A bubble hanging from a disc

For my birthday this year the lovely Susan decided to buy me a trial flight in a Helicopter. I selected Ardmore Helicopters as they looked like a nice outfit and I wanted to fly in a Schweizer 300 rather than a Robinson 22 because I think they look cooler.

We turned up at the office a lot earlier than planned because at the time there was a nasty southerly change coming through bringing rain and bad visibility with it which would make any flying rather difficult. The weather we were experiencing at the time was all but perfect for flying with a light breeze, sun with a few cumulus around and excellent visibility. My instructor was up flying with another student and the office was busy ringing around trying to inform people of the weather change and recommending their either head home asap or wait it out.

Eventually the unmistakable sound of a helicopter approaching filled the office and we saw ZK-HVO hover taxi in and set down on the apron. Out hopped a young looking instructor called Gary who eyed the weather up and said we should head off sooner rather than later if we were going to get back before the rain hit.

To this point no one in the office had asked me if I had any flying experience so I used my don't ask don't tell policy. It wasn't until Gary and I were walking out to the helicopter if he asked me somewhat casually if I had ever flown before. Upon me telling him I had a PPL(A) and about 130 hours he relaxed and with a wide grin said he'd try to convert me.

My first thought when I climbed in was how spacious the cabin was. There was plenty of head and leg room, and the perspex bubble gave you the feeling that you had all the space you could see to stretch out. Being tall I could see over the engine and enjoyed nearly 360 degrees of unobstructed view. I found the cyclic and pedals fit my 6'1 frame perfectly, but the collective (in a similar position to a handbrake in a car) was a tad cramped due to my long arms.

Gary helped me strap in and climbed in himself. The briefing was, well, brief. Fortunately as I qualify as an aviation nut I was well aware of everything Gary quickly touched on during his explanation of how things worked. After a quick once around the instrument panel (which looked mightly similar to what I am used to, the only difference being the main rotor rpm gauge which is split into several dials for main and tail rotor speeds) Gary started up the Lycoming HO-360-C1A, ran it up and engaged the main rotor. After a quick radio check with Ardmore UNICOM we lifted to the hover and he taxied us out to the taxiway so we could get a good look at the fixed wing traffic in the circuit.

After locating a lull in the circuit traffic he swung us into the wind, announced our imminent departure, raised the collective and up we went. We accelerated to 30 knots which I was told is the best climb angle. Looking at the ground slowly travelling beneath my feet I marvelled at how slow we were actually travelling. I certainly was not used to flying at 30 knots, let alone climbing at that speed. It felt kind of wrong. The other thing I noted was that the ride was just as smooth as in a fixed wing aircraft. Eventually after getting to our circuit height of 700 feet Gary handed control over to me and told me to hold her at 700 feet and look to maintain 70 knots. Helicopter level forward flight in many ways is very similar to fixed wing. To speed up you push forward on the cyclic, to slow down you pull back. Roll and yaw are done exactly the same, with the need to balance the turn with the torque pedals (I would get a dirty look if I called them rudder pedals). When flying visually as I was you align the "rotor shadow" or "disc" to a point above the horizon that gives you the speed that you want and hold it there. One thing I also noted was the sensitivity of the pedals is completely different to that in a plane. They do not gain or lose effectiveness relative to airspeed, indeed they were quite sensitive throughout the entire flight envelope that I experienced at the controls.

Gary pointed to a couple of bush covered hills to the north and asked me to fly us there at 70 knots. Once we got closer he asked me to slow us to 50 knots and upon reaching the hills he took control and we descended in low for some valley flying. The lack of speed, the excellent visibility and manouverability, essential ingredients in low level valley flying and the helicopter has all of that and more. We were at heights that I would never fly an aircraft at unless I was an ag pilot but the slow speeds meant that I didn't feel unsafe or nervous at all.

Some of the turns were simply amazing, pretty much impossible for most fixed wing aircraft to perform. Eventually he us out of the low level stuff, then Gary handed control back to me and we headed back to the airfield and the TLOF (Touchdown and Lift OFf area) at 800 feet and 70 knots. Once we were inside the airfield boundary Gary took control and demonstrated a 180 degree autorotation. We descended so fast my ears popped. I can see now why its said Helicopter Pilots don't screw up forced landings because they don't have time to.

About 10 feet above the ground Gary brought us into the hover and we hover taxied over to an area roughly 20m square with a big number 4 in the middle. It was time to see if I could hover.

Once we were inside he stabilized us in the middle of the square, handed back control and asked me to keep us inside the square at a constant height. Being dynamically unstable the helicopter literally has a mind of its own and careful hands (and feet) and good reflexes are required to keep the machine in one spot. When I tried I would always over correct then the helicopter would get into a massive oscillation that fed on my poorly coordinated inputs, eventually requiring Gary to take control to tame the monster. After failing dismally at using all three controls Gary took the collective and pedals and gave me the cyclic. I think I managed to maintain the hover for a good 3 seconds on one of my many attempts before we lurched off at some odd angle. Gary got me to shadow his movements on the controls as he held HVO in a stable hover, but his movements seemed totally imperceptible to me.

When our 0.5 was up he hover taxied us back to the apron outside the office, consoling me that it takes about 14 hours of dual to solo in a training helicopter. I reckon those small boxes in the TLOF must be a prison for the pre solo helicopter student just like the circuit is to us fixed wingers.

Over all the experience was a heck of a lot of fun. Do I want to go up again in a helicopter? YES! Would I consider getting a license in a helicopter? I would like to get myself to the solo stage just to prove to myself that I can fly one. However the hourly rate in a 300 is similar to a multi engined training aircraft. That is an awful lot of fixed wing flying I would miss out on.

The internal debate rages on...


James said…
Good story, I did an hour in an R22 some years ago. Hard work. Good fun, but hard work.

You say in your blog: "Helicopter level flight in many ways is very similar to fixed wing with one exception. To speed up you push forward on the cyclic, to slow down you pull back."

It's not clear from your blog article if you meant that second sentance as the exception?

As Langewiesche so clearly illustrates in "Stick and Rudder" (get it, read it, it's good), it's no different in fixed wing the aircraft airspeed is controlled with the elevators.
Euan Kilgour said…
You are quite correct, I shall amend my statement. And yes I have read Stick and Rudder a few years ago before I went solo. Great book, lots of good stuff in there.
ZK-JPY said…
Looks like I'll have to come down to NZHN and stage an intervention! :D

Did you do this on Sunday?? I was busy flying down to HN to pickup a jacket I won as a prize at the WAC open day...

Flew right into the rather large (and wet) wall of grey that had come up from the South, just as I was approaching Te Rapa. Reminded me of the conditions when I did my PPL flight test!

Spent all of 2 minutes on the ground at the club to pickup the jacket, get strapped back in and get taxi clearance :P

And to top it off... the jacket is too small for me! hahahaah fits the missus nice tho ;)
Euan Kilgour said…
Yes it was Sunday Jarred. The rain was just starting to throw a few drops around when we left Hamilton, but the front was pretty slow moving, by the time we arrived at Ardmore the sun was still shining. The photo of HVO was taken just after I landed.