Bart is the guy with whom I initially ferried ol’ Three-Four Whiskey down to Honduras back in July of 2007. At the time he was not yet a fully certified pilot. Even so, he was a very competent flyer who could have easily done the trip without my presence. From the beginning, Bart has always impressed me with his skill level.
Being the son of a pilot helps, I’m sure. Bart’s father Bill is a highly-decorated ex-Viet Nam vet who’s got stories that will curl your hair. Though we’ve only flown together on a handful of occasions, I was comfortable right off the bat with Bill. For a guy who doesn’t do it full-time, he is very, very good. Experience always shows.
So Bart has benefited from some excellent instruction, both from his father and another ex-Army pilot named Don Sepe. (My respect for pilots from that era is unbounded. Viet Nam vets were the guys who taught me how to fly. They were – and many are still – the best pilots in the industry.)
Since we bought our 206B JetRanger, Bart has been interested in flying it. The timing had never been right until this past Friday. I had to drop the Boss off in Destin, Florida, which meant I’d be flying back to home base empty. Coincidentally, I’d be flying right over the Pullum heliport in the town of Navarre. So I called Bart and asked if he wanted a ride? Silly question, as you might imagine.
With minor variations, the Bell 206 is very similar in operation to the FH1100. Since both helicopters have two-blade main rotors, they even fly “sort of” similarly. We did a pre-flight walk-around, and I pointed out some of the features of the 206. Then we climbed in.
I talked Bart through the start and run-up, then gave him the green light to lift off to a hover. Now, this is the tricky part. A pilot trying to hover a helicopter is busy. Both hands and both feet are occupied. Hovering has been likened to trying to balance on a beachball. It is not an unfair comparison. Complicating this is the fact that every helicopter has its own feel in a hover. The controls all react in different ways from one machine to the next. Until you get used to it, hovering can be…difficult. But one thing Bart has always impressed me with is his ability to lift off and set down smoothly and consistently. The FH1100 is notoriously squirrelly right near the ground, and Bart was as good as I was when I was flying that machine.
But he hadn’t flown in five months or so. A pilot can get rusty. Too, their helipad is not huge. In fact, it is rather confined. There is not a lot of room for swaying around a lot. Bart would have to be good right off the bat. Trial by fire, so to speak. Nevertheless, I was pretty confident that he wasn’t going to roll us over or do anything drastic. At least I hoped he wouldn’t. That would be hard to explain to the Boss.
I wasn’t disappointed.
As I expected, he lifted the 206 off the ground slowly and smoothly, and settled into a nice, safe, stable hover. I laughed to myself. A pilot with such a low amount of flight time shouldn’t be so good! But Bart is. I'd hate him if I didn't like him so much.
For grins, he set her back down and picked it back up a couple of times. This is the real measure of a helicopter pilot. Anybody can fly straight and level. What we’re graded on is whether we can get the ship into the air without any ungainly lurches, and how smoothly we can get the skids to kiss the ground at the end of the flight.
Time to fly! Lightly loaded, a Bell 206B has tons of power for coming out of tight areas. Bart did a textbook “confined area takeoff” and we headed down over the beach to get the feel of the ship in flight. Personally, I like the way JetRangers cruise along. They are very stable and allow the pilot to just sit back, relax and enjoy the scenery. The FH1100 should be so good! However, due to a number of factors, it is not as comfortable a helicopter in cruise and requires more “work” on the part of the pilot.
We did a couple of landings and takeoffs over at a nearby grass-strip airport. Textbook approaches, textbook departures. Bart flew the thing like he was born in it. Due to his time constraints and a sick wife at home, we cut the session short and headed back to his helipad. This required a steep approach to a confined-area landing. Again, textbook. Through the entire flight I did not have to touch the controls once. Never did I have to offer anything other than suggestions. All I had to do was let him fly. And that, he did.
Yeah, I’m a good pilot and take pride in that. But one thing I like almost as much as me doing the flying is watching other pilots fly. Especially other good pilots…pilots who very clearly love it and put as much effort into it as I pretend to do. Pilots who don’t simply settle for “good enough” but strive to always be the best they can be. Pilots like Bill Pullum, and Bart, and their friend Don, and their King Air pilot Mike (who I’ve written about before here). Flying with guys like these is a major kick for me. It’s not an overstatement to say it’s a thrill.
Seeing excellence in action always is.