Right off that bat, I’ll tell you helicopters are way cooler and more fun to fly than fixed-wing airplanes. Helicopter operations are much less complex than that of airplanes, but they require a greater skill level and demand more airmanship.
Most of a professional fixed-wing pilot’s time is spent in the flight levels above FL180 (Flight Level 180; 18,000 feet). Flying fixed-wing aircraft is arguably more 'glamorous,' but no pilot can deny the thrill of low-altitude flight. Working helicopter pilots operate almost exclusively at low-altitude with different scenery and challenges every day. Obstructions such as towers, power lines, and cables across canyons and rivers, as well as constantly morphing ambient atmospheric conditions, present constant challenges to helicopter pilots.
It’s an enticing proposition, one that I thankfully latched onto relatively deep into my flying career.
I spent most of my life chasing the dream of flying airplanes. Helicopters were always in my mind as something to explore eventually, but they weren’t my primary focus.
While instructing in a Cessna 172, I met a young helicopter pilot in training. We made a general commitment that if we could, we would teach the other and try to get each other commercial certificates. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) accommodates the addition of new categories and classes to your pilot certificates without having to start at the lowest level. If you hold a commercial airplane certificate, you can take your first helicopter checkride for a commercial helicopter certificate.
It wasn’t a short journey to helicopter certification. Because we were trading ride-along time, I logged the majority of hours I needed by going along for ferry and repositioning flights. By the time I was ready to take the checkride, my helicopter training was a multi-year adventure. Regardless, I relished it and took joy in it every step of the way.
One time-building flight brought my instructor and me near Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon in December. Most tourists never get to see the Arizona outback with a light dusting of snow.
Another flight involved picking up an R44 at the Robinson factory in Torrance, California. If you’re leaving the Southern Los Angeles basin headed North in a helicopter, you can use the shoreline transition that takes you past Los Angeles International Airport at 50 feet above the waves and within a quarter-mile of the shoreline. The spectacular route takes you along the beach from Redondo to Santa Monica.
Most fixed-wing pilots never get to have that kind of fun.
The flying and checkride prep is humbling. My first helicopter flight was in a Schweizer S300, in which I was able to produce a very stable hover after a half-hour of basic instruction. Schweizers are relatively stable and easy to fly, which boosted my confidence and gave me a false sense of what was to come.
Everything after that was in a Robinson R44 or R66. Robinson helicopter flight controls are extremely sensitive. I’m not sure how long it took me to be able to perform all the basic maneuvers in Robinsons, but I know I didn’t hover again for a long time. Masterful Robinson pilots largely, and with exceptions for large corrections, ‘think’ the control stick (called a cyclic) through input movements that are almost imperceptible. It sounds hard and is harder in practice.
Most airplanes are forgiving and stable by design. There are some helicopters that are more stable than others, but there are no forgiving helicopters. No Robinson is inherently stable. They are only as stable as your hands and feet can make them. If you’re an aspiring student helicopter pilot, more likely than not you’ll train in a Robinson.
When I started, it became apparent to me there are a million ways to get yourself into trouble in a helicopter.
Fixed-wing pilots will recognize ground effect, which happens in helicopters within one-half to a rotor span of the ground, increasing in intensity the lower a helicopter flies or hovers. Ground effect increases lift and performance because downward airflow is reduced to zero at the ground level, which transmits pressure changes to the rotor. Less engine output is required, and helicopters will lift into a hover IGE (in ground effect) even when it’s not safe or appropriate to fly OGE (out of ground effect).
Potentially deadly high gross weights and density altitudes can be masked by ground effect in a helicopter. Student pilots learn to perform a power check while hovering IGE before departure. The power check is not a substitution for preflight planning, it’s a last line of defense that references how much manifold pressure or torque you’re using to maintain a hover for the ambient conditions. Helicopter flight manuals generally include tested performance for both IGE and OGE (out of ground effect) hovering.
ETL (effective translational lift) is one way helicopter aerodynamics are different. Put into simple terms, when a helicopter is hovering, the main rotor is in its own column of descending air. Greater engine output is required to counteract that column of air. At speeds greater than 16-24 knots, the main rotor is able to ‘bite’ into ‘fresh’ air and ETL is achieved. If the wind is blowing at 25 knots, you can be ‘in’ ETL in a stable hover.
Depending on a number of factors, you can get yourself killed in a helicopter by departing a OGE low altitude hover (pushing) downwind. As your speed over the ground begins to match the tailwind, you lose ETL, and lift is suddenly and significantly reduced. The combination of carrying an excessive load and losing ETL while OGE and at low altitude is deadly and has claimed lives.
Most flight schools teach students that ETL is a lifeline. Maneuvers and training are planned around remaining in ETL as much as possible. Departures and arrivals are planned around the parameters in the height/velocity diagram, which is published in the helicopter’s flight manual. Essentially, in training, students push for ETL before climbing out of ground effect, and when landing, they keep ETL until they have descended into ground effect.
