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Meet A Rotorcraft Pro - Desiree Horton

Posted 3 years 97 days ago ago by Admin

RPMN: What is your current position?

I am a fire pilot for Heliqwest. I fly a B205 on a local fire contract in Southern California (Heaps Peak) for the U.S. Forest Service. 

RPMN: Tell me about your first flight.

My first flight was in an R22 out of Torrance, California. I remember walking up to the helicopter wondering, Wow, is this small helicopter going to fly? I had never seen one up close and only knew that helicopters were typically much larger.   Once in the helicopter and in a hover I was certain now this was what I would do for living. I was astounded by how it felt to just float above the earth's surface like that.  My flight took me over the coast and back to the airport. I was hooked.

RPMN: How did you get your start in helicopters?

Right after graduating from high school, I found a local flight school where I earned my ratings and was lucky enough to be able to start flying tours in a H269 shortly after earning my commercial pilot’s license. Things were different when I started flying back in 1990.  There were so many flight schools and so many helicopter operators and opportunities to build flight time. After a couple of years flying tours for smaller companies, I landed my first real job at National Helicopters out of Van Nuys, California, flying traffic-watch, news, and some movie production. 

RPMN: When and how did you choose to fly helicopters? Or did they choose you?

I had always wanted to fly helicopters since I was a little girl. I have a photo of my brother and I next to a B206 that had landed at the California Science Center for some event where my brother and I took classes when we were kids. Anytime I saw a helicopter fly over I looked to the sky.  When I graduated from high school I looked into joining the Army, but found out women could not fly into combat as this was prior to the 1993 rule change, so I went the civilian route. 

RPMN: Where did you get your start flying commercially?

With around 300 hours and Bell factory school I put myself through, I was flying tours for several small companies out of Van Nuys Airport: Heli-Tours and Orbic Helicopters both had arrangements with local tourist agencies, so I would get bus loads of up to 30-50 people several nights a week to fly over Los Angeles. 


RPMN: If you were not in the helicopter industry, what else would you see yourself doing?

Before I knew that being a helicopter pilot was a possibility (as it seemed like something out of reach for a female) I thought about being a photographer or veterinarian. Both fields are dramatically different and still interest me, but I think now after doing the work I do I would have become a firefighter. I like working with like-minded people and serving the public.  I love helping others and being there for people in their time of need.

RPMN: What do you enjoy doing on your days off?

Many years ago, I was an adrenaline junkie. I was either riding my street bikes, dirt bikes or snowboarding. Now, I am happy hiking, walking on the beach, or taking my beach cruiser out on the bike path. I sold my home in Los Angeles a few years ago to live closer to the beach and have that beach lifestyle. I’ve slowed down and enjoy the simple things in life now. I prefer my land-based activities to be more relaxing. I get my fix of adrenaline when flying and dropping water from a helicopter onto a fire. 

RPMN: What is your greatest career accomplishment to date?

There have been many little milestones in my career, but I would say that being safe and having a good track record without accidents or incidents after 30 years of flying would be my greatest accomplishment. I attribute that to all of the training pilots I have flown with that have taught me something valuable over all of these years; you learn something from everyone you fly with. I am continuously learning new things from guys I have fly with. Also I would say another big factor is flying for companies that take good care of their helicopters.  Being well trained, flying good equipment, and always trying to make good decisions are what got me to my 30-year mark this year.

RPMN: Have you ever had an “Oh, crap” moment in a helicopter? Can you summarize what happened?

Luckily, there have not been any serious “Oh, crap” moments. Lots of small things that were non-events like chip lights, including a chip light which turned into a compressor failure once reaching the ground, a hydraulic failure. There was also an engine rolling back to flight idle in a twin while SIC in an S-58; I was along for the ride on that one. We were in a dip with a 150-foot line when it happened and I do recall thinking how when we settled those rocks were pretty close to the blades as we hovered in a tight spot. Fortunately, the spot was wide enough and we limped the helicopter over to a safe spot on one engine.

RPMN: If you could give only one piece of advice to a new helicopter pilot, what would it be?

To never become complacent in your work. Learn new things and skills and be actively involved in the helicopter community. Join groups and get together with other pilots because this whole industry is all tied together and networking and getting to know everyone not only will bring you so many lifelong friendships, but it will connect you with more opportunities for work down the road. I met pilots along the way when I was looking for work that helped guide me, and to this day we are really good friends. I cherish those friendships.

RPMN: In your view, what is the greatest challenge for the helicopter industry at this moment in time?

Safety and training. Pilots should take it upon themselves to get more training and continue to learn about incidents that have turned fatal. Learn about  incidents and get good training, whether it’s from the company you fly for or go pay yourself for some emergency procedures training. Taking these initiatives will benefit you.