Safety Publications/Articles

Living on the rotor's edge

Work and play well with helicopters

As "Instructor Report" columnist Rod Machado notes in this issue, it's important to make sure our students are familiar with the aircraft they fly. But what about familiarity with aircraft they don't fly--like rotorcraft, perhaps?

Even in elementary school, the ability to "work and play well with others" is highly valued. In the world of aviation, it's essential. Even though your fixed-wing students may not actually fly helicopters, sooner or later they'll have to share airspace with them. As a long-time pilot in both types of flying machines, I can attest to the need for that ability to "work and play well with others" on both sides.

Take traffic pattern operations, for instance. Did you know that the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) says that helicopters are supposed to "avoid the flow of fixed-wing traffic" in the airport pattern? It's true, and some "by-the-book" helicopter pilots may come from any direction in an effort to comply with the AIM guidance on approach or departure, even cutting 90 degrees across your airplane's downwind pattern.

Likewise, departing helicopter pilots don't need to taxi to a nearby runway; they're just as likely to take off from their present position on the ramp or in the grass. And don't expect the helicopter pilots to pay much attention to airport signage. After all, the signs are there to direct pilots along taxiways and runways--neither of which is needed by helicopters.

Especially at busy nontowered airports, some helicopter pilots choose to ignore the AIM's advice to avoid the flow of traffic, instead just joining your airplane in the conga line. Why this apparent blatant disregard of official guidance? Put yourself in the shoes of the helicopter pilot. Practicing takeoffs and landings at an airport with a pattern full of light airplanes always makes collision avoidance a challenge, and it's a lot easier (and probably safer) for helicopters to just go with the flow.

Some helicopter pilots training in your pattern may make all the proper traffic-pattern turns but stay inside and below your traffic pattern. This may bug you, but there are practical safety advantages. A helicopter working closer to the field is actually better able to stay out of your way, while increasing the number of takeoffs and landings he can do in a given period of time. (A light two-place helicopter--the rotary equivalent of a Cessna 152 or Piper Tomahawk--often rents for about the same cost as a light to medium twin, so training efficiency is a consideration.) These helicopters will probably also work to and from the grass or taxiways rather than the runway. When there are helicopters doing that, stay aware of their position relative to yours.

Helicopter-induced turbulence is another serious consideration when rotor-wing and fixed-wing aircraft mix it up, and it probably generates the largest volume of curse words directed toward helicopters from fixed-wing cockpits. Though you may not remember having said unkind things, you'll undoubtedly remember that mouthful of dirt you spit out as a result of standing too close to a hovering helicopter.

Rotor downwash has been known to unsatisfactorily affect takeoffs and landings, and it can cause light airplanes to dance a not-so-merry jig when taxiing--or even sitting still on the ramp. Downwash from helicopters can equal hurricane force in some cases, blowing charts from your hand, chocks from your wheels, or even airplane doors from their hinges. I've seen a large military helicopter flip a whole line of light training airplanes on their backs as it hover-taxied past. Of course, most helicopter downwash encounters aren't nearly that severe, but all fixed-wing pilots should at least be aware of the potential for problems and batten down the hatches when sharing the ramp with a helicopter.

Working and playing well together isn't a one-way street, of course, and sometimes helicopter pilots have cause to say unkind things about airplane people, too. Helicopters that get hit with jet or prop wash while taking off or landing require some extraordinary flying skills just to remain upright. In the worst case, an out-of-control helicopter will strike the ground or surrounding structures while you are well inside the fragmentation pattern.

Life is particularly tough on helicopter pilots if propwash hits while the rotor blades are turning slowly, such as during startup or stop. At low speed, these "rotary wings" are virtually uncontrollable and have been known to flex enough in the propwash of a fixed-wing airplane to remove the helicopter's tail boom. Simply swinging an airplane into position on the ramp can send enough propwash across slowly rotating helicopter blades to cause disaster.

Other potentially life-shortening actions around helicopters include walking under moving rotors. Slow-turning blades begin to droop as they lose lift and centrifugal force, and they can whack you hard enough to end your flying career. Even when helicopter blades are turning at high speeds, approaching a helicopter from the wrong direction or without eye contact and permission from the helicopter pilot can be dangerous.

In the air, keep in mind that many helicopters have the ability to fly quite a bit faster than airplanes, particularly training airplanes. At towered fields, often in instrument weather, ATC treats helicopters much the same as airplanes, which is why you may hear a controller ask a helicopter to fly the same pattern around the airport as the airplanes. Ground controllers will sometimes give the same taxi clearance to a helicopter as they would an airplane, because some helicopters have wheels. You'll encounter wheeled helicopters on the ramp more often than nonwheeled helicopters, because wheeled helicopters often create almost no downwash that would affect airplanes they taxi past.

Airplane pilots often think that visibility from a helicopter is better than in an airplane, but this is often not the case. Structural considerations for mounting helicopter engines and drivetrains make almost every helicopter crew virtually blind from the five- to seven-o'clock position, relative to the pilot. In addition, many helicopters have airplane-size windscreens and windows. Remember, too, that visibility is only as good as the pilot's willingness to look out the window. As with airplanes, some helicopter pilots don't look out the windows nearly enough.

By teaching your students a little more about helicopters, you'll not only create a safer environment for all, but you also may come to realize that helicopters are not as dangerous as some of the banter would imply.

Patrick Shaub is a senior lecturer for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation and an active airplane and helicopter flight instructor with more than 6,000 hours total flight time.

By Patrick Shaub

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