IS IT REALLY HARDER TO LEARN TO FLY A
HELICOPTER THAN A FIXED WING?

My first time off the ground in a fixed wing was in a bright yellow Piper Cub. It was during the time I was in the service and the flight was paid for by cleaning parts at the base flying club. Like many other youngsters I dreamt of  flying and loved to visit airports and look at the flying machines. However, it was the helicopters that captured my attention. Prior to being drafted, 2 buddies and I had built a Bensen gyro and taught ourselves to fly it. By the grace of God, we all managed to survive the experiences unhurt. (That's another story) In addition I had managed to learn the basics of the machinist trade and  had constructed my first exceedingly crude helicopter powered by my gyro buddies BSA motorcycle engine. Of course, I foolishly planned to teach myself to fly it as well! However, it was incapable of any serious controlled flight and would only hop off the ground 6 to 8" momentarily. It shook like a thrashing machine, but I was just thrilled to have actually gotten off the ground,... it seemed like 12' to me. Well, it's a long, story from there to 1976 when membership in the Society of Experimental Test Pilots became a reality, but the question we want to answer is still begging. 

Someone has jokingly said that the reason helicopters are harder to fly is that instruction costs so much more per hour. The finance may well be a factor. To answer our question we must first understand some basics about each these flying machines. Both operate in the three axes of pitch, roll and yaw. The fixed wing is dynamically stable the helicopter is not. (In trim, a fixed wing stays on a flight path; the helicopter has to be reminded about it now and then.) Power off in a fixed wing results in a shallow glide with a pretty fast touch down to prevent stalling; power off in a helicopter results in a steep glide, with a flare initiated to bleed off all forward speed just prior to a gentle touch down.

The fixed wing has stick, rudder and throttle controls and the helicopter has stick (called cyclic), rudders (called foot pedals), throttle (called twist grip throttle) and collective. Essentially the helicopter has one extra control.

Let's first discuss the maneuver that causes some fixed wing pilots to pin that moniker, "hard to fly" ,on the helicopter. Of course, it's the hover. Hovering a helicopter is learned by taking over one control at a time. When each is individually mastered, the instructor let's the student take 2  in combination and then the rest as confidence increases. It's not hard to learn to hover, but it does take some time and practice. By the time our helicopter pilot has, learned to hover, (5-7 hours) our fixed wing student will already be doing take-offs and landings and starting to absorb other maneuvers aloft. For now, the fixed wing pilot has the edge. Slow starters don't necessarily finish last however, because once our helicopter pilot has mastered the hover, he finds that just about everything in forward flight is easier. Let's see how that works out.

Flying a helicopter is defying gravity, in the third dimension. In a fixed wing the only control over altitude is the throttle. Since we have to be in forward flight to climb or descend, that's the only tine we really see the effect of adding or subtracting throttle. Not so in the helicopter. The helicopter has collective pitch, and the pilot raises or lowers it to climb or descend. The throttle is either electronically or manually correlated to the collective setting and as soon as the student relates to that, the whole climb or descend "thing" can be mastered between one and three feet off the ground.

Next, let's talk about pitch and roll. In a fixed wing we must be in forward flight to maneuver in pitch and roll. In the helicopter pitch and roll are learned just off the ground at zero air speed. Someone has said that operating the cyclic is like trying to balance yourself while sitting on top of a beach ball. I think it's more like hanging at the end of a pendulum and trying to keep it from moving around. In any, case, the student always has an initial late reaction to forward or lateral movement and when his or her brain does finally register the direction, the correction with the stick is usually far too severe. In a second or two, the instructor takes the cyclic and straightens things out; he then lets the student have the control back: again. To understand this feeling sit upright in a chair and sway your body back and forth laterally, slowly, within 2 to 3 inches. Hold your right hand on an imaginary cyclic stick. As your body begins to sway one direction, move your hand about 1/4 to 1/2 inch in the opposite direction. Allow 1/4 to 1/2 second for your body to react to this input and start in the other direction. Begin to move in all different directions and counter each with the appropriate movement of the imaginary cyclic. When your mind very quickly begins to comprehend the pitch-roll attitude your body is in, the cyclic positioning will become second! nature to you. If you can recall the instant you understood how to remain upright on a bicycle, you can understand the mental break-through that happens when the cyclic control suddenly makes sense. What we're saying in all this is that learning to hover takes a few hours, but now, every other maneuver we need to learn becomes easier and we can master them faster. We have just taken our first giant step toward becoming a bird.

