When a helicopter’s engine dies, it doesn’t just fall out of the sky like a brick, despite what some people believe. It falls out of the sky like a very aerodynamic brick.

Under normal flying conditions, the engine turns the main rotor, which forces air down, and the helicopter up. Well, that’s the gist of what’s happening, anyway. If your engine dies, the reverse starts happening: air coming up through the rotor disk causes the rotor to spin. This actually generates a certain amount of lift. Not a lot, but enough to (hopefully) get you on the ground without damaging the aircraft too badly.

The maneuver itself is pretty simple. As soon as the engine dies (whether because of an actual failure, or because you’re practicing and cut throttle), you bury the collective, to get as much energy into the blades as possible. The inertia of the blades turning is where you store your energy. At this point, you start falling. Fairly fast. About 1,500 feet per minute (a normal descent rate is around 500, or less, depending on a few things). Really, that’s it: you’re autorotating. The fun comes in at the ground.

Your objective, just as with a normal landing, is to reach zero vertical speed and zero horizontal speed (unless you have room to do a running landing) at the same point, then transition to a hovering auto, then set down. The general procedure is largely the same as with a normal landing, too, you just have to be careful about how fast you’re coming down. Among other things, your blades can actually start moving too fast and be damaged, so you’re constantly checking the RPM gauge, checking your descent rate, looking outside, and so on. What’s really fun is practicing these, however.

You don’t normally practice what’s called a “full-down” auto, where you actually ride the autorotation all the way to the ground. You come down and do a power recovery, instead. What this means is that as you get close to a normal hovering point above the ground, you bring the throttle back in and come to a hover before touching down. This is actually far harder than doing a full-down auto, for the simple reason that you’re transitioning, very quickly, from autorotative flight, through normal forward flight, to hovering flight in a very short period of time.

In actual control terms, you have the collective very close to full down for most of the maneuver. As you get close to the ground, you flare, meaning you pull back on the cyclic to slow your forward speed, and start to raise the collective to slow your descent rate. Neither of these actions require you to change the pedals, since they act purely to counteract the torque of your main rotor, which doesn’t have any if the engine’s not turning. However, as you bring in the power on your engine, the rotor starts producing torque again. This means that you have to bring in some right pedal. Then you increase engine throttle up to operating speed, requiring left pedal. Then you start raising the collective, and modulating the throttle to stay in the green, and you end up with even more left pedal. Going from basically full right pedal to a large amount of left in a very short period of time, while also flaring the helicopter, and smoothly pulling collective. Once again, the helicopter requiring constant adjustment of every control at the same time.

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One of the hardest things to get right when flying is the connection between your left arm, left hand, and feet. The left arm controls the collective, the left hand the throttle, and the feet the pedals. These three controls must act in concert to keep the aircraft from climbing or descending, and with a straight heading. In short, pull collective or add throttle: more left pedal, and vice versa. And it needs to be consistent, unthinking, automatic. Pull collective, add left pedal. Not two actions, one. As though your left arm and right foot were connected by a string. One way to get that consistently is to visualize it. While sitting in your chair at work, dreaming of the open sky, picture yourself in the cockpit. Reach down and grab the collective. Put your feet on the pedals. Pull up, push down with your left. Push down, push down with your right foot. Wash, rinse, repeat. Your co-workers may think you’ve gone crazy, but if they know how much you’re paying for flight training, they probably don’t need to think it, they already know it.

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Run-ons and hover drills

Run on landings, not sentences, though I’ll probably have a few of the latter in this post.

A run-on landing is an emergency procedure you can use in a helicopter when, for whatever reason, you can’t hover. The standard procedure for landing a helicopter is to come down to about two to three feet off the ground, at zero forward speed and then settle. In a run-on landing, you land more like an airplane: come in low over the runway and then settle, maintaining forward speed the whole time. The idea is to maintain the lift you get from moving forward and then transition directly to the lift you get from being close to the ground to cushion your landing as much as possible. What makes this especially fun is that most helicopters don’t have wheels like airplanes, they have skids. Metal skids. The first run-on landing I was on board for was done by an experienced pilot on an asphalt runway, and was…noisy. Running bare metal down asphalt at about thirty miles an hour is a very intriguing experience.

More recently, I’ve started learning emergency procedures in preparation for the first big milestone of one’s flight training: the solo. When your instructor feels you’re ready, they will get out of the aircraft and let you do a few patterns, totally on your own. In a perfect world, this would take about five hours of instruction to make sure that you know how to takeoff and land. However, because we don’t live in a perfect world, you need extra time to learn what to do if the engine dies, or there’s a cross-wind, or a dozen other things, including running landings.

