Chopper Stories

A helicopter pilot shares his out-of-this-world experiences.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
A helicopter pilot shares his out-of-this-world experiences.
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He remembers it vividly: hemmed in by tall white mountains on either side, and nothing but snow below him. There was no horizon, no hint of sky – just white.

Sean Mah’s eyes strained to find something to give him depth of field, anything that was not white – a rock, a shadow, even rabbit droppings.

He needed to manoeuvre the helicopter out of the gorge. But this was not Star Wars, and he was no Luke Skywalker in an X-Wing flying over planet Hoth.

This was real, in the Southern Alps of New Zealand’s South Island – and it was an average day for Mah the professional chopper pilot.

“Helicopters are challenging to fly, but they can really go anywhere and can operate in extreme conditions,” he says.

“I’ve taken people from their luxury resorts to the outdoors and back before the sun goes down, and I’ve been involved in fighting fires and rescue missions to save those stranded by floods.”

Despite its abilities, the helicopter is, ultimately, a vehicle and Mah has also transported businessmen of the deep-pocket variety from one skyscraper to another. “Once, in Kuala Lumpur, we hovered the Petronas Towers at sunset and the view was just stunning,” he recalls. “As the sun went down, the light reflected off the glass windows of the buildings, which changed colours along with the sky. We orbited around the top of the two buildings and the view was amazing.”

Even landing is hardly run-of-the-mill.

The Langkawi-based Singaporean has set the bird down on tall grass, on deadwood, atop a boat and even on a frozen lake.

That said, the 52-year-old insists that life as a chopper pilot is nothing like that of Top Gun’s rebel airman Maverick, with flybys and abrupt stops. It is quite the opposite. “We’re in the business of aviation and it’s all about safety,” he says. “I won’t put my family in a chopper unless it is absolutely safe to go, and that philosophy extends to everyone who steps into the helicopter.”

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