THE WHIRLYBIRD CAPER

Around the world with Ross Perot Jr.

At times it must have seemed like a Belushi-Aykroyd comedy routine: Two cocky guys all done up in their new Air Force jump suits and leather jackets, cracking jokes about circling the globe and forgetting to pack the maps… a hilarious encounter with an Eskimo chief who had two tanks of jet fuel in his backyard and who took credit cards. But other scenes were right out of a Robert Ludlum novel: interrogations by armed guards, charts thrown overboard to mask a deliberate evasion attempt, an unexpected drop-down in a hotbed of tribal warfare and Communist insurgency.

Such were the zany adventures of H. Ross Perot Jr. and his flying machine.

It all started Friday morning, August 5, when Ross read in the newspaper about an Australian attempting to fly a helicopter around the world. A helicopter pilot himself, Ross’ reaction was that an American ought to be the first to accomplish that feat. On second thought, he mused, surely someone had already done it.

His first phone call was to J. (Jarvis) Coburn, a manager with his father’s computer firm, EDS, and a fellow flying fan. Together J. and Ross had buzzed the Grand Canyon, camped in the Alaskan wilderness and flown along the California coast. They were kindred spirits when it came to helicopter adventures. J. also liked the idea of beating the Aussie around the world.

J. headed for the library to check the record books while Ross made a call to Dad-H. Ross Perot-who, it turned out, had seen the newspaper piece and was waiting for the phone to ring. Ross remembers, “I said ’Dad, I think we ought to go out and beat that guy. ’”

Adventure has been part of the Perot family style, and Ross Jr., at the ripe age of 23, has had more than his share. The oldest of the five Perot children and the only son, he was taken by his father for a live look at the Vietnam War when he was 13 years old. As a teen-ager, he saw Apollo 11 launch and Apollo 12 splash down. In 1976, Ross was invited to crew one of the Bicentennial tall ships as they raced from Newport to Bermuda. Just after graduating from Vanderbilt University, he flew the pipeline with an Alaskan bush pilot.

Perot’s access to all this official bravado was due in part to Ross Sr. ’s associations with fellow Naval Academy grads. Besides being a multimillionaire and a brilliant businessman, his father had connections that, to a young boy, were right where they counted. Having seen half the world in his young lifetime, traveling the other in a helicopter simply seemed like the obvious thing for Ross Jr. to do.

Dad agreed. That is, until he saw that Ross and J. were actually serious about the idea. Then Ross Sr. became progressively more skeptical and decidedly less enthusiastic.

“It took some pretty heavy negotiations each night for him to finally agree that it was a worthwhile trip, ” Ross says. But finally, the next Thursday afternoon, Mr. Perot gave the go-ahead.

Ross’ copilot, J. Coburn, also has an impressive record as an adventurer. He flew helicopters through Vietnam and was the number two man in the Perot rescue of two EDS employees who were being held in an Iranian jail. J. laughs when he recalls Perot Sr. ’s agreement to the around-the-world helicopter flight. “He called us both in his office and said, ’You guys, this is really serious. It’s going to take a tremendous commitment on your part, and if the trip’s a success it’s going to be because you make it one. So I want you both to go away, think hard about it, then come back and give me your answer. ’

“We got up, walked out of the room, looked at each other, nodded, walked back in and said ’Let’s go.’”

12

AUG. 1982



Lunch at Bell Helicopter to discuss availability of LongRanger helicopter. Tremendous cooperation at Bell. We study the maps and global weather conditions. Realize trip must begin in early September. (Less than three weeks away!)

13

AUG. 1982



Take possession of helicopter, which we name “The Spirit of Texas. ” Unions have left for the day so Bell VPs push the helicopter to the takeoff pad. They aren’t too pleased about that, but J. says, “Hell, we spent all this money on a helicopter, and you’re not gonna take it out of the hangar so we can fly it an eighth of a mile?”

14

AUG. 1982



Helicopter stripped of all excess weight. Service contractors begin to reload with auxiliary fuel tanks, special heating system, long-range navigational package and survival gear.

16

AUG. 1982



EDS personnel gear-up for massive planning of trip logistics. Pin down exact route, begin to secure landing permissions, overnight accommodations. EDS man in Washington D. C., hand-carries visa requests door-to-door to embassies.

17

AUG. 1982



Negotiate to lease C-130 aircraft to follow us and hire support crew to meet us at overnight stops. Begin assembling a spares package -canned foods, bottled water, maps, et al. Delegate responsibility for our safety to Dad. Hope that’s not a mistake!

