Rotorcraft Rookie: 10 lessons from learning to fly helicopters

June 5, 2014

One of the great joys of aviation is the many unique ways it can be experienced. It can be lazy, thrilling, technical, or artistic. What binds it all is a love of being in the sky and defying gravity.

That common tie may lead one to think that flying is flying, no matter the type. Blimp, gyrocopter, or airplane, it seems as though they are all intimately related. In a sense they are. But if I learned one thing from flying helicopters, it’s that they are completely different from airplanes. Here are my other takeaways.

Aerodynamic principles stay the same, but are applied in different ways

You’ve heard of torque, angle of attack, and lift. You generally know what they mean and how they apply to an airplane. Obviously these terms, and all the others that you learn in pilot training, are the same for helicopters. What’s different is how they are applied. Lift is a great example. What’s always helpful to a fixed wing can be detrimental to one that’s rotating. That’s because the speed at which it hits the relative wind varies depending on whether it’s advancing or retreating. This causes a whole host of issues that designers have had to deal with. It's also one factor that limits a helicopter’s airspeed.

Flying a helicopter is like playing drums or juggling

Rub your stomach and pat your head. Juggle three things at once. Make any cliché you want about multitasking and it will probably describe flying a helicopter pretty well. The only analogy you can make to an airplane is to imagine if the throttle somehow controlled lift and if the rudder was really floppy. You’d be forced to constantly manipulate each of the controls, which is what helicopter pilots do. There is a positive aspect to this, which is that the controls are quite direct, making it very maneuverable.

There is a negative transfer of learning from airplanes

All my aviation experience prior to flying helicopters involved a sort of building-blocks approach. Each new skill was based more or less on the previous skill. Additional class ratings simply came down to differences training. Such is not the case with helicopters. In some cases, fixed-wing knowledge is a hindrance. This is especially true with low-G mast bumping in the Robinson. Most poignant for me was when I was maneuvering for a steep approach and I saw the airspeed bleed off fairly quickly. My first thought was "stall!" when I was actually right where I needed to be.

...but some things will translate

I can’t imagine trying to learn how to talk on the radio and hover at the same time. It’s incredible to me that people learn this, navigation, and all the other aviation basics while flying a helicopter. All of these skills are considerably easier to learn in an airplane, and transfer nicely to a helicopter. There are a few minor differences, but they are easy to pick up.

Helicopters can’t do it all

This, more than anything, surprised me. A helicopter can take off vertically in most cases, but that doesn’t mean it should. Like an airplane, a certain amount of forward speed provides a safety margin. I guess I had this vision of a helicopter being able to take off and land anywhere at any time. But light helicopters can no more take off vertically with a full load at a high airport on a hot day than a Cessna 172 can take four people and full fuel. There are performance limitations, and in the case of the helicopter, a significant risk associated with flying with little or no forward speed within a few hundred feet of the ground.

...but they can do lots of amazing things

All that said, helicopters are incredible machines. One of the negative transfer aspects for an airplane pilot is recognizing that you can go anywhere. Airports become less restrictive, traffic patterns become less regimented, and a whole world of landing sites await. Not to mention incredible views, in part because helicopters aren’t subject to the same minimum altitude regulations. Hovering is magical, as is the ability to autorotate in any direction. Even getting one off the ground is a wonderous occasion when you consider the immense aerodynamic challenges that had to be overcome.

Engine failures are serious

Obviously any engine failure is an emergency, even if the aircraft has one, two, or three others to help carry the load. But for a single-engine helicopter, an engine failure is a very serious problem. That’s especially true in a Robinson, where the pilot has literally a second or two to act before the helicopter will stop flying. Because of this, helicopter pilots are constantly looking for a place to land, and considering what they would do if the engine quit. Airplane pilots do this as well, but most get out of the routine at a safe cruising altitude. The good news for the helicopter pilot is that if it does fail and he reacts properly, very little space is needed to make an emergency landing.

You will feel like you’re starting over

Adding on a category rating is not the same thing as adding a class rating. Other than a few aforementioned tasks, you might as well throw out your fixed wing certificate when you start flying helicopters because it isn’t worth much. You will feel like you’re starting over, which can be both frustrating and fun. I scheduled to fly twice a week most weeks and it took me five months and approximately 35 hours. That’s more or less a full pilot course.

...which is a great thing

Flying has always been fun. But it’s recently only been fun in the adult sense. It’s a sensible and fulfilling fun. Learning to fly helicopters was kid fun. It’s the ride a roller coaster, eat a huge ice cream cone, and stay up late kind of fun. I rushed to every lesson. I thought about it morning and night. I felt giddy when I got to fly. It completely recaptured the exhilaration of flying, that feeling of pure joy, passion, and yes, fun. For this reason alone it’s worth it. Getting to learn all about another side of aviation, expanding horizons, and all that was great. But to feel like aviation is all new again—that’s special.

Next time: My first passenger

Read all the stories in the Rotorcraft Rookie series online.