It’s never too late to turn a dream into reality.
When I was young, “Whirlybirds” was a TV show which probably aired on Saturday mornings. It was a 30-minute adventure series with Western-like heroes saving the day through the use of their trusty Bell 47 helicopter instead of a horse.
I was the only fourth-grader who knew the difference between a cyclic and a collective as I zoomed around the playground imagining that I was about to rescue whatever pavement bugs seemed to be in distress below me.
The plots of some of my favorite movies around that time frequently depended on characters who, felicitously, knew how to fly helicopters.
During high school I took an aviation class, enabling me to pass the FAA written examination to fly airplanes. Actual flight lessons were well outside of our family budget. Later, as an adult, there were more practical ways to use my salary than learning to fly around in crowded city skies.
As I approached retirement, with lots of Maine countryside around me, and looking for my next challenge, I realized that I had never lost interest in that childhood dream.
I signed up for helicopter lessons.
My instructor, whose name is Pete, gives an impression of the competence and serenity that you would hope for anyone sitting next to a student without a clue how to make this very expensive piece of equipment stay upright.
Airplane pilots often joke that a helicopter consists of “10 thousand parts flying in loose formation.” Unlike airplanes, helicopters are not naturally stable. They will just spin out of control immediately if you let go of anything.
With a car, you have a throttle plus a steering wheel to control yaw (left/right axis). With aircraft, you have additional controls for roll and pitch, and for countering rotational (torque) forces. You must account for wind, and deal with traffic coming from all directions and angles. You must communicate on a radio, calculate weight and balance, navigate and know emergency procedures. All at once.
I had a thousand questions, but soon Pete interrupted by saying, “We could talk all day. Let’s go flying!” Well hello, helo. I had assumed my first lesson would be some sort of orientation flight, but Pete had me work.
Hovering is really, really hard because the pilot must coordinate all of the controls simultaneously and precisely. The controls interact, so you can’t just concentrate on one thing at a time. It is frustrating and embarrassing and maddening. I heard myself exclaim “Whoa!” more than once. Without my instructor (who quickly and magically put things aright) I would have crashed. Over and over. Fortunately, I am a patient and persistent man.
Pete kept reassuring me that every student makes those same mistakes.
We did a lot of buzzing around Sanford Airport at low altitude, and I’m sure it looked a little crazy. Without a control tower, pilots keep each other informed via radio. At least once, we were asked to “state your intentions” since, with me on the stick, they were impossible to discern.
I was very tense by the end of the first lesson. There were little beads of sweat at my temples. But I had a picture taken next to the little Robinson R22, and then Pete signed my logbook.
I walked to my car, whose name is Ruby, feeling exhilarated, the experience almost too much to absorb. The ride home seemed effortless. It was as if Ruby was driving us back on her own.
I knew I would be returning to Sanford Airport soon.
A helicopter takes more time to learn than an airplane, and helicopters are twice as expensive to fly. I acknowledge that this is strictly for personal growth. No one else will benefit. I have given plenty of time to my community over the decades, so I don’t feel guilty about doing something occasionally for myself. I suppose that if I live longer than my parents did, I may regret spending money on this instead of saving every penny for later.
I comfort myself by knowing that no one is keeping score, that I have made no commitments, that I can stop whenever I want, and that I will one day set this all aside, solidly in my memory, like many other adventures.
For now, I am having a grand time. It’s thrilling to soar through the sky (with no doors) or to move delicately near the ground like a hummingbird.
And I’m growing. Always growing.
Mark D. Grover is a resident of Gray. Your comments may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org