Friday, July 20, 2012
I don't like to brag, but I was a helicopter pilot back in the '70s. I didn't fly the big ones that they used in Vietnam, but I'm sure that I probably could have.
No, instead of flying over the remote jungle regions of Laos or Cambodia, I did most of my training over my Mom and Dad's green living room carpet. I wasn't flying an Apache or a Chinook. I wasn't piloting anything made by Sikorsky. My chopper of choice was the VertiBird produced by the Mattel corporation and is easily on the Top 10 list of the coolest toys I have ever owned.
For those of you poor people who don't know what a VertiBird is, I feel sorry for you, and you need to start living your life. It was this itty-bitty helicopter with an actual rotating plastic blade that was connected by a wire to a motor that was powered by four D-cell batteries. There were two levers to control the VertiBird. There was forward/reverse and fast/slow. When you fired her up, she would fly in a circle, limited only by the wire that was connected to the motor. Fastened to the underside of the helicopter's chassis was the sky hook which allowed you to pick things up. It was a beautiful sight to see it race through the sky, a foot and a half above the floor.
There were only two missions that the Mattel corporation really trained you for with the VertiBird. One was the "pick up the space capsule out in the ocean" mission and the other was the "pick up the astronaut out of the life raft in the ocean" mission. (As an aside, I would like to mention to the toy designers at Mattel the astronaut who supposedly came out of the space capsule was actually approximately the same size as the space capsule. That has bothered me for the past 35 years.)
I've always heard that flying a helicopter is one of the most difficult things to learn. It wasn't so bad. After several hundred hours of actual flight time behind the stick of the VertiBird, and several hundred D cell batteries, I got fairly adept at picking up the out-of-proportioned astronaut.
Now when you hear me compare the skills of flying a toy to the skills needed to pilot an actual helicopter, you probably think that I am joking. But the following statement comes directly from Wikipedia: "The helicopter (VertiBird) is controlled using a two-lever control unit. The controls operate similar to a real helicopter. The throttle control provides proportional control of the blade speed. The pitch control provides for tilting the VertiBird forward or backward. During flight, the VertiBird is subject to the same physical flight characteristics as a real helicopter. This included ground-effects for low level hovering, plus altitude gains and losses when changing direction. Overall the VertiBird is easy to learn how to pilot for basic flight, but precision flying will require some patience and time on the controls as in a real helicopter." And there you have it; flying a VertiBird is practically the same as flying the real thing. Wikipedia says so. If you can't believe total strangers speaking anonymously on the Internet, who can you believe?
After doing the same mission time after time, my friend (we'll call him Andy, because his name was Andy) and I, went in search of other daring missions to hone our pilot skills on. (This is probably a good place to throw in one of those disclaimers that tells you not to attempt the following stunt. Don't attempt the following stunt.)
One of our favorite missions (or at least on of my favorites) was called "Pick up the astronaut out of Andy's mouth while he lay on the floor in front of the TV." To add a degree of difficulty, I would always challenge Andy to keep his eyes open and not blink while I flew this tricky mission. You wouldn't believe how fast your tear ducts dry out as a little plastic helicopter hovers mere inches above your unblinking pupils. (I wouldn't be surprised to learn that this is how the CIA found out where bin Laden was at Guantanamo Bay.)
When it came time to switch places in the cockpit and let him pilot while I held the astronaut on my face, I usually came up with something clever to get out of it like "Hey! Isn't 'Leave it to Beaver' on?" This distracted Andy, and besides, he was usually still trying to get his eyelids unstuck. Ahhhhh ... good times.
As I got older, I didn't have the same amount of time to devote to my VertiBird. As I approached manhood, childish dalliances were taken over by much more mature, adult hobbies. I think I got an Atari. So the old VertiBird got pushed to the back of the closet, and those D cell batteries got old and corroded all over my childhood memories, while I kept the world safe for democracy from those darn Space Invaders and Asteroids.
Who knows where I would have ended up had I continued along that path of aerial mastery. I'd probably be flying dangerous combat missions in Afghanistan or perilous rescue missions over the Bering Sea right now. And I doubt if I would have gotten married or started a family because as everybody knows, chicks dig pilots.
Instead, I'm sitting here at a desk writing a dumb column on one of the coolest toys I ever owned. Isn't it awesome how things just seem to work out?