The Heli Cross-Country, Part I: The Ground Below

I had my chart clipped to my left thigh, and as we passed over my first checkpoint (which was only three miles away from our home field), I started looking for my next one, coming up in about 15 miles — well, it never came up… It seems I’ve always managed to pick flight instructors who liked to let me learn my lessons through experience — I mean, as opposed to actually being warned in advance. I sure learned one lesson about helicopter flying during my very first dual cross-country. (In helicopters, which typically fly shorter missions than airplanes do, ‘cross-country‘ can be anything starting at 25 nautical miles.)


BUT LET’S START AT THE BEGINNING: Steve and I left Gaithersburg Maryland, heading north, 1000 feet up. Although planning a helicopter cross-country flight involves many of the same fixed-wing concerns, such as fuel load, weather, and weight and balance, there are significant differences. First off, we don’t usually fly anywhere near ‘hemispherical rule‘ altitudes (3000 AGL). Compared to airplanes, we’re down in the ground clutter — a common cross-country altitude is 1000 feet AGL. That’s the thing I didn’t realize when I picked my checkpoints: being so low, I never found them because I’d used ‘airplane‘ checkpoint spacing.

When Steve told me to climb up another couple of thousand feet, I got the message.

WYSIWYG: With most small piston helicopter flights — especially in a trainer like a Robinson — the majority of your aerial navigation will be pilotage (supplemented perhaps by a VOR or GPS, if your ship has one). Appropriately, pilotage and navigation get heavy emphasis in the helicopter PTS.

Inside Info: For those of you who are learning to fly these wonderful machines, or someday planning to, you’ll be doing some cross-country flying along the way. Title 14 CFR Part 61.109(c) says three hours of cross-country training, one night cross-country of at least 50 nautical miles, and three hours of solo cross-country time, including the “long” solo cross-country of at least 75 nautical miles with at least three intermediate points.


GUN SIGHTS, ROAD SIGNS AND A THIRD ARM: I’ve done a few more trips since then, and I’ve learned a few more lessons. Fortunately, most of them didn’t involve swallowing too much pride, like that first one!

Heli-XC Lessons:

  • Single-digit spacing on those checkpoints (four miles, not twenty-four!)
  • Road maps can supplement your knowledge of the countryside you’ll be flying over; they offer some kinds of information not found on aeronautical charts.
  • Call ahead to your objective to learn about anything unusual, especially if that’s an off-airport destination. If that intended landing zone is an airport, study facilities, features, and procedures– just like you would for an airplane.
  • Use the ‘gun sight‘ technique. If you’ve chosen checkpoints wisely, you’ll be able to sight along two subsequent checkpoints — as you approach the nearest one, you’ll have the next one in sight. You’ll have less trouble maintaining course. (Once established on a given leg, you visually ‘leapfrog‘ to the next point.)
  • Use a knee-board to hold that chart steady… you don’t have a third arm.
    Low-Altitude Navigation Tip: Out over otherwise featureless farmland, you can often use section lines to assist in maintaining a constant heading (‘crossing angle‘) since they usually run north-south and east-west. Streets and avenues can often be used in the same way for the same reason.
  • Read: There’s nothing wrong with reading water towers — or interstate highway signs — to confirm where you are.
  • Power lines and towers can make for a particularly bad day, if you don’t see them. Visual vigilance is a must. Once you know where they are, of course, they also make great navigational references — as do railroads and highways.
  • Choose multiple identifier checkpoints — a lake at or near intersections of roads, power lines, rivers, and other such features works much better than… a lake.
    Note: This goes for towns, too. Pick more distinctive references than blotches of yellow (unless of course, settlements are few and far between).
  • Over unfriendly terrain, dog-leg over roads (it is customary to stay to the right of them to assure you don’t run into another rotor-head coming the other way). The time lost is usually negligible; the safety benefits are not.
  • Study landmarks: Remember that roads, highways, and runways are usually harder to spot from the side than they are end-on. Consider looking for well-known distinctive buildings and other larger features that are associated with a checkpoint.
  • Use a lower pattern (typically 500 AGL for helicopters), an opposite direction traffic pattern, or (unless local procedures dictate something specific) both, to avoid the flow of fixed-wing traffic.
  • Review confined approach procedures — especially if you plan to land anywhere other than an airport. And take advantage of any down-sloping terrain for likely departure paths, etc.

BOTTOM LINE: Helicopter cross-country flight is a blast, but you’ve got to look at it a little differently. Now that we’ve looked down, next week, we’ll look up a bit, and take a different, swing-wing perspective at helicopter cross-country flight.