Chuck Aaron has long been the pilot who does things with a helicopter you or I wouldn't do or want to do in our wildest dreams (or nightmares). But two weeks ago, with the help of John Travolta, he was officially recognized as a Living Legend of Aviation. He recently sat down with redbull.com to discuss the award, Harrison Ford, and how it all started with dreams of a magic carpet.
redbull.com: How did you find out you'd won the award?
Chuck Aaron: They wrote me a letter. There are only about 100 inductees total and this year six people got in, including the founder of Air Methods, the largest publicly owned emergency helicopter service in the USA. They ceremony is at the Beverly Hilton hotel in L.A. And I did get an award, but I'm not as cool as anyone else there, especially John Travolta and Harrison Ford.
Harrison Ford's a pilot?
Harrison Ford loves flying. He says it's more fun than making movies. I think he owns seven or eight aircraft. We get lunch once in a while.
A lot of us know Travolta's a pilot, but what's he like in person?
He shocked me, he was so nice. Before going on stage I told him how nervous I was, and he put his hand on my shoulder and told me to relax and have fun, that it all falls into place once you get out there.
Where did flying start for you?
I was born into it. My father, who is now 95, started flying when he was 17 out on the farm in west Texas. He was a Lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Air Force, where he met my mother, then was a commander and pilot in the U.S. Air Force in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. So he was my navigation light. He gave me that dream. I started flying in my teens.
So then where did flying helicopters start for you?
Starting around age 12. I had this re-occurring dream. I must have had it 100 times. In the dream my mother tucks me in and as soon as she shuts the door I jump on a magic carpet that's at the foot of the bed and fly out the window and fly around all night, traveling around and meeting all kinds of people. And outside of the dream I never had that sensation until I flew a helicopter. It was 1971, a Bel 47, and it was an immediate marriage.
[DIETRICH MATESCHITZ] WANTED TO KNOW IF I COULD DO AEROBATICS WITH A HELICOPTER. I TOLD HIM "NO ONE CAN DO THIS," AND THEN TWO WEEKS WENT BY AND I STARTED THINKING I ACTUALLY COULD DO IT WITH THE RIGHT HELICOPTER.
How is flying a plane different than a helicopter?
It's two different jobs. A helicopter is an aircraft used within a 200-mile area, where you want to go somewhere and come back. Airplanes are for long range, getting from one place to another. We are all pilots, but the aircraft fly completely differently.
How did you go from standard helicopter missions to doing backflips?
It didn't happen until I met the owner of Red Bull eight years ago. I'd owned my own helicopter company for 30 years, and then stumbled on a Cobra helicopter, which the owner ended up buying from me and is now at the headquarters in Salzburg, Austria. But then he asked if I wanted to do anything for Red Bull. He wanted to know if I could do aerobatics with a helicopter. I told him "no one can do this," and then two weeks went by and I started thinking I actually could do it with the right helicopter.
It took a year and a half to buy and modify the aircraft, and for the FAA to approve a civilian helicopter to do aerobatics. The FAA also gave me the first license to do aerobatics in a helicopter. But more than anything else I had to convince myself to do it, because if you screw it up, you die.
Follow Chuck Aaron on Twitter for more on his adventures.