Thursday, 18 March 2010

Flying the Helicopter

It's been a long time since I wrote anything about the heli. I've been flying it generally about once a month since my checkride. That means training and currency flying - apart from the one flight with my wife, everything has been with my instructor. And that means lots of autorotations. They're one of the most fun aspects of flying helis anyway, plus you need to be good at them in case the engine ever stops.

Most practice autorotations are done down to the flare, about 10 feet above the ground, and then you re-apply power and fly away, or hover. That's because the greatest danger - mainly to the aircraft - is in the very final phase. But if it ever happens for real, you need to know how to get the last bit right too. That's called a "full down auto", when you actually land. I've done quite a few of those, my instructors hands poised ready to take over in a heartbeat if necessary. But actually the last couple I've done have been fairly good, resulting in a gentle touchdown and a short roll-out, or I suppose it would be more accurate to call it a scrape-out, considering the absence of wheels.

Another variation on autorotations is the 360 degree auto. This is what you would have to do if you had just flown over the only viable landing spot in sight. Chop the power, then execute a steep (30 degree or more) banked autorotating turn, keeping a sharp eye on rotor speed, airspeed, altitude, and the outside world, all at the same time. The trick is to touch down exactly under the spot where you chopped the power. Let's say I'm getting there.

And then last weekend, something completely different. We've been talking about doing a mountain checkout for a while - we had it arranged a couple of months ago but on the day it was snowing hard in the mountains. Last Sunday, the weather was perfect, so two of us together our instructor flew up to Tahoe, then on to Reno and Truckee before returning home. I flew the outward leg, about 90 minutes from Palo Alto, first in a straight line to Jackson and then following Route 88 up to Kirkwood before cutting across to the pass and then a steep descent into Tahoe. Much easier in the heli than in the plane, where you just about invariably end up flying out over the lake to lose altitude. It was a beautiful flight, with the unparallelled visibility that you can only get from a heli.

We had the heli deliberately loaded up to gross with some ballast, so we got to feel what a high-altitude take-off and landing is like. Also, at altitude you need to watch power carefully, since the limit is lower there. But overall it was fairly straightforward. We went on to Reno, and then I flew the leg from there to Truckee. And learned something important.

In an airplane, your take-off options are limited. You use a runway, and there aren't many of them, and the tower always tells you which one to use. It's something they take seriously! But a heli is capable of taking off from anywhere you like - the ramp, a runway, a taxiway, the grass - and most towers are happy to let you do so, as long as they approve it. But at Reno we ended up with a misunderstanding - the tower expected me to do something different from what I actually did. Nothing bad happened, and they were nice enough about it, but it was an excellent lesson. In the heli at a towered airport, always make certain that what you are about to do is what the tower is expecting you to do.

Flying around Tahoe was a great piece of heli-tourism too. The views were wonderful, especially on the legs where I was sitting in the back, and could take some pictures. Here are a couple to be going on with while I get them all organised and onto Flickr.

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