We found our helicopter had mechanical problems, but luckily it was nearly a hundred miles away from our destination
I’m Not a Pilot, but I Just Flew a Helicopter Over California
Something was wrong with the flight plan: the GPS beacon was stopped and the comms were failing to connect with any control tower.
In the place the sea breeze had lured us on board to, the flight plan was backfiring. This didn’t bode well for our record attempt – cruising at 35,000ft at 34mph, there was not the prospect of slow-going in the south-west winds.
Those of us of a certain age will remember HeliSchool, the flight school that ran an annexe in Geneva that catered mainly to chopper tourists. It folded in 1990 after two decades of flying. The building was still there, and in 2003 I got in touch and was given a tour.
That night, we wandered into the Swiss centre of the industry. It still looks much the same – down to the replica of the outside of the tour bus used in the 60s and 70s, there is a long atrium, and somewhere to put your suits at the stationery counter. The meeting rooms were still used, the hangar still had all the paraphernalia from the past – chartered cockpits, helicopters, flight manuals and dinner napkins for the parties – and today there were still a lot of visitors flocking in to book lessons.
So, we were back in conversation with the current manager, Martin Schröder, who, when we asked if they would be able to manage the flight to the flight school in Switzerland, said: “We’re already booking lessons, but we can’t open until later.” Not knowing how long our flight was, and being keen to make something of this adventure, we said yes.
When we got to the USA, what we were about to embark on proved to be the difference between great planning and lucky timing. This was, of course, the perfect place to attempt to sail, stand up for the first time and embark on this journey.
Unfortunately we were flying a helicopter over California. In 2011, a helicopter that had been operated for 500 flights crashed into the side of Mount Whitney, a popular destination with tourists – 18 people were injured, the pilot later dead.
That autumn I had a feeling that an unexpected emergency would be surfacing, and the alarm bells rang that they had been proven true. The helicopter was in a storeroom at the Sheraton in Sacramento, but our safety stilt stowed within it was inoperable. Not being able to operate the ladder on board the helicoptor meant I couldn’t get to the harness and that neither could the pilot.
When the last passenger had departed, we were left without a vehicle, our landing gear had been strapped off and the landing gear was up to the 14th step, we were left with no way of getting back to California.
Eventually, the local cops took the one copter up for inspection, checked everything was working properly and cleared us to continue.
Shortly after this, we realised we were getting really sick and actually started to backtrack.
I’m not a pilot, but I’ve flown a helicopter
Our descent into the tarmac was long and bumpy, but at least we got off in one piece.
• In the air with a helicopter trip around Monterey Bay – on DVD