Summer is here and hopefully most of us are once again enjoying
the exhilaration of piloting our ships around the patch. I was
certainly glad to see the cold weather in the rear view mirror
so that the doors could come off of the various helicopters that
I have been privileged to fly.
There is nothing quite like flying these little machines but
there are several cautions that we as PIC's must always keep in
mind when we fly with the doors removed. I learned this lesson
early in my flying career during my first solo altitude flight
from my backyard helipad in California. I had just returned from
Rotorway phase II flight training where I received a total of
7 hours of altitude training and 3 autorotation entries (the RWI
flight instructor did the flare and recoveries as per their policy).
I had my solo-flight-to-altitude endorsement from the Factory
school so why did I feel so ill-prepared to launch my pride and
joy, my life long dream, my MAJOR financial investment, into the
air for the first time above the 2 foot AGL hover height that
had been it's domain since it's FAA Airworthiness Inspection 3
months prior? Perhaps it was the realization that I did not have
enough flight experience in helicopters, and no altitude training
in my own helicopter. Just one mistake, one error in judgment,
and all of my hard work building the helicopter could be lost.
This is all too often the case when a student pilot with insufficient
training becomes the initial test pilot of a helicopter that has
never been flown either in hover or taken to altitude.
For three days straight I would preflight the helicopter, bring
it into a hover and then chicken out. I would end up spending
the entire flight session hovering and at the same time mentally
beating myself up for not having the nerve to launch this untested
helicopter into the pattern. After another near sleepless night
I told myself that it was today or never. Once again I did a thorough
preflight inspection, brought the little helicopter into a hover,
and then slowly began to ease it forward.
There it was, that little shudder of passing into Effective Translational
Lift (ETL). A little bit of forward cyclic and I continued to
accelerate and climb. Oh yeah, remember the height velocity diagram,
stay out of the un shaded portion to keep everything safe, what
were those numbers again?. "Here come the power lines, remember
to always head directly for the pole". I could still hear
Stretch Wolter(in the old days he was the chief instructor and
DPE - Designated Pilot Examiner) remind me as I approached them.
After passing directly over the power lines and crossing the
county road I was now climbing through 200' AGL and starting to
relax. My wife Sheila was standing in the bed of our company dump
truck with the video camera recording this momentous event. Just
as I was starting to feel like I was doing pretty well with this
altitude flying, out of the corner of my eye I noticed that the
passenger side rear seat cushion (the early Execs had separate
back and seat pads) detached from the Velcro attachments and fell
face down onto the bottom cushion.
Now that really scared me! I had been warned that if anything
left the cabin out the open doorway, it most likely would find
it's way into the tail rotor. Should that happen, a very rapid
chain of events would most likely take place that would include
the loss of one tail rotor blade causing a grossly out of balance
tail rotor, resulting in the loss of the rearmost portion of the
tail boom. Once that happened the helicopter would way out of
the CG envelope and would become a large lawn dart and the end
of one not-so-experienced future helicopter pilot.
With that thought in mind I knew that I had to grab that seat
cushion before it blew out the doorway, but how to do that? Obviously
both of my hands were fully occupied. I tried to quickly let go
of the cyclic with my right hand to snatch the cushion but that
didn't work. My experience level was so low that I could not take
my hand off the cyclic and grab it with my left hand due to the
death grip that held it there. As I was trying to figure out the
proper course of action, the seat cushion began to vibrate toward
the open doorway.
Panic filled my mind and I knew that unless I did something,
and it had better be the right thing, I was about to die. I forced
myself to momentarily let go of the cyclic with my right hand
and grabbed it with my left and just as I was reaching for the
cushion, a gust of wind took it out the doorway. I snatched the
cyclic back and braced for the inevitable lawn dart scenario.
Nothing happened! For some reason the cushion missed the tail
rotor and I was still flying, sort of.
Now to find the cushion. It had fallen out over a large 800 acre
pasture so I circled and looked for it. From 200 feet up I could
not locate the cushion in the tall grass. I definitely did not
feel at home up there at 200 feet circling and looking at the
ground so I descended and brought the helicopter into a hover,
now that was more like it, I could do that! I hovered around the
pasture for several minutes and finally found the wayward seat
back cushion. After landing, retrieving the cushion, and this
time securing it properly under my own seat cushion, I lifted
off to head back to the hanger.
The next challenge, how to bring the helicopter into the narrow
piece of property that I had never approached before. Let's see,
I had been told to always approach into the wind. The wind was
blowing across the narrowest dimension of the property from the
south. Funny, it had not seemed narrow at all when I was hovering
those 20 hours all over every square inch of it. Now it looked
like a strip of Christmas ribbon. I began my approach at 65 mph
as I has been taught during my factory training and always landing
on a long airport with plenty of room to slow down. Next I passed
over the other set of power lines (directly over the pole, of
course) and began my descent. Unfortunately there was no where
near enough room to bring the helicopter to a hover much less
slow it down to ETL before I got to the neighbors house.(Of course
I can do it now but with my 7 hours of forward flight training,
my skill level just was not there yet)
Stretch had told me that the approach was to be made at 65mph
and then slowly decrease the airspeed over the RUNWAY as the altitude
was decreased. In the 7 hours at Rotorway Phase II training, we
had never performed an approach to any landing that was not over
the very long runway of Chandler airport. Also, I had never been
taught how to do a Quick Stop to rapidly decrease the forward
speed of the helicopter.
