Co-Piloting a Helicopter to the Indy 500: Flying Cars Are Already Here
The dream of flying cars has already been realized by personal helicopters—if you can afford one.
I've been going to the Indianapolis 500 for a little over a decade, and if there's one factor that can damper an otherwise fantastic day, it's the traffic. The experience of getting in and out of the track on race day can range from mildly annoying to downright dreadful depending on a few factors, but even if you're blessed with infield parking or a police escort, you still have to deal with tens of thousands of cars traveling in the same direction as you at exactly the same time. The irony of being stuck in standstill traffic en route to watch IndyCars fly around at 230 mph is almost too rich.
This year, I decided to step into the future and pilot a flying car. I mean, a helicopter. Aren't they basically the same thing at this point in the discourse? Car companies have all but given up pretending it's possible to make a vehicle that works on the road and in the air with today's technology. Every time you see a headline about this automaker or that startup building a flying car, it's always just a more compact, probably electric VTOL rotorcraft. Not technically a helicopter but c'mon, it's a helicopter. We have those today, right now, so I'll just go to the people who make them.
In this case, that's Bell, an 87-year aerospace company out of Texas that makes civilian and military helos and tiltrotors like the V-22 Osprey. The premise was simple: Have a dope with zero flight experience like me play co-pilot in a multimillion-dollar Bell 429 and get a small taste of what it's like to fly a helicopter as a regular means of transport. As an added bonus, I'd bypass every sucker stuck in traffic a few thousand feet below me, land directly on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and get straight to work on covering the race. It's all for you, folks.
In the weeks leading up to the flight, I pored over the information Bell provided on its 429: its specs, capabilities, cockpit and cabin layout, etc. I didn't want to show up and jump behind the controls not knowing a thing, so I went ahead and showed up and jumped behind the controls not knowing a thing. If I thought BMW interiors had a lot of buttons, this was on another level. And while you can typically make out what some buttons mean on a car's dashboard, good luck deciphering them in a helicopter—unless they're red. If they're red it likely means "don't touch" or "only touch if you think you're gonna die."
Even for someone who doesn't know much, if anything, about helicopters (I've only been in one before), I could tell right away the Bell 429 was a special machine and not an entry-level puddle jumper. For starters, it was big, had two massive exhaust pipes on its roof, and had a cool livery. Specifically, it was 38 feet long and 10 feet wide, and its twin engines could propel it to a top speed of approximately 170 knots, which is a tad below 200 mph. And while Bell doesn't disclose exact pricing, customizing a new 429 to this spec would set you back around $7,000,000 to $8,00,000.
If the 429 were a car, it'd be something spacious, luxurious, and very very fast, the kind of ride that you wouldn't mind spending lots of time in with your favorite peeps. Something like a Mercedes-AMG GLS63 or Aston Martin DBX707. The 429 has a maximum range of 411 nautical miles (473 miles) thanks to its 256-gallon fuel capacity (217 standard plus 39 auxiliary), though final range will usually vary. Much like a car, total travel distance will fluctuate based on how fast you're driving, traffic conditions, how much weight you're carrying, etc. In a setup where you have one pilot, up to three passengers, luggage, and fair weather conditions, that figure will hover around 370 miles for the 429 I flew in. Of course, there are smaller and larger Bell helicopters that adjust to a variety of travel needs.
Tasked with bringing me up to speed on all aspects of flying the 429 was Patrick Lafleur, Bell's own test pilot. Lafleur expertly broke down complicated concepts so I could (pretend to) understand them, focusing mostly on the basics of lift and forward propulsion. He also explained the roles of the various instruments in the cockpit, focusing on the 429's state-of-the-art IFR system (Instrument Flight Rules), which allows the pilot to fly through clouds and other weather elements that may limit visibility. Other helicopters (mostly less expensive or older units) utilize VFR, which stands for Visual Flight Rules. With VFR, a pilot must always rely on a visual line of sight during the flight.
Sunday brought sunny, clear blue skies, so the short flight to the 500 wouldn't put the IFR system to the test, but it was good knowing it was there just in case. Also there, but not just in case, were its two Pratt & Whitney Canada engines, which together produced a hefty 1,172 horsepower. And while one of the benefits of having two engines is more speed, there's another much more sensible and important aspect. More on this later.
