Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Summer Birth and Death of a Whirlybird Helicopter

Was watching Pawn Stars on A&E the other day and the guy actually bought a damaged helicopter! Then, he added about $110,000 in repairs to resell it at around $150,000! Wow. Well, that brought me back to the time when I was just a young girl of 19 and helped build a Bell helicopter, from scratch. It was a Whirlybird-type similar to the one you can see on the M.A.S.H. series. Big bubble cab, skinny tail, horizontal rotors on top and ski-thin skids. Don't remember how much it cost my buddies, way back then, but I know it was nowhere near $100,000!

To the left is a current picture of a 'kit' helicopter. Ours looked more like a dragonfly with a blunter, higher, face. We were going to use it for beach rides.

Yes, I say "we," because "we" were The Three Musketeers that summer: Jim, Tom, and me. Can't remember how we got together. We just did. And they needed me, really needed me, they said, because someone (SOMEONE, as it was so gallantly put) had to tear open and count the little plastic bags of parts that came every week and then place them in just the right order on the big sheet we had spread out on the floor of the rented steel quonset hut at the Opa-Locka (opa tisha waka laka) Air Base. In other words, I was a girl and that was the only job open.

So, there I was, in the summer, in Florida, in a steel building, away from trees -- forget balmy breezes -- 'glowing' (men sweat; women glow) profusely in the heat. It was fun.

We were a perfect team and really did work well, together. Jim had the know-how and a life-long desire to build his own helicopter, played the guitar and sang the beejeebies out of Nat King Cole's Route 66, too! He was a pilot with his own two-seater Piper Cub that he used for aerial advertising. Tom was his best buddy, an engineer between jobs with an open summer, who thoroughly understood diagrams, engines, etc. My contribution was sorting, pre-assembly of parts (widgets, in the catalogs), keeping track of parts, reading instructions aloud, swapping out tools, and making coffee and sandwich runs, as needed. It took almost the whole summer to finish.
This Safari looks like our Helicopter, pontoons and no doors!
Jim decided he didn't have enough money for doors, by the time the pontoons had arrived, and we really didn't need them, after all. But, we did need the pontoons because we would not only be giving short rides up and down Miami Beach, we'd be flying over and landing on the Intracoastal Waterway, too.

It's almost impossible to describe the excitement of that first time the engine started up and that old helicopter just hummed, waiting to get up into the air.  Suzy (christened by Jim) had entered our lives in little plastic bags, sent by the vendor in an orderly fashion meant to make the kit easier to construct. The propellers and side sections came full-sized, but everything else was built up out of those little packets. And, now, Suzy was going to take us up, way up, into the air!

Belted in, Jim at the controls, me riding shotgun, we rose off the pavement and began to soar over the trees towards the beach. Don't know why Tom didn't want to fly that day, but he didn't; and I didn't push. I wanted to go! I was young enough, then, to believe I would live forever -- me and my vertigo. I didn't care because Tom's reluctance meant I got a first-flight ride -- and, it was awesome. The pontoons weren't attached and visibility was, well, very, very, clear -- like, there-really-is-nothing-under-you-but-air clear! I fell in love -- not with Jim -- with helicopters. They can still turn my head.

Success! Business was brisk and reservations backed up for days. The little helicopter was beginning to pay for itself. As summer began to close, my own schedule got very busy, Tom got a job, and our little trio broke up. Jim kept giving rides and, then, disaster struck. He never understood why he let it happen. We rehashed it to death, trying to figure out how he could have been so taken in, but there it was -- he believed some fast-talking guy who convinced him that he had flown helicopters in the army. He made Jim an offer he couldn't refuse to let him take the helicopter up, by himself; but, not before he signed a waiver of liability. Jim said it was obvious from take-off, the fellow didn't really know what he was doing and wasn't in the air fifteen minutes before he was plummeting into the ocean. He wasn't hurt; but, the helicopter -- our Suzy -- was destroyed. Rebuilding it would have cost more than Jim had and his heart just wasn't in it, anymore.

Think you might want to build your own? Check out this faq at Safari Helicopters.


  1. you are brave. that is just crazy. do you have any pictures of Suzy?

  2. That is really cool......what a fabulous thing to have done!!!

  3. This is one of those things that people say "No Way!" about....what a cool story to tell!

  4. What a fabulous story and great memories :)

  5. I have to admit that I would ever, never fly a helicopter that I built myself :-) :-) :-) Not even if a good friend did it :-) :-) But it must have been a fun summer and that first ride must have been great!

    Have a great day now!

  6. @lori - No, we didn't take pictures as much, back then... very limited budget.
    @Emma - You have to do something like that, at least, once, in your life!
    @Natalie - I've got a life full of those things!
    @Tammy - That's what's great about blogging - you gotta find filler so you pull out old memories.
    @Christer - Sure, you would... if you had helped make it, you'd just have to take a ride! No doubt about it because SOMEBODY would have to take the pictures!!