By Vic Syracuse, EAA Lifetime 180848
This piece originally ran in Vic’s Checkpoints column in the July 2021 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.
Hopefully, by the time you read this column, we are all getting ready to head to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2021 for a good time with friends and ready to keep the fun factor alive! This past year has certainly been one of the busiest for me as a designated airworthiness representative, mainly because the coronavirus pandemic has given many builders some extra time at home. I bet we are going to see a huge increase in year-over-year completions at AirVenture.
By now you have probably figured out that keeping the fun factor alive is important to me, from a safety and maintenance standpoint, as well as our attitude toward flying. Good flight instructors performing flight reviews will encourage pilots to broaden their skills to stay sharp. That could be as simple as a few hours of aerobatic training, a tailwheel endorsement, or something more complicated, like seeking a new rating. I think it’s good to fly with other pilots once in a while, especially those who are willing to perhaps “question” why you did or didn’t do something at a particular point in the flight. Many times, we can develop bad habits of which we aren’t even aware until someone points them out. The FARs state we are supposed to give a passenger briefing prior to every flight, right? Well, one of the comments I always make is, “There are no egos in my cockpit. If you don’t like something, speak up.” The cockpit is the wrong place to have feelings get in the way.
It’s also important to pay attention to ourselves as we age because, unfortunately, the skills seem to degrade. I’m having a hard time with the messaging from the insurance companies, though. It seems when we were younger the message was “you don’t have enough time.” Now that many of us have arrived at an older age safely with lots of hours and experience, the message is “you’re getting old.” Doesn’t seem like a win either way.
Seeing as it’s not in my DNA to just complain about the situation, I have been reflecting on how I could stay sharp and keep the fun factor alive. At least this is how I’ve sold it to my wife Carol.
I have been thinking that I would like to build an even dozen aircraft eventually. I’ve built 11 so far. Then I realized that building another aircraft wouldn’t help me so much in the flying department — unless, of course, it was a helicopter. Then I would have to learn a whole new set of skills. Hmm. Carol gave me a gift certificate for a helicopter lesson about six years ago. I walked away from the lesson feeling totally overwhelmed. Luckily, I had flown my RV-10 to the lesson, so I enjoyed the trip back home. I’ve always felt a little bit guilty about not finishing. I don’t usually quit.
So, I started researching homebuilt helicopters that are currently available. There are certainly some good choices, and I came pretty close to wanting to get started on a couple of them. One of the things I realized in the process was that each subsequent aircraft I had built was better than the last one because I learned what needed to be changed. Since this could be my first and last helicopter, I started thinking I should understand helicopters first, and perhaps even go back and see if I would enjoy a second lesson any more than the first one. I also started wondering if this 10,000-hour fixed-wing pilot would even be able to learn to fly a helicopter at age 66. By the way, I mulled this around in my head for a couple of months before I even had the nerve to bring it up. Best to get my ducks in a row. I was also slowly coming to the realization that I did not have enough cycles to both build a helicopter and learn to fly one at the same time.
I worked on UH-1Hs and CH-3s in the Air Force and even got to fly in them. I always found the mechanical complexity amazing and really interesting. As luck would have it, I fly and drive right by an airport on the way from home to our shop, and I noticed a Robinson R44 helicopter newly parked there. A quick internet search brought up South Atlanta Helicopters. I started thinking this would be too convenient to not at least try. So, I left a message on Saturday and received a phone call on Sunday from a gentleman by the name of Freddie Briggs. After he convinced me there might be hope for someone like me, we agreed to meet and I had my second lesson that same week.
My experience on this first lesson with Freddie gave me a whole lot of confidence that I could do this. Perhaps it was due to it being a second lesson, but since they were so many years apart, I think it has to do more with Freddie’s style. It turns out he is a seasoned Black Hawk Army pilot, with more than 800 hours of combat flight time.
The bottom line is that I went home with some enthusiasm for helicopters that I hadn’t thought was possible. I couldn’t wait for the next lesson. I also realized I wanted my own helicopter, and I wasn’t so sure about the Robinson. I’m not here to dis the successful Robinson line of helicopters. But we all fly different aircraft for different reasons, right? A neighbor took me flying in his Hughes 269A, and I really liked it. The 269 series was designed for the military and used for training more than 70,000 pilots. Perhaps it is because of the similar legacy to my Stearman since it was also designed as a military trainer, but I felt comfortable with the setup and feel. Some more research on my part revealed that Schweizer aircraft bought the line from Hughes, renamed the 269C as a 300C, and are still producing variants of it. Parts and field knowledge seem to be readily available, so I started looking.
Back to the flying lessons. While I did go home thinking I might be able to do this, I was completely surprised at the progress during the second lesson with Freddie. But lest you think this helicoptering comes easy, let me share an example. I was hover-taxiing down the taxiway, and do you think I could get the centerline to stay in the center? I kept taxiing down the right half of the taxiway, no matter what I did. I was getting frustrated internally with myself. Freddie piped up and asked me if I knew why the helicopter wanted to go to the right. Of course I knew. I had been studying the materials. I told him that I did know, but right now I was busy and would tell him when we landed! I was already at 200 percent mental capacity, at least for me.
For those who are wondering, the tail rotor exerts a side force, which pushes the helicopter in the opposite direction. The correct action is to hover-taxi with the left skid low (for left-blade-turning helicopters). For this fixed-wing pilot, having a wing low when that close to the ground is unnatural, but I’ve finally gotten over that. Now the centerline stays put.
Freddie and I discussed helicopters. It turns out he had instructed in 269s. We agreed to 10 hours in the Robinson and then transition to mine if it was here. As luck would have it, I found one in Phoenix, Arizona. It showed up right about the time I finished the 10 hours in the Robinson. I’ve now done something that I never thought I would be able to do — I have soloed in my own helicopter and am working toward my rotary wing certificate. I’ve got a lot to do yet, but I am thoroughly enjoying it. Freddie is making it fun. I’m looking forward to a couple more supervised solos so I can begin to build time and sharpen my skills. It’s weird having an aircraft in my hangar that I can’t fly and being a student pilot again.
I think I am accomplishing what I set out to do: stay sharp and keep the fun factor alive. One of the things I like to do best is share aviation with friends and family. I can’t wait to take them for helicopter rides. Every once in a while, I do remind myself to enjoy the view and the magic. I’m making progress on being so overwhelmed!
On a closing note, some of you may remember the column I wrote about a year ago regarding aeronautical decision-making that had to do with my son, Nick. I’m happy to share with you that it is working. One day last week I flew to work, and sometimes he is airborne at the same and we connect on the air-to-air frequency. Well, it was a gorgeous morning, and I was surprised he hadn’t flown in. When I mentioned that, he said, “Dad, I did the ‘I’M SAFE’ checklist, and it didn’t work out.” Wow. I sat in silence, knowing full well he would be keeping his fun factor alive and well for a long time.
Vic Syracuse, EAA Lifetime 180848 and chair of EAA’s Homebuilt Aircraft Council, is a commercial pilot, A&P/IA, DAR, and EAA flight advisor and technical counselor. He has built 11 aircraft and has logged more 9,500 hours in 72 different types. Vic also founded Base Leg Aviation and volunteers as a Young Eagles pilot and an Angel Flight pilot.