by Ian Foster
As a child Robert Mason had dreams of flying; and in his 1983 best-selling autobiographical novel Chickenhawk, he describes how those dreams were both realised then ultimately confounded by his time as a helicopter pilot with the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) of the US Army during the Vietnam War. (Having survived the war, Mason was to find himself grounded with post-traumatic stress syndrome).
I read Mason’s book as an impressionable teenager. What struck me was not just the painfully honest, sobering, sometimes terrifying account of one man’s war; but moreover the beautifully detailed, eloquent descriptions of piloting a helicopter which literally put the reader in the pilot’s seat. Flight training, aerodynamic theory, navigation, engineering; all were laid bare in Mason’s book, amongst the many vivid descriptions of piloting the (now) iconic Bell HU-1 Iroquois or ‘Huey’ in the most challenging conditions imaginable.
As a child I had long been fascinated by aviation, and nothing in the aviation world (save NASA’s Apollo spacecraft, perhaps) fascinated me more than helicopters; from the Vietnam War era ‘Huey’ and the countless Bell Jet Rangers in feature films of the 1970s, to T.C.’s Hughes 500 island hopping across Hawaii in Magnum P.I. on TV.
Inspired as I was as a child, it seemed unimaginable that I might ever get to ride in a helicopter, that most versatile, agile of flying machines – let alone pilot one. But life and the world move on, and at the tender age of 35, thanks to a not altogether modest gift from my family, I found myself standing in front of a Robinson R22 helicopter at Northumbria Helicopters’ base at Newcastle Airport in the north-east of England, contemplating a trial flying lesson.
Now I’ll be honest: whilst I am an enthusiast, I have to admit that my enthusiasm was tempered a little by nerves: versatile and agile they may be, but there is also something a little terrifying about the helicopter as a concept for many people; the whirling rotor blades, and moreover the concern as to what would happen were they were to stop whirling. It seems inconceivable that a helicopter would glide if the engine cut out the way a plane would (yet that is exactly what they do, as I was to learn). Also I have to acknowledge that the R22 is small. Much smaller than anything else I have ever flown in. Climbing into the little machine with instructor pilot Scott Dixon, you are conscious that just buckling up and closing both the doors leaves you sitting not uncomfortably but certainly intimately in each other’s personal space in the tiny cabin. Scott however exudes that casual yet professional confidence which I have experienced from other pilots (and helicopter pilots in particular), which belies a seemingly super-human ability to effortlessly and precisely control this most complex of machines.
From the age of thirteen (and Mason’s book), I had a rudimentary knowledge of how the aircraft works: between your legs, rising from the floor (or suspended on a dual control yoke in the case of the R22) is the cyclic control stick. This changes the pitch of the main rotor blades at specific parts of their circular ‘cycle’ to pitch and yaw the aircraft forwards, backwards, left or right. To the left side of the seat (looking like the hand or E –brake on a car) is the collective control lever. This increases the pitch of the main rotors in all parts of the cycle; in layman’s terms, you pull it up for more lift to rise up, and push it down to descend. At the end of the collective is a throttle control for the engine (as engine speed/power and rotor speed must also be managed during flight). Finally there are a pair of pedals, which control the tail rotor at the end of the tail boom, and allow the aircraft to turn clockwise or anti-clockwise at low speed in its own length; and keep it pointed in the same direction at all other times (without the tail rotor the fuselage would spin furiously in the opposite direction to the main rotor blades).
Now if you can handle thinking about controlling even three different variables at once, with each hand and your feet all doing different things at the same time, this probably seems like a big enough challenge. But when you realise that every minute input on each of these control systems has a knock on effect on one or more of the others, then you really get a sense of how difficult this is. And this is what flying the helicopter entails: constant, minute corrections to its myriad control systems; and the most difficult manoeuvre of all ? The hover. Yes that’s right; just keeping the machine in a hover, maintaining the same distance from the ground, position above it, and direction is the biggest challenge and the measure of a pilot. If you can imagine trying to stand still on roller skates on a merry-go-round with two small dogs each pulling you in opposite directions at the same time, you may have some sense of the challenge. If you then throw in worrying about engine and rota speed, altitude, terrain, weather, navigation, air traffic control and all the other things fixed wing flying entails, you can understand why I hold these guys in such high regard.
