Some years ago, we bought one of my Dads a helicopter flying lesson for his 60th birthday gift. He had a PPL for a fixed wing plane, and had always wanted to try it. He enjoyed it a great deal, though admitted afterwards that he preferred flying fixed wing to rotor. At the time, I’m not sure I had even flown in a helicopter (though it was on my bucket list of things to do). After flying in one, I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to enjoy arial views so close up, and at leisure in a way only possible from a helicopter.
decided that one day, I would also like to try flying one of these giant bug like machines for myself. That chance presented itself this month when Go Vouchers decided to run a 25% Discount on all experiences. It meant that a helicopter trial lesson (normally £165, even direct with the company I went to) would cost me only £123.75 After phoning around for prices, I realised that I would not be able to better this price any time soon, so I booked the experience immediately with them for the nearest company on their list to me: EBG Helicopters at Redhill Aerodrome on an Robinson 22 (R22) helicopter.
When I told friends and family, I received a few sarcastic comments of banter from a few fixed-wing and aviation snobs… My uncle who has been heavily involved with aviation engineering at one time, decided to inform me that the R22 is not a really cool helicopter, but rather ‘an egg whisk with a lawn mower engine’ and an airline pilot friend of mine (not my partner) remarked:
You crazy fool!!! why would you want to fly something that has 2 propellers, none of which take you in the direction you actually want to go!!!!
I didn’t care! Nothing they could say would rain on my parade! I was excited and I didn’t care if I was flying the aviation equivalent of a flying Moulinex, as long as I could take-off vertically with the controls in my hands (and under my feet)!
The price included half-an-hour of pre-flight classroom training with my pilot instructor, which was rather more technical than I had anticipated! He explained the way that a helicopter engine worked, without assuming that being a girl; it would mean nothing to me (bless him)… Actually (surprisingly) it did make quite a lot of sense to me! He then proceeded to explain how each of the controls I would be using affected the helicopter’s handling, and drew them into this diagram (see left) over the engine and mechanics diagram.
I had expected to feel a bit over-loaded with information, but I was not overwhelmed at all, and by the time we walked out to the helicopter I was ready to fly that little flying lollipop with rotors!
During my trial lesson I was taught to use of the 3 main flight controls:
- The Collective – which is the handle bar to the left of my seat which controlled the pitch of the main rotor blades above the helicopter to create lift or descent. It also had a twist handle throttle, like a motor bike, which controlled the power of the engine, but I didn’t need to do anything with that for this lesson, as this helicopter had an electronic ‘governor’ that automatically set the power required for the pitch I was setting.
- The foot pedals (which were actually a single plate) – controlled the tail rotor (which stabilises the aircraft and resists the sideways force (yaw) that the main rotor creates).
- The cyclic (on this model of aircraft T-Bar) – controlled the ‘swashplate’ which controls roll and pitch of the helicopter (attitude: forwards backwards, left and right).
Flying the Helicopter:
Confused? I was a little bit confused in the classroom, but actually getting my hands and feet on the controls simplified it enormously (as did the practical way that my instructor taught me).
Once we were up, and a safe distance from the airport, he introduced me to the controls one at a time, so that I could get a feel for the effect each had on the helicopter in isolation. First he had me use the collective, increasing it from a stable 19/20 (on the manifold pressure gauge) down to 14 for descent and up to 23 for ascent. Once I had got that, he had me using the yaw controls under my feet to understand how to balance the helicopter (whilst he increased and decreased the throttle) by watching a little ball on the on the ‘slip indicator’ instrument to stay at the centre of the range by pressing on the left side of the foot plate if it was left of centre, and the right side of the footplate if the little ball was right of centre. After that, he had me combine these two controls: feeding in the yaw control whilst I was pulling or pushing on the throttle…
After I had got the hang of that, he moved me on to looking out of the window at the horizon whilst using the cyclic (T-Bar) control this controlled the helicopter’s attitude, and slight movements in the horizon could make a difference of 40 knots! I found this part the hardest of the three to grasp, which is apparently very common. Once I had grasped it, he had me using all three controls together. It reminded me a little of being told to pat my head with one hand and rub my tummy in circular movements with the other simultaneously when I was a child… It didn’t feel natural, but it did come to me in the end, and just as I grasped it, it was time to head back to the airfield-DAMN IT!
My partner flies model helicopters which are actually harder to fly than the real thing because you have to reverse all of the controls if the model is facing you, and he is pretty nifty at it, although he has never flown the real thing. Before my lesson, he suggested I ask my instructor pilot to demonstrate an auto-rotate landing for me, as he thought I might find it fun. The pilot was very obliging, and requested permission from Air Traffic Control to do one to the side of the airfield.
An autorotation is simply the ability of a helicopter to land safely without engine power, in the event of an engine failure. They cut power to the engine and glide the helicopter in for landing.
I had expected the manoeuvre to feel something like dropping down to earth like a stone and just flaring up at the last minute for a smooth landing, but it was quite literally a smooth but quick glide down-not nearly as exciting as I had imagined!
After this, we refined my control of flying the helicopter using the three controls within a tight hover square, off to the side of the runway area. This is a small white box marked on the ground as a practice area for fine tune their hovering skills. I was very pleased that I managed to do everything my instructor asked-I couldn’t hover a simulated model helicopter on my partner’s computer sim if my life depended on it, so this really took me by surprise and gave me a real sense of achievement and satisfaction!
As we came into land, I felt really pleased, and was desperately trying to consign everything I had learned to memory so that I wouldnt forget everything. I suddenly wished I had booked a proper 1 hour lesson rather than the half an hour taster, as it was frustratingto be returning to land just as things had ‘clicked’.
How much does it cost to become a proper helicopter pilot?
Initially, I had thought this would only appeal to me as a one off experience, but I suddenly yearned to have more lessons. I asked how much lessons were, and he told me that a 2 hour lesson (45 minute classroom briefing, with 1 hour-1hour 10 minutes of flying time and a 10 minute de-brief) would cost £265! YIKES!
He then followed on to say, that if I fancied putting £3000 down in one go, they could knock £15 per flying hour off the price (BARGAIN). When I asked how much it cost to get a Helicopter PPL (Private Pilot’s Licence), I was told ‘somewhere in the region of £10-12,000! …From there it would still cost somewhere in the region of £200 per hour in rental/fuel fees to use a helicopter for pleasure flights without the instructor-OUCH!
Despite this being completely beyond my financial means at this point in my life, I came away day-dreaming of gaining the PPL and having visions of flying for a living… This is not realistic for me in honesty, as the cost of getting a CPL (Commercial Pilot’s Licence) is vastly more prohibitive! But it was nice to live the dream for an hour.
Experience Rating – 9/10
This experience FAR out-stripped my expectations of it, and as a result scores VERY highly and comes highly recommended! The only reason it’s not a 10, is that I would have liked a longer, proper lesson, rather than just the taster, so that I could have enjoyed the ability of combining the three controls and flying more once I had got to grips with what I had been taught. I thoroughly recommend this experience to anyone who has the urge to fly a helicopter, but be prepared to be bitten by the flying bug!
- Take a note pad – Even if it’s an experience lesson (or maybe that’s just me)… I didn’t and I wished I had; so that I could make notes of what he was telling me to stop myself from forgetting it
- Book a proper lesson rather than the taster as I came away wishing I had longer at the end to actually fly the helicopter once I had familiarised myself with the controls.
- Dont waste your money booking a lesson in anything bigger – My Pilot instructor explained that these smaller aircraft are actually great to learn in as it is more responsive than larger helicopters. One of the pilots actually likened it to driving a go-kart.
- Don’t be daunted by all of the jargon or diagrams. I went into this thinking of it as an experience and didn’t put pressure on myself to ‘master’ it in a lesson, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that once my hands and feet were on the controls, and I got past the initial unease with it feeling unnatural-that things ‘clicked’ into place.
- If you plan to gain a PPL, set aside a lot of money-this is probably one of the most expensive flying hobbies you can take up!