Teaching autorotations

February 1, 2014 by Tim McAdams

One of the most critical maneuvers that helicopter CFIs perform with their students is autorotations. It requires precision, timing and the ability to multitask.  Rotor RPM, airspeed and trim must all be maintained within allowed parameters while simultaneously finding a suitable landing area and maneuvering the helicopter into the wind. From 500 feet above ground level, a student has 20 to 30 seconds to process and manage all the factors and make the right decisions to achieve a successful outcome.

Allowing a student to perform an autorotation requires constant vigilance from the instructor. The best way for students to learn is by doing as much of the maneuver as possible, however, the instructor does not always have a lot of time to decide to take the controls before the student gets the helicopter in an unrecoverable situation. Sometimes, the difference between a successful practice autorotation and an accident is just a second or two.

During the first 2 months of 2012 three accidents happened from practice autorotations and the NTSB issued the following probable causes:

  • The flight instructor’s delayed remedial action during the pilot-receiving-instruction’s practice autorotation that developed a high rate of descent. Contributing to the accident was the pilot-receiving-instruction’s improper control inputs during the practice autorotation. 
  • The flight instructor’s failure to apply power during a practice autorotation in order to arrest a high rate of descent, which resulted in an in-flight collision with terrain. 

These two happened in a Robinson R22 and a R44. However, the following is from an AS350 with a more experienced instructor. 

  • The flight instructor’s improper use of the collective control during a practice hovering autorotation, which resulted in a hard landing.

Even an excellent and experienced instructor who gets distracted, even for just a second or less, can damage an aircraft. Full touchdown autorotations (that is, not bringing the engine back in before ground contact) add another level of risk. Fortunately, most accidents that happen from practice autorotations are not fatal.


NTSB accident references:

NTSB Identification: WPR12TA120

NTSB Identification: ERA12CA179

NTSB Identification: ERA12CA137

  • Charles Shouldis

    In my career I have instructed many pilots in helicopters. They were from the US as well as Europe, Italy and Japan. I have no idea how many full autorotations I did / taught in the years I managed a helicopter flight school in Oklahoma but it was a lot. The only accident we had was with a military helicopter instructor working part time for us. Often times techniques are a negative transfer.

    I taught that a “hovering autorotation” should not use that term. Rather it should be called an – engine failure in a hover. With that difference in terminology the procedure was recognized as different. Therefore no – NEGATIVE TRANSFER.- NO INCORRECT PROCEDURE.

  • Stephen Dines

    Agree totally with Charles Shouldis about the importance of avoiding negative transfer – I refused to call it a hovering auto, and referred to the exercise as ‘loss of power in the hover’.

    Similarly, when providing initial instruction in autorotative flight, I called the lesson ‘power-off flight’ or simply ‘gliding’, and treated this as a normal mode of flight to be learned because it has many practical uses, including maintenance flights or just descending quickly; but NO MENTION of emergencies.

    Only later, after a student was comfortable with ‘gliding flight’, was it revealed this ‘normal’ procedure could be quite handy for getting onto the ground safely following a loss of power (or following a deliberate reduction of power in the case of tail-rotor failure). This certainly took a lot of the panic out of emergency training.

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    Interesting article and comments, I like the use of changing the names so as not to use negative transfer, I’ll be using this for my next lessons.

  • Keith Besherse

    alternatively “engine failure in a hover” or “loss of power in the hover”- interesting. I am truly confused as to the utility of the proposed name change. As noted by Stephen Dines, there are other situations in which an autorotation is warranted (in his example tail-rotor failure) such as loss of tail rotor effectiveness or settling with power/vortex ring state from an OGE hover. So, why call it something other than autorotative decent from a hover (i.e. hovering autorotation)?