The procedure for a running landing, in detail, starts much the same as that for a normal landing: descend and slow. But in this case, your goal is not zero forward speed, but about 20-30 mph, depending on conditions. This means running along about two feet above the ground at speed. It gets exciting. Doing it on a grass runway, as I did, is less noisy than asphalt, but you need to be more vigilant in case of holes, or roots, or any other hard-to-see obstacle. Instead of controlling how fast you slow down with the brakes, as in an airplane, you control it by lowering or raising collective to transfer more or less of the helicopter’s weight from the rotor to the skids. And, as always, you have to play with the pedals. A lot. Any change in collective requires a change in the pedals. And it’s even more important in a running landing, because if you get too far off from straight ahead, you roll the helicopter.

Another thing we worked on is hovering. This is the helicopter’s greatest strength. The ability to fly at zero airspeed, and land in an area only slightly larger than the disk of the main rotor. It is also one of the most incredibly difficult maneuvers, not just in a helicopter, but in any aircraft of any kind. Add in the fact that you have to be able to not only hover in place, but move, as well. This is called hover taxiing. The drill we performed is what I have come to think of as the box drill. It’s something I did in marching band (yes, I was that guy in high school and college), maintaining a particular facing while moving in a square. In the case of the helicopter, you pick four points of a square. In our case, these were four of the runway lights of the grass runway. Then, position the helicopter next to one. Now, move forward to the next one, sideways to the next, back up to the third, and sideways again to your starting point. In our case, add in the fact that the runway isn’t totally flat, it has a kind of crown in the center like a road, so you have to increase altitude just a bit on your sideward moves. I sort of (with a lot of help from my instructor) did it once.

Another emergency procedure is the hovering auto-rotation, or hovering auto. This is used if you are hovering and the engine dies. Since you are hovering in ground effect, it’s not that big of deal, you’re only a handful of feet above the ground, so a fall shouldn’t be too much of a problem. Basically, the procedure is to push in all the right pedal you can, wait a split second for the chopper to actually start falling and than yank the collective as hard as possible. You should settle nicely to the ground. When learning this maneuver, you (or usually your instructor) will count down and then chop the throttle (roll it all the way off quickly), it’s up to you to do the recovery. Of course, if your instructor is good, they will not always count down to the throttle chop, which is what mine did the second time. He just chopped it. I managed to recover, but not for about 90 degrees. If done right, it’s really kind of anti-climactic. After the stress of a normal landing, trying to watch eight different gauges, the ground, move four different controls in concert and not bash the tail into the ground, doing a hover auto seems almost easy: throttle chop, right pedal, pause, up collective, settle gently to the ground.

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Trim and Proper Landings

At my most recent flying lesson over the weekend, I worked, yet again, on landings. Having landed (with more or less instructor help) a number of airplanes, I feel I am fairly comfortable with the standard procedure for landing such a beast. I’ll skip over the pattern, as I have another post detailing that. So, I’ll just throw in some more specifics about controls as they apply to the pattern. Flaps, which I mention below, are parts of the wings that can be extended to both increase drag (to slow the plane down) and decrease the stall speed (to keep the airplane flying as long as possible).

On your downwind leg, approximately around mid-field, you extend your first notch of flaps, start your descent, and begin slowing the plane. Each time you add flaps, the nose will want to rise, so you need to push forward on the controls. About half-way between base and final, add another notch of flaps and slow down more, again, pushing the nose down to maintain your descent. Upon turning final, add another notch, slow down more, push the nose down, etc. When you’re over the runway, pull out the last of your throttle, and try to keep the plane flying as long as possible. This will help your landing be smooth and not all bouncy and pogo-y. Once you’re down, apply brakes as needed and get off the runway. There are, of course, other variables involved. Some aircraft have fewer than three notches of flaps, some have more, some have none. Complex aircraft have propellers you can control more directly, so you have to balance RPM and manifold pressure. Soft fields or grass require you to slow the aircraft more in the air before touching down. Cross winds are…fascinating. And there is a massive list of emergencies one should be prepared for. But that’s the basic procedure.

Now, to land a helicopter. The procedure is a bit different. Among other things, there are no flaps. Also, you don’t really start much of a descent until you’re already on final, since the pattern altitude for helicopters is much lower than fixed wing, you’re usually already at a decent altitude to start. So, you’ve turned final, you’ve started to descend. To descend in a helicopter, you push forward on the cyclic, but that will also increase your forward speed, which you don’t want to do, so you lower the collective, but that will cause the aircraft to have less force trying to turn the aircraft, so you need to put in right pedal to counteract it, however, dropping the collective also decreases the load on the engine, so you need to roll off the throttle, which also decreases the left turn tendency, so more right pedal. Now, you’re in a descent. You control your heading with the pedals, making sure to keep the runway centered. You control your forward speed with the cyclic, basically just trying to keep it constant. And you control your angle of descent with the collective (I actually disagree with this terminology, but I’ll get to that later). Basically, the idea is, you maintain your forward speed and your heading, and if your chosen landing point starts to rise in the window you push down on the collective (push forward on the cyclic, roll off the throttle, apply right pedal), and if it falls, pull up (pull back on the cyclic, roll on the throttle, more left pedal). At about 100 feet above the runway, you start to slow, by pulling back on the cyclic, and then centering it. Pull back and center, pull back and center, and so on. Of course, as with any move you make, you also need to compensate with the other controls, but I think you get the picture. A bit after that (I honestly don’t know when, I’m usually concentrating so hard on the big brown thing that’s rushing up at me at about 800 miles per second (or so it seems), you switch into a forward hover, by pulling up on the collective to slow your descent, switching from almost all right pedal to all left pedal, and pulling back on the cyclic some more. You should hit about 3 feet of altitude and 0 forward airspeed right above your touchdown point all at the same time. I’m not there yet.