That practice suits flight training well and increases safety margins. The reality is that most helicopter work, such as that which requires external loads and long lines, is conducted out of ETL. Watch helicopters with a 150-foot line and a firefighting Bambi Bucket. They are hovering OGE to pick up water, and if winds are calm, they are not in ETL. The same goes for helicopters that are lifting air conditioning units to rooftops, or sky cranes lifting and positioning high tension powerline towers.
I’ve heard many people repeat that aviation is safer than driving. In context, flying on airliners is safe. Flying helicopters is inherently risky and much more dangerous than driving a car. Safe and proficient utility helicopter pilots are unafraid, but always on guard. They possess a situational awareness most pilots don’t.
Fixed-wing pilots routinely train on emergencies with a focus on accuracy in identifying the problem and adherence to the proper published procedure. If you are flying a multi-engine jet and experience an engine failure as you’re lifting off, you focus on flying and maintaining positive control. You calmly climb up to a safe altitude before running the checklist. When an emergency happens in a helicopter, the reaction needs to be instantaneous. If you have an engine failure in a Huey while lifting a utility pole, you’re punching the load off, you’re getting the collective down, you’re counteracting the abrupt yaw moment caused the by rapid rollback of engine torque, and you’re heading to the most suitable landing spot, all at the same time. You’re not calling for a checklist out loud and going over it carefully at a steady pace. Time is simply a luxury you do not have.
It’s my personal observation that helicopter pilots have an easier time transitioning to fixed-wing than fixed-wing pilots do to helicopters. Some of the most difficult fixed-wing flying, like learning taildraggers, comes like a walk in the park to helicopter pilots.
One of the first things I did after getting my airplane single-engine land private pilot’s certificate was sought out a local taildragger instructor. I never ground looped a taildragger, but I was working the rudders hard every time I landed or took off in that Cessna 170. Even then the instructor told me what I’d eventually learn: that helicopter pilots come in and have an easy time.
I’ll explain why by going over the nuances of helicopter flying in finer detail. In front of a helicopter pilot is the cyclic stick, usually just called the cyclic. Most helicopters have one that comes up from the floor between the pilot’s legs in the right front seat, and usually a second cyclic for a co-pilot. The Robinson has a “teetering” cyclic that comes up from the center of the cabin, reaches over to the right, and hangs above a pilot’s lap. The left-side controls for a potential co-pilot or flight instructor can be removed when they aren’t needed.
The cyclic controls the main rotor and, as a result, the direction of flight. Either hydraulically or manually with control rods, the cyclic moves swash plate pitch links located on the main rotor hub assembly that adjust blade pitch. In simple terms, if you want to roll left, you move the cyclic left, and more lift is produced on the right side of the spinning main rotor. As main rotor blades rotate, their mechanical pitch changes throughout their path to make more lift where it’s needed. The same works for moving the cyclic forward and aft.
Stable hovers are a goal for students and the hallmark of professional helicopter pilots. Well built trainer airplanes, such as the perennial Cessna 172, want to fly straight and level. Helicopters do not have a tendency to hover on their own. Pilots hovering a helicopter are executing a delicate balancing act that requires near-constant cyclic input. The ability for pilots to master hovering, which involves many small inputs that happen as we simultaneously use our perception to sense their need, is a testament to the human brain.
To the left and near the pilot’s seat is the collective pitch control. The collective is a lever in most helicopters, held in the pilot’s left hand. It, wait for it, ‘collectively’ adjusts the pitch of the main rotor blades, increasing or decreasing overall main rotor thrust. In many helicopters, a correlator increases engine output when you pull the collective up to increase thrust. Some older helicopters do not, and the pilot must twist a throttle, like a motorcycle throttle, on the collective to prevent increased blade pitch from dragging the main rotor RPM down.
The pilot’s feet rest on anti-torque pedals. They serve the same purpose as rudder pedals, they control yaw, or left and right movement of the nose around the vertical axis. Control rods from the anti-torque pedals adjust the collective blade pitch, increasing and decreasing tail rotor thrust as necessary to counteract the equal and opposite reaction to the main rotor spinning. This is best illustrated by the available videos of helicopters with tail rotor failures, such as this one. They spin out of control.
When a Robinson pilot lowers or raises the collective, they must also apply the appropriate anti-torque pedal that compensates for increased or decreased main rotor torque. More advanced helicopters have systems that offer various levels of anti-torque compensation, as well. The competence helicopter pilots must have when it comes to manipulating the anti-torque pedals translates well to flying taildragger airplanes, which require a lot more work on landing and takeoff than airplanes with tricycle gear.
Helicopter and airplane pilots have bickered since the dawn of helicopters about which they’d rather be in during an engine failure. For the sake of this article, we can leave multi-engine airplanes and helicopters out of the discussion and elaborate on a scenario in which the pilot must make a forced landing after an engine failure.
