By Jen Boyer
I’d barely turned 12 when the seed was planted that would determine the course of my life. Up to that point, and for years beyond it, my mother told me I would be a marine biologist, based on my love of seals, sea lions, and walruses. She wanted me to go to college, have a respectable job. Flying a helicopter didn’t qualify in her book.
Mom wasn’t home that January night in 1984 as a babysitter let us watch our one hour of prime time television before bed. Introduced to the single most gorgeous helicopter I’d ever seen, my eyes widened, my heart quickened, and my mind raced; I imagined the thrill of being at the controls flying through rust red monoliths in the Utah desert. It was that night that the aviation bug took its first bite.
Although I only saw the first half of that two-hour pilot episode of Airwolf, the damage was done. I started calling around and discovered the cheapest way to learn to fly is through the military. It fact, it was free. Unfortunately, I’d been born with hip dysplasia and this birth defect made my enlistment into any branch impossible. I couldn’t run very fast or very far. I tucked my flying dreams away.
I did attempt to pursue that marine biology career path, for exactly one year of college at the University of Oregon. It quickly became apparent that math and science weren’t my strong points. Yet, working at Oregon’s Sea Lion Caves the summer after my freshman year, talking to people about the Steller sea lion, the geology of the caves, and the local history, I realized that while I might not be any good with calculations or chemical compounds, it came without much effort to share my enthusiasm and understanding of the whole picture. I quickly changed my degree to journalism and spent the summer prepping for acceptance to the UO journalism school.
Throughout the remaining three years of school, I focused on writing and the aviation bug remained dormant. However, shortly after graduation I took a work abroad opportunity in Scotland for six months. While there I began to have dreams of helicopters—not pie-in-the-sky dreams of flying one day. Actual nighttime dreams that were so vivid I even looked into working at the Glasgow heliport, but they weren’t hiring at the time.
When I returned to the U.S. the summer of 1993, I accepted a reporting position with a weekly newspaper in downtown Seattle. I wrote about everything from racial issues to local events, and I lived in a condo with two roommates on Queen Anne Hill. From my living room I could see two of the city’s three news station heliports, and I came running whenever the news helicopters that used them flew by.
Then, almost 10 years to the day I first saw Airwolf, I had a powerful dream that reignited my drive. In it I found myself standing at the edge of a field, a place I’d dreamt of multiple times before. Yet this time I recognized the place as an airport not a field. There was a windsock in the distance, swaying lightly in the soft breeze on a warm, cloudless day. I became aware of someone standing next to me. When I turned I realized the man was Jan-Michael Vincent, the actor who portrayed Stringfellow Hawke, the hero in Airwolf. He was young, like he was during the show. He turned to me and simply said, “It’s time.”
I woke up with a start and an unquenchable desire to fly. For months I called flight schools, borrowed books about flying, and began hanging out at the airport. I eventually met the director of operations for a local flight school. He suggested I might be able to help the school build their business in exchange for flight time. I worked tirelessly and was rewarded with my first two hours in a helicopter.
I was also rewarded with my first taste of the helicopter industry. I will never forget the sensation that crystal clear February evening when the helicopter lifted off the tarmac and flew toward downtown Seattle. The director took me on that flight. He flew me past the Seattle skyline, pink in the evening light, and landed on a dock once used as a heliport in front of one of the city’s fancy waterfront restaurants. A part of me was thrilled to have taken my first helicopter ride. The little girl in me could taste her dreams coming true.
The other part of me was on high alert. This was supposed to be a demo flight, not a romantic dinner. I asked why we were landing and he claimed he was hungry. He sat across the table at the restaurant leering at me, telling me he’s no boy scout. I was a starry-eyed 22-year-old who’d shown she’d work hard to get helicopter time. I nervously spent the dinner reviewing the marketing plan and reiterating the steps we could take to build the company’s business. What were we doing at this restaurant? I wanted to fly.
Within a week the director called to tell me that his wife, who didn’t work there, had learned about me and the deal was off. I couldn’t work for the company in exchange for flight time anymore. It was too dangerous for him. I’d done nothing more than the professional work he’d requested. What was there to “learn about” and what danger did I present?
Absolutely livid, I approached the company’s owner with my side of the story. It turned out she knew nothing of the arrangement (which infuriated me further as I slowly came to understand the director’s plans). She welcomed me to pay for my flight time like everyone else and I was sent on my way. She did honor the work I performed and I received the flight time I was owed, about 90 minutes, but she held a grudge for that. I would never work for that company again, even as a pilot, and I was branded a trouble-maker.
