Dear Liz,

I just started writing this for no particular reason. Typing practice I guess, but how much practice does the two-finger method need? I had no idea how it would come out. It ends up being addressed to you but doesn’t seem like it most of the time. I hope it’s not too boring.

The helicopter is a relatively new invention. The first one flew only sixty years ago, at the beginning of the nuclear age and the first jet plane flight. People did think of making a helicopter flying machine long before that. Leonardo da Vinci had the idea 425 years ago. Mother Nature has had the idea much longer of course. It would seem to be a great survival advantage for any bird to be able to hover, fly backwards and sideways, as does the helicopter. Yet we see only one bird species per hundreds with those abilities. Achieving this kind of flying ability is a tough design challenge involving complex and specialized power and flight control mechanisms. Mother Nature gave the world the hummingbird. A man named Igor Sikorsky, a Russian immigrant to the U.S.A., gave the world the helicopter.

Sikorsky’s first helicopters were relatively crude, under-powered machines. With each update his helicopters improved. Then in the mid 1950s Igor Sikorsky’s engineers designed a radical new helicopter, the Sikorsky S-61. It still had that familiar helicopter look but it was big and tall with room for twenty-five stand-up passengers (when ten squatters had been many). It had state-of-the-art multiple jet turbine engines for power and safety and it had redundancy in all its critical flight systems just as do modern airliner planes. Through the 1960s and 1970s more than 1000 S-61s rolled out of factory doors around the world, making it the all-time most popular large helicopter.

The design was so ahead of its time, such a thoughtful combination of speed, power, reliability, size, and capability that to date no new helicopter design has been able to fully replace the S-61. The S-61 has been used in nearly every military capacity. It has rescued shipwreck victims and recovered astronauts, carried airline passengers, kings and Presidents – every one from JFK to G. Dubya. And it has been used to carry big heavy loads that are suspended from its belly. This last job is the part of the S-61 world that I know.

For most of the last twenty years my job has been to fly a Sikorsky S-61. The companies that I have worked for have used their S-61s for logging, construction, fire fighting, and to move the occasional crashed aircraft. In these jobs our S-61 has a 100- to 250-foot-long cable, called a longline, suspended from a hook attached to the aircraft’s belly. At the lower end of the longline is another hook to which the various loads are attached. Both hooks are remotely opened and closed by the pilot with switches within fingers’ reach on the flight controls. The longline allows the helicopter to hover above obstacles as it works. This high hover also attenuates the effect of the strong wind, the rotor wash, the helicopter blows at the ground.

The S-61s used for this external load work are made as light as possible by taking everything off them that is not necessary for safety or strength. Exterior beauty panels and streamlining covers are removed. The interior of the fuselage is gutted; seats, walls, insulation, everything! It’s all weight, and we want these machines to carry weight on their revenue-producing external loads, not as handicapping ballast on the fuselage. The beautiful lines of the helicopter are ruined and the interior ends up looking like the inside of a mechanical Jonah’s whale, nothing but metal ribs and wire veins, but the helicopter can carry an extra 1,400 pounds this way. These gutted workhorse heavy-lift Sikorsky helicopters get the traditional nickname of Igor, after their namesake. One winter, about ten years ago, I called the boss to chitchat and he mentioned the company was buying two more S-61s, from Donald Trump of all people. The Donald had used them to fly New York gamblers to his Atlantic City casino. The Donald didn’t need the helicopters anymore. He was going to practice the Art of The Deal on us. The boss needed some pilots to fly the helicopters from their New Jersey location to our base out west. I immediately volunteered.

Five of us rode an airliner to Newark the day after Christmas and drove over to The Donald’s aircraft hangar at the Allaire airport. We walked in the hangar door and flipped on the light switches. To our pilot eyes it was like theater special effects. The lights flickered on in progression to reveal a row of four beautiful black and gold helicopters. Two of them were our new rides, the third was another gambler S-61 that was still for sale. The fourth was also for sale, $9 million we were told. It was The Donald’s personal ride, a big French-make Super Puma (which was one of those recent helicopter designs struggling to replace the forty-five-year-old S-61).