And here’s the big problem I’m having: trim. Trim is a wonderful thing in any aircraft. Basically, trim changes the zero point for whatever control you’re using it on. In every airplane I’ve flown, you just had elevator trim, meaning that you would set your attitude, and then trim out any forward or backward pressure. Any other pressure you just had to live with. Larger aircraft will also have rudder trim, so you can basically just let the thing fly itself, no autopilot required. In a helicopter, it’s basically the same idea. Without trim, you hold the cyclic at a certain attitude to maintain a certain pitch in the main rotor at a certain point, to keep yourself flying straight. Trim allows you to change where the cyclic’s neutral position is, meaning that you don’t have to hold the cyclic, just apply a bit of pressure to keep it flying in the right direction. More in wind, of course. In forward flight in a helicopter, you tend to apply a lot of forward trim, to keep from having to stiff arm the cyclic the entire time. Also a bit of right, because helicopters are weird.

Now, the problem with trim. In a fixed wing, once you set the trim, you basically leave it alone unless you climb or descend. On landing, there’s usually plenty of play left in the controls to handle whatever you want to do. I’m sure that extreme trim settings would necessitate changing it, but most of the time you’re fine. In a helicopter, on the other hand, since your goal is zero movement in any direction, having the cyclic’s center actually be the center of the main rotor is incredibly helpful. And this is something I need to learn. Every landing I’ve made has been made more difficult by the fact that I haven’t trimmed back. Meaning that, where earlier I say “pull back and center, wash, rinse, repeat”, my “center” is actually a little back of there, but I wasn’t doing that. So, by centering the cyclic, I was actually pushing the nose over, and, since I didn’t have as much back pressure to apply, when pulling back, I wasn’t slowing as much. So, when landing a helicopter, throw one more control into the mix: the trim.

Also, I really really really really need to relax. Tensing up on the controls leads to over-controlling, which is just bad, all around.

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Richard Bach

Of the things I enjoy doing when not flying or shooting is read. I read a lot. So far this year, I’ve read 35 books, though a number have been graphic novels (I’m keeping track for another silly goal, reading 50 books and 50 movies in a year. I passed the movie number before the end of April and stopped counting). Several of the books I’ve read have been related to either flying in general, or to helicopters, including Chickenhawk, which I’ve mentioned on here before.

One of the most prolific, or at least well-known, aviation writers is Richard Bach. He has written several books, most of which relate either directly or tangentially to flying, probably the most famous being Johnathan Livingston Seagull, which I’ve never actually read. However, I am in the process now of finally reading something by this man, A Gift of Wings. And, as obsessed with flying as I am, I don’t like it.

A Gift of Wings is less a cohesive novel and more a collection of random short stories that Bach threw together and published. In itself, this is not a bad thing, but it wasn’t quite what I was expecting when I bought the thing in a used book store. The first two or three stories were absolutely amazing. I felt like the man had reached into my very soul and expressed the core of my addiction to flying, the high that I get from doing it, the feeling of freedom when that rotor spins up and lifts me off the ground. And he did it and published it 5 years before I was even born. He was also talking about airplanes, but it translates.

Unfortunately, I kept reading. The next few stories were more in the same vein, but not as overwhelmingly amazing as that first bite. And then we get to Drake. Drake is the leader of a band of outlaw pilots hidden away in the mountains. They aren’t air pirates, they’re just pilots. They just want to fly, and do the best they can at it. They don’t care what the regulations say, what the FAA says, if they (or rather, he) thinks something is right, they do it, and damn the man! Some of what Bach is saying is sound, there are times when following the regulations can be a problem, but unless something has changed a great deal in the years since that book was written, he’s full of crap.

