There is a subtle yet profound difference between the learning of something and the knowing of that thing. You can learn by reading, but you don’t begin to know until you begin to try to do.
Part One of this three-part series ended with my first sustained “controlled” hover—nothing steady or rock solid about it, more like an in-process field sobriety test flirting with a night in jail, but it was a hover. And it was good enough to move on. And the bar wasn’t that high—it was wobbly, drift, and floaty—but I could stay within that fuzzy boundary between in and out of control, thanks to the constant stream of verbal guidance from my instructor and periodic (at first all the time) exchange of controls to stabilize the ship. But over the course of time that diminished noticeably—progress.
Subscribe today to Plane & Pilot magazine for industry news, reviews and much more delivered straight to you!
Virtually every helicopter flight begins and ends in a hover. It’s the cornerstone of helicopter flying. So, as soon as I could keep the helicopter within the same 60-foot circle (mostly in a tipsy student hover), my instructor began building the skill with hovering pedal turns, hover/taxi—at first over asphalt taxiways, crossing over the taxiway edge over the mowed grass (mushier), over the un-mowed grass (an eerie feeling, this long grass, almost magnetic, trying to suck me down). The surface texture mattered. Who knew?
The rotor wing lore/tribal knowledge continued flowing, revealing how and why and interconnectivity of things—things an airplane pilot never has to consider or confront, like the impact of a helicopter’s unique capabilities and lurking aerodynamic traps during taxi, departure and arrival procedures.
This flow steadily opened new vistas and a new aeronautical point of view—possibilities, issues and realizations impossible for an airplane pilot to imagine without the doing.
I expected to have a head start on many seemingly common skill sets and was discovering quite the opposite; many of my well-honed and habituated airplane flying skills were inappropriate, and some could even be life threatening if applied in a helicopter.
My first inkling was at first a mystery to me. I could not talk on the radio, nor did I understand many of the transmissions. I missed a lot of calls. My brain was 110 percent task saturated just flying the helicopter.
Think about it. In this machine, once you are ready to start the helicopter, both hands and feet become fully engaged on the controls. All your checklists, chart and notes are on your kneepad in the presumed order you will need them. This adds a whole new dimension to flight planning.
Ergonomically, if the main rotor runs counter clockwise, the pilot’s seat is on the left. The collective is on the left side of the pilot’s seat. Once the engine is running, it is the only control you can momentarily let go of, and only at altitude (meaning at least several hundred feet), to scratch your nose, tune the radio or flip a switch. If you are right handed, practice writing with your left hand, because your right hand is married to the cyclic and will never leave the cyclic until the skids are firmly on the ground, the engine is shut down and the rotor has stopped spinning. Let that sink in.
Flight deck resource management is a fundamental and mandatory flight planning skill in helicopters, one that can rapidly develop from an “incident” level (I dropped my pen, and it’s rolling around on the floor) to an emergency level (dropped my pen, and it’s jammed the torque pedals).
After the extensive preflight checklist is completed, there is one final critical check before becoming airborne—the low rotor RPM Check. Loss of rotor RPM below a critical value will result in structural failure of the main rotor blade and is unrecoverable—equivalent to the loss of a wing. So there is a warning light and horn if the RPM decays below 97 percent. It sounds just like a stall warning horn in an airplane. But the recovery control sequence is totally opposite from what you would do in an airplane stall recovery. Doing what your airplane pilot muscle memory triggers you to do when the low rotor RPM warning horn goes off is a catastrophic mistake in a helicopter. That well-practiced instinctual fixed-wing pilot response will kill you.
Another airplane skill that will trip you up is unconsciously flaring as you land (settle into a hover at the end of our approach). Flaring to touch down is burned into your fixed-wing muscle memory, but in a helicopter the “stick” controls direction and speed of motion. You don’t flare into the hover, you settle into it—with the nose level if you flare, you will move backward and risk hitting the tail and ruining your day.
In these examples, the more fixed-wing experience a pilot has, the more has to be unlearned and relearned for rotor wing operations. These embedded reactions are baggage for the rotary add-on student and compel extreme mindfulness and attention be directed to conceptualizing and applying the specific aerodynamic manipulations and phenomena underlying the unique capabilities and operating characteristics of a helicopter. In short, you need to unlearn the things that are most dear to your fixed-wing pilot’s built-in toolbox of control responses.
This hidden extra issue with airplane pilots also keeps the instructor on HIGH alert. The levels of concentration for an airplane pilot transitioning to rotor wing and the CFI are significantly greater during the first two trimesters of training.
So after the low rotor RPM warning horn/light test, we are finally ready to leave the ramp and taxi to (“do I call ground control? What do I say?”).
First the “pick-up”—a gentle maneuver where we raise the collective slowly. This simultaneously increases power of the engine and the pitch of the main rotor blade so it is taking a stronger, bigger bite of the air. This generates more lift (while the governor maintains engine and rotor RPM in the green) and gently lifts the helicopter, no longer ground bound but now airborne 3 to 5 feet above the ground on a cushion of air.
There is a whole lot of finesse required in the pick-up since there is NO discernable detent/feedback/pressure from any of the controls to indicate which way the helicopter will go when the bird gets light enough on the skids for the forces to overcome the ground contact friction.
So…all senses are on high alert with eyes out on the horizon as the collective is SLOWLY raised…waiting to sense that razor-thin moment before the helicopter breaks partially free of ground friction and gives a slight hint of control input correction for a steady, smooth step away from ground-bound to airborne.
This moment comes as a scraping slight yaw to the left or right and/or a miniscule rock forward, back or sideways. When counteracted by control inputs, an almost indiscernible increase of pull on the collective and left pedal does the trick, and the helicopter is in a hover. You have stepped off the ground and up into the air.
