Jump to content
Sign in to follow this  

FastCargo's Helicopter Lesson

Recommended Posts

How a supersonic pilot flies at 0 knots (a hint...not well).

Back last year, during vacation time, my significant other 'gifted' me with an introductory helicopter lesson for my birthday.  Said vacation time including the flight would be done in Lake Tahoe, Nevada/California.  The school willing to take on this monumental task of taking a fast jet operator and slow him down is (redacted due to embarrassment of actually letting me fly with them).
This is the story of that 30 minutes.  As with all flying stories, it will conform to the fighter pilot 'rule' that at least 10% of the story is true.
Your author here has had real world experience in many types of fixed wing aircraft, from soloing a glider to operating supersonic multi-ton bombers, with just about every type of fixed wing in between.  

Gods Gift to Aviation.png

Pictured: God's gift to aviation.

Rotary wing?  Well, I grew up in the world of LHX, Apache, Jane's Longbow, Black Shark and several other PC based helo simulations.  So I was well prepared, right?

Helos are easy.jpg

Pffft...helo's are easy.

My steed for today would be the Robinson R44, a 4 seat, piston powered light helicopter.  

Specifically this helo.jpg

Specifically, THIS helicopter.

The R44 has proven to be very popular all over the world due to its price, ease of maintenance and relatively benign flight characteristics.  But my helo simming has all been combat aircraft, so I felt it needed some 'improvements'.

Seems Legit.jpg

Seems legit.

Now that I was in the proper mindset, i was introduced to my instructor, an older gentleman by the name of TC.  He spoke with an Eastern European accent, and as we got to talking, I found out he had flown helos back before 'the wall' fell.  He named what he had flown 'stackin' which I didn't understand at the time.  Unfortunately, I have no good pictures of him because the withering look he would give the camera caused it to glitch every time.
I found out after my flight that TC is a nickname given to him by the other instructor pilots and means 'Taught Christ' (to hover).  And that 'stackin' was actually 'Stakan' or 'Стакан'...which roughly translates as "Drinking Glass"...a name given by Mi-24 pilots to early models.


Perfect container to hold some fine wine.

With the preliminaries out of the way, TC asked what kind of flight I wanted...a general 'forward motion' flight over Lake Tahoe, operating the helicopter like a light aircraft but getting to see the sights, or actual 'hover' instruction, where the majority of the flight would be only about 10 feet off the taxiway.  Of course, I selected the 'hover' instruction...what's the point of a helo flight if you don't hover.  I immediately received the warning that the 'hover' flight was a lot more work.
How little did I know.
After that, I was given a FAA mandated brief on the dangers of unloaded flight.  In a nutshell, in a two bladed helicopter, during forward flight, if the cyclic is suddenly pushed forward, the aircraft will unload much the same way a fixed wing aircraft would.  The difference is that an uncommanded roll can occur, and the initial reaction of using cyclic to counter the roll may A) not work at all and B) cause the rotor to flex past limits and hit the rotor mast or another part of the fuselage.
Noted here in the Robinson Safety Notice SN-11 (revised November 2000):

"Pushing the cyclic forward following a pull-up or rapid climb, or even from level flight, produces a low-g (weightless) flight condition. If the helicopter is still pitching forward when the pilot applies aft cyclic to reload the rotor, the rotor disc may tilt aft relative to the fuselage before it is reloaded. The main rotor torque reaction will then combine with tail rotor thrust to produce a powerful right rolling moment on the fuselage. With no lift from the rotor, there is no lateral control to stop the rapid right roll and mast bumping can occur. Severe in-flight mast bumping usually results in main rotor shaft separation and/or rotor blade contact with the fuselage.
The rotor must be reloaded before lateral cyclic can stop the right roll. To reload the rotor, apply an immediate gentle aft cyclic, but avoid any large aft cyclic inputs. (The low-g which occurs during a rapid autorotation entry is not a problem because lowering collective reduces both rotor lift and rotor torque at the same time.)
Never attempt to demonstrate or experiment with low-g maneuvers, regardless of your skill or experience level. Even highly experienced test pilots have been killed investigating the low-g flight condition. Always use great care to avoid any maneuver which could result in a low-g condition. Low-g mast bumping accidents are almost always fatal."

