Airborne With the Flyboys of Los Angeles Helicopters
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.
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.
Back at Los Angeles Helicopters' home base, I take a moment to come to grips with the sad fact that I'm back on land. Lucky passengers await their flights in the bright and cheerful lobby. Confidence-inspiring awards, certificates and photos of Rogers and Hutchings posing with various helicopter models line the walls next to funny and frightening safety posters. "Be alert around the helicopter ... never approach or leave uphill ... The helicopter's downwash will lift an amazing variety of things," one says, and then on and on, with the cartoon illustrations of hurtling kitchen sinks, Porta-potties, tents and sweaters.
Incidentally, if there is one take-home message, it's that the most dangerous part of the helicopter is not the two big samurai blades on the top, but the sweet little tail propeller, which spins faster than the eye can see. It slices off heads and arms and hands like a crazy pintsize ninja.
Los Angeles Helicopters, 4235 Donald Douglas Dr., Long Beach, (800) 976-HELI or www.lahelicopters.com. Introductory lesson, 30 minutes ground training, 30 minutes flight, $115. Flight-training school: private helicopter-pilot license, approx. 100 hours ($18,739); commercial pilot license ($36,995). Flightseeing tours include: "The Grand Excursion" (Palos Verdes cliffs, Beverly Hills, Sunset Strip, Griffith Park Observatory, downtown, etc.), $282. "The Catalina Odyssey" (explore coves and inaccessible beaches, land at highest point on island, with time for lunch or dinner), $389. "Temecula Wine-Tasting Tour," $482.
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