“Stay with me.”
The pilot speaks through my headset while flashing a smile and supportive nod.
Mute and stiff, I try to smile back, but I think it's more of a grimace.
The state of Delaware looms hundreds of feet below in winter hues of brown, and I float in the air in a rumbling bubble which, by my nervous estimate, is no wider than my outstretched arms.
I want to tell the affable Ray Bans-sporting pilot to turn this helicopter around and land us. Now.
I try reasoning with myself, but things go to a whole other level and suddenly there’s no time for a meltdown because the pilot lets go of all controls and declares, “All right. It’s all you!”
But perhaps I should back up a bit.
First off, flying has always been a phobia of mine. I thought I overcame the fear last summer when I willed myself onto a first-ever flight to Europe.
Half a year later I discover Horizon Helicopters, Inc., located off Route 72 in Newark. Checking out their offers, I nonchalantly decide to book a 30-minute scenic helicopter tour over the Brandywine area.
Turns out, though, Horizon had other plans.
“We’d rather teach you how to fly the helicopter,” explains Julie Keating, scheduling coordinator and office manager, over the phone.
“That’s terrifying,” I respond. But how could I say no?
Horizon, which has been around since 1985, provides flight school, intro flights, private charters, dinner and scenic tours, special events, surveys and aerial photography services.
“We do it all,” Keating says. “We’ve found lost dogs before.”
Horizon is Delaware’s only Federal Aviation Agency-approved Part 135 charter service, and the state’s sole approved helicopter training facility.
Here, the sky’s in the blood. It’s a family business founded by chief pilot/instructor Harry Griffith, his wife, Judy, who is vice president and comptroller, and their daughter Keating, and their son, flight instructor and pilot Jeremiah. They also employ a handful of professional pilots.
“It’s rewarding and challenging at the same time,” says Keating, in terms of the business being family-run. “But we make it work because we all have one goal in mind and that is to make this place the safest, friendliest and finest flying experience available in the industry.”
Over the years, Horizon students have ranged in age from 15 to 78, and they taught the first deaf helicopter pilot in the country.
There are 15 guys currently enrolled in Horizon’s flight school, which leads to a pilot license. It takes 40 hours of logged flight time for a private license and 150 hours for commercial, and costs start at $15,000.
In addition, there are one-time intro lessons – what I’d be taking. Intro flights, or demos, are $225 and available to anyone, ranging from those interested in piloting to people booking a birthday present for someone. The demo includes a brief Horizon tour, introduction in the simulator (an on-ground, computerized flight experience), a program chat and 30 minutes of airtime with one of the certified flight instructors.
A few days after the call with Keating, I’m standing on a small wooden platform at Horizon, giggling, shaking, sizing up my aircraft. It’s so…petite.
“Now, this here is an Enstrom 280FX,” begins Jeremiah Griffith, my designated pilot. Hands on hips, wide-legged stance, quick, precise speech: he is the embodiment of the competent pilot. I learn that he completed 100 Black Hawk combat hours in Afghanistan, too.
“Two-hundred-and-twenty-five horsepower, turbo-charged, fully articulated rotor system,” he spouts. “It’s a high end rotor system, which makes it one of the safest trainers, due to the fact that it’s hard to stop. And she’s a good-looking aircraft.”
He continues, pointing out the helicopter’s parts and giving an affectionate slap to each.
“This here’s the transmission.” Slap. “Here’s the engine.” Slap.
Head swimming, I smile and nod. Then, once seated in the helicopter, I duly note the three main controls I’ll need to work: the collective lever, cyclic stick and anti-torque pedals. Thankfully, it’s like driver’s ed – he has the same controls, which means no deadly tumbles through the sky.
He hands me the headset. Then he works at dozens of controls on the panel in front of us, opening the throttle, checking oil pressures, temperatures, pushing other important-looking buttons. The machine growls to life.
“What you do – you feel, you look, you hear if anything is happening,” he yells over the engine roar. “You develop a relationship with it, so if something’s wrong, it’ll let you know before it happens.”
While we wait for fuel pressures to rise, he says something metaphorical I can’t quite catch about autorotation, a bicycle, a maple leaf and falling out of the sky; then he flicks at the radio.
And to the surreal tune of “I Saw the Sign” by Ace of Base, we lift vertically into the air.
“Has anyone ever freaked out when they went up for the first time?” The nonchalance in my question is obviously feigned.
