The home stretch of the quest for a helicopter rating add-on to my airplane commercial was the most intensely challenging and rewarding aeronautical experience I have ever had.
Fifty-plus years and several thousand hours of flight experience—time that included crop dusting, bush flying in Africa, King Air charter work in the Northeast, advanced glider aerobatics, hang gliding, ownership of a Taylorcraft, a Navion, two Skybolts, a TriPacer and a Clipper—had subdued my wonder somewhat and fostered a familiarity with flying that rightfully belongs to birds, not men. My love of flying was beginning to fade toward complacent affection.
Needing to add some spice to a time-worn passion, I felt beckoned toward learning the helicopter with an ever-increasing persistence I couldn’t ignore. So I took action.
Part Two ended with my first solo—three trips around the pattern. There were two more pattern solos to follow.
In this final installment, we get to the heart of the matter and the bulk of the flying. I wrestle with doubts about my ability to ever fly this machine competently, all the while falling in love all over again.
Hillsboro Aero Academy’s FAA-Approved Part 141 commercial helicopter add-on rating was the matchmaker I chose; they had an active fixed as well as rotor wing flight school.
The director of training, Dan Doepker, was a rare bird, dual rated in both airplanes and helicopters, so my training had known precedent. If it worked out, I would join the ranks as a hybrid, dual-rated pilot.
HAA’s lesson plans and training evolved from decades of experience with literally thousands of graduates. Every detail, the content and sequence of each lesson, performance standards, flight deck protocols and published maneuver procedures, required flight dual and solo flight hours, and progressive stage checks revealed a process honed to a fine point. Nothing in the lesson plan was arbitrary.
Compared to the world of airplanes, rotor wing aerodynamics is a much deeper dive into behavior of air around airfoils—especially rapidly spinning airfoils and the mysterious gyroscopic and torque forces that powered vertical flight conjures. It was fascinating. And complicated. I was engaged.
To fly a helicopter, a pilot must understand and be able to envision the ring state vortex of the main rotor and tail rotor as they trail behind during forward flight or lurk about during hovering, steep descents or certain departure turns, threatening to undermine and outrun lift or control authority for an unwary pilot. Attention to the wind direction and flow is a cardinal requisite for safe rotor wing flight all the time.
In an airplane, the approach to landing glide path is fixed in a narrow band defined aerodynamically by the wing’s critical angle of attack and operationally by adjusting approach airspeed, flap and power settings—within the relatively narrow margins as published in the Pilots Operating Handbook for that airplane and normally resulting in a two- to three-degree glide slope.
In a helicopter, the approach to landing glide path is defined by the pilot making discrete yet interconnected control inputs continuously during the descent. This hands-on flying enables the pilot to select and vary the descent glide path from 0 degreesto 90 degreesat any airspeed, including zero, and in any direction. It’s uber cool, uber fun, and uber useful.
That is why Hillsboro Aero Helicopter Chief Instructor Lasse Brevik says, “Airplanes fly two dimensionally through three-dimensional space while the helicopter can fly in all three dimensions simultaneously and in any combination.” It sounds easy, but believe me, it’s not easy to get your head around this concept.
My helicopter flight training for the real world began to take off post-solo with training flights primarily focused on building control coordination with a paced introduction to advanced flight capabilities and maneuvers unique to helicopters.
The first advanced maneuver I met was the quick stop during an air taxi.
Helicopter taxi operations on a controlled airport come in two varieties.
The hover taxi is used to traverse short distances at a brisk walking pace while hovering normally 3 to 5 feet above the ground.
An air taxi, on the other hand, is (according to the Aeronautical Information Manual), “the preferred method for helicopter ground movements” because it’s faster, more fuel efficient and minimizes disruptive downwash on the ground. A typical Air Taxi profile is 40 feet AGL and 40 knots airspeed. ATC will expect helicopters to remain below 100 feet AGL during Air Taxi.
Imagine for a moment taxiing on a busy airport at 40kts without brakes.
The quick-stop maneuver takes the place of brakes for a helicopter in Air Taxi mode and is accomplished with a simultaneous lowering of collective, aft cyclic and right pedal inputs, a bit more complicated than just tapping on the brakes in an airplane.
When properly done, the result is a graceful, elegant maneuver; the nose pitches up without gaining altitude while forward motion is simultaneously halted as the craft returns to level—a move with the harmony and grace of a wild goose flaring to land.
In training, the maneuver serves a more fundamental role; it teaches and drills accurate control harmony in all three axis, building on the control finesse learned first in static hovering.
It was during quick stop training that I first began to feel that I was wearing the helicopter, not riding it.
After the first quick stop, I remember turning to my instructor, Brett, with a big smile, saying, “Now that was fun!”
I was falling for this machine.
Then came more ground school and a long series of training flights to introduce, practice and fine-tune standard and steep approaches, spot landings to commercial standards and important emergency procedures.