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By Hala Ali Aryan  STAFF WRITER
Plan to exhibit helicopter-rocket runs into snags

Safety concerns force Army crew to end mission

May 11, 2003

MOJAVE Helicopter-lovin' hearts broke yesterday when an attempt to airlift a one-of-a-kind helicopter-rocket combination from Mojave to a Ramona museum failed.

The cone-shaped Roton left the ground with the help of an Army Reserve Chinook helicopter, but a combination of the Roton's non-aerodynamic shape and damage that occurred to the Chinook as it tried to set down the Roton after problems developed doomed the mission.

"After putting a year and a half of our lives into this, we're very disappointed," said Vista resident Terry Robinson, a museum member who organized the airlift. "What occurred today should not have occurred."

The Roton, a 64-foot-tall aircraft meant to carry satellites into orbit, never achieved its purpose, but members of the Classic Rotors helicopter museum hope to display it outside their hangar to attract attention and teach a lesson in aviation history.

Owner Walt Anderson, who invested $35 million into the failed project in the mid-1990s, needed to get rid of the Roton because of the enormous hangar-space expense he was accumulating. He was considering destroying it when Classic Rotors came along.

An Army Reserve unit from Fort Hood, Texas, agreed to airlift the Roton from the Mojave Airport as part of its regular training.

Pilot Dwayne McQuade said before the flight that he was confident the Chinook could lift the weight of the 9,500-pound Roton, but he was concerned about its size and shape.

The shape proved to be the first problem. The Chinook hovered above the Roton about 7:30 yesterday morning. It attached cables that had been previously secured to the Roton's top and then lifted it and began to slowly fly away, towing the Roton.

But as the Chinook gained speed, the Roton began to swing from side to side like a pendulum. The swinging made the flight too dangerous, and the Army crew of four decided to abort the effort after flying about half a mile away.

After setting down the Roton on all four of its legs, McQuade lowered the Chinook to release the cables. But the Chinook went down too far and the Roton's tip, to which its helicopter blades are usually attached, punctured the Chinook's belly.

McQuade said he hovered longer than usual because the ground crew wanted to tie down the Roton to keep it from tipping.

Although the Chinook did not suffer structural damage, the combination of the puncture and the swinging was enough for the Army crew to call it quits.

Robinson said disengaging the cable should have been simple, and engineers on hand had come up with a solution to the pendulum problem. He plans to ask the Army to try again.

One of the Roton's original pilots and a few engineers from Rotary Rocket, the company that built it, came to watch the airlift and had determined that the pendulum swing could be prevented by wrapping a rope in a spiral around the fuselage. But they never got to try.

Former Navy pilot Brian Binnie was one of the two pilots who flew the Roton on its three test flights in 1999. He said the Roton's midair instability made him fear for his life when he flew it.

Binnie and other Rotary Rocket employees and the airport's management had been pleased to find out that the Roton would move to Classic Rotors, rather than be destroyed. "We've been trying for three years to find a home for this thing," said Binnie, a Rosemont resident.

The failure left about two dozen people awaiting the Roton's arrival at Ramona Airport deflated.

"Obviously, I'm disappointed," said Pete Neild, a Poway resident and a Classic Rotors member. "We were really looking forward to getting it here in time for the Ramona air show," which starts May 30, he said.

Classic Rotors member Doug Armstrong of Poway pointed to empty ground in front of the group's new hangar. The Rotary Rocket is supposed to be placed between the hangar and the street to attract attention to the budding museum.

If the Army refuses to try hauling the Roton again, the museum's only option is to hire a commercial operator to airlift it or truck it to Ramona. That would cost more than $100,000, said Robinson, and would require a sponsor.


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