What It’s Like To Fly a Helicopter (Part 3)

No more excuses, no more preparation — it’s time to go up. You’re buckled in and watching as the mixture goes to full rich, master on, strobe on, and the engine comes to life. A flick of the clutch and alternator switches, and a couple of seconds later, the rotors begin turning as you don headsets. (That’s funny… same green domes you’ve seen everywhere else, but there’s only one stubby little jack to plug in, instead of two… oh, well. Ask later.) Oil pressure check, avionics on, and the hot mic switch comes on. Then you sit as the engine warms up.

Mag check,
carb heat check,
low rpm horn check,
sprag clutch check — frictions off, governor on… and eyes outside.

You follow along as the collective is slowly raised, and you feel that change in the vibrations that tells you you’re getting light on the skids. You can feel the cyclic moved slightly, and now… you rise.

He lets you try it, though you can see his hands right there, ready. He says, ‘Go ahead, let’s move forward a bit, take it slow.’ You move the cyclic forward, and all hell breaks loose. You’re gyrating to and fro… yawing left and right… Not holding hover height at all! You find out as your instructor assumes control that you really didn’t need to move the cyclic, but give just a gentle pressure. OK, you try again.

Just the slightest nudge. That’s better… wait, now we’re sinking — and we’re turning! You push on the pedals, but it gets worse! You find out that, because you diverted some downward thrust sideways with the tail rotor, you needed just-a-gentle-squeeze more throttle (which you actually started to do, but too late). Of course, there’s more: You also had to compensate for the now-increased torque with the tail rotor pedals. The problem was, this isn’t like a sled, or a bike. Here, if you want to go right, you push right — not left! (Think about it.) A few more tries at this and you’re starting to understand why it happens, but getting it to be instinctive will take time. (For those of you who fly airplanes, you already slew this baby dragon when you learned to taxi.)

If your instructor handles the throttle, plus the collective, plus the pedals, (leaving you with just the cyclic) then — after a few minutes — you find you can actually stay within an area the size of a basketball court for at least 10 seconds… Hey, progress! Now he says ‘Let’s go buzz around the pattern.’ As you watch and follow along on the controls, he slowly edges the cyclic forward, with little increase in collective, and you begin picking up speed.

As you reach 15 knots or so, you feel a slight shudder, and he explains that you’re going through ‘Effective Translational Lift‘ (ETL), as the rotor becomes more efficient. You feel a slight twinge of vertigo as you start gaining altitude above 25, then 50, then 100 feet as you climb out at 60 knots. (And he’s adding LEFT pedal!) You feel like the eye stalk on some kind of crustacean as you realize how totally panoramic the view is from in here. You can see everywhere except right behind you, with no obstruction except that tiny console.

He lets you have the controls on downwind. You begin to notice that you’re a good couple-of-hundred feet lower here than the usual airplane pattern altitude. It feels a bit weird, at first. You concentrate on maintaining altitude with the collective, but you see the airspeed dipping down to 50, then 40… oh no! No. Wait a minute, that’s right — you’re not going to stall! He lets you honk back a bit more until there you are, at 600 feet and a fixed point in space, not moving at all. You inch forward on the cyclic, as you pick up speed again. Oops — lost a couple hundred feet there… So you raise the collective a bit, but it’s time to turn a right base, so you push lightly on the right pedal. You get admonished for making an ‘airplane turn.’ Nope, just lateral cyclic here. He explains that at this speed, you only need a little more than half the power that you did in a hover.

You watch as you close in on that tiny dolly over by the hangar, and you feel the sensation of returning to a more ground-bound perspective than from on high. And boy, that’s a steep approach! Nope. Perfectly normal, he says… 10 degrees — a steep approach is more like 15. (And then if you have to get into a confined area, the last 50 feet or so can be 45 degrees or more.) He controls closure with the cyclic, angle with the collective. You feel him add power as that lateral ‘ETL’ vibration comes back, and more as you enter a four foot hover, and the carb heat comes off.

He sidles over to that dolly, ever so smoothly, and like it was part of him, gently and precisely sets the skids down right in the middle of it. He slowly lowers the collective, neutralizes the cyclic & pedals, shuts the governor off, and throttles down to a cool-down rpm of about 70%. He says, ‘Well, what do you think?’ You grin and give him a thumbs up, and you see from his smile that he knows it was a perfunctory question.

Welcome to rotordom.