|Roger Buis has been flying Otto, a Schweizer 300C helicopter originally designed by Howard Hughes, in air shows for 14 years. His wife, Pauline, narrates the performances. (photo by Phil Weston)
By Barbara A. Schmitz
July 31, 2013 - Roger Buis says he likes to clown around. So it seems appropriate that he flies a helicopter named Otto that looks the part.
Otto is a Schweizer 300C helicopter that was originally designed by Howard Hughes. But Otto doesn't look - or act - like your ordinary helicopter on the ground or in the air.
With its big blue eyes and red nose, Otto is based on Bozo the clown, part of the U.S. Army Silver Eagles, a helicopter display team formed to stimulate public interest in the Army and demonstrate its aerial abilities. Until the group was disbanded in 1976, Bozo wore the face of a clown and performed antics to entertain the audience while the other aircraft positioning for the next maneuver.
Pauline and Roger owned an FBO, but they were looking for a new opportunity when they decided to join the air show business. The clown helicopter, then named Oscar, had been created by Craig Hosking, but when Hosking started flying, filming or coordinating stunts for Hollywood, Oscar was put to the side, so the Buises purchased it.
"It allowed us to get into the air show business easier," Roger says.
They have refined the act throughout the years and upgraded the aircraft. "The only thing that is now original is the clown face," Roger says.
Their act is different, and tends to break up the routine at most air shows, Pauline says. "Airplanes have different paint schemes, but most of them are doing the same maneuvers," she says.
"Otto touches the soul of future aviators," Roger adds. "Kids can relate to it, and then think of air shows as exciting..."
Roger and Otto perform at both day and night shows. Their day shows include three parts: comedy, to appeal to children ages 2-92; aerobatic movements, to showcase the helicopter's agility; and patriotism, to pay tribute to U.S. veterans and hometown heroes like police officers and firefighters.
Roger says he can do a variety of maneuvers in the helicopter, including some that airplanes can't do. He flies 90 mph traveling backward, or will do hammerheads, reverse lazy-eights, eight-point rolls, snap rolls, tail slides, and more.
And if the weather cooperates, Otto may even do a new maneuver at Oshkosh: the hurricane, which is a tailspin pivot, he says.
"I say we do helibatics," Pauline says, "instead of aerobatics."
Their night show uses lots of pyrotechnics and fireworks and is "totally patriotic," Roger says.
"We start off tame and build slow," he explains. They start with smoke and lights, and then add pyrotechnics and color, and more pyrotechnics, and more color, until the grand finale, which includes him pulling an American flag up in the air as fireworks go off.
"It's nothing but color, and the bombs bursting in air, all set to music," he says.
How does he keep from being disoriented with all the lights at night? "I just try to keep my eyes closed," Roger says, laughing.
At some shows, they also give media flights or offer rides. The most memorable ride occurred at a Hickory, North Carolina, show. Roger took a 3-year-old girl up whose father had recently died in a trucking accident.
"She said she wanted to ride in Otto so she could go up to heaven and say goodbye to her dad," Pauline recalls.
"While we were up, we said a prayer for her daddy," Roger adds.
Flying since 1980, Roger has logged more than 18,500 hours in the air. Besides flying for air shows, he is also the chief pilot for Heliworks, where he flies mainly the King Air 250, or Bell's 206 or 207. The helicopter operation does movie filming and photography, news and media, sightseeing, fire control and firefighting, air charter, and more.