Can you fly around the whole world by helicopter? Yes, you can. And to help you envision what this represents, I met with an experienced pilot who’s been to many, many places by helicopter. Some would say he’s an ace pilot: after 13,000 hours and flying around the whole world, there’s no doubt about it. He’s Rob McDuff, a young retiree who used to be a test pilot for Bell, and he’s flown around the globe back in 2017 in a Bell 429. Here’s his story.
We were lucky to fly a twin-engine Bell 429 geared for IFR flight. My crew consisted of Bob Dengler and his son, both pilots. Back in 2017, this trip lasted 48 days (33 in flight, 15 grounded because of the weather) and covered 35,000 km in 14 countries. It allowed us to discover some truly fantastic places.
Once the helicopter was ready for such a trip, the most important part was planning the route. It’s better to travel from West to East to take advantage of western winds. And because of fuel requirements, planning pit stops (90 total) is also critical. For example: in North America, you can have fuel delivered pretty much anywhere. But in Russia, your only option is to have a tank truck make the delivery, sometimes in remote areas. At one point, our truck had to travel over 1,000 miles in harsh country. It took 25 hours for the driver to reach us!”
Another critical element in such a trip is the weather. We’ve been relying on the Windy app. Luckily, we could fly using IFR, otherwise, it would definitely have taken longer. We had a few surprises. We realized that this far up north, the sun never sets. A few times, this allowed us to fly for extended periods. But when it was raining, we didn’t take into account that in these areas, at 8,000 ft, things could turn into icing conditions! Planning took place over several months and ended up being crucial to our adventure’s success.
Even after several expeditions like this, two things still amaze me. First, discovering fantastic
places. Surprisingly, I’d say the most beautiful part of the trip was actually pretty close. The area between Labrador, Iqaluit, Greenland, Iceland and Faroe Islands: WOW! It’s the kind of beauty you just can’t put into words.
Second: meeting fantastic people. “Anyone who’s ever flown in Russia will agree with me: pilots over there aren’t just helicopter lovers, they’re helicopter maniacs!” Note from Mike: I met with Maxim Sotnikov, who also flew around the world in a Bell 407, along with several members of his private helicopter club. Check out the article here.
Funny story: during a pit stop, I became friends with an Airport Director in Prague. While we were talking, I mentioned I was using the Windy app and thought it was the greatest thing ever for helicopters (alongside the GPS). He then told me the app was invented here, in Prague, by his own brother. I actually met the guy, he pilots an EC135. We were lucky during our flight. Except once, when a flock of geese appeared out of nowhere and we barely dodged it… except maybe for one kamikaze bird, who really wanted to test our blades’ resistance. After checking, we only had to clean away a few feathers! Overall, all things we could control (our route, communications and supplies) went well. The one thing we couldn’t – the weather – certainly requires a lot of attention.
Trips like these allow you to discover fantastic places. But what I’ll always remember is meeting with truly passionate helicopter people around the globe. Many thanks for all of you who helped us succeed on this adventure!
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