19

AUG. 1982



At Dad’s suggestion, J. and 1 attend Air Force air/naval safety training in Pensa-cola, Florida. We get dumped from a helicopter simulator into a pool of water 22 times! Reminds me of An Officer and a Gentleman.

31

AUG. 1982



Frantic last-minute preparations for tomorrow’s takeoff. Everyone is now working around the clock. Scheduled to leave Love Field at 7 a. m. Dad says, “If you’re going to do it, do it right, and leave at first light.”

1

SEPT. 1982



Leave at 7 a. m. despite the fact that there’s no way we’re ready to go. About an hour in the air, we discover we’ve forgotten the maps! First stop is Terre Airport outside Indianapolis. Old codger there looks at us like we’re crazy when we tell him we’re headed around the world -especially when we ask him if he’s got any maps! We refuel and head north. Takes us 12 hours to get to Montreal. Get completely disoriented over Lake Ontario. It’s dark, foggy, there’s lightning all around and the heater doesn’t work. I think, “Hey, J. ’s been through a lot of tough scrapes, and if he’s not scared, neither am I. ” Then I hear his voice shaking over the radio. Takes me a while to figure out he’s just cold. Some first day!

2

SEPT. 1982



Delayed in Montreal by bad weather. Finally get permission to take off, run to the helicopter where the mechanics are madly trying to fix the heater. J. tells the guy just to strap it in, yelling, “You don’t have to have a heater to fly!” Dodge apartment buildings and smokestacks in Montreal trying to make it to the St. Lawrence River. Fog is so bad on the river we have to fly the buoys, figuring that if the big ships can get by, so can we.

3

SEPT. 1982



Take off from Schefferville, Canada. Discover we forgot to turn off the fuel pumps and that we’ve been dumping fuel overboard. Make an emergency landing in Koartac, an Eskimo village. Chief there just happens to have two tanks of jet fuel in his backyard. While he’s gone to get it, I mention to J. that we don’t have any cash. He says, “Shut up until the fuel’s in the tank. ” Turns out the Eskimo chief has a Shell credit card form. He’s happy; we’re happy. We set out again. That pump mistake is a cheap lesson learned. We’re about to fly over our first stretch of ocean!

4

SEPT. 1982



Need to refuel in Eastern Greenland before we can fly into Iceland. There’s only one guy – Olie Olsen – with an airport, and he refuses to open it. Seems it’s some hunting holiday. We scrounge around on the radio and find an Air Greenland helipad where we can refuel. To terrorize Olsen, the C-130 does touch-and-gos on his runway. We stop on the great icecap, clown around, take pictures. Altimeter reads 9500 feet, and the top of the ice is only a couple of hundred feet below! Finally arrive in the Shetland Islands and celebrate being the fourth ever to fly the North Atlantic in a helicopter. The crew parties hard – and wins the arm-wrestling championship of Sumburg Island.

6

SEPT. 1982



Attend Farnsborough Air Show. Meet – and pass -Australian helicopter pilot Dick Smith.

7

SEPT. 1982



Scenery in Scotland is breathtaking. We chase sheep all across the hills of the English countryside. Have lunch with Ken Follett, a novelist who’s writing a book about Dad and J.’s 1979 raid on Iran to rescue some EDS employees held prisoner at the start of the Khomeini regime. Most relaxing time of trip so far. Refuel at Gatwick Airport. Run into Winston Churchill III.

8

SEPT. 1982



French won’t answer us on the radio because we can’t speak the language. We say to hell with them and zoom in about 100 feet under their radar. Our theory is, “We’re not coming back, and we’ll be out of the country before we can get caught.”

10

SEPT. 1982



Land in Luxor, Egypt, and are immediately surrounded by armed troops. Worse ragtag military group I’ve ever seen -different helmets, different shoes, shirttails out. Airport procedure isn’t much better – there’s a 2-week-old 737 crash at the end of the runway that no one even bothered to clean up.

11

SEPT. 1982



Fly over the oil fields of Saudi Arabia at night. Huge jet flares light the sky. All that natural gas burning into oblivion! In Bahrain, we happen to see the plane that Dad took to Vietnam on a project to try and draw attention to the POWs- now it’s flying for Air Africa. Small world. J. jokes about landing in Iran and having his picture taken. Since he’s a wanted criminal there, 1 nix the idea.