Bach apparently wrote the second of the two stories relating to Drake after one of his students crashed and died because of bad weather. And Bach blames himself. Well, kind of. Technically, he blames the FAA, because they didn’t tell him to teach in a certain way. The question, to me, becomes: why didn’t you teach that way anyway? If the FAA doesn’t think forced landings are important to test on, but you think they’re important to learn, why not teach them? If you’re just teaching for the test, your students are getting severely screwed. It’s something that many people forget in all of education: the test is not the important part (I’m looking at you, No Child Left Behind). Teaching for the test teaches you exactly that, how to take the test. In the case of becoming a pilot, the third of three tests is a checkride, having an FAA designated pilot fly along with you and have you do a series of maneuvers to see if you’re really as good as your instructor thinks you are. By and large you can know what the designee is going to test you on. So, do you teach just to that? The designee can’t test you on everything, so do you only teach what you know they will test? If you think learning recovery from a full stall is important, teach your students. Just because the FAA doesn’t test you on it doesn’t mean you can’t teach it. As an instructor, you can do whatever you want to do in that aircraft, as long as you don’t compromise safety. So just do it.

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At smaller airports, a traffic pattern is used to help ensure aircraft don’t get in each other’s way. The basic pattern is made up of three legs before landing. The standard procedure is to come in on the downwind leg, turn to base, then to final, and land. Each turn should be accompanied by an announcement on the traffic frequency so people know what’s going on.

Recently, I was up for a training flight. Doing landing training basically consists of repeatedly flying the aforementioned pattern and landing. During one of these patterns, a new aircraft came on the radio (identifiers obfuscated to protect the guilty): “Airport traffic, Cessna 12345, entering the downwind 45, runway 35, airport.” My instructor and I should probably have been able to see him at that point, given that we were just coming up on the downwind, but paid it little mind, we were well out of his way, below his altitude.

A few moments later, another call: “Airport traffic, Cessna 12345, turning base, runway 35, airport.” This could actually be a problem, we were about midfield, halfway to that turn, and couldn’t see him at all. If he was still on the runway, in a few moments, we’d have to do something to give him some space and avoid encroaching on him. We’re checking every part of the sky, he should have been dead in front of us, about a mile out and 500 feet above. Nothing.

Next call shortly thereafter: “Airport traffic, Cessna 12345, turning final, runway 35, airport.” Now we’re concerned. We still can’t see him, and we’re getting close to our turn to base. We’re not in a dangerous position, regardless, but need to be prepared to extend our downwind to avoid him. Even given all that, not being able to see him, even though we know where he should be, and so on, is disconcerting.

Last call: “Airport traffic, Cessna 12345, turning away to the northwest, airport.” I can almost hear the frustration in his voice, and realize what happened. Runways go both ways, the main runway at this airport, for example, is recorded as 17/35. Depending on wind direction, one can either land going due north or due south (multiply the runway number by 10 and you get the approximate compass direction, so these two are at 170 and 350, i.e. just shy of due south or due north). Apparently, this pilot, unfamiliar with the airport, and not paying enough attention to his compass, tried to land the wrong way. After our turn to base, I spotted him easily, making the correct pattern entry.


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Chickenhawk (Part 2) and other helicopter books

A few months ago, I posted a partial review of Chickenhawk by Robert Mason, promising I would post a final review when I finished the thing. It’s been almost two months, and I still haven’t, for which I apologize. In the time since, I have finished that book, and a few others, so to make up for the lack of response, here are reviews of all of them:


This book finished off just as well as it promised to. It continued to add more to my knowledge of helicopters, as well as entertaining me and teaching me a great deal about the air war in Vietnam that I didn’t know. Most excellent, indeed. If you’re interested in helicopters, military history, or anything like that, I would definitely recommend it.

Apache Dawn

This book, written by “All for you,” Damien Lewis (yes, I just watched the crappy remake of The Omen last night, can you tell?), is about the Apache attack helicopter’s use by the British in the current war in the Middle East. Or rather, I should say it’s about how amazing the British version of the Apache is. Lewis really gets into how amazing this helicopter is, bashing the American version (and the way American crews use them) a few times, and not really mentioning the problems that it has, really at all. Granted, the Apache is an amazing helicopter, and the British did make some improvements to it, but giving these out in such a cheerleader way makes it seem like he didn’t do the research. Which, when the book is written in such a journalistic tone, makes it feel somehow off to me.

Heart of the storm : my adventures as a helicopter rescue pilot and commander

The sub-title for this book should have read “my adventures as a helicopter rescue administrator and occasional pilot”. Apparently, Edward Fleming doesn’t really like flying. He views it less as something fun to do, and a grand adventure, and more as just a job. As such, he doesn’t really focus on the parts that I would find interesting (the flying) as much as on the bureaucracy behind being a high-ranking pilot in the New York National Guard. I really didn’t like it, except for the handful of actual missions, which were quite exciting (though his bare-bones, light description writing style makes even a dramatic helicopter rescue sound kind of boring).

So, 400 words to make up for a two month delay in getting a review out. That’s equitable, right?

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