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Published October 26, 2021

How I helped a startup ambulance helicopter service

 

And the ups and downs of my memorable ride in a Soviet-era helicopter

By John Toth / The Bulletin

The helicopter was in the back parking lot, on a heliport not far from where we were gathering for the quarterly membership meeting of The Alliance. It was an impressive sight from a distance and more impressive as we walked closer.

It is operated by Memorial Hermann Life Flight and is stationed at the Texas Gulf Coast Regional Airport near Angleton. My focus was on the aircraft, which I found intriguing.

The last time I was this close to an air ambulance helicopter, I was standing in an airfield somewhere around Budapest, Hungary. The year was 1990, and I was there to visit family. One of my cousins, Alex, worked for a non-profit ambulance helicopter service that was needing donations, preferably from the West.

I was there on vacation, but agreed to do some interviews and try to find an outlet for them in the American media. This was just after the country regained its independence from Russia, and it needed help getting back on its feet during a regime change from communism to democracy.

Alex’s boss insisted that to get the full experience, I needed to fly in one of their helicopters, which were massive and fuel-hogging, jet-propelled leftovers from the Soviet era.

I assured him that was not necessary and that I was going to do the story anyway. He insisted, so we all climbed aboard this helicopter - Alex, his boss, me and the pilot.

I had never ridden in a helicopter before, so this was going to be a thrill. It was loaded with hospital supplies also, so the trip was not solely for my benefit.

The pilot revved up the engines, and we took off. So far, so good.

Alex and I were in the back. He was planning to take a nap during the 45-minute trip to a hospital in another city, where they were planning to unload the supplies, then feed us lunch before our return trip.
We were well on our way. While Alex was napping in the back, I was looking out the window. Then it hit me. I was getting motion sickness.

Sitting in the back of the bird was not such a good idea. I was about to puke right in the middle of the flight.

I hadn’t felt that way since I was on a bus in summer camp when I was 11.

All the kids around me were jumping around while I was turning green and doing everything I could to keep from throwing up.

I was able to fight off the inner ear-generated stomach turmoil as a kid, and I was working very hard to do that in the back of the helicopter.

I was on my own. Alex was asleep, and the boss and the pilot up front had headsets on.

I used up all my will power, but I made it. Finally, we landed and walking to the hospital building set things straight in my head and stomach again.

When we entered the dining room, lunch was waiting - something warm and green. That didn’t help. I was back to doing my best to look normal on the outside.

I did some interviews, and it was time to fly back. I finally came clean and told the boss my problem.
“Don’t worry. I’ll sit in the back, and you can sit up front with the pilot,” he said. That worked out well.
I put the headset on, and we lifted up as we started the trip back to Budapest. It was a straight line back to the city.

“Do you want to fly it?” asked the pilot.

“Sure. Just show me what to do,” I replied, since I was not having motion sickness anymore.

He showed me and explained how to make the helicopter go up and down, and I grabbed the joy stick in front of me.

I was flying a Soviet-era helicopter. It doesn’t get better than this, I thought.

“Hey, don’t go up and down like that. You’ll make the guys in the back motion sick,” warned the pilot as he let out a laugh.

We neared the airfield, and he took back the controls.

That day was a highlight of my visit. I wrote several stories for the Houston Chronicle about my experience and the needs of the air ambulance service.

I hope it helped them to generate the additional revenues needed by this non-profit to continue providing a vital service to a fledgling democracy.

“He let you have the controls, didn’t he?” remarked Alex after we landed. “It felt like a roller coaster ride back there.”

(John looks forward to hearing from you on this subject. Send comments to john.bulletin@gmail.com. You can even send an old-fashioned letter to: The Bulletin, P.O. Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516.)