'Whirly-girls:' aloft for a living

''You did what to the otters?'' I repeated over the phone.

''Transplanted them. You know, took them out of one river and dropped them into another one.''

For Karen Key, it was just another routine day, transplanting otters and herding elk.

I called the next name on the list and listened to Betsy Johnson describe one of her typical days, helping with a search and rescue operation on Mt. St. Helens shortly after the volcano erupted.

After that, I couldn't wait to find out what Marguerite Myrick was up to. Somehow I wasn't surprised to hear that she was out of the office, ''out flying.'' When Mrs. Myrick returned my call, she was telephoning from Cow Island on the Gulf coast of Louisiana, just back from a trip to an offshore oil rig.

Karen Key, Betsy Johnson, and Marguerite Myrick are members of one of the most select gatherings aloft - Whirly-Girls Inc., an international organization of women helicopter pilots. Compared with more than 760,000 pilots of fixed-wing planes in the United States alone, there are only 6,453 helicopter pilots - and of those, only 87 are women.

Like most of the other 358 Whirly-Girl members from 21 countries, these women make their living as helicopter pilots. Karen Key, who has flown wildlife control sorties for the US Department of Fish and Game in exchange for a story, works for television station KOA in Denver. She's among a handful of reporters in the business who report news live from a helicopter at the same time they're piloting it -- and the only woman doing so. As owner-operator of Trans Western Helicopter Inc. near Portland, Ore., Betsy Johnson is a contractor with the US Geological Survey and also does a lot of agricultural and photographic flying. Marguerite Myrick spends seven days on the job, then seven days off, flying oil company employees between drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico for one of the world's largest helicopter operators, Petroleum Helicopters Inc.

The Whirly-Girls got their start in 1955, propelled forward by Jean Ross Howard, a former Civil Air Patrol pilot and World War II WASP (Women's Air Force Service Pilots) who now works as director of helicopter activities for the Aerospace Industries Association. Mrs. Howard says that when she had her first helicopter ride in 1947, it ''sold'' her.

''I went ahead and got my helicopter rating and modestly thought I was the eighth wonder in the world,'' she recalls. ''But after writing to a number of helicopter manufacturers, I found I was only 13th - there were 12 other women who'd been flying helicopters for years.''

Together with Hannah Reitsch, one of Germany's top 10 Luftwaffe pilots, Mrs. Howard began contacting women helicopters pilots around the world. Early members who are still with the Whirly-Girls include Jacqueline Auriol, daughter of a former premier of France and holder of a number of jet speed records, and Dr. Valerie Andre, now medecin general (surgeon general) of the French Army, who flew some 120 life-saving missions in wartime Indochina.

At their yearly ''hovering,'' held at the start of the annual meeting of the Helicopter Association International, the Whirly-Girls award a scholarship and also catch up on the year's accomplishments. ''Each member stands up and tells what she's done during the year,'' says Betsy Johnson. ''We've got some members who are in the astronaut training program, some who are test pilots, and one who helped to design the new F-15 fighter plane. It's really something to hear.''

As a member of the US team that finished second in the world helicopter championships in the Soviet Union in 1978, Ms. Johnson has plenty of fascinating stories of her own. But it takes Jean Ross Howard to tell them.

''Betsy was captain of the women's team that went to Russia, and it was quite a competition - the Olympics of helicoptering,'' says Mrs. Howard, who served as a judge for the events. The slalom course -- flying between poles, at 50 feet off the ground, with a copilot hanging onto one of the ship's landing gears and holding a bucket of water at the end of a rope -- was the first of a number of exacting contests. ''Some of the events were hilarious, but they also demanded great precision,'' Mrs. Howard says.

Like 80 other Whirly-Girls who fly with their copilot husbands, Teri Rutt McClellan and her husband also operate their own business, ''Helicopters Unlimited,'' in San Carlos, Calif. In between flying filmmakers and geologists around the San Francisco Bay area, the McClellans offer flight instruction for those interested in investing $5,000 and three months to get a private license.

''I'm amazed at how many people are taking lessons today -- we have 10 students in San Carlos and another 12 at our Fresno office -- because it's not inexpensive,'' Mrs. McClellan says. ''The thing is, the US really needs to be training more people because we don't have the pool of helicopter pilots now that we did after the Vietnam war. The uses for helicopters are expanding every day, especially in surveying for oil and logging.''

Business aside, though, what's it really like to fly in a helicopter?

''It depends on who you go with,'' says Marguerite Myrick. ''The first time I went up in one, there weren't any doors and the pilot was a little crazy, turning it upside down and around -- so that all I wanted was to get back down on the ground.''

But Mrs. Myrick stuck it out for a second ride with ''an older, less crazy gentleman.'' She now has logged an extraordinary 10,000 hours of helicopter flight time and is one of only two women in Petroleum Helicopters' crew of 948 pilots. As a flight instructor in her off-duty time, she says she's learned a cardinal rule for newcomers: ''Never try to scare anybody!''

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