Flying a Helicopter

Recently, I had the opportunity to fly a Helicopter!  It was an awesome experience, but they don’t just let you take the controls without any preparation.  I had to study some manuals and take a ground school class.  Throughout the process, I felt my engineering education helped quite a lot with the learning.  Try reading a bit of the Rotorcraft Flying Handbook and see how it goes for you, maybe you’ll like it, too!

Me and the Robinson R44

The basic rotor design is pretty ingenious.  It uses something called a swashplate which can tilt the blades as they go around. The primary controls of the main rotor include the collective and the cyclic.  The collective tilts all of the rotor blades equally (collectively), changing the amount of overall lift and thus, the altitude.  The cyclic changes the angle of the blades based on their rotational position, biasing the amount of lift in a given direction, giving the helicopter a direction.  See for some subtle but informative animated gifs.  The final main control are the anti-torque pedals.  These control the tilt (and lift produced) by the vertical rear rotor, helping the craft stay oriented in the direction in which it’s traveling.

Inside the chopper during the flight. You can see the cyclic (joystick) and my feet on the anti-torque pedals. The collective is below the frame of view and basically looks like a parking brake.

My actual flight was about 15 minutes long.  The instructor (in the co-pilot seat on the left) did the takeoff and landing, but swiftly let me take over controls.  I basically started by going straight, then made some gradual turns and looped back around to the airport (Hanscom AFB).  Sounds low-key, but it was exhilarating!  My biggest task was to keep the helicopter flying in trim, which means pointed in the direction in which it’s traveling. If you try to turn too quickly, or don’t otherwise compensate for the effects of adjusting the controls or environmental effects, you could “skid” or “slip”. During a skid, the rate of turn is too great for the angle of bank used, and inertia exceeds the horizontal component of lift. During a slip, the rate of turn is too low for the angle of bank used, and the horizontal component of lift exceeds inertia. While there are more fancy instruments that help you see if you are in trim, the simplest piece of equipment is actually a couple of pieces of string attached to the front of the windshield. When you are in trim, they point straight up.  When you are slipping or skidding, they bend to one side.  You can just make them out in the first picture above along the midplane of the windshield, at about eye level.

All in all, it was pretty thrilling.  First time in a helicopter and I got to fly the thing!  I felt I did my fellow Ukrainian Igor Sikorsky proud. 🙂  Watch out for Groupons for the East Coast Aero Club next year!