Francis Meyrick

Learning to Fly Helicopters (2) “Do I trust this thing? “

Posted on March 23, 2014

Learning to Fly Helicopters

Part 2: “Do I trust this Thing?”

The Robinson R-22…
Long time ago. Early model days. Old fashioned twist grip, no governor, straight tail. I was suspicious, still, about the mechanical integrity of the beast. It looked so flimsy. Like a bunch of surplus tin cans beat roughly into shape. Now masquerading as a flying machine.
A wind up, clockwork, plastic toy.
In a quiet moment, I ambled in to the work shop. Asked for the chief mechanic. Boss man engineer. Out he came, pleasant, friendly, American. I wanted to ask some questions? Learning to fly at the school? Sure, go right ahead.
“Thanks. First. This here rotor system. It looks so home made. So fragile. What is the history of Robinson crashes due rotor system structural failures? As opposed to pilot error, and people losing Rotor Rpm due to incorrect technique?”
I thought that was pretty well the fifty million dollar (and some cents) question.
He laughed and told me: one. That he was aware of. Early on in the history of the R-22, some guys had noticed rotor delamination. Somebody had wondered if it would still fly okay. One way to find that out, eh? Let’s go fly! It didn’t work out, and they augured in.
Oh!, I thought. You can’t really blame that one on the designer. I was later to hear that there was also a minor matter of overflying the component times involved. (5,500 flight hours on a 2,000 component life)
The mechanic then showed me a section of a timed out rotor blade that had been sawn through for training purposes. This exposed a honey comb carbon fiber synthetic something-or-another center. It was hardly ye old wooden rotor blade of the pioneers. It looked devilish strong. It actually inspired confidence. It looked tough. I was glad it wasn’t wood. It sure didn’t look as if it was going to split or break in a hurry.

Okay, I believed him so far. Now, how about those minor bolts holding the rotor on? He put some in my hand. Good psychology on his part. They were pretty huge, close up. I couldn’t really imagine them shearing. They were actually considerably bigger than the bolts holding the wings on to all those Cessnas and Pipers I had flown. Not to mention the aerobatic biplanes.
Check. Passed. Now, this tail rotor drive. How is it constructed and driven? I had once seen a helicopter with a series of belt drives. That had not impressed me. The mechanic showed me. Drive shafts. Looked pretty good. Nicely engineered. Nice finish as well. Hmmm…

An hour or two later of the patient mechanic’s valuable time, and a zillion questions later, and a lot of poking around, and examining stuff close up, and I was frankly very impressed. I thanked him kindly, and walked off, a much inspired, comforted, reassured… budding helicopter pilot.

Not bad, Frank Robinson, not bad at all…

I didn’t know it then, but many (many) experiences down the wandering Yellowbrick road, years later, would greatly strengthen my faith in this funky, but hellaciously tough Robinson flying bubble.
One was watching an R-22 crash, spectacularly, and really, really close up. So close, I thought he was coming through my (spinning) rotor disc. I was doing my UK CFI (helicopter), and sitting quietly prior to take-off. The course required some dual role playing. I was playing the patient instructor part, and my “student” (another CFI candidate) was superbly playing “dumb-ass Mutt student”. Oscar winning stuff. I was patiently giving him some non-critical brief, when we saw this (brand new Robinson) fly a rapid downwind, finals approach to land. I interrupted my patter with the dry comment:

“Ah, here comes a pro. Let’s just watch how he does it…”

A few seconds later, the pro had realized his error, and had decided to turn and land into wind. He made this decision at a height of maybe fifteen feet and a ground speed of twenty knots. And followed up on this command decision with a hard pedal turn left. Striking the ground firmly, going sideways and still going forward, in the original direction of landing, at about fifteen knots. That does not compute? You think? Hell, it doesn’t. Not Frank Robinson’s fault either. The poor little R-22 paid the price. It was a case of roll-over all right. Not so much dynamic as meteoric. Hurtling. Cascading. Like trying to do a pole vault in your choppy, using your rotor disc as the pole. Kind of disconcerting. All of a sudden, there was this upside down helicopter somersaulting towards us in a brown dust cloud. I held my breath. A strange sort of highly resigned state of mind. I was strapped in. We were turning and burning. Disaster was totally unexpected, and mere yards and nano seconds away. I didn’t have time to say much (unusual for me), and I certainly didn’t have time to unbuckle, and exit. Walk away. I wish. So instead, we just kind of sat there, in a dumbfounded, speechless (mark the calendar), staring, mooh-eyed, resigned and submissive silence. Whatever was going to happen, was busy happening. I’m amazed nothing unscheduled came through our rotor disc (or our cockpit), but we were undamaged. When stuff had quit flying through the air (rotor blades work real well as agricultural rotivators) we shut down, and participated in the après-atterissage. The after landing party. I remember we helped the (seemingly uninjured) (stunned) pilot out through his broken wind screen. This (for the benefit of dumb-ass students) is a non-standard procedure. I also remember his first words:

