Challenges: Fling-Winging It

The cool kids make helicopter flying look easy

April 1, 2011

From the high-pitched, powerful whine of a Eurocopter Dauphin launching on a Maryland State Police mission to the frequent dartings of Robinson R22s, helicopters are a big part of life at Maryland’s Frederick Municipal Airport (FDK). Fitting themselves neatly into the flow of traffic, they’re like your older teenage brother—you know, the one who drifted in and out at all hours—and you never knew exactly what he was up to, but you sure wanted to find out.


I got my chance to find out on a brisk and blindingly sunny afternoon in February, when I attempted (yup, that’s intentional) to fly a helicopter for AOPA Pilot’s “Challenges” series. I started the session brand-new to rotary aircraft, and took away a fascinating glimpse into an aspect of flying that is simultaneously alien and familiar.

Keeping an open mind wasn’t easy. I would be coming into the introductory lesson with all the wrong kinds of primary learning. Still, the Robinson R22 parked on the ramp at Advanced Helicopter Concepts didn’t know I was a fixed-wing pilot.

Want to fly helicopters?

Adding a rotary rating to a private, single-engine land certificate means you don’t have to take a knowledge test. You do have to take a checkride, and the federal aviation regulations require 20 hours of dual plus 10 hours of solo flight. And here comes the disclaimer: Thirty hours is a minimum. Your weather, navigation, and radio communications skills will transfer, but that’s about it. The hardest part for fixed-wing pilots is when they know what they want the helicopter to do but they don’t know how to make it happen, says Advanced Helicopter’s Gary Smith. Once you get over that frustration hump, however, you might just be hooked. —JWT

CFI Roland Greenwalt is my smiling, patient guide. He learned to fly helicopters after retiring from the Baltimore County (Maryland) Police Department. All it took was one observation flight while still with the department to snare him. He earned his certificates with Advanced and now has 2,500 hours. He knows I’m a member of the fixed-wing club and draws parallels between our two worlds throughout the lesson.

Small but capable

The two-seat R22 is the trainer of choice for many flight schools because it is relatively inexpensive to purchase, operate, and maintain. Advanced Helicopter Concepts President Neal D. Lanning credits its designer, Frank Robinson, with the creation of the recreational helicopter market.

The 160-horsepower Lycoming O-320 engine is derated to 131 horsepower for five minutes at takeoff and 124 horsepower for continuous operation. The Lycoming burns about nine gallons per hour. Maximum gross takeoff weight is 1,370 pounds. Two 200-pound people will let you carry about 13 gallons of fuel.

HelicopterGreenwalt explains the panel, which has many of the same instruments as that of a fixed-wing airplane: airspeed indicator, compass, vertical speed indicator. There’s no attitude indicator. There is a two-needle tachometer that’s unique to helicopters: It displays both engine and rotor rpm as percentages. In normal operations, those two needles will always be crossed and together.

Next is a tour of the controls. The anti-torque pedals resemble rudder pedals and are used to alter the pitch angle of the tail rotor blades, which moves the nose of the helicopter left and right. The collective—a bar that somewhat resembles a manual flap handle in some airplanes—controls the pitch of the rotor blades. The throttle is located on the collective and operates automatically on the R22. There are dual sets of these controls in the cockpit. The T-bar cyclic can be operated by either pilot. It tilts the main rotor disc and splits the vertical component of lift. The helicopter moves in the direction that the rotor disc is tilted. To achieve this, you move the cyclic horizontally.

In the right seat—the usual spot for a student, and yet another fixed-wing disconnect—the pilot uses both hands and both feet to operate controls simultaneously. That’s where the “challenge” part of this equation really comes into play.

HelicopterThe controls are sensitive, I am warned, but that is part of what makes the R22 such an effective trainer, Greenwalt says: “It’s easier to transition to something bigger that’s less sensitive.”

Going through the startup checklist, we check controls for proper movement and the main fuel line for blockage. Then it’s mixture full rich; master switch On, magnetos to Both, and start. Alternator On; add clutch; and check for proper oil pressure. Wait for the clutch light to go out (the upper pulley is slowly going up to tighten the belts and spin drive system as the rotors spool up).

When the 25-foot main rotor blades get going, surprisingly it’s not as loud as you’d think. We bring rotor rpm to 75 percent to conduct a warmup. We conduct a magneto check and look at the tachometer to ensure the needles are together. A carb heat check, and then remove friction locks. Turn on the governor, which adds power as the collective is increased; then conduct a low rpm check. Anything less than 97 percent will trigger a warning light and a horn.