12

SEPT. 1982



Overnight in Karachi. Most dangerous moment of the trip so far is in a Pakistani taxi.

13

SEPT. 1982



Hostility between Pakistan and India gets us into trouble flying into Delhi. Indians want us to fly a prescribed route, and the aircraft doesn’t have the fuel to go the distance. No way to make them understand. Decide to try giving the air controllers fake coordinates and sidestep their route. Get caught. We throw our maps overboard and decide to plead ignorance. Once we land, the Indian Air Force gets J. in the tower and interrogates him. I stay in the copter, figuring if he doesn’t come out in a few hours, I’ll change into civilian clothes and walk to the local Pan Am desk. The Indians are really ticked off. They make J. write a formal apology saying how dumb we are. Dumb is right! If we’d been smart, we’d have turned off our radar. We never thought India would be that sophisticated.

14

SEPT. 1982



Thank goodness hellacious tailwinds pushed us the rest of the way across India without our having to ignore their route again. The leg from Delhi to Calcutta turns out to be the longest mileagewise. Homosexuals are all over Calcutta. Our cab has two drivers -one to steer and one to shift gears.

15

SEPT. 1982



Flying over Burma, we run into heavy thunderstorms. Only three areas are open to foreigners, and the airfield we’re headed for isn’t one of them. Controllers are screaming, “No land! No land!” right as we touch down. J. goes back to the tower, and I sit – again – with the engine on. Finally, he calls over the radio, “Ross, shut the engine down.” Frankly, I’m surprised they were able to get to him so fast! Meanwhile, I’ve alerted the C-130 that we are among hostiles, but they’re having trouble finding the airport because the tower has turned its navigational signals off. All of a sudden, the C-130 pops out of the clouds, and these Burmese guys look like they’ve just seen B-52s. They come running over to us yelling “No land! No land!” J. tells them that the plane won’t land if he can talk on the radio to the pilots. These people are scared to death, and we seem to have power over this C-130 looming overhead. All of a sudden, we get a little respect. Fuel comes out of nowhere, and permission to take off is granted on the spot. Once we’re loaded up, I have to be driven downtown to exchange some money to pay for the fuel. When I come back, J. has the helicopter opened up and the entire Burmese crew is sitting in it munching candy bars, smoking American cigarettes and wearing “Spirit of Texas” baseball caps.

18

SEPT. 1982



Eating becomes the highpoint of our days. J. and I ran out of conversation the second day out.

19

SEPT. 1982



Arrive at Clark Air Force Base in Manila. What a treat! We indulge in American steaks and potatoes, American football -even a Filipino band playing American country/western music. Boy it sounds good!

20

SEPT. 1982



Have to take off in Typhoon Ken and fly along its western edge. Winds are strong and steady, but we make it through. As we fly over Taiwan, they put us way up in the clouds so we can’t see all the defenses around the airport.

21

SEPT. 1982



We make the mistake of arriving early in Japan. They just can’t deal with change. Won’t let us follow the plans we’ve filed. Japanese officials get real upset, even try to confiscate our helicopter a couple of times. It takes the State Department to intervene to keep us out of real trouble. Our lobbyist at the Japanese Aviation Administration quits, saying his credibility is lost. We finally get cleared to take off to Kushiro, but they warn us that the airport closes at 7 p. m., and if we’re not there, we won’t be able to land anywhere else. That sort of leaves us up in the air!

23

SEPT. 1982



We make it to Kushiro by closing and plan to spend the next few days here organizing our flight across the Pacific. Despite intensive lobbying from everyone from Ambassador Dobrynin to Dr. Ar-mand Hammer, the Russians have refused us permission to refuel on the Kuril Islands, where they have a secret military post. In fact, they went so far as to say that if we even got close, they’d shoot us down. I think it’s a bluff, but it’s enough to make us serious about staying away. Fortunately, Dad was able to arrange a rendezvous with an EDS customer, the American President Lines, whose container ship, President McKinley, will locate at a point midway between Japan and the Aleutian Islands so we can land on it to refuel. A former Coast Guard pilot whose expertise is landing planes on ships is there now training the captain to guide the ship. Every third or fourth wave, the ship has a tendency to settle. That’s when we’ll land.

