Learning To Hover A Helicopter: The First Big Breakthrough
When it comes to learning how to fly helicopters, learning to hover the helicopter is going to be your first big breakthrough. The moment you can control the helicopter in a hover, and make it do what you want it to do, will be the moment that you start to believe you too can really learn to fly helicopters.
But I promise that learning to hover is going to be a very humbling experience. It is going to make you question whether all of your excitement and enthusiasm to fly helicopters was really nothing more than a very stupid, dangerous, and selfish idea. It is going to make you sweat, and it is going to scare you.
Learning how to hover a helicopter may be the ultimate example of how repeated failures can eventually lead to success as long as one persists, overcomes their fears, and does not give up. You have probably heard the saying that failure is part of success. You will fail repeatedly while trying to learn to hover the helicopter. But if you don’t give up, you will succeed. The breakthrough will come quicker for some than others, but most people can learn to hover in about 3-4-5 hours. It still won’t be pretty but you will be able to keep the helicopter in a particular area with little drifting.
Learning to hover in the helicopter is similar to building the foundation of your house. You can’t build the walls and put the roof on until you have a solid foundation. In helicopter flight training you can’t learn to take off, land, or do approaches until you have learned to hover. It is the foundation that virtually all other areas of helicopter flying are built on.
A good instructor will start you off with some basic air work, before tackling the skill of hovering flight. As a brand new helicopter student you do need to get a feel of the helicopter controls and control inputs. Flying straight and level, gentle turns and gentle climbs and descents will give you some idea of how your control inputs, however slight, affect the helicopter in flight. But you will almost certainly begin to work on hovering on either your first or second lesson.
Now you can be around helicopters, ride in helicopters, and watch helicopter crash videos on Youtube all day long, but you will not fully appreciate the different forces and dynamics of helicopter flight until you take the controls. Very quickly let’s look at what is going on when you try to lift the helicopter off of the ground, or hold the helicopter in a hover.
Helicopter Dynamics & Helicopter Control Inputs.
Let’s say you are on the ground and you have rolled up to flight idle, so your engine and your rotors are both spinning at the proper rpm for flight. Your right hand is on the cyclic “stick”, you left hand is on the collective and your feet are on the pedals. Ok let’s start pulling up on the collective to take off, but for the purposes of our discussion here, don’t put in any control inputs on either the cyclic or the pedals. Just hold them right where they are and just come on up with the collective. Now let’s see what happens.
Before the helicopter ever gets off of the ground, you will be spinning to the right. In fact you will be spinning as soon as some of the weight is taken off the skids. Ok, how do we stop that? We stop that by adding some left pedal (anti-torque) at the same time we start to come up on the collective. Since we have added left pedal the tail rotor is now compensating for the torque of the main rotor, and it is holding the nose of the helicopter straight ahead. But we haven’t done anything with the cyclic yet, just holding it in position so now let’s see what happens.
A little left pedal and coming up on collective…..holy cow, now then entire helicopter is sliding to the right across the landing pad before we ever got the skids off the ground. What the hell is going on now?
Well you just experienced translating tendency. Because we added left pedal, our tail rotor is taking a bigger bite out of the air. Even though it is holding the nose of the helicopter where we want it, it is now pulling or thrusting the entire helicopter to the right, (in American built helicopters where the main rotor turns counter clockwise- reverse for Eurocopters, etc.) Now it didn't do it when all of the weight of the helicopter was resting on the skids, but once we started to come up with the collective, and get light on the skids the helicopter started to slide.
Ok so how do we fix this problem? Thanks to Igor Sikorsky and a few others, we know that putting in left cyclic as we pull up on the collective and add left pedal, will prevent the helicopter from sliding to the right. So our tail rotor is compensating for the torque of the main rotor, and we are tilting the main rotor to the left to compensate for the translating tendency to the right. You can now pull the helicopter up into a hover. But once you are settled into your hover, your torque will be reduced slightly, so you will need to take out a bit of left pedal. And since you took out some left pedal you will need to take out some of that left cyclic that was compensating for the left pedal.
If you are not currently a helicopter pilot, then this should sound very confusing and very complicated to you. First off it is a little confusing and complicated in the beginning, but also, anything like this always sounds a little more complicated when it is written out word for word. Hey that’s why we guys hate reading directions right!
