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We fly the Enstrom 480B

Story by Steve Goldsworthy
Photos by Michael Everhart

Never one to turn down an opportunity to both fly and eat on the same trip, I  headed out with some friends in a fixed wing to meet for breakfast at French Valley Airport. Once on the ground a gorgeous red Enstrom 480B sitting on the ramp catches my eye, so I walk over to check it out. A few minutes later the owner, Don Belcher, and his family walk over hoping to leave. But not before I ask a few questions of Don, who obviously loves flying his 480.

I doubted that I would ever see that helicopter or Don again, but two years later, I’m strapped into the left seat of that same 480B waving at Don on the ground as he watches his helicopter, with me at the controls, departing over his head.  

Life is strange like that.

I gently set down the 480B on the rather little Pauma Airport runway just North of San Diego, CA. I’m searching for a word to describe just how stable and easy this helicopter is to fly. 

During start up, I was searching for the fuel pump switches or breakers, but alas, there are none as the fuel tanks are gravity fed. Don’t look for a hydraulics switch either as there are no hydraulics. The Rolls Royce 250 C20W turbine sits low in the airframe and the wide landing skids makes a rollover seem almost impossible.


Picking up a helicopter when you have never flown a particular model is always just a bit intimidating. Without hydraulics, I expect the ship to feel heavy. I’m wrong as the controls are light and smooth. I hover downwind to gain some runway length with my eyes glued to the torque gauge. With everything in the green I do a pedal turn into the wind and we’re off. I can’t believe the visibility, the roominess in the cabin and the very solid and smooth feel of the Enstrom 480B.

The seating arrangements are flexible in this ship. It’s the only helicopter I know where you can have 3, 4 or even 5 seats, or put a full 6 foot gurney into one side. The seats move around on tracks and allow for a lot of flexibility. The cabin has a long nose with lots of leg room and a foot of headroom over my 6-5 frame. For a big guy, this ship feels like it is made just for me.

I’m flying with Bayard DuPont, Enstrom’s Director of Product Support. As I depart along a river bed I start searching for some wind. I need to find some turbulence and see how this bird handles itself. I finally spot an area just downwind of a ridge line and I am rewarded with just a few bumps. If I wasn’t flying I probably wouldn’t have even noticed them. I say the bird handles itself, because quite frankly, it flies itself. I glance at the torque meter and see I’m flying along at 50% power. 

At this point Bayard tells me to let go. Memories come back of my CFI pounding me to never let go of the cyclic. I wonder what Bayard has in mind. “Just let go of the controls” he says again. The ship just stays there, smooth, level, 80 knots. It’s kinda strange for a pilot to not be, well, piloting!  No hands on the cyclic or collective and no feet on the pedals and we fly along. After about 20 seconds my brain can’t take it anymore so I take hold pretending it’s time to make a turn downwind.

Fact is, Bayard knows these helicopters inside out, and was working on them for years before he worked at the manufacturer. We talk a bit about the number of military and police forces that are now buying Enstrom helicopters. While the last two years had been tough on all manufacturers, Enstrom now has a healthy backlog of orders for the 480B and almost 100 flying in the field.

I’m not sure what I am most impressed by. The tail rotor is famous for authority, and during the flight we do some stuck pedal work. I don’t think I’ve ever been quite that sideways while on a descent to final, but Bayard is at the controls and I’m pretty confident he has done this one before. The tail is unique not just because there is no structure in its way, there is also no critical wind angles where LTE is known to lurk. 

There are a set of weights that act to center the tail rotor thrust automatically. The tail rotor blades have no set time limit and are replaced on condition, Bayard mentions that he has seen them get 20 plus years before replacement.

In fact one of the most impressive things is what is missing from the POH. Besides having no fuel pumps or hydraulics to worry about, there are few limitations to try and remember as well. And everyone knows the Enstrom rotor head is bulletproof. That’s it, the word I was searching for. This helicopter feels bulletproof.

“So what did you think?” Don asks as we set down. I can’t remember my answer but all I can think of is wow, what a helicopter and how do I get one.

“I like that they have so many orders pending” Don says. “It means the model will be around for years to come”. He has owned this ship for about 5 years now and somehow agreed to allow me to come fly his aircraft around without him!

For that, I would like to thank him, as the experience was great!


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