not to sink. Still, fatalities are rare, and helicopters are part of the reason why.
Helicopters and boat racing have evolved into a symbiotic partnership. The safety aspect of the partnership has grown so strong, according to OSS Medical and Safety Coordinator David DiPetrillo, that OSS will stop a race if helicopters can't fly or if there aren't enough of them available. That's because helicopters have become critical aerial lifeboats indispensable to race safety. If weather conditions create unsafe flying conditions, races are stopped even if boats are unaffected.
Helicopters also are critical to the media. News organizations can put a cloud of rotors over a race to capture views that are impossible for spectators to see. DiPetrillo, a pilot and former Cessna 172 owner, says with a smile that if it were up to him, the only aircraft on the course would be the rescue helicopters. But he realizes the media flights are important to the sport, and he works to safely integrate them with his rescue missions. To stress the need that all pilots be mindful of each other, he jokingly reminds them during a pre-race meeting that "we've got two races going here. One is a boat race and the second is a helicopter race."
During races, OSS launches two helicopters, each carrying a team of two rescue swimmers. These aircraft, known as Angel Flights, fly above the race as guardian angels. In the event of an accident, they swoop down and deploy their rescue teams. Unlike Nascar races, OSS races don't normally slow down or stop for accidents. With boats spread out over miles of water, Angel Flights can be spread thin if multiple accidents occur, and during critical seconds they may be far away. To ensure rapid rescue, well-heeled race teams may hire additional rescue resources.
Proudly known as the "Blade Babe," Diane Barrington is an aircraft broker who often makes arrangements for non-OSS helicopters. Craig Radelman, a captain with the Miami fire department in charge of technical rescue, organizes additional rescue swimmers. Whereas the OSS Angel Flights are on hand for all racers, the extra rescue assets supplied by Barrington and Radelman fly primarily in support of a single boat, although they can be relied on if Angel Flights need help.
For the races at St. Petersburg, Barrington hired Carlos Rodriguez-Botet, a pilot for Universal Air Service, of Orlando, to fly Radelman and his partner Greg Barhorst. Working with a Bell 206 LongRanger, they will follow a super catamaran named Reliable. Like Radelman and most rescue swimmers, Barhorst is a firefighter. He is also a former Navy Seal. Rodriguez-Botet is a CFI and holds an airline transport pilot certificate for fixed- and rotor-wing aircraft and was also a rescue swimmer.
Because the swimmers are festooned with knives and lots of gear that can cut, gouge, or snag, before takeoff Rodriguez-Botet pulls out the seat cushions where Radelman and Bar-horst will sit. Besides saving wear and tear on the aircraft he so proudly loves to show off, Rodriguez-Botet helps assure the swimmers a safe exit. Even seat belts can be a problem so unused belts and shoulder harnesses are fastened and secured before the swimmers board. Besides being a potential snagging hazard during deployment, a seat belt flopping in the slipstream can wreak havoc on an aircraft's paint job.
Once airborne, Rodriguez-Botet will have his hands full. "This is high-stress" flying, he says. "I have to manage speed, turbine temperatures, and torque. If I exceed any of them I'm out of the race. Plus I'm looking for the boat, plus I'm looking for other helicopters."
Like swimmers in the Angel Flights, Radelman and Barhorst help with the pilot's workload and situational awareness by clearing turns and calling out other aircraft. They also keep Reliable in sight at all times and alert Rodriguez-Botet when they've slipped out of position. "These boats throw up a mountain of water and can completely disappear," says Radelman. "You'll think, 'Man, they must have crashed,' and then they'll reappear."
With rough water in the Gulf, Reliable's top speed drops to 95 to 98 knots from its maximum of 136 knots. The LongRanger, minus its rear doors, is restricted to 90 knots so Rodriguez-Botet is hard-pressed to maintain a position about 100 feet behind and 100 feet above Reliable. To do so, he takes advantage of the LongRanger's faster acceleration and cuts inside the race's seven turns.
Being careful not to overshoot the boat, should Reliable wreck, Rodriguez-Botet would use his altitude and standoff distance to execute a "quick stop." Within 10 seconds, the LongRanger should be hovering just upwind of the boat and 10 feet above the waves, with the swimmers hitting the water. After the swimmers jump, Rodriguez-Botet would move the aircraft away from the wreck while keeping his eyes on Radelman and Barhorst in case they signal for additional swimmers. While close enough to see the swimmers, he'll need to be far enough away that his rotor wash won't affect the control of rescue boats or blow fumes from leaking fuel onto the wreck. Backing off also assures that the rescue swimmers and boat crews will be able to hear each other over aircraft noise.
