My first helicopter lesson

It was my birthday on Tuesday, and in the spirit of teaching an old dog new tricks, it seemed the perfect occasion to book myself in for my first ever helicopter lesson! Lee had given me a Heli Air voucher for Christmas and I’ve been waiting patiently ever since. We awoke to the most beautiful sunny day and drove down to Wellesbourne Airfield with the roof down on my car.

When I got to Heli Air I had a pre-flight briefing with my instructor, Matt, who ran through the helicopter controls and how they’re different from fixed wing. Then we went out to the helicopter and started up. The helicopter is a Robinson R22, the two-seat version of the one Lee and I flew in to our wedding a couple of years ago. I’m indebted to Lee not only for giving me the voucher, but for supplying the majority of the photos for this post!

The cockpit was actually pretty similar to what I’m used to, with many of the same instruments. The big difference was the collective (which controls up and down movements) and the T-bar control column (cyclic), which took a little bit of getting used to; it teeters left or right depending on whether the student or instructor has control. Another difference between helicopters and fixed wing is that the pilot sits on the left in fixed wing and on the right in a helicopter. Luckily I’ve done plenty of flying from the right-hand seat on long motorglider ferry flights with Lee, so it wasn’t too difficult to get used to that!

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And we have lift-off! It was so cool not to need a runway and to take off from right next to the hangar like that. So much more efficient!

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I must say, it felt pretty awesome to be able to manouevre around things like that parked up Warrior. Of course, my instructor was doing the flying at this point, but it wasn’t long before he handed control to me. We scooted over the hedges to the west of the airfield and did some general handling, getting me used to the sensitivity of the controls and how differently they work from fixed wing. In an aeroplane we coordinate the stick and rudder movements, but this is not the case in a helicopter, so it felt a bit counter-intuitive at first. The view, though, was awesome. You can see all the way round, above and below, and we flew around quite a bit lower than we normally fly in the Robin or the motorgliders. And, because we were lower, it felt a lot faster, despite having a similar cruise speed (70kts ish) to Wilhelm!

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I was pleased by the fact that I was able to have control for most of the flight, which taught me an awful lot in a short space of time. Matt demonstrated a manouevre where you pitch the nose of the helicopter right up and it goes up, hangs there for a second and then turns round and sort of plummets nose down before recovering. I’m usually a bit alarmed by doing similar things in the motorgliders, but this felt surprisingly ok. Once the demo one was complete, it was my turn! I did a couple and it was great fun. Another thing we did was a practice autorotation, which is what you have to do if you suffer an engine failure. Again, I thought this would be scary, as the helicopter falls out of the sky pretty rapidly, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought (though thankfully the engine stayed on – I’m sure it would be very frightening if it had been the real thing!). Having done a couple into a field, we came back to the airfield and did one there too. Having done most of my training at Wellesbourne, it felt strange not to have to do a circuit and to just head straight for the middle of the airfield for a vertical descent!

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Here’s the bottom of the autorotation, slowing up in the flair.

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After that we flew to the end of the airfield, where there’s a small paddock with cones and barrels and things. It was time for me to try out hovering for the first time! Initially Matt had control of the collective and the cyclic, and I had to try to keep the nose of the helicopter pointing at a cone. You only need the tiniest of movements on the pedals, so it’s quite a fine art. Then Matt had the pedals and cyclic while I had the collective, trying to maintain a level altitude without the helicopter going up and down. Next I had the cyclic while Matt had the pedals and collective, and I had to try to keep us fixed in the same spot, which again was a fine art. In fact it turned out that I’d also had the pedals on that one, but I had been doing it instinctively and hadn’t noticed! So Matt then gave me all three controls – cyclic, collective and pedals – and hey presto, I was hovering!! He let go of the controls completely just to prove I was doing it all by myself! I felt pretty darn proud of myself, as he said that in his years of flying trial lessons, nobody else had ever managed that on their very first lesson! Yay! Either it was beginners’ luck, or I’m a natural. Hehe.

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To demonstrate some of the helicopter’s abilities, Matt took control and did some tight turns right up near the trees. We’d never go that close to trees in fixed wing aircraft! To be able to go up and down vertically, to hover and turn on the spot, gave the most immense feeling of freedom compared to flying an aeroplane. It feels as though the helicopter is an extension of your body, giving you this supernatural ability to move around completely at will. Or at least it definitely would feel like that for an experienced pilot.

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This photo was either when I was hovering, or when Matt landed the helicopter on a shed roof!

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Here’s what it looked like from the cockpit – you can see the shed roof! How marvellous to be able to land wherever you like, and not need a runway!

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Did I mention that Matt the instructor was quite dashing? ;-)

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After we took off again, there was just time for a couple of runs up and down the middle of the airfield for Matt to demonstrate crop-spraying technique, where you have to fly very precisely and turn round in as little space as possible so that you keep the spray within the boundaries of a particular field.

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It’s quite amazing how¬†manoeuvrable these things are. You can really chuck them around.

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Here we are coming back to land by the hangar.

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Touchdown!

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I don’t think I’ve stopped grinning from ear to ear ever since, to be honest! It was such a fantastic flight!

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As a side note, look how the helicopter looks more green from this angle…

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…and more purple from this one! Such a cool chameleon colour scheme!

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Back on the ground, I filled in my logbook and picked up various literature about flying with Heli Air. Matt said I did really well, and whether or not he was just being encouraging, I felt proud of how it had gone! Lee and I then celebrated with lunch sitting out in the sun at the cafe.

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Anyway, the upshot of it all is that I now have my sights set on learning to fly a helicopter!! It’s mega expensive, but where there’s a will there’s a way, right?

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