What It’s Like To Fly a Helicopter (Prologue)

When I was a kid I’d wake up from dreams of skimming treetops — sans aircraft — often just hovering there horizontally, arms fully extended, looking down at the amazed upturned faces. When I was a bit older — ten, perhaps — I would occasionally have dreams akin to what they later did in the movie Brewster McCloud with Bud Cort, wherein I had somehow cheated the laws of physics and could fly just by furiously flapping my arms. What freedom! What joy! What a feeling of being alive! … Then I’d wake up. I remember the feeling of crushing disappointment when I realized it was a dream. Dang!

Somehow I managed not to jump out of any open windows wearing my Zorro cape and pajamas … and I grew up (got older, anyway). I always remembered those dreams, though. I often wonder how many other pilots had dreams like mine…

Of course, every so often, as ‘grownups‘, we do soar skyward, but we don’t do it without screaming jet engines, a cacophonous headlong rush down several thousand feet of concrete, and the assistance of hurricane force winds rushing over gigantic aluminum wings in accordance with the laws of physics. And a few of us (mostly, those reading this, now) have at one time known the feeling of commanding a flying machine to leap from the earth’s surface to join the tumbling mirth of sun split clouds, etc. etc.

According to the latest numbers from the US Census Bureau and the Federal Aviation Administration, about one out of every 445-or-so of us is an active pilot, and commits this act of flight — goodness gracious — possibly on a fairly regular basis. But have you ever wondered what it would feel like to be held aloft without all that headlong hullabaloo and the need for a typhoon over your tail feathers? I’m not talking about some Buck Rogers pulp fiction here, Star Wars, Tinkerbell, or the Man from Glad with a jet pack. I mean being able to take off and land at will — whenever and (almost) wherever you want, with little or no forward motion.

Maybe I saw too many episodes of the Whirlybirds TV show as a kid back in the late 50’s, but I’ve always been fascinated by helicopters. It took a little more doing for us to figure out how to beat the air into submission, although Leonardo da Vinci conceived the idea well before it was a real engineering possibility. Although the first un-tethered ‘manned‘ helicopter flight (all 20 seconds of it) was in 1907, the first ‘real‘ helicopter wasn’t to fly until a good third of a century after the Wright Brothers first took wing. And we’ve been at it ever since. They really are amazing machines.

If you are already a pilot and you’ve never ridden in one, your first ride will probably leave you awestruck and in utter fascination. It is the ultimate off-road vehicle. Next to an F-16 or the Space Shuttle, it’s the proverbial el primo E-ticket ride.

No emperor’s throne could touch it; no dream can equal its rapture. First off, you’re in a machine that can fly straight up, sideways, and backwards. You can do an adjutant’s halt, spin around on your heels inside your own length, check your six o’clock, and pirouette back again. You can take off from a space not much bigger than you are. You can land in your own back yard. Next to something real pointy with a bubble canopy flown by guys with names like ‘Viper‘, you are the coolest thing on the base.

Learning to hover one of these critters is one of the most challenging and transforming experiences you’ll ever have. Once you’ve bucked one of these babies and burned that feedback loop into your wetware — recognized to be about as easy as learning to ride a unicycle — you’ll be in a special fraternity indeed.

If you like numbers, I’ll give you some more. Here’s an idea of just how exclusive a brotherhood it really is: In the US, less than one out of every ten thousand people is so credentialed. But here’s something else: You can fly as high as your Skyhawk cousins, but you can also fly as low as you want.

Aside from flying such that you wouldn’t be creating an ‘undue hazard to persons or property on the surface‘ should your engine quit, you can ignore that ‘1000 feet higher than the highest obstacle within a radius of 2000 feet‘ jazz. Plus, that thing about being no closer than 500 feet from any person, vessel, vehicle, or structure in sparsely populated areas — forget that, too. As long as you don’t create a hazard to people on the ground — all in FAR 91.119 — in helicopters, buzz jobs are legal. (That’s not to say you don’t have to be real careful, because one of the leading causes of accidents in helicopters is wire strikes.) And the regs exempt you from some of the visibility minimums required by airplanes (91.155 and 91.157). Why? Part of the reason is that the goldarn things are so maneuverable. They can get into and out of almost anywhere and fly slow enough to let you ‘feel your way along the walls.’ It’s no surprise that helicopters are the only form of conveyance created by man that have saved more lives than they’ve taken.

Yeah, helicopters are cool. And they really aren’t that forbiddingly difficult to learn how to fly. Next, let’s dig back into your childhood memories for a second. Remember those training wheels, and the day you tackled a two-wheeler, and won? You may not have had the words to express it back then, but didn’t it seem like a preternatural feat of near-impossible proportions to balance that bike, with you on top of it, on those thin rubber tires? (An even better example of apparent kinesthetic improbability would’ve been learning to walk, but most of us don’t have memories that far back!) Sure, forward motion confers gyroscopic stability to some extent, but you knew even then that you were taking on a physical activity that involved making such small and rapid corrections that it seemed overwhelming! They have to be made so quickly for example that, if you have to think about it, it’s already too late!

BOTTOM LINE (Part 1): I’ve got a hot flash for ya: Helicopters aren’t any different. All you are doing is establishing a ‘feedback loop’ within the inner confines of your nervous system. Once you burn it in, it’s there forever. People don’t usually ever forget how to ride a bike, and once you can hover, you can always hover. It’s just another rotor… er, motor… skill. More on that, next time.