A close friend of mine and downright badass, Sergio Troiani, completely blew my mind when he invited me and group of our close buddies on a flight out to Nashville. This flight was special because, one, he was the pilot, and two, it was in a helicopter. Needless to say, I was in.
The flight completely blew me away. I remember listening to the intercom and hearing the communications between Sergio and the Towers. It was absolutely amazing and change my perspective on what I could accomplish in my life. To see Sergio flying made me question what I was capable of if I set my mind to it. Even months after the flight, I found myself revisiting the videos and photos I had taken in the helicopter and leveraged it as motivation. A year later, I was itching for more flight time.
Finally, having accumulated some money from my first job after graduation, I decided it was time to learn how to fly. I contacted Sergio and as expected, he said, “Of course, stop by this weekend.” On July 25th, 2019, I had my first discovery flight. A discovery flight is exactly what it sounds like – a pilot gives you the chance to operate some basic functions (something called the cyclic) and you feel what it’s like to (sorta) control the helicopter. And it was awesome. After 30 minutes in the sky, we landed and I was able to record my first flight in my Pilot Flight Log.
That next week, on Monday actually, Sergio contacted me again. This time I woke up to a text that read, “You want cheap flight time?” “Why, of course, yes, absolutely, in fact, I do” is how I remember responding. He went on to tell me that he had just bought a helicopter in Oxnard, California and he needed it brought back to Michigan. The deal was, I fly out to Oxnard and take a certified flight instructor with me, I pay for all the gas and the meals, and he’ll have the CFI teach me how to fly. Win-win. Yes, I’m game. And so off we went, just me, a complete stranger, and around 2,200 miles of getting to know each other.
California to Michigan
Before getting into too much detail, it’s important to know our limitations in a helicopter and the path we were forced to take home. We were retrieving a Robinson II R44. This model helicopter has a peak altitude of around 14,000ft (although it’s rare to fly that high in one). The Rocky Mountains between California and Michigan, specifically in Colorado, nearly reach 14,000ft. Not good for us. Instead, we used a path given to us by the folks that manufacture the Robinson Helicopters. This was a relief and yet, for some reason, a bit concerning. I found myself thinking, “what am I getting myself into?”, multiple times throughout the days leading up. The fact that the Robinson Manufacturer has a flight path that is an “agreement” requiring the pilots’ signature, did NOT make me feel warm and fuzzy.
We arrived late in the evening on Friday, August 2nd in Los Angeles and drove to Oxnard. We were able to get some rest and woke up early Saturday to begin our journey. The helicopter was “pre-flighted” and mostly ready for flight. We did a preflight inspection of our own, checking the main and tail rotors, oil, and draining a little fuel from the main and auxiliary tanks to ensure no water or debris was present. Everything checked out fine. It was time to get ready for flight. This might be a good time to mention that the helicopter was purchased from a previous owner in Haiti. Yeah, needless to say, I placed that in the “let’s not think about that” section for my own sanity.
After 10 or so attempts the R44 started up and we began our trip. Wow, it was beautiful. I was absolutely stunned by the mountains and the city in the morning light. Gorgeous.
Thermal, no kidding
Our first stop for gas was in Thermal, California. I swear, the name is so ironic, that it almost pains me to say it but I will – it was hot. Temperatures pushed upwards of 105°F and it was 9:00 am. The helicopter did not like it one bit. Once we had finished fueling and checking the oil, we went to start the helicopter but it wouldn’t give. The starter was simply too hot after sitting in the sun for 30 minutes. We decided our best bet was to wheel the helicopter over behind a hanger to let it “cool” in the shade. Fortunately we had wheels that allowed us to move the helicopter (this is not standard and isn’t included with every helicopter). After waiting around an hour, we gave it another go and the helicopter started. We were back in the skies. This is a good time to mention that the oil temp gauge was kissing the red at 225°F. Yup, stored that one away in the “let’s not think about that” section too.
Our next stop was in Blythe, California. It was hotter. Temperatures peaked at 120°F on the ground. I’ve never felt a breeze that was actually hotter than the stagnant air. Again, we battled the starter and had to make sure not to overheat it like last time. Finally, we were off again. About midway to Pheonix, we started to hit bad turbulence. I don’t know if you’ve ever hit turbulence in a plane, but a helicopter is none better. We were getting thrown around, but we eventually made it. It was only around 1:00 pm but we were so beat that we called it a day. The sun, stress, and excitement had drained us mentally and physically. Time to rest in Pheonix.
Phenoix to El Paso
The second day was exactly the same as the first day. It was hot, there was turbulence, and my butt was clenched the entire time. Pheonix is actually pretty close to El Paso, but because of the aforementioned conditions, it took us an entire day to travel the distance. We had some making up to do.
El Paso to home
Due to the high temperatures and elevation, the trip from Oxnard, California to El Paso, Texas took two full days. Ground speeds during this time rarely reached 90 knots (104 mph). It was stressful, sweaty, and a time that I will certainly never forget. When we woke that morning in El Paso, we were greeted with clear skies and a renewed sense of optimism. Temperatures were low and the sun hadn’t quite made it beyond the horizon. With no more mountains to avoid, it was a straight shot to Michigan. Off we went.
Believe it or not, one of the most beautiful states to cross over was Arkansas.
And just like that, it was over. It was around 10:00 pm in Michigan and we were landing the Plymouth Mettetal Airport. As we landed, we were greeted by a familiar voice. “Callen, don’t fuck up the landing” rang across our frequency. It was Sergio and it was sure good to be home.
If you ever want to fly, whether it be as a passenger or copilot, feel free to visit MI Flight Aviation. This is Sergio’s website where he hosts all of his helicopter related services. I recommend it.