With an almost imperceptible pressure in the desired direction, you nudge the helicopter to float on this cushion of air and “hover taxi” to the nearest heli spot, marked by a cone on the airport grass between the parking ramp and the taxiway.
Arriving at the heli spot, you make the first radio call—in this case to the tower.
In the event you are operating on a controlled airport with no published heli spots, you may be required to contact ground control and follow the taxiways during a hover taxi. If you have to switch frequencies, you set the helicopter down, full weight on skids. Confirm the collective is full down, let go, reach up, switch the frequency, reconnect with the collective and make your radio call, then pick up again and proceed as cleared.
Unlike the languid fixed-wing taxi, the helicopter in a hover taxi feels and reacts to every minor puff of wind.
Imagine this: You are in a two-man rowboat on an ocean with 1.5-foot gentle swells. As swells roll in, your rowboat gently raises 1.5 feet and then settles back down on the backside of each passing swell. That’s what it’s like in a light training helicopter during a hover taxi in five to eight knots of wind. You learn to ride it.
It’s a lot to think about—a complex process to preplan, manage, anticipate and execute—particularly if you have significant rote fixed-wing habits and expectations that do not apply.
Fully engaged in keeping the helicopter under control, I had no bandwidth to access my meager and underdeveloped file on what to do and say next.
For more than several of my initial flight training hours, I was Comm. Incompetent.
I wasn’t expecting that, either.
You call the tower reporting position and ask for take-off clearance to the west via the “Mushroom Departure.” (Don’t laugh; it’s a real thing.) You are cleared as requested; the tower chimes in, but adds, “at your own risk,” a phrase airplane pilots seldom hear.
The FARs allow helicopters to arrive and depart in almost any direction (depending on local obstructions or noise-sensitive areas) that works as long as the helicopter has in sight—and “remains clear” of—fixed-wing traffic and is cleared to a specific point on the airport. Three hundred feet below the airplane traffic pattern altitude is in the ballpark.
For helicopters, there is no minimum altitude over congested areas (common sense safety, thoughtful airmanship and good neighbor noise abatement practices set most of the local departure/arrival etiquette). Helicopters can also operate in the pattern under special VFR minimums/clear of clouds when the airport is IFR.
From 5 feet above the ground, nose into the wind, with a gentle nudge forward on the cyclic and up pressure for take-off power on the collective (about 2 inches of manifold pressure over hover power setting), the helicopter begins its take-off run in a nose low pitch.
As the forward airspeed builds to 35 knots, we gently level the nose, continue to accelerate to 55-60 knots, and up we go. We stay below 700 feet to underfly the fixed-wing traffic pattern as we depart.
Compared to a helicopter, an airplane is like a freight train on tracks; compared to an airplane, a helicopter is like a spirited horse in an open meadow.
The (add-on) course was now launched in earnest, with every flight preceded by ground school, a clear pre-flight lesson plan and safety briefing always stressing positive three was exchange of control. Hillsboro Aero Academy has strictly enforced and mature safety-driven protocols.
Flight lessons typically review skills previously introduced and generally add a new maneuver or two in a matrix of pattern circuits for warm-up, followed by new maneuver introductions.
Each lesson included well-thought-out and tested sequences: practice on settling with power, introductions to autorotations at altitude, low RPM warning, recovery, autorotations from a hover, aerodynamics, more aerodynamics, more circuits, steep approaches, max performance takeoffs and cross-wind and tail wind taxi.
I remember one particular maneuver that I thought was pretty advanced for my “grade” level—that was the air taxi/quick stop, which was introduced several hours before solo.
Unlike the hover taxi that occurs at a walking pace 3 to 5 feet above the ground and in ground effect, during air taxi, the helicopter is 30-40 feet in the air, moving at around 40 knots, so the rotor disc is fully flying.
Because there are no brakes in the helicopter, in order to stop quickly during an air taxi, the pilot flares the helicopter with aft cyclic while lowering the collective and adding right torque pedal to cancel out the nose yaw. It’s a smooth, coordinated and harmonious control input of all three-axis controls. When forward motion is stopped, the pilot levels the nose and adds power and left torque pedal to control descent rate and nose yaw while settling into a ground hover.
My flying in all maneuvers improved quite noticeably after I’d had the chance to practice air taxi quick stops several times.
I guess the “hover” word scared me into anticipating this maneuver would be a monster to master when, in fact, I found it fun and satisfying, and—like the storytelling trick my instructor, Brett, used to tip me over into being able to hover—this quick-stop maneuver connected some dots deep inside my brain that trimmed up my flying noticeably.
I wasn’t expecting that one.
And so one day, about 30 hours of dual into the flight training, my instructor announced that it was time for me to take my Stage One check ride, clearing me for my first solo flight.
He thought I was ready. I thought he was nuts.
I passed the stage check, and the director of flight training approved my instructor’s solo recommendation—I was cleared to do my first solo.
A day or two later, we went up, shot a couple of approaches, and Brett told me to set the helicopter down on the taxiway. He called the tower on his handheld and advised, “Instructor leaving the helicopter, student first solo.” He looked at me, smiled and said, “Fly two circuits, unless I wave you down after the first. You’ll do fine.”
He got out, cleared the area, and I picked up. I called the tower for clearance, got it, took a deep breath and talked to my (now-missing) instructor, verbalizing every action through the takeoff, climb, approach and landing.
The helicopter and I survived. I was happy and aware there was a lot more to learn.
Still to go…dual day and night cross country flights, solo cross country flight, perfecting the auto rotation, off airport and slope landings, and takeoffs.
And then…the check ride.