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Written by Donna Reid, with Johan Nurmi, Chief Pilot, World Record Helicopter Team, Murrieta CA

The World Record Helicopter Team, based in Murrieta CA, has set a new world speed record from San Diego CA to Savannah/Hilton Head GA and back. Flying a Robinson R44 Raven II, the four-man team departed from Brown Field on September 17, 2011 when the race clock started at 7:28AM. Despite having to contend with some extreme weather conditions along the way, they made it back in less than two and a half days, and beat the old record by one hour and 35 minutes. Their Total Elapsed Time, which included flight, fueling, and waiting for better weather, was a record-busting 58 hours and 23 minutes.
 
Team pilots included founder and Chief Pilot Johan Nurmi; Second-in-Command Travis Reid, and co-pilots Miguel Krishnan and Jerry Peck. The team’s mission is to set new rotorcraft world speed records, raise money for charity, and increase public knowledge and awareness about helicopters and how they can save lives. Nurmi, a 12,000-hour pilot/CFI and multiple world record holder, is also vice president and co-owner of USA Academy of Aviation in Murrieta CA. In addition to instruction in R22s and R44s, the flight school, where all team members have trained, is co-owned by Nurmi’s wife, Monica Bergenstrom, also a highly experienced rotorcraft pilot and CFI.
 
In addition to instruction, USA Academy organizes the record-setting World Record Helicopter race team which always combines its flights with fundraising for children’s programs. This year’s “Fund Racer” benefited Loma Linda University Medical Center’s Children’s Hospital, where one of the pilots, Dr. Miguel Krishnan, is a pediatric otorhinolaryngoloist and surgeon. Their goal was to raise $1 million.
The following is a first-hand account by Chief Pilot Nurmi of the team’s recent success and new world speed record.
I wanted to do a race during 2011, and I quickly identified three excellent pilots, all of them students at USA Academy of Aviation, who were eager to go on this adventure and share the cost of the race.
 
During the year, I had watched as numerous bad weather systems pounded the USA, and I was hoping to get a break between the storms that just kept coming. I checked the Weather Channel daily and finally found three days where I thought the race would be possible. The only exceptions to good weather predictions were reports of thunderstorms in Dallas, Texas, and I thought we could circumnavigate them to the south.
 
So, we decided to leave during this weather window. It was smooth flying for a long way; that is, until we got to Abilene TX, and there it was: the thunderstorm was huge, probably up to 50.000 feet in height, and the lightning strikes were constant, every 5-10 seconds. We landed at Abilene Airport after dark and fueled up! We asked the fuel guy if he knew how long the thunderstorms usually last in this area, and he said that this one probably would last the whole night, since it was moving east. And it did.
 
Ok, I thought, this was a mesoscale convective complex thunderstorm, the breadth of which can range from a few miles to maybe 300 miles across. This particular thunderstorm was a form of MCC, called a Squall Line thunderstorm, composed of individual thunderstorms in a line that can stretch several hundred miles or longer. The individual storms interact among each other and with the surrounding atmosphere in ways that create a long lasting system. In a full blown MCC, which we had just encountered, there is a mix of layers of stable and unstable air and boundaries between cool and warm air that look like miniature cold and warm fronts. Frequent lighting, steady rain, and all of the hazards of thunderstorms are there, like icing, hail, dangerous turbulence, and sometimes tornadoes. The worst of all of this occurs at night, and, if we traveled on to Savannah/Hilton Head, there would be nothing but flashes of lightning to illuminate the sky for our pilots. Of course that was impossible. But an MCC can bring several days of storms as it makes its way across the country, and we were racing, and could not wait for days. So, after checking the weather satellite pictures and forecasts, we decided to head south, away from the MCC. We took off, flew through and landed in rain at Kimble Airport where we again fueled up, then headed on to Tyler Airport. We tried to head east, but encountered low clouds where the ceiling was only about 300 ft, which forced us to fly north east again. At this point, we were beyond grateful for our sponsors, who outfitted us with helmet and NVG courtesy of Night Optics USA, Inc., as well as our Zulu noise-cancelling headsets courtesy of Lightspeed Aviation.
 
 
After Tyler, we flew along the 20 freeway east toward Shreveport LA and to Jackson Emerson, then to Monroe in rain, where we filled up again. After Monroe, we flew to Key Airport, and left the freeway toward Montgomery, heading toward Savannah. The ceiling near Savannah was approximately 2000 feet. When we finally landed at SAV, Travis and Krishnan hurriedly took our Certificate of Landing to the tower, where it was signed off. Then we immediately took off again in sunshine. As we tracked along the 20 freeway, we had to divert again south to avoid the squall line thunderstorms in the area. We landed safely at Brownwood Airport, and were grounded for approximately five hours. Hell broke loose as the thunderstorm passed the airport. We had to tie down the blades, and hurry in to the terminal building for shelter. The rain and the incredibly strong wind pounded outside, like we had never seen! Travis called his family and told them that the wind had literally pushed him backwards as he tried to walk. After the storm was over, we headed back to the 20 Freeway and had to fly on top over morning fog!
 
After leaving Texas, we had a strong 20 knots tailwind all the way to Brown Airport in San Diego. En route, the most beautiful areas we encountered were in the mountains east of Phoenix. The scenery there is just unbelievably breathtaking and beautiful!
 
When we reached California and landed at Brown Field, we were confident that we had beaten the earlier record; but, with a marine layer starting to roll in, we couldn’t pause to celebrate and we took off as soon as possible, flying back to French Valley Airport, where a small group of fans greeted us. It felt good, and we congratulated ourselves and shook hands! We had achieved our goal to set another Helicopter World Speed Record, despite the fact that the weather was against us the whole way!
 
Our piloting team was excellent: Travis Reid is a commercial pilot, full-time college aviation student and veteran WRHT flyer who now holds two active world records at age 20. He flew in his first race at age 16. As my second in command, he has excellent aviation skills, notably in Communications, and did a fabulous job navigating and flying us through much of the worst weather. Dr. Miguel Krishnan, in addition to working as a surgeon, is a Lt. Colonel in the US Army’s Airborne Special Forces. He’s currently close to finishing training for his Commercial rotorcraft rating. Jerry Peck had been a long time fixed wing pilot, when he “got the rotorcraft bug”, and was smitten and hooked when he started flying helicopters! Like Miguel, he is an excellent pilot who I’m proud to have on our team. Jerry co-owns a company in Southern California that builds all manner of diving equipment. All of our team members demonstrated grit, patience and skill as they flew in good and bad weather in a challenging race. Each of them kept a positive attitude throughout, and together we set a new world record!
 
What’s next for the WRHT? Our current goal is to find someone with a larger turbine helicopter, who will participate in our upcoming around the world race! And help us pay the fuel! We are also looking for marketers/sponsors for all of our races!

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