Four years ago John and Jan Sessions were looking for a plane with short field capability. John was in the process of bulldozing a flat 700-foot-long spot on top of a hill in the Texas backcountry and needed a plane that could take off and land in that space.
He chose a Helio Courier, one of the most capable short takeoff and landing aircraft in the world. This year, the couple flew that plane, a Helio Courier 391B model, to SUN ‘n FUN from their home in Kirbyville, Texas.“I’ve been fascinated with the Helio for a long time,” said John, a physician and aviation medical examiner in Kirbyville. “I met a person from JAARS at Oshkosh 10 years ago and I was fascinated by their jungle flying. And I always like to have something out of the ordinary, so I put an ad in that I wanted a Helio Courier. I got a call from this person in Washington State that this plane had been in the family since new and they were selling it. I went up to look at it and bought it. They flew it back to Texas for me.”
“I got about an hour’s training from the guy who owned it before I flew it,” John said. “They told me to lock the tailwheel because it had a tremendous tendency to ground loop because of the huge tail. I haven’t had a ground loop, but I’ve had a couple of off-road experiences in the grass.”
Jan Sessions, also a licensed private pilot and a registered nurse, usually flies right seat for her husband in the Courier. That includes most of the outings from Kirbyville, which is 50 miles north of Beaumont in East Texas.
“She is the best VFR pilot you can find,” John said. “You just turn it over to her. She can hold a course and altitude as good as any autopilot.”
“It is a very, very different airplane,” Jan said. “I have never landed it. I have held the controls and worked it down on the descent. It is so strange. It is a delayed response. You have to be way ahead of it. It flies so slow it is disconcerting. You feel like you are going to fall out of the sky, but you don’t.”
The Helio Courier has been known as a great short field and backcountry performer since the first plane came off the production line at the Helio Aircraft Company in Pittsburg, Kansas, in 1954. The Courier, which advertised a minimum landing speed of 28 mph, was flown by the U.S. military in Southeast Asia.
A popular version with the military and the Central Intelligence Agency was the U-10 Super Courier. More than a dozen versions of the Helio were built, including a twin-engine model thought to be exclusively for the CIA. The Helio is still used as a slow-flying camera platform at sporting and outdoor events.
The Sessions’ Courier has a 39-foot wingspan, a loaded weight of 3,600 pounds, and a range of about 950 miles carrying five people. The aircraft, N4121D, has a geared Lycoming engine, the GO-435.
To improve slow-flight characteristics, the Helio uses Handley Page leading-edge slats that deploy automatically when the speed drops below approximately 60 mph. The plane also has high lift slotted flaps and a large vertical tail surface and large rudder, ensuring control down to about 27 mph.
About 500 Couriers with various configurations and engines were built over the 20-year production span of the plane from 1954 to 1974. The production run of the 391B was 102 aircraft.
Helio Courier production was resumed under new ownership briefly in the 1980s, but only a handful of planes were assembled.
“I spent a fair amount of time at SUN ‘n FUN and at Oshkosh conversing with people who flew the plane and also time on the phone talking about the plane,” John said.
But in the end, he had to take it into the air himself and learn its flying characteristics. And that produced one big surprise.
“I went out one Sunday morning before church with a north wind howling,” he recalled. “I only had about 20 hours in the airplane at the time. I finally got lined up on the runway and put in 10 cranks of flaps, about 15°, held the brakes and powered up. To my amazement the airplane never rolled, it just lifted off the runway where it was sitting and began to climb. When it was 10 feet in the air it started forward. I knew I was flying, but at first I was not going anywhere.”
The strip John flies into and out of is quite a challenge, he noted.
“It is on top of a hill that you have to come over,” he said. “There are some 100-foot pine trees and then you drop down into a short valley. The strip is 700 feet and at the other end there is about a 250-foot drop off to a creek and it comes right back up again. When you take off you are heading for another wall of trees.”
According to John, his landing technique is “just as you are getting on downwind, bring the speed back to 80 mph, so you really have to pull the power back to 10 to 12 inches of manifold pressure and that will put you about on base. On base you crank in half flaps. As you crank in the last of the flaps you continue to slow the airplane down to 45 mph. The inboard slats will deploy at about 50 and the outboard slats at about 45 mph. Then you control your power to keep your ideal sink rate of 300 feet per minute down to the numbers. When we landed here at SUN ‘n FUN, we were doing 40 or 45 on final. We flared and landed at 25 mph right on the numbers and stopped in about 100 feet.”
The Sessions’ Helio is based out of KJAS airport at Jasper, Texas, north of Kirbyville, but they also have their own grass strip and hangar. In addition they also own two more airport hangars that house their other planes.
“We also have a Champ, a PA-12, two 150s and two 182s,” John said.
If he had to pay hangar rent, he would probably sell the other planes off, he added.
“Two of our children are pilots, but they don’t fly much,” Jan noted. “Some of it is the expense, but they don’t have the passion for it that their dad does.”