Francis Meyrick

Learning to Fly Helicopters (1) “Seduction “

Posted on March 22, 2014

Learning to fly Helicopters

Part 1: Seduction

When a chap has already logged several thousand hours fixed wing, and then starts getting involved with helicopters, people will ask ‘why?’. When on top of that, he has previously been unkind about helicopters, people will be doubly intrigued. My quiet opinion, along with a great many fixed wing pilots, had always been along the lines of:
“Fly helicopters? No chance! The day I climb into one of those contraptions will be the day I run over a Leprechaun! The most outlandish Heath Robinson concept ever thrown together. You need two nuts to fly a helicopter. One to hold the rotor on, and one to drive the infernal machine. There are more Jesus nuts and rotating parts than in an average scrapyard. It’s far too complex a machine to have gyrating around the sky. At least in an aeroplane, if the engine quits, you’ve still got a wing. I do not fancy being suspended beneath a rotating paddle. If the engine quits on those damn things, you are going to know all about it. No thanks. I don’t want to know. Should be banned from the sky.”
(Or measured, soft-spoken diplomatic words to that effect)
So how did I end up with a sticker on the back of my car that says: “I brake for Leprechauns”??

It was a hot day in California. I was bored. Thirsty. Frustrated. I had entered a business deal which had gone badly wrong. And now I was over trying to sort it all out. I had a hangover. I was not particularly sober. I had for some days being noticing a sign which said:

‘Helicopter trial lessons $35’.

I had also been amazed at the frequency of the helicopter traffic that had been going round and round. I found it a bit annoying to see something aeronautical going on about which I knew absolutely nothing. The cocky students swaggering around, and discussing their flights in loud voices in the cafĂ© also annoyed me. If those gibbering prunes could learn, then I was jolly sure I could. Eventually, a beer too many, I staggered in to book a trial lesson. “Just to prove I can hover the damn thing, and then I’m off”, I remember distinctly thinking to myself. I had some idea of proving that it was easy, and then leaving it there having made my point. I could then go back to Fixed Wing and state disdainfully: “Choppers? Oh, yes, did a few hours on them. Nothing to it, really. I learned to hover, but it didn’t appeal to me. Stupid machines.”

My honest Fixed Wing Pilot opinion about Helicopters

The next day, sobered up, I entered the flying school in an obstreperous mood. A nice lady welcomed me in, and introduced me to a thin, thoughtful looking instructor. Not letting on that I had any flying background, much less an instructional one, I amused myself by asking damn silly questions. With a straight face. The thin, serious looking instructor was so nice and pleasant, and trying so hard to sell me helicopter flying lessons, that I just couldn’t resist the temptation to take the Mickey. Pure mischief. “What happens if we run out of gas?” “What happens if the rotor falls off?” “What’s this thing for? (pointing at the tail rotor)” “Why don’t we have any windscreen wipers? Can’t we fly in the rain?” “Are these (pointing at the Navigation lights) for when you turn corners?”. Etcetera. He was so nice, and patient, I just had to see how far I could push the game.
Eventually, we went flying. I was sorry I’d sobered up. I didn’t like it at all. I was secretly, quietly, totally petrified. I knew why. For the first time in years I was once again newly trapped in a flying machine that I was incapable of flying. If Rabbit Features beside me (he was a vegetarian) keeled over, I knew I had no hope of controlling the thundering contraption. I kept hoping he was healthy. He looked a bit anemic to me. (all those endless salads) It was altogether too much like being perched precariously on the edge of an abyss, sitting on a little plastic platform. The full bubble windscreen didn’t help either. I could see FAR more than I was used to. Or desired to.
He was being very nice, and then he asked me if there was anything I wanted to do.
“Yes, go home straight away!”, was exactly what I thought. I remember it vividly, all these three-and-a-bit decades later. So sensible. If only…
I actually said: “Yes, I’d like to try and hover the blessed thing.”
Male pride. Testosterone. Stupid stuff. Causes wars.
Obligingly, he flew down to a concrete dam, flat and big as a football pitch. Then he carefully handed over to me.
It was a farce. No sooner had I stopped it doing “Waltzing Mathilda” one way, than she’d be off in the opposite direction. Try as hard as I might, the oscillations would get bigger and bigger, until eventually he would have to take over. Maddeningly, the moment he took control, it would all settle down, and the infernal machine would instantly and obediently return over the required spot. I would try and try again. After about twenty minutes, I was covered in perspiration but getting absolutely nowhere. At least HE knew what he was doing. It was obvious that he could fly. Thank goodness. Probably had a few thousand hours…
I asked him, flying along, nervously’ (read: terrified), looking down five hundred feet at the rocky floor below.
“How many hours you got on choppers?”
“Two hundred.”