All this said, the nervous anticipation I experience in the noisy, vibrating cabin of the R22 as Scott starts up its piston engine and runs the main rotors up to normal operating RPM, melts away completely in the breathless joy of the moment when the aircraft lightly, delicately floats off the tarmac and drifts out of its parking space in a low hover. If you have only ever flown in commercial airliners (or other smaller fixed wing aircraft for that matter), nothing prepares you for this experience of floating and hovering on a column of air just a few feet off the ground. As Scott manoeuvres between hangar buildings out towards the airfield his smooth, precise turns with the aircraft’s complex controls (whilst talking to air traffic control!) fill me with the utmost confidence, and quickly I am completely enjoying our ascent into the slightly overcast north east skies in the tiny machine.
Once we are established in our 30 minute circuit out from the airport and north up the east coast, Scott has my first challenge: as this is after all only my first ever lesson, he asks me to take the cyclic control stick in front of me (only), while he manages the collective lever and tail rotor pedals for me. My job is simply to keep the helicopter flying forward in a straight line at altitude. To give me an easy point of reference rather than looking down at the complex instrumentation I simply watch the horizon keeping it level.
Initially I do well, but despite (or because of) intense concentration I lose the balancing point and the machine starts to roll from one side to the other as I over-compensate. Scott takes the controls, tells me to relax and take a lighter grip on the cyclic (which seems counter-intuitive as the vibrations from the engine and rotor system seem to make it dance in my hand), then try again. Sure enough, I regain some small element of control, after which Scott encourages me to push the cyclic a little forward and to the left to make a banking turn back inland towards the airport.
Taking control again, Scott asks me about my interest, and I mention Chickenhawk. This is a book, I discover, known and loved throughout the helicopter community. Assured of my enthusiasm and level of trust/confidence, on the approach to the airport Scott demonstrates the autorotation; a procedure for rapidly descending which can be used in an emergency (for instance in the event of engine failure; the idea of which might so easily fill the layperson with fear). Cutting the engine power, Scott starts the autorotation (counter-intuitively) by lowering the collective, reducing rotor pitch, thus conserving the energy in the spinning rotor system to cushion our landing. The aircraft descends quickly, but crucially on a glide path not so dissimilar to that of a fixed wing aircraft. The idea is that by descending quickly, but in a controlled manner, and conserving energy, the pilot can pull pitch with the collective once near to the ground and still have sufficient lift to cushion the landing. Swooping in low over the boundary fences of the airfield, whether in powered or un-powered flight, I feel supremely confident with Scott in control. Near to the field (and the ground) he concludes the autorotation, resumes powered flight and effortlessly manoeuvres back to the hangar. Most remarkably, during the whole process he encourages me (despite my reservations) to lightly keep my hands and feet on the dual controls so I can feel exactly what he is doing.
Once on the ground, with the machine shut down, I climb out of the R22, exhausted but elated. I thank Scott. ‘You’re a natural!’ he says, I suspect stretching the truth more than a little. ‘Next time we’ll find somewhere quiet and try a little hovering’.
One thing I know for sure, is that sooner or later I’ll be back. This is the nearest thing to the experience of the humming bird or bumble bee I can imagine. Any irrational fear I may have had now seems like a fear of walking for the fear of falling. I would recommend you try this at least once in your life; and even if you have no ambition to pilot one of these machines yourself, there are plenty of supremely capable professionals like Scott out there to give you a once in a lifetime experience of the true freedom of flight. But beware: it is addictive!
Read our interview with Instructor Pilot Scott Dixon here.
For flight training, pleasure flights and charters in the UK visit Northumbria Helicopters at http://www.northumbria-helicopters.co.uk/