For a bargain $168,000, I can buy a lightly used Schweizer S300CBI. Yes, it’s a real, two-passenger helicopter. For the price of a used Ferrari, you can be cruising the friendly skies with a trio of 27-foot rotors keeping you aloft.
I’m thinking about this because I just came back from only my second helicopter ride in this lifetime, aboard “Air Toy,” the copter my doctor brother-in-law, Martin Masarech, owns and operates in upstate New York. Things are cheap up there. He pays only $110 a month for hangar space at a tiny airport near his house.
Taking off from Greene Airport! (Photo:Jim Motavalli)
The copter is a 1990 Schweizer 300C, and it’s strictly functional, not a lot of frills. He bought it after making a last college payment for his son, and after taking two years to complete 40 hours of flying lessons (and 40 hours of classroom) at Stewart International Airport near Newburgh, New York. Doc, as we sometimes call him, became fascinated with the rescue helicopters that are part of volunteering for the town of Greene, New York’s ambulance squad. He drives an old Ford Explorer with siren and light bar; he wanted to fly way more than he wanted a Ferrari.
The Schweizer is very small, and weighs only 1,200 pounds — less than half the likely weight of your car. Under the hood, so to speak (actually out back, and belt driven) is a horizontally opposed Textron Lycoming four-cylinder engine of about 190 horsepower, again about the same as many cars. It’s a brilliant and basic design, introduced by Hughes way back in 1964, acquired by Schweizer and owned since 2009 by helicopter pioneers Sikorsky, just up the road from me. The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department has one, as do the air forces of Nigeria, El Salvador. Colombia and Paraguay.
I wouldn’t go up with just anybody, but I trust Doc, who’s got religion when it comes to safety. There’s a long checklist he goes through before each flight, and the Schweizer is serviced like clockwork.
Downtown Greene, New York, from the air. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)
After checking the instruments and making sure everything was up to spec, we lifted off and were soon soaring over Greene’s downtown. It’s noisy with the rotors spinning, but we were able to communicate over headphones. Doc was in touch via radio with the tower in the nearest airport with controllers, but we didn’t get into their airspace. We were flying at around 700 feet, and the wrap-around plastic windows gave great views anyway you look. The maximum speed is only 95 knots, or 109 mph, and it feels even slower than that. What’s 600 mph like when you’re in a big airliner?
I often get airsick in small planes, but the helicopter didn’t bother me at all. It helped that it was a beautifully clear and still day, with only light wind buffeting. We overflew his house, and it was like Google Earth come to life — I could count the cars in the driveway and see that the pool filter was running. The Schweizer, with two gas tanks, holds enough fuel for 3.5 hours in the air, which means both Boston and New York are within reach. In an hour of flying, the copter uses 12 gallons of fuel.
Those rotors are 27 feet across, but the whole helicopter weighs only 1,200 pounds. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)
After a grueling 5.5 hours of general practitioner medical boards recently, Doc called his wife and said, “I gotta get up in the air.” He says flying is relief from the stresses and strains of an insanely busy medical practice. He’s got something like 1,100 patients, because there aren’t a lot of doctors around Greene.
There’s a helipad in Doc’s backyard, so after cruising over nearby Binghamton, we landed there with nary a bump. Later, he was going to take the copter out for refueling — no aircraft gas in Greene. It was hugely fun. When can I do it again? Do I have to buy my own helicopter now? Here's what a takeoff looks like on video:
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