An experienced pilot beginning the transition from airplanes to helicopters (or vice versa) is apt to be more struck by unexpected differences than unexpected parallels. It’s not just the near-total dissimilarity of the flight controls, or the number of things that work opposite the ways that have become familiar—helicopter students traditionally take the right seat, fixed-wing students the left, and helicopters need left pedal in most of the situations where airplanes require right rudder. The basic relationships between the machines and the air they move through differ so completely that even where similarities exist, they serve to point out differences. Both vehicles pitch downward to accelerate, for instance, but in helicopters that doesn’t imply a descent. Climbing with the nose below the horizon is an odd sensation for most fixed-wing pilots.
Naturally, those differences shape the ways new pilots are trained, with effects that can be seen in their respective safety records. A helicopter’s ability to make an emergency landing almost anywhere—and the very limited payload capacity of small trainers like the Robinson R22—justify an approach to fuel management that may initially strike airplane pilots as almost unbelievably casual. (The regulations also recognize this distinction, requiring only a 20-minute reserve on VFR helicopter flights whether it’s day or night. Airplanes need at least a 30-minute reserve in daylight hours and 45 minutes after dark.) Helicopter CFIs might feel amply prepared for an hour of dual after adding an hour and five minutes’ worth of gas to whatever’s in the tanks, and the record shows they’re right: During primary instruction, accidents due to fuel mismanagement aren’t any more common in helicopters than airplanes, only accounting for about four percent of training accidents in each.
Likewise, for all the perceived fragility of those rapidly rotating assemblies of swash plates and bell cranks and push-pull tubes and long, skinny, disconcertingly flexible blades, helicopters are no more likely to crash as the result of either mechanical failures or unexplained engine stoppages. In both categories of aircraft, these cause about 20 percent of all accidents during dual instruction.
The comparison of accidents on student solos is less straightforward, and the reasons speak to the most surprising contrast between their respective records. As we’ve reported before, about two-thirds of all accidents during primary fixed-wing instruction happen on student solos even though solo flight typically accounts for less than a quarter of total training time. Most of these solo accidents are some variety of bad landings; almost all (more than 90 percent) happen while attempting takeoffs, landings, or go-arounds. The result is that events whose risk is determined more by time of exposure than pilot skill—like mechanical problems, which are presumably independent of who happens to be flying the airplane—make up a smaller share of that larger set. Mechanical issues only account for about six percent of accidents on fixed-wing solos.
During helicopter training, on the other hand, only a quarter of all accidents occur on solo flights. In other words, helicopter students have one solo accident for every three on dual lessons; fixed-wing students have six. And while about half the solo helicopter accidents happen during takeoffs, landings, or hovering and hover-taxiing, the same is true of accidents during dual—and the share of accidents arising from mechanical problems is about 20 percent in each.
So what insulates helicopter students from the excess risk of those early solo flights? Longer pre-solo training seems to be one factor. A great deal of primary training is conducted in Robinson helicopters, which are subject to Special Federal Aviation Regulation (SFAR) 73. Among other things, SFAR 73 requires that new students receive a minimum of 20 hours dual prior to the first solo, and not all students are ready after just 20 hours. Fixed-wing students often solo earlier, occasionally in as little as eight or 10 hours. We don’t know how many schools conducting primary training in other models choose to impose similar constraints, but Robinson’s share of the training market is clearly large: Nearly two-thirds of all accidents in primary instruction involve R22s.
The other factor is probably physics. Most fixed-wing students find learning to land the most difficult aspect of pre-solo training. The airplane has to be brought under more and more precise control as it nears the runway while simultaneously slowing down, progressively reducing control authority. Except in run-on landings, helicopters are brought to a stationary hover before settling to the ground. Much less momentum has to be dissipated, and control authority remains undiminished. By the time they’re allowed to solo, helicopter students should have attained considerable proficiency in hovering techniques. Having spent more time mastering the approach to a gentler touchdown, perhaps it’s not surprising that helicopter students don’t muff nearly as many landings.