Sunday, September 19, 2010

Helicopter Experience

As a few of you know, I decided to do an initial experience flight at the controls of a Robinson R22 helicopter. I'd been planning to do this for a while but finally was prompted to follow-through when I saw a Groupon coupon for a half-price ($99) trial at Specialized Heli in Watsonville. Half-off? Bargain - where do I sign up??

Thanks, largely, to a few fatal crashes early on in the era of personal helicopter training, the FAA requires you to pass a basic ground-school course before being allowed to place hands on the controls, even when paired with a qualified instructor. Sound extreme? Actually, no. A small, 2 seat machine like the Robinson is very sensitive to the controls, and in terms of power/weight ratio actually quite well endowed! Think about going out to a race circuit and being let loose in a formula car when your only driving experience was previously in a 30 year old Morris Oxford and you'll start to get the picture. However, even that analogy doesn't quite cut it, as we shall see.

The ground school was actually quite a reasonable test (in the sense of being, well, testful) but having read the basic book on helicopter theory and operations, and sat through an hour instructional class, it wasn't too hard to pass. Having got through that step, and signed on for an hour flight (extending what's offered in the package by some 40 minutes) then it was time to head off into the wild blue yonder, conveniently located right around the airfield.

So here's what I learned: basically, helicopters are machines designed expressly to kill you. Your task, Grasshopper, is to learn how to foil their every attempt, and to do so for each and every minute you are in the air.

Fixed-wing aircraft are, in comparison, the very model of human-loving devices, actively working to keep you from harm. Take you hands off the controls in, say, a Cessna, and by-and-large the thing will sort itself out for you; it wants to fly level, it wants to keep you up there, all gravity-defying and happy. Helicopters, on the other hand, have no such virtues. Take the controls and try to steer the thing, and it wants to crash. Take you hands off the controls, and now it wants to crash even faster. Flying the thing is akin to bomb-disposal: one significant wrong move - including at times doing absolutely nothing - and you're on the ground in a big exploding fireball before you have time to say, "this might hurt".

In order to avoid ending up all KFC (crispy, and able to fit into a bucket), you have to make constant, tiny movements on the main control, the cyclic, in order to coax the thing to the place where you want to be, always nudging it back onto the proper course. However, the problem then is that some of those movements will cause the other two sets of controls you have to manipulate now themselves to require adjustment. (This thing's operating fully in 3D space, plus velocity of course, so both hands and both feet are fully engaged in wrestling your way across the sky.) And don't even get me started on hovering because even the above is trivially simple compared to stopping the thing and staying still in one place. Which, take it from me, is impossible. Judging by the flight path when I tried then looking from the ground, preferably from half a mile away at least, you'd basically conclude I was suffering from whole body tremors the results of which were being directly transmitted to the airframe.

Regardless, after an hour I was starting at least to get the hang of heading in one direction, turning and doing the basic up/down thing. However, hovering is very tough to master, but in my defence then I only got to try this part for a few minutes towards the end of the flight and would hope to do better second time around.

Will I go again, with the intent, perhaps, of seeing if I can qualify for a basic private-pilot's licence?

Watch this space!