By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Conceivably, you could even charter a helicopter to drop you off at the grocery store when you need a carton of milk — if you were willing to pay the $575 hourly fee to do so. Or, for $230,000, you could simply buy the helicopter outright, and rent a parking spot for it at Los Angeles Helicopters for $200 a month. A 30-year-old fuel merchant did exactly that not too long ago.
"The kid had never flown a helicopter before," Rogers recalls. "He just walked in and said, 'I want one, and I want it in black.' They're all built to order, so I said, 'Great! Come back in eight months and it'll be ready.'"
Los Angeles Helicopters is the exclusive dealer of Robinson helicopters, the kind the kid bought, which is the same make of helicopter that crashed into the Pasadena Freeway recently when a pilot flew too low and got tangled up in some power lines. That was a grim day in the helicopter community. It wasn't one of Rogers' pilots who died, or one of his helicopters, but the company that owned it did end up purchasing a replacement Robinson from Rogers.
For the most part, helicopters give life more often than they take it. When temperatures in Los Angeles drop below 32 degrees, local produce growers call Rogers and Hutchings out to do "frost control," and they send a squadron of pilots out to the orchards. All night long, helicopters hover over the fields of avocados, strawberries and oranges. The whirling blades push the warm air down onto the fruit. It's a strange sight, a swarm of helicopters flitting over 50 acres of fields in Ventura like monster dragonflies in the middle of the night. Rogers often goes along for these rides. He takes sandwiches and a thermos of coffee and punches chief flight instructor Guillaume Maillet in the shoulder if he sees him getting sleepy. It's not an easy flying job — there is the undulating terrain to bear in mind: trees at different altitudes, fences, power lines — and of course, the other helicopters. Fly too low and you blow the fruit off the trees. Too high and the ground stays cold, leaving delicate plant roots to freeze. But it's eerily beautiful too. From the air, Rogers says, the leafy avocado trees are a surreal, rainforest-like canopy blanketing the ground.
Los Angeles Helicopters is also an FAA-accredited flight school. It takes six to eight weeks to learn how to fly a helicopter the size of a small Hyundai and, at $18,000 for the classes, costs about as much as one. Tuition goes up from there, depending on what kind of license you want to get. Soldiers coming out of the war have lately been writing to Rogers and Hutchings from Iraq wanting to learn how to fly helicopters. The GI Bill will foot the expense.
It takes some 12 hours of instruction before you can fly solo in an airplane, an amount of time that seems microscopically ludicrous in a helicopter — it would take some of us that long just to remember where all the knobs are. In a fixed-wing craft like an airplane, you can take your hands off the wheel, read a book, comb your hair, knit; but in a helicopter, which is insanely quick and sensitive to small movements, there's no messing around. Your hands can never leave the stick. An airplane wants to fly. A helicopter, more tadpole than bird, beats the air into submission. There exists a rivalry between airplane pilots and helicopter pilots, the guys explain, roughly analogous to the one between Brits and Aussies. Airplane pilots think of helicopter pilots as cowboys. Helicopter pilots think of airplane pilots as dull snobs.
Too many aviation companies are run by pilots who thought they were businessmen, says Rogers, looking at Hutchings, who snorts and rolls his eyes. He and Rogers are wisely splitting the difference, that age-old brains-versus-brawn business model. It seems to work. They started in a one-room shack at the Long Beach Airport with two beat-up old helicopters, and grew the business into a helicopter miniempire. Rogers, who is sincere and cute in an elfish sort of way, with short, honey-blond hair and bright-blue eyes, is the one who's good with the books and the deals. Hutchings (rugged, handsome) says stuff like, "For airplane pilots, flying a helicopter is like masturbation — it feels good but nobody wants to talk about it," which is a clue that he is the talented pilot who should never be allowed anywhere near the bank accounts. Both of them are deadly charming.
When he's not flying clients around the city, Hutchings flies huge heavy-lift Chinook helicopters, the ones that can dangle African elephants. Essentially, he has the coolest job on the planet. (Rogers, who deploys Hutchings, has the second-coolest job.) When a river freezes solid in Alaska and a barge gets mired in the ice, Hutchings hooks the barge onto the Chinook with cables and tows it out. Or he dead-lifts shipping containers like he's reeling in giant, rectangular steel fish, and deposits them onto oil rigs in the ocean. Or he assembles power-line towers. When L.A. Weekly's photographer first shows up to take his picture, Hutchings is nowhere to be found. The state of Oregon has called him. They need him to remove some giant trees that slid off a mountain onto railroad tracks in the middle of a forest.