Attack ‘copter visits Tahoe
The 48-foot blades circled into a frenzy and created a deafening mechanical thunder. Then, slowly, a pilot unleashed the power created by the blades of the attack helicopter.
It hovered only feet from the asphalt at Lake Tahoe Airport, maintaining its minuscule altitude as it skirted down a runway.
It disappeared from sight for several minutes, long enough for a small group of the pilot’s friends who gathered for the takeoff to begin to head for their cars. But they scampered back to watch more because the Apache was walloping air nearby and clearly headed back to the airport.
It reappeared at the lake end of a runway. This time it was 80 feet off the ground and speeding at more than 100 mph. Going that fast, the helicopter banked into a sharp left-hand turn.
The pilot, a 1982 graduate of South Tahoe High School named Robert Fullerton, executed the maneuver flawlessly. On its final pass, the helicopter dipped slightly before it rocketed up 100 feet. Then it turned again, this time headed for Elko, Nev., the next place it would take on 375 gallons of special jet fuel.
The Apache, a $15 million machine owned by the U.S. Army, made two stops at South Lake Tahoe this weekend. Since the helicopter needs to fuel up about every two hours of flight, it landed twice at South Shore on its way to and from an air show in San Carlos, Calif.
Fullerton, a native of South Lake Tahoe, took advantage of the unique opportunity.
“One time in my career, absolutely luck of the draw that got me here,” he said, standing in the shadow of the giant helicopter.
Fullerton has been in the Army for 15 years and lived in 9 different places. He has served two tours in Bosnia and another in Kosovo. For the moment, he’s based in Salt Lake City, Utah, and teaches others to pilot the Apache. He has logged more than 1,700 hours flying helicopters.
“I get tired of playing Army sometimes, but I’m absolutely never tired of flying,” he said.
Fullerton spent a year-and-a-half in Bosnia. His unit was ready to roll in the Gulf War, too, but the day he was called to duty the war ended.
“I’m a tank killer, that’s what that aircraft is designed for – to fight.” he said. “It’s something I’m prepared to do, but I’m not itching to get in and fight anybody.”
Fullerton said some of his scariest moments in the Army came in Bosnia where mines peppered the land.
“There were 5 million land mines. If somebody hadn’t stepped there, you didn’t. You didn’t go off the trail and couldn’t just land anywhere.”
But Sunday, his mind was not focused on land mines. Instead, he enjoyed the company of his good friends Ed and Suzanne Cook and their family and friends. Next up for Fullerton is work in either Korea or Germany. He expects to retire from the Army in five years.
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