The Sky is so Vast

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Brian Winslow standing next to the R44 at the hanger of Interstate Helicopter's
Jim Johnson founded Interstate Helicopter's in 1978.
An aerial view of Lake Hefner.
Winslow hovering near the hanger.

BY HOLLIE NIBLETT

PHOTOGRAPHS BY AMY TACKETT ROBERSON

“It’s all about the journey, not the destination,” explains helicopter pilot Brian Winslow as he describes the essence of what it means to fly a helicopter.  It’s obvious flying helicopters at Interstate Helicopters is more than just a job for Winslow and the pilots with whom he works.  It’s a way of being in the world, a philosophy; one that demands absolute attention to all five senses (with a good hold on number six) while simultaneously slicing through thin air.

Winslow became enamored with helicopters as a very small child living just behind the governor’s mansion in Oklahoma City.  He recalls the sounds of helicopters coming and going  around the governor’s residence at all hours.  His family moved to another part of the city at age four, but by then he had already been infected: he had helicopteritis, and it had only one cure.

He arrived at Interstate Helicopters at Wiley Post Airport for his first flying lesson at age sixteen.  “When I walked in off the street thirteen years ago, I never would have expected the adventure awaiting me,” said the Winslow.  While learning to fly he went on to graduate from high school, then college, and finally earned an MBA in 2007 from Oklahoma City University.

A seminal time-period for Winslow came during a semester at sea in college.   Sailing from British Columbia to Fort Lauderdale in 100 days served to solidify his love of travel and adventure; his love of freedom.  “It’s freedom,” he said, describing how he feels during flight.   “I can’t think of anything more peaceful and serene than being up there by yourself.  Especially during a sunset.”

If all this talk about adventure and freedom gives you the impression that these pilots are anything but the epitome of professional, you’d be mistaken.  The pilots at Interstate take safety very seriously.  In fact, in the 13 years Winslow has been flying he has never had an accident.  Not once.  This was very comforting for me as I climbed aboard the Robinson 44-one of eight helicopters owned by Interstate- to take my first ever helicopter ride around the neighborhood with Winslow at the helm of the machine.

It’s been said that the sound of an R44’s engine starting is something akin to the sound of a 1971 Chavel.  As we lifted off the ground, you get the impression of being lifted by a string and swung forward, with the tail-end tilted ever so slightly toward the sky.  The closest thing to flying in a bubble you’ll ever get, and a really fast bubble at that:  the R44 cruises at a speed of 130 mph.

Inside the helicopter you’ll find all the amenities of a car: heat and air, music…in addition to hundreds of knobs, dials and gadgets that look a little more high-tech than the dash of a ’71 Chavel.  Can we rock out in the sky? Can we crank up the tunes? “No, the aircraft talks to me through vibrations, so if I’m listening to music I might miss something.”  Glad one of us is an adult here.  Instead, he listens constantly to the hum of the engine and feels the vibrations of the helicopter for any change in condition, environmental or mechanical.  Unlike an airplane, there is no autopilot on a helicopter.  It demands constant attention to fly safely.

It was a smooth flight and the soft, easy landing was bittersweet.  It’s easy to see why flying is addictive.

What is his favorite part about flying a helicopter? “The wedding proposals,” he said without a moment’s hesitation and with a boyish smile.  Winslow flies about three wedding proposals a year.  He’s seen more than one variation on The Big Ask:  popping the question in the sky or having friends on the ground hold a large sign that reads “Will you marry me?” to be read from above.  Winslow remains in contact with many of the couples who became engaged on his watch.

A helicopter ride also makes for a really unique gift.  The pilots and helicopters at Interstate are available for a myriad of recreational uses.  Their Christmas Light Rides are very popular and more affordable than one might think:  $85 for a 20 minute ride and $135 for a 40 minute tour.

It’s not always fun and games for the pilots at Interstate though.  For the two days prior, Winslow had been flying for OG&E; patrolling power lines after a hailstorm.  The pilots also patrol pipelines for local energy companies.

Winslow’s teacher and mentor, Jim Johnson, started Interstate in 1978 and was part of the team that helped pioneer the first “storm chasers” with Channel 9.  Since he started the company he’s flown for the likes of Hank Williams Jr., Toby Keith, Willy Nelson and James Cameron.   His more unique and memorable jobs include replacing the cross on top of Mercy Hospital in Oklahoma City and air lifting sheep from a mountain in New Mexico to be relocated by veterinarians.

The pilots at Interstate have often found themselves in the heart of traumatic events, where interpersonal skills were as important as flying skills.  Winslow recalled assisting a local sheriff on a search and rescue for an elderly man whose grandson flew along during the search.  “They didn’t find his grandfather and I had to help him through that.”  Another memory he shared was taking a terminally ill man for a joy ride that turned out to be his last.

For all the bravado and control pilots sometimes appear to display, helicopter pilots in particular seem to have a philosophy that keeps them grounded; one that reminds them who is really in charge.  Maybe being in such close proximity to the human dramas, both glorious and tragic, gives them a unique perspective on the world.  Oh Lord, protect me, because the sky is so vast, and my helicopter is so small, goes the helicopter pilot’s prayer.  The sky is vast indeed, but seems a little more manageable knowing they’re up there.

 

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