An airplane can glide to potential landing sites. Cessna 172s have a glide ratio of 10:1, so they fly 10 feet for every foot they lose in altitude. Generally, they descend at around 500 feet per minute (FPM). If your engine fails at 5,000 feet and cannot be restarted, you have around 10 minutes to make an unscheduled sea-level landing. However, you must still find a field, road, or airport with sufficient stopping distance. I’ve heard it many times from professional fixed-wing pilots; if the engine fails in a helicopter they drop like a rock and you’ll probably die.
It’s simply not true.
Robinson helicopters have what’s called a sprag clutch and most other helicopters feature a freewheeling unit with a sprag clutch in it. The design purpose of these units is to allow torque to only be applied in one rotational direction on a drive shaft. The engine can apply torque but can’t remove it, much like a bicycle where you can pedal or rest but the bike keeps rolling. The main rotor of your helicopter keeps spinning in the correct direction, but in the event of an engine failure, the airflow through the main rotor reverses direction. This is called auto-rotation. When producing thrust the main rotor moves a column of air downward. When in auto-rotation, the helicopter is essentially gliding, using air moving up through the main rotor to maintain controlled flight and lift, albeit reduced lift.
The Robinson R44 glide ratio is 4.7:1, less than half that of the Cessna 172, but landing options are far greater. Vacant lots, rooftops and other less than ideal landing zones have been successfully utilized by helicopter pilots unfortunate enough to have been faced with an engine failure.
Early in primary training, helicopter pilots practice autorotations, managing main rotor RPM, forward glide speed (approximately 55 knots in the R44), and maneuvering to reach the best landing spot available for the circumstances. If you watch police and news helicopters, they commonly circle a scene to maximize their options and the likelihood of a safe autorotation when they could be hovering.
As for whether I’d rather be in a helicopter or a fixed-wing aircraft experiencing an engine failure, it depends heavily on the circumstances. I can tell you, however, that I have a great amount of respect for and faith in the ability of a professional helicopter pilot to put an auto-rotating helicopter down almost anywhere, even between the lines of a single spot in a parking lot. A perfect outcome is completing an autorotation to the ground without a scratch on the helicopter, but a little luck is required. Most pilots would agree that a successful emergency landing is one where no one on board the helicopter or on the ground is injured. Preserving the helicopter to fly another day comes in second to saving lives.
That being said, helicopters do generally operate at low altitude and you have less time between the initial engine failure and needing to land. In all cases, you can train day and night for engine failures, but they still catch you by surprise when you’re at work in an aircraft. You don’t get to pick your real-life engine failure scenario. It goes without saying that if you knew you were going to have an engine failure beforehand you should not have gone flying.
In cruise flight, helicopters can be flown much like an airplane. A common practice is using the collective to set an appropriate amount of engine output for continuous cruise performance, then leaving it alone and using cyclic inputs similar to the way you’d use the stick in an airplane. Forward and aft cyclic movements make slight adjustments to pitch to maintain cruise altitude, and of course, left and right cyclic movements roll left and right to stay on course.
You don’t use rudder pedals to steer the direction of flight in an airborne airplane very often, and the same is true for helicopters. A short trim string, which is a literal and actual yarn string on the front and within view of a pilot, is a visual reference helicopter pilots use to keep the helicopter fuselage aligned with the relative wind. They call that flying in trim, and it’s accomplished with the anti-torque pedals.
Near the ground, most flight schools teach their students to fly with the skids underneath the helicopter aligned with the direction of travel. Like flying in trim, this is done with the anti-torque pedals as well. This eliminates the possibility of a skid touching down with lateral helicopter movement, which can cause a rollover.
I’ve always advocated for people getting into aviation recreationally. Private citizens should be able to enjoy general aviation without the same qualifications and mindset as career pilots. I believe it’s good for aviation and society to have pilots that go sightseeing on weekends, taking trips in small airplanes, and keeping general aviation thriving. Every newly certified pilot is an additional ambassador for aviation, and our ability to take to the sky is inarguably one of mankind’s greatest achievements.
I still feel the same way about airplanes, but after learning to fly helicopters, my opinions have changed. Helicopter flying should never be casual. Most helicopter general aviation flying is in Robinsons. The Robinson R44 has the highest fatal accident rate of any civil helicopter, with 42 fatal accidents from 2006-2016. It’s not because the R44 is poorly engineered, it’s because Robinson helicopters made helicopter flying cheaper and more accessible.
I’ve met many interesting characters in aviation over the years. One casual R44 owner-pilot in particular never performed preflight inspections because he believed it was in God’s hands. He elaborated that if his faith was strong enough God wouldn’t let him have an accident.
Even recreational helicopter pilots must approach each flight as if it were their job. If you’re not 100% focused on doing everything right and keeping your skill level high, you have no business flying a helicopter.
The author is a United States Air Force veteran and 5,000-hour Airline Transport Pilot and Commercial Helicopter Pilot, type rated in private jets and with over a decade’s experience managing and flying private aircraft. He has a wide breadth of experience in aviation, having flown people from all backgrounds into and out of everything from small mountain airstrips to large international airports.
Contact the editor: Tyler@thedrive.com