I was bewildered during preflight and startup—vaguely familiar but with way more steps that I didn’t fully understand—couldn’t yet correlate.
I was sure that once we got going—got airborne—I’d be at home. After all, I’d been flying airplanes for many years. This was my introductory flight lesson for the rotor wing add-on rating to my airplane pilot license.
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After start up and final systems checks—sitting on the ground with everything spinning, with what seemed to me like full power—we got ATIS. My instructor called the tower, asked for and got clearance to the cone (the cone?) and, with me loosely following on the controls, we levitated straight up 5 feet, stopped for a moment, then gently turned away from the asphalt and floated over mowed grass, as steady as a rock.
My instructor, Brett, was relaxed and attentive.
I was mesmerized and on the edge of my seat.
At walking pace, we glided to a stop in mid-air, made a 90° pivoting turn to the right, floated forward 150 feet or so at a brisk “walk” to an orange cone—a designated “heli-spot” on the airport where helicopters hover, awaiting further clearance away from the ridged traffic of fixed-wing aircraft on taxi way.
Again we pirouetted to the right just shy of a 180° arc and faced into the wind. The controls moved almost imperceptibly while the ship’s reaction seemed out of sync, making it impossible for me to relate control inputs to ship’s response.
My perception was hyper-tuned—I was in a high-contrast reality, a stark dream, exciting and surreal. Brett asked me to loosen up on the torque pedals (aka to me: “rudder” pedals) as we just hung there, magically suspended, steady.
The approach end of Runway 31 was at our 8 o’clock position 300 feet away, the ramp we just left to our right. Ahead, I was looking at the airport perimeter fence seemingly just a stone’s throw away—throwing up a small barrier ahead of the four-lane east-west traffic on Cornell Avenue.
Brett called for take-off clearance: “Esplanade West Departure westbound.”
Tower called, “Cleared for take-off.”
“Hey!” I thought. “We’re already in the air. This is different.”
We started moving forward toward the fence, first at the brisk walking pace, then a bit faster. The nose pitched down a bit, but we stayed level at 5 feet.
Again, I thought, “That’s different. “ It would be a recurring thought.
A shudder started at the front and seemed to move backward—it felt like we were flying though a 5-foot-deep invisible curtain of rough air.
As we accelerated forward, the burble seemed to pass through us, moving backward—the entire ship shuddered, and just about then, with the airspeed alive maybe 30 knots, we seemed to shoot up at what felt like a 45° angle. It was like riding up a turbo-charged glass elevator on the outside wall of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
“This is fun!”
As an airplane pilot, have you ever wondered what it’s like to fly a helicopter?
What’s the same? What’s different?
How much of a head start will you have?
Which skills transfer and which ones don’t? I’d soon find out. Or maybe not so soon. We’d see. Either way, I was in it for the full shebang, the helicopter rating.
Fortunately, when I got this assignment, I happened to live just 45 minutes away from the Portland-Hillsboro (Oregon) Airport, home of Hillsboro Aero Academy (HAA), a world-renowned airplane and helicopter Part 141 pilot training facility.
Founded 38 years ago and now one of the largest and most active Part 141 civil flight training academies in the world, featuring a fixed-wing fleet of over 85 single and multi-engine airplanes (from Cessna 152s to King Air C90) and over 20 helicopters, Hillsboro seemed like the right place to start.
HAA Marketing Director Amy Smith arranged a meeting with Helicopter Chief Instructor Lasse Brevik and Brett Schnirring—the rotor wing CFII who was to be my instructor. I had to pass muster.
Brett is a Navy veteran, a former Super Hornet mechanic who left the Navy at the top of his game—one of two sailors on his carrier certified to do full afterburner run-ups.
His service to his country awakened his passion to fly—not to zoom and boom in a capsule high above it all but rather to fly a more utilitarian path—to be a tree-top flier; to dance with the air; to turn on a dime; to slow down, stop and look; to fly and alight freely; to continue in service flying rescue/medevac.