Very, very unhappy Moggy…

My thoughts: “EEEEEK! WTF!? I’m flying along in a plastic bubble alongside a salad eating, anemic freak who’s only got TWO HUNDRED hours!?!”
I thought: “Surely, he’s kidding… he’s messing with me. Getting his own back for all the stupid questions I asked about the windscreen wipers, and turning corners. Or maybe he’s got a boat load of Fixed Wing experience. Although what that’s got to do with it…”
I said: “”Errr… you got a Fixed Wing background maybe?”
“Oh, no, never flown one in my life.”
My brain reeled. I asked, lamely, totally well aware that the question was unsoundly based, given the two hundred hour time reference: “How long you been instructing helicopters?”
“Just got my Instructor’s ticket. You’re my first student.”
Silence. Dead, silence.

(thinks: “I AM SO DEAD!”)

* * * * *

The next day… I turned up again.
You would think I’d have learned my lesson. Helicopters are for the birds. Stay with what you know. Wings bolted in place. But I was feeling pigheaded and determined. As well as scared. I went and had a good glare at the machine first. I’m one of those pilots who attributes a soul to aeroplanes and engines. A Karma. A previous Existence. Normally I’m nice to them, but this thing and I needed to sort out who was Boss.
Up we went again. He seemed to think I was doing ever so well, and was full of compliments. I didn’t pay much attention, and put it down to sales talk. Marketing gimmickry. It was a better performance I suppose, because I could now hover quite reasonably well within a small-ish area. Provided it was the size of very large football pitch. He, for his part, was ecstatic. After the flight, he grabbed the Chief Instructor, and told him I was a natural. That gentleman just smiled. I thought this was just taking marketing gimmickry to extremes. Or maybe he meant it. Then again, I thought cynically, it was easy for him to say I was his best ever student, wasn’t it?

I resolved to have just ONE more go, Just to hover. Just to say I had done it. He rightly insisted we do some of the rest of the syllabus, but soon we were back to the dreaded, eagerly awaited, elusive, ‘Waltzing Mathilda’. I was sure I could do it. Unfortunately, El Robbo R-22 (early model) (oldie style twist grip), had not quite got the same message. She was still putting up a tussle. Back and forth we danced, up and down. Sometimes we did an impression of a seasick camel, at other times it was more like a one-legged drunk. Trying to totter down an UP-going escalator. Carrying a heavy suitcase in one hand. And playing a trombone.
Time and time again, Old Anemic would say: “I have the controls!” and grab the reins. Within a nano second, SHE would be sucking up to him, and just hovering there, quietly, meekly. Infuriating….
There came a point I stopped analyzing what was happening. I started more to concentrate on ‘doing’ whatever ‘felt right’. It got better. The breakthrough was an abrupt point, when I started not trying to STOP an involuntary drift to, say, the left. I just started to try and HALVE the rate of drift. And then HALVE it again. And again. Now I wasn’t fighting it anymore. I was waltzing in unison with her.
And, although I didn’t fully realize it at the time, I was also falling in love.

It got better. After a few hours, I had definitely achieved a stage where I could climb in, start her up, lift up into the hover, take off, fly a circuit, and approach. And land. After a fashion. Auto-rotations I did not yet trust. The entry, when we dropped, scared me. Later, as a helicopter flight instructor myself, I was to learn the Art of first easing students into auto-rotations ever so very gently. By demonstrating very smooth, gentle entries. So smooth, that they didn’t even know we were in auto-rotation, until they saw the needles split. No need to scare them by violence at the start of the lesson. Quick stops were fun. Slope landings were okay. But hovering was my favorite. Maybe it was time to quit. I was ahead.

It was then, just as a reasonable degree of satisfaction was creeping in, that Rabbit Features decided to show me a whole new Art. There were two main themes to this melody, and variants thereon. The first consisted of hovering at a constant height along the lines of a large square. You started out at the bottom left. First you hovered forward, then, when you got to the top, you hovered exactly sideways right. When you reached that top right hand corner, you hovered perfectly backwards, until you got to the bottom. Then sideways left. Perfectly. Back to your origin. Not as easy as it sounds. But awesome, when you first learn how to do it.
The second variant was my favorite. Face in towards the center of a large circle. Then, maintaining an exact heading towards the center, rotate the Beast (Beauty?) sideways around the circle. Maintaining an exact heading towards the center. No wobbling! That was soooo cool.
Getting reasonable at that? Okay, now do the same thing, but facing OUTWARDS. Tail exactly towards the center. Follow the circle. Still cocky? Put your LEFT hand on the cyclic, and your RIGHT hand on the collective. And watch your brain untangle that cerebral Synaps overload…
By the time I had danced all those waltzes, I had a enjoyed a real good crack at learning to love Mathilda. A week and a bit had now passed, and some twenty flight hours. Rabbit Features wanted to send me solo. Now I was suddenly less than enthusiastic again.

Solo? In one of ‘them things’? Me? Noooo All I wanted was to hover it one time.


Francis Meyrick

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Last edited by Francis Meyrick on November 16, 2015, 4:49 pm

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