I open my eyes in the fuzzy light of still-curtained morning. The cell phone reads an hour before the alarm is scheduled to go off, but there’s no going back to sleep. It’s flight day and I’m picturing a helicopter sinking below the surface of Lake Mead. I’m inside it, pounding on the glass as the light fades away.
The mild panic began the morning before when I got a call from Red Bull field-marketing manager Greg Espinoza. “The good news is you can do it; the bad news is it’s tomorrow at 3 p.m.,” he says. He’s got it backwards, I think. The good news is that my flight in the Red Bull Aerobatic Helicopter is just 24 hours away. That means less time to watch YouTube videos of its sleek metal frame doing back flips a few hundred feet above the ground, less time to read about how it’s the only civilian-manned aerobatic helicopter in the North America, or that less than 50 people have ever flown in it. If safety is in numbers, I’m screwed.
“Are you worried about puking or are you worried about dying?” my roommate asks.
The Red Bull Aerobatic Helicopter is a feat of engineering. Unlike most choppers, in which a loop, back-flip or barrel roll would be a suicide mission, Red Bull’s modified toy has been reconfigured to safely perform maneuvers normally reserved for fixed-wing aircraft. It’s the only non-military helicopter capable of stunt flight in North America, and there’s only one pilot certified to fly it – Chuck Aaron.
The first thing I notice about Aaron is his mustache. It’s big, blond and bushy, and gives the aerobatic helicopter pilot a look of cowboy about him. He’s soft-spoken, and reassuringly calm. I’m his fourth flight of the day in Red Bull’s customized Eurocopter BO-105 CBS, and Aaron will fly it twice more this weekend at the Aviation Nation air show at Nellis Air Force Base.
“You won’t get sick,” he tells me, as I contemplate the options for puking without hitting the control panel. “Girls love this.”
Fifteen minutes later the rotors are buzzing above my head as we clear a mountain pass and see the expanse of Lake Mead spread out before us like a sparkling blue carpet. The stunning view feels very private until Red Bull’s restored 1957 Albatross, an amphibious plane, passes by on our right. Behind the mid-lunge crimson bull shining on its hull is cameraman Ryan McAfee who will climb onto the plane’s wing after it lands on the lake and shoot the stunts that make this helicopter a one of a kind machine.
“We’re going to do a back flip now,” Aaron’s voice comes over my headphones, and we start to climb. Slowly, he inverts the chopper. I lose track of the horizon as sky and water switch places and then return again. I’m smiling, panting and staring wide-eyed out the front windshield of the helicopter.
“Oh my God,” I shriek, grinning furiously.
Aaron talks me through the rest of the maneuvers – barrel roll, spilt-S, Cuban eight. The orange line of the horizon tilts and spins in front of me, but I’m giggling now – all rush and no panic as we zoom low over the Albatross.
Last up are the barrel rolls, quick sideways inversions that flip the whole world upside down and back again in the span of less than five seconds. I clench my teeth against the force of the movement, and when we pull into a straight flight again, I’m breathless. All I can do is thank my pilot – for not killing me, for not making me puke, for not sending the spinning helicopter into the cold water of Lake Mead.
As we pull low into the narrow watery canyon between Lake Mead and its smaller sister lake, Aaron recalls a recurring dream he had as a child. In his dream, he would step onto the carpet at the end of his bed and surf out his bedroom window to embark on a night full of adventures, sliding back under the covers just in time for his mom to say “good morning.” Today, Chuck says, he pulls the stunts from his dream at air shows around the world in the Red Bull Helicopter. After 35 years of flying, Aaron is still the adventurer launching into the sky to attempt the unthinkable. He flashes me a smile. “This is my magic carpet.”