I Thought Helicopter Rides Were Terrifying. Then, I Actually Took One.

BY: Randall Colburn |Jun 1, 2016

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Until fairly recently, my perception of helicopter rides came primarily from gritty war and action flicks where muscled dudes held onto the skids during takeoff. In those movies, the helicopter’s door was always open and 90º tilts were par for the course (terrifying stuff).

But we were in Napa Valley, and my fiance wanted to see all those gnarled grapevines from an aerial perspective. Lucky for her, the desire to see my partner smile trumped any reservations I had about my own mortality. And lucky for me, I walked away unscathed—but not unimpressed. Here are a few things I learned from the experience:

They’ve got your back.

Helicopter tour pilots fly nearly every day, and you should get that sense before you even step foot in the craft. We arrived about 45 minutes early for our flight, giving the pilot plenty of time to highlight his credentials and lead us through ground orientation. And in case anybody needed additional reassurance, we were outfitted with a microphone and set of headphones. This way, we could easily hear the pilot over the din of the rotors and voice a question should any concerns arise mid-flight.

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Seating is important.

Picking the right seat is not only necessary for securing a great view, it’s also vital if you suffer from motion sickness. Helicopter rides can be a touch jerkier than airplanes, so if you’re prone to nausea it’s smart to sit as close to the center of the cabin as possible. (This was the case for one of our fellow passengers, who clutched her sick bag like a life preserver through takeoff.)

Most helicopters will assign you seating based on your size and preference. Since helicopters are smaller and more flexible than airplanes, the crew needs to ensure weight is dispersed evenly throughout the cabin. Most helicopters have a weight limit of somewhere between 250 and 300 pounds per seat, so be sure to take that into account as you’re planning your flight.

It’s nothing like an action movie.

I expected bumpiness, unexpected drops, gusts of wind that would send us cartwheeling in every direction... It didn’t matter that we were flying on a crisp, warm spring afternoon—it was gonna be a rough ride. I, of course, was wrong. Sure, there’s a little turbulence as you take off and land, but the sensation isn’t that far off from an elevator ride.

Also, the door is closed. There’s glass over the windows. You’re buckled in tight. Not so tight, though, that you can’t crane your neck for a peek at the stunning countryside as it unfolds hundreds of feet below. Rambo III, it ain’t.

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Bring a camera. And not much else.

As stated previously, weight is an important factor in flight. That’s why pilots won’t allow you to bring much else besides a camera onto the helicopter. Bags and souvenirs stay on the ground in lockers or under the watchful eyes of staff.

But you’re definitely going to want to bring a camera, whether it be a DSLR or the one embedded in your smartphone. It weighs next to nothing, and you’d likely regret not capturing the view. (For us, this meant breathaking vistas of Lake Sonoma and the terraced vineyards of Dry Creek Valley.)

One tip that our pilot clued us in on was to wear dark, solid colors to help minimize reflections from the helicopter’s window. The last thing you want to see on every page of the inevitable photobook is a T-shirt-shaped ghost.

But also: Put the camera down.

Despite my initial reservations, I found that there’s something deeply meditative about a helicopter ride. Once you’re in the air, the thwopping of the rotor and gentle coast of the ‘copter eventually serves to complement the majesty of your view. Confronted with the beauty of it all, it was impossible for my fear of heights to take hold. And though I took some gorgeous shots, I was most at ease once I put the camera down.

So, yes, snap some pics, but also take a moment for yourself. It’s rare to see the Earth from this angle, and the pictures we keep in our heads are sometimes even more meaningful than the ones we post on Facebook.