During a race, it's fairly easy to tell which helicopters are flying rescue and which are on a photo mission. Rescue aircraft fly "topcover" (a military/forward air controller term referring to an aircraft that flies at a higher altitude than other aircraft to look for enemy aircraft and ground installations and "cover" the low-flying aircraft) and tend to stay in one spot relative to their boat. By contrast, the photoships are moving from boat to boat like bees darting flower to flower. For photo missions, even 50 feet is too high. These helicopters want to be low enough to see under the boats as they skip across the waves.
Dropping to 20 feet or less, Patrick Pointu slides our R44 to the left until one boat looms so close it seems it could hit us with its spray. Even with the R44's doors off and my wearing headphones, the boat is so loud that I can hear and feel its engines from my backseat position. As I photograph, I become conscious of a deeper growl growing stronger. Glancing past the tail rotor, I see that a huge catamaran is overtaking us from our six o'clock and will pass directly beneath us. Hitting the push-to-talk switch, I alert Patrick and he gently nudges us back to the right. As the cat passes, it is so close that if I were insane, I could have stepped off the skid and dropped directly onto its deck. To make matters even more interesting, we aren't the only aircraft. Flying parallel to us, 30 or 40 yards away, a LongRanger is at the same altitude with a photographer pointing his camera in our direction.
Before the race the LongRanger's pilot claimed that he would be "all day" at 10 to 20 feet off the water. After watching him fly, I conclude it was a valid claim. After we land, I ask just how low we got. With a grin the Frenchman responds: "I don't know. When I am that low, I am not looking at the altimeter."
With so many helicopters flying so low in such limited space, not just any pilot is welcome to fly during the races. For his Angel Flights, OSS safety coordinator DiPetrillo looks for pilots with military backgrounds or experience in power-line and pipeline patrols, aerial spraying, or movie production. Besides having significant low-level experience, all pilots and aircraft must meet stringent insurance requirements. Consequently, a small pool of pilots gets to know each other well enough to develop a sixth sense for what each other is doing.
When a race becomes delayed, most of the pilots loiter around their aircraft playing the "hurry up and wait game." Sitting on the ramp with my trusty notepad, I'm using the time to make notes when pilots Jarlath O'Brien and Russell Kilpatrick approach. O'Brien flies a JetRanger for an OSS Angel Flight. Kilpatrick flies the beefiest helicopter on the block, a Bell 407, on a video mission. After throwing me a few playful verbal jabs, they begin viciously harassing each other in a good-natured manner that suggests a long familiarity. As suspected, conversation reveals that these two pilots have flown together for years. "We used to all fly together and never say anything because we all know what each other is thinking," says O'Brien.
Back in the 1980s, when there were more than 30 aircraft in the air, "that was pretty hectic," says Kilpatrick. Even with today's eight aircraft "when you're out there, you'd better be 110-percent focused."
Not all pilots are up to the challenge. During a recent race in Mississippi, several pilots voiced complaints about the actions of a fellow aviator. DiPetrillo eventually told him, "Take your helicopter and leave. You're done for the day. You're too reckless for us."
DiPetrillo repeatedly stresses the importance of safety to OSS. "It's our number-one priority." Before every race and practice session, crews are required to take a physical and a Breathalyzer test before being allowed on the course. Racers have to blow "not 0.1 or 0.01, but zero!" DiPetrillo emphasizes. "That doesn't mean they can't have a glass of wine or a beer with dinner the night before, but they gotta blow zero if they wanna race." The same rules apply to rescue swimmers and anyone associated with OSS who will be on the water. "That means the pace boat or anyone just holding a flag."
During pre-race pilot meetings, DiPetrillo reminds pilots to avoid flying over beaches and crowds. "Call your turns. Watch out for other people. No popping up under, in front of, or cutting anybody off." To protect the OSS, he tells them he won't hesitate to report unsafe flying to the FAA. "We want them to know we run the safest race in the world." That said, "the last thing I want to do is file a formal complaint against somebody."
To prevent unwelcome and unexpected aerial sightseers, DiPetrillo asks the FAA to impose a temporary flight restriction over the racecourse up to 1,000 feet. During a practice session between race days, a floatplane flew low over the course. He told the assembled pilots, "If it happens again, I want to know about it. Get a tail number and a description, and we'll get serious with him later." DiPetrillo later added, "We'll shut the race down until we're safe in the air."
Flying low and fast just above the waves is undeniably exhilarating and challenging. Adding a powerful race boat that is so close that it shakes your organs only intensifies the experience. It's a flying environment that demands concentration and an attention to detail that most general aviation pilots will never experience. Without warning, a pilot could find himself looking up at a boat as it tumbles through the air in an aerobaticlike maneuver. Other pilots can become target fixated and forget how close they are, or just not be seen. A mechanical failure could put a pilot in the water in the blink of an eye, and the potential for bird strikes can't be ignored. "When you're out there," says O'Brien, "you really want to be on the ball." As DiPetrillo pointed out, "A race is not worth a life."
Tim Wright is a photographer, writer, and pilot living in Richmond, Virginia.