I jumped into the pilot's seat and assumed my role of under-experienced co-pilot. Lafleur asked me to be mindful of the cyclic (joystick) located between my legs, as well as the pilot's collective (a big throttle lever to the left of each front seat), as he'd be in full control of them during takeoff and landing. With that out of the way, he began flipping some switches and pushing some buttons, triggering that sweet powering-up sound of a jet engine and slow spin of the rotor. And with this lovely mechanical crescendo, my nerves and emotions were turned up to 11.
Air traffic control and Lafleur exchanged a few words in their own airspace lingo before we were cleared for takeoff. It was around 9:30 in the morning and the heliport was a happening place. Other chartered aircraft zoomed around us as they flew to and from the racetrack, and several medical helicopters were also near us due to the area's hospitals. This scenario was radically different than my first helicopter experience, which took place in sleepy rural England where takeoff and landing happened on wide-open stretches of grass with nothing nearby. This, in contrast, was sensory overload.
I reached over with my left hand and pulled my door shut. The air conditioning kicked in shortly after, which was a nice treat given the toasty Indiana morning. Lafleur worked the cyclic and collective as the 429 lifted off the ground and rotated left, pointing us in the direction of the Lucas Oil Stadium, which we would briefly fly over on our way to the speedway. Within a minute or so, we were on our way to the Indy 500 while 325,000 race fans sat in traffic below us.
Once we reached our cruising altitude of approximately 3,000 feet (the 429's ceiling is 18,710), I was able to play co-pilot and get a feel for the controls and the 429's dynamics. Though we'd discussed me taking over at some point, Lafleur remained in full control of the aircraft as we flew in and out of extremely controlled airspace due to air traffic and the scheduled presence of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds. The cyclic was the primary way of controlling the helicopter's movements, and it was a lot livelier than I expected it to be. Much like you'd expect in a high-end sports car, it shared a raw connection to the chopper. It felt like a direct, mechanical link between the wheel and the front tires, but instead of a steering wheel it was a joystick and instead of tires it was a rotor.
How do you change direction in a helicopter? Great question. It's all about the pitch of the blades. In this case, the 429 has four blades—other helicopters can have two, three, or even five—which tilt at various degrees as the pilot adjusts the cyclic. In turn, this essentially bends the air coming off the blades at the pilot's command and makes the helicopter turn right, left, or move forward or backward. For a brief second, I considered calling Lafleur The Last Airbender to see his reaction, but I chose to stay quiet and retain my dignity.
Every bit of wind or a slight change in altitude could be felt via the ergonomic grip, which had several buttons on it (yes, some of them red). I never expected something as long as two Chevy Suburbans to feel so nimble and responsive, but then again, I'd never been at the controls of a helicopter mid-flight.
The collective, which looked like a complicated and rather meaty stick that moved up and down but also twisted, saw little action while cruising through the air, but worked overtime during takeoff and landing. Pulling the collective in either direction adjusted the pitch of the 429's blades, resulting in a change in angle of incidence, ultimately affecting drag, rpm, and the overall speed of the main rotor. Got all that?
Lastly, I was asked to keep my feet off the pedals down below, as unlike the hand controls, they affected a rather sensitive component of the aircraft: the rear rotor. The pedals, technically called antitorque system, compensate for the torque generated by the main rotor while the aircraft is hovering. And while Lafleur didn't confirm, I convinced myself that stepping on them by accident would send the 429 spinning into the ground resulting in a big ball of fire. This is what I told myself to make sure my brain ordered my feet to be still while in midair.
Now I can circle back and elaborate on the importance of the 429's twin engines. As Ben Lassiter, regional sales manager for Bell said to me, it's all about redundancy. With this setup, the aircraft would be perfectly capable of flying on a single engine should the other kaput.
"Redundancy is never a bad thing," said Lassiter. "Two engines, redundant. Two pilots, redundant. Every component that goes into it, especially an aircraft like this, is going to have redundant systems in its airframe, etc. There will be a backup, and that’s important when you’re flying—one generator on each engine, so if you lose an engine, you still have one generator on the working engine that will feed all the electrical system, and it's the same thing for the hydraulics," he added. "Bell takes those steps very seriously to ensure safety."
Needless to say, if the engine of a single-unit aircraft were to let go, it would be up to the pilot's skills and Lady Luck to dictate the outcome of that scenario.
