July 13th, 2014
Total Hours: 7.5
Last week I had my first flight and I’ve been building steadily since then. My instructor had prepared me for the steep learning curve I’d experience in the beginning, but I am still amazed at just how quickly I’ve made progress. Last Monday I couldn’t hold the helicopter in a hover and now I am flying, albeit with plenty of room for improvement, from pick up to set down. This has been very gratifying and I am feeling great.
I’ve had many friends ask me what flying a helicopter is like. Simply put, it is one of the more challenging things I’ve ever tried to learn. But this should not discourage anyone, like many things it just takes a lot of practice to become proficient. I remember my first time flying a helicopter and I believe I must have thought that it would somehow be equivalent to driving a car. How wrong I was! The biggest difference is in stability. Many vehicles, and even most airplanes, have what is called dynamic stability. This means that by design they want to continue more or less on the path they are traveling. Helicopters do not have this feature. Instead they are like balancing a broom on your fingertip. The only way to achieve any particular result is through constant correction. And like the broomstick overcorrection quickly leads to wild oscillation. The keys to successful control of the helicopter are staying relaxed and making small corrections. In fact we like to use the words “control pressure” as opposed to control movement and I think this is an apt description of the necessary input.
The good news is that the small training helicopters that we learn in are also some of the most challenging to fly. With bigger ships we get better control and increased stability. More power doesn’t hurt either! These things help decrease pilot workload but ultimately all of the principals are exactly the same. During my last week of flying I have worked on most of the basic maneuvers. Pick up, takeoff, flying the pattern, approaches, and of course lots of hover work. I thought that hovering would be the hardest thing because that was what I remembered from my teenage experiences. However, I have found that hovering has come pretty naturally and the thing that is challenging me the most right now is maintaining a constant attitude during my maneuvers. The lack of controlled attitude has a big affect on approaches and I am finding these maneuvers to be the most challenging at the moment.
There is a very good analogy that we use at school and it does actually compare the approach phase of flying to driving a car. If I asked you how you bring a car to a stop at an intersection I’m sure you would respond that you simply see how fast you are approaching and use that information to decide when to take your foot off the gas and apply the brake. Flying a helicopter is no different; it’s simply that our brains need time to discover the relationships. And of course we are adding another dimension to it! Ultimately no amount of theoretical knowledge can impart the feeling of knowing when you are too high or too fast, these things simply come in time from experience. But understanding the theory is still an important step in our progress as pilots.
Concerning the theoretical side I’d like to talk a little bit about the material we’ve been covering in ground school. We started with helicopter components and basic aerodynamics. While I had studied a lot of this material over the previous winter I found it very helpful to be learning specifically about the Robinson R22. Basic aerodynamics starts with how airfoils work and then moves into more specific helicopter phenomena. These include some of the dangers and peculiarities of helicopter operation. Understanding ideas like dissymmetry of lift and pendular action, which explains why there is a delay between control input and aircraft response, allow the student to grasp more of what’s happening on that first flight. We also covered exactly what would happen physically as the helicopter goes through a standard takeoff. The final piece of the puzzle before that first flight was covering SFAR 73. This special Federal Aviation Regulation applies specifically to training in Robinson helicopters. All of these steps lead to having a safer, and hopefully more enjoyable, first experience in the helicopter.
After these basic steps a good portion of ground school was dedicated to learning more about the physics of basic maneuvers with the goal of applying some of what I was learning while flying. In addition we covered the Pilot’s Operating Handbook in more detail. The POH deals with many safety and performance factors as well as weight and balance. After completing these initial lessons I was ready to take the Stage One ground school quiz. One feature to Part 141 training is the stage checks along the way. I like this because it ensures that students really understand the material before they move on. The quiz itself is fill in the blank, not multiple choice, proof to me that they want that deeper level of understanding. I started Stage 2 of ground at the end of the week. It is introducing weather and gathering weather data for flight planning. The coming lessons in Stage 2 ground will start to give me the tools I need to plan my first cross-country trips.
I don’t think I can stress enough just how much my self-study last winter has paid off. I would highly recommend that any prospective student learn as much material as possible before starting school. The benefit can be quantified by the fact that my instructor and I have spent on average half the time allotted to cover each lesson. Of course this is saving me some money, and hopefully putting me on track to finish my Private certificate faster, but I think the real payoff is having the ability to discuss material with my instructor instead of merely trying to follow along. Another benefit I could not have predicted is my ability to absorb more material. I can remember how quickly I would reach saturation over the winter while trying to put in my hour a day of self-study. With time, and increased familiarity, we are able to handle more information at a time. This is allowing me to cover more material and have improved retention. Again, I cannot overstate how much this has helped me during these initial weeks.
Thanks to how quickly we have covered the ground material up to this point I will be moving into a more flight intensive schedule next week. I will now be scheduled to fly twice a day with a block of ground in between. And as I mentioned at the beginning of the post more hours of experience in the machine are what ultimately makes a good pilot. Please don’t hesitate to leave comments with any questions; I’ll do my best to respond. Thanks for reading!