On a beautiful spring day in May 2000, a young Sabine Buehlmann hung on to her injured gelding and peered up into the sky, muttering annoyances at a low-flying blue chopper which had been operating joy flights all morning from the nearby fair and, apparently, selected her horse pasture as its final approach path.
Her friend laughed as she led her own horse across to the stables, “Hey, you need to try it, it’s great fun! Besides, the pilot is a very good looking guy!” She had gone up earlier that morning, and though Sabine retorted that she wasn’t looking for a boyfriend because she already had one, thank you very much, she couldn’t resist the urge to tentatively stop past the railway siding on her way home, to see what all the fuss was about.
For a while, Sabine observed the agile aircraft make one perfect landing after another in quite a tight spot near the station. “It was a blue Bell 206B III Jet Ranger – but of course, I did not know that yet! It seemed so odd – wouldn’t it feel strange, and wouldn’t passengers get quite airsick?” Finally, curiosity overcame her, and she purchased a ticket to go up.
“After only a few seconds being airborne, I found myself looking straight down to the ground in what I considered to be a very tight left turn! One of the passengers had requested to take a photo of his house or something like that… Well, it was exhilarating, and I certainly didn’t want it to end!”
A few weeks later, Sabine attends the International Aerospace Exhibition in Berlin. Her plan is to ask the German military if she can join them for flight training as a way to get herself into a cockpit sooner rather than later. She is 25 years old.
“At that time, the mock-up of the brand new EC135 was on display, and a friendly gentleman named Helmut Muench was explaining all the features to interested visitors. I asked him how I could get started, and he sent me to speak to the recruiters in a nearby tent.”
The recruiters inform Sabine that she is too old to begin as a cadet and too short by a few centimeters. Mr. Muench tells her not to worry and sends her on her way, saying, “If you really want it, let nothing get in your way of pursuing your dream.”
Well. It looked like this was a dream she was going to have to pay for herself!
For the next three years, Sabine did everything she could to be around helicopters – assisting and judging at national helicopter championships, and taking the odd flight here and there, carefully recording them in a self-made logbook. A trained foreign language correspondent, the thought of failing the physics-related and mathematical components stalled her a bit, but she finally decided to attempt her Private license.
A friend she’d met as ground crew at one of the helicopter competitions recommended a school on the other side of the border, telling her, “the flying is different in Switzerland.” This she quickly found to be true. “I had one of the most thrilling introductory flights there you could ever imagine.” As the skids touched down in a foot of snow, Sabine’s mind was made up – despite living in north-west Germany at the time she commenced training at Lake Constance, nestled in the foothills of the Swiss Alps.
While she might’ve had reservations about her academic abilities, Sabine was a hardworking and determined student who made significant progress operationally. “I read one very good book, in particular… It is named ‘Learning to Fly Helicopters’ by Randy R. Padfield, and I remembered something [from it] like ‘The stick will feel like a wet noodle in the beginning!'” She laughs and insists that this passage helped her overcome the somewhat disconcerting feeling of hovering at first.
Germany and Switzerland had a joint agreement at the time, so her Swiss flight hours were credited towards a German Private license, and, as it turned out, her “navigation was working alright, too.” So well, that she began competing in national German Open Helicopter Championships right after completing her PPL in 2004. Competition flying was great for gaining experience on a budget, and led to plenty of exciting flying opportunities and new friendships.
In 2005, Sabine treated herself to her first Turbine experience and discovered her machine mecca. “It was an older model MD 500C – with the old, round design. The C18 engine was not the easiest to get along with, because it was always on the edge of necessary power but, for me, it was pure heaven.”
“Maybe it’s because it is the only helicopter I fit in without using a seat cushion in my back – indeed, I am rather short, and many times the pedals are not reachable without a little added padding. I have heard larger pilots complaining about it, but in an MD 500, the seat position is just right, and I fit perfectly!”
The MD 500 D, C, or E model became Sabine’s all-time favorite helicopter, and she is a big fan of the newer, five-bladed main rotor system. “Very sturdy and powerful, yet directly steered without any hydraulics required – brilliant! The 500 is my thoroughbred in the air… she also runs and turns like a wild horse from time to time!”
Eventually, Sabine took the next step: obtaining her Commercial license – her persistence and work ethic evidenced by the fact that her first job out of CPL was at the flying school where she completed it. She became a Certified Flying Instructor in 2016 and quickly went on to entertain a very healthy number of introductory flights and instruction hours in her ‘small workhorse,’ the Schweizer 300.
So, aviation has balanced itself into a part-time career. Less inclined to galavant around the country for flight hours than she might’ve once been, today Sabine flies local aerial survey, joy flights, and introductory flights; bolstering her income with other work and interests. “Helicopters seem to take my full concentration wherever they appear – I have to go ahead and fly them myself. I do like aerial work, but I also love to take people for scenic flights, answering all their questions about the neat little machine and seeing the joy in their faces.”
Sabine continues to compete in helicopter championships with her great friend and co-pilot, Lena Maier, supported in part by their long-term sponsors, Flymap. She loves mentoring and teaching others who are new to helicopters (the international organisation, Whirly Girls, is close to her heart for this reason); one of her goals for the future is to instruct a student right through to their license. Her lifestyle right now is a perfect example of how you can spread your passions in an industry like aviation, even as you get older. In this way, she employs a wonderfully diverse skillset, whilst enjoying time on the farm with her husband and her horses, and sharing her love of aviation with others.
First published in HeliOps Magazine – Issue 126 (Kia Kaha Media) in ‘A Greater View’, a column profiling women in the heli industry