Helicopter training: the first 20 hours

If you’ve been following my monthly what I’ve been up to series, you’ll know that over the last few months I’ve been having lots and lots of helicopter lessons. Having reached a major milestone in my training (first solo!!!) at the end of August, this seems a good point to talk about my training so far and to write in a bit more detail for the benefit of those who’ve asked me what it’s like learning to fly helicopters.

Background

If you’re new to this blog, I’m learning on a Robinson R22 with Heli Air at Wellesbourne Airfield in Warwickshire, and I’ve come to helicopters from a fixed wing background, already holding an NPPL (SSEA and SLMG) and mostly flying a Robin DR400. I’ve always wanted to learn to fly helicopters but assumed I couldn’t afford it, but after an amazing trial lesson on my birthday back in March, I decided to take the plunge and plunder my savings account…

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The trial lesson

I wrote about my helicopter trial lesson in considerable depth back in March, so I won’t talk too much about it here. It was a fantastic and inspiring experience that really opened my eyes to what helicopters are capable of, and how different they are to planes! You can do so much more with a helicopter, and you feel so free without the need for a runway. I’ve done trial lessons in other kinds of aircraft before (microlights, sea planes and vintage biplanes, for example) and hadn’t ever come away thinking that I had to learn to fly them, so I totally hadn’t expected to feel quite so instantly bitten by the helicopter bug!

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Learning to fly again

After the fun of the trial lesson, my first proper lesson certainly made me realise that flying helicopters is a lot harder than it looks, and I did wonder what I was letting myself in for! Luckily, as a fixed wing pilot, the instrument panel of the R22 looks pretty familiar. You’ll recognise the standard instruments – altimeter, air speed indicator, direction indicator, temperature and pressure gauges etc. The main difference is the tachometer, which you can see in the top right of the instrument panel. This has two needles, one for engine RPM and one for main rotor RPM, and if all is well the needles move in unison.

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While the instrument panel is largely the same, the controls are completely different to what you’ll be used to as a fixed wing pilot. There are three flight controls:

  • Cyclic – the stick you hold; controls which direction you go in (including sideways and backwards!! Mind-blowing for a fixed wing pilot).
  • Collective – the lever between the seats; controls up and down movement (takes a bit of getting used to when you’re used to having a lever between the seats for flaps in a plane).
  • Pedals – control the tail rotor and therefore the yaw (left and right movement of the nose). When turning, you do not coordinate pedals with the stick as you would in a plane. The pedals are there to overcome the effects of engine torque, and to control nose direction in the hover.

There’s also the throttle, located on the collective lever, which you twist to operate. A correlator and governor coordinate throttle input with the collective pitch to increase power as you move the lever up and decrease it as you move it down (though in some helicopters you have to do this manually).

Robinson helicopters have a teetering T-bar cyclic control, which can be moved up and down to student or instructor. (This configuration is jolly useful if, like me, you like to fly in a dress!)

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My first few flights were all about getting used to the differences between flying fixed wing and flying a helicopter. I had to go right back to basics, stuff I don’t even have to think about in a fixed wing anymore – straight and level flight, climbing, descending, turning and so on. It’s so different to flying a plane, because the helicopter is inherently unstable, so you have to fly it constantly. You can’t just let go of the cyclic, whereas if you let go of the stick in a plane it will pretty much just fly itself if you have it trimmed correctly. On the plus side, if you already fly fixed wing then you are at least comfortable in the air, talking on the radio, navigating etc. It would be an awful lot to take in if you were completely new to flying.

From there, you learn to hover and hover taxi, which is so much harder than it looks. It’s at this point that you really start to feel the difference from fixed wing – 0kts airspeed and still airborne! Once you’ve mastered hovering, you can learn to take off and land. Landing is basically just hovering lower and lower until you make contact with the ground, but it takes quite a lot of practice to touch down on the exact spot you want to. It was a satisfying moment when I managed to land this close to the hangar!

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Learning to take off was a little different to how I was expecting. You practice gently lifting into the hover, but you don’t initially learn to take off vertically (which isn’t always possible in an R22 anyway, and there are various reasons why it’s not the preferred take-off method). You learn to move forward and lower the nose, allowing the helicopter to pick up speed until it enters what’s called ‘translational lift’ and starts to climb. Then you start learning circuits (a familiar concept for a fixed wing pilot, though the helicopter circuit at Wellesbourne is a bit different from the fixed wing one), and trying to master an accurate final approach, which is much steeper than in a plane. Also, while in a plane you’re used to keeping the speed on all the way down to prevent stalling, in a helicopter you have to gradually slow down as you get nearer the ground – rather counterintuitive for a fixed wing pilot!

