By Hayman Tam
More than 7,000 people attended the Ninth Vertical Challenge helicopter air show put on by the Hiller Aviation Museum at San Carlos Airport (SQL) on June 21. The skies were clear and the weather hot—a perfect setting to see helicopters in action.
This year the event evolved into a three-day format. On Friday evening, “Wild Brew Yonder” combined local microbreweries, good food and a twilight air show. Saturday offered the full air show, headlined by the Red Bull aerobatic helicopter. A new treat for Sunday’s attendees was the chance to get up close to the military helicopters before they departed later in the day; all the civilian displays had left the day before.
Now in its ninth year, this event has grown into the largest helicopter air show in the country. Helicopters from near and far come to be part of the atmosphere, and even gyroplanes were on the flight line this year. Sponsors, including Bell Helicopter and Red Bull, had large chalets set up near the flight line for their guests.
The helicopters clustered in readily identifiable groups after they arrived. Multiple sheriff’s departments—Santa Clara, Contra Costa and Sonoma County—brought their helicopters. The television and radio broadcast choppers were easy to spot with their bright markings. Medical services helicopters from Stanford, CALSTAR and REACH also attended.
Larger agencies, including the California Highway Patrol and the U.S. Coast Guard, also brought their helicopters to the party and were part of the performance schedule with demonstrations of their abilities. CAL FIRE was scheduled to appear with its big Huey to perform its popular water drop demo, but was called away the day before to combat one of the many brush fires ravaging California this season.
The star of the show was the Red Bull helicopter, a German BO-105 that’s been specially modified for aerobatic maneuvers. Pilot Chuck Aaron, the only helicopter pilot certified by the FAA to fly aerobatics in the U.S., performed loops and rolls that underscored his piloting skills. Other performers included the Showcopters, a two-ship formation team that flies Robinson helicopters.
Some aircraft were rare, such as the two-place 1965 Air & Space 18 gyroplane. Based nearby in Palo Alto, it’s one of only 68 built. Then there was the diminutive American Autogyro Sparrowhawk homebuilt flown in by Mark Goroff from Livermore. These aircraft get their forward thrust from a pusher prop, while the free-turning overhead rotor provides the lift.
Two vintage UH-1 Hueys flew in as part of a Vietnam War reenactment group, complete with an authentic base camp.
Military helicopters dominated the static display ramp. Four Marine CH-46 Sea Knights flew in from Miramar Naval Air Station and Camp Pendleton. The Marines at Camp Pendleton also sent a pair of mean-looking Super Cobras. The 129th Rescue Squadron Air National Guard unit at nearby Moffett Federal Airfield sent a HH-60 Pavehawk. The Army provided a CH-47 Chinook that flew all the way down from Fort Lewis in Washington, and dispatched a UH-60 Blackhawk and UH-1 Huey from Fort Irwin near Barstow. A SH-60 Seahawk from North Island NAS in San Diego represented the Navy.
Play areas for the smaller show visitors and many food and vendor booths rounded out the offerings of the show. Vendors offered helicopter rides for $50 each and had long lines forming up for most of the day.
This year also marked the tenth anniversary of the Hiller Aviation Museum. Located at San Carlos Airport, the late Stanley Hiller established the museum to showcase both Bay Area aviation and the accomplishments of the helicopter company that bears his name. He gained early fame by designing and building the first helicopter to fly on the West Coast, the XH-44 Hiller-Copter.
The museum collection includes his prototypes for tip-jet rotorcraft, his one-man Flying Platform and a model of a Hiller design intended to catch a Saturn rocket first stage as it floated down on giant parachutes. The museum is also home to some one-of-a kind exhibits, including the forward fuselage of the long-cancelled Boeing Supersonic Transport.
San Carlos Airport is located approximately 10 miles south of San Francisco International Airport (SFO). Constructed in 1948, the airport is home to approximately 500 aircraft and more than 25 aviation-related businesses.