Sunday, April 30, 2000

Traffic? C'mon, get over it - in a helicopter

        Gotta get me one of these. A helicopter.

        An 1,800-pound bird of metal and Plexiglass, cruising at 100 mph, downtown to Indian Hill in a minute and a half. Above the noise, the traffic, the red lights, the Stop signs.

        Did you know that in some cities around the world, where traffic is a clenched fist, the favored mode of metro transport among rich guys is helicopters? In Sao Paolo, Brazil, there is so much private 'copter traffic, they're thinking of regulating it. With what, weightless traffic lights?

        Maybe there will come a day when you go to a McDonald's hover-through for lunch. The sky traffic then will resemble the ground traffic now and John Phillips will do his traffic reports from atop Mount Rumpke with a pair of binoculars, looking up.

        Until then, I gotta get me one of these. Fourteen gallons of 107-octane fuel an hour, main rotor blade revolving 330 times a minute, Eden Park to Tri-County Mall in a minute and a half. “Just point it and go,” Phillips says.

        On Wednesday afternoon, we were flying the traffic helicopter for WLW. Actually, Phillips was flying. Precisely, he was flying with the control stick between his knees. Sometimes, he gestured. Others, he wrote notes. Sometimes, he flew hands-less. Oh, God.

        “You feel like you've stepped on an escalator,” is how Phillips described it.

        He said the wind was blowing a little more than normal. We swayed, we dipped, we felt like we were doing the macarena on a water bed. You don't get those pressure-drop dives the way you can in a jet, because the blades are cutting a lot of air, quickly. Or something. I don't remember how John explained that, exactly. I was preoccupied with the notion that between his left side and the sweet hereafter was an open door and 600 feet of perfect afternoon, and what if when he made a sharp left turn, he, um, fell out?

        I asked him a lot of stuff — about the job, the sights, the equipment, his life insurance. What I really wanted to know was, “Uh, John, you got a door over there?”

        But there is liberation in exhilaration. Isn't that why people climb sheer rock faces and bungee-jump?

        Sometimes, you do things just because you can. I don't make tons of money. But usually, I have a hell of a time. On Wednesday, I got paid to ride in a helicopter.

        Phillips gets it. “This isn't work. It could kill me, but it isn't work. Fixing a water main in January is work.”

        Down I-75, past St. Rita's and GE, over the grand old Victorians of Clifton. “I get bored with the traffic,” Phillips said. “Never the views.”

        Eden Park, Columbia Parkway, over the manses of Indian Hill. “Get a load of that place. I couldn't afford to get my lawn cut there,” Phillips said. The brooding estate of Marge Schott, the tidy simplicity of Mike Brown's house. And Carl Lindner's. Johnny Bench's home on a cliff above the Ohio. It was so clear, we could see Dayton from I-275 in Sharonville. From 600 feet, the whole area is a postcard.

        Then Phillips drops this on me: “I'm afraid of heights.”

        Is this a joke?

        “I don't like being on a roof or a ladder or in a tree.”

        When he painted his living room ceiling while standing on a ladder the backs of his legs ached for days, because he was so tense. So here we are, 600 feet in space without a driver's side door.

        “I don't feel I can fall off this thing,” he said. “Or out of it.”

        “That's good, John,” I said. “Please don't.”

        I gotta get me one of these. Either that or in my next life, come back as a big bird. Paul Daugherty is an Enquirer sports columnist. Look for his lifestyle column in People on Sunday. He welcomes your comments at 768-8454.

        Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty welcomes your comments at 768-8454.