I Learned to Fly the Helicopter


I HAD been flying the little Kingfisher scout-observation plane and the Mariner patrol bomber when I heard about the chance to learn to fly helicopters. I decided to give it a try. A lot of tales had been rumoring around, about the seemingly impossible — well anyway, the improbable — stunts that a helicopter can do. It takes off straight up from a motionless position on the ground and it lands just as spectacularly — slowly, gracefully, boastfully, on a dime. I thought it would be an easy ship to fly, but soon changed my mind.

My first ride was a “familiarization hop.” I think, that was more thrilling than my first ride in a fixed-wing, conventional airplane. It wasn’t because of the speed and height that are generally the thrilling factors of flying, but because of the amazing maneuverability of this wingless thingamajig.

The first novel feature I noticed - after the absence of true wings — was the cabin, located in the very nose of the fuselage. The engine and the “roots” of the three huge rotating blades are located behind the cabin. As a student I sat at the right in the side-by-side seating arrangement, surrounded by Plexiglas. The entire compartment is enclosed in a “windshield.” The nose of the craft is completely transparent; so are the roof and the doors — all the way down to the floor - and even part of the floor. All this “visibility” is important since the craft can be flown straight up and down, sidewards, and backwards. And no-wards — just hovering perfectly still in the air, perhaps some twenty feet off the ground.

The controls look fairly simple, but still give me the impression of an early Orville Wright machine. The strangest control is the “pitch stick,” a broomsticklike rod located in the middle of the cabin floor between the seats. It extends forward at a slight upward angle. At the tip end of this pitch stick is a motorcycle-type hand grip that rotates to the left or right. This is the throttle or, as automobilers know it, the accelerator.

Next in importance is the “azimuth stick” or “control stick,” which controls the circulating plane of the rotating blades. In appearance and effect it is similar to that of the regular-type plane. Pushing the stick slightly forward tilts the plane of blades forward and they develop a forward thrust through the air, drawing the helicopter along with them. Or, by easing the stick to the left or to the right, the blades can be tilted accordingly and sideward flight accomplished. And backward flying — yes, just pull the stick slightly rearward and the helicopter will fly backwards as much as twenty-five miles per hour.

The rudder pedals are attached to long wire cables which lead back through the length of the craft to the little “tail-rotor.” The tail-rotor, which spins vertically at the tip end of the craft, provides a counteraction against the “torque” or swerving-to-the-right tendency of the helicopter. By working the pedals, the pitch or twist of the tail-rotor blades can be changed. Pushing down on the left pedal will increase this pitch, thus forcing the tail to the right and, of course, the nose to the left.

The instrument panel is not unlike that of the regular-type aircraft. I learned to keep a diligent watch on air speed, altitude, and speed of the engine, while looking occasionally through all that Plexiglas to maintain a straight and level course.

Unlike the autogyro, the rotating blades of the helicopter, which take the place of wings, do not spin because of the forward motion of the ship, but are driven directly by the engine.

To get the helicopter off the ground, the engine is “throttled up” to the required revolutions per minute. Then the pitch stick is pulled up gradually. The latter movement changes the pitch angle of the blades, which up to this time have been spinning in a flat position, each blade parallel with the ground. (If you’re having trouble here, consider the “pitch angle” of the blades on an electric fan. If there were no pitch or twist to these blades, they wouldn’t push off any wind.) And because of this twist the three rotating blades slant up a little to form a shallow cone.

Now, with enough engine power and adequate pitch or twist on the blades so that they can throw sufficient air against the ground, the craft begins to ascend — a fearful experience the first time. It will continue to rise unless the pilot eases down a little on the pitch stick. But he might ease down a little too much. And in correcting for this he might pull up too much. He must “hunt” the neutral position. It’s a trial-and-error method, somewhat similar to stopping an obstinate elevator at a particular floor level. Once the desired level is obtained, the helicopter is in a standstill or “hovering attitude.”

I found this to be the most difficult maneuver. There’s a good deal to learning to handle the throttle and pitch-stick combination. Climbing into a hovering position from the ground calls for important coördination, turning the throttle to the left for more power and at the same time, and with the same hand, pulling up on the pitch stick, to which the throttle is attached, for more blade twist.

All this maneuvering means a considerable amount of work for one hand. But just as much attention is demanded of the other hand for the azimuth or control stick. Since this controls the tilt of the rotating blades, the pilot must hunt its very neutral position in order to hover.

So the student has a merry time of it trying to do three things at once. One hand is working the pitch stick up and down, and the throttle right and left; the other is jerking the control stick in little circles. The helicopter bobs and dips and skids — and that’s not hovering. It’s like learning to ride a bicycle or to skate or to park a car on a steep hill, or perhaps all of these at the same time.