We were in a helicopter pilot candy store. We spent the next couple of hours walking through and climbing on the machines. Hey look, we’d shout, a toilet room! (No more funnel-and-hose.) Hey look, this one’s got two air conditioners! Hey look, here’s a galley! Two kinds of radar! Six navigation radios! Cupholders! We were used to flying Igors. This was how the other half lived.

Then we walked back to the Super Puma. What was it like?

The Donald knows what he likes, and he likes nice. This jet black corporate helicopter had plush leather seats inside, with trimmings of wool carpet and wood fixtures. There were gold door latches, seat belt buckles, and various gold metal trim pieces. “That’s gold,” the mechanic working at the hangar said. “Yeah, nice,” we answered. “No, gold,” he said. “Not gold-plated. Gold.”


This was a beautiful machine. We examined it closely from front to back. Its black paint was impeccable, giving back mirror images of open-mouthed faces. Then one of us called out, “Hey, look at this,” and we all went over to look at a spot on the side of the helicopter behind the front door. There, showing through the mirror black finish was the faint outline of a word painted over.


That was a kick. Do you suppose The Donald also has a tattoo he doesn’t want? It brought us all back down to Earth. No matter what the differences, The Donald still has mundane family problems to deal with. He has to put his pants on one leg at a time, like the rest of us. That’s about the only similarity, but it’ll do.

The next two days we filled with maintenance and test-flying duties. These machines hadn’t flown in two years and the inactivity had left them stiff-muscled. Dry rubber seals leaked. Electrical switches were corroded and unreliable. Vital fluids had evaporated. The toilets wouldn’t flush. We slowly got the two helicopters we were buying into flying condition. We had one last test flight to do on the second helicopter and then, assuming all went well, we would head west the next morning as a flight of two.

It was late afternoon when the other pilot and I started the helicopter up. The sun would be setting soon on this winter day, just a week past the shortest day of the year. We took off and headed eastward towards the ocean, where the air traffic over this crowded Eastern Seaboard neighborhood would be light and where we could do some maneuvering without much worry of conflicting aircraft.

As we flew down a river between two airports, the twinkle of ground lights started to show. It was pretty. It also rang an alarm in the back of my head. What was this going to look like in another half hour? We were new guys here and were flying and navigating visually over unfamiliar terrain, which here was heavily developed urban oceanfront. The back of my head thought, We better come back this same way, up the coast to this same river mouth, or we may get lost in the twilight and blunder into one of the airport traffic patterns all around here. That’s a Navy air base over there. They may put us in jail for flying over that, assuming some jet doesn’t run over us first.

The helicopter flew fine. Our last mechanical fixes were effective and the machine was now smooth and fast. We turned back up the coast. The sun was almost down, low in our eyes, and the ground lights of thousands, probably millions, of houses, signs, and cars shined up from the ground shadow below us. It was a lot worse than the back of my head predicted. Nothing looked different from anything else. How were we going to recognize any landmarks? Darker areas weaved throughout the sea of lights. Our river would be one of those dark areas, but which one? Our airport would be one of those flashing beacons, but which one? We were five minutes from our airport, we were over a million people, and we were totally lost. I can honestly say I was fighting off a sense of panic about this situation.

How did we get out of this one? Hey, I don’t know. We flew around for a while, totally lost and getting more lost by the darkening minute. I know that stupid car is in this parking lot somewhere. Wasn’t it this row? No. Oh, boy. I’m lost in the parking lot. The other pilot recognized something in the sea of lights. I still don’t know what he saw. He turned toward it and a couple of minutes later things began to look familiar. Was I glad I was with him! We soon landed at our hangar and shut down the helicopter. We kind of talked about the last ten minutes of the flight. Boy, that sure changed fast, that was a toughie, ha ha. I kept my true feelings to myself. What I wanted to do was hug that man. I was so glad to be back on the ground.

The next day we were off on what would turn out to be a most memorable trip to Utah. These beautiful TrumpAir helicopters would soon be turned into Igors, flying logs in Alaska. In two years that other pilot would be dead, killed in a car wreck. The little events in your life don’t seem to be much when they happen. But I’ll never forget that painted-over word Ivana. Or the sea of lights. They are little keys that open up a flood of memories and emotions. I’m lucky to be flying a Sikorsky S-61. It is a good machine that has carried me well, allowed me to do interesting things and meet memorable people. I hope you are as fortunate.

Love, Dad