As a journalist living off $25,000 a year, there was no way I could afford my training. A helicopter with an instructor was $135 an hour at the time. But I wasn’t about to give up. As a part of the work I’d been doing, I’d begun to put together the beginnings of a local helicopter association to push for more helicopter landing areas in the Seattle area. Local pilots, operators and helicopter manufacturers agreed to pay for membership and I was hired as the executive director. I used the $500 a month paycheck to slowly begin my training.
Through that association, I networked my tail off. I managed to garner the attention of an international helicopter magazine that began giving me regular assignments around the U.S. I began to travel, meeting helicopter people and writing about helicopter issues. It was the perfect marriage of my two favorite things, and the writing helped pay for the flying.
In the early spring of 1998, I finally had enough flight time and passed my private pilot checkride–three years after my first flight.
Not long after that, a flight school in Northern California offered me a marketing manager position. I would make much more than I’d been making as a weekly newspaper reporter and I’d have access to reduced-cost helicopter time. A little more than a year later, I’d received my commercial, instrument, flight instructor and instrument instructor helicopter ratings, and I landed my first flying job.
I became a transient helicopter pilot, working as a flight instructor, tour pilot and photo flight pilot in Sacramento then San Diego, followed by Las Vegas, slowly building 1,200 hours of flight time. After two years of that lifestyle, I’d finally logged enough hours to move into a turbine helicopter and out of flight instruction. I was 29 and recently divorced. My heart wanted something more than living with roommates at the end of a road where helicopters were needed (the next step in a pilot career for someone with my hours).
In 2000, I began to heavily lobby Frank Robinson for a job. Frank was the owner of Robinson Helicopter Company and the manufacturer of the R22 helicopter I had learned to fly and still flew on a full-time basis. He finally relented in November of that year and I became Robinson’s heliport coordinator. My job was to first save the LAX heliport from the airport’s plans to close it. Should I be successful, he’d allow me to stay on permanently to help develop and build small heliports designed for Robinson helicopters.
I put my mad networking skills to work and, in close partnership with the Professional Helicopter Pilots’ Association in Southern California, I managed to dissuade Los Angeles World Airports, the operator of LAX, from closing the heliport. I then worked with a Robinson engineer and my heliport design mentor to develop and install several small, lightweight heliports around the country. During that time I also lobbied for a heliport law change in California, which eventually passed. It was a productive four years, but my flying, done on a freelance basis at a little flight school in Long Beach, was limited.
By 2004, I’d built a good resume and a strong reputation in the helicopter industry. The desire to fly wasn’t so powerful and another instinct began to demand my attention. I was 32 and divorced with no desire to remain in Los Angeles. It was time to go home to Seattle and have a family.
As luck would have it, my helicopter experience and my work at Robinson, which included a fair amount of public relations, marketing and graphic layout work, landed me a media relations position at an airline in Seattle that year. I moved home, bought a house, and a few months later met my husband.
As it turns out, my mom was right about that college education. My journalism degree and the skills I learned in school opened doors that a simple helicopter license wouldn’t have. My writing paid for my flight school, and it continues to keep me in the black today.
Now, in 2011, 27 years after Airwolf first flew across my television screen, I am still very active in the industry. I am a contributing editor for Vertical and Vertical 911—the helicopter industry’s leading publications. I am the executive director of a tour helicopter operator safety organization. I volunteer every summer to put together the American Heroes Air Show in Seattle at the Museum of Flight. I started my own PR company, Flying Penguin PR to provide brand building, reputation management and crisis communications support to multiple companies, several in the helicopter industry. And I’m a mentor to many aspiring pilots through the Whirly-Girls, the female helicopter pilots’ association.
I had a dream, and despite a physical disability that limits how far I can walk or run, and left me with a limp, I achieved that dream. It took me places, and still provides adventures, I never imagined. I’ve flown over glaciers in Alaska, skimmed between the rocks in the Valley of Fire, chased illegal aliens east of El Paso, witnessed a patient intubation mid-flight in San Diego, landed on oilrigs in the Gulf of Mexico, and hovered over marijuana hidden in the sugar cane in Hawaii. I’ve flown a Bell 222—the same model as Airwolf—and I’ve even met Airwolf’s real pilot.
I have also achieved my other dream, to have a family. I’m a wife and mom of two. I’ve had my daughter’s name picked out since I was 12—she’s named after a gorgeous and determined female helicopter pilot in none other than Airwolf.
Photo provided by Jen Boyer.