Friday, December 30, 2005


Introductory Helicopter Lesson

366 days ago, I had my first flying lesson in an airplane. Today, I took a lesson in a helicopter. I want more.

My foray into aviation started with radio-control helicopters. After spending hundreds of dollars on replacement parts, it occurred to me that flying a real helicopter might cost less per hour. I did some research, and settled on fixed-wing aircraft instead of helicopters due to the lower cost and greater practicality. But I've always retained the interest in helicopters.

The lesson started with a bit of ground school. SFAR 73 to Part 61 of the Federal Aviation Regulations requires that no person may manipulate the controls of a Robinson R22 or R44 helicopter unless they have received training in a few specified subject areas. It took about five minutes to cover these things. Then we walked out to the helicopter.

The school offers training in both the two-seat R22 and the four-seat R44. The combined weight of the instructor and myself was over the 400-pound fully-fueled payload limit of the R22, so we took the R44. As with my first sight of a Piper Warrior, I was surprised at how small it looked up close.

We got in, and the instructor started the engine, then explained the controls to me as the engine spun up. There are two pedals on the floor, which control yaw as in an airplane, a joystick-like control called the "cyclic" which controls nose pitch and roll, and a lever called the "collective" which controls up-down motion. (For all you helicopter pilots: yes, I've simplified things greatly. I don't need you to correct me.)

The instructor got the helicopter hovering a few feet off the ground, then taxied over to an open grassy area used for hovering practice. He started my training by letting me control the pedals while he handled the other controls. I've never been really good with the rudder pedals in an airplane, so I wasn't expecting to do very well with this, but it wasn't that bad. The helicopter pedals are very sensitive in comparison to those of a Warrior. Just a little bit of pressure was enough to keep the helicopter pointed where I wanted.

Next, he let me use the collective to maintain altitude a few feet off the ground, while also using the pedals. Things start to get complicated here, because whenever you move the collective, it changes the torque produced by the engine and so you will start spinning unless you press on the appropriate pedal to compensate. And when you press on a pedal, your altitude changes, so you have to move the collective to compensate for that, which changes the torque so you have to compensate with the pedals, and so on, and so on.

Finally, he let me take the cyclic, where things really started going haywire. An airplane is naturally stable—you can take you hands of the controls, and it will tend to return to straight and level flight. In contrast, a hovering helicopter is naturally unstable. One must constantly make little corrections to keep it upright and stationary over the ground. I mastered this with the R/C helicopters, but that experience didn't help much with the full-size helicopter. With the tiny toy helicopters, control changes happen very quickly, but with the big helicopter, it takes a few seconds to see what happens after moving the stick, and by the time you see what's happening, you've gone too far and have to start going in the opposite direction.

The cyclic didn't feel right to me. Most helicopters have a cyclic stick between the legs of each pilot. In a Robinson helicopter, it's a little different. There is a stick coming out of the floor between the two pilots, and then a "T-bar" which puts a handle in front of each pilot. The center of the T-bar pivots at the top of the stick. This leads dumb fixed-wing pilots like me to subconsciously try to turn it like an airplane yoke.

So, for a few minutes, the instructor would give me the controls, I'd keep the helicopter somewhat steady for a few seconds, then would lose control and he would take the controls back. It was fun. I didn't expect to master it my first day. I was improving with each attempt.

We also did a couple of "teardrops," meaning that we flew away from the airport about a mile, turned around, and came back in for a landing. It's a lot simpler and quicker than the rectangular patterns that airplanes fly to practice takeoffs and landings. Takeoffs were easy: just raise the collective and push the cyclic forward a bit, and you're on your way. Once you get moving, you don't have to worry about the pedals, because the tail acts like a weathervane, keeping you pointed in the right direction.

Making a low 180-degree turn in the helicopter was unnerving at first. In an airplane, going low and slow is dangerous, and making a sharp turn in that condition can be suicidal. But the helicopter is always going low and slow, and one need not worry about stalling or spinning. The instructor kept telling me to increase my bank, and I did, but there was a voice in the back of my head screaming at me the whole time.

Flying a couple hundred feet in the air at a slow speed was pretty cool. In the airplanes, we're always at least a thousand feet up when we aren't taking off or landing. At the lower helicopter altitudes and lower speeds, you can see people and other details that aren't visible at traffic-pattern altitude.

A Cessna on final approach passed a few hundred feet over us while I had the controls. The instructor pointed his index fingers at it and made machine-gun noises. That's exactly the same thing my airplane instructor always did! I guess that's something they teach in flight-instructor school.

A helicopter landing is a lot different from an airplane landing. You just slow down and descend until you are a hundred feet up and just downwind of the helipad, then you slowly descend. It's a lot easier to make a soft landing. Parking is a lot easier too: you just hover over to where you want to be, then touch down. No towing needed.

So, it was great. Will I take lessons and get a helicopter license? I don't know. Right now, I think the time and money would be better spent pursuing an airplane instrument rating. Also, I should lose about 30 pounds so that I can take lessons in the $200-per-hour R22 instead of the $400-per-hour R44. So I don't think I'll be taking helicopter lessons in the near future, but may do so later with those other things out of the way.

But there's a part of me that really, really wants to learn how to hover. Right now.

Today, I took a lesson in a helicopter.
A fling wing? 20,000 parts flying in close formation?

I've never been really good with the rudder pedals in an airplane
You were ok! Trust me, there are far worse non-rudder users out there.

And when you press on a pedal, your altitude changes, so you have to move the collective to compensate for that, which...

Sounds like steep turns...

In an airplane, going low and slow is dangerous, and making a sharp turn in that condition can be suicidal.

At least I taught you one important lesson, or at least you remembered one! :P

The instructor pointed his index fingers at it and made machine-gun noises.

I like him already!!!

Glad to hear you're having fun! I've gotten checked out at RYY in a Duchess (two-fans!) and i'm doing some trips around the southeast. Oh your airspace minimums and regs, you know you need to.
It's good to hear from you. It's good to know that you're getting some multi time.

During that low, slow, steep turn in the helicopter, it was your voice I was hearing (actually, screaming). It was very strange having an instructor telling me I needed *more* bank.

Hope you're having fun. Thanks again for teaching me to fly.
Kris: I took a helicopter lesson a few years ago in a R22 and what an awesome experience. I am working on my Commercial and CFI in the airplane right now but hope to go back and get that helicopter rating sometime down the road. Good luck with the lessons and keep us posted on your progress!
Same as My first time Buddy!
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