26

SEPT. 1982



We take off, bound for the President McKinley. The captain reports 8-foot seas, but by the time we get close, the wind has shifted and the swells are 15 feet high. Our expert, Frank Marcotte, says just to watch his hands and he’ll tell me when to land. I come around once, look down at Frank and his hands are in his pockets! Nobody told me he wanted me to go around once, then land! I hit that deck as level as I can, then just freeze on the controls. I ask J. what he’s been doing while I’m on my approach, and he says, “Praying.” That’s pretty much the story of the whole trip. We’ve been lucky. Fate is on our side. We then have to make it to the Shemya Islands. We’re hit by a terrific headwind and calculate that we’ll run out of fuel 15 or 20 minutes too soon. We call the Air Force Sea/Air Rescue and alert them, and they say they’ll look for a Navy ship nearby. That way at least we can ditch near a ship. There’s so much military presence in that part of the world, we really aren’t afraid of losing our lives, but we are afraid of having to scrub the whole trip. About 100 miles from Shemya, the winds change and we get pushed in. Shemya is just a rock, but boy, it’s a beautiful rock!

27

SEPT. 1982



Cold Bay, Alaska, USA! Have to chase a bear off the runway. Eat mooseburger for lunch.

28

SEPT. 1982



We’re pushing now to end the trip in 30 days. If we’ve gone this far, we want to set a record that we can really be proud of. If someone beats us, they’ll have to be halfway organized.

29

SEPT. 1982



Forced into an unscheduled stop in Simonette, Canada. Only place we can find to land is a gas-cleaning plant. We’re feeling pretty cocky now, and as we stride into the control room, J. says, “Hi guys. Sorry we’re late. Hope you weren’t worried about us. ” Hit bad weather in Calgary, Alberta, and they won’t let us take off. We’re flying against the clock now so we dream up this scheme: We figure if they won’t let us file long-distance flight plans, at least they’ll clear us for short hops. Every time we reach one of those towns, we call on the radio and say, “Sorry, can’t land because of bad weather. Have to go on to the next airfield. ” We literally leapfrog back into the United States that way.

29

SEPT. 1982

3 p. m.



Just outside Billings, Montana, the customs man catches up with us. When we land, this guy really thinks he’s sharp. He thinks he’s caught us smuggling. He says,”Son, do you know what would have happened to you if you hadn’t landed here in Billings?” We say, “No, sir.” He says, “You probably would have gotten a $500 fine.” J., thinking of the incredible costs we had chalked up this far, looks him in the eyes and says, “Sir, if I’d known that, I’d have kept on flying.”

30

SEPT. 1982



Dad, who’s been so concerned about our safety all along, now has only one thing on his mind: that we make it back to Dallas for a welcoming ceremony at City Hall. I call from Colorado to check in with Mom, and as she gets on the phone, Dad grabs it from her, saying, “Margo, the boy doesn’t have time to talk. He’s got to fly.”

30

SEPT. 1982

3 a. m.



We land at Garden City, Kansas, and are met by an exuberant Harry McKillop, the man who helped mastermind the entire trip. He’s got a guy there to wash the plane, and we get to sleep for a couple of hours. Around 4: 30 a. m., some guy from a local bar brings iced tea and roast beef sandwiches out to the plane. Then we head out on the last leg. Destination: Love Field.

30SEPT. 1982

10 a. m.



Arrive at Love Field. Dad’s there with a barber to make us presentable to the crowds at City Hall. He says the city’s been nice enough to do all this for us, we’re not going in there looking like a couple of bums. We’re tired, but we’re on top of the world. People ask us what was the roughest part of the trip? Had to be going through Oklahoma.



THE SPIRIT OF Texas made its triumphant descent to the strains of the theme from Chariots of Fire – straddled by local news choppers and cheered by an enthusiastic crowd. Thursday, September 30, was a jubilant day for the pilots and the entire crew that supported the first helicopter to circumnavigate the globe.

It was an expensive victory. The Perot family isn’t saying what the final tally of costs amounted to, except to joke that Ross Jr. will be in debt for the rest of his life.

Not long after that day of celebration at City Hall, the Smithsonian Institute called to request that The Spirit of Texas join the Smithsonian’s permanent display. With characteristic self-inflicted wit, Ross Jr. jokes that the Smithsonian’s helicopter section hasn’t seen much action in recent years.

The two pilots went on to accept commendations from President Reagan andhonors from the Smithsonian. With theofficial records duly noted, Ross Jr. became the youngest pilot since CharlesLindbergh to have an aircraft in the national archives’ permanent display. Forthe next generation of helicopter aviators,The Spirit of Texas will be a hard actto follow.

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