Homers 2002

For years my wife Sheila and I have wanted to attend the annual fly-in at Homer and Sharon Bell’s Bell Air Ranch located near Hillsboro, Ohio. We first met Homer many years back at one of our west coast Western States Fly-in at Orland, Ca. At the time I was the president of the Sierra Rotorcraft club and our ranks included around 20 to 30 Rotorway helicopters as well as several certified ships. We had perhaps the most active Rotorway owners group in the country and our numerous Camp-out-fly-ins throughout the year were thoroughly enjoyed by all of us.

I was able to talk with Homer over the several years that he attended our Western States Fly In and hear of some of the adventures that he had in his Rotorway Exec 152. Homer pretty much wrote the book on utilizing the Rotorway helicopter to its full potential. The most memorable story for me was Homer’s coast to coast flight in his helicopter. Remember now, that this was before FADECs, no fuel injection, and only one ignition system run by a small VW-type distributor and ignition coil. Homer had faith in his little Exec and he proved not only the helicopters’ dependability (there were only one or two minor setbacks along the way as I recall) but his endurance and skill that allowed him to make the coast to coast flight. I have not heard of anyone duplicating Homer’s accomplishment since then so as far as I know, his record still stands.

The last time that I saw Homer in person was at Rotorway International’s grand opening/customer appreciation celebration at the new factory in Chandler, AZ. A group of us from the Sierra Rotorcraft Club flew from a point in Southern California to the factory, which is South and East of Phoenix, AZ. I was flying with Nathan Fronsman in his Exec 152, Steve Lewis was piloting his new green and gold Exec 90, Dan Vanduesen was flying “Tazz”(named for the large Tasmanian devil painted on the underside of the tub), his Exec 152. Bringing up the rear of the formation was Terry Kuensli(sp?) with his silver Exec 152, the first Rotorway that Sheila and I ever got a ride in at our first Western States fly in. The only one of those helicopters that had dual ignition and dual spark plugs was Steve’s new Exec 90.

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As we made our way across the Arizona desert we kept the folks already at the Rotorway factory appraised of our progress. We would place an update telephone call at each fuel stop. On the last leg of the trip as we were circumnavigating greater Phoenix to the south we were met by Phil Verbek and his son in their Exec 90 and by Jeff Dunham and Homer in Jeff’s beautifully air-brushed Exec 90 that Homer had been helping him with. Then the 6 helicopters entered a “V” formation and made our grand entrance for the factory crowd with several flyovers after which we all landed as a group.

For years I had heard of the great times and fun flying at Homers fly-in but being the president of a swimming pool construction business in California kept me tied to the job all summer long. I planned to some day attend, but just could never quite make it work out. In 1996 I sold the business and we moved to the Midwest to “retire”. My dream was to devote full time to teaching others to fly helicopters and now with my free time, that dream became a reality. I was flying certified helicopters and found that I was unable to find a CFI liability insurance policy that did not specifically exclude coverage while instructing in experimental helicopters so I continued to avoid instructing in experimentals.

Over the last several years I have been following the NTSB reports on Rotorway crashes and noticed that nearly all of them are a result of either poor maintenance procedures, shoddy preflight inspections, lack of performing a pre-boarding walk around, or inadequate flight training. Several potential students contacted me after hearing that I was a CFI with Rotorway experience and that I had built and put over 360 hours on my own Exec and a number of other Rotorway helicopters of every model produced. Following discussions with my wife and with my attorney I decided that I would once again begin providing flight instruction in Rotorway helicopters and I have loved every minute that I have been doing it, albeit without liability insurance coverage.

This year one of my students from the East Coast asked me to meet him at Homer’s so that I could give him some additional flight training. We thought that was a great idea and it just happened that I would be returning from training a student in Baton Rouge, LA just in time to pack up the motor home and drive up to Homers. We arrived at the Bell Air Ranch on Wed. afternoon and thought that we might just be the first ones there- wrong. A number of RVs were already set up, helicopters were coming off their trailers, and blades were being attached. Homer’s brother Ted met us at the entrance and after some good-natured harassing from him we were directed to a camping spot.

Homer and Sharon are farmers and the Bell Air Ranch is a producing working ranch with hundreds of acres of crops. Each year they set aside quite a few acres of would-be productive farm land for the fly-in. This is done so that the attendees of the fly-in will have a place to park their campers and RV’s, park their trailers, pitch their tents, have room to park and maneuver their helicopters, and to provide a runway to be used as the focal point of the traffic pattern. This large area is mowed and is a perfect surface for the helicopters. I counted three porta-toilets on site for the convenience of attendees and Homer hauls in water (there is not a well near the festivities) in a huge truck so that there is plenty of water for anyone that needs it. This tuck also doubles as a fire truck should it be required.

As they arrive at Homers, each person is asked to sign in, put on a name tag, and to also sign a “hold harmless agreement” that says that you are responsible for yourself while you are on the Bell Air Ranch. At the sign-in booth there is also a coffee can sitting on the table for donations to help defray the cost of hosting the event. Despite the cost of putting on this incredible event year after year, Homer and Sharon do not charge admission. They always hope that the donations will pay most of the costs of the fly-in but somehow that doesn’t ever seem to happen. This year Homer asked that anyone who profited from the event donate a portion of what they earned to help with the costs, and I believe that helped considerably.