I had a difficult time of it at first. I’d wiggle all over. Then my instructor, a very patient fellow, would take over the controls, steady the craft, and tell me to try again. I’d grip the stick with clenched fist, body tense with determination, and shoulders hunched over with a hovering desire to hover. My instructor would immediately take the stick away from me again and tell me to relax and to watch him. Complacently, and with shoulders sagging, he’d place three fingers on the control stick and — hover. It took a long time, but with a lot of practice I did finally manage to hover like a contented hummingbird.

Later I learned the finer points about the miraculous straight-up take-off. It must be done most judiciously. I was told not to over-rev the engine. (Too much power.) But then, more important, I shouldn’t under-rev either, because too much loss in power might cause the rotating blades to cone up like an umbrella — which would prove embarrassing.

Next I learned to land the helicopter. Most people know that the conventional, fixed-wing aircraft lands at high speed — seventy to a hundred knots. I had a difficult time trying to understand that the helicopter sidles down to the landing “mat” at about five knots. The real trick is to ease that pitch stick down gradually. In other words, change the pitch of the rotating blades so that the craft will descend slowly and safely. But I shouldn’t get the stick down too far or I’d drop too fast. I had to nudge it down a notch or two, then pull it up a little, then down again.

Then there were “quick stops” — actually making a sudden stop — in the air. It’s like jamming on the brakes in an automobile; that is, it looks that way. What I’m actually supposed to do with the controls is another story: I push the pitch stick down several notches and at the same time pull back gently on the control stick; the craft stops; but then, as soon as it stops, I must push the control stick forward and rev up the throttle and — oh, yes — pull the pitch stick back up again, or the helicopter will drop out from under me.

For an emergency landing there’s “autorotation.” If engine trouble develops, the craft is put into autorotation by manipulating the controls so that the rotating blades continue to rotate without power, and the helicopter will then glide safely down to the ground.

But in order to get into autorotation the pitch stick must be shoved all the way down — fast. This action disengages the blades from the engine so that they’ll autorotate. Then the control stick is held forward to tilt the blades downward so that the nose tips over for gliding speed, which, in turn, will keep the blades autorotating rapidly enough to provide a wing-like effect. When the craft is some thirty feet above the ground, the nose is pulled back to stop forward motion, the pitch stick pulled up to gel “lift ” from the rotating blades, and then - it should plop down gently.

Later I learned “turns on the spot” — in the air, of course. It takes a lot of footwork with the pedals, but it’s a fairly simple procedure. And precision landings: a steep kind of landing with a definite idea of where you intend to park. The syllabus also called for taxiing on the ground, sideward take-offs, and backward take-offs — that was something.

My instructor told me to ease back on the control stick “jest a little” after the ship left the ground. Well, I got the craft off the ground, hovered momentarily, then began to ease back on the control stick. But I realized that I had eased “jest a little” too far, because the helicopter’s nose reared up in a threatening angle and the tail-rotor just barely missed plowing into the ground. Then my instructor told me to try it again but not to pull back on the control stick this time — “jest think about it.” I thought about it. We rose beautifully, majestically, backwardly. Helicopters simply require smooth, delicate control.

“ What’s flying a helicopter really like?” people ask me. And I can answer that it’s a grand sensation. There’s that positive sense of control — to stop deadstill in the air as you might slop an automobile on the ground; to approach a tiny parking space from the air at an extremely low rate of speed; to turn around above a dime; to surge and soar like a bird or to crawl and creep like a snail — through the air. It gives you a feeling of absolute mastery that you can’t get in fixed-wing flying, where you must depend on enough altitude, a lot of gliding room, and an adequate amount of forward fast, safe airspeed in order to keep the ship under flying control.

And there are a lot of other sensations I’ve experienced that I’ll never get in fixed-wing flying. I’ve grown quite used to picking myself up by my bootstraps right out in front of the hangar door. There’s none of that careful, monotonous taxiing around a two-mile airport for fifteen minutes, waiting for other traffic to get out of the way, then heading down a long runway, picking up speed, and finally becoming air-borne. None of that. Just give the helicopter engine the throttle, leave the ground, hover a couple of seconds for an engine check, then more power, then up, up, up. And that rapid climb still reminds me of a fast, steady elevator.

That old story about the worried mother who wrote to her Army Air Corps son to fly low and slow is not funny any more. Low and slow flying was one of the predetermined reasons for the helicopter. And there’s a kind of intimate feeling, which is lost when flying at high altitudes. I like that chumminess with the ground and its hills and trees and lakes and people and potato patches. I go putting along like a contented witch on a broom.