Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

What's It Like to Interview Harrison Ford?

Pretty interesting! He's got a straightforward style, and lets you know right away whether he thinks the question is worth answering. While researching my helicopter book The God Machine, I thought it would be good to get a high-profile user's view of the machines, which are expensive to buy and operate. Ford is among a few thousand private owners who can afford it. (Photo, CBS News)

It took six months of back-and-forthing with his executive assistant at HF Productions, but in time we scheduled a half-hour talk. Ford was running early that morning so he called my cellphone to change the time, leaving a voicemail message, which (of course!) I saved.

The subject was strictly helicopters; nary a movie in sight. He talked about his training, his checkride in a Bell, and what it was like to fly out of the notoriously challenging 60th Street Heliport in Manhattan. “Now it's shut down and that’s a good thing,” he said, comparing it to flying in and out of a box with one open side. “When you came out, you were facing an unknown wind, but the wind was usually along the East River, out of the south to the north. It usually needed an immediate pedal turn upon lifting up.”

Being a superstar, while flying cross country, did he feel he could land his Bell 407 just about any vacant field where it would fit, such as near a roadside diner? No, he said, “I don’t do unplanned back-lot landings, because I don’t know the municipal attitude. They all have to have a say in helicopter landings. Plus, I’m getting fuel along the way so I’m stopping at airports.”

I asked him about his favorite times in a helicopter, “Probably mountain flying in Wyoming,” he replied, referring to his volunteer work around Jackson Hole. “One of the more critical flying tasks was helping the mountain rangers pick up their winter stashes of equipment. Density altitude is a factor, because of the height, and also it’s warm by then. It’s pretty technical flying. You get a couple of big guys in there, each 200 lb, and 250 lb of gear. … This is just above the tree line. So it’s a matter of beoing able to pick it up and drop it over a convenient edge – you have to fly down before you can fly up, that kind of situation. Yes, that means setting down pretty close to a dropoff.”

He also enjoyed flying a tiltrotor at the Bell factory. “It's an incredible machine – you tilt the nacelles over and you take off like a drag racer.”

Emergency procedures? He estimated that he'd done 200 “full down” autorotation practices, with a freewheeling main rotor, and the machine gliding all the way to the ground. “I go to the Bell school once or twice a year and they really train you in emergency procedures,” he said. “They’ll have you do twenty-five autorotations in a day.”

During practice in Southern California in 1999 the helicopter he was flying with an instructor hit hard and turned over in a dry riverbed. “We were in a [Bell] 206 at the bottom of autorotation [anticipating only doing an autorotation to power recovery] but when we rolled the power in, there was no response. It kept going down. This area is a helicopter practice area but it has coarse sand, and there are a lot of snags.”

I mentioned that some helicopter pilots never do any autorotation practices all the way to the ground, because their schools consider it too dangerous. “Well,” he said in a voice that sounded just like Han Solo's, “assuming engines won’t ever quit, that’s not a good idea.”

There’s all kind of helicopter traps out there – you’ve got to stay alert.”