As more helicopters and enthusiasts arrived, introductions were made and I was able to match many faces with names for the first time. It was great to see a lot of old friends from years past and to meet many more recent ones. Each morning Homer gave us all a wake-up call by being the first helicopter in the air and doing his best to vibrate everything in the RV with the Chop Chop Chop of his Exec’s main rotors. What a great way to start the morning, engines firing, rotors turning, and helicopters flying everywhere. Between 9 and 10am Homer would conduct a safety briefing for all pilots to insure that everyone knew the particulars for the day. Then all day long, anyone who wanted to go for a ride in a helicopter could catch a ride in any of a number of ships that seemed to be flying endlessly.

I was thrilled to be able to ride in and even was handed the controls of the beautiful Bell 47 owned by Brett and Scott Newhart. I had always heard that the old Bell 47 was a clunker that would rattle the fillings loose from your teeth. The Newhart brothers’ Bell 47 certainly puts that myth to rest. I was amazed at how smooth it was from engine start, liftoff to hover, and into cruise flight. It is amazing what properly dynamically balancing of the rotor system does for the smoothness of the helicopter. These twin brothers are really something special and they made themselves available to anyone who wanted to go flying. They also spent considerable time helping others get their helicopters airworthy and rigged properly.

Steve Walton was there with his Jet Exec that we have all been reading about. When he offered me a ride, I didn’t need to think twice before answering him in the affirmative. After a preflight and walk-around inspection we boarded and Steve explained the turbine start procedure. It is actually very simple and soon we were hearing that turbine whine that gives one goose bumps. Following a few minutes of familiarization with the controls, Steve let me hover and then fly the Jet Exec, wow!! This helicopter has considerably more power than the standard Rotorway. The biggest difference beside the sound of the engine is the governor on the engine. Once the throttle control is set, just pull collective and forget about the throttle. That took a bit of getting accustomed to. I was actually flying a Rotorway and the rotor rpm was nailed on 104% no matter what I did with the collective or other controls. Steve did ask me to slow down a tad as we passed 100 mph on downwind, this helicopter wants to fly, and fly fast.

Between visiting with as many of the helicopter enthusiasts as I could, I was able to fly for nearly 15 hours in various helicopters during the official 3 day fly-in. Every pilot seemed to be very responsible and with few exceptions the approved traffic patterns were followed. I did not hear of even one close call or of anyone cutting another helicopter off. That is pretty impressive when you realize that there were up to 20 helicopters in the air at times and no air traffic controller was coordinating them.

If you have a Rotorway fly-in you need to have helicopter games. The ones that I recall seeing were something like beach ball soccer, pick up the rings with the skid, and the bomb drop. These games of skill and piloting are always fun to watch and it appeared that everyone enjoyed them. On Saturday there was a poker run that was enjoyed by a number of pilots and passengers in their helicopters, both experimental and certified. Rotorcraft newsletter editors John and Charmienne Pholman handed out award plaques for the winners of the various contests and events following a great spaghetti dinner.

By Sunday afternoon many helicopters were back on their trailers and headed for home. Those of us that stayed, pooled our leftovers and converged on the Rotor heads tent to enjoy one more meal together before saying goodbye. As I reflect back, I wonder what took us so long to make the trip to Homers. This, our first time there, was an incredible time with helicopters flying, stories being told, problems being discussed and some even solved, old friendships revitalized, and new friendships formed. Sharon told us that the final count was 59 helicopters that had taken part in the fly-in.

Next year we plan on being there again early and we would encourage all of you that have been putting it off year after year like we did, to make your plans now to attend next year. You will not be disappointed.

By Monday morning the last of the attendees were heading home, except for my student from Connecticut, Brad Lenart, my wife, and me. Homer was out busy moving hay-bale barricades back to the barn , picking up marker flags, and generally tidying things up. He noticed that sometime during the night someone had stolen a gasoline powered pump that he had at the end of his field. I guess that is not too surprising since the event is open to the public and there were a lot of the public in attendance. That is one more item to add to Homer’s cost to host the fly-in.

As Brad and I got busy with his flight training, Homer began attaching a spray boom and chemical tank to his Exec. If my memory is correct, this helicopter has over 500 hours on it and it is still going strong. In short order Homer was lifting off and putting his little helicopter to work spraying his bean fields. Brad and I enjoyed doing some aerial photography work as Homer navigated his red Exec 152 over the sea of green bean plants.

The following day Homer left in his Exec to attend a farm auction. It seems that to Homer, the Rotorway is not only a business, he is a professional builder, but also a tractor, a fun helicopter, and farm truck as well.
As we finished up our training time Homer and Sharon were bolting the Exec to the trailer for the trip to Mentone, their next stop in the Rotorway helicopter adventure that has lasted nearly 20 years. We expressed out gratitude for their hospitality and said our “until next year” goodbyes.

Now that was fun! We hope to see you all there next year.

Orv Neisingh