Chopper Charm

EC native spins a tale of airborne adventure in India

Justine Childs

Rifle fire. Disease. Toxic moonshine. Lava-spiced curry. Homicidal drivers. Jungle-dwelling rebels. It sounds like the latest action movie starring the latest action hero. But the action hero is Mike Sobotta and the movie was his real life for almost a decade while working as an expatriate American helicopter pilot in India.

Mike grew up in Eau Claire and is a proud alumnus of Cleghorn Elementary, Immaculate Conception Middle School, and Memorial High School. Mike is a U.S. Navy veteran and is currently living in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, with his wife and toddler son. He flies a news helicopter for three Twin Cities news stations.

Mike landed a job flying a helicopter for a company contracted to the Indian government through an Austrian friend he had previously worked with. His Austrian friend was already working in India and recruited (in a manner of speaking) Mike for his piloting expertise. The company he flew for worked for the Indian government to help with their struggle with Maoist insurgents in eastern Indian. During his decade as an expat, Mike also lived and worked in the Solomon Islands, the South Pacific, Malaysia, and Thailand.

Mike’s experiences while flying in India include almost being shot down by the aforementioned insurgents who did not like him flying government personnel into their stronghold. “The fact that I’m alive and able to write about it makes it an adventure, but it was oh-so-close to tragedy,” he says. Rebels weren’t the only danger: Toxic moonshine in the backwater jungles where Mike and his crew operated could kill – and routinely did. Diseases – particularly malaria – were a concern, but mostly Mike suffered stomach issues from the country’s lack of sanitation. Then there was the cuisine, which Mike describes as lava-spiced curry. “My Midwestern-tempered palate found this spicy new assault, well, offensive,” he says. And traveling on Indian’s road system was dangerous, too; in fact, he says, “Calling it a system is quite generous, really.”

“There was always something happening that was so odd, peculiar, or downright hilarious that it needed to be recorded.” – author Mike Sobotta, on his experience in India

After Mike moved from India and took a job in Bangkok – where he flew a helicopter for the wealthiest family in Thailand and one of the largest companies in Southeast Asia – he found himself with a lot of downtime. He had kept journals from his time in India where “there was always something happening that was so odd, peculiar, or downright hilarious that it needed to be recorded.” He decided to turn his notes into a book and worked on it for the next year and a half, naming it India Charm Offensive. The title, he says, “came from the fact that while in India, I would often experience something charming and something offensive within a span of a few short seconds!”

The book opens with Mike based on a Korean fishing boat, out on the blue ocean, flying a Vietnam War-vintage helicopter complete with patched bullet holes. He fondly recalls the men on board, the crew with its various personalities, pulling into port in Honiara or Tarawa and being greeted by beautiful island women. Mike describes learning to work and live in another culture where English is not the first, second, or even third language as the most amazing and rewarding experience he’s had. “I was the only foreigner amongst a varying number of crew,” he says. “We argued, joked, shared accommodations, and became brothers. But it was not easy at times, especially at first, and India Charm Offensive recounts my first year in India.”

You can purchase India Charm Offensive through the author’s website, michaelsobotta.com, as well as through a number of online retailers and at The Local Store, 205 N. Dewey St., Eau Claire.

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