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Scrambling Man 

In this modern era of air travel, where complacent passengers are whisked from city to city in hermetically sealed 747s with seats more comfortable than most movie theaters, it's easy to forget how exciting flying really is.

Mankind has invented machines capable of shattering gravity's chains, of lifting him upward to the domain of eagles and the kingdom of clouds. And to truly experience the purest form of flight; to be able to stop, hover, spin, glide sideways, or even go backwards — nothing beats riding in a helicopter.

Believe it or not, the skies over Columbia Station prove to be a prime stomping ground for these mechanical beasts. On Route 82 just west of 252 sits the humble Columbia Airport, small enough to make Burke Lakefront look like JFK. But don't let its size fool you — flight enthusiasts have been choosing that spot to leave the earth since the 1950s, and today it's home to about 25 small planes and helicopters.

No official hours of operation exist, but if you just drive out there, you can usually talk one of the fellas into taking you up. For $20 you can get a little taste, or about ten minutes of flight time.

On my first trip there, I hitched a ride with helicopter pilot Bill Asad, who agreed to fly me in his Hiller: a sleek, cherry-red dragonfly that seats two.

Starting up, the chopper sounded like a diesel truck on steroids. "Careful getting in," another pilot, Tony Polo, advised me. "Even though the blades are mounted as high as they are, they're still flexible and, if the wind is strong enough and the conditions right, they can whip around as low as waist-high.

"Cut a man in half," he says as he draws his index finger in a line across his belly. Right. Good. OK. Important safety tip. "And take off your hat," he adds, "or it'll end up confetti."

Bill waved me over and, as I ran to the chopper, I couldn't get the theme song from M.A.S.H. out of my head. Climbing in, I noticed that, apparently, this open-air model did not come equipped with doors. Perhaps they were an option, like air bags or power windows. Ah, well, nothing like hurtling through the clouds on something as protected as a park bench to give you that outdoorsy feel.

With his flight log and stopwatch strapped to his thigh, Bill taxied out to the runway, and before you could say, "Oh my God, get me the hell out of here!" we were up and away.

The view was spectacular. Emerald fields and cornflower ponds stretched on for miles. "You know," said Bill over the headset, "most people think that, if a helicopter loses its engine, it will drop like a stone. That's not true. You can glide a helicopter down just like a plane due to an effect known as autorotation. The blades keep spinning just enough to get it down safely."

Bill decided to demonstrate this and, at about five hundred feet, killed the engine without warning me. The abrupt silence had the same effect on my senses as a gunshot. The drop in altitude was so sudden that my stomach didn't just jump into my throat; it climbed out of my mouth, grabbed a parachute, and jumped over the side. Bill coolly waited until we were about ten feet off the ground to restart the blades and swoop up into the sky again. "That was autorotation," he said.

During the trip, Bill skimmed us over a crop field at 75 miles per hour at an altitude that wouldn't clear the average coffee table, spun donuts, and even pulled a series of sidewinding maneuvers known as the "Helicopter Polka."

When asked if he ever had any close calls, Bill talked about a time he had to crash-land. He barely cleared a house, but then flipped over some power lines, broke the main rotor, and took a shock of over 10,000 volts. So why does Bill keep going up? "I don't know," he said. "I guess I just love the peace and quiet." Yeah. Peace and quiet. My thoughts exactly. — Jason Koskey

Columbia Airport is located at 27410 Royalton Road in Columbia Station; call 440-236-8800.

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