How I got to fly a Soviet-built, jet helicopter

By John Toth / Editor and Publisher

I received a Facebook message from the wife of one of my cousins in Europe. I have never seen her and have not seen the cousin since 1990, but her message brought back memories of a time when I actually got a chance to fly a helicopter.

Not just any helicopter, but a jet-propelled one made in the Soviet Union.

Where? The old Soviet Union. There is no such thing anymore. But back in those days, the Soviets were in the process of becoming Russia and a bunch of other countries. No more union.

I was in Budapest, Hungary, at the time, visiting with family, when this cousin gave me an idea. He worked for the equivalent of Life Flight there, but the non-profit operation was just getting off the ground. I was employed as a staff writer at the Houston Chronicle.

As the Russians began to pull out their occupational forces from Hungary, they decided to leave a few things behind, including some helicopters that they donated to the newly elected democratic government. 

Hungarians didn’t like the occupation. As a matter of fact, the people revolted in 1955. The movement was crushed, however, by Soviet troops.

But after more than four decades, the occupation was not major news, especially in a country where newspapers were published by the government.

But, it was just the latest in a series of occupations of that little Central European country, the size of Indiana. The Turks occupied it for 150 years, so Hungarians know how to get along while being occupied.

Anyway, some of the helicopters wound up in the hands of an upstart non-profit called Aerocaritas, a Life Flight-type service and began sending the helicopters to accident scenes, flying patients in minutes to hospitals. This was a first in Hungary.

My cousin arranged for me to meet the head of Aerocaritas. We had a long discussion about how the service got started, and what its goals are.

Then, he suggested that I take a trip in one of the helicopters to a hospital they use, so I can see for myself how well the system works.

The next morning we drove to an airfield and boarded the helicopter. I sat in the back with my cousin, and we took off on our short flight to the hospital.

It took me just minutes to realize that the rear of a helicopter and I don’t agree. Didn’t take me long to get motion sick.

We landed at the hospital, and I did all the interviews. Then, it was time to fly back. I told the pilot about the motion sickness, and he suggested that I sit in the co-pilot’s seat on the way back.

There was no co-pilot, so no harm done. Plus, the view was a lot better there. The clouds above and the fields below made a beautiful sight as we flew back to the airfield.

The pilot then asked me to turn on my headphone.

“Do you want to fly it?”

How could I refuse?

He told me briefly what to do and how the joystick works.

It wasn’t all that hard. I tried my skills at gaining altitude and then going back down. I did that quite a few times. We were in open country. There was nothing around us for miles. It was quite a thrill.

The pilot was watching my every move, and he could see that I was enjoying flying a jet-propelled, Soviet helicopter. How many people get a chance of actually do that, after all?

O.K. the Aerocaritas pilot did it all day.

This wasn’t just a video game. It was the real thing.

The pilot then took the controls back, as we were getting closer to the city and approached the landing field.

“How was the ride up front? It was a little choppy in the back,”  said my cousin, as we walked back to my rental car.

It was fine. We had a little turbulence. The article I wrote for the Chronicle did not include the part about me flying the helicopter. I didn’t want to get the pilot in trouble.

It was a fantastic experience that somehow got pushed in the background ... until now. All it took to bring it all back was that one Facebook message.