Vertically Challenged

20 10 2008

“Would you please not stop our rotor blades with your camera?” (Katherine Gorge, Northern Territory, Australia)

If humans were meant to fly, they would have been born with wings. If helicopters were meant to fly, they would have been born with doors. When I spotted the doors of my helicopter lying on the dew-soaked grass, I began to have second thoughts about my imminent flight.


I’m a sucker for sightseeing flights. Whether balloons, helicopters or light aircraft I can’t help but plonk down a stack of hard-earned dollars, clamber aboard and get the full birds-eye view.


I am particularly fond of helicopters not only for the great photographic opportunities they provide, but also because I always feel like a famous celebrity as I walk hunched-over beneath the whirling rotor blades, climb in, fasten the double-buckle and don the fancy headset and mouthpiece.


Australia’s Katherine Gorge is a rugged canyon carved in the Northern Territory’s outback just south of Darwin. Explored from water level, the gorge’s cliffs rise from the meandering Katherine River providing shade for the crocodiles that lounge on the small stretches of white sand. It is a beautiful spot that has been immortalised in art, photography and movies.


Not content with the view from the river, I headed to the local dirt air strip for a sightseeing flight. The sun was barely up and the air was perfectly still. The helicopter had already set off on its first flight of the day. I completed the paperwork in the small utility hut and gazed at photos of the diminutive Robinson R44 helicopter that would soon whisk me off on my flight. This was clearly no normal sightseeing helicopter. It was small, tough and clearly meant business. The photos showed it mustering cattle on vast Australian ranches the size of Texas the way horses or ATVs were used on more sensibly-proportioned properties. When not mustering in the outback, the helicopter and its pilots headed north for sightseeing.


With my life signed-away, I heard the distant sound of the helicopter and stepped outside to await my ride. It was then that I noticed the doors.


They were red and lying on the grass as if forgotten or abandoned. At first I thought perhaps they were spares, but then, as my air-chariot came into view and the dawn sun shone straight through the aircraft’s body like dolphins through an aquarium hoop, I realised my error.


The helicopter slewed to a landing. The previous occupants dashed away from the whirling blades. The pilot motioned for us to keep our heads down and climb aboard.


I have long boasted of my lack of fear of heights, a boast that is perfectly true when I am on terra-firma but proves a little less certain whenever I embark on inappropriate activities like skydiving or face-first rapelling.  Helicopters without doors seemed to be in similar company.


With unmolested ease I climbed into the back seat. There were unfortunately only two seats, both of them perilously close to the large openings where the doors should have been. With no centre child-seat option, I chose the left seat and fastened my seatbelt tightly enough to sever all bloodflow to my legs. My feet began to tingle, then all feeling was lost. We promptly lifted off and my fears were allayed as the helicopter gently tilted nose-down and moved straight forward skimming across the treetops. This wouldn’t be so bad after all I thought, lifting my camera to my eyes to snap a few photos…and then we banked…to the left…dramatically.


In the space of a few seconds I went from thinking I was going to fall out and die to wanting to fall out and die to end my pain and suffering. The helicopter angled sharply and from the corner of my bulging eyes I stared transfixed at the hard ground several hundred feet below as we pirouetted in a tight circle. My seat belt strained under my weight while my feet dangled at a peculiar angle in mid-air. I gripped onto the seat edge tightly until my camera swung into the void and I grabbed it back again. We soon levelled off, I caught my breath and attempted to take unblurred photos despite my shaking hands.


Banking to the right wasn’t as much of an issue and gradually I became accustomed to my precarious platform. On the way back to the landing strip we tickled the treetops startling water buffalo and egret before once more looping over on the left and landing on the grass. A small group of victims stood pale-faced awaiting their trip. As we passed each other beneath the whirling blades I gestured to the doors.


“They fell off as we took off.” I shouted over the noise, shaking my head somberly and continuing straight past them.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan




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