Headline: Helicopters
Deck: An introduction to the world of rotorcraft
Byline: Kelly Nelson
Photo credit: Brady Lane

What is not to love about helicopters? They make a really cool “chop, chop,
chop” sound when they fly overhead, they can hover, and they can land just
about anywhere. Sounds pretty awesome to me!

I’m a private pilot with a little over 100 hours in airplanes like the
172 and Piper J-3 Cub. Recently, some of my friends started talking about
their adventures flying helicopters and it sounded like a whole lot of fun, so I
signed up for an introductory lesson. Flight schools will often offer a
discounted first flight lesson like that so people can try flying and see how
interested they are in doing further training to earn their license.  

My lesson was with Jeff and Bill at
Lakeshore Helicopter in Kenosha,
Wisconsin. Before I was allowed to take the controls in the
Robinson R44
we’d be flying, I had to take a one hour ground school with Jeff, learning
about the different helicopter controls. We talked about some different
situations that might happen in flight and how to correct for them properly.
When we had gone over everything Jeff signed my logbook to show I had
received the required training, and I went down to the hangar to meet Bill
for my flight.

While I was in ground school Bill had done a pre-flight of the helicopter,
making sure that everything looked good, bolts were tightened, rotors and
rotor blades weren’t damaged, and the helicopter looked safe to fly. He
showed me the controls and explained how to exit the helicopter safely if I
needed to get out while the rotors were turning.

As Bill started the helicopter, he went over a checklist and showed me the
different gauges to watch like oil temperature, oil pressure, and rpm.
Everything looked good so he tucked the checklist back in the seat pocket
and as the rotors got up to speed (they’re constantly rotating at about 400
rpm) we gently lifted off the ground and headed up and away from the

Once we were several hundred feet above the ground Bill turned the
controls over to me. With my feet I worked the antitorque pedals. They
controlled the tail rotor and pointed the helicopter in the right direction. In
my left hand was the collective. That control manages the power and
controls the pitch of all the rotor blades collectively. Those two inputs help
the helicopter rise or descend. In my right hand was a stick called the cyclic.
A gentle nudge of this controls is all you need to individually change the
pitch of the individual rotor blades as they go around and turn the helicopter
in a new direction.

The controls were a lot to manage at first. They were far more sensitive
than the controls in the airplanes I was used to flying, and it seemed like
there was a lot more to think about with three different inputs to manage. I
did a couple of turns though and it didn’t take long to get comfortable
keeping things straight and level.

The view of the lake was spectacular and Bill took  us down for a closer look,
demonstrating what a helicopter was capable of in the hands of an
experienced pilot. He followed the shore line with ease, and it was quickly
obvious why helicopters are useful for jobs like search and rescue and aerial

Bill let me play with the controls a little more before we headed back to the
airport to try an autorotation. This was the part of the lesson I was most
nervous about. I was about to find out what happens when a helicopter’s
engine stops. Bill set us up over the runway, about 1,000 feet up, and cut
the power. I watched the engine rpm needle slowly drop while the rotor
blade rpm needle stayed in the green arc as Bill gently worked the controls
to keep the helicopter from drifting away from the runway. Within seconds
we settled on the runway with a gentle “thud.” It wasn’t hardly as scary as I
had imagined.

Next we flew the helicopter to a patch of grass on the airport to practice
hovering. That’s what you call it when the helicopter looks like it’s standing
still in the air and not moving up, down, left, or right. I had heard it was
very hard to learn and usually took people about 5 or 6 hours of practice
before they got it right.

Bill set the helicopter in a hover about 3 feet above the ground and offered
me the antitorque pedals to do some 360-degree turns to the left and right.
Once I got a feel for those he gave me the collective and told me to do some
turns and keep us 3 feet above the ground. This was more of a challenge,
but I could do it. Lastly he turned over the cyclic and said, “hover.”

Before I knew it we were swinging and dancing our way around the patch of
grass as I tried and failed to keep the helicopter still. Every minute or so Bill
would take the controls back, calm things down, and give me another try. It
was always a matter of seconds before I would have us swinging and
moving again. This went on for about five mintues before Bill took the
controls and brought us back to the ramp for a landing. He talked me
through the shutdown checklist, and as the rotors slowed to a stop, my
first helicopter lesson came to an end.

I learned a lot that day, and gained much appreciation for another way to
fly. Hopefully I’ll be able take a few more lessons in the coming months, and
maybe someday I’ll earn my helicopter certificate, too!

Kelly Nelson is associate editor of EAA Sport Aviation and a private pilot.
Link to a video of my intro flight.
Using aviation to entertain
and educate girls about
their limitless
Using aviation to entertain
and educate girls about
their limitless
Using aviation to entertain
and educate girls about
their limitless
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Using aviation to entertain
and educate girls about
their limitless
Using aviation to entertain
and educate girls about
their limitless
Using aviation to entertain
and educate girls about
their limitless