Standing on a basketball

February 6, 2009 by Tim McAdams

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.


  • Bill Kalivas

    Finally, I know there aren’t many helicopter pilots, but lets keep this going… I am both a fixed wing and rotorcraft private. I work in the 121 community and if I can help anyone, I would be proud to. Again, let’s keep this going.

  • Bill Hughes

    Helicopters have neutral dynamic stability. They are not unstable.

  • http:[email protected] Paul Jackson

    That was a refreshing article. I am an AOPA member, have 860 rotorcraft hours, practically no fixed wing time and I do enjoy at least some helicopter attention being paid by this wonderful magazine. I own an R22 and have freinds with R44’s who kindly allow me to get lots of 44 time. Keep up the good work, we helo pilots like to read articles related to rotorcraft!

  • John Riel

    Hi Tim,
    I am a relitivly low time Helicopter pilot(140 hrs tt). I am concidering getting a Fixed wing add on some time in the future. What do you think will be the hardest thing to over come when going from helicopter to fixed wing? Is your collum in the AOPA Mag.



    As a dual rated pilot as well, it was refreshing to read a helicopter specific article within AOPA. Being a 15+ year member of AOPA, the occasional helicopter story would be presented in AOPA PILOT…I had enjoyed your column in R&W for several years and hope that this may remain as another voice relaying experiences ‘from the darkside’ (hey, we have better cookies…).

    Keep up the great work – as usual – and I look forward to reading your future writings, no matter how fundamental.

  • MAJ James Chavez U.S. Army

    Mr. Tim, I’m an ATP rated fixed wing pilot and added Commercial Rotorcraft status to my license gratis uncle sam. Interesting to read your take on the differences of rotary vs. fixed wing flight. I always found the predicted hover torque #’s very interesting when doing our performance planning cards (PPC’s) in the Bell 206 and Blackhawk not to mention the huge differences of torque required between the 2 helicopters. But to think that based on conditions of temperature, pressure altitude, and engine power stats that I could show you exactly how much I weigh at pitch pull is fascinating. We really only guestimate the weight in our airplanes and then use that info to then guestimate the landing and take off role distances in airplanes. If that gives you food for thought on any future articles enjoy. Fly safe, Army Strong! James.

  • Pete Pesaresi

    I am a Commercial rated fixed wing pilot and a private rotorwing, helicopter pilot. My helicopter instructor told me the same things about control pressure and unlearning my fixed wing habits. You couldn’t be more right about them. They can be very hard to unlearn. I reccomend not flying airplanes at all, until you have completed your helicopter training. I do believe that learning to fly helicopters has made me a better and more careful airplane pilot.

  • Richard Gregory

    Your posting omitted one big difference between flying an airplane and a helicopter – what you do with your feet. As you know, piloting each type of aircraft requires a completely different technique with the rudder pedals. In an airplane you primarily use the rudder pedals when you enter and recover from turns and in a helicopter you primarily use the rudder pedals when you change the power setting. In flight you don’t apply rudder in the direction your banking a helicopter and normally you don’t use rudder for power changes in an airplane.

    The rudder pedals in a helicopter control the thrust of the tail rotor and the purpose of the tail rotor is to compensate for the forces acting on the fuselage from the main rotor. Without a tail rotor the fuselage of a helicopter would spin in the opposite direction of the main rotor. Consequently when you add power to the main rotor you have to increase the thrust of the tail rotor with the rudder pedals and when you reduce power you have to decrease the thrust of the tail rotor with the rudder pedals.

    In an airplane the rudder pedals are used to compensate for the adverse aileron yaw when the aircraft is banked. No ailerons on a helicopter.

    Sorry for the long comment. It comes from being a flight instructor for a long time.

    I enjoyed your posting and I look forward to more.

  • Mark Boyer

    Hi Tim,

    Great to see a blog on AOPA devoted to Helicopters. This should be very well recieved by the helicopter pilot/technician crowd. If you ever need some assistance with your efforts, please feel free to call on me, I would like to assist however I can to further the resources available to our industry.

    Mark Boyer

  • Cary Alburn

    Roughly 3 years ago while my airplane was down for its annual, I took an intro helicopter lesson in a Schweizer–looks like a big eyed bug. I was able to hover in ground effect at the end of the lesson–something the instructor said was rare in fixed wing pilots after so little time. But for sure, other than in cruise flight, my fixed wing experience (around 1800 hours at that time) wasn’t much use in flying the helicopter.

    The thing that I remember the most was the extensive preflight, along with the explanations of all the things that can fail on a helicopter and bring it down. Perhaps that is that particular instructor’s method to remind pilots to be thorough, but frankly it was daunting. I’m pretty thorough preflighting any airplane, but this seemed extreme.

