‘We’ve got to wind the rubber band up now,’ says chopper pilot Phil Hooker, a classic helicopter joke, as we sit warming up the Bell ‘47, M.A.S.H. helicopter for takeoff.
Phil, who’s flown everything from hang gliders and gyrocopters to commercial aircraft, and instructed in almost everything (barring a hot air balloon), has a stock of these quips. Another is the definition of a helicopter as ‘an angry palm tree beating the air into submission.’
We are taking off from beside the mock-up M.A.S.H. 4077 camp at Tauranga Airport, modelled on the TV series about medics in the Korea War. Running for over two years, the M.A.S.H. chopper - the military-style Bell ‘47 with its bubble cockpit and distinctive two-rotor-blade wop-wop sound - has become instantly recognisable. “That nostalgia, people can relate to it...everyone knows it’s a M.A.S.H. (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) chopper. We are the most iconic ride in town – it’s part of Tauranga now, the M.A.S.H chopper...’ says Phil.
Before taking off, we need to warm up the engine and get it up to about 300 revs. The ever-so-slightly unnerving judder that comes with all helicopters is accentuated in the Bell 47, because it has only two rotor blades. More modern machines with three or more are smoother. Modern helicopters are like driving an automatic, says Phil, but the Bell is like driving a manual. The main difference is that the pilot has to control the revs of the rotor blades, which is done for you on the modern craft.
Lifting off, the appeal of riding in the M.A.S.H chopper becomes immediately apparent: extraordinary visibility that comes from sitting in a bubble canopy with no beams above, in front, or to the side. There’s a real flying carpet feel to this ride. ‘It’s not really a helicopter,’ says Phil Hooker, it’s a viewing platform.’
The M.A.S.H chopper ride is unique to Tauranga. Phil Hooker the founder of Adventure Aviation that includes a jet simulator and a local flying school, initially set out to buy a helicopter for a static display, then thought hang on, why not get a working one and do joy rides.
The M.A.S.H paint job was added to, he says, because the original was just a U.S. Army star and M.A.S.H written on it. Not surprisingly, Americans love it and for some, it’s brought back war-time memories. Phil Hooker has taken up a 90 year-old American who was thrilled to revisit the Bell – ‘last time he was getting evacuated in Korea, strapped to the side...’
The chopper has wide appeal - even for people who’ve been reluctant to fly in a helicopter - who see it and go ‘oh, it’s a M.A.S.H one.’ The public, from grandma and granddad to little kids who’ve seen re-runs of the TV programme know about the helicopter, Phil explains. The normal short scenic flight, which runs along part of the coast, has been nick-named the ‘shark patrol’ by the airport control tower.
The 12 minute flight goes from the Airport across to Omanu Beach, and then back up the coast towards the Mount. In summer the shark patrol can run almost morning to night, giving patrons terrific seagull’s-eye sea views, spotting boats and marine life. Some days Phil Hooker sees sharks between swimmers and the beach – nothing abnormal. At times, if the tide’s out Phil Hooker will touch down on a mid-harbour sand-bar – an uncanny sort of tiny-desert island feeling – giving passengers time to take a photo.
There are other helicopter flights that are cheaper, but the Bell is ‘maintenance hungry,’ more expensive to keep flying. And ‘putting around’ with such high visibility in a M.A.S.H chopper has a special appeal, he says.
Phil Hooker tailors rides to suit his clients, carefully gauging what they’ll like. And he’ll ask them ‘do you want the Gentle Annie or the ball-breaker?’ He laughs. ‘Generally it’s a tame flight, but young guys, if they want something special you know... it’s a helicopter and they can do mean tricks, ya know?’ However he flies, the typical comment when people get out elated at the end of a ride is, ‘wow, that was amazing.’
On our jaunt, Phil Hooker does pull a few welcome tricks. We land on a pocket hankie sandbar in the middle of the harbour; we hover briefly on a fine clear evening above Mauao, seeing people wave at us from the summit; and spot sting rays swimming in shallow water further down the coast.
The M.A.S.H chopper is a pretty different helicopter ride. The bubble you sit inside is so large there’s a feeling of nothing between you and the harbour a few hundred metres below. ‘Want to scare yourself?’ Phil asks at one point, obviously gauging me reasonably brave. Look behind you he says, as I stare at whirling rotors, and spinning machinery. ‘How the Hell does all that work?’
The finale before we land is a few thrilling tight – G force turns over marshland near the airport. It’s easy to see why this confidence-inspiring aviation veteran gets people who’ve never been in a chopper, saying they wished they’d done it years ago.
City Scenic flights cost from $110 per person for 12 minutes, to $225 for a 30 minute jaunt. Minimum two passengers per flight. The M.A.S.H Chopper Experience operates 7 days a week, weather permitting, from 2 Dakota Way, Tauranga Airport. Further information: www.adventureaviation.co.nz
By Grant Dyson