Of Whirlybirds, HUMS and Flying Bananas

August 10, 2015 | Author: Mark DiCiero

In honor of World Helicopter Day, we asked Honeywell employee and helicopter fanatic Mark DiCiero to share some of his rotorcraft experiences. 

I first became obsessed with helicopters in the late 1950s, thanks to a television show called “Whirlybirds.” I really wanted a helicopter of my own. That wasn’t a very practical wish, since I was still in grade school. But the weekly adventures of pilots Chuck and P.T. were the start of a life-long love of helicopters that has lasted through today.  

Now I spend my workdays engineering the latest Honeywell health and usage monitoring (HUMS) technology on customers’ helicopters and my evenings and weekends volunteering at Classic Rotors, the rare and vintage rotorcraft museum at the Ramona Airport in Southern California.

By the time I was 22 I had saved enough to buy a helicopter kit from RotorWay. I spent more than two years building the aircraft on evenings and days off. I was working as a machinist at the time, so the building part came pretty easily to me.

Teaching myself to fly was a lot more difficult. I read everything I could find on helicopters and aerodynamics to get myself ready. The first few times I tied the helicopter to the ground, leaving a few inches of slack in the ropes. Then I practiced moving the helicopter forward without leaving the ground. The goal was to get a feel for the helicopter without damaging the machine… or my body!

I only got to practice my “skills” a couple of hours a week, but I was slowly making progress. Then one day some friends were standing around watching me and I saw them begin to clap and jump around. Completely by accident I had left the ground and was actually hovering about three inches in the air. I was thrilled by what I’d accomplished.

It took me more than two years to earn my helicopter pilot’s license. When I did I became part of a pretty elite group. Up until that time, only about five people out of about 2,500 kit builders had actually gone on to earn their pilot’s license, and I was believed to be the youngest.

Eventually, I also earned my airframe and power plant maintenance license, which enabled me to get a job in the helicopter industry with one of Honeywell’s legacy companies. For the last dozen years or so, I’ve been working with the HUMS, which is really a remarkable technology that we pioneered.

HUMS provides safety, cost, readiness and other operational benefits to military and commercial helicopter operators. The system helps operators determine the health of the helicopter by collecting and analyzing data from sensors on rotating and vibrating parts. When the data varies from where it’s supposed to be, maintenance crews know that there’s something wrong and can take corrective action.

As an applications engineer, my job involves installing sensors on customers’ helicopters and creating the data base that makes it simple to determine if all the rotating and vibrating parts are working right. Being a helicopter nut, I really enjoy going out on the aircraft and helping our customers accomplish their missions. I also enjoy working with the HUMS team.

I’ve even talked three of my current and former Honeywell teammates – Dave Lilly, David Popp and Howard Northrup – into joining me as volunteers at Classic Rotors. I founded Classic Rotors in 1992 as a way to honor vertical flight pioneers and preserve classic and vintage helicopters.

Our first acquisition was a Piasecki H-21 Shawnee, also nicknamed the “Flying Banana.” It took us more than 18 months to restore this classic rotorcraft to flying condition. To raise money to get the museum off the ground (pun intended) we flew the H-21 to various airshows around California and charged people $1 to walk through it. At one Miramar Airshow in the 1990s we raised more than $4,000 during the two day show.  The H-21 is still the flagship helicopter in our museum and is the only aircraft of its type in flying condition.

Our museum has come a long way over the last 23 years. Today we have a permanent home in a hangar at the Ramona Airport and more than 45 vintage and classic helicopters of all shapes and sizes. Many are the only examples of their type in existence or in flying condition. We’re always on the lookout to add to our collection.

As for me, my half-century love affair with helicopters bridges my work and personal lives. I truly enjoy working at Honeywell and I spend most of my evenings and weekends volunteering at Classic Rotors. Make sure you stop by if you’re ever in Southern California. 

See pictures from Classic Rotors, the rare and vintage rotorcraft museum here.

Want to participate in our World Helicopter Day photo campaign? Post your favorite helicopter pictures to social media channels with the hashtags #worldhelicopterday and #Honeywell_Aero from August 10-16, 2015. A coloring page is also available to download in connection with the event.

Mark Di Ciero

Mark DiCiero

Mark DiCiero is an applications engineer with Honeywell Aerospace, based in Poway, Calif. He works closely with Honeywell customers to improve the safety and operational efficiency of their helicopters using the Health and Usage Monitoring System (HUMS). He also is founder of the Classic Rotors helicopter museum.

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