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Wonderfully weird whirlybird was waylaid

May 15, 2003

Even if you hate alliteration, you have to root for the Roton to find a route to Ramona.

The world's spaciest helicopter forever collecting dust in the Mojave Desert? Unthinkable.

  n to find a route to Ramona. or various size formats.ars in or not. g, give me your opinion of what you think would look beIt shouldn't take a team of rocket scientists to transport the Buck Rogers whirlybird to Classic Rotors, the Ramona museum that wants to display the six-story aircraft in front of its new hangar.

The helo museum owns the weird aircraft, but so far it's been an acute migraine getting it here. The San Diego Aerospace Museum was interested in the Roton a rocket in space and a helicopter in the earth's atmosphere but was put off by the transport issue.

What started out as last weekend's news sizzle an Army Reserve Chinook was going to airlift the Rotary Rocket to its North County home turned into fizzle.

The Roton's distinctive shape it looks an inverted ice cream cone caused a dangerous pendulum motion on the first test run. Then the Chinook accidentally impaled itself upon the Roton's nose during the landing.

For that day at least, the mission was impossible.

The pressing question is whether the Army Reserve will take another free run at it. The museum's experts say the swaying problem can be easily solved with a longer cable 250 feet vs. the Army's normal 18-foot line.

Maybe so, but the Army could conclude that moving the Space Age's answer to Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose is not the way military machinery should be used, even if the move is rationalized as real-world training.

If the Army retreats, then what?

Yesterday, I asked Mark DiCiero and Terry Robinson, two of the museum's volunteer directors, if sticking the Roton into a big U-Haul was feasible.

After all, North County has a tradition of moving massive loads, many of which moved significantly faster than yesterday's traffic on Interstates 5 and 15.

In late 1947, a 15-ton mirror (more than three times heavier than the Roton) was carried at a speed of 3 mph from Cal-Tech to the Palomar Observatory.

A few months ago, the San Onofre nuclear plant announced plans to roll a decommissioned reactor casing (weight: 800 tons) down Camp Pendleton's beach. Average speed: 2 to 3 mph.

Both of the passionate helo men agreed that the Roton could never be brought to Ramona on the ground.

At 22 feet in diameter at its base and 66 feet long, you'd have to tear down overpasses between here and Mojave to make room for the outsized load, DiCiero said.

Nor can the Roton be easily disassembled and shipped in parts, both men agreed. It would have to be sawed into pieces. "We'd donate it to the (as yet unformed) Mojave Air Museum before we'd cut it up," Robinson said.

But could the Roton fly to Ramona on its own power? After all, it was designed to maneuver gently down to earth after satellites had been installed in space.

In 1999, before the $36 million private project was abandoned, the Roton flew three times. On its last flight, it soared to 75 feet and traveled 4,300 feet at 53 mph. At that speed, it would take about three hours to fly to Ramona.

Robinson and DiCiero threw me down to earth. The blond bombshell, which is very difficult to pilot, burns $150,000 worth of hydrogen peroxide every five minutes. (That's 1,000 pounds per minute while flying.)

That works out to about $8 million for the flight to Ramona. And finding service stations along the way might be a challenge.

DiCiero and Robinson hope the Army will finish what it started, but they're prudently exploring other options on behalf of the financially strapped museum.

The Roton could be here next week, they said, if they could hire a helicopter company in Oregon that specializes in flying lumber loads heavier than the Roton.

But the cost is also steep $8,500 an hour, including the ferry time from Oregon. That's more than $100,000. If they could find a sponsor to pick up the tab, the Roton could be here in a week. (To cut the price, it's possible one of the industrial-strength helos could be down in San Diego County for the fire season, reducing ferry time.)

What we have here is a unique advertising opportunity, in my view.

Surely there's a company that would love to see its name on the side of the Washington Monument of helicopters. "We could put Barona on the side of that sucker," Robinson said.

Once installed, the Roton would overshadow Escondido's Joor Muffler Man as inland North County's tallest cultural icon.

Just imagine. The Roton could appear at parades and other special events. When it's erect and on its "transporter," four men can push it around like a big baby carriage.

That is, assuming there are no bridges along the way.



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