More expensive to fly than aeroplanes, but very satisfying to master
Many fixed-wing pilots shudder at the thought of flying helicopters, and shake their head at the idea of being held aloft by a single, spinning rotor. How completely these people miss the point: I was hooked on my first experience, flying as a child passenger in a family friend’s Hughes 300, operating from a helipad behind his office. The view, unimpeded by wings, was fabulous, and even to a child the freedom of being able to fly from the backyard was apparent. And yes, I learned that a helicopter can glide safely down to earth, engine-off: it’s called autorotation.
In the years since, helicopter flying has been brought within reach of the average wage-earner almost single-handedly by Frank Robinson. Throw a stone at a helicopter (please don’t) and you will hit a Robinson of some kind – either the two-seat R22 or four-seat R44. And now the French have joined the party with the Guimbal Cabri G2… These aircraft may still be expensive to operate by fixed-wing standards, but they are robust, reliable machines that offer the best view in the sky – and, once you have learned to fly one, you too could be flying from your own backyard.
A typical lesson starts with a walkaround to check all is well – as with a fixed-wing aircraft – and to reveal the inner workings of the machine. The helicopter’s aerofoil-section main rotor blades act like the wings of an aeroplane although, unlike the fixed-wing machine, the downward flow of air through the helicopter’s rotor makes it inherently unstable – so you have to fly it all the time. The twisting force of the power-driven main rotor is countered by a tail rotor that acts like the rudder of an aeroplane. However, in the case of the helicoper this yaw control is effective right down to zero airspeed, in the hover.
You inspect the Robinson’s rotor drive through a hatch in the side – it looks like a set of loosely fitting car fan belts. At rest these belts are slack because, like a car, the helicopter’s clutch must be disengaged to allow the engine to be started. Drive is engaged by tensioning those belts with a jockey wheel: seemingly crude – but it works! The control rods are also visible, and when you work the tail rotor pitch control
rod with your hand, you will see the pedals move too. Outside checks complete, you can climb in and appreciate the view. Most of the dials are similar to those in fixed-wing aircraft: airspeed indicator, altimeter, attitude indicator, compass etc – but one dual-needle instrument is very different. This gauge indicates engine and rotor rpm and it’s critical. Matching needles confirm that all is well with the rotor drive.
The cyclic is suspended from an oddlooking tilting yoke shared by instructor and student, and controls pitch and yaw (like the control column in an aeroplane). Beside the seat is the collective, which alters rotor blade pitch as it is moved up and down and, together with operation of its twistgrip throttle, makes the helicopter climb or descend (or, with suitable cyclic input, fly faster or slower). The pedals enable the pilot to counteract the torque effect of the main rotor, which varies as the collective is moved. Taking off is done at a run, with forward speed and at a shallow angle: it’s considered bad practice to shoot up vertically.
You will start to get the hang of it quite quickly when your instructor gives you control, so long as you use small movements of the cyclic and apply just the right pedal pressure (one tip is to rest your forearm on your leg, which inhibits any tendency to over control). Then there’s just the hovering to master!
“I was hooked on my first experience... the view, unimpeded by wings, was fabulous”
Helicopter ascendant: Robinson’s R44 Cadet is a dedicated two-seat trainer based on a four-seater that has a better safety record than not just other helicopters, but fixed-wing aircraft!