Drew Mitchell pilots a Robinson R44 Raven II over the Yampa Valley on his way to Craig from the Yampa Valley Regional Airport. Mitchell is an instructor for Colorado Northwestern Community College's new helicopter aviation program.

Photo by Hans Hallgren

Drew Mitchell pilots a Robinson R44 Raven II over the Yampa Valley on his way to Craig from the Yampa Valley Regional Airport. Mitchell is an instructor for Colorado Northwestern Community College's new helicopter aviation program.

Whiskey in the sky

CNCC's new helicopter program lifts off

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Drew Mitchell pilots a Robinson R44 Raven II over the Yampa Valley on his way to Craig from the Yampa Valley Regional Airport. Mitchell is an instructor for Colorado Northwestern Community College's new helicopter aviation program.

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An aerial shot of the Yampa River taken on a helicopter flight from Hayden to Craig on Thursday morning.

Take a flight

Premier Helicopters and Colorado Northwestern Community College, offered helicopter rides out of the Yampa Valley Regional Airport on Thursday.

The college now has a helicopter flight program.

For more information on the helicopter program, call instructor Drew Mitchell at 946-0784. For more information on CNCC's aviation program, call aviation technology director David Cole at 675-3284.

— 3067 Whiskey is going down.

The helicopter, a Robinson R44 Raven II, has an engine capable of powering it up to 150 miles per hour and a rotor measuring 35 feet long from tip-to-tip, with 700 rpm of thrust behind it.

The only problem is, on this short, leisurely Thursday morning ride from the Yampa Valley Regional Airport in Hayden to Craig, the engine has shut down.

In mid-flight.

"If the engine died on us," says Drew Mitchell, an experienced helicopter pilot for 2 1/2 years, "this is exactly what it would feel like."

The 2,000-pound helicopter has no pulse and is coasting down. Routt County terra firma is rushing up.

"It's a relatively rare occurrence," the pilot says. "But, it's kind of a prepare for the worst, hope for the best sort of thing."

And with that, Mitchell revives the helicopter, bringing engine and rotor back to life, and once again puts about 500 feet between the aircraft and the ground.

Although the engine of Mitchell's helicopter, a brand new 2007 model, didn't actually stall - rather it was idling - the pilot simulated what could happen in that worst-case scenario with a maneuver called an autorotation.

The mock situation, like the day's flight, is an example of what Mitchell will teach students enrolled in Colorado Northwestern Community College's new helicopter aviation program.

The course is a collaborative effort between the college and Premier Helicopters. On Thursday, the groups offered helicopter rides from the regional airport.

Don't let Mitchell's engine malfunction fool you: The helicopters are safe.

Mitchell, a course instructor who has logged more than 1,000 flight hours, said he's never had to resort to emergency maneuvers.

Most flights are just as breezy as Thursday's, he said.

After a gradual liftoff toward the east, Mitchell tilts the helicopter, banking it westward. The altitude varies, mostly between 400 and 500 feet, and the speed ranges from 90 to 120 miles per hour.

It's a misleading velocity - what seems like a slow crawl is in actuality a blitz past cars traveling on U.S. Highway 40 hundreds of feet underneath.

"This is a beautiful day to be flying," Mitchell said with Craig on the horizon and the houses of Hayden looking like Monopoly pieces below. "Nice, cool temperatures. Lots of sun.

"Probably the biggest hazard is power lines. That's why we're flying up here where we do."

Thursday's helicopter demonstrations were used as a way to spark interest in the program, which will be operated out of Rangely.

Mitchell, who learned to fly in Denver and Portland, Ore., said becoming a certified flight instructor and then acquiring the number of hours needed to meet insurance requirements, takes commitment.

The end goal outweighs the work, he said.

"It's a road," Mitchell says. "But it's worth it."

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