Second Chapters: Write or Flight

The story of an accountant turned tech writer turned helicopter pilot.


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Maria Langer doesn’t dread Mondays. She says, “If you love what you do, Mondays are never an issue.” Then again, Langer’s Mondays are often spent in a Robinson R44 helicopter near the Cascade Mountains in Wenatchee, Washington, where she runs her own charter and tour business. As an accountant turned tech writer turned helicopter pilot, Langer says, “People make a lot of excuses for why they can’t do something.”

Langer grew up in Cresskill, New Jersey in a working class family with no aviators. Her first time airborne was at age 7, and she says she’ll never forget it: “We were up in Maine camping. There was a guy on the side of the road with a helicopter and a sign that said ‘Rides: $5.’ My mother and sister were cowards, but my dad and I went. To this day, I remember that flight.” She recalled the way swimming pools looked like little blue rectangles from the air, the lines of white where the surf was breaking on the waves of the Atlantic. “It was maybe 50 years ago and I still remember it like it was yesterday.”

After attending Hofstra University, Langer worked in the New York City Comptroller’s Office, but she didn’t see herself as an office worker. In 1990, she was hired to write a course in auditing, and the next year she was a ghostwriter on Dvorak’s Inside Track to the Mac.

As it turned out, Langer got in on tech writing at an opportune time. She quickly made a career writing computer how-to books, but even the best-sellers didn’t stay relevant for long. Langer wrote 86 books, mostly about Mac OS, Microsoft Office, and various other programs. She said that, after 2004, the market for instructional books on computers started to fall, and, by 2012, it was dead.

This wasn’t a death blow for Langer, however, because she had already been looking into a new profession. Looking up, to be exact.

Sky above Idaho
Courtesy Maria Langer

“It was a whim,” Langer says of her decision to start flying helicopters. “I never expected to do it for a living.” In fact, Langer says several pilots told her she wouldn’t be able to make a living flying helicopters when she started in 1997.

In 2001, she formed her tour and charter company, Flying M Air, LLC, and in 2004 she began flying for a tour company in Arizona. Langer, who flew over the Grand Canyon 13 times a day, recalls the tricky weather conditions that accompanied each season: spring brings heavy winds, summer heat strains the aircraft and causes wildfires that can fill the canyon with smoke, and then the heavy rains come in late summer.

The variety of difficult weather patterns proved a valuable learning experience for an unseasoned pilot, but Langer faced the worst flight of her career over the canyon.

About six weeks into working with the touring company, Langer was flying with a full cabin of sightseers when a man jumped from the aircraft at an altitude of about 7,500 feet. She said they were coming out of the canyon, and the man opened the door while she was adjusting a narration playback machine. “By the time I realized the door was open, he had thrown his legs around. I instinctively reached out and grabbed his waistband. Then I thought: ‘What if this guy grabs at the controls and forces us to crash?’ I wasn’t necessarily thinking about the other passengers; I was thinking about me. I’m no hero. I thought, ‘This guy apparently really wants to die.’ I let go of him, and he jumped out.”

Langer said she hasn’t talked about the incident much. She never even told her parents, although she thought about it every day for about two years. “Any time there was a weight shift, any time someone’s camera strap caught on their seatbelt and made a snapping noise, I would think of him. It put me into alert mode. That’s just me. What about the other people on that ride, how did it affect them?”

Above the Great Salt Lake in Utah
Courtesy Maria Langer

After taking a day off, Langer returned to the job, to the surprise of some of her coworkers. The experience was traumatic, but it couldn’t dim Langer’s passion for flying.

She started splitting her time between Arizona and Washington. In Wenatchee, where Langer stays during the summer, she found agricultural work that demanded a helicopter: cherry-drying. For an 11-week season, she awakens in the morning and waits by her Robinson R44 to see if it will rain on the cherry orchards. If it does, Langer flies low and slow over the trees to shake the water off the fruit. The purpose is to ensure water doesn’t collect in the stem cup — the dimple where the stem meets the cherry — where it will be absorbed into the fruit and split the delicate skin.

A similar process is used for frost control on almond trees in California. With higher, faster flying, contracted helicopter pilots hover at the edge of the natural thermal inversion and suck the higher, warmer air down to the trees.

Courtesy Maria Langer

Langer still loves the tranquil perspective of flying and enjoying the scenery of the Pacific Northwest. She has taken up many other hobbies over the years: beekeeping, photography, gardening, and tweeting about politics. By attaching a GoPro camera to the nose of her helicopter, Langer found that she could capture her own breathtaking stills of the landscape. She has recently dabbled in drone photography as well. Langer’s blog, An Eclectic Mind, is regularly updated with her thoughts on an assortment of topics, from wildflowers to the current president to the Federal Aviation Administration’s regulations.

Contracting a charter flight with Flying M Air isn’t cheap, but Langer gives rides at community events for a lower rate. These customers are typically first-time helicopter riders. She hopes some of these families might include future aviators who remember their first time flying as long as she did.

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