The thing is, helicopters are different from airplanes. An airplane by its nature wants to fly and, if not interfered with too strongly by unusual events or by a deliberately incompetent pilot, it will fly. A helicopter does not want to fly. It is maintained in the air by a variety of forces and controls working in opposition to each other, and if there is any disturbance in the delicate balance, the helicopter stops flying, immediately and disastrously. There is no such thing as a gliding helicopter.
This is why a helicopter pilot is so different a being from an airplane pilot, and why in general, airplane pilots are open, clear-eyed, buoyant extroverts, and helicopter pilots are brooders, introspective anticipators of trouble. They know if anything bad has not happened, it is about to.
Approach magazine, November 1973
I was a bright-eyed optimist until I flew a single-engine Army helicopter. I endured flight school when I was 22 years old, a new alumna from Davidson College, ready to show the United States Army what I was made of and single-handedly change the institution itself. I then met “Mr. Young,” my primary instructor pilot. He was a wise, masterful, and ornery Vietnam War veteran who embodied the description of helicopter pilots as “introspective anticipators of trouble.” I sat down across the table from Mr. Young. He said, “There is no cursing in my aircraft, no taking the Lord’s name in vain, no back talking. My opinion is the only one that matters. You will be prepared every day or you will not fly.”
I soon learned from Mr. Young and all of my other instructor pilots that every minute you spend in a helicopter is one more minute that you cheat death. You must know the procedure for every malfunction that could occur in that turbine engine or its outside components. If helicopters lose power, they plummet. Your job is to control that terrifying plunge so that the main rotor blades remain intact and stay out of your cockpit, or control the fall so the resulting crack in your spine leaves you perhaps crippled but not paralyzed.
My husband is the quintessential airplane pilot: idealistic, with an exuberant, dimpled, and broad smile. I am his polar opposite: After several hundred hours in Army helicopters, I have a well-developed sense of doom. He will find the cloud’s silver lining. I will find its tumultuous center.
The difference in our perspectives was highlighted one May day when Jeff, who had just earned his private pilot’s license, took me flying in a Cessna 152. The day could not have been prettier in Alabama—light winds and clear, cloudless skies. He made a couple of touch-and-gos into the Troy and Andalusia airports; I was impressed. We had just taken off from the Andalusia airport and were at about 1,500 feet when the soothing growl of the engine ceased.
I looked at Jeff. “Very funny trick.”
“I’m not joking,” he said. “We just lost the engine.”
The helicopter pilot in me freaked out. So this is how I am going to die: in a tiny aluminum capsule crash in a farmer’s field where no one will find us for days. Jeff looked miles ahead of us and said, “I’m going to shoot for that field.” Being used to flying a giant lawn dart, I thought, No way will we make it.
But the little airplane glided in perfectly. It was the most beautiful landing of the day: no broken back, no propellers in the cockpit, not even a damaged landing gear.
The bright-eyed optimist might have won that day, but I still believe a moderate dose of brooding introspection is healthy. As soon as you bring a helicopter to a hover and see how it takes both of your hands and feet to keep it from slamming into the parking pad, you begin every flight preparing for the worst.
Iraq war veteran Darisse Smith is an account executive with Alliance International, a firm that recruits junior military officers.