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Robert Kirby and Utah Helicopter flight instructor Mindy Braithwaite pose in front of a Robinson R44 Raven II helicopter. Braithwaite gave Kirby a flying lesson on May 14.
Kirby: Whirling into the wild blue: Sun, sky, satisfaction

By Robert Kirby

| Tribune Columnist

First Published May 15 2012 10:28 am • Last Updated May 15 2012 06:38 pm

Saturday is International Learn to Fly Day. To celebrate its approach, I went to Utah Helicopter at Airport No. 2 and flew a Robinson R44 Raven II.

Disclaimer: If you were in the south part of the Salt Lake Valley on Wednesday morning and a large helicopter tore off part of your roof and/or frightened your pet into a grand mal seizure, it wasn’t me.

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Nope. This misadventure was conducted according to a bound set of Federal Aviation Administration rules three times as thick as the Bible and every bit as incomprehensible. Also, there was an actual pilot involved.

I met Mindy Braithwaite at Utah Helicopter. On the phone, Mindy sounded every bit the qualified instructor pilot. In person, she was about 15 years old and no taller than Frodo.

But she was smarter than me about helicopters. Using a model, Mindy explained the various working parts of the aircraft — tail rotor, skids, windows (that don’t roll down), controls, boom and main rotor.

I signed a waiver indemnifying Utah Helicopter in the event that for some reason I pushed a piano out the window 1,000 feet over West Jordan.

Me: "What kind of imbecile would do that?"

Mindy: "I’ve read your column, Mr. Kirby."

We went out to the flight line. For those interested in the highly technical elements of the aircraft, it was big, bright orange and had this whirly thing on top.

I got into the pilot’s seat while Mindy sat on a booster seat next to me. She flipped switches, toggled this and dialed that. Then she fired up the bird. It was loud. I liked it a lot.

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Military helicopters fly over my house all the time on their way to and from Camp Williams. The sound is soothing. It always reminds me of high grade pharmaceutical narcotics.

Alabama, 1978. Laying in the mud with a bunch of other badly hurt guys, I heard the sound of Medevac Hueys coming for us. Those of us still conscious smiled. We knew that on those choppers were U.S. Army medics. And Army medics have lots of morphine.

Things went much better this time. Mindy patiently explained the various controls and dials. I still remember the important parts.

"If this is tipped that way, we’re turning left," she said. "If that one raises above this line, we’re going up. And if that needle goes all the way over to that red part, close your eyes."

We took off. It wasn’t like flying a plane. A helicopter first goes straight up. Then the nose dips and it starts going forward. We climbed to 2,000 feet and flew out over Herriman, where I waved to my granddaughter in the backyard of my house.

When we were over a patch of ground nobody really cared about, Mindy told me to take the controls. I sort of flew the helicopter for a very long minute.

I say "sort of" because Mindy’s hands never got more than a millimeter from the controls. If something went wrong — as often is the case when I’m involved — she could immediately take over and/or kick me out the door.

It was easy to see how flying can become a drug. High above the valley gridlock, there is no road construction, rush hour, barking dogs or yammering salespeople. It’s just you, the sun and the sky forever.

Mindy flew us back to the airport where we practiced what she called an "auto-rotation." What sounds like a disco move is actually an emergency procedure should the helicopter’s engine fail. And the first time is every bit as disconcerting as it sounds.

I could do this, I told myself when we landed. Or I could if someone would let me. But that’s not going to happen. Flying is for people capable of paying attention. That’s why it takes nearly a year to get a helicopter license.

If you want to know more about flying helicopters, or how to get your pilot’s license, there’s an open house at Airport No. 2 this Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Maybe you can take a spin through the wild blue.

Ask for Mindy at Utah Helicopter. Don’t tell her I sent you. She might not let you in her helicopter.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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