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
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,
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
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,
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
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
That is, assuming there are no bridges along