Leonardo's Vision

by Pete Thompson


The richness of human imagination has rarely been more realized than in the day/night dreams of Leonardo da Vinci which have deeply impacted modern humankind. Although his fantasy images were limited to the available technologies of the day, he nonetheless, envisioned each as real and probable in time. His fifteenth century vision of a machine capable of leaping into the air under the control of humans in flight has come to pass in the helicopter. I can imagine him watching birds doing these things and actually, in his mind, performing them, himself.  When I was a child, people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. As serious as a monk in prayer, I answered, "A bird!" I have experienced, in every human sense possible, the thrill of flight that Leonardo envisioned as the nearest humans could initiate actual bird flight. 

I AM a helicopter pilot therefore I AM a helicopter.  The integration between a human and a machine is complete when the former is strapped into the latter becoming one and the same. Every human sense becomes ten-fold more sensitive to the machine, and each vibration, sound, smell, sight, and touch becomes acute. When you break friction with the earth, you are no longer in the human world but in the world where the inhabitants are naturally equipped to fly.  You may dance upon the air through every landscape that exists. Leonardo's vision inhabited many inventors, but one, in the twentieth century, made it real….Igor Sikorsky.  Others followed in his footsteps, making the machine better and more friendly to those who have the lust to be a bird. One of those who believed in the machine enough to make it better and safer, my hero, Howard Hughes.

Through odd circumstances, I became a helicopter pilot, and no matter how odd, I have benefited beyond my wildest dreams. It is my goal to share the most wondrous of human experiences by leaping into the air and flying like a bird. I realize some people are not comfortable flying, scared, to put it bluntly. I have heard this many times from those who have not flown in a helicopter before, and after the flight there was no more fright. If any body is interested in learning why this happens and any other aspect to helicopters you may submit questions in the comment section.

Learning the basics of flying by no means qualifies anyone as a master of this machine, the ever changing elements, the rhythm of many moving parts made by human hands, and knowing one's limitations are key in being successful. Only experience and surviving "Stupid" (aka, pilot error) will make the bond between pilot and machine complete. I vowed not to call myself stupid but "Stupid" manifested when, for example, in Alaska, I hovered full circle around a brown bear (grizzly) who likely invented the phrase, "No Fear", and he had none. I glanced at my passenger (who had survived many seasons in the wildest of wildernesses) for his approval of my marvelous maneuver, but instead he was terrified with tears running down his cheeks. He had never been so close to a grizzly bear, with all the bear stories shared in Alaska usually ending in catastrophe for the humans involved, brought more emotions than he could control. Suddenly, I realized my hovering around this beautiful animal, king of the food chain, was not a wise thing to be doing and, if I had a mechanical problem for which a landing was unavoidable, the landing would have to be into the bear. In other words, I would have to crash the helicopter into the bear, 'cause all he had on his mind was "can I eat this thing and those tasty looking creatures inside?"

Now I realize the noise of a helicopter is considered by some people environmentally detrimental and an invasion on their right to seek solitude in the wilderness or in their homes. A good helicopter pilot will respect the rights of others and take evasive actions to insure harmony. There does come a time when the noise of a helicopter becomes inconsequential with a life or death situation in the wilderness, or any where, when time is critical for transportation to medical aid. Pilots are ingrained with an obsession to save life wherever, whatever, and whenever possible without further endangerment. This is where experience with or without "Stupid" teaches a pilot to know their limitations in extreme conditions.  A life-size bronze sculpture placed near the Vietnam War Memorial, Washington, DC, depicts a wounded soldier held by an a nurse while another nurse is looking skyward for the helicopter to take them to safety.  Just ask a Vietnam veteran, or any veteran since Korea, what emotions the sound of a helicopter--even today--conjures in their minds and hearts. Ask anyone whose house has been saved from fire by the heroic actions of a helicopter pilot dropping giant buckets of water onto a an inferno of burning vegetation what emotions they feel. Wave at all helicopters as they pass you by. You may not see the pilot waving back but he is.

After an exciting adventure in Alaska, I wound up in the beautiful small town of Moab, Utah, with Canyon Lands National Park, Arches National Monument, the La Sal Mountains, the Colorado River, Lake Powell, the Grand Canyon National Park, and all points in between, as playgrounds for me in my helicopter. After taking off from Moab, you climb an 800 foot vertical cliff known as "Behind the Wall", to reveal the breathtaking expanse of Canyon Lands. In the middle of what seems to be an array of natural psychedelic imager, sits a gargantuan natural formation aptly named "Cleopatra's Chair".  Travel further westerly to the point where the Colorado River spreads into Lake Powell. This particular area is a disgrace to the human race as a mass of every type flotsam collects from upstream.

I have flown down the Colorado River to Lake Powell, low level, just to see what all the fuss was about in rafting tours. It was very anticlimactic, like chocolate pudding flowing over bumps.  Nothing to it, I thought, until I came up with the brilliant idea of flying up the river. Cramming into the giant white rapids full of air and turmoil breaking momentarily into swirling pools of foam then onward to the next hidden boulder to create another cataract of chaos in flowing order. My heart was pounding as my trusty stead took me through the twisting canyons inches from surface of the river, at 120 mph, that wind-driven water from the tops of the rapids formed droplets on the windshield. I, again, looked at my passengers for approval of his maneuver, asking if anyone felt uneasy about this most extraordinary ride that I would straighten up and fly right.  All three passengers, their eyes bugged out, felt the excitement as I did and motioned to continue until we ran out of white water and the river settled peacefully where we climbed the high cliffs and on back to Moab, elated. Adrenaline is a very addictive drug, so, naturally I did this every chance I could with or without passengers. No one ever complained!  Caution:  Do not try this in an airplane unless you need to go in for adrenaline rehab. 

If you ever find yourself in a place where helicopter tours are available, don't think twice about shelling out some fairly big bucks for the ride of a life time. Be a bird! Chances are you will have a Vietnam era pilot at the controls. Be assured he is the best in the world. Sitting here in this chair, reliving my time….I AM a helicopter!

Grazie:  Leonardo

Spasido:  Igor

Thanks:  Howard


Pete Thompson has been a helicopter pilot since 1970. He received his training in the Army and did a tour in Vietnam. He lives in northern New Mexico.

*Photos are of the author in a Hughs 500 helicopter, the Ferrari of helicopters. 

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