To fly is heavenly, to hover divine

When the R22’s skids leave the ramp, it is a gentle sensation, not unlike that of an elevator headed for the fourth floor. We taxi about three feet above ground level to the hover practice area, a large quadrant marked off by four white-painted tires. I have been following along on the controls. “When I give them to you, don’t ever let go,” Greenwalt says.

The hardest part for fixed-wing pilots is when they know what they want the helicopter to do but they don’t know how to make it happen.

First I try to turn the R22 to the right using only the anti-torque pedal. Since the blades turn counterclockwise and the helicopter wants to go to the right, just a bit of pressure causes a smart turn on our axis. A slight press to the left anti-torque pedal produces the same result in the opposite direction.

Now all hands and feet are on deck, so to speak, because it’s time to try hovering. Widely acknowledged to be one of the most difficult aspects of flying a helicopter, hovering usually isn’t taught until the fourth or fifth lesson. But since it’s part and parcel of the challenge, Greenwalt brings us about 30 feet off the ground and tells me to look outside. Don’t look at the instruments or controls, and don’t let go of the controls. Small movements with the cyclic—see how he is just barely moving his hand? Annnnnddddd….Go.

Our helicopter correspondent Tim McAdams describes hovering as trying to balance on top of a basketball. For me, it’s more like trying to tap dance and juggle while balancing on a basketball. I am looking outside, trying to feel how to keep the helicopter upright and relatively motionless. In a matter of seconds, things come apart. The R22 begins a tipsy, side-to-side, forward-backward movement that threatens to get bigger no matter how carefully I move the controls. “I think you need to help me,” I tell Greenwalt. On the second attempt, I manage maybe 10 seconds before we go into that drunken dance again. Good hand-eye coordination is key to mastering the hover, Greenwalt says, and adds that teenagers and video gamers pick it up very quickly.


During straight-and-level flight I get a chance to redeem myself. We head south, away from the airport, climbing to about 1,300 feet agl. Greenwalt points to the trim strings attached to the front of the canopy. Watch these as you fly to make sure the helicopter is lined up with the path it’s traveling; if you are, the strings will be pointing straight back. If they’re off to the left side, apply antitorque pedal to the right, and vice versa.

I’m struck by two things: the nearly 360-degree view out of the R22’s canopy, and the fact that, although we are flying on a gusty day, the R22 seems extremely stable. When Greenwalt gives me the controls and instructs me to make a 360-degree turn, I expect some bobbing and weaving—but it doesn’t happen.

HelicopterWhen we return to the airport, Green-walt demonstrates an autorotation. He reduces the engine power to idle and lowers the collective, and shows me how the needles on the tachometer separate. The blade angle is now flat and no longer creating lift. The R22 settles sharply—not as benign a dip as an elevator descending, but hardly the Tower of Terror ride at Disney World, either. We’re now converting altitude to airspeed. At a rate of 1,800 feet per minute, the R22 whooshes smoothly down to the taxiway, and Greenwalt flares.

Helicopter pilots generally make three types of landings: normal, steep (similar to a short-field landing), and shallow. The last is a running landing that keeps the sink rate minimal. The landing gear scrapes the ground, and fixed-wing pilots are said to find that particularly uncomfortable.

In a debrief session back at the hangar, Greenwalt sketches a panel and windshield on a whiteboard, then draws a target landing spot between the compass and the trim strings. “Follow it with the collective,” he explains. Pitch your inside reference point to your target and follow it—don’t let it move up or down within your frame of reference.

CFII Gary Smith has been observing our debrief and adds some perspective: With one-third less glide distance to land with than in a fixed-wing aircraft, a helicopter pilot won’t be looking out the window for a landing spot—he’ll be looking at his feet.

Like an appetizer at a five-star restaurant, this challenge left me wanting more. What was the fascination? Maybe the notion that (with lots of additional training) I could put this wildly maneuverable aircraft anyplace I want—including on top of a building. Maybe it was the ability to hold still at 1,300 feet with no impending stall.

Or maybe the attraction was the fact that my stock shot up about 1,000 points when I got home and said I’d flown a helicopter. “Simulator, or the real thing?” my daughter wanted to know. “Please get your helicopter license. That’s just awesome.” Totally.


E-mail the author at [email protected]. Photography by Chris Rose

Jill W. Tallman

Jill W. Tallman | AOPA Technical Editor, AOPA

AOPA Technical Editor Jill W. Tallman is an instrument-rated private pilot who owns a Piper Cherokee 140.