Which basically is saying that if you push too far forward too quickly, you may cause spontaneous disassembly of the aircraft.  Of course, I was assured that this would take some effort to achieve and so rarely happens.  

R44 Accident.jpg


And they were so glad I still wanted to fly with them that they even wanted my autograph!  The paper I signed had wording on it, something about "hold harmless"...
Now we were off to the helo!  As I recalled from my flight sims, the collective was like a handbrake, with a throttle thumb wheel, the cyclic and rudders were controlled by a stick and pedal arrangement similar to most fighter type aircraft.  Annnnd...not so much in the R44.

R44 Cockpit.jpg

Is that a yoke?

I've never heard of a helo controlled by a yoke...  And why is there just one stick and it's between the front seats??  What kind of crazy helo is this?!?  Who signed me up for this flight anyway???  Did I mention I had recently increased my life insurance coverage?
Turns out, the 'v' part of the 'yoke' doesn't actually do anything directly.  It's a clever way to have dual flight controls without having dual control sticks.  Instead, there is one cyclic control stick, and the 'v' merely places a handle the pilot holds in front of him as it would be in a conventional helicopter or aircraft.  In practice, it doesn't feel any different than a normal flight stick (except you can't fly it with your knees).
It was time to get flying!  Startup reminded me of my initial training in a Cessna...even down to keeping the door open and calling 'Clear!' before engine start.  
The initial part of the flight was a 'box' pattern at the standard VFR altitudes in an aircraft.  TC flew most of this part, with me taking the controls at altitude to start getting familiar with how the aircraft felt.  The procedures during this part were similar to how you would fly something like a Cessna, with the exception that 'taxiing' a helocopter is still an airborne exercise.  I found for the most part, the helo felt lighter than a Cessna in overall mass, and at speed, seemed to fly like you would expect a light prop to fly.  The exception was if I was ham handed with the cyclic (lots of overshoots).  The rotor would audibly create a 'slapping' sound, with an associated vibration.  A combination of aerodynamics and physics unique to a flexible rotary wing causes this phenomenon.  If you're rattling like that, you're not being smooth.
Opening a carbonated drink would not have been a good idea on my flight.


Don't be this guy.

After the initial intro to the aircraft, we came back to the airport and settled on the taxiway...way the hell away from any buildings.  Almost like we had to give me plenty of room...  My wife and friends stopped taking pictures after a while because I was more or less sitting there, from 0 to about 10 feet, and not moving much at all.
In the cockpit, it was a different story.
Something that still has not been able to be conveyed completely successfully in a PC based flight simulator is the feeling of inertia and mass.  Oh sure, lots of PC sims have tried to a lessor or greater extent to mimic this using physics models.  Even multi-million professional simulators have limitations in this regard, and the comment is always how the "sim" doesn't quite fly right.  Nothing yet has quite been able to truly master the combination of inputs your somatosensory, semicircular canal, and otolith organs provide to augment the visual picture.
My actual flight experience has mostly been in aircraft that weigh at least 9,000 pounds, with the majority being either 10,000 - 12,000 lb aircraft or 200,000 - 350,000 lb aircraft.  I've had experience in aircraft outside of those ranges, but they are mostly outliers.  The feeling of mass behind my inputs is a tangible factor in my crosscheck.
A R44 grosses out at 4,000 lb.  We were probably closer to 3,000 lb all total.  My typical fuel loads in one tank are higher than the entire weight of this helo.
I swear that I would just belch and the damn thing would change its flight characteristics.  We started with one axis at a time.  Collective only first, then rudder only, then cyclic only, while TC would hold the other controls.  Then combinations...collective and rudder, cyclic and collective, cyclic and rudder.  And finally, all 3 together.
This was all needed to just try to keep the helo on the same spot on the taxiway, holding a heading, and staying somewhere within +3 feet of altitude.  Any twitching on one axis immediately required an input on another axis.  There were small triumphs...momentarily keeping it in the same general space.


"I've got it in a steady hover!"

"Holding 50 degrees off heading."


I was basically doing the whole 'patting my head, rubbing my stomach' thing, while on a tightrope over a lake of fire.  Balancing a pencil on its point...which is also on fire.
TC was infinitely patient..."Relax your grip", "Small inputs", "Keep your crosscheck, don't channelize".  Yea, yea, I know that, sheesh!!  


