article and photos by “RC Dave” Freund
As a rule, hang gliders and helicopters don't mix. U.S. pioneer Bob Wills paid for this lesson with his life more than 20 years ago. Sometimes, however, a helicopter is the best way to get the job done.
This was the case near the end of 1997 when freestyle champion, glider designer and photographer John Heiney teamed up with a film crew led by award-winning film maker/producer Mike Hoover in Lake Elsinore California. Mike filmed and produced the hang gliding short called "UP"which won an Academy Award.
Mike felt that the best way to get some video for his TV program about extreme sports ("To The Edge" on the Outdoor Life Channel) was to tow John behind one helicopter while a second followed. Both helicopters had cameras onboard. John had two "lipstick cams" mounted on his Altair Predator.
The towline was tied to a weight which hung below the helicopter to keep it clear of the tail rotor. The pilot of the tow copter (Cliff Fleming of South Coast Helicopters) had to fly sideways and maintain a speed below the minimum at which his airspeed indicator would register. The ASI doesn't work with the pitot tube aimed 60 degrees off heading anyway. The crews for both aircraft types were nervous, and perfect communication was an absolute requirement.
To launch, John had to run toward the "vortex ring" of the turbulence created as the tow ship hovered at about 75 feet. He then had to turn away from or climb above the deadly dust cloud. On the first few tows he released before reaching the danger zone, not satisfied with the attempt.
Finally John got the tow he was looking for and climbed over the turbs. The two mismatched aircraft climbed slowly but safely up to about 7,000 feet as the sun was setting into the Pacific Ocean. Mike must have been thrilled with the beautiful colors and dramatic cloudscapes.
Once up to altitude John cast off the towline and proceeded to loop, spin and wang his Predator. He did his usual precise and beautiful freestyle maneuvers despite the extra weight of the onboard cameras. He then had to wait for the camera craft (piloted by Bruce Benson) to catch up (down) to him. He surprised them with his high rate of descent.
They learned to stay below him at the start of each set. Mike Hoover was shooting from the tow ship, while Michael Graber rode with Bruce. No Tyler mounts here. They just harnessed in and leaned out the door.
A few times John thought that a wake might have been laid in his path, so he would abort the set, turn, and clear the sus- pected turbulence. Even these experienced professionals had difficulty coordinating their flight paths. This was not an easy filming job.
As evening settled around us, John and the helicopters landed on the dry lake bed. The only complaint was very cold hands. John had forgotten his gloves. What a show!
AUTHOR'S DISCLAIMER. The flying described here is not easy, safe or smart. If you are dreaming of such stunts you'd better be safely asleep in bed. These pilots are extremely experienced professionals who suffered a brief lapse of sanity. Don't even think this would be fun. Don't even think you would like to do this. There are much easier and cheaper ways to die.
Published in Hang Gliding March 1998 © "RC Dave" Freund