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The Puppet Master

June/July 2012

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Jeff Dunham Has A Passion For Helis!

Unless you have been spending so much time at the flying field that you never watch television, then you are probably familiar with the ventriloquist comedian, Jeff Dunham. Jeff is undoubtedly the number one touring comedian in the world, filling more seats and grossing more than any other comedian, according to Pollstar magazine.

Jeff is having some fun prior to a show in Providence, RI, flying the Blade mSR X flybarless helicopter. He was bound and determined to get this thing to loop, even though it is a fixed pitch heli. He came very close!

Jeff travels around the world with his assortment of characters including Walter, Achmed the Dead Terrorist, Bubba Jay and of course we can’t forget Peanut. When Jeff is not on stage he spends a lot of his time with various hobbies, including collecting vintage Apple computers and his collection of nine vintage and custom cars. Back in the fall I was watching a documentary on Jeff called “Jeff Dunham: Birth of a Dummy” on the Bio channel. Being a huge fan, I found the program fascinating to see the amount of hard work and dedication that he put into perfecting his craft and getting to where he is today. During the program, Jeff was seen flying his home-built RotorWay helicopter. I did not know that he was an avid full-scale builder and pilot, which of course, drew my attention even more. In addition to full-scale, Jeff is very much into radio control helicopters and as we later found out, he has been flying them more than 20 years.


After checking the tour dates, I arranged to see the show in Hartford, CT, which by the way, if you ever have a chance, I highly recommend going. It was hands-opindown the funniest show I have ever seen. Working with his publicist we were able to arrange to meet with his tour manager, Marnell White, in Hartford and I gave him a bunch of Blade mSR X helicopters for Jeff to test out and fly with his crew while on the road. Since the helis were just released by Horizon Hobby, I wanted to see what Jeff thought of them.

Jeff during college in 1986 with his dog “Chopper”, alongside his first, half-completed RotorWay Exec.

A couple weeks later we had the privilege of spending some one-on-one time with Jeff and Peanut in Providence, RI, before a show. After a quick photo session with Jeff and Peanut, we were able to take the mSR X helis down to the main floor before they setup the chairs and have some fun. Jeff claims to be a sport pilot and is not into heavy 3D-type aerobatics. He does have a passion for scale birds and he is looking forward to getting a gasoline powered machine in the near future. He really liked the mSR X helis because they were small and he could easily get some stick time virtually anywhere. His manager, Robin Tate, said that flying helis really helps clear Jeff’s mind and he will often go back to his motor coach and write some really funny material afterwards.

Myself and Jeff in Providence getting ready to fly the Blade mSR X heli on the main floor of the Dunkin Donuts Center prior to the show.

Jeff’s passion for helicopters began when he was in college, in 1980, when he built and flew a Mantis, which was a piston powered, fixed-pitch heli with wooden side frames. Later, in 1986, Jeff built and flew his first RotorWay Exec experimental two-place helicopter. Since that time he has built and flown a total of three RotorWay helis and is currently in the process of building his fourth, a RotorWay A600 Talon. He is still avidly into radio control helis as well and travels around the world with them when he is on tour.

The RotorWay Exec in Jeff’s shop ready for paint.

We had a lot of questions for Jeff regarding both RC and full-scale helicopters to which he was generous enough with this busy schedule to take time to share his passion with our readers. We are hoping to work with Jeff more in the near future as he has just acquired a new Blade mQX quad rotor heli and plans to report a review of it back to RC Heli Pilot magazine.

Be sure to check out Jeff’s website at www.jeffdunham.com and grab some tickets in your area!

RC Heli Pilot: Do you remember when your fascination with helicopters began?

Jeff Dunham: It started with a simple pulltoy when I was about four or five years old; Put the helicopter on the hand-held launch stick; pull the ring which spun the rotor, and off it would fly. Not long after that at the State Fair of Texas, my parents and I rode in a Bell on one of those quick, six-minute joy rides through the night air of Dallas, and I was hooked… both on helicopters as well as just about anything that would fly.

Jeff’s purple Hummer and helicopter. He takes the heli off and lands it on the trailer which really draws a crowd. Photo taken in 2005.

RCHP: Did you get involved with models or full scale first?

JD: For me, the RC helis came before the full scale machines. That was back in my Freshman year in college, in 1980, when I purchased the ‘Mantis’, a kit with a mainframe made of plywood. After that came the GMP Cricket, and then I moved step-bystep through the years, trying to always keep up with the newest and latest in the development of the hobby.

