Once again, on the Activity Workshop, we're not afraid to shy away from lengthy, costly, training courses, we want to dive right in there and just have a go. So, while of course there are many routes to becoming a fully-qualified helicopter pilot, either as an expensive hobby or a kudos-filled career, we are going to concentrate here on the introductory experience, which anyone can try, sampling a brief taster. After that you can decide whether to start saving for the whole course or not...
Assuming you want to have a go of flying the thing, rather than just have a ride in one, you'll be needing a beginner's day session, which is a cracking experience. You can either find a flying school near you, and contact them directly, or you can use any number of "gift voucher" companies who have tie-ins to several schools. This may or may not be cheaper than going direct. You'll probably only get around 30 minutes of actual flying time, which doesn't sound like much, but the whole before and after takes a while. And helicopters are not cheap things to run.
Any introduction like this will have to start out with some indoor theory, just so you get the idea of how the craft moves and how to control it. This isn't a classroom hydrodynamics lecture, but it should at least use a model to explain which bits are which and how they work. The instructor will then take you through the controls and explain what you're going to do during the session. Make sure to ask all the questions you want, while you're waiting for your slot to fly.
Walking out to the helicopter, the first impression is just how incredibly small this thing is, mine was a 2-seater training helicopter, with barely any room inside the cockpit for anything other than the two pilots. Your elbows touch the door, the back wall is right behind your head, and the bubble front window is everywhere else. Is this thing really going to fly?
The next thing to strike you is the array of controls, dials, switches and gauges. Fortunately, you won't need to memorise or use all of them on the first day, just a select few.
The cyclic, or stick, is more or less what you imagine it to be, you hold the handle in one hand, and it controls the direction in which the main rotor pulls. Moving it left and right tips the helicopter left and right, moving it forward and back tips the helicopter forward and back. So much, so simple, except it's very sensitive!
The second control is the collective, which looks like a handbrake with a twisty control on the handle. Raising and lowering this changes the pitch of the main rotor blades, giving you more or less lift. Twisting the handle controls the throttle of the engine, giving you more or less power to the main rotor. The third control is a pair of foot pedals, controlling the tail rotor, so this affects which way the helicopter points - push the right foot forward to spin left, and the left foot forward to spin to the right.
As far as dials are concerned, the most obvious are the altimeter (how high you are), the air speed indicator (how fast you're going) and the rotor speed (how fast the rotor is turning).
Now, if that sounds complicated, that's because it is. Moving one hand on the stick, the other hand on the collective, with your feet operating the pedals while checking all the gauges is not easy. Especially because all the controls are interlinked, so if you move the stick you'll lose height, so then you'll need to raise the collective to give you more lift, but that in turn requires more power from the engine, so you open the throttle a bit, which then gives you torque which you have to balance with the foot pedals. And so on. So on this introductory day I only got to use the stick, while the instructor took the collective and the foot pedals.
Obviously the instructor took care of everything during take off and getting out of the controlled airspace safely, and then found a suitable spot to hand over the controls to me. Because these training helicopters have dual controls, I could feel the controls as the instructor was moving them, and then give the signal for him to let go. Task number 1 was to keep it straight and level. Can't get much simpler, but in such a light aircraft even a bit of wind can be felt through the super-sensitive controls. Forget pushing or pulling the stick, think more of just touching and nudging it. Getting used to the feel of it, we practiced simple turns, keeping it smooth and controlled, relishing the feeling of being suspended above nothing. Even a small amount of bank feels exciting when you're high up in a tiny bubble.
Having got the hang of the whole steering thing, we then had a go at hovering, a few tens of feet above the ground. The instructor demonstrated what to do (pretty obvious, just hold it steady and don't let it wander around), and then I had a go. Again, I only had the stick to worry about, not the collective or the pedals, but even so it was extraordinarily difficult. The commonest mistake is to overcorrect, so if the helicopter drifts a little to the left, it's easy to overcompensate and tilt too far to the right. This is partly because of the very high sensitivity of the controls, and partly due to the slight lag between input and response that needs a bit of getting used to. So it's then easy to overcompensate back to the left, and so on until you have to give the word for the instructor to take control back again.
After some wobbling, and a bit of drifting around, it finally got sorted, and we could hover reasonably stably for a while. Then the instructor took over again to demonstrate what it could do, including what happens in the event of an engine failure.
You'd probably think initially that if a helicopter lost power, it would plummet to the ground in a heap, but that's not true (at least, not if the rotors can keep turning). True, it will lose height, but the rotors will present a resistance to the airflow and will actually speed up due to the air forcing them round. Then the helicopter can glide down to the ground, and if flared properly can land softly even with complete power loss.
For a demonstration, it's not necessary to switch the engine off, but the throttle can be cut right down to simulate what would happen. Immediately the engine revs drop to idle, but the rotor speed remains roughly constant. As you begin to descend, the rotors spin faster (still controlled by the collective) and you glide forwards under control. At a suitable moment, the collective is raised, transferring the rotors' built-up energy into lift and flaring backwards into a stall. This is when an emergency landing turns into a soft touch-down, but because there's no need to risk a power-off landing just for a demonstration, my instructor flared a little way above the ground and then brought the power back on just as it stalled. But it was still an impressive trick.
A superb experience, guaranteed to get you bragging to your mates. Like a lot of flying activities, it doesn't come cheap, but as a one-off experience, it's still a bargain. If you want to go further and take a full licence course, then that's another story - start saving now!
Note how tiny the helicopter is, just two seats and an engine!
On the ground, ready for take-off
We have lift-off
Cue Airwolf theme music
There are several companies offering "experience days" in helicopters (as well as a variety of other activities) - here is a short and very incomplete list of some providers in the UK.