My wife continued to film my flybys that she assumed were for
her benefit, she was so proud of me. Meanwhile I decided that
after 2 near misses of the neighbors 2 story house directly in
my flight path, I needed to do something to get this helicopter
on the ground before I ran it out of fuel. This time I slowed
it down prior to crossing the power lines and was able to neatly
bring it into a hover directly over the helipad. I learned several
lessons from that first solo flight to altitude. The first being
to always be 100% certain that all items in the helicopter are
secure and that there is no possibility that anything can exit
the cabin to be caught in the tail rotor. I was lucky on that
first flight and vowed that I would never allow myself to be in
that situation again.
The second lesson that I learned was that I needed more flight
training before I launched into the skies again. I promptly hired
a Rotorway-Experienced flight instructor by the name of Jim Sagerser
to come to my location and we worked on approaches, departures,
quick stops, and autorotations, straight-in, 90 degree, and 180
degree autos until I could do them proficiently every time. Now
here it is nearly 20 years later and I find myself doing the same
thing, providing flight instruction to a student who realizes
that he is not prepared to test fly his new helicopter.
As I write this article I am on an American Airlines flight to
California to dynamically balance, test fly, and then instruct
a student who rolled his helicopter after 3 years of intensive
construction work followed by 10 hours of Phase I factory training.
He had no prior helicopter flight training until he attended the
factory school. After 10 hours of factory flight training he received
his solo-to-hover endorsement. He returned home to his brand new
helicopter. He was now a TEST PILOT on a never-before-flown helicopter,
a recipe for disaster.
As he gingerly lifted the helicopter into a hover the helicopter
felt completely different than the one he had flown at the factory
school. It yawed to the left and the tail rotor contacted the
ground resulting in an un commanded spin to the left followed
by a dynamic rollover. As Tony crawled from the wreckage fuel
spilled onto the red hot exhaust and ignited. Tony emptied several
fire extinguishers onto the flames but they were not enough to
extinguish the fire. As he stood back and watched his labor of
love burn into a sagging framework of metal tubing and a puddle
of bright aluminum that was once his engine, he determined that
he would rebuild and then he would get thorough flight training
in his own helicopter before flying it himself.
Once the fire was out, the only thing salvageable was the transponder
antenna. Over the last three years he built a new Exec 162 around
that original transponder antenna and now I am going to first
inspect his helicopter, then help him with the rigging and balancing
of the rotor system and controls, then test fly it for him, and
finally provide him with the flight instruction that he needs.
This time he wants to know how to fly this second Rotorway that
he built with 100% certainty that he can control it before he
once again tries solo flight.
Let=s summarize this unfortunate chain of events:
1. Several years and many thousands of $$$$ building the helicopter
2. Minimal flight training but having a hover endorsement nonetheless
3. Beginning the first ever test flight of a new helicopter that
has never been flown
4. Lift the helicopter off the ground
5. Experience a Dynamic rollover
6. Subsequent fire consumes all but the transponder antenna
7. Spends several year building another helicopter around the
8. Get proper hover training after the ship is professionally
flight tested rigged, and balanced.
( Tony now has several years and many fun-filled hours flying
his Rotorway around the northern California area).
Another service that I now include in my flight training is proper
rigging and dynamic balancing of the main and tail rotor systems
prior to flight training. Since I began offering dynamic balancing
and then test flying each helicopter before we begin flight training,
that training has been so much more enjoyable with a properly
rigged and smooth-running ship.
Here is a list of definite Do=s to remember regarding your newly
built and inspected experimental helicopter.
1. Do get proper training prior to flying your newly built helicopter
including many autorotations. These should include straight in,
90 degree, and 180 autos so that the helicopter can be turned
into the wind for landing should a power or drive train failure
2. Do make sure that your helicopter is properly dynamically
balanced prior to flying it. An out of balance main or tail rotor
system will cause not only unwanted vibrations in the cockpit,
but also will accelerate the wear on the components of those systems.
The replacement parts are expensive where the dynamic balancing
of those systems is very cost effective.
3. Insure that you have secured everything in the cabin prior
to flight. Brief you passenger regarding loose items. Anything
in the pockets or on the belt that could possibly either exit
out the door or jam a flight control. A cell phone, wallet, sweater,
knee board, sectional chart, manual, etc could blow out that open
door and take out your helicopter and your life. A wallet can
jam the collective lever. A cell phone or camera can fall below
the collective preventing full down movement should the need arise
to drop the collective for a descent or autorotation.
Dan Van Duesen nearly lost his beloved Taz (Exec Extraordinary)
when he lifted off with a cameraman from the factory during the
RWI Grand opening. The camera which hung by a strap from the neck
of the cameraman slipped down behind the cyclic and when the cyclic
was eased forward and the helicopter began moving, the camera
slipped down even further and prevented any aft cyclic movement.
We watched as Dan's helicopter raced toward the parked airplanes
and finally slid to a stop as Dan used his skill to do a run-on
landing, a dicey maneuver in a Rotorway helicopter without the
extended skids and skid shoes.
You should get into the habit of always using a written check
list to perform your pre-flight and pre-boarding inspections because
it is easy to forget a crucial step if trying to do them from
memory. Be careful, do a thorough pre-flight inspection, perform
a proper pre-boarding(walk-around) inspection prior to every flight,
secure your cabin and passenger of loose items, brief your passengers,
and then get out there and enjoy your helicopters. You have a
privilege that many dream of but only a few are able to enjoy.
Traveling Certified Flight Instructor Rotorcraft/Helicopter