Rotorcraft Rookie: Fixing airplane habits

Some airplane habits are better left at home

December 12, 2013

One would think that most machines that slip the surly bonds pretty much all operate the same. Realistically, how many different ways can one possibly fly? As it turns out, quite a few. The difference between helicopters and airplanes is more like go-cart and Formula 1 car than Buick and Chevy.

There are similarities of course. There’s a stick and some pedals. Right is right, left is left, and so on. But everything else, from the minutiae of control pressures to the rather large issues of descents and the collective is different. A recent lesson was a great reminder of this challenge.

The day before I had taken an IFR cross-country in a Beechcraft Bonanza to Teterboro, right outside of New York City. The Bonanza is perhaps one of the most well balanced airplanes ever, with beautifully responsive controls that give the pilot the feeling of being in complete command of the airplane. It was a great flight with fast-paced ATC interactions and the satisfaction of using an airplane for a business appointment. Everything went well, and the next day I arrived for my helicopter lesson.

That’s when I almost died. Maybe that’s a bit dramatic. The fact is that my instructor Otto let things get to what I thought was the edge of control before he calmly stepped in. But without Otto, I would still be in a smoking pit. I had just lifted off for the first time that day and the helicopter started spinning while it flew off quickly to the right. I was completely out of control with no idea how to fix it, a feeling I don’t remember ever having in an airplane.

I was overcontrolling the poor R22. As I’ve said before, in the R22 many motions require nothing more than a thought, not necessarily what we would consider a physical action. And here I was throwing the stick around like it was a Stearman. It took me probably half an hour to get back into helicopter mode.

Part of the difficulty in transitioning also comes from opposite control inputs. I talked about the tail-high run-on takeoff and landing last time. Then there’s the issue of left pedal. Most of the airplanes we fly need right rudder for high angle of attack, slow speed configurations where a few physics issues correlate to cause the airplane to want to yaw and roll left. Helicopters don’t have those same left turning tendencies, but they do have a lot of torque from the main rotor. In the R22 that torque is counteracted by the tail rotor. With a main rotor that spins counterclockwise (when viewed from above), the fuselage wants to go right. So when all things are in equilibrium, the system works well. But when you introduce a lot of power or lift to the rotor (especially at a slow forward airspeed), the nose wants to swing hard right, requiring left pedal. In short, it’s the exact opposite of every airplane I’ve ever flown.

There are many other cases where airplane habits result in a negative transfer of learning, including traffic patterns, approaches, glide ratios, and even packing (there’s more storage in many light sport aircraft). The negative transfer causes many people to say it’s easier to go from no flight time to a helicopter certificate than it is to go from airplanes to helicopters. This is completely illogical. Can you imagine trying to learn to talk on the radio while at the same time sitting stationary four feet off the ground?

Read all the Rotorcraft Rookie stories on AOPA Online.

Next time: Autorotations

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.