Rotor wing add-ons are relatively rare, and I was Brett’s first such student. As such, he would join a club of helicopter CFIs who have transitioned a pilot from fixed wing to rotor wing, while I would join a similar club of dual-rated pilots. The symmetry of this arrangement promised a deep experience for both of us.
Flight training would be in a Robinson R-22 Beta II, normally aspirated Lycoming 0-360, normally rated by Lycoming at 180 HP. In the Robinson POH, the engine is designated at 145 HP and then further de-rated for five-minute power to 131 HP. Max continuous power is 124 HP, boosting safety margins across a greater span of density altitudes while buffering the TBO further and delivering solid performance for a two-seat light helicopter.
By the time our interview was over, I couldn’t wait to get on with the flying.
Flying now, we crossed the perimeter fence at 250 feet, climbing at about 600 FPM. The nose was level in the climb; seemed strange. But we were flying, and that felt like home to me.
Southbound and level at 700 feet, Brett pointed out “The Esplanade”—a shopping center about a mile south of the airport. “We’ll turn west-bound over The Esplanade to our practice area and climb to 2000 feet after departing Class D airspace,” he explained.
The visibility was phenomenal, and the ride was smooth—like being on a flying balcony over the beautiful Oregon countryside.
At 2,000 feet about 12 miles SW of the airport, over a little valley full of farms and nurseries, Brett talked me through a series of left and right 90°, 180° and 360° turns; first a series in level flight, then descending and climbing. Using the “stick” (cyclic) to bank left and right felt familiar, and the torque pedals seemed to have the same effect as rudder pedals in an airplane (another wrong assumption on my part).
Climbs and descents were controlled by the Collective—a lever mounted much like the emergency brake on some cars. Pulling up adds power and pitch to the main rotor blade; push down, and you descend.
My airplane rating would make learning this machine a breeze, I thought—I understand flight aerodynamics, and the controls were pretty straightforward. Or so it seemed on this first date.
I was beginning to think I would wrap this up pretty quickly. Still, even while I was making my gentle turns and flying straight and level, Brett never let go of anything. Hmm.
That should have tempered my unearned confidence. But it didn’t. At least not yet.
Hidden beneath the apparent simplicity of the control functions of a helicopter is an interrelated complexity that would at first humble me and then begin to reveal the art and finesse of helicopter flying.
After 50 minutes of pretty straightforward flying, we picked up ATIS and turned back to KHIO. Brett contacted the tower, and as we entered Delta airspace, he took over, pointing out landmarks, verbalizing to me everything he was doing and going to do, emphasizing sight pictures—each comment spiced with tips on control inputs and seat-of-the-pants feel. Our landing/touchdown zone had nothing to do with a runway. It was a spot by the ramp in the grass marked by—the cone. Once again, nose level in a 10° glideslope, airspeed decaying to a disquieting 20 knots with a 200-300 foot-per-minute rate of descent, we headed down while slowing to that same brisk walking pace. Try and visualize what that looks like 150 feet in the air and descending with the nose level. Better yet, try that in an airplane. Then again, please don’t.
In an instant, I was a student pilot again on the first approach to landing, way behind the unfolding events, with only fixed-wing flying as reference—my instructor had good reason to be on high alert.
And I was hooked.
In The Beginning
Training began mid-April, first with one-on-one ground school to finish Special Federal Aviation Regulation 73 requirements for operation of Robinson R22 and R44 helicopters, then on to controls and systems, a review of key chapters in the AIM related to rotor wing operations and airport/heliport markings, aerodynamics, more aerodynamics, the aerodynamics of helicopter flight, helicopter operational practices and then a ton of homework.
After five days and several chapters of ground school, along with a tour of the maintenance hangar, where I got a clear, up-close look at major components and controls, Brett finally gave me my first “get down to business” flight lesson.
