Rotorcraft Rookie: The crazy takeoff

Run-on takeoffs and landings

December 5, 2013

Another one of those popular helicopter idioms is that they are thousands of moving parts flying in close formation. Or conspiring to kill you. I guess it depends on your mood that day. Looking at accident records dispels the myth pretty quickly, but two maneuvers in particular do seem completely crazy and part of a conspiracy to me—run-on takeoffs and landings.

The takeoff starts from a stop on the ground. Then the cyclic is pushed forward and collective is slowly pulled to give the main rotor some lift. Slowly the skids unstick from the pavement and thus the process of a terrible, stomach-churning grinding begins as the helicopter is dragged down the pavement like an airplane with no wheels. Directional control is with the anti-torque pedals (a relief to a tailwheel pilot), and the machine is held in this position until reaching about 40 knots, at which point it’s milked into the air. If it sounds exactly like some insane BMX biker doing an endo at 50 mph, that’s because it is.

The landing is just the opposite. It begins with a shallow approach. As the helicopter gets close to the ground, it’s simply flown—nose first—right into the pavement. The drag quickly slows things down and the back of the skids settle. It feels a lot like the wheel landing technique in a tailwheel airplane. Hover Power blogger Tim McAdams described it well in a post last year.

Part of my hesitation could be due to the fact that in an airplane, it is ingrained in us to land mains first, which in a tricycle-gear airplane means landing nose high. In fact, the one thing my instructor keeps stressing is to keep the nose down because apparently striking the tail is more of a concern. Frankly, I care more about my face than the tail of the helicopter, but maybe that’s selfish of me.

To be fair, a quick read of helicopter training accidents shows that only about 5 percent involve practicing these seemingly unsafe maneuvers. So, objectively it is safe and perfectly normal. But emotionally it seems like the craziest thing I’ve done in an aircraft.

Incidentally, there are a few reasons to practice the run-on takeoff and landing (also called running takeoff and landing). The takeoff can be used in a high-density altitude situation where full engine power isn’t available. The landing can be used as an emergency technique where the tail rotor isn’t doing its job. The small vertical and horizontal stabilizers on many helicopters really do work to keep the nose pointing straight, provided you’re above a certain speed. The thinking goes that if the tail rotor stops working, you can just keep the speed up all the way to the ground. It can also be used where there isn’t enough power to enter a hover at the end of an approach, as in the density altitude case.

Find all the stories in the Rotorcraft Rookie series.

Next time: Ridding airplane habits

Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly | "Flight Training" Editor

Flight Training Editor Ian J. Twombly joined AOPA in 2003 and is an instrument flight instructor.