Wait, that's almost the exact instruction phrasing I used to use on my students back in the day.  Dammit, I sounded like a giant pain in the ass.
So this helo flight not only was humbling me in the present, it was retroactively giving me grief for the past.


"I suck."

"You have always sucked."

After about 15 minutes of this "exercise" (so called because I lost 10 lbs of water weight), TC decided it was time for some instructor demos.  He shows me a rapid acceleration, where he uses of combination of collective and cyclic to move forward quickly.  Of course, as anyone knows most helos will nose over dramatically to do this...which we did at 10 feet altitude.
All I could see was taxiway, really close going by really fast.  I swear I saw ants that were blue shifted whizzing by.

Forward Flight.jpg

Pic corrected for redshift.

Then, he did a demo of flying backward...again at 10 feet.  Next, a demo of landing and taking off of a hill.  Yep, first land one ski and then let the helo 'tilt'.  Taking off is the reverse...enough collective to get the helo level first with one ski still on the ground, then lift off straight up.
The final demo was going back out to the pattern, where I got to fly the helo some more at altitude, then he showed me an auto-rotation.
Here's what it felt like:

The timing for the flare has to be fairly tight...too soon and you'll run out of lift before you're close enough to the ground.  Too late...well, that's self critquing.  It was an eye opening demo...though not as abrupt as I thought it would be.  It helps that the R44 is pretty light overall.
After that, I practiced hovering a few more times (which I sorely needed) and finally, TC 'taxied' us back to the ramp.
As we staggered out of the helo, I asked TC what the requirements are for getting a private helo license.  He said fifty hours is the minimum before a checkride. But then he looked me in the eye to say some people probably need more hours than that.

Wooden Plane.jpg

The only helicopter they would trust me with...right up until I dropped it.

And thus ended the adventure of me flying a helo.  It was a great experience, that reinforces the lesson that less speed doesn't always mean less challenge.  It also shows that although we have come a long way in PC based simulation, it is still better as a supplement than a substitute for the real thing.  I would recommend that anyone go out to try the real thing...most flight schools (fixed wing or helicopter) offer the 'intro' lesson at a substantial discount.
Keep 'em flying!

  • Like 13

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

what a great story FC!!! (totally loved the pictures & captions too!!)

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Awesome story FC thanks for sharing it.



Ya know I think you'll be good like this pilot someday if not better.






Actually even though I don't know you that well I have the feeling that once you master helos you'll be doing something like this :biggrin:


  • Like 1

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Honestly, I probably won't be going back...mainly because of expense.


I had a blast, even though I probably worked harder on that flight than I have in a long time in almost any other airframe.


Most fixed wing flying is fairly consistent across different types of airframes.  If you are a decent pilot in one type airframe, you can probably be functional (note, NOT an expert) in most others with very little training.  Other than things like tail draggers or floatplanes/amphibians, you'd probably get the basics in a particular airframe pretty quickly.


Helicopter flying, for as much of a cliché as it sounds, is fundamentally different once you slow below translational speed.  It really does involve a different set of priorities, especially for things that require precision positioning.  In a light helo, like the R44, it's more noticeable because you are dealing with positional references in fractions of individual meters.  You can get away with some slop in a Cessna or an ultralight...not so much when you're trying to hover within a foot of a reference position in all 3 dimensions.


It really was a lot of fun, and I did find it a true challenge.  But it wouldn't be cheap and between the expense and time needed to get comfortable, I just don't think it's going to happen.



Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

What a riot! Thanks for the story and your un-jet-pilot-like honesty.


The only vaguely similar experience I've had is my flight in a T-6 Texan. (OH. THAT'S WHAT PULLING g'S REALLY FEELS LIKE. :shok: )


Thanks for sharing, FC.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Fantastic story. You did what I've always wanted to do - take a demo flight and see just how much of my sim flying translates to an actual flight. Being that one of the books in my Top 5 books of all time is Chickenhawk, I've always been fascinated with helicopters. Oddly enough, I've worked for an air ambulance company for 16 years that has five helicopters flying right alongside the fixed wing fleet, and I've never been in one. How messed up is that??! I kick myself too because a few years back we replaced our Bell 430s with EC-135s - I really should have grabbed a ride in those 430s.


