By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
When a helicopter's engine fails, the world goes quiet for one sickening, thrilling moment. Your stomach shoots up into your throat like a rogue squid. If the pilot knows what he's doing in this situation, as head pilot Andre Hutchings of Los Angeles Helicopters does — whether it's an emergency or a drill for a frightened reporter's benefit — he angles the rotating blades in such a way that the helicopter glides and touches down gently. It has something to do with an alarming aerodynamic principle called autorotation and air moving in a complex way through the spinning blades, which Los Angeles Helicopters CEO and Hutchings' fellow pilot Michael Rogers calmly explains as we float down, and which I frankly don't understand. Mostly, I'm hoping Hutchings, who's in the driver's seat, is pressing the right buttons to keep us from dying.
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Ready for action: Los Angeles Helicopters’ chief flight instructor, Guillaume Maillet, left, and CEO Michael Rogers
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Room with a view
"What if the blades stop rotating?" I ask Rogers.
"Ah," he says, "then you're going to have a really bad day."
Out at the Long Beach Airport, the Los Angeles Helicopters flight center is perched roostlike on the second floor of a small hangar, right next to the runways. It is unabashedly romantic, standing out on the tarmac at dusk, with the wind whipping your hair across your face and the sun declining on the horizon, a handsome, hotshot pilot and his clever, business-whiz best friend — co-owners of one of the most dynamic helicopter flight centers in the city — going through the last few items on the preflight checklist. Hutchings and Rogers are both Australian, and their easy camaraderie is part of the fun. I can easily imagine being pulled into a kiss at such a spot.
We buckle in, don headphones, lift off; a miracle of physics. It is exponentially more incredible to see Los Angeles from a slow soar in the air. You feel like a god, or a ghost, or a seagull. We fly past the coastline of Palos Verdes mansions, low over the water, close enough to the surfers to see their startled expressions. Cruise ships load passengers and move out to sea through a sliver of estuary. There are no dolphins today, but the port is bustling. During the dockworkers strike, Rogers says, ships were lined up one after another, their cargo moldering in the hulls.
He and Hutchings take turns pointing out the cave where Batman used to peel out in the Batmobile; the cavity in the cliff where the 18th hole of Donald Trump's personal golf course slid into the ocean; the swimming pool at the Playboy Mansion (alas, no Bunnies); and the old standards: the Hollywood sign, near enough to touch; the Bonaventure Hotel downtown; the San Diego and Garden Grove freeways glittering with the lights of congested traffic, red in one direction, white in the other — so horrible on land, so gorgeous from above — like ribbons flung across the city.
We watch the sun set over the city grid in Downey.
"I'm glad I got to share this with you, Michael," says Hutchings.
"Me, too, Andre," says Rogers, rubbing Hutchings on the arm. "Me, too."
There are so many applications for helicopters — romantic or death-defying, heroic or Herculean — I'm surprised anybody drives cars or flies airplanes at all. Rogers and Hutchings, for example, run a tour that takes people out to the vineyards in Temecula for wine tasting. They land in the parking lot of the winery and wait while the people have dinner, then fly them back. Men have spontaneously proposed to their girlfriends while riding in the back seat — flying over the city at night, in all its sparkly, jewels-on-black-velvet glory, will do that to you. Rogers' sister, actress Portia de Rossi, introduced him to a great woman, and for their first date, he surprised his sister's friend with a flight out to Typhoon restaurant at the Santa Monica airport, then piloted her back himself, which, in his estimation, "sealed the deal." (Read: She married him.) Another man commissioned his friends to hold a "Will you marry me?" sign on the beach as Hutchings flew over it for the girl to see. She, too, said yes. But the powers of the helicopter are not invincible. Every now and then the engagement goes awry; the girl says no, and it is a very quiet flight back.
Executives often hire the guys to fly them to the airport when traffic sucks on the Hollywood Freeway. Or to their getaway houses in Santa Barbara from their homes in Los Angeles or San Diego ... or Wyoming. That last flight took Rogers 12 hours to complete.
They've been hired by people to take vanity pictures of their yachts from the air, or by rescue divers who jump out in scuba gear to save flailing swimmers. Or to film live video of sleek, Miami Vice–style cigarette boats during the races in Catalina. They've done the requisite movie camera work — car-chase scenes, long, swooping lead-in shots — with gyro-stabilized stunt cameras. They've taken USC marine biologists out to Catalina Island to study wildlife. The highbrow faculty fly out by helicopter, all cool and jet-set, while the lowly graduate-student assistants schlep over by boat.