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MD Manna From Heaven: Flying From Arizona to Texas

May 27, 2008  By Ken Armstrong

During a hiatus of helicoptering in Mesa, Ariz., MD Helicopters invited me to help fly its fleet to Houston for the Helicopter Association International convention in February.

During a hiatus of helicoptering in Mesa, Ariz., MD Helicopters invited me to help fly its fleet to Houston for the Helicopter Association International convention in February.

Having already evaluated the 900N days before, the opportunity to gain more time on the Chelton-equipped twin MD 902, and add the 520 N (notar) and the 500 E to my logbook, were manna from heaven. The company team and myself departed Mesa with a few spares at second light on a forecast blustery day, and made our first landing at Cochise County Airport while flying abeam rugged ranges to the east on a blustery unavoidable. The MD senior pilots had logbooks full of army helicopter operations, except for Jerry Turchetta who had flown MD 500s almost exclusively with the Phoenix police over a 27-year career. The lead pilot in the 902 is Peter Lautzenheiser who is about to head off for another tour in Iraq, leaving the position to Nick Page who flew the 520N and generally led our gaggle.

MD lead test pilot Nick Page flies with Ken Armstrong (that’s his shoulder on the right!)
(Photo by Linda Armstrong)

On landing at Cochise County, or any airport for that matter, one of the drivers always observes the fuel handler to ensure the process goes smoothly and without flaws – smart move.  The 500 series pilots always open the engine access doors to allow residual heat to escape for cooler starts in this hot climate.  We pass a number of national monuments Linda and I have frequented during winter hikes including collapsed volcanic calderas and standing columns of volcanic ryholite that have been differentially eroded by relatively constant winds – horizontal currents that are adding 10-20 knots to our progress.


Our next stop is Santa Teresa in the southeast corner of New Mexico and home to an excellent aviation museum. El Paso, Texas, and Mexico are only a few miles away and our landings show the area can claim a great deal of the world’s blowing dust.

It’s delightful to share flight time with these gentlemen because they do it all right. A pre-flight briefing with flight planning precedes each flight and maps are always handy and referenced – even though advanced GPS systems are prevalent in the cockpits.

The crews drool over our next destination, Pecos, Texas, where the FBO provides free shredded beef burritos and chips with hot sauce to visitors. There is no question Pecos will be on the return track. Small donations are appreciated and the fuelers have provided many thousands of dollars to the cancer fund. West Texas is a barren wasteland with mountain ridgelines interspersed across the semi-desert landscape to turn the winds turbulent. Somewhat surprisingly, the flight is rather smooth and I suppose one can attribute that to the multi-bladed MD system that effectively chops up would-be turbulence. It’s notable that the 600N wasn’t available for this trip as it is undergoing rotor blade enhancements after input from customers.

Our next landing finds us in the scenic valley of Junction County Airport where the FBO’s rustic hut is mud, bricks and sticks and a poster of President Bush dominates the building. The seasoned character running this oasis makes no bones about voting for Bush and defending his every action – we’ll refuel elsewhere on the way back.

We are now back into treed country enroute to Austin and while Jerry and I find the terrain attractive after the desert, the army aviators advise there is nothing down there but nits and chiggers – critters that make mosquitos and blackflies seem like tame pets.

Our single-engine birds typically fly loose trail formation with power near the top of the green at 125-130 knots. During the cool part of the day we are typically torque-limited and in the hot afternoon approach the yellow temperature band first. Mind you, the 902 is capable of 140 knots cruising and after breaking off for some sightseeing we set 90-per-cent torque to achieve this TAS and average groundspeeds in the 145-knot range.

From now on, our landings will be in class B airspace and the maps prove very handy to ensure we do not violate any airspace. The 520 N “plus two” leads us to hover down landings among the biz jets and then we head downtown to enjoy some of Austin’s offerings.  Considered the prime city in Texas by most, we head for an exclusive Mexican restaurant only to find Hillary Clinton has it locked down for the night during her hustings. So we attend one of the Texas barbeques the state is renowned for and obtain our daily dose of cholesterol. We also sample diversified and adequate beverages to lubricate the proclivity toward “war stories” – and these fellows have some great ones….

The next morning we launch on a Houston class B diversionary exercise to land at Hobby Airport where the machines will be employed giving demo rides during HAI and we part company for my activities in the convention centre downtown.

If Houston isn’t famous for its fog, it should be. Our leader knows this and schedules a positioning hop on the last afternoon of HAI to Austin for an early departure the next day. There we pick up a mascot, Jennifer, who works for the UN to better peoples’ lives overseas  Anyone following our fleet would think these helicopters were unstable because they weave and porpoise their way across Texas as Jennifer and George work towards mastery of helicopter flight. John, Nick’s ex-army colonel, now runs a construction company and is considering a helicopter to facilitate his management operations and he shares some stick time cross-country as well. Given the vast amount of instructional experience the MD pilots possess, this is an optimum time to facilitate some training and help solve our industry’s pilot shortage. On that note, one should mention that the MD training program at Mesa is very advanced – like the well-known Texas Bell training centre’s. In fact, it was Bell’s previous senior flight instructor, Chuck Williams, that I checked out with in the MD 600N.  He far prefers Arizona to Texas. 

Roughly retracing our route across the wastelands is largely “same-ole same-ole” except this time we are bucking light headwinds and see groundspeeds in the 120-knot range.

Obviously the 902 twin, powered by Canadian P&W engines, was a favourite for the quiet, smooth ride, exceptional visibility, seat comfort and payload. The Chelton EFIS and FADEC engine system greatly aid pilots to make this a very easy helicopter to fly.

For my taste, the 500E has the best control harmony; however, that may well be a conclusion based on lots of time in its predecessor, the Hughes 500 series. Its crashworthiness, relatively inexpensive operating costs compared to competition and crisp, impressive performance are very attractive in the marketplace for utility helicopters.

The 520N essentially augments the 500E offering with the NOTAR safety enhancement and quiet footprint that are becoming more important for operations in more populated areas.  It should be noted the 600N is essentially a stretched version of the 520N to create a seven-place NOTAR helicopter. To date, there is one model not flown by the author, the 500F. This is the hot rod or sports car most favoured by the fellows, and one I salivate to fly.


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