Dang..great story and should put the fire in my butt to go down and give it a shot. We have a guy with a Schweizer 300C at the little airport in my town - I should sign up...


Thanks for sharing the story...



Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Haha, nice read. Reminds me of my SH-60 ride. I did a couple days with HSL-42 in Jacksonville for "summer cruise" and got to do the Jax river tour. The pilot was cool and let me do most of the flying, although the autopilot was helping a lot, I'm sure. Got a lovely tour of the place from 500 ft flying over the tops of the bridges and I was thinking "this helo stuff is kinda cool."


There were three of us guests on the flight and as I was the last to go up front I was in the left seat for the RTB. Pilot says we're now low enough on gas to practice some autorotations. I was like, don't know wtf that means, but okay let's do it! Next thing I know, my stomach is in the back of my throat and we're falling out of the sky.


And now I fly fixed-wing and I'm perfectly happy about it.

Edited by gbnavy61

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

An Army Air Corps Gazelle pilot once told me that a Helicopter is a lot like a Bumble Bee, aerodynamically, it is impossible for it to actually fly, however, the Bumble Bee doesn't know that !!! brilliant story mate, I have major respect for Helo pilots, flown in the back of many over the years, but flying one .....nah I'll leave  that to the crazy buggers who like flying around in the tree tops !!

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

My most impressive helicopter flying experience was not from cockpit, but from freight cabin of a Mi-24W.


It was in early 1989. Some days ago i had become a member of the tactical SAR group of my helicopter squadron. I know this sounds great and important, but we were only 4 guys and we just started to train the job. During one of this lessons we had the chance to visite a soviet "partner unit", the so called "Regiment nebenan". It was a combat helicopter unit near Erfurt. We drove with a W-50 truck to their base and had the chance to take a look at the Mi-24W they had there. The pilots (ljotschiks) were very self confident and very proud on their "crocodile" helicopter. They showed us everything, inclusively fuel aerosol bombs, Shtoorm ATGM etc., we could climb into the cockpits, switch all buttons. It was cool, really cool! And at the end of this visit tour they invited us to a ride in a Mi-24W.

Stupid as we were we accepted the offer. Helicopter flying as passengers was not unusual for us, and flying at tree top level was a nice fun. So what could go wrong?!

Everything!! What we had forgotten was, that the ljotschiks came fresh from Afghanistan. and they flew the Crocodile in Afghanistan style.

If our pilots flew in tree top altitude they flew straight away in 30 meters or less. The soviets flew it different. The highest point of their helicopter (the tail fin) was in tree top level, when they flew. The nose of the Mi-24 nearly scratched the soil and this with 250, 300 km/h! When a tree came the crocodile jumped over it and sank down to the previous flown level. Again and again. It was like roller coaster. The craziest roller coaster ever!!

The first dozen jumps over the trees were fun, the others not really funny and by the end i pulled my steel helmet of my head and spat all what i had in my stomach into my helmet. Not funny! Really not funny!

Helicopter pilots are crazy! Russian Mi-24 pilots are maniacs!!

Edited by Gepard

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Yeah we used to call the hind by many names, hunchback, bogey man, a scary helo, but you just have to love the look of it, even if it did scare the crap out of us, ans attack chopper, which after it shot the bejesus out of yer sorry arse, could then deploy a section of Soviet Infantry, to spoil your whole day a little bit more. We worried more about the Hind than anything else the Sovs wanted to throw at us, and as I was RAF Regiment, and tasked with airfield defence, and Harrier defence, we would have been on the calling list of Sov Airborne and Spetznaz , but they didn't really bother us much, it was the Hind that got us a little concerned. An ugly brutal menacing beasty, with big teeth, and lot of 'em ! so ugly it is sexy too, I envy you getting a ride in one, even if it was a bit of a pukey ride !! lol

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Great read.

Some day I'll tell you bout me and the BF-105 and the hammerhead stall. Man what a ride.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
Sign in to follow this  


Important Information

By using this site, you agree to our Terms of Use, Privacy Policy, and We have placed cookies on your device to help make this website better. You can adjust your cookie settings, otherwise we'll assume you're okay to continue..