    I haven’t flown a helicopter since then. The cost of lessons is high, the ability to rent a helicopter is minimal, and I couldn’t see just adding a rotorcraft rating to my certificate. But I did enjoy the intro lesson.


  • Kelly Netterville

    As a private helicopter pilot (slowly working towards commercial) and someone who will shortly begin working towards my private fixed-wing rating, I enjoyed your post and the discussion of the difference in skillset required for the two aircraft.

    My first love is helicopters, but I’m going to pursue the fixed-wing rating to build hours a bit cheaper and for the purposes of utility (much more realistic to take a weekend trip with the family in a plane as opposed to a helicopter).

    Interesting post and keep up the good work.


  • Anne Umphrey

    Very well and succinctly put. Folks ask me all the time about how hard it is to fly a helicopter, i.e., hover a helicopter. I use exactly the analogy you do. Besides inappropriate emergency responses another thing that airplane folks transitioning to helicopters have trouble with is the concept that the pedals are not rudder pedals but anti-torque pedals. Other than in a hover or hover-taxi they are not used to assist in turning the aircraft, but are used to counteract changes in torque as a result of changes in power input.

    As a person who transitioned from helicopters to airplanes, I discovered there were some things that I had to unlearn as well.

    Anne Umphrey

  • Jim Perry

    I think my experience is somewhat unusual in that I learned to fly rotary wing first, in the Army at age 18. When I got out of the Army, I did not fly again until I got my Private Pilot Single Engine Land, for fixed wing (first time ever flying fixed wing) at age 50, seven years ago. I can recall a very exasperated instructor saying, “No, no, no! This is not a helicopter! You can’t land it like that!
    What airspeed / altitude, pitch / power controversy? “You have a 40 kt attitude, a 50 kt attitude, and an 80 kt attitude! Learn ’em!” I can still hear my military instructors voice. I still have such a good sight picture that I don’t need a VASI to hold a glide angle. I think helicopters are more fun to fly, but I love the time I spend in my C172. My Cessna will float around in the air forever in the event of engine failure if I trim for best glide. I have liesure to talk to ATC, read emergency procedure cards, and brief passengers, while I look for a LONG landing site; unlike the helicopter which requires immediate control inputs, turn into the wind, and you’re looking for a SMALL spot to pull the last bit of power out of the collective, while the earth rushes up at you at about the same speed as it does when you jump out of a C-130, and with the same inevitability.

  • Jim Rosater

    Glad to see AOPA involved with R/C articles. Thanks, Tim

  • Tom Reesor

    I too am ATP in fixed & rotary wing. I used to be chief pilot of an aircraft ferry company, delivering a/c from the manufacturerers to the new owners. I have delivered to more than 40 states & logged flights in all 50. My longest was a Thrush Commander cropduster from the factory in Albany, GA, to Tel Aviv in winter, & dusters do not have heaters. I flew Labrador, Greenland, Iceland, Ireland, etc. The rebuilt R-1340 blew up on me departing London; I barely made it back to the airport. The enginge rebuilding shop aiifreighted me another one; it took about 3 weeks & I finished the trip.
    My longest copter flight was a used Sikorsky S-51 from Gary, IN, to Tampa. The ceiling was so low I flew under powerlines twice in one day.
    Tom Reesor, Conway, SC
    ATP: Airplane single & multiengine land, rotorcraft helicopter. Commercial pilot: Airplane single & multiengine sea, rotorcraft gyroplane, glider, lighter-than-air free balloon. Gold Seal CFI: Airplane single & multiengine, rotorcraft helicopter & gyroplane, glider, instrument airplane & helicopter.
    FAI Silver badge in gliders. FAA Wright Bros. Memorial Award, 50 yr member of AOPA
    Tom Reesor, Conway, SC

  • George Chartress

    All dual rated pilots including my self are able to seperate the skills needed to fly each are trying to make an issue where there is none!

  • Richard Doig

    Good to see rotarywing getting some space from AOPA. Having spent many hours in rotorcraft I would take some exception to your comparison of fixed and rotorary wing stalls. They are both the result of the same circumstance, low relative wind and high angle of attack. It is the flight attitude and corrective actions that are opposites. Rotorcraft stall at excessive airspeeds which result in a retreating blade stall and the nose wanting to pitch up. Fixed wing aircraft stall at low speeds and if in trim and balance the nose will drop. In both cases follow the aircraft, reduce pitch (lower collective) reduce airspeed (aft cyclic) in a rotor craft, increase airspeed (lower the nose and add power) in a fixed wing. Also the dreaded flat spin that all fixed wing pilots are to avoid at all cost are I believe what enables a rotarywing to autorotate.
    Easily said but hard to implement. After fourteen years in helicopters going back to fixed wing my instructor was not impressed with practice stalls.
    You can’t beat a UH1 for pure flying fun.