At this stage in the training you’re also learning basic autorotations, an entirely new concept for a fixed wing pilot. Essentially, in the unlikely event that you have an engine failure, you enter autorotation to get yourself safely back to the ground, and the upflow of air keeps the blades turning a bit like a sycamore key. While the rate of descent is much higher than for a plane, which will glide to an extent, the helicopter doesn’t just fall out of the sky, and if you act quickly enough then you actually stand a good chance of surviving. You do lots of practice autorotations so it’s drilled into you. You can see one towards the end of this 360 degree video, in which I have a serious concentration face the whole time!

My instructors

Finding the right instructor is vital when you’re learning to fly; having flown with loads of them over the years in various different aircraft types, I knew what a difference teaching styles and personalities can make to your experience of learning to fly and to the progress you make. I’ve been really lucky with Heli Air, I must say. For the first five hours of my training I flew with the amazing Matt Ribbands, the instructor who so inspired me on my trial lesson. He then left to become an airline pilot (sob).

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I now fly with Matthew Browne, who is fab and has all the qualities one needs from an instructor – patient, encouraging and a great sense of humour! It makes such a difference to fly with someone you get on well with. Matthew’s lovely dad Simon is also an experienced instructor at Heli Air and I’ve flown with him too. Definitely recommend both of them if you want to learn at Heli Air Wellesbourne.

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I’ll also put in a special mention for the ever-cheerful Ian Gough, a commercial heli pilot who works in operations support and who phones me practically everyday to see if I want to come flying, and is therefore single-handedly responsible for how little work I’ve done recently!!

Flying the R44

The R44 is the more powerful four-seat version of the two-seat R22, and I’ve been lucky enough to get to fly one a couple of times during my training so far. The cockpit looks much the same, but slightly bigger.

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The next two pics of me flying were taken by some local plane spotters!

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I really enjoyed flying the R44 and a type rating is definitely on the cards when I get my licence. That’s another difference from fixed wing, by the way. While my fixed wing licence lets me fly most kinds of single engined aircraft, in the rotary world you have to do a type rating for each different kind of helicopter you want to fly. So even though the R44 is pretty similar to the R22, I will have to do a five-hour type rating course to be able to fly these. I think it will be worth it though, as obviously I will then be able to carry more passengers!

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This one was taken by instructor Matthew.

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First solo

Robinson Helicopters recommend that students fly a minimum of 20 hours before being allowed to fly solo (not something I’d expected, having come from a fixed wing background where you go solo whenever you’re deemed ready for it). I had exactly 20 hours, but the run-up to solo was nerve-wracking – it was all emergency procedures, what to do if this warning light comes on, what to do if you experience anything untoward in flight, etc. Having gone solo before, I knew just how scary it is when you no longer have an instructor sitting next to you to help if anything goes wrong. However, in the end my first solo – a five-minute circuit of the airfield – went really well and I thoroughly enjoyed it! Here’s a pic just after take-off, hovering while I tried to get used to how different the helicopter feels with just me on board…

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You can see my take-off in this video…

And the final bit of my approach and into a hover in this one (sadly my instructor’s phone ran out of space before he could film my landing, which is a shame as I was really pleased with the landing!).

The obligatory post-first solo pic with instructor Matthew!

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What’s next in my training?

The full PPL(H) course requires a minimum of 45 hours, and having now reached about 25 hours, I’m about half way through. Although I qualify for an hours reduction because I already have a pilot’s licence, I’m told that I’ll probably still need at least the 45 hours and possibly more, simply because helicopters are so complex that they do take a long time to master. Since my first solo I’ve done another 40 minutes of solo flying, and I need to do 10 hours in total. I’m currently learning more complex manoeuvres, including sideways and backwards flying, and there will be lots more difficult things to follow, like landing on sloping ground, in confined areas, etc. I also have five exams to do (it would have been nine, but I get let off some of them because I already have a pilot’s licence), which I’m rather dreading! It’s a huge challenge, but great fun, and all the hard work will be worth it in the end. If you’re considering learning to fly, or converting to ‘the dark side’, do check out Heli Air.

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