I have fallen in love all over again… I have learned to fly all over again… Flying helicopters has been the perfect combination of art and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). I would say science is what gets them in the air but art is what keeps them flying.
Many of you have asked me to document my airplane to helicopter transition so here I am…
What Does Helicopter Flying Feel Like?
“Open air art exhibit.” “For the privileged view.” “It’s cool when the weather is hot and nice and warm when it is freezing outside.” “A cramped booth, UV bulbs, funny googles.” “Let the outside in.” “Work in a cubicle?” “Stay spontaneous.” “Dollar for dollar.” “Be the first to know it’s raining.” “Youth, beauty, action.”
What do you think all those quotes are?
Well, they are marketing slogans from convertible ads! But it’s funny how they can apply to flying Robinsons too. They really feel like low-to-the-ground sporty convertibles with fantastic visibility, maneuverability, and versatility. At least that has been my experience. And who doesn’t like convertibles?
You know what else it feels like? This:
Haha. No, seriously!
It’s hard to come up with a favorite helicopter maneuver; however, I really enjoy those things I can’t do in an airplane. For example, pirouettes (flying in one direction, at hover altitude, while rotating around oneself) – challenging but lots of fun. Quick stops because you go from a take-off or cruise configuration to a combo between the beginning of an autorotation and the end of a steep approach. And, for a while, I just wanted to do autos (or autorotations, simulated engine outs) as normal approaches. There’s something about dropping 600-800 feet in just seconds that I find amusing.
Differences between Fixed-Wing and Rotor-Wing Flying
The differences between airplane and helicopter flying are immense. So much so that it does not feel like “just an add-on” or transition training; it feels like learning to fly all over again.
I only found a few things transfer or are helpful when transitioning to helicopters:
The rest is pretty much different:
Below, I will explain some of those items.
Helicopter pilots have both of their hands (and feet) pretty occupied at all times but certainly around the airport environment (and especially when taxiing or maneuvering low to the ground). During my first or second lesson… I was (assisted by my CFI) practicing hovering, pedal turns (turning around the CG, without moving forward, backwards, or to either side), etc up and down a taxiway when an airplane turned towards us. We immediately got out of the way and hovered parallel to it, over the grass, letting the airplane taxi past us. The pilot of the airplane waved at us to say hi! Lesson #1 (for me, anyway): Helicopter pilots are not rude if they don’t wave back. They just may not be able to ;) Their left hand is on the collective, the right one is on the cyclic, and cannot let go!
Yes, helicopters are incredibly capable but I was surprised to learn all their limitations and things you can do but you want to minimize doing (i.e. the height-velocity diagram in the R-22). I mean, really surprised. There’s a lot to take into consideration. They are not quite as “superman” as I thought…
Cross-country Lesson #1
I also would have never thought changing frequencies would become one of the hardest things to do but I initially found it to be that way. Why? Well, similar to lesson #1. Autopilots in helicopters are extremely expensive so not that many of them have them. Even though some helicopters (like Robinsons) have trims, they are not like airplane trims where, once you set it, the airplane will stay pretty stable and you can let go for a while before a correction is needed. You literally can’t let go of the cyclic (right hand) and some helicopters (like the one I flew during my cross countries) have pretty sensitive collectives (left hand), making it hard to let go of it in order to change frequencies, look at charts, etc. I learned that the only safe way to do it was to temporarily set the collective’s friction lock to keep it from lowering immediately. And I say temporarily because you don’t want to fly around with your friction lock on all the time. If you need to execute an auto, one of the first things you do is lower the collective all the way down. You don’t want the lock to prevent you from being able to do that. Not to mention you also need to raise the collective at the bottom of the auto to cushion the touchdown.
Oh and how in the world did people fly, without doors, and paper charts in helicopters just a few years ago? Phew! How did they manage to flip it to the right area? I want to bow to them. Thanks, ForeFlight, for making my life a lot easier!
The word “helicopter” is linked to the Greek words “helix/helikos” which means “spiral” or “turning” and “pteron” which means “wing.”
The four principles of flight apply to both types of aircraft; however, helicopters have a long list of additional aerodynamic principles, limitations and other things to be aware of that we do not study in “airplane training.” Some of those include:
I am not explaining them because I could write an entire blog about each of those separately. If you are interested in reading about them, take a look at the FAA’s Helicopter Flying Handbook. You can find it, for free, here.
Thank you, Leonardo da Vinci, Juan de la Cierva y Codorniu and Igor Sikorsky, for all your hard work. You had a LOT to overcome.
I don’t mean the speed in which you need to react to situations. That is definitely much faster in a helicopter than in an airplane. I mean indicated airspeed!