The real point of those last few paragraphs was to give you a really good idea of the different forces acting on the air frame of the helicopter in hovering flight. Now you simply need to manage all of those forces and inputs in the proper amounts, and you my friend will be hovering.
[In the above photo the left skid (if seated in the helicopter) hangs just a bit lower than the right while the helicopter is in a stationary hover as this one is. This is visual evidence of left cyclic input compensating for translating tendency. MD helicopters always touch left skid first on a flat surface, because of this. From the pilot's perspective he is not intentionally holding the left skid low, he is just holding the helicopter in a hover. Also- many manufacturers automatically compensate for this by rigging the rotor mast just a few degrees left and forward. The Bell 407 is a good example. In helicopters where the rotor mast is already rigged to compensate, you will likely not see the left skid low while hovering.]
Helicopter Training Quotes:
Helicopter instructors have all kinds of neat little sayings to help you learn, but also to help build your confidence and assuage your fears. One of my instructors would explain it something like this; “look the helicopter is trying to kill you, and if you let it do what it wants to do it will kill you.” “You have to learn to make the helicopter do what you want it to do, not the other way around.”
Another instructor told me several times, “look I am just here to keep you from killing yourself while you learn to fly.” There is a little bit of truth in this statement as well. In some ways learning to hover is not so much your instructor teaching you, as it is you teaching yourself while he keeps you from crashing. Have you ever taught a child to ride a bicycle without the use of training wheels? You can’t really tell him or her how to keep his balance and not crash, you just have to keep helping them along the way, keep giving encouragement, and keep them from hurting themselves until they get it right? Learning to hover a helicopter is pretty much the same concept.
Learn To Hover The Helicopter: One Control At A Time
As I stated above, most instructors will start you off with some basic air work, and they will also give you plenty of breaks from the intense process of trying to hold the helicopter in a hover.
Most instructors will start off by giving you one control at a time, the cyclic for example. You will control the cyclic while the instructor continues to control the pedals and the collective. You will likely move through the entire controls one at a time, getting the feel for them and practicing controlling the helicopter with each set of controls separately.
Just as you are beginning to feel a little confident, you will be given two sets of the controls such as the cyclic and the collective, then perhaps the cyclic and the pedals. As you begin to get comfortable with two sets of the controls the third control will be added and it will seem like you are back to square one. This can definitely be an intense process that can only be described as humbling. I have never heard anyone describe learning to hover as being easy, yet it is eventually mastered by most student helicopter pilots.
Hey at 18 years old I learned to drive army 2 ½ ton trucks at Fort Leonard Wood, which required the student to learn how to double clutch. Each limb is on a different control in the truck, left hand steering wheel, right hand gear shift, left foot clutch and right foot gas. Double clutching took precise coordination between the right hand, left foot, and right foot. So again, the mind is perfectly capable of mastering different control inputs with different limbs and making them all work together in unison. It just takes practice. But, flying helicopters is much more fun than driving Army trucks!
One frustrating part of learning to hover is watching your flight instructor demonstrate hovering flight to you. In a no wind condition it doesn't look like he or she is doing anything. The control inputs on the cyclic are often too small to even see. Most of the time, their hand on the cyclic does not even appear to be moving. It looks so easy. But the moment you take the controls and the helicopter wants to start doing crazy things.
Here is the real trick and the real secret to learning to hover a helicopter. As long as you have to mentally tell yourself, “Ok I am pulling up on collective so I need to put in some left pedal” then you are still mentally operating behind the helicopter. It is only when you “instinctively” put in left pedal every time you pull in some collective, or you “instinctively” put it right pedal every time you lower collective that you are getting close to mastering the hover. Or, when you sense that the helicopter is just about to start drifting to the right or left you have already adjusted you cyclic control to compensate so the drift never happens. Yes, you become one with the helicopter! Probably the only other secret is that the quicker you relax and stop over-controlling the helicopter, the quicker you will be hovering and flying.
I think I have more than adequately flogged this subject of hovering, and may be guilty myself of making it sound harder than it is. It is not easy, and it will humble you, but you can and will learn to hover helicopters if you choose to do so. Good luck!