how to fly a chopper

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The Independent Culture
Next time you're stuck, fuming, in yet more traffic mayhem, cast your mind upwards to those elite beings in helicopters, buzzing, high in the sky above us.

But there is no need to reach for the long-range rifle when, at your nearest flying school, you can hover menacingly alongside Noel Edmonds, Ian Botham, Prince Charles and co for less than the price of a new set of tyres.

Before vertical take-off, first find a compatible teacher. John Dines, a former Royal Navy pilot and instructor at the Cabair School at Redhill Aerodrome, likes to put novices at their ease by showing them photographs of his own hobbies - steamrolling, sailing, shooting, fishing and riding. "It helps to get them talking if they're nervous," he says. With 35 years of flying behind him, a terrified student could have no better man at the controls.

Next comes the pre-flight briefing, or in his words, "an honest insight into what it's all about", in which the 57-year-old action man explains, using a model, how a helicopter works, including the principles of aerodynamics, rotary wing flight and wing articulation.

You don't need to be a Da Vinci or a Sikorsky to appreciate this vital preliminary session, though admittedly the length and depth of the talk depends on "the individual student's desire to learn".

Students are then taken outside to view the training helicopter, a Robinson R-22, which sits invitingly beside the control tower. Dines proceeds to highlight its specifications: "It weighs 1,370 lbs and they are designed to last 2,000 hours," he says authoritatively, though by now any right- minded debutant is salivating only at the prospect of take-off.

Eventually he gives you the nod and you are in the driver's seat with the headphones on, faced with an incomprehensible instrument panel and your controls. Before there is time to digest any more aviation speak, the engine starts up and the rotor blades start to whir above your head.

In seconds the pastoral views of Kent, Sussex and Surrey unfold around you, but there's no time to gaze at the sun-drenched fields, as helicopter flying is totally pilot-orientated. With the aid of dual controls, Dines helps trainees to "get the feel of flying" by asking them to simulate his own actions, while he performs basic manoeuvres, at a speed of about 70 knots.

Others, like Bill Wyman's grandmother, take a passive role as Dines flies perilously through the trees, demonstrates reverse flying and performs an emergency landing. "Go on, let's go round again," the spirited octogenarian insists after 10 minutes of hair-raising moves.

One-off pilots emerge from the cockpit either white with terror or grinning like Jim'll Fix It participants. For some, the urge to book a second flight is irresistible. Andrew Harrison, 27, who has only had four one-hour lessons, is already serious about getting his own pilot's licence which, with a minimum flying time requirement of 40 hours, has already committed him to pounds 7,500. "I had a one-off lesson three weeks ago, after which I got a definite rush," he says.

He shrugs off any doubts about the safety aspect of flying. "John can always take the controls, you can't believe how smooth it really is." But unlike say, learning to drive a car, the three-dimensional aspect of helicopter flying can cause some beginners to freeze at the controls. "You need to be much more aware in a helicopter," he adds.

Managing director Harrison admits that he has made a few sacrifices to afford the tuition, but for some the post-flight buzz can prove more costly.

Dines recalls a former student, a blacksmith, who had been saving up for 10 years to buy a Lotus sports car. "From now on the car's history," he informed his bemused instructor, after landing for the first time. "I'm spending all my money on flying lessons."

Cabair Flying Schools offer Introductory Specials at Cranfield, Biggin Hill, Blackbushe, Redhill, Denham, and Elstree centres. Info: 01737 822166