RCHP: What was your first RC Helicopter?

JD: The Mantis! It was of course a piston machine, fixed pitch, and as I said, it had wooden side frames!

Then I moved on to the Gorham (GMP) machines and had good long-term friendship with John and his son Robert. In fact, when I moved out to Los Angeles in 1988, on a few occasions, I visited their facilities in Calabasas and would sit and chat and help bag parts. In exchange, they would give me replacement part for my Competitor and Legend. Although I appreciated the Cricket, I had actually moved on from the beginner machines and never flew that one much… But most people reading this probably have zero idea what I’m talking about.

RCHP: How did that experience relay directly to building / flying?full scale?

JD: Learning with the models first was invaluable experience for gaining a working understanding of both hardware and flight. This was especially true in the early days of RC choppers, because there was no such thing as RTF.You had to build literally everything, and with many of the kits, that meant assembling rotor blades with tip weights that had to be epoxied in, plus covering and balancing the blades, etc. More importantly, you understood that there was zero tolerance when it came to quality of construction, maintenance, and thorough pre-flights. If there was any type of mechanical malfunction in controls, the result was almost always disaster. You had a good shot of saving a machine with an engine-out or even tail rotor failure, but anything else meant walking back to the car with a box of broken parts. This understanding gave me a very healthy dose of respect when building the full size machine. Every part I made, every nut I tightened, and every adjustment I made, I would consciously think, “Would I trust my life to this?”

As for the experience of flying the full size versus the models, it is absolutely undeniable that one can learn to fly a real helicopter much faster if you already know how to pilot a model. The hovering maneuvers that took the average RotorWay student 30 hours to become proficient at when practicing, took me six. I attribute that to nothing more than the years of experience flying RC helicopters first.

Jeff strapping his daughter, Ashlyn, into the passenger seat of his 162F for a couple of patterns around the patch!

RCHP: What correlations can you draw between models and full scale?

JD: If something breaks, you’re in trouble. If the pilot does something stupid, both the machine and pilot are in danger. If it breaks, it’s expensive to fix. It’s not if you’re going to crash; it’s when.

RCHP: How are flying full scale helis and models similar? Or different?

JD: Hand and eye coordination are the key in both, but the main difference, and the part that makes piloting full-scale seemingly easier, is that you can feel it before it happens; You’re flying with your butt. On the other hand, a crash with a model won’t leave someone injured or dead. (Usually! Depends on where you crash the model!)

RCHP: Any comments about the full scale training experience?

JD: There’s nothing more fun, in my opindown ion, than learning to fly a real helicopter. And the first time you do a solo autorotation with no one in the seat next to you (with dual controls) to save you if you screw up, is a real pat on the back in self-accomplishment. Especially if it’s in a machine you built with your own two hands. When I built and flew my first RotorWay, I was 24, and was their youngest ever builder/pilot. It literally changed my life because of all that I learned throughout the journey. When I purchased the kit, I knew absolutely nothing about an engine. I had never changed the oil on a car, never tightened a hose clamp. I couldn’t even point to a carburetor in a vehicle. The only engines I knew were OS Max .25’s, .50’s and a few .60’s!

This is the cockpit of the RotorWay Exec helicopter. The instrument panel is very clean and uncluttered.

RCHP: What was your first Full Scale Helicopter?

JD: The RotorWay Exec kit I built in 1986 was my first full scale machine.

RCHP: How difficult is building a full scale heli?

JD: That depends on the kit. The RotorWay kit is unlike any other full scale aircraft you’ll find anywhere. Literally every part, all the way down to the washers and pop rivets are shrink-wrapped onto dozens of part cards. The construction manuals and videos take you step-by-step through the process with text, photos, and real-life, on camera demonstrations of assembly and construction tasks and techniques.

RCHP: Is it something that most normal guys can tackle or do you need a full machine shop?

JD: You absolutely do not need a machine shop. In fact, you don’t want a machine shop. There’s nothing to mill or fabricate from metal. You need typical hand tools such as a wrench set, screw and nut drivers, a hand drill, drill press, metal cutting band saw, etc. RotorWay has a list of all the tools you need, plus the kit includes a lot of items such as particular epoxies, thread lockers, greases, etc.

The rotor head of the RotorWay Exec.

RCHP: Did you do most of the work yourself or did you hire someone?

