FLIGHT OF THE NAVIGATOR - - Matt "LIONPRIDE" Starace takes a ride with Air Station Miami

Of course I showed up early that morning. Nearly an hour early, I sat in my car reading the latest issue of Computer Gaming while three HH-65 Dauphins and two HU-25 Falcons sat there through the wire-fence that surrounded the tarmac. There was a ballet of Airport vehicles clamoring for a spot out of the way of traffic. This was a definite change of pace from my usual job of patrolling the Caribbean on a 110 foot patrol boat.

Finally the 8 a.m. hour arrived. I briskly made my way across the tarmac trying not to show my excitement. I was to meet the pilot and his crew in the Flight Ops Briefing Room for today's flight. After some quick introductions I was told that there was a change of plans. I wouldn't be sitting in the back with the Flight Engineer; I would be sitting in the Copilot seat and be given some important jobs to do. I tried hard not to crack a smile but it overcame me as I thanked them for the opportunity.

After getting my flight-suit and helmet from the pilots ready-area, we made our way to the briefing room. A quick look through the pilots checklist made sure that we had the fuel we needed, we all knew the flight plan, what internal signals we would use to warn each other and finally the purpose of the flight. The crew chief then briefed me on my survival vest, which included an inflatable PFD, an air bottle, flares and smoke signals.

A brief walk down the hallway and through the double doors and there she was. The bright orange bird that made the sound I had come accustom to hearing and envying only from the ground. Things around the area were much quieter than I thought it would have been. I guess we were the first flight of the morning. The Crew Chief briefed me on emergency exits and how to deploy the breakaway door ( god-forbid we have to ditch ). I donned my headgear and made my way to the seat while he and the pilot did their preflight checks. The Crew Chief and the pilot circled the helo and verified that everything was OK.

I'd have to say climbing into this bird could be compared to trying to move from the drivers seat in a manual transmission car to the passengers seat while climbing over the stick. I could see the amusement on the crews face as I made a few feeble attempts to climb in and finally just forced my 5ft 11in frame past the collective and around the cyclic.

After we all plugged in our quick-release boom-mics and made some brief comms check, we began our startup procedures. The pilot and chief went through the checklist like they were born to do it. I only caught a few bits and pieces of the list. Hydraulics checks for engine start pressure, landing gear, floats, hoist power and battery power were among the few items I understood. The startup procedure; the use of the Fuel Flow levers and Rotor Brake above the head of the pilots, the LED lights on the Engine Power indicators and the Rotors roaring to life were all reminiscent of the SAR2 sim to a great degree. I did not feel the bouncing effect seen in the sim at any time, though.


After everything checked out OK, we began our taxi toward the main runways of the Airport. A light touch of collective and the bird seemed to come to attention as we extended the hydraulic shocks to their limit. The wheels on the HH-65 made the taxi more reminiscent of a small plane with the exception of the "light on your feet" feeling that the helo produced with the small touch of lift that we used to propel ourselves.

Getting airborne wasn't quite what I had expected from a helicopter and I made my thoughts known to the pilot. He mentioned that the 65 were probably one of the smoothest helos he's ever been in. So that quickly squelched my ego of believing I'd know all about helicopter flight after this. Apparently the HH-60 Jayhawk would rattle your teeth due to it's power. We began to head east towards the shore and out to sea so that I could learn the equipment. This flight was basically so that I could see if I'd like helicopter flight as much as I thought I did, so they were going to make sure I'd get the full experience.

As we headed South East over Fort Lauderdale at 500ft, the pilot went over some of the systems onboard. The most interesting of these was the RNav Unit which consisted of 2 MFD's featuring Vector Maps of the area, a communications interface, GPS and a Search Pattern feature that would allow the helo to actually fly itself on a preprogrammed pattern designated by the pilot so that he would be able to focus on other jobs as well. Some other abilities/features on the console were the Hover Hold, an array of buttons for frequently used comms, engine tweak buttons and my favorite, the Transitional Hover feature. This feature would allow the pilot to put in a position using Lat. and Long and the helo would account for speed and begin the hover procedure so that the helicopter ended up right at that point in a stable hover.

As we made our way South over the shore of Miami Beach, I could hear a rather stiff voice occasionally report one simple word; "TRAFFIC". The pilot noticed that I had looked a little confused as I looked around the aircraft trying to figure out where the voice was coming from. Earlier, before we had taken-off, I was told that I would be the "eyes" for the left side of the aircraft. Little did I know that this helicopter had a collision avoidance radar system that resembled the ones I had seen on the Discovery channel on the large commercial planes. This little gadget was one of my more favorite things to watch during the flight, since it gave relative direction and altitude of each opposing aircraft we came near.

During my four hour flight with the elite of Air Station Miami, we spotted sharks off the coast near the beach, buzzed the boat I work on, talked to a mariner on VHF radio who happened to know the pilot, and buzzed my house to the delight of my family.

On the way back to the Airport, I was allowed to take the controls under some tight supervision ( can you blame them? ) On the agenda; a couple of real nice course changes, some altitude changes and some bird avoidance. I could see the pilot react to the slight overcompensation I had going when I first started out. I kept thinking in my head; "This isn't like any sim I've tried." The stories of the cyclic having only the need to move the radius of a soda can were very evident. After some fifteen to twenty minutes of piloting, I reluctantly relinquished the controls. 

As we made our final approach to the landing strip, the pilot began some landing drills off the South side of the Airport. The most interesting of approaches was the rolling stop that resembled a fixed wing aircraft. This felt a bit unstable in a helo that really didn't seem meant for such maneuvers, but the pilot was very skilled and the whole experience turned out to be quite exhilarating. Two or three "hot" approaches and we were done.

Miami is hailed as THE busiest search and rescue unit in the world. From my experience, I feel the pilots there are able to handle anything you throw at them. I've found a new respect for these guys and I'd like to thank them for allowing me the opportunity to fly with them that day. I'm hooked ... look out!