“Right then lads,” I said to my mates, Paul and Ryan over a curry, “I’m going to learn to be a helicopter pilot.” They both looked at me sceptically. “I’m starting in October and will be gone for quite a few months while I learn.” There was a moment of silence before I noticed a single tear trickle down Ryan’s face. Turns out he’d just eaten a particularly hot jalapeño.
If you’ve never been in a helicopter, you absolutely should do it; really, it’s brilliant. Properly brilliant. Groupon it, if that’s still a thing. Just don't go thinking about taking lessons as well - otherwise you might end up finding yourself in West Palm Beach, and living in a house with a 25-year-old Hungarian called Kristof, and I don't want that happening to both of us.
It all came about when I’d been at a wedding a few weeks earlier. It was a swanky affair and I’d been asked to perform some close-up magic in the gardens whilst the photographs were being taken. It was all very typical until a tremendous noise was heard above. Suddenly, the 200 or so people stopped and looked up at the sky. A helicopter was flying down and into the grounds, and it literally made the entire collective stop and watch. “Here comes the DJ,” I quipped to the guy standing next to me… he didn't laugh.
It was amazing. ’What am I doing, stood here on terra firma with these commoners,’ I thought, ‘when I could be flying a helicopter!?’ I knew, instantly, that I was going to learn how to fly and felt drunk with power by the very thought of it. Then I walked off and carried on doing card tricks.
Back at home that night I jumped on the computer, paid £150 and booked a test flight for the following day. I’m not really sure why - it was a bit impulsive I suppose, but it just seemed like it would be fun. I’ll arrive to all of my events by helicopter in future, I thought - not considering that it might not be the most practical thing to do when I’m performing at a Christening in the local social club.
The following day I went to the training school in Liverpool and jumped in the helicopter. It might have been a bit soon to have sat in the pilot’s seat, but I think he knew I meant business. Swapping seats, we set to the sky for the next 20 minutes or so and I loved it! It was honestly amazing and a completely different experience to anything I’d ever done before.
I spoke with the school to find out how much getting a license would cost, and after some minimal research I realised it would work out cheaper to do it abroad. Result! I’ll learn to do it in America, I thought – I’ll get a holiday at the same time and save some money. I took the rest of the day off, pleased with my own cunning.
Within 72 hours of having watched a helicopter land for a minute and taking a short helicopter trip over Liverpool, I set the wheels in motion and arranged to spend a small fortune and get my private pilots license in West Palm Beach, Florida. I’d sorted it all out with Ocean Helicopter School, who I’d be going to about 3 months later, giving me enough time to arrange my Visa and get my fingerprints and medical done, etc.
Why I didn’t consider taking at least one more flight in the UK first, or begin learning some of the theory is beyond me - but I didn’t have time for any of that tomfoolery, I thought. I laughed in the face of theory. I was going rogue. A helicopter maverick.
Visa now in place, I had a surprise going-away party with family and friends and set off for Florida. I was tremendously excited, buzzing with the idea of exploring aviation and conquering the skies. That was, of course, until the final internal flight I was on became hit by the worst turbulence I, or any of the crew on board, had ever experienced.
People throughout the plane were screaming and crying. I, having travelled on my own and without any other real option, picked up the SkyMall magazine and started perusing the wares. Whilst others were looking into their family members’ and loved ones’ eyes for what could have been the final time; I was reading the description for one of those things you plug into the wall to keep flies out of your kitchen.
All was, as you can probably guess, fine - although it wasn’t a great introduction to my time learning about aviation.
Exhausted, I finally arrived at West Palm Beach Airport and was driven to the house I’d be staying in with my new housemate; the aforementioned 25-year-old Hungarian, Kristof. The house was owned by the helicopter school, and was, as they say, an utter shithole. But still, I was here to become a pilot - most of my time would be spent soaring the skies, wouldn’t it? The only thing I’d be doing here is sleeping and practicing that song that Tom Cruise sings in Top Gun. This will be fine, I thought.
The first few weeks were brilliant; a right laugh, and really exciting - but there was just something about it that didn’t seem to be quite what I expected. I don’t know what it was, but I just started questioning what the point was. I realised I didn’t want to become a pilot as a career, and financially it would probably be a disastrous move to be flying to gigs all over the country. I also only realised when I got there that helicopters have little to no boot-space for my props. If only someone had told me that beforehand.
Having my doubts about the whole thing, I spoke to Richie Smith over Skype, who gave me some advice which really made my decision for me. He said that I’d have to look at this venture like climbing a mountain. The last thing I’d want to do is reach the summit, but then realise that, actually, I wanted to be on another mountain.
Right, I’m well aware that seems a bit ‘fortune cookie’ and naff in print, but when he said it, it actually did sound profound, honest.
From that alone, I made the decision to abandon the lessons and continue with what I really loved doing - performing. I booked my flight home for the following week, cancelled my remaining lessons, and spent the next 7 days having a slightly bizarre holiday with my new Hungarian friend.
So, after saying goodbye to everybody at home and having a going-away party before jetting off to Florida, I was back in Liverpool 3 weeks later without the ability to fly a helicopter, or even a tan.
A welcome-home party, anyone?