While going slow in an airplane is frowned upon (rightfully so because of stalls/spins unless you are in a STOL capable aircraft), it’s one of the most beautiful things in helicopters. But, I’m not going to lie, the transition from seeing the airspeed indicator go from an approach speed of about 60 kts in a small GA plane to close to 0 kts for a steep approach in a helicopter raised up my blood pressure a bit at first.
Flying Solo vs Flying Dual
I see no real Center of Gravity (CG) difference between flying an airplane solo vs flying one with another CFI or passenger. But, woah, that’s not the case in a helicopter. It is way different!
As a helicopter student flying a R-22 (and maybe because of my airplane experience), I had no idea how different it would be to fly solo until I actually did it for myself. Yeah, I had read all about it, I remembered my CFIs talking about it, and I had seen it for myself in the CG/weight and balance calculations/graphics. But there’s just nothing like experiencing it for yourself.
With both seats occupied, the helicopter is pretty balanced (both laterally and longitudinally). However, when you remove the left seat weight, it is no longer balanced and pilot inputs need to counteract the difference in acting behavior (especially as fuel is getting burned and the CG moves forward).
Here’s exactly what I noticed when flying the R-22 by myself:
It also means less weight = less power needed = more power available. In airplanes, we always take off with full power and we always pretty much use the same RPM/MP setting in cruise. However, in helicopters, the power used/necessary (different for takeoff, hovering, and cruise) depends on that day’s temperature and density altitude. When flying close to max weight, you could be exceeding those power settings or just not able to fly or do certain operations/maneuvers (like hovering, for example) at all.
Emergencies and Hazards
I can understand why most dual rated pilots won't fly both types of aircraft on the same day now. They are so incredibly different! The question is not whether or not a person can fly both safely in normal conditions but whether that person will react to an emergency correctly should one occur. All aircraft have different systems and work slightly different but, in an emergency, these contrasts could cause a pilot to confuse one for the other and the brain/reflexes may not react correctly.
For example, a stall warning horn in an airplane sounds very much like a low RPM warning horn in a helicopter. Recovering from what may sound like a "stall warning horn" in a helicopter could result in a fatal accident. What is the first thing you do in an airplane when recovering from an aerodynamic stall? Fairly aggressively lower the nose, right? Well, two things in a helicopter:
Also… if you lose the engine in an airplane, you don’t pay attention to RPMs, just airspeed. However, if you lose the engine in a helicopter, controlling rotor RPM (and airspeed although in a second place), again, means life!
It may sound simple, you may wonder how the heck that could happen to people but history proves that brains can do funny things when faced with quick, out of the ordinary, and stressful situations. And none of us are immune to it.
Add-On Training and Certification
Like with airplane training, you have two routes to choose from: Part 61 and Part 141. If you are a commercial airplane pilot like me, you can also choose between obtaining a private add-on or a commercial add-on. I chose Part 61 because, when I started, there was only one flight school around and they were not 141 approved. I also chose to start with the private add-on option for two reasons: cost and PIC time needed.
I will not go into more detail here since you essentially have four different options. Just take a look at the regulations yourself and consult a local CFI/examiner/FSDO if you have questions. Different people/FSDOs may interpret the “add-on” part differently. For example, Part 61’s helicopter section for private pilot certificates states you essentially need 40 hours total time, of which 20 need to be dual and 10 need to be solo (BTW – the FAA’s SFAR 73 also says you need to have 20 hrs dual before you can solo). Most schools interpret it to only be 30 hrs total time for helicopter add-ons; the total time only applies to initial certificates. However, I personally do not read it that way and neither does the FSDO/examiner/CFIs I checked with. But, honestly, I would not get to hung up on it because, truthfully, most people (initial or add-on) cannot finish it with less than 40 hrs anyway. I had 43 hours before I took my checkride and I really could not have done it much quicker than that. Learning to fly a helicopter is not like learning to fly a seaplane. Keep in mind a seaplane is just another class; helicopters are an entirely different category.
There is no question helicopters are far more expensive, versatile, and challenging than airplanes but nothing worthwhile comes easy in life.
So, have you been thinking about helicopter training? “Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.” – Maria Robinson (fitting enough!)
I’m going to continue on to obtain a commercial certificate when funds allow.
(Special thanks go out to The Whirly-Girls for selecting me as their 2016 WG Helicopter Add-on Flight Training Scholarship recipient)
BLOGS ON THIS PAGE
- Aviation Survival and Egress Training: Training I Hope I Never Need to Use but Glad I Experienced
- NASA's Physiological Training
- Other Interesting Blogs
- Relationship between Holidays and Flying
- Helicopter Add-On: Transition Training From Fixed-Wing to Rotary-Wing
- Flying to National Parks
- Aviation Vocabulary and Phrases in Spanish
- Friendly Airports and Helipads in the Central Southwest Region
- What to Do with Your Pilot Certificate