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Meet a Rotorcraft Pro - Paul Uster

Posted 6 years 228 days ago ago by Admin


RP:  What is your current position?

I’m a contract helicopter captain flying Army UH-1H Hueys in support of the test programs at Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona, for the Army, NASA, and other civilian companies. I am also fixed-wing rated and have flown piston and jet airplanes.

RP:  Tell me about your first flight.

It was my orientation flight at Fort Wolters, Texas, at the start of my flight school class in October 1966. The instructor crashed the aircraft from a hover after clipping the tail rotor on the ground. It rolled on its side and we got out hoping it didn’t catch fire. Fortunately, it did not.

In the true fashion of a young man wanting to experience every aspect of a “crash,” I was actually happy about it because I knew they would send the crash/rescue Huey for us and I would be the first in my class to get a ride in it. My buddies and I had been looking at it on the hospital pad and were in awe of all the gauges and switches compared to our training aircraft. Unfortunately, when they found we were uninjured, they declined to transport us. That would not happen in EMS today. After experiencing that crash with no injuries, I thought: If this is all there is to this, I’m good.

RP:  How did you get your start in helicopters?

I was about to get drafted for the Vietnam conflict and saw an advertisement on TV for Army helicopter pilots, so I enlisted in the Army to attend flight school. This was a golden opportunity for me to fulfill a childhood dream to fly, and to be somewhat in control of my role in the military.

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

I chose helicopters, as I had wanted to fly since I was a young child. I would ride my bike to the Buffalo Airport and watch the airplanes fly over for hours. Helicopters were another way for me to fly and were just fine with me. So I signed up with the Army, which afforded me that opportunity.

RP:  Where did you get your start flying commercially?

When I finished my time with the Army, I went to work for Bell Helicopter in Fort Worth, Texas. Shortly after starting with Bell, I had the opportunity to become one of the production test pilots for the crash/rebuild program in Amarillo, Texas. I flew in Amarillo for three years, before transferring to the Fort Worth facility.

I had many opportunities to travel the world training, ferrying aircraft, and doing demonstration flights for the sales department. I also had a rare chance to instruct the Royal Thai Navy pilots in Thailand when they installed fixed floats on their UH-1Ns.

I flew as a production pilot for nine years and as an experimental pilot for one year. Some of my flying in the experimental arena was touring U.S. military bases to demonstrate the newly developed four-blade rotor systems that had been manufactured by Bell. I was also the liaison pilot for Bell during the certification of the 222 and earned a type certificate in the 222, even though it is not required.

I had wanted to live in Phoenix, Arizona, for many years and when an opportunity to become a corporate pilot presented itself, I moved and experienced that aspect of flying. That move was a life changing experience because I met my wife of 33 years.

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

I have an associate degree in real estate that I earned while working at Bell, so I probably would have gone into real estate.

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

I bowl on three leagues, watch NASCAR, NHRA, and Formula 1 racing, and also spend time with family and friends playing dominoes or cards.

RP:  What is your greatest career accomplishment to date?

I just retired last September at the age of 74 after flying helicopters for 49 years. I logged 12,000 hours in helicopters, and I believe I was the oldest pilot flying active U.S. Army Hueys.

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

I was flying an EC135 on a checkride when part of the rotor control system came apart. Fortunately, we were less than 500 feet above the ground at Casa Grande Muncipal Airport in Arizona. The check pilot and I controlled the aircraft (sort of) to a crash landing, which destroyed the helicopter.  We both walked away with minor injuries. Neither one of us thought we would survive the extreme violent gyrations of the flight/crash.

Getting shot down in the jungle in Vietnam was equally as scary, just different because of the wait for extraction.

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

Be very safety conscious. Your pre-flight inspection can save your life. As the saying goes: “There are bold pilots and there are old pilots, but few—if any—old bold pilots.” That is a true statement.

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

Convincing the medical evacuation industry to insist on autopilots for all EMS aircraft. I believe that many loss-of-control accidents and controlled-flight-into-terrain accidents could have been avoided with an autopilot. Also, the use of night vision devices needs to increase. I believe that most of the EMS industry is now using NVGs, but it needs to total, the same as autopilots need to be 100 percent.