JD: The very critical assemblies are all done by RotorWay. For example, the entire rotor head comes assembled and ready to bolt into the frame. The main frame has been fully welded, as have been all the main sub assemblies. The builder used to have to be supplied raw materials for controls, pedals, etc, and he then had to cut them out from templates, and then weld them up, etc. But, no more. Those subassemblies are ready for trim fitting, paint, and final assembly. Even the monologue tailboom is ready to bolt to the frame. Vertical and horizontal stabilizers need only end caps cut and fit, then epoxied in and smoothed to finish with Bondo, sanding, and paint.

I do all the work on the ships myself; It’s going to be my butt up in the air, and I don’t want to have to trust anyone else’s work. And when you do the work, you learn the problem areas and what you’ll want to check out on each pre and post flight. Nothing can replace that knowledge of a machine you’re flying in that’s experimental.

The first kit took me a heck of-a-lot longer than the next two did, or than the current one is, because of the learning curve, but also because of how much work RotorWay now has already done for the builder.

RCHP: Have you always liked building things, or was this just a means to the end?

JD: I have always enjoyed building things. And as most folks know who are involved with any helicopters at all: If you enjoy flying, you need to enjoy working on them as well. The two go hand-in-hand.

This brings up another thing to note about RotorWay ships. This is not a $400,000 Robinson. You don’t get it flying, then fly for 2000 hours before an overhaul with minimal maintenance. With a homebuilt helicopter, there is maintenance and there are inspections that must be done on a regular basis. Inspections panels need to come off before every single flight.

In this photo you can see the main drive system of the RotorWay Exec with the hatch removed.

RCHP: What other types of things do you like building?

JD: I build all the characters in my act, and believe me, there are many mechanisms and controls in their heads which wouldn’t be there had it not been for my experience with the models and even full size helicopters. And they work very smoothly and reliably, I might add! (I just knocked on wood.)

RCHP: Given your schedule, when do you find time to squeeze in such projects?

JD: I have a shop at home, and even a shop on the tour bus for construction and maintenance of the characters and also for the models helis that I take on the road.

RCHP: Do you block time off during the year or just pick away on it between shows or both?

JD: I’m a firm believer of ‘make hay when the sun shines’, so I rarely take time off. I haven’t been flying nearly as much as I would like, but that just means I’m working a great deal, which is a good problem to have. I don’t take the work for granted at all.

RCHP: Do you have interest in flying airplanes as well?

JD: I’ve never been interested in fixed wing; either model or full scale. Rotary flight just holds a great deal more fascination for me.

RCHP: How many full scale helis have you built? What are they?

JD: Three, and the fourth one is in-progress.

1986 RotorWay Exec

1991 RotorWay Exec 90

1995 RotorWay Exec 162F (I currently fly this one)

Currently under construction:

RotorWay A600 Talon

RCHP: Do you ever plan on getting a commercial- made helicopter?

JD: Oh, sure. I think that will be a retirement reward.

RCHP: How long does it take you to build a typical full scale helicopter?

JD: If you’re familiar with hand tools and know your way around a work bench, can drill a straight hole and can know how to use a band saw; you’ll cut your work hours way down, as compared to someone who doesn’t know a socket set from a pair of tin snips. But the RotorWay kit is amazingly complete. Besides tools, there’s very little left to purchase after the kit. Just paint, pretty much!

RCHP: What type of RC helis do you like?

JD: On the simulator, 3D of course! No real crash, no real pain! But in the real world, I’m happy with anything that’s precise and of quality materials and design. It’s just nice to pick the thing up in a hover, fly around a bit, and feel something substantial and fun. So everything from a great micro, to a full scale beast, I enjoy anything I can get my hands on.

RCHP: What are some of your favorite RC helis and do you take any RC helis on the road with you?

JD: Because of my schedule and being on the road so much, I’m limited as to what I want to haul around and how many spare parts I want to stock on the tour bus. So in all honestly, lately, I’ve been trying just about everything that’s RTF. I’ll drop in a local hobby store wherever we are and see what is the latest new machine. I appreciate the business and technology aspect of the RC world and how much it’s grown and changed in the past few years, especially the helicopter stuff. I even appreciate nice graphics on the boxes and how well marketing departments get the word out. Blade has some really great stuff out right now that I’ve had a lot of fun with.


We had a great time working with Jeff and his management team and we thank them for all of their help, time and effort. Be sure to check out www.jeffdunham.com to see when he is on tour near you. It will be a show you won’t forget.

June/July 2012

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