Copter School

It’s not quick, easy or cheap, but a Honolulu school is teaching regular folks the complicated art-science of flying a helicopter

Wednesday - May 04, 2005

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Leona Cobb pilots a helicopter with flight
instructor Doug Froning as it lifts into the air

It is perhaps one of mankind’s oldest dreams: to break the bounds of gravity and take flight. For those who’ve dared, it’s the ultimate sense of freedom.

DaVinci put it to paper, Paul Cornu got it started, Igor Sikorsky made it work, and a 32-year-old Waipahu woman continues to buck the trend.

Leona Cobb decided she needed more out of life than just raising two kids and zapping away unwanted facial hair; she figured learning to fly was the way to go.

Leona Cobb performs a pre-flight
safety inspection

“It was a goal of mine to become a pilot and to get my EMT license,” she says. “I thought it was going to be either an airplane or a helicopter. I rode in a Cessna and it did nothing for me. So I decided to fly helicopters.”

Becoming a helicopter pilot is not easy. Nor is it inexpensive. Depending upon how often the student climbs into the cockpit, tuition can cost up to $55,000. With flight instruction running $215 an hour, you can see how it adds up.

Though the goal of most students is to obtain their certified flight instructor qualification — which is about halfway through the entire program — P.J. O’Reilley, manager of Mauna Loa Helicopters, says the school’s desire is to prepare students for the top jobs in the industry.

“We like to consider ourselves a professional pilot training program,” he says. “We want students to get their airline transport pilot license.” The transport license is the highest level of classification.

One would think the world of pilots is dominated by men who chew tobacco and tell off-colored jokes while trying to push their aircraft to dangerous limits. No question these individuals exist, but it is within this group that the soft-spoken Cobb finds herself right at home.

Flight instructor Doug Froning and Leona Cobb
prepare to fly

“I’m so proud of Leona because she wants to get certified,” O’Reilley says. “Her mom didn’t want her to do it, her kids said, ‘Mom, you can’t do that.’You also see that in math and science. Women are given second place behind the boys because the boys are supposed to excel in the sciences and women are to do social work or whatever. So I like it when women say ‘I can do this. I can become a doctor. I can do physics.’”

Mauna Loa Helicopters began in 1994 in Kona. Since then the school has branched out to Oahu and Kauai. O’Reilley, who first soloed in an airplane when he was 16, said he expects the Oahu school to soon become as busy as the Kona branch.

“Hawaii is very attractive to pilots from all over the world. If you’re going to need to get 4,000-5,000 hours to get hired in some jobs, where would you like to fly, Poughkeepsie or Honolulu?”

Though Cobb likes to keep things close to the vest — in fact, it took pressure from her mother, Mae, to get her to agree to sit down for a chat — it seems certain that there is a spirit inside that embraces the thrill of commanding a helicopter.

“There is definitely something there, but I think it’s the local style of not bringing attention to yourself,” O’Reilley says about Cobb’s discomfort in talking about herself. Thankfully for us, Mae Cobb is not as shy in letting us know what it took to get her daughter talking.

“I told her that she can be an inspiration to other younger girls,” she says. “She didn’t have an easy life. She got married young and had two kids. She got divorced. Then all of a sudden she said she wanted to be an EMTand she did it. She put herself through school.”

Parents have a wonderful way of embarrassing their kids, don’t they?

“She was the last person I thought would go into the sciences, but she did it. I guess she likes the thrill, and she talked to Dad and I, and we were like, ‘are you nuts?’”

Evidently not.

By law, a person needs 35 hours of flight instruction to become a licensed pilot. However, O’Reilley says most will have about twice that many hours before getting their license. Even that is not enough to ensure employment, he


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