  • Chris Anderson

    I’m really excited to read more about your experiences. I started flying airplanes at 14, paying for lessons instead of fancy wheels on my used car. I had my CFI by the time I was 19. Unfortunately many factors led to my decision to stop flying only a few years later. I didn’t realize how much I missed it until last year. While the planes are fun, I have always wanted to fly helicopters. So last year, after a 25 year ‘time out’ I bought myself a helicopter lesson as a birthday present. The experience was everything I’d hoped for and more! I haven’t soloed yet, but during my 5th hour of dual I was picking up, setting down and yes, hovering the R-22. Awesome! Absolutely awesome. My work situation is up and down at the moment, pun intended, so I’m just getting back to lessons. I’ve actually decided to also pursue renewing my fixed wing at the same time. I was able to renew my private in just a couple of hours. Any insight that you might be able to impart as I pretty much start over? Is taking on both at the same time a really dumb idea? I’ve always found operating the machine(s) the easiest part; in fact, the helicopter seemed more natural than the airplane. The rest of it is coming back at a pretty good pace and I’m in no hurry at all to accomplish anything. I really just want to fly.

  • Jesse Ritchie

    I am a commercial helicopter student also enrolled in an aviation science degree program. It is great to see a rotorcraft article in AOPA! The comment by Bill Hughs: “Helicopters have neutral dynamic stability. They are not unstable.” brought up a subject I have been trying to get more clarification on. In my aerodynamics class, we learned about static and dynamic stability. We learned in class that helicopters in a hover have positive static stability and negative dynamic stability, hence the tendency for the rapidly increasing pendulum action when students are first learning to hover. The instructor was new at teaching the class, and while having a fair amount of experience with fixed wing, did not have as much experience with helicopters. When I asked if the stability of a helicopter changed when it transitioned from a hover to forward flight neither the instructor nor the textbook had an answer. Is that what Bill is talking about? Do people disagree with what I learned in class?

  • Carl Schultz

    I am a 72 young life time AOPA member and 4000 hour airplane guy that is also pleased that AOPA is finaly giving some space to the helicopter owners and pilots. Long over due.
    I soloed in an R22 at age 68 and was hooked. I sold the Baron and bought an R44. We just took delivery of my second R44 and flew it home to Michigan from the Calfornia factory . You haven’t experianced the full beauty and joy of flying until you have crossed America at 800 ft AGL and chased a few coyotees in Texas along the way.
    And an R44 is not a toy. I use mine for pleasure and business and find that on our 250 mile weekend trips , door to door ,the R44 comes very close to matching the Barons time. ie; there is no filing of IFR flight plans, no waiting for clearances, no patterns and no slugging through Great Lakes winter icing in clouds. We just get in, lift off and straight line it to our cottage .
    And heli flying is a dirrerent world that can offer up different experiances.
    For example: On a low level trip from Florida to Michigan my son spotted a barn yard cat flopping around in a farmers field with its head stuck in a hot tin can, clear up to its shoulders. We swooped down, landed, my son jumped out and captured the confused critter. He had his hands full. The cat went nuts…squirming and scratching away at its rescuer. But after a some serious tugging my he was able to free the little beast and dropped it to the ground. Its neck was missing all its fur but free at last and in far better shape than my scratched and bleeding son.
    Just think about it …what were the odds that a helicopter would suddenly drop out of the sky just when that cat was in need of a a helping hand ?
    So, if one of you fixed wing guys were to get your head stuck in a can …. there is hope.


  • Charles T.

    Finally! If only we can get more resources and tools specific to helicopters on the AOPA website life would be better. I encourage everyone to email comments to the AOPA service tech asking for more rotor-wing stuff. Thanks Tim!


  • Kenny G

    I had emailed and submitted a written letter to AOPA some years ago to devote part of the magazine to us Hover Lovers. I never did get a reply back from them on my request. I have been a long-time AOPA member, I am also a dual rated pilot. So , I am very happy to see a blog devoted to helicopter pilots. We are a unique breed of pilots who like flying in three dimensions. The helicopter can be very unforgiving, if you are not trained properly in understanding its aerodynamics. The helicopter will simply not fly on its own , you have to be in constant control and most of all “Keep in the Green” from low rotor rpm. Flying helicopters is much more fun than flying planes by far. But in this economy flying a helicopter is quite expensive, than flying FW planes. The helicopter is “inherently unstable” do not let anyone tell you otherwise. I look forward to see what develops out of this blog. Thank you AOPA for allowing Tim McAdams this website.

