Friday Night Helicopters

Written By: Kurt  Menz

This is my ritual. On Friday evenings I hop on my boat and head out to Shinnecock Inlet to watch the helicopters land. There are many aspects to this lure. First it’s a Friday (the best day of the week) and it’s the evening (the best time of the day). Then I’m at the inlet which is a siren in its own right, and then there are the helicopters, arising from the horizon (either over the ocean or the bay) slowly coming into focus which I raise not disparagingly or as a sarcastic comment but because it’s truly a marvel to watch them come in.

This I believe is a fairly recent phenomenon – at least the one after another arrival (as I know some have been doing this for years – but at fewer numbers and at a lesser pace).  As kids we would see the occasional helicopter and swear it was Mick Jagger which made sense – it happened now and then and he was big shot, a Rolling Stone. But on a typical Friday night in July and August they really come in, sometimes having to hover in place, like bugs, while the one at a time landing sequence follows the first arrival rule.

Does it take too long to drive from Manhattan? That is for the beholder to decide of course but helicopters out here have become a very hot topic.  I’m sure a word search of “helicopter” in the local papers would yield very high instances, and just the other day while watching a Southampton Town Board Meeting on Sea-TV there was a question if the helicopters come in over the bay or the ocean (as a witness I can attest, the answer is both). Based on the headlines I know the dialog is more intense in East Hampton but in Southampton it seems to be at least percolating if not something more.

But back to the main event – it is indeed something to watch, these helicopters landing, particularly from the water and up close. If you are not aware the destination is a small helipad on the bay side just east of the inlet. There is a wind socket, the ones that usually languish a bit and are clearly associated with helicopters. An almost mini-like radio tower is there as well. It all looks like its reeking secrecy, trying not to be discovered, and a bit like a relic from the U-boat attempt.

I am lucky this particular evening. The sky is clear and deep blue and the sun has mellowed some and is painting everything with a pop that only this kind of day (now fading) can bring. Similar to when an approaching storm turns the sky a deep foreboding gray which makes the hulls of the scrambling boats glow in the dark. Opposite ends of the weather spectrum with equally compelling effects.

I’m in my boat with the engine now off, drifting at the mercy of the tide, about 30 or so yards off shore right about where the county campsite is welcoming its own steady stream of arrivers provisioned I’m sure with all they need for a great weekend with no visits to town required. You can practically hear the kids beaming with excitement as the 4 wheelers get to where the road ends and the dunes begin and the tubes and fishing poles and coolers start to bounce up and down.

I do a very grateful 360 view of where I am. In this one area you have easy access to 3 major bays, an inlet and the ocean. There is water and waterfront everywhere.  If aliens came from outer space they would clearly settle here, unless there was a realtor onboard who would undoubtedly steer the flying saucer eastward to the ponds and lakes.

Now the juxtaposition of the helipad for the few and the park for many is all too easy but I’m going there anyway. There are more American flags flying atop all of those campers (which parked side by side form a giant water facing arc with bay, inlet and ocean views) than encircle the Washington Monument. They seem planted there for Victory and a bit of Don’t Tread on Me for anyone who tries to take it away. One can only conclude that the best part of the Hamptons still belongs to the people (at least for now whispers the devil on my shoulder).

The next helicopter in line soars overhead and descends into a closer view, no ripples on the water exactly, but the beach grass is aflutter as it slowly comes down at a slightly upward pitch to the helipad. Of course the ever increasing deep fluttering chop is only adding to the scene and clearly lets you know you are close by. I can’t see the passengers up close, but I can see them pop out under what I assume would be a massive downward thrust (which I’m sure you are trained on in some way by the pilots, who always, when they take off again and tilt just right, unfailing look trustworthy in their shades, serious faces and headsets). Occasionally I’ll give them a wave and am always grateful they never wave back.

In concert, in fact in perfect synchronicity, are the arrival of the passenger pickup vehicles, which may in fact be armored they look so presidential. Even the choreography is presidential (which I can attest to as a witness of numerous presidential arrivals at the downtown Manhattan heliport as a civilian from a nearby office building window). You can never pick out the President among the throngs of people and cars; even when you are absolutely positive you have outwitted the shell game. I saw the Pope land once and I was just about sure I picked him out but the President is far more difficult to find. The Pope stands out from his entourage much more than a president does against his similarly blue suited handlers. I hope these innocuous observations don’t put me on any lists.

But these people are not the President or the Pope so the similarities just don’t make sense as the parade of fortified black cars swing to an angled stop, proceed to pick up their arrivals, and just as they arrived, swing back around and leave in unison.  I’m secretly hoping the destinations are equally as impressive for if the sequence were to play out any differently the two ends of the journey are simply not matching, similar I suppose to hiring a horse-drawn carriage for your wedding. That’s a lot of forward pressure.

And finally when this sand-based transfer from Manhattan is all over, and the passengers can once again say it’s better than driving (hard to argue) and are exhaling from the work week or perhaps from the landing or perhaps from who they just met (let’s hope not), and the vehicles are rumbling eastward onto Meadow Lane with all the access road dust billowing behind them, the true majesty and the star of the show returns.

When I was a kid there was a great photograph in National Geographic that showed a massive flock of waterside birds rising side by side with a 747 itself rising from a nearby runway and the caption referred to the overwhelming (and clearly startling) decibels of the jumbo jet as “the Roar of an Imposter”. That caption always stuck with me for being so good.

So in this case the “Roar of the Imposter” does indeed send some seagulls and sandpipers skyward as the helicopter rises smoothly over the inlet towards the ocean (or the bay) and makes its way back to the city. At just the right time and angle the reflection of the sun does make them look quite extraordinary, like the engineering marvels they truly are. And it’s always dramatic to see anything fade into the distance, anything. I usually watch about 5 or so before I head back before it gets too dark, but even as I head back I can still see them coming in.