Having both a fixed-wing and rotor-wing ATP, I have often thought about the different skill set required to fly each type of aircraft. The skills and traits that make a good VFR airplane or helicopter pilot are not necessarily the same.
Airplane flying is more procedural, at least when you are thinking of larger airplanes. (Ultralights, kits, and Piper Cubs not included.) Approaches are flown at specific speeds and angles. Helicopters can, and many times do, land in different environments, sometimes making very steep and sometimes near vertical approaches (although there is some very serious aerodynamic considerations to a vertical approach and that’s a subject of future blogs). However, at airports and during emergencies a helicopter can make very shallow approaches. Without any type of vertical guidance (VASI or glideslope) helicopter pilots must become good at determining their own approach angles and controlling descent rates and airspeed. This is very hard at night when little visual clues are available as any EMS helicopter pilot knows. To aid in these types of approaches many EMS operators are starting to use Night Vision Goggles.
A different kind of preflight planning is generally required to fly a helicopter. Airplane pilots must give careful consideration to things like runway lengths, airspace requirements, and performance characteristics. Not to say that helicopter pilots do not think about those subjects, but generally the length of a runway is of little concern. A helicopter pilot’s performance exercise involves a different kind of planning like checking hover power with in-ground-effect and out-of-ground-effect charts.
Hovering is not something airplane pilots think about. In fact, getting an airplane too slow should be downright scary. Whenever I had an airplane pilot learning to fly helicopters, I can always remember the first time I ask or sometimes demonstrated slowing the helicopter to an out-of-ground-effect hover at 500 feet. I say demonstrated because some students just can’t hold the nose up and allow the helicopter to slow past about 60 knots. They get real nervous, but nothing bad happens; it just comes to a stop and will then start moving backwards.
Learning to hover is probably the biggest challenge. It’s all seat of the pants and both feet and arms are doing something at the same time. Throw in the fact that a helicopter is dynamically unstable and it feels a lot like trying to stand on a basketball. It can take some students as much as 10 hours to figure it out, and some never get it at all. Add gusty wind conditions and even experienced helicopter pilots will have their hands full. One of the reasons it’s so hard is that the flight controls are sensitive; you have to think in terms of control pressure not movement. Hand to eye coordination is the skill to have. In fact, one of the smoothest helicopter pilots I know rides a unicycle in his spare time.
Flying lower allows helicopter pilots to avoid crowded or controlled airspace. Of course flying lower adds a new concern; power lines and towers. Best to fly at least 500 feet agl. Although helicopters have great visibility, they normally are not IFR capable. Encountering inadvertent IMC can be deadly in a helicopter. The plus side here is the added maneuverability; more landing options and the ability to hover make it easier to stay out of the clouds.
Some emergency procedures are so different that it forces high time airplane pilots to unlearn certain reactions. For example, a low rotor rpm horn can sound a lot like a stall warning. An airplane pilot’s ingrained reaction would be to lower the nose. In a helicopter that would just force the rotor rpm lower. Unlike stalling the wing of an airplane, if a pilot stalls the rotor system it is not recoverable. Of course, stalling an airplane close to the ground is probably not recoverable either. Have no fear, should you decide to learn to fly helicopters all of these critical differences will be emphasized.
Tags: Tim McAdams