Here’s How Helicopters Fly 101. The aerodynamic forces manipulated to make powered flight in helicopters are the same at work in airplanes: lift, weight, drag, thrust and Bernoulli’s principle; wing chord, angle of attack, induced drag, “P” factor, relative wind and gyroscopic precession. All are present in the rotor wing aerodynamics but in multiple forms, generated and applied in profoundly different (and complex) ways than they are found in fixed-wing craft.
Rotor-wing lift, for example, comes in several varieties: lift, transitional lift, effective transitional lift and dissymmetry of lift. And the lift becomes thrust on the tail rotor, making a cross wind from the left (for counter-clockwise main rotor) a situation worthy of attention.
The complexities included such phenomena as retreating blade stall, settling with power, translating tendency, low-rotor RPM, LTE (loss of tail rotor effectiveness), dynamic rollover and more. The basic familiar aerodynamic principles were getting complex in this whirlwind of moving airfoils.
Weight was more complex, too. The standard empty weight and max gross weight limits had an additional parameter in the light trainer—minimum weight. That was a new one for me. And weight and balance limits are computed fore and aft and left and right. Another wrinkle.
With an airplane, drag stays where it’s born or induced—generally exerting the same force at the same angle proportional (to forward airspeed) on the CG. In a helicopter, however, induced or parasite drag is more complicated.
Relative wind and angle of attack are simple to understand and visualize for an airplane—pretty much one value for each wing, with some variance in turns.
For helicopters, add resultant relative wind and rotational relative wind defined by induced flow. You get the picture—it gets complicated. And it makes magic.
Back To Flying
On the second date, we got right down to business—the business of hovering. Every normal flight begins and ends in a hover.
The Helicopter Flying Handbook’s first comment on hovering states, “Hovering is the most challenging part of flying a helicopter.” And goes on to state, “…the control inputs in a hover are simple…It is the interaction of these controls that makes hovering difficult, since an adjustment in any one control requires an adjustment of the other two, creating a cycle of constant correction.”
Difficult? Not exactly. Seemingly impossible is a better way to say it. My first two and a half hours of hovering instruction interspersed with flying circuits and approaches were an eye-opener.
During hover instruction time, the chant on the flight deck was “I have controls—roger, you have controls,” repeated over and over again in 15- to 20-second intervals.
For those moments (and I do mean moments) after Brett set us in a stable hover and said, “You have controls,” the hover lasted 10 to 15 seconds before aerodynamic anarchy, courtesy of yours truly, erupted.
By the time we began our third hour of hovering instruction, my record was about 20 seconds, and my hope for success was all but gone.
It was then that the most stunning instructional moment of my aviation career happened.
I was approaching the magical 20-second mark in the hover—the time when the gods of chaos appeared, showing themselves at first with just a slight sway or drift, immediately followed by growing undulation in all four axes threatening a straight-line dash to full-blown loss of control.
It was at that first sign of chaos, the growing undulation part, when Brett said, “Hey, Lou, finish that story you were telling me before our flight.”
“You’re kidding, right?” I croaked as the helicopter entered a unique booty-swaying disco move—the precursor to the all too familiar “I have controls—roger, you have controls” mantra.
He calmly said, “No, finish the story.”
So I started talking and within seconds—like 2 or 3—the hover stabilized. I continued with the story, and the stable hover continued. Brett had to be flying, I thought. So I asked. He said he wasn’t. I shot a quick glance over and he was guarding the controls but not on them. It was me hovering!
I suppose learning to hover is like learning to walk—at some point it becomes unconscious. What just minutes before had seemed impossible was magically now a fact.
When the story was over, a recognizable controlled hover continued —with occasional wanderings—but no chaotic chain reactions.
Looking back, my instructor’s astute professionalism was ushering me gently, almost imperceptibly, into a new and complex skill. I began to trust the process.
In the next installment of this three-part journey, some major surprises—plus dialing in the landing to a hover, running landings, air taxi and quick stops, auto rotations, low rpm recovery and some stunning insights into the good and the bad of airplane muscle memory in transitioning to rotor wing flight.