“Oh yeah,” says Griffith. “When you’re training at first, it’s very overwhelming and people are like, ‘You take it, you take it!’ But when I teach, I say, ‘Never let go of the controls.’ I’ll take it, but I want you to learn how to recover from the situation that you’re in. What we’ll do, go out front and I’ll give you each control one at a time, and then we’ll go have fun.”
“Out front,” I learn, means hovering over a nearby field while being pummeled with sensory overload. It’s like learning an entire lesson in your worst subject (mine: math) and being told you’ll have an exam in five minutes. But it’s also extremely fun.
The collective, a lever to the left of the seat, pulls the helicopter straight up or down. I try it out a few times, raising the aircraft into the sky, then directly back. It’s unnatural, weird, definitely incredible.
When the collective is pulled up, the helicopter body wants to turn the opposite way of the blades, Griffith explains. That’s where the pedals come in – they control the direction the nose of the aircraft is pointed, and keep it from spinning out of control. On cue, he lifts his feet from the pedals and like a swivel chair we’re spinning in dizzying circles in place. After a few flustered seconds of this I realize he’s not going to stop it, so I press down on the right pedal and the machine obeys and balances out.
The middle control, the cyclic, looks and works like a videogame joystick: forward, back, right, left, and we glide over the field like a ballerina flitting back and forth across a stage.
When Griffith says I’m doing a good job, the compliment actually sounds genuine. He says it’s easier to teach women because “they don’t want to muscle around and they’re real gentle,” which, he says, is exactly what the sensitive aircraft needs, regardless of who’s flying it. Horizon has only trained one or two women, he adds.
Now a couple of hundred feet in the air, with my stomach lurching and Griffith in control, we head toward the Wilmington Riverfront, soaring over recognizable landmarks like the Newark Reservoir.
Even though we’re doing 120 mph, everything seems to move by very slowly, and the earth, wide open and flat and before us, hued with monochrome buildings and fields and roads, is interrupted only by Iron Hill, shrouded in light cloud cover.
“People are intimidated at first by how small helicopters are, but once we’re up here, everything else, the world, it all seems so small,” Griffith muses. “We’re the big guys towering over everything else…no?”
Feeling even smaller and out-of-body, I manage, “That’s an optimistic perspective.”
And this is where he lets go of the controls.
“Please don’t do that,” I say, fighting terror, although I instinctively grab the cyclic and I suppose my subconscious recalls instructions from our lesson.
“No, you’re fine, you’ve got it.”
I briefly wonder if I'll black out, but I don’t, even when we hit a huge gust of wind and Griffith instructs me to push the cyclic forward, to “face it head on and fly right into it,” which gives the sensation of plodding sloppily down a flight of steps.
But by the time we’re hovering over the city I’ve relaxed somewhat, and, getting my bearings, I excitedly point out the O&A office on A Street, looking minute, and I begin to see from Griffith’s perspective. The Market Street Bridge, Chase building, vehicles – it’s like a tiny Lego world down there.
On the way back, Griffith says we’re going to do a descent maneuver – autorotation -- usually reserved for engine failures, when the pilot lets the helicopter glide down to a stop. His earlier metaphor makes more sense now.
“Remember on a bicycle, some pedals you can push back and break, and others you just spin? Well, if something happens to our engine, we want the blades to keep spinning. That’s our glide path.”
Any air between you and the ground is potential energy, he says, just like a drifting maple leaf.
“Contrary to popular belief, helicopters do glide,” Griffith says. “Everybody thinks we fall out of the sky. We’re not gonna fall out of the sky.”
With the Horizon landing pad in view, Griffith kicks off the engine and expertly descends to a stop with a light thud, and we sit in silence for a moment.
Then a rush of adrenaline makes me laugh. I want to go back up.
But Griffith is solemn. “Y’see, I don’t teach people how to fly,” he says. “I teach them how to face their fears.”
GIVE IT A WHIRL
Horizon’s additional offers include: personalized scenic tours for two (with a combined weight of no more than 340 pounds) starting at 30 minutes for $250, special events, and dinner tours. The latter include a helicopter drop-off and pick-up at a restaurant of choice. Some of the most popular destinations are: Tangier Island, Va., Tilghman Island, Md., Annie’s Paramount Steak and Crab House in Grasonville, Md., Christiana Hilton in Newark, and Tidewater Grille, Havre De Grace, Md. Costs range from $1200-$3000.
Horizon also has a flight training partnership with Delaware State University, which offers a professional pilot concentration in the bachelor of science in the Aviation Program. The partnership allows military veterans to use their Department of Defense benefits to enroll in the program. The flying is all done at Horizon while classes are at Delaware State University.
For more info, visit horizonhelicopters.com.