Things to read...

If time is short, I'd suggest reading at LEAST The Prologue and Legend of The Pinto Bean Posts!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Nickel Ride...

Almost everyone has the same sort of experience on their first flight while learning to fly a helicopter. This is mine… A few things before we get started, just to remove a few questions. Every helicopter has three basic flight controls. They are: the cyclic- the stick between your legs, responsible for going in the direction you want to go, at least once you learn how to fly. The collective- the stick on your left side the controls going up or down, or adding power for forward flight. The pedals- seemingly the most simple, yet your bitter enemy to the end. At a hover they are responsible for spinning the helicopter left or right. In forward flight they are used to keep the helicopter straight by pointing the nose in such a way to compensate for the wind (crabbing). The only other control available, and one I didn’t have to worry about in the kinds of helicopters I flew, is the throttle. For us it was “set it and forget it.” Finally the last issue; size. Size matters. The smaller the helicopter, the slower it is and the harder it is to fly. We learn on relatively small ones…


The first flight you take in flight school is commonly known as the “Nickel Flight”. This is because it is ungraded, reminiscent of the little nickel rides in front of a grocery store, and a way for underpaid instructor pilots to make a little money on the side. That first day we met our instructor pilots, mostly a crusty bunch of ex-Vietnam guys who have more time preflighting than I had years on earth. My guy however was a mid thirties former Blackhawk pilot named Jim (we used his last name, but I’m leaving that out.) Jim was a laid back guy with a good healthy perverted sense of humor, and I knew we’d get along just fine. Also along was my “stick buddy” who is the person you learn to fly with. The helicopter we learned on was the TH-67 Bell Jet ranger, painted in bright orange colors to let all who gaze upon you know that you are a danger in the skies, and to avoid you at all costs.


The day starts with some classroom time, and Jim takes a bit to ask us some questions about the helicopter and its’ emergency procedures. We’d spent the last two weeks learning all there was to know about the working of this bird and I knew there was nothing I could be caught off guard about. The one thing they didn’t teach me that I quickly mastered was “the blank stare” which I gave a lot those first few days. Apparently there was a lot I didn’t know or remember… After a while Jim got tired of asking Amy and I random questions about such complicated things as “how does the helicopter fly” only to be greeted with said blank stare, so we headed out to the flight line. The helicopters are parked all over the airfield in nice neat lines, and the most junior pilots get the ones farthest away, so we got the keys and logs and headed to our steed.


Once at the helicopter, we bumbled through our preflight that we learned, and Jim followed us around to play “point and tell”, a game where he pointed at various things and we were supposed to tell what it was. More blank stares ensue, and our tiny sponge like brains tried to absorb what they could. The reality was we were so psyched at finally getting to fly we wouldn’t have properly identified our names if they were painted on the side of the helicopter. After a few more of this we donned our helmets and hopped in. I drew the short straw and ended up in back and had to fly second. Jim wisely didn’t let us start the helicopter, and after a bit we were airborne enroute to the stage field where I’d be dropped off whilst Amy went to soar with the eagles. There at the field we were supposed to study and prep for flight, but mostly we stood around and bragged about how we were gonna have this sucker licked in a day. Type A personalities at their best…


After an hour passed, Jim and Amy returned and I made my way out to the bird. I briefly noted that Amy looked a bit flustered, but whatever, we can’t all get it right for the first time. I hopped in, kicking the cyclic as I did, and started the flight with a stern lecture about not letting my big clodhoppers hit the cyclic no matter what. Finally Jim took off and we climbed to a safe altitude for teaching young students how to fly, also known as “low earth orbit.” Now when you learn, you don’t just get all the controls at once, you get eased into it. At altitude you really only need the cyclic to keep going, and the goal was go in a straight line and stay at the same altitude. I immediately began porpoising up and down above the altitude but eventually settled down to a nice level height. Jim then took a moment to point out we were now going 90 degrees away from where we started. Oops. Next I made a series of “S-turns” which are supposed to look like a huge S if viewed from above. A more apt term would have been scribble turns, but after a bit I managed to do something that resembled more of the English alphabet and less of the Chinese alphabet. Finally Jim took the controls and took us back to the field to learn to hover. Finally, some slow flight, at least this will be easier…


Once at the field, Jim came to a hover about 15 feet above the ground and pointed the nose at a huge tree off in the distance, and explained that hovering required coordinated use of all three controls at once, but in reality was really easy. I watched with envy as he took one hand off the collective, and used just his finger on the cyclic to hold us at a perfect hover. I knew this was going to be easy. Next Jim gave me control of the pedals and told me to keep the nose pointed at the tree. No problem… The nose tried to wander a bit, but I used my fancy footwork to keep it expertly pointed at the tree. I wondered if the other students could see me demonstrating how it was done. I noticed out of the corner of my eye other helicopters in all sorts of unusual attitudes (attitude being the relative position of the helicopter relative to the ground.) Whatever. Amateurs. Obviously they had not yet tapped into their birdlike instinct to fly like I had. I silently thanked the Creator for making me naturally so great. Next Jim gave me the collective, too…


Now things began to get a bit more interesting. The nose wandered a little, and I expertly corrected, but now the helicopter sank a little when I did. I added a little power via the collective and brought the helicopter back to the height I started and looked back out at the tree which had now somehow moved to the left side of the helicopter. I corrected again as a single bead of sweat ran down my nose. My instincts were apparently a little rusty but I wasn’t worried. I knew I’d have this licked as soon as I got ahold of the cyclic. Finally I managed some semblance of holding the aircraft in one spot, and immediately started talking smack to Jim about my amazing abilities. Jim looked oddly unimpressed. Jim then gave me the cyclic. Jim then wished he’d taken out more life insurance.