“Dude, I think I f#@ked up…”

Um. Maybe. And I also remember that evening, in the bar. When my (dumb-ass) student started snickering into his pint. Giggling. We were like… what?! What’s got into you? More snickering. He asked, did I remember what I had said? Huh? When? Apparently, with a broken, out of control, spinning helicopter gyrating madly towards us, upside down in a cloud of grass and brown earth, the acting instructor on board our ship had finished his (non-standard) patter with a heart-felt, but apparently very calm:

“That is NOT the way you do it…”

The point of this story however, was that the rotor system on this poor little Robbie never split, or shattered, or broke. Despite it rolling over, and kicking up huge sods of earth and grass with the rotor tips, the blades only bent and twisted. A bit like toffee. Short of a tree trunk, a concrete pillar, or Mother Earth, as far as I can see, absolutely nothing is going to wreck a Robinson rotor system.
Except a pro of course.

Another confidence inspiring event was, many orbital circumnavigations of our Minor Sun later, when I decided to expand on my A+P license, with a Robinson Factory maintenance course. As part of this, we were taken on a guided tour around the torture chambers. In these huge areas, Robinson employees indulge voluptuously in their sado-masochistic tendencies. It’s quite awesome. Poor innocents, deserving of a much better life, are subjected to truly heinous devices, purpose built to inflict outrageous suffering. The dominant clergy at work in the days of the Spanish Inquisition, when they routinely (for the love of Jesus) flogged the living beJayzus out of you, were rank amateurs compared with the professional executioners at the Robinson Factory. You take a perfectly good drive shaft, say, and clamp it between two machines, and surround it by real tough safety glass. So we can see. Then you spin it around quickly, but also bend it, warp it, twist it, pound it, and generally treat it in a way designed to elicit pity in any honest mechanic’s heart. I found myself staring in shocked disbelief at what these guys were doing to their innocent charges. One particular abuse stunned me so much, that I felt this part was about to fail. It couldn’t possibly have lasted more than a day or two. I was glad of the protective barrier. I was sure when this thing failed, pieces of metal would fly like so much shrapnel in all directions. Awed, I had to ask. Of course. Some mothers…

“How long has this thing lasted so far?”

I was amazed how it could have survived the last hour. It wasn’t human. The technician, seemingly bored, consulted a manifest. “That one… yes, it’s been a problem for us.”
I’ll say. How do you expect anything to last if you’re going to treat it like…that!?
“We kind of need it to break. We want to examine it. But…”
You need it to break?? Just wait half an hour.
“It’s normal life in service is 2,000 hours. These are WAY beyond any normal flight loads…”
I’ll say…!!
The part in this test has already logged…”
Half an hour? An hour?
“Three thousand, seven hundred, twenty hours…”
How much!?
“…and twenty-seven minutes.”

* * * * *

But those two experiences (and many others) were still away in an uncertain future. For now, on that sunny day In California, way back, when I was young, wide eyed, and innocent, (more or less) I owed my new found, steadily increasing confidence to the friendly mechanic at the Helicopter School. So, I decided I was willing to go solo, and trust my life to this extraordinary contraption. Fine. Decision made.

This first of all involved a trip to an American Quack, who strangely tut-tutted right through the medical examination, shaking his head and mumbling to himself. Maybe it was my sanity that he was evaluating. He need not have bothered. I was already doing that myself. He kept putting his hands into and onto unmentionable places, until I was wondering if I had Aids or something cheerful. In the end, I got signed off. Physically, anyway.

Back to the chopper shop, and now my first helicopter solo was about to get under way, American style.

Francis Meyrick

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Last edited by Francis Meyrick on November 16, 2015, 4:50 pm

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