Being able to control our altitude with collective pitch totally separates helicopter flying from fixed-wing flying. The feeling of complete freedom it gives is very unlike fixed-wing flight. Ten or twenty minutes into a fixed wing flight can feel kind of like driving on the interstate on cruise control. Whether it's ten minutes or 110 minutes in a helicopter, if you are the pilot, you're in another world, I guarantee it. You'll land with the thought of how long it will be before you're able to experience this terrific feeling of freedom again.

The fixed-wing student and the helicopter student pilot both have air-work to master. The fixed-winger practices stalls; the helo student practices quick-stops, and each progresses accordingly. A few hours go by for both, and then the learning situation takes a very different turn. Power plant failure is a possibility in any type of aircraft, whether it has one engine or four. All student pilots must learn how to land their machines with either partial or full loss of power. The big difference between fixed-wing and helicopter; is space. A fixed wing student learns how to avoid stalling and how to touch down in a glide. A clear, suitably long site is vital for a no-damage touch-down. The technique required is not-so-different from a powered landing. Power-off landings are going to take less instruction for the fixed-wing student to master. Eternal vigilance in spotting landing sites and flying at altitudes above 2,000 to 3,000 feet provides insurance for the fixed winger. Knowledge of airport locations along the route of flight is also helpful.

Our helo student-pilot has a completely different agenda. He can chop power almost any time and autorotate to a tiny open space, setting down softly without damage. The big difference in power-off helicopter flight has little to do with space, but everything to do with physics. Our helo pilot has to learn about something called "energy conservation." The helicopter rotor spins at almost the same rate power-on as in power-off. What keeps it turning power-off is the airflow coming up through it. Operation of the collective pitch during power-off flight must be learned from the instructor and become second nature to the student. This takes practice; the student cannot be released on his own without solid proof that he has mastered it. Rotor kinetic energy must be carefully preserved at all times, in all flight conditions. Learning the proper flare height and angle for his particular machine is also required. 

Knowing where you're going and how to chart the route are a big part of flight training. Aeronautical charts, which depict types of airspace and radio frequencies, need to be mastered by both fixed wing and helicopter pilots. Thanks to GPS with moving map displays, air navigation has taken a giant step forward. However, whether you're a fixed wing pilot or helo pilot entering class B airspace, you've got to know the rules. Of course, helicopters don't need airports and they fly much lower than fixed wings, so navigation seldom poses a problem. The helo pilot is usually not more than 30 seconds away from a landing, if he needs to set down.

Weather can be a problem for helicopters operating, in the mountains however, it's nowhere near the factor it is for a fixed-wing. Flight at or under 500 ft. AGL is way under the clouds and rain is easily avoided. Just land and wait it out. The opportunity to land anywhere just like a bird simply takes the bite out of weather. Of course, if you choose to fly into a cell or a front, be prepared to pay the price for being in a hurry to get home.

Now, we've talked our way through the basics, so how do things stack up? Is a helicopter harder to learn to fly or not?

Let's Recap:

Fixed Difficulty Rating 1-10 Helicopter Difficulty Rating
Landing & Takeoff 5 Hover 8
Air Work 5 Air Work 5
Power Off 4 Power Off 6
Navigation 5 Navigation 3
Weather 6 Weather 3
Total 25 Total 25

Now, lets compare three major factors:

1. The amount of material to learn and thedifficulty (see above) same same
2. The time to learn slightly less slightly more
3. Cost to learn much less slightly more
    (much more if you can't do you solo practice in your own machine)

IS A HELICOPTER HARDER TO LEARN TO FLY? WE'RE GOING TO LET YOU BE THE JUDGE!


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