When I posted on Facebook that I was beyond excited because a pilot was going to take me up in a helicopter and pretend to crash it, I received around 70 comments. The majority of them said ‘You’re mad!’
But I was truly thrilled.
In the book currently entitled Just for the Holidays, my hero Ronan Shea is a grounded helicopter pilot, recovering from a shoulder injury after a forced landing. I was lucky to be introduced to Martin Lovell who owns a helicopter maintenance company, Skytech, and is his own test pilot. Martin’s devoted quite a few hours to shaping Ronan’s incident, and also introducing me to a Civil Aviation Authority doctor and an aviation insurance expert, both of whom have been invaluable in establishing what happens to Ronan next.
If the engine begins to fail in a single-engined helicopter, the pilot has to take action because he can’t park in mid-air. Therefore, every pilot learns autorotation, the art of bringing the aircraft down at such an angle that the air passing over the rotor keeps it going. When Martin offered to take me up and demonstrate how the pilot retains full control, I could not believe my luck.
I arrived at the airfield on a beautiful day. The cloud increased in the next hour but not enough to stop us.
We walked through the hangar to a black Hughes 500 that needed a test flight. Martin performed the pre-flight checks and suddenly the door was opened and I was invited inside!
I wish I’d taken more photos but I was focusing on video as my publisher had asked me to film the experience. More on that later …
Martin strapped me into my seat and gave me a set of headphones, then began a running commentary on the instrumentation and which switches he was flicking and why. The engine started and the whump whump whump as the rotor began to turn, faster and faster until the blades were a blur above us. A little hover, then we were turning, tip-toeing across the grass to the runway where we would take off.
I’m finding it hard to remember that take off. We just cruised up and along and suddenly we were above a village, above a reservoir, above the fields. The Hughes has great visibility, including what’s just in front of your feet. Apart from this, and the fact that we were sliding through very high up air, the cockpit felt a bit like a car – comfortable leather seats, a heater and a sat nav – but with a lot more banking and swooping.
Once up at 2000 feet Martin told me he would begin the autorotation. He wouldn’t actually switch off the engine (prudent of him) but would act as if the RPM was dying. There was a sudden initial drop then we swooped down on a diagonal flightpath towards the ground. It came up to meet us pretty quickly. When we got close, Martin ‘flared’ the aircraft to halt momentum. In a real situation, from there the pilot would perform a run-on landing and, depending on the terrain, the helicopter might sit down nicely on its skids or, as with Ronan, it could tip over.
So up we went again to about 1700 feet. ‘Now we’ll do it a bit more realistically, as if the engine’s cut without warning and the pilot has to act fast.’ And wheeeeeee! We swooped down to Earth a lot more rapidly this time. Someone in the cockpit went ‘WHOOOOOOOOHOOOOOO!’ and I don’t think it was Martin.
He mocked up the run-on landing this time and his accuracy was amazing. When we turned and flew back I could see the parallel lines where the skids had parted the longish grass.
It was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. I assumed that we’d pootle back to the hangar but, instead, we circled up high again and flew on (ground speed about 100 knots, so not so much of a pootle) over the town where I went to senior school and over a supermarket my mum had texted me from an hour before, picking out churches and a golf course, ticking off the villages as we flew over them to the town where I now live, and over my house.
I think it took about three minutes from there to get back to the airfield, a trip that had taken me twenty by car. We flew low-level along the runway so I could get an idea of what 125mph feels like in a helicopter (rushy), then came back around and landed tidily outside the hangar.
Everything went quiet.
What an amazing experience. The only downside was that I later discovered that only the on-ground segment of the video had worked. After that is just a white rectangle and an error message.
But – silver lining! Martin has said he’ll take me up again in the New Year. I’m just off to buy a helmet cam!