Learning To Take Off & Land The Helicopter
Once the student is able to hold the helicopter in a hover, the next logical skill to learn is lifting off into a hover and then putting the helicopter back down on the ground, landing.
One thing that I discovered early on in my helicopter flight training is that every new skill or task seemed equally as hard to learn as the previous one. Learning to hover the helicopter was a huge breakthrough and a giant boost of self-confidence, but the first time I tried to pick the helicopter up off the ground my confidence level was knocked back to square one.
Taking the controls from your instructor after he or she has already placed the helicopter in a stable hover is a whole different thing than transitioning to a hover from either an approach, or from the ground. Simply controlling the various dynamic forces of the helicopter in a hover is an awesome thing to accomplish, but now we must learn to take all of those forces from one stage (from the ground or forward flight) and manage each dynamic force until the helicopter is in a stable 3' to 4’ hover above the ground.
Lifting The Helicopter Into A Hover
So let's quickly go through the proper control inputs to pick a helicopter up off the ground and place it into a stable hover in ground effect. One thing to keep in mind is that each Make and Model of helicopter are going to require very slightly different levels of input (and remember some airframes are manufactured with the rotor mast already rigged to compensate for translating tendency.) But for most training helicopters and particularly with the MD500 and the Schweizer 300 (now renamed the Sikorsky 300) the inputs will be very similar.
So to pick the helicopter up off the ground you will need to manipulate all three of the helicopter's controls, the cyclic, collective, and the anti-torque pedals. The first thing we do is put in a little bit of left pedal and a little bit of left cyclic, and then start bringing the collective up to add power and lift. Now as you bring that collective up you are pulling in power and adding torque, which means the frame of the helicopter wants to twist to the right (in American made helicopters) which is why you need some left pedal to hold the nose straight as you come up off of the ground.
But as soon as you add that left pedal, the tail rotor is not only compensating for the torque and holding the nose straight, it is also trying to push the entire helicopter to the right- "translating tendency." To compensate for this we have put in a little left cyclic.
If we get all of the inputs correct, and in the right amounts then the right skid should pick up off the ground before the left skid. This is a very standard take off in most small training helicopters. In fact it is almost preferred that right skid comes up very slowly and the helicopter is held for a brief moment with the left skid on the ground. Why is this?
Now remember that I am not a CFI and I am definitely not the CFI that will be teaching you to fly, but the take-off is a slow, controlled maneuver that is probably easier to learn and master if it is divided up into parts (not to mention safer.) So learning to lift the right skid of the helicopter off of the ground and hold it in a stable one skid landing/hover, is one big part of the take-off. When you have reached this stage of each take off, you are essentially half way through transitioning from the ground to a stable hover. Also, it is in this first stage of take-off that you will be making any minor corrections to your control inputs.
If you start coming up with the collective and the nose of the helicopter begins any movement to the right whatsoever, you need a bit more left pedal. If you start coming with the collective and the helicopter starts to slide across the ground even an inch, you need more left cyclic. If you rush the take-off you will not have time to mentally and physically fix these problems.
Once the helicopter is in a stable one skid hover, then you have been successful in controlling both the helicopter's torque, as well as its translating tendency. Now you will just pull in enough additional collective to lift the left skid off of the ground. As you pull in this extra bit of collective you will have to add just a touch more left pedal, because you are adding even more power which is adding torque.
So what happens the exact moment in time when the helicopter reaches a 2-3' hover. Well the amount of control inputs required to bring the helicopter into the hover are very slightly different than the control inputs required to keep the helicopter in the hover. Think of it this way. If you held the exact same power setting you use to lift the helicopter off of the ground and to move it in a vertical direction, then wouldn't the helicopter continue its upward movement? Generally yes (taking ground effect out of the equation for a moment- as the helicopter does require additional power to climb vertically out of ground effect).
What this means to the student pilot is that typically once the helicopter is pulled up into a hover, it doesn't require quite as much left pedal or as much left cyclic. So the cyclic generally comes back to the right just a touch and the left pedal is adjusted to keep the nose straight and not turning either left or right.
Now that I have outlined the perfect take off and have described the exact control inputs it takes to lift a helicopter into a stable hover, what will your first attempt to take off in a helicopter be like? In will be a little unnerving to say the least.
Before I go any further let me re-cap how my flight training was structured. I received 24 hours of initial instruction from our in-house flight instructors in our own MD500 helicopters. So I learned all of these procedures I am describing to you in a turbine powered helicopter. For the record, a fair comparison between the MD500 turbine powered helicopter and the Schweizer 300 piston powered helicopter (and probably the R-22) is a bit like comparing a Porsche to a VW Bug.
The MD500 has a lot of power all of which must be harnessed and controlled while the Schweizer 300 has much less power and is much more forgiving. I can only imagine that learning to take off and land in the Schweizer 300 must be somewhat easier than learning to take off and land in the MD500, but to what degree I could not say.
What I do know is that for the first 10-15-20 times that I lifted or attempted to lift the 500 into a hover, I felt like I was about to be thrown into a hand to hand, combat, caged match with a full grown and hungry tiger! Trust me this is no exaggeration.
I have mentioned previously how one of my instructors would explain that the helicopter was trying to kill me, and it was up to me to not allow it to happen. Well I can tell you that there was probably no other manuever where I felt like the helicopter was about to kill me, more than the take-off. Once again the beads of sweat would literally be running down my face while I focused every brain cell I had listening to my CFI's instructions and trying to control the 3000 lb hungry tiger that was strapped to my butt.
As with most things in life, the more I did it the better I got and the easier it became. Eventually the take-off and landing became just one more maneuver that I had mastered (at a student level) with the helicopter.
Landing The Helicopter: Transitioning From a Stable Hover To The Ground
Well logic would tell us that setting the helicopter back on the ground would simply be the reverse of picking it up off of the ground, true. But still it is a slightly different skill set. If you recall from above we put in certain inputs before others, I.E. left cyclic, left pedal, then up with collective. Landing the helicopter is exactly the reverse.
Take the left cyclic out before lowering collective all the way and you will absolutely go sliding to the right, (a dangerous thing in a helicopter by the way.) I can remember setting the helicopter down in a field one time and screwing up the proper sequence of reducing the control inputs. In other words, I took out left cyclic before lowering the collective all the way and locking the helicopter on the ground. The result was the helicopter sliding along the ground to the right. I remember my instructor looking out the door at the freshly turned up dirt under the skids and saying "holy sh%t I just discovered a whole new way to de-sod a lawn". Oh yeah!
Ok so now that I have made it sound like taking off and landing a helicopter is an almost impossible maneuver to learn, I am happy to tell you that if I can learn it then so can you. You are now one step closer to flying helicopters.
You see the human brain and central nervous system is truly a wonder thing. After a period of time, practice, and fine tuning, the human brain along with your CNS and muscle memory can lift a helicopter up off the ground, put it into a stable hover, and put it back down perfectly and almost subconsciously all while making it look as simple as buttering a piece of bread.