    Blue Skies,

    Kenny G.

  • Gerry Murray

    After 14 yrs. of ‘fixed wing’ / 1,000+ hrs. (all paid for with my own dime!) – I had my first ‘heli-intro-flight’ last October ’08.

    The most humbling day of my entire (aviation) life, ever. The ‘personality’ of the heli (an R-22) I can best describe as that of a 2-yr old beligerent child. You needed to pay 100% attention to ‘it’ 100% of the time, with no ‘let up’. I constantly felt that ‘it’ was trying to get away from me, and would do so, if given the slightest chance. My initial attempts at hovering required the surface area of a football field …whilst spinning around.

    *EVERY* take-off and landing (called ‘pick-ups’ and ‘set-downs’) have to be ‘greasers’. Landing with even a ‘little thump’ is frowned upon and don’t even think of touching down with a ‘side-load’. Most ‘fixed wing’ instrument panels are ‘tall’ and we have learned to just peer over them. No so with a heli. The instrument panel, in a heli, is purposefully positioned LOW DOWN — almost out of view — so that all of your flying is done by LOOKING OUTSIDE. You ‘fly’ by ‘sight picture’ 99% of the time and only ‘use’ the instruments when the need arises or when you are doing ‘checks’.

    Those of us who have a instrument rating and/or lots of X-C time have learned to fly a const. heading and altitude – by merely applying ‘pounds of pressure’ to the control yoke. You will apply THAT principle, and then some, when you ‘hold’ the cyclic, believe me!

    It’s now March ’09 and I have logged 23 hrs dual so, yes, I’m sticking with it and plan to obtain a PPL(H) ‘add on’.
    Truth be told, I’m glad I made the ‘leap’ (over to the dark side?) because, not only is it extremely challenging, but like many aspects of aviation, it’s also educational and extremely rewarding.

    Gerry Murray
    (Long Island, NY)

  • James Canitz

    I would like to take exception to a comment included in Richard Gregory’s reply, “normally you don’t use rudder for power changes in an airplane”. I would like to see Mr. Gregory attempt a normal takeoff in any typical GA aircraft powered by a reciprocating engine equipped with a propeller for motive force, without the use of his rudder. Now take that a step further and add a big radial or tailwheel in the mix and see how well you manage to stay on the runway during a normal takeoff.

    In addition, the rudder is absolutely essential during power changes in multi-engine aircraft of any type when asymetric thrust due to abnormal conditions is part of the equation. In fact, the lack of correct rudder inputs during these situations has been determined to be the primary cause factor of numerous fatal aircraft accidents.

    Unfortunately, many of our modern day fixed wing pilots today have been instructed to keep their feet off the rudder pedals because the ARI (aileron rudder interconnect device) does a much better job than a mere pilot can do. In most cases, this works just fine especially in larger, more sophisticated jet powered aircraft flown by commercial operators. Let’s not forget about the rudder or its importance in normal operations in other types of aircraft, especially the “normal” classic GA aircraft.

  • Lenny Smith

    Nice work Tim. I was wondering where you wandered off to. I hear a lot of disgruntled r/w pilots out there, but it’s always a highlight of my day when AOPA does articles on helicopters. It’s taken quite sometime, but the industry is finally coming around into a more professional setting. Granted, you don’t need all the bells and whistles if you’re slinging logs or flying tours, but it is a refreshing environment for those of us that have the opportunity to use the latest and greatest. BTW, I’ve been an AOPA member for quite some time, as I also hold an ATP for airplane and helicopter.

  • Kurt McKibben

    Thanks Tim,
    Being dual rated myself, I would say you hit the nail on the head again!!!!

    Fun reading,,,,,

    Kurt McKibben

  • Jerome Behm

    Thanks Tim.

    I made the transition to rotary wing when I was 35 years old and just after I had received my Commercial license in fixed wing aircraft. I was a crew chief on Huey D and H models in my younger years when I wore an Army uniform and just had to master helicopters, which I did. I was told that the only thing that you do the same in a helicopter as you did in an airplane was in “setting and reading the altimeter”. That statement is very close to right. I had to relearn my flying and also learn to loosen my grip on the cyclic stick and relax, and I did. I soloed and made my first solo cross country in a D model Hiller shortly thereafter. I always say now that you have never flown until you have flown PIC in a helicopter. They are great birds and I love them.

    Great Reading,

    Jerome Behm

  • Keejy

    I’d think about the beginning of to ascertain that too!

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  • kiran

    its my wish to sit on helicopter as it gonna be adventurous for me

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