“Whatcha doin’?” Mike asked.
“Sitting here in the hangar, staring at S-55s,” I replied.
“Let’s go get breakfast.”
“Well alrighty then!”
After Mike bought me breakfast he dropped the other shoe. “Sayyyy, I wonder if you could help me pull the JetRanger into the hangar…after we take it and the Huey up and fuel them.”
His helicopter utilizes ground-handling wheels attached to the skids to move it about; it’s awkward and takes two people. And the fuel installation that Mike uses is remote from his hangar, way up a hill on another part of the orchard.
I’m not normally a “stick-hog.” I've got quite enough flight time, thank you, so I usually let the younger guys get whatever flight time is available, since we’re not exactly flying our butts off up here, especially before the drying season has really begun. But there were no young’uns around when Mike asked if I wanted to fly, so I said, “Sure!” Flying JetRangers is one of the things I do best. Maybe the one thing.
Mike Nehring and I are a little, um, competitive. He always likes to show me how good of a pilot he is (and he is), and I’ll admit that I get a little kick out of showing him how well I fly. So we’re always trying to out-do each other…seeing who can lift off to a hover more smoothly or who can do the smoother set-down. See, with helicopters, you don’t have to yank ‘em and bank ‘em to see who’s best like fixed-wing pilots do. Where it really counts is picking it up and setting it down from a hover, as well as general smoothness and accuracy in flight. It’s a fun sort of young-guy/old-guy competition, less painful than arm-wrestling or basketball, in both of which he can assuredly kick my middle-aged, out-of-shape ass. And it’s silly, really, grown men competing in such a way…showing off for each other. But hey, it’s what we do.
I have approximately…ohhh…maybe six or seven times the amount of flight time Mike does. But this does not mean that I am six times better than he. I’m not six times “safer” than he either. All it means is that I’ve been around longer, seen a few more things and made “a few” more mistakes. I’m more seasoned. We pilots understand this. It is how a “relative” low-timer like Mike can do the exact same job I do with a similar level of proficiency and safety.
I took the controls of his JetRanger, lifted it off just as smoothly as I possibly could, and then flew up the hill to the fuel tank. Mike’s ship flies soooooo nicely, even better than the one I normally fly down in Alabama. Our ships are only a couple of serial numbers apart, but mine has way more time on the airframe than his does, and it shows. At the fuel pad, I came whipping in to the LZ (landing zone), probably making a different approach than Mike would have. Meh- every pilot has different techniques. After tanking up, I lifted off, did what we call a “max performance takeoff” to clear the obstacles and flew back down the hill, hovering in close to his hangar door so we wouldn’t have far to push. Mike was complimentary – but then, I better know how to fly well considering how long I’ve been doing this.
Then it was his turn. We jumped into the Bell 204 and Mike showed me his stuff. As I said, he is very good, very smooth. He laughed gleefully as we turned during the take-off run and heard the rotor producing that iconic, “whop-whop-whop” noise that is so distinctive of the old Huey. I laughed too. Ah, the little things that amuse us…
Up at the fuel tank, he did make a slightly different approach – but not drastically so – than the one I made: Slower, with a more level cabin attitude all the way down to a hover. It was fine – and maybe even “better” in that I tend to come in a little faster, holding some airspeed a little longer, which is one of those (bad) habits you sometimes pick up when you get comfortable/complacent in a particular machine. (In fact, I saw Mike glancing at the airspeed indicator during the approach I made, probably thinking to himself, “Jeez, this guy comes in so hot!”)
The thing about Mike and me is that we really love flying helicopters. We treat it as an art…something to be practiced and maybe never fully perfected. We know we’re good, yeah, but we always try to be better. We know these crazy machines can kill you in a heartbeep, and we respect them for it. But we also enjoy the fact that we both do this…this…flying thing. It creates a special bond between us, as it does between all helicopter pilots. One day he will be as good as me…perhaps one day soon, because my best days as a pilot may very well be behind me, as hard as that is to accept. Hey,we all get old.
Meanwhile, we have fun trying to out-do each other in smoothness and precision.