About this time last year, I came across a Groupon deal for a helicopter tour based out of the Petaluma airport. The tour by Heloventure was offered for two passengers and was deeply discounted – more than what I normally find on Groupon. If you don’t know, helicopter and airplane tours are quite expensive – something I have always considered far outside my budget, so this Groupon seemed like the deal of the century. With Christmas coming up, I decided to treat myself and my partner to what I hoped would be an experience of a lifetime. I assumed that if the helicopter could accommodate two people plus the pilot, it could likely handle a third passenger, so I contacted Heloventure about adding my 12-year-old nephew to the flight. Tim and Jennifer graciously accommodated him for a small additional fee, as well as answered all my questions about the types of helicopters they flew, what kind of training they had received, and how exactly a chopper1 works.
Ever since I was a child I have been fascinated by helicopters. Being an avid reader of military history, especially Vietnam War-era, first-person narratives, I have become quite familiar with helicopters, their various roles, and their aeronautic nuances, so I was more than excited at this opportunity.
Where an airplane cuts THROUGH the air, like a sword, a chopper lumbers ON the air, like a bad swimmer trying to keep his head above water. You hear an airplane; you feel a chopper. The airplane may produces a lot of noise, but the chopper’s huge propeller blades thump at the air in a constant battle against gravity. But a chopper’s battle with gravity is not a hand-to-hand nitty-gritty bash each other’s faces in kind of clash; it is more of a slow and powerful arm-wrestling kind of campaign. The propeller of an airplane appears to simply assist it in moving forward, with its wings passively holding it aloft. The airplane is a gentle aircraft, smoothly flowing across the sky like a swan across a pond. A chopper, on the other hand, appears to be lumbering across the sky with its propeller doing double duty to move it forward, as well as to keep it aerial. If the prop fails on a chopper, it seems as if it will fall from the sky like so much lead shot. (The reality is that choppers can and do make safe emergency landings, just like airplanes.2)
Where the airplane appears genteel, like an Irish Setter gliding across the green carpet of the Westminster Abbey dog show, the chopper has the appearance of a tenacious bulldog.
Where the Irish Setter is fairly delicate, the bulldog is…well…a bulldog.
When an airplane comes in for a landing, it appears wobbly and vulnerable – it is made for flying, not taking off and landing. But when a chopper comes in for a landing it looks like it is ready to take care of business. More than one Hollywood war movie director has used the images and sounds of a pack of Hueys coming in for a landing to depict a military’s brute strength.
Although normally docile, the bulldog is bred to move quickly over short distances, and is loyal almost to a fault. Where the Irish Setter3 was bred to locate and point out prey to its master, the bulldog origins were that of a bull fighter, bred to attack and hold bulls. They don’t stand outside the reach of their master’s prey, but dive into the fray with guts and determination.4
There is something alluring and powerful about a chopper when it is flying towards you. It comes at you with a quiet throbbing, but changes pitch and tone as soon as it flies past. But it wasn’t until I read Chickenhawk that I gained a real appreciation for choppers, and the pilots that choose to fly them instead of airplanes. Chickenhawk (5 stars – 169 reviews; Amazon.com) chronicles the piloting career of Robert Mason, from his crash coarse training (which due to the infancy of helicopters was more like being a test pilot) to flying combat mission where he was more likely to be shot than even those men who were in the infantry on the ground. It finishes out with him instructing novice combat pilots how to avoid the pitfalls of flying under fire.
Needless to say, our flight was incredible, and beyond all expectations we may have had. If you think it might be too scary, pull up Google Maps, choose the aerial view, and start scrolling around. It is just like that…only so much more. Both my partner and I are not all that comfortable with heights but are old enough to know this fear is (fairly) irrational, and experienced enough to know how to move beyond the fear. But come to learn just moments before getting in the chopper, my nephew is not so comfortable with heights either. I was surprised and impressed when he told me that he was willing to face his fear because he didn’t want to miss out on this cool opportunity.
