The Journal of the Friends of Sywell Aerodrome

No. 11 Summer 2004

Learning to fly a helicopter

by Ant West

I have been flying fixed wing aircraft since 1987 and most of my experience has been on Tiger Moths. Ever since I was a small boy I have had a fascination with helicopters and I have always yearned to fly them.

Some 15 years ago I started to put money aside into a helicopter fund and it eventually grew to a reasonable amount. After much scraping I located a machine. I had a survey done and purchased it. I still had to borrow a load more money, but I had made up my mind and there was no stopping me and so last year I became the proud owner of a Hughes 500c. The only problem was that I had virtually no idea how to fly it. I thought that I could turn up at one of the local flying schools and receive instruction. This however, is not the case. Each instructor has to be type rated on any one machine and it soon became clear to me that Hughes 500 instructors were very rare. I eventually found an instructor and a flying school that would take me on at Coventry Airport. They also wanted to rent the machine and I thought that this would help with the running costs.

So early in March this year I had the machine ferried up to Coventry and I pitched up for my first lesson on a very windy day. It was a small and very friendly school and my instructor Dave had many hours under his belt on quite a variety of machines. We managed to thrash out a deal on how much I would pay for my PPL and so began my training on helicopters. My first pre flight inspection was a real eye opener, but it really must be thorough as I dread to think what might happen if bits fall off a helicopter. I am quite used to parts coming off a Tiger Moth or the engine stopping. Basically look for a field and try to keep your wits about you. I suppose like many others I had this idea that if anything goes wrong with a helicopter, it breaks up into many pieces in the sky. Dave soon put me right and told me that the 500 was designed for military use and that it was one of the strongest machines around. This gave me much reassurance, as I am somewhat agricultural when it comes to using machinery.

Eventually we accomplished the pre flight and with a lot of grunt factor we managed to push the machine out. It was so heavy when compared to a fixed wing and starting up was quite another matter. I had heard terrible stories about people who had carried out a hot start and cost an owner many thousands of pounds to put right. Eventually with Dave's guidance, we got the machine started and we were ready to go into the local area. At this point I should say that Coventry is very busy with not only 737s but also fixed and rotary sharing the same pattern. Added to this there are three radio stations to cope with and soon the eyes start to bulge.

We eventually acquired clearance to the hold and hovered there to let one of Thompsons 737s go. Then it was off into the local area around to the south of Warwick. Once at 1,500 ft Dave gave me control and we immediately started to porpoise all over the sky. My first thought was that I had taken on more than I could handle. I had also been used to Tigers, where considerable amounts of stick and rudder are used. Dave was soon at pains to point out that helicopters do not have a rudder and they are only referred to as pedals. Also it soon became clear that the pedals are only used to keep the machine straight and are not to be used during a turn sequence. We were only into the first ten minutes and I really did wonder if I could handle this. After an hour of patient instruction it all started to come together and if only tiny inputs are placed on the controls the machine will go where you want it to.

Another major difference between fixed and rotary is that on the left side of the pilot is another control called the collective, this also incorporates the throttle which on a turbine is fully open during flight. The collective alters the pitch of the blades and controls rise or descent. On our return to Coventry, Dave demonstrated an autorotation to simulate an engine failure. It was awesome, he dropped the collective and we made a fully controlled landing without using the engine. The speed of descent is very rapid and I did wonder if my lovely machine was going to be broken into many pieces.

Ant hovering his Hughes 500 G-LINC
Ant hovering his Hughes 500 G-LINC

After landing we went to the FATO, which is a large grass area for teaching helicopter handling. This was where hovering started. First Dave let me have the cyclic control and with tiny inputs we were wobbling around in a fairly small area. Next he gave me the cyclic and then we were going up and down as well as wobbling, after that he handed over the pedals and it all went pear shaped. In my defence it was blowing a gale. However, it was time to go back to the hangar for a coffee and a de-brief.

In the afternoon it was out to the local area again and then back to the FATO. The second session was a huge improvement and at the end of the day, although mentally and physically drained, I felt that I had achieved something. More days followed with much of the same and we gradually progressed onto practice forced landings and different speed ranges. As well as this I soon got used to the air traffic regime at the airfield and after a while one realised what a heavy workload ATC has to cope with and that really they are very helpful and patient people. One day we were doing engine failures in the hover and Dave put the engine to ground idle. He then got out of the machine and told me to do a circuit on my own. It is the crowning glory of any student pilot and the machine was so lively on its own. It was a fantastic feeling. After that it was a case of hour building on my own in the local area.

After that it was on to navigation. The major problem with this is that in a fixed wing in straight and level flight you can take your hands off the controls to look at a map or write things down. With a helicopter it is not wise to let go of the cyclic because they really do have a mind of their own. You have to really prepare your navigation in advance and that means having the map folded correctly and all of your frequencies prepared. You just cannot pull over the Pooleys and hope to find an aerodrome frequency. The navigation legs were great fun and we visited some lovely airfields such as Shobden, Wellesbourne and Welshpool. One of the most exciting parts was landing in confined areas. Dave managed to put down into what appeared impossible areas by going in sideways and backwards. When I was told to do it I needed every ounce of concentration, but it was very satisfying.

As I was approaching the end of my course disaster struck. Dave was offered a job flying a Twin Squirrel for the police. I still needed five hours and Dave had a week left. Of course this is when Murphy's Law came in. We had five days of lousy weather when no flying could be done but then the skies lifted and I had two very tiring but enjoyable days doing basic instrument flying. The big day came and I was extremely nervous. The actual flight test was more like a cross country exercise with some problems thrown in along the way. Thankfully I passed.

So I now have that precious piece of paper from Gatwick and I am really enjoying flying helicopters. I would add however that compared to fixed wing flying the cost of flying a helicopter is frightening.

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