Not that running into it by accident isn’t also useful, but choosing to put yourself in a situation that scares you makes a statement that happening upon it doesn’t. The statement is: “I’m committed to my growth.”
That’s why I took my first helicopter ride a couple of weeks ago. I saw the opportunity and thought it was scary enough to push my comfort zone, but not so much that I’d pass out and miss the whole thing.
As I waited in the hangar for my pilot, I felt the heady infusion of adrenalin drip into my system. My not having had time for breakfast before I arrived now was perfect. I listened as a frowzy man told me about helicopters and learning to fly them and why he was in Denver and how it’s so much hotter where he’s from in Texas and on and on. He was a hangar junkie. I didn’t mind. It meant I didn’t have to talk and he kept my mind distracted.
When the pilot came for me, his broad smile put me at ease. His safety briefing did not. “Don’t ever move beyond the door frame toward the back of the helicopter. That rear blade moves so fast it’s invisible. There’ve been some ugly accidents. When you exit, be sure to duck. The top rotor blades bend at the edge, hitting me about here (pointing to the bridge of his nose). In the event that I catch on fire, you’ll grab the fire extinguisher just there, pull the pin, and spray me, being sure to avoid my face since the contents will smother me while I’m burning, and I’ll get really annoyed.” I thought he might be overestimating my abilities.
As we sat waiting for the tower to give us permission to begin take off, I watched the rotor blade’s shadow on the tarmac. It mesmerized. For some reason, it appeared slower and jerkier – like movement under a strobe light – than the real thing. I wondered about that. And then the pilot put the chopper in gear, and slowly and a bit unevenly, the skids left the ground. We hung there. A foot or so of air cushion under us. It was surreal and magical and put the feeling of new love in my stomach.
After a bit, we glided out onto the runway. We were still just a few feet off the ground. I watched it move below me. My mind couldn’t really take in the movement and the feeling – the ground passes below but you feel nothing. Like a magic carpet. But then I realized I’d never been on a magic carpet – so it was more like what I imagined being on a magic carpet would be like. I off-handedly wondered if I’d be terrified at full height. But for now, I could only think, wow, how totally cool this was. Totally.
The pilot slowly spun us around, explaining something called “sympathetic resonance,” which I loved the sound of but, of course, didn’t understand. Something about if things weren’t attuned just right, the helicopter could implode from the mis-matched vibration. Yea, whatever. I was too awash in a magic carpet trance of fascination to absorb a physics lesson.
Then the nose headed down the runway; wind rushed faster past the windshield. As we picked up speed, suddenly the rotor lifted us up. There’s a moment when the helicopter is finally free of the ground and the used air from hovering, when the rotor takes in its first fresh air, like the first gulp after a deep sea dive, that the ability to lift really kicks in – it’s called Effective Translational Lift. The sudden upward surge is exhilarating, and coupled with the marked drop-off of the ground as we soared high over the turnpike below, bloody euphoric.
The pilot watched me and smiled, knowing the exact moment and the feeling, reliving it through me, through each of his new passengers each time. No wonder he loves his job.
In moments, we were at 800 feet going 110 mph, the pilot’s voice buffeted by the roar of the wind. Elation. A kind of giddy, maybe-I’ll-die-but-what-can-I-do-about-it sensation kicked in. In my glee, I pointed to something. My hand reached just beyond the windshield, and in an instant my arm whipped backward before I could pull it in. I felt terror. My mind flashed pictures of my arm being broken against the helicopter’s metal frame, my wedding ring being torn from my finger and sailing off into the ether below, my body being dragged from the confines of the cabin and following it down. I must’ve stared wild-eyed at the pilot. He smiled sheepishly, telling me he’d forgotten to mention keeping your arms inside the cockpit during the safety briefing.
I cradled my hand in my lap. I breathed deep. I felt my ring on my finger. And then I looked out at the crisp vista spreading below me. Fear ebbed; elation returned.
We were heading for downtown – the few skyscrapers of Denver jutting heavenward in the misty distance. Like a child, I reveled in spotting local landmarks: Invesco Field where the Broncos play (its gaping bowl empty and quiet), the glistening eel-shaped Platte River, the Art Museum that looks like a Klingon ship; the Catholic Basilica with its Gothic spires, and Colfax Avenue pointing eastward forever. So, I thought, this is the eagle’s view.
As we made our loop around the city, the pilot dipped the helicopter in my direction. Suddenly, instead of the cockpit floor below me, there was the far distant ground. I felt my body strain against the seat belt and my stomach lurch. I must’ve looked pleadingly at the pilot. He apologized, saying he’d put the cityscape on my side so I could enjoy the best view. When he leveled us out again, I was able to appreciate the gesture. As panic eased back to wild joy, I marveled at the close proximity of the two.
And then, headed back north again, toward home, I stopped myself from thinking it’d be over soon so I could enjoy every single second. Cool air nipped at my fingers, reminding me that autumn is on the approach. Sun glistened on Standley Lake, winking at me as we eased by. 110 mph feels like nothing at that height. I looked around for birds, wondering what it would be like to pass one, but the sky was empty. I reminded myself that birds and helicopters are best left unmet.
And in what seemed like moments, the pilot was spinning the helicopter back into its take off position inside the yellow circle painted on the cracked tarmac. His finesse was a spiritual act. We sat for awhile after we touched down, waiting for the rotor blades to stop. There was a hush on everything, while my body rang, tingling, shimmering with life. The pilot and I smiled at each other.
Standing in the face of fear is an awesome experience. No wonder there are thrill-seekers. The adrenalin is as addictive as crack. But there’s something more. Facing fear builds the ability to trust, to surrender. And perhaps it is this surrender – in this case, to the glory of an R44 climbing high in the air – that is enlivening. And I think, what if surrendering in each moment conjures this same shimmering feeling of life?
Now that’s worth a try.
Big kudos to pilot Josh and Rotors of the Rockies for the life-changing experience. I’ll be back!
And thanks to Third Way Center’s True Grit Silent Auction for giving me the idea and opportunity!