After finishing breakfast at the Two-Niner Diner (they have great bacon stuffed pancakes) we met Jennifer at the Heloventure hangar of the Petaluma Airport to sign some papers, get some instructions, …and receive our air sickness bags and the appropriate directions on how to use them. That made us all raise an eyebrow, now that our nerves were on full alert, and our stomachs were rumbling from the breakfast we probably should have skipped. I don’t know if they have ever had three more nervous people but we found out within seconds of taking off that this was unlike anything we had felt before and was not the least bit scary. (Nor did it have any effect what so ever on our stomachs.)
Interestingly, the chopper started moving before I even knew it. I was looking out across the runway towards the golfers at Rooster Run when I felt as if I was floating. It wasn’t until I looked down through the clear nose of the chopper that I could tell that we had started our ascent. Tim handled the controls with such precision that we were hovering three feet off the ground before I even knew it. When we started taxying5 towards the runway6 it felt like we were moving on rollers layed out across our path. The first foot or two of hovering was almost like the first drop of a roller coaster. We knew this was the make or break moment – would this ride exhilarate or horrify? Either way, just like with a roller coaster, we knew it was too late to back out. In case I have given you any pause, I want to reiterate that the experience was exhilarating and I recommend it to EVERYONE, especially at the current Groupon price. I will likely take future tours as well, no matter what the cost, and after our first flight am seriously considering getting my pilot license once I finish school.
I still can’t quite wrap my head around why flying in a helicopter is so different than flying in an airplane, but it is. It is out of this world and I rank it on par with scuba diving as being one of the most incredible experiences of my life.7 At the time, I thought it would likely be the one and only chance I would, or could, afford such a luxury so I was pleasantly surprised to receive an email from Tim and Jennifer notifying me that they were offering a new deal this year. (Actually, I was much more than pleasantly stoked – I was ecstatic and immediately pulled up my old pictures, as well as decided to finally finish this blog in the hopes of convincing others to give it a whirl.) Within mere moments of receiving the email my partner had purchased one of the packages as a Christmas present for us. The memory of not only the sights and sounds, but the sensation that only a chopper ride can give you, made this decision a no-brainer. My partner was never even into choppers but the experience was so incredible that she too can’t wait to go up again. This year’s deal is even better than last year’s because it automatically includes three seats in Heloventure’s smooth flying Robinson R-44 and the tour takes you up and down both sides of the Napa Valley.
This would make the perfect Christmas gift, blowing the mind of whomever you choose to share it with. And with three seats included, you can knock out two to three birds with one Christmas gift stone. The number of packages is extremely limited so buy yours before they are gone.
Heloventure also offers other tours (such as photography tours), flying lessons, and various commercial helicopter services. You can find their website at www.heloventure.com or call them at (707) 779-9155. Don’t forget to tell them that you learned about them here on Petaluma360.
If you miss the deal, don’t be afraid to contact Tim and Jennifer directly to see if they have any cancellations you can purchase. Sometimes when you miss a Groupon deadline you can still contact the vendor directly to take advantage of Groupon cancellation for the same Groupon discounted price.
*1 – I have been told that pilots don’t usually use the word “chopper,” preferring “copter” but I have also been told by Navy personnel that they serve on ships, but I still call everything that floats a “boat.” So, if you are a pilot, please don’t take offense.
*2 – The process is called “auto-rotation” and although not easy to visualize, it is highly effective and produces safe emergency landings. After watching another chopper practicing auto-rotation, most of my fear of flying in helicopters disappeared. In fact, the world record for a successful auto-rotation was from an altitude of 40,000 feet when the chopper’s engine completely failed.
*3 – What an Irish Setter does when it stiffly points its body towards prey is called “setting,” hence the name “Setter.”
*4 – Bulldogs were used for sport in pre-1800 England but here in the colonial Americas were used to help keep their masters safe while they worked to corral and lead wild bulls.
*5 – Helicopters “taxi” in order to move towards the runway for take off, just as planes do, only helicopters glide on two to three feet of air, while airplanes do it on their wheels.
*6 – Even though a chopper can take off straight into the air, they still need to taxi to, and then take off from, the runway so that other low flying aircraft can look to only one hole in the sky (that coming up from the end of the runway) for other low flying aircraft, instead of having to search all around the airport in order to locate the airborn helicopters.
*7 – Whether you are new to scuba diving, or an old salt, I highly recommend Pinnacles Dive Center in Novato.
Various domesticated animals:
Various other shots from our tour: