Helicopter FAQ

Frequently asked questions

Helicopters don't fly, they beat the air into submission!

  • Are helicopters hard to fly?

This is complex question. On average, it takes longer to gain proficiency in helicopters compared with other aircraft, but anyone can learn given time and discipline.

  • Why does it take longer to learn to fly helicopters?

There are two flight regimes that are challenging and unique to helicopters: hover and autorotation. During hover, the flight controls cause the helicopter to accelerate. This is not something most people are used to and results in over controlling. If you were to model the system as a controls problem, a double integral term would appear, which can lead to instability. Humans are very good at adapting, so it is possible to achieve stable control. Hover flight is further complicated by the requirement of manipulating multiple controls at once, each of which influence the other. In the end, a pilot must learn to anticipate the results of adjusting the flight controls.

Autorotation is a technique used to safely land during a power loss. Immediate corrective action is required in a short time, typically within a few seconds or irrecoverable descent will result. It all happens very quickly, so there is very little time to think through the problem. Many variables must be managed, such as air speed, rotor RPM, avoiding obstructions, and choosing a safe landing spot. It can be scary at first, but it's not so bad once you know what to expect.

More importantly, helicopters are highly unforgiving of pilot error. Operation outside of safe flight regimes can very quickly result in irrecoverable loss of control. Strict discipline is critical to safe operation. As a spectacular example of what can go wrong, take a look at this article.

  • Can a helicopter safely land if the power plant fails?

Yes, if autoration is entered immediately, the landing will end in a modest flare and reasonable touchdown. Autorotation is a precision maneuver, so miscalculations could result in damage to the aircraft or fatal crash.

  • Do you need a fixed wing rating before attempting a helicopter rating?

No. There is some debate whether fixed wing training is helpful. The consensus seems to be that if you want to fly helicopters exclusively, then start with helicopters. That's what I did.

  • How long does it take to earn a private pilot helicopter rating?

If you fly regularly and take it seriously, you can probably do it in 60 flight hours or so. That's quite a bit more than the minimum requirement of 40 hours, which is very difficult to achieve.

  • How much does flight training cost?

In 2005, the typical dual rate in a Robinson R22 is about $200/hour. The clock is running while the engine is running, so when the engine starts, the clock starts. Solo rate maybe $25/hour less.

  • Why is it so expensive?

Helicopters have more moving parts than comparable fixed wing aircraft, so initial cost and maintenance costs are greater. Insurance is a big factor as well. Fuel costs can be greater, but they are not as significant. Further, there are far fewer helicopters built compared with other aircraft, so they do not enjoy economies of scale.

  • How do the flight controls work?

There are three primary controls: cyclic, collective, and pedals. The cyclic controls attitude and airspeed, the collective controls climb and descent, the pedals control yaw rate. Each of the controls influence the other, so they are not entirely orthogonal. More details can be found here.

Here's another, more humorous helicopter FAQ.