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The Irish Air Force

INSIDE: The Shamrock Skies; Tour Operators;Helicopter Companies; Course Information

She was waiting patiently at the airport, looking beautiful, sitting quietly, for what would be a whirlwind romance, a brief encounter that took me soaring to heights of ecstasy but always left me with my feet firmly on the ground. She showed me the world from a new perspective, but ultimately I couldn't hold on to her forever. Bravo-kilo-tango, I'll never forget you.

Our liaison, our Irish idyll, began as soon as I'd taken my golf bag and one small piece of luggage off the conveyor belt at Cork Airport in southwest Ireland. Through a small window that looked out onto the tarmac, I saw her in the bright morning sun, gleaming, shiny and game.

Okay, I'd fallen in love with a whirlybird. It would be a quick affair, as light as the air we floated through. Four days and some of Ireland's best golf courses, but no real quality time for us to get to know each other. She would wait dutifully outside the hotels every night, or even in a golf-course car park, while I enjoyed myself on the links or at dinner. Then, when the right moment came, I would say, "Arise and go now. . . ." like a latter-day W. B. Yeats. And go we did.

Golf and helicopters in Ireland first became inseparable some fifteen years ago when the Irish golf boom began. American wealth had discovered the Emerald Isle's secrets, using choppers like modern birds of prey, ruthlessly devouring the trophy courses that can take forever to reach by conventional conveyance. Consequently, the leading courses and the great Irish country-house hotels built helipads for year-round use. Now, as at courses in Hawaii, Florida, the south of France and even South Africa, helicopters are a routine sight at Irish courses.

I carried my luggage out to the bird and was told she was a Bell JetRanger. In the early sixties, when the U.S. Army wanted a light observation helicopter, the prototype of the JetRanger narrowly lost the military contract. But Bell targeted its design at the civilian market and hasn't looked back since. These were her vital statistics: one pilot, four passengers, overall length thirty-nine feet. A single Rolls-Royce Allison turbine engine gives the JetRanger a cruising speed of 122 knots, or 132 m.p.h. With a standard tank it has a range of roughly 431 miles.

During our odyssey she would carry our pilot, John Todd; a photographer and his equipment; me and my own stuff; and, from day two, a golf friend of mine and his luggage. A door to a sixteen-cubic-foot compartment at the back of the fuselage, enough to hold about 250 pounds, would swallow plenty of baggage; the rest would be squeezed between the two backseat passengers. It was tight, but that did nothing to quell the passion.

With passengers seated and belted, the rotor blades (with a combined diameter of thirty-nine feet) began to whirr and change gear to higher and higher frequencies. "Cork, this is Bravo-kilo-tango heading for the Old Head at Kinsale, over." Air-traffic control at Cork cleared us. The lady and I were ready to fly.

There was a tingle of excitement. The pilot moved the joystick; the bird hovered at six inches, then one foot, swayed, and then effortlessly moved so swiftly forward and up that the airport seemed gone in a blink. Through our headphones and microphones, the photographer and I chattered excitedly, like schoolboys on a roller coaster. The flight due south down to Kinsale and out to the Old Head golf course would take only fifteen minutes.

A tight schedule meant I would be teeing off within a half hour of landing. Was I worried?No. I was hypnotized by the lush, green landscape viewed through the clear Perspex bubble that surrounds the front cockpit of the JetRanger. As Ireland's patchwork shades of greens and its gray coast beckoned below, Bravo-kilo-tango flew over the wide tranquil harbor at Kinsale, over its painted cottages and out over Charles Fort, a star-shaped military castle. It was like peering over a blueprint of seventeenth-century history; you saw the thought behind the fort's 1670s design, why it was vulnerable not from the sea but from the land. We were flying over the ghosts of James II and William of Orange, where the "troubles" may have begun but where gourmet dining in the quaint village has usurped a volatile past.


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