Eventually, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was visible, as were the blimps, TV helicopters, and banner planes circling it. Though it was much quicker than driving in on the boring old ground, the process wasn't without its complications. Per track regulations, we had to approach from the north end of the track and make our descent on the golf course located between turns two and three of the oval. With my hands off the controls at this point, Lafleur was free to expertly and simultaneously work the cyclic, collective, and pedals in order to finagle us into our landing zone. And while his mastery of the controls was a sight to behold as we hovered near the lawn, it was a last-minute flick that rotated the chopper 180 degrees that made me go "whoa!" There's parallel parking and then there's landing an $8M chopper, in reverse, about 25 feet away from a tree.
Once on the ground, I realized yet another advantage of flying a chopper on race day: parking.
Here's how parking works at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway: you can buy a permit for one of the official parking lots surrounding the 2.5-mile oval, or you can do what most people do and pay neighboring homeowners to let you park in their front yards. If you're affiliated with the track or a racing team you might get an infield parking pass that gets you closer to your seats, or you might get shuttled in a van or bus. I actually attended this year's race as a guest of Honda, who hired a couple of vans and a police escort to quickly get in and out of the track throughout the weekend. There's one thing all of these methods have in common, however, and that's vehicles. Whether you're driving yourself, carpooling, or getting the VIP treatment, this only puts more cars and more buses on the road. Therefore, if you want to avoid all of that, you have to do what I did and look to the skies.
After a brief golf cart ride from the golf course to the Pagoda Plaza, I walked onto the grid just as the driver introductions were happening. Less than two minutes later, I was standing at the very front of the grid by the Chevy Corvette Z06 pace car, admiring the spectacle that is the Indy 500 pre-race celebration. A quick glance at my watch revealed that I had gone from downtown Indianapolis to the grid in approximately 20 minutes—20 minutes!
Upon the conclusion of yet another fantastic and nail-biting Indy 500 that saw Marcus Ericsson, Ganassi Racing, and Honda crowned winners, it was time to get to da choppa. Sorry, I've been dying to make that reference.
Though it's the ultimate convenience buy for someone with a yacht and three Bugattis, it's kind of comical how much an expensive helicopter is like an economy car, in the sense that it doesn't have remote start, power windows, or even an alarm system! Fun fact: its doors don't even lock, but good luck stealing the thing. Oh, yes, and the air conditioning doesn't really kick in until the engine's running at full power. Kinda reminds me of my Honda Civic.
After throwing our bags in the trunk and doing a pre-flight inspection, Lafleur powered up the engines and rotors and got all the systems up to operating temperature. This time, I'd experience the 429 from its rear cabin, which in this particular configuration was specced for executive travel. This meant two rows of dual leather-wrapped chairs facing each other with leather-wrapped center consoles between them. The headliner was also wrapped in leather and featured reading lights and air vents similar to those in passenger planes.
Several other configurations are available for the 429—as I previously explained in my configurator story—varying from seating configurations for one to seven passengers, different rear cabins for energy or oil rig maintenance to medical services, or even open floorplans for folks who like to take their aircraft on biking, skiing, camping, or hunting trips. Should you want to take the family on an epic camping trip out in Montana, the 429's "Useful Load" maximum is 2,535 pounds. That should be plenty for a few coolers, tents, kids, and maybe even the dog—though probably not my 155-pound Newfie.
After a brief run up to 165 knots (185 mph) to demo the 429's quiet and vibration-free cabin, we circled downtown Indianapolis and descended once again onto the heliport, curiously landing next to Roger Penske's own Bell helicopter. Our day was done.
After a decade or so of coming to the 500 and other various races at the speedway, I knew there had to be a way to beat the traffic—I just never knew that one day I'd get to explore that option, nor that it would involve co-piloting a Bell helicopter. It's never going to happen for most of us, but the way owning your own helicopter unlocks the world is exactly what those pushing the concept of flying cars are promising. That airborne utopia? I mean, it's already here if you've got the scratch.
The 429 offers the relative practicality of a full-size SUV, but it doesn't have to follow roads. It offers the relative speed of a private jet but it doesn't suffer from the same landing constraints. It's literally a flying car; the kind that's been working rather well since the 1930s.
If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Though that's never been our specialty as a species, has it?
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