About the first five seconds of hovering went really well, and I started congratulating myself on my shear awesomeness, but then it started to drift left. I added a little right cyclic but was confounded when it kept going left. I added more right cyclic and it started to come back, but now the nose was turning. I went ahead and pushed the pedal to get the nose back as the helicopter went sailing past the starting spot as it drifted a hard right, and began to go backwards a bit, too. More sweat down my nose, and a little at each temple. Still unworried, I worked at taming the beast. Jim just sat and stared at me with a little smirk.


Now I added left forward cyclic, and was again confused as the helicopter kept going back and right. And down. Figuring more is better I added more left forward cyclic and the helicopter began to respond. At this point I’d pretty much given up on the pedals and was trying to make the bird stay in one spot. I now realized that obviously there was obviously something wrong with the flight controls, and voiced this to Jim, who continued just to sit and stare. Well now the helicopter had begun to balloon up and pick up some left forward speed. Knowing this would result in taking off, I went ahead and corrected by adding a hefty dose of aft cyclic to get the bird back in control, and made a feeble attempt to use the pedals to get the nose straight again. At this point the helicopter made and abrupt change in direction as a result of my aft cyclic maneuver. I found myself about forty feet up, nose pointed precariously downwards as I attempted to touch the moon with the tail. I looked over at Jim and he simply responded with “well, fix it”. Apparently he wasn’t aware of the problem with the flight controls and I continued trying to tell him until he finally took the controls and I sat back to await the imminent crash as he was gonna have to wrestle it to the ground.


Five seconds later Jim was again hovering with one finger, and I was wringing out my shirt and trying to figure out how a hose got lose in a sealed cockpit. Jim then went on to explain to me what the problem was. See, helicopters are subject to a lot of important sounding technical terms like “gyroscopic precession” and “phase lag” as well as a bunch of others. Essentially this means that flying a helicopter is an exercise in forecasting the future by about three seconds. The input you put in doesn’t immediately take effect. You have to put in the input, then neutralize the controls and it will come back on its’ own. In theory. Also, helicopters naturally want to spin to the right because the main rotor goes left. As you add power, it increases this tendency to spin, and also will climb if you don’t add pedal. The final straw is the tendency of the helicopter to naturally drift in the direction the tail rotor thrusts. This all equates to a handful for the fledgling pilot. Apparently the questions we’d been asked that morning were to test our knowledge of this stuff, which was making a lot more sense now. I realized that they were all lies, and flying was actually impossible except for the select few who’d been blessed with the ability. I left the helicopter that day humbled, and wondering how much it would cost to break my lease when I was sent home after failing miserably at flight school. What could I say, it’s for the birds.

10 comments:

William Nordmann said...

Great story. I've never flown a helicopter but I have flown a plane and I know they are deceivingly tricky.

Anonymous said...

Since I'm a complete wuss about flying, I read your story with one eye closed. All in all, I can see why you would never forget it! Wonder if your instructor will ever forget it?
And just more reason I never want to fly again -- my one time was enough.

Kath

Cap'n Bob said...

What an enjoyable, nostalgic read, Daniel.

Although I went through that nickel-ride over thirty-five years ago, the vivid recollection of the terror of the first few flights is still there. I hung in and finally got my civilian helicopter rating.

Don't let 'Jim' fool you, however, since even as an instructor, one still fears and respects helicopters. We're only trained not to pass that fear to a student.

Thanks again . . .

Eric said...

Brings back some fond Mother Ruckin' memories. I think every Army pilot has the same story (except those pesky North Dakota kids)

Sarah said...

Great story :) The cocky sarcasm cracks me up!

Sheila said...

My Dad shares your love for flying. But he has a little plane he plays around with. He said he’s interested in getting his helicopter license next. I worry about him being safe, but I guess that's what daughters do. It’s pretty awesome to sit in there with him and watch him do “his thing” (I like take off the best). The whole process looks very complicated to me. Thanks for telling your story.

Jonathan said...

Ahhhh.... Rodeo day....

I inadvertently took off from a hover a bunch of times that day...

But as they say, if you can fly a TH-67, you can fly anything!

Thanks Dan, it wasn't all that long ago for me, but I hadn't thought about it in a while.

Take care!

Jon

MikewardOK said...

What's the trouble with the Bean? Inguiring minds want to know!

Joe Guest said...

I really enjoy this blog. I hope you keep it up as you finish your trip and go through medical school.

Thanks for defending my freedom.

I dropped you a little donation today. $5.00 is for the dog. Buy him something he really likes. The rest is for whatever you need it for.

Joe

Starbuck, WOJG extraordinaire said...

My nickel ride is Thursday... thank you for the dose of humor and thank you for your service to our country.

If you ain't cav...