By Harry Funk

The distance from the South Hills to Downtown Pittsburgh isn’t all that far, at least as the proverbial crow flies.

For those of us who aren’t of an avian species, the trip north frequently turns frustrating in a hurry, especially when you’re the one behind the wheel.

On the heels of one such trip, I counted 37 sets of traffic signals between South Hills Village and the Liberty Tunnels, and I know they haven’t removed any of them in the interim.

More recently, I made it from Washington County to the Steel City in what seemed like a matter of minutes, thanks to a couple of fine folks from Peters Township and their four-seat, nicely appointed Robinson R44 Raven II.

Jacqueline Geyer Cabral is the owner of Vortex Helicopter Services, based at Finleyville Airport, and her husband, Carlos, is the pilot. Actually, Jacqueline is in the process of earning her helicopter pilot’s license, but Carlos took the controls the controls the bright, clear, unusual-for-Western Pennsylvania day I ventured into the sky with them.

They invited me and another member of the media, Jeremy Jones from Discover the Burgh, to be their guests in experiencing what was a first for me.

From talking with the Cabrals previously, I knew that riding in a helicopter would be much different than sitting in the seat of an airplane. As what’s called a rotorcraft, a copter can lift off and land vertically, and fly forward, backward and laterally.

Plus it can hover in a practically stationary manner, as Carlos demonstrated a few feet above the ground at the start of our flight.

He then proceeded along the path of the Finleyville Airport runway, which terminates just before a steep hill drops to the valley below. What a sight! I began to take photograph after photograph, sending one to Mrs. Funk every once in a while to reassure her of my continued survival.

No sense of danger crossed my mind, though. Compared with being stuffed into an airline seat designed for a much smaller person, I was comfortable sitting next to Carlos, with the benefit of a Bose headset to communicate effectively during the journey with everyone aboard.

“You can talk to the pilot, ask questions, and maybe if he doesn’t know something, inform him,” Jacqueline had informed Jeremy and me during our preflight briefing. “We love to learn these things.”

As far as geography, I was kind of surprised at how much I recognized below, and I mentioned some points of interest with which she and Carlos may not have been all that familiar.

We traveled a route that took us above Union Township, South Park, the Baldwin-Whitehall area, Overbrook and some other city neighborhoods before we reached Mt. Washington and the scene that unfolded over its crest.

Immediately, I recalled my first glimpse of Downtown Pittsburgh, when my dad drove through the Fort Pitt Tunnel on a visit from our Harrisburg home nearly half a century ago.

The vantage point by air is even more spectacular, of course. And this time around, I had a camera.

Carlos took us near some of the city’s most recognizable landmarks, from the UPMC and PPG skyscrapers to Heinz Field and PNC Park to Oakland’s Cathedral of Learning, plus a detour above Jeremy’s North Side home.

All the while, the pilot was having a blast.

“No matter how many times I do this,” Carlos said at one point, “it never gets old.”

He particularly enjoyed flying above the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, where he knew where to look for the likes of elephants, giraffes and gorillas far beneath.

Then we were on our way back to the Finleyville Airport, where Carlos set the Robinson deftly on the ground, another contrast with the prolonged, earsplitting, often anxiety-inducing landing of an airplane.

“What was your favorite part, Harry?” Jacqueline asked after we’d exited the helicopter.

“Seeing all the traffic backed up on the roads down there,” I joked.

Karma being what it is, I’m going to regret saying that the next time I’m Downtown-bound and get stuck at each and every one of those 37 traffic lights.

Multimedia Reporter

Staff writer Harry Funk, a professional journalist for three-plus decades, has been on the staff of The Almanac since 2015. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and master of business administration, both from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

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