Going for a spin: What goes up and down and looks like a Seventies bubble-car? A twoseater helicopter, of course. Lyndsay Russell takes to the skies

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The Independent Culture
At Denham Airfield in Middlesex, the would-be pilot has a choice. He or she can either learn to fly a single-engine airplane or, for a mere pounds 195 an hour, go up in a helicopter. Chopper pilot Quentin Smith is not remotely apologetic about charging twice the fee of an airplane instructor. 'The machine costs twice as much, and there are more whirly bits to maintain.'

In fact, as I discovered, it is those extra 'whirly bits' which make all the difference. At first glance, Smith's tiny Robinson R22 twoseater looked too frail even to carry a bag of shopping let alone two people. It resembled a bubble-car with a flashy roof-rack.

Once seated in the perspex cabin, the feeling of vulnerability increased. 'The idea is, you must keep your hands on the controls at all times,' Smith warned. Luckily, he had an identical set on his side. 'As I move the levers and pedals, they simultaneously operate yours. That way, you get a feeling for the gentle degrees needed to alter the flight path.

He pointed at an ignition key. It was just like starting a car. As the propellers throbbed into action, Smith lifted what looked like a hand-brake. We hovered inches above the ground. Pushing another lever forward tilted the nose down enabling the blades to catch the air. 'Welcome to my magic carpet,' he laughed.

The effortless changes in direction showed how logical and simple the controls were, like an extension of the body. 'It's the same feeling of flying you have in your dreams,' Smith said. 'One of the best things about my job is seeing the surprise and thrill on my students' faces.'

He explained that helicopters can go up to 117mph and fly non- stop for about three hours. 'In the United States, everybody flys planes. But helicopters are perfect for a country as small as England.'

British Helicopter Champion of 1987, the 30-year-old has been flying since the age of five. 'My father was the distributor for Hughes Helicopters. It's only now I realise how privileged I was.' For the rest of us, the cost is prohibitive. Nevertheless, the flying bug is not limited to businessmen and city whizz-kids. Smith boasts about one pupil, an electrician, who became so addicted he even mortgaged his home to pay for lessons.

To get the full licence takes a minimum of 40 hours, including making 10 solo flights (three cross-country) and completing six simple multiple-choice exams. 'A machine like this costs around pounds 95,000 to buy, but you can easily hire them for a day. And you only get charged for the hours you spend airborne.'

Which reminded me - how do you ensure remaining airborne? 'It's exceptionally safe,' Smith insisted. ' Unlike a plane, if the weather turns bad you can land it anywhere.' As if to prove the point, he cut the engine and we coasted gently down on to the elegant lawns of Danesfield House, just in time for tea.

HELAIR: Denham, Middlesex (0895 835899)

Wellesbourne, Mountford nr Stratford-upon-Avon (0789 470476)

(Photograph omitted)