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Gift of Helicopter Will Keep Archbishop Mahony Above the Fray

Times Staff Writer

A group of private donors has given a jet-powered helicopter to Roman Catholic Archbishop Roger M. Mahony, who intends to fly it on business trips around the sprawling archdiocese.

Mahony--who received his helicopter pilot’s license last summer--declined to discuss the donation. But a church spokesman said the archbishop will use the helicopter to avoid traffic congestion as he conducts the business of his office at locations throughout the 8,300-square-mile archdiocese, which includes Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties.

Acquisition of the helicopter apparently makes the Los Angeles archdiocese the only entity of the Roman Catholic church anywhere to own and operate a helicopter. Spokesmen for the Vatican and at the Vatican’s embassy in Washington said Pope John Paul II is flown in helicopters owned by the Italian military.

David Moore, executive director of communications for the archdiocese, said, “My impression (is) that he expects to use it for inter-diocesan and intra-diocesan work.”

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The archdiocese said that, in preparation for Mahony’s anticipated extensive use of the helicopter, several Catholic high schools and two seminaries have been directed to prepare landing sites. The archdiocese has also embarked on an attempt to secure landing rights for Mahony’s chopper in downtown Los Angeles.

The archbishop lives at the downtown St. Vibiana Cathedral rectory. The donor group was organized by prominent Los Angeles attorney Richard J. Riordan, a close friend of the archbishop, and involved a gift of the $395,000 aircraft and related support services. Riordan said he and four other people--whom he declined to identify--organized a nonprofit corporation to buy the helicopter and give it to Mahony.

Riordan and Moore declined to answer most questions about the helicopter acquisition. The archdiocese has scheduled a press conference for Tuesday to announce the gift.

Both aviation-safety experts and social activists contacted by The Times raised questions about the helicopter acquisition.

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Catherine Morris, a spokeswoman for the Catholic Worker organization, was critical of the helicopter arrangement. “It seems like there are a lot of fairly important needs in the diocese that $395,000 could help along,” Morris said. “The problems and needs of the homeless . . . and the refugee and immigrant populations far exceed what is being done by the diocese.

“If he (Mahony) is going to set a good example, he’d say, ‘Thank you very much’ and give it (the helicopter) back.”

The Rev. Alice Callaghan, an Episcopal priest and former Roman Catholic nun who heads the Skid Row agency Las Familias del Pueblo, also expressed concern. “The poor become the touchstone against which owning (a helicopter) must be justified,” Callaghan said. “If an ethical case can be made, may he fly in peace.”

Experts on helicopter safety said the skills of a relatively inexperienced pilot like the archbishop may be tested to the limit by the demanding atmosphere of the urban Los Angeles airspace.

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Helicopter industry sources said that, because of the complexities of flying here, virtually all pilots in the Los Angeles airspace are professionals. Those complexities range from airspace overcrowding to variations in weather conditions. Officials of both the McDonnell-Douglas Helicopter Co. and Bell Helicopter Textron, the two major manufacturers, said they are aware of just a handful of Los Angeles corporate executives who personally fly business helicopters.

Barry Schiff, a private Los Angeles-based aviation safety expert, characterized helicopters as more demanding and “unforgiving” than fixed-wing aircraft. “It (a helicopter) is not the kind of vehicle that amateurs generally fly because helicopters require a bit more skill and cunning,” Schiff said.

Insurance restrictions on Mahony’s flight activity so far prohibit him from flying his helicopter alone. He is required to take a certified instructor on any flight, according to one of the archbishop’s flight instructors. The instructor said Mahony is “an excellent pupil” who is “just learning” the complexities of the turbine-powered aircraft he is to fly. Mahony took a two-hour flying lesson on Wednesday; information on his total flying time was not available.

Mahony’s helicopter is a 7-year-old Hughes 389D that was owned until late January by a Carlsbad aviation service. The gift by the Riordan-organized group also includes operating costs, insurance and maintenance. A spokesman for McDonnell-Douglas, the Mesa, Ariz., manufacturer of the Mahony craft, said the archbishop’s helicopter costs about $175 an hour to fly.

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Mahony’s chopper, said a spokesman for La Jolla Aviation, which previously owned the craft, was extensively refitted within the last few months.

Riordan said he negotiated a lease-back agreement with Helinet Aviation Services Inc., based at Van Nuys Airport. Under the agreement, Helinet is providing flight training and other services in exchange for the right to rent the archdiocese’s helicopter to private clients--with the revenue to partially offset operating costs for church business. Riordan said the intent was to have the lease-back totally offset the archdiocese’s operating costs.

However, a spokesman for Helinet, who asked not to be identified, said lease-back arrangements generally cannot recover all of the costs incurred by the aircraft owner.

At least three American Catholic dioceses--Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska, and Gallup, N.M.--own fixed-wing aircraft used to transport bishops and other clerics over long distances in often rugged terrain. Enough Catholic clergymen fly that there is even an organization called the National Assn. of Priest Pilots, which claims a membership of 230 worldwide. A spokesman for the association said Mahony is not a member and only one priest other than the archbishop--a U.S. Navy chaplain--is known to be licensed to fly helicopters,

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The chaplain, Capt. James Kelley, of the Alameda Naval Air Station, expressed concern about Mahony’s plan to fly himself around the Los Angeles archdiocese. “He could be asking for a lot of trouble,” said Kelley, who also holds a commercial pilot’s license and instructor certificate. Kelly said inexperienced pilots--particularly novice helicopter pilots--"can just kind of blunder into this and that and not even know what’s going on.

“Flying a helicopter is no easy task. He (Mahony) has a lot to offer the church and it might be better for him to just get a driver and sit and do his work in the back of the car.”

However, Bishop Francis Hurley, of the Diocese of Anchorage, said he could “see a great use for it in Los Angeles considering the communities to which he (Mahony) is going.” Hurley, who has been a priest-pilot in Alaska for 19 years and knows Mahony, said, “I’ve always thought that a helicopter would be very useful in areas of high traffic.

“If you wanted to have a real flight of fantasy, what would happen if he (Mahony) kept (the helicopter) at (St. Vibiana) Cathedral and used it to hop from parish to parish, other than petrifying all the parents (when he landed)?”

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