Americans are determined to make their personal dreams come true. Take Virginia Williams, for instance: she flies Las Vegas tourists to the southern, unspoiled part of the Grand Canyon. She calls herself an old-timer. “I was in the army for 21 years, but Dennis over there” – she points to her co-worker – “he’s got over thirty years under his belt.” Virginia raises her voice: “Wait a second, are you giving my secret away, Dennis? You don’t have to let everybody know I won my helicopter license yesterday gambling.”

Virginia can afford to kid around. She flies tourists who’ve had good luck at gambling, living, or inheriting to see the natural attractions. Her workplace is fantastic, high above turquoise reservoirs and orange-coloured cliffs. Far below her, wild horses trot across the desert while herds of buffalo trudge along. “Can you see the shadow of that plane? Sometimes it gives you the willies. You never know where exactly they are.” She got her biggest scare one day at the sight of the skyline. “When you fly into the valley, the Luxor Hotel flashes at a certain angle so you think it’s going up in flames. The first time, I was praying my passengers weren’t staying at the Luxor.”

Now comes some turbulence. Virginia, a perfectionist, calms her fellow flyers: “I’ve flown through worse than this! It’s really safe up here.” Focussed and casual at the same time, she steers the helicopter away over the cliffs – “Headwinds, the air can get rough” – into the scorching hot canyon, where she lands on a plateau: “Welcome to my office!”

Virginia comes from Ohio. “After the military, I laid around for a year, because if you’ve served in the army for at least 18 years, you can automatically get a pension. At some point, I realized I wanted to work again.” Occasionally, she’s gone deeper into the gorges. Once she picked up a tired-out millionaire who paid $10,000 for it. There are no access roads there. The land belongs to the Havasupai, who make money from the flight permits over their territory. “The only way they can get supplies is by helicopter or burro.” 

Flying back. To round out the tour, Virginia flies a big circle over downtown Las Vegas, banking the machine into the curve. “What, not scared anymore? Freeway’s a lot more dangerous! The coolest thing is when someone’s nervous getting on the helicopter and after two hours in the air they’re all stoked.” 

Las Vegas is crazy and mystifying to a non-gambler, even if it is impressive. I can’t get excited about it. For that I’ve got to fly. 

Excerpted from the book Die Amerikafalle (The America Trap), Vienna: Kremayr & Scheriau, 2018.

Translated by Geoffrey Howes