There isn’t one of us that accidentally became a pilot. It doesn’t work that way. We see our first airplane, or in my case –helicopter, and we are mystified by it. Our eyes are always up in the sky, especially when we hear that familiar hum of rotors over head. This is my story. The how, the why, even the where. Read on.
It was 1989 and we had just landed in the sweltering lowlands of Papua New Guinea. The black tarmac was radiating with waves of heat and the smell of jet exhaust from the still running engines on the company plane filled the air mixed with the purr of the engines themselves. The sky was wide open blue with almost no clouds to be seen except for the occasional very puffy white one, and we were surrounded by palms and rainforest. This land, lost in time, would be my family’s home for over a decade. I was just barely older than 3 years old at this point but even to this day one of my most vivid memories is of our arrival here.
My father had taken a position with an American mining company developing a project on the island, and we were going to be living and growing up in a company town called Tembagapura. We were flown in by company jet from another nearby Indonesian Island, and greeted by a small army of local employees that quickly hustled about moving our luggage from the airplane to our next mode of transportation, company helicopters that matched the paint scheme of our company jet. Knowing what I know now I would describe the scene as akin to those familiar to us from film of Vietnam era Huey’s sitting on their makeshift landing pads in the jungles of Nam, waiting to fly soldiers into battle. Today however, unlike those Vietnam era ships, our helicopters were bright yellow and white.
We were hurried across the ramp in groups toward the helipads, which were surrounded by a short chain link fence and gate. The blades were chopping the air above my head as my father and I were loaded into the front seat next to the pilot. What came next was the single most defining moment of my life – we lifted to a hover, and then flew through the sky, tucked in valleys and grazing tall rainforest trees in a land, lost in time. At three years old my eyes were wide in wonder as I had just barely been on my first plane, and now I was in a helicopter. We lifted slowly off of the cracked grey pad, our sister helicopter picking up beside us. The combined sound of rotor blades chopping the air echoed through the palms.
The pilot pulled pitch and we began to climb up over the green leafy palms, the nose tipped forward and our speed increased. In front of us were ominous tall mountains, shrouded in mist and covered entirely in dense rainforest. Our flight stayed low, and hugged the terrain as we continued to build speed toward the mountains. As the land came up so did the helicopters, and before long we were cutting through wisps of mist and cloud. The terrain became jagged and unforgiving, large outcroppings of rock jutted from the mountain, and peaks seemed to lift up around us on either side. The trees grew denser and taller and we continued our climb.
The flight felt as if it lasted only an instant, but I was marked for life. Over the next 12 years I spent on the Island I kept my eyes on the helicopters coming and going. My parents would take me to the heliport almost daily when I was young and we would spend hours just sitting, watching, and waving. Today, 15 years later, I’m that helicopter pilot. My wide eyed fascination grew into passion, and that passion still courses through my soul. Every time I pick up a helicopter, as I lift that collective and feel those blades chop into the air – I’m greeted with a familiar sound and sensation that shaped me, and still shapes me.