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>Fiat to Helicopter?

March 21, 2010

>We all have our passions, I suppose. Mr. Howard’s was a little stranger (or ambitious) than most. 

SNAPSHOT: This is the Chapalita polo grounds, a few blocks from where we lived. Mr. Howard has his Fiat-copter out in the middle of the grassy green field. The rotor is swooshing and he’s at the controls. A small crowd of onlookers, including me, gathers at a safe distance.
Mr. Howard, our plumber-cum-algebra teacher at the American School, was the most interesting teacher at the American School. This wasn’t due to his teaching or his personality, but for his all-consuming after school-passion: converting his little red two-seater Fiat into a helicopter. Whether he got the idea from a magazine and sent away for plans or simply made it up as he went along we never knew. And it didn’t make a whole lot of difference as his hybrid contraption never got very far off the ground. And not for very long, either.

He was in his forties, a little less than average height, with a rotund body and face to match, and sported a small, neatly trimmed black mustache and a receding hairline. About once a month he and his family put the Fiat-copter on a little trailer, secured the rotor to the roof of the car and took off for the polo grounds in Colonia Chapalita. Their arrival always drew a crowd of curious onlookers, many of them albaniles, Mexican construction workers and day laborers from nearby houses under construction. They’d look at the Fiat, then look at each other, shrug their shoulders and look at the Fiat again.

Driving to the middle of the polo field, the Howards rolled the Fiat off the trailer and removed it and the car to a safe distance. Then they attached the rotor and started the engine. Before actually trying to fly, they spent considerable time checking the RPMs, the controls, the pitch of the blades, and other arcane tasks. Mr. Howard yelled out instructions to his family over the whoosh-whoosh-whoosh of the rotor and the chugga-chug-chug of the little Fiat engine. Ultimately our patience was rewarded as Mr. Howard sent his crew (wife and kids) to a safe distance, and prepared to take off.

Thinking back on those efforts to get that machine in the air, I marvel at his remarkable courage (or foolhardiness) in trusting body and soul to his own mechanical and aeronautical skills. This was the usual scenario: The copter shuddered as Mr. Howard fed it gas. Then, slowly and rather gently at first, with little hiccup-like bounces, it strained to leave the ground. The bounces began to increase in frequency and intensity as Mr. Howard gave it more gas. The hiccups became jarring bounces reaching altitudes of two or three feet, moving randomly a few feet this way, a few feet that way. Most of the time he cut the engine at this point and he and his family would spend another twenty minutes or so tinkering and making adjustments. Then the performance was repeated, with much the same results. Seldom did he ever get past the point of the hiccup-like convulsive bouncing, but I’ll never forget the one time he did. Neither will anybody else who saw it that day.

Mr. Howard hunched over the controls, a more determined and intense look on his face than we’d seen before. As he started to lift, the combined sounds from the rotor and the motor reached a volume they hadn’t attained previously. He gave the little chopper more and more gas and it bypassed its usual hiccups and went right into wild bounces of fifteen, twenty, twenty-five feet in the air, coming down to earth many yards away from where each airborne attempt had started. In addition, each time he came down his Fiat was facing a different direction. His progress was like watching a knight make up its own rules bounding across a chessboard.

We spectators realized we could be in danger. Maybe he couldn’t control where he wanted to go but we could certainly control where we wanted to go. We began to pull back, realizing that there was already one fool out there, no sense in joining him.

Mr. Howard throttled up the engine more and more, hoping to get up enough RPMs to stay off the ground. It wasn’t to be. He continued bounding haphazardly and hopelessly around the polo field, great leaps, covering forty and fifty yards at a time, spectators scattering in all directions. He finally came to a stop not far from where he had started. His family ran over to make sure he was OK and the audience slowly, cautiously inched its way back.

Jarred and very pale, Mr. Howard was otherwise fine. As he unbuckled himself and stepped out of his machine the crowd politely applauded him. He waved his acknowledgment, bowed slightly and walked over to his waiting, and relieved, family.

A footnote: The kids at school said that he and his wife planned to fly to Europe after they’d perfected their ‘copter. I wasn’t so sure. Nobody would be so foolish as to fly to Europe in a Fiat, right? But I bet there would have been a very polite send-off for Mr. and Mrs. Howard by the Mexicans.
NEXT: First day at a Mexican school, Colegio Cervantes

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 21, 2010 5:07 pm

    >Great story! Once again, I had a similar experience with one Jimmy Dykes, an Australian I knew in college – who built his own helicopter from a plan (I believe it came from popular mechanics). He was actually a pilot, but he ended up crashing it on his test flight because he had some controls backwards. Anyway, thanks for the tale and the memories.Yonnie Yensenik

  2. March 21, 2010 8:33 pm

    >Hmmm . . . I can see where putting controls in backwards might lead to some serious problems.

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