Saturday, January 30, 2010

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Fixed Wing to Rotary Wing Transition

When I first started flying, I decided that I would work towards achieving one new rating every year. I was able to accomplish that goal for the first ten years of my flying. I started as a student pilot in 1982. Then progressed to Private, Instrument, Commercial. Multi-engine, CFI, CFII, CFI-ME, ASES, ATP multi, and ATP single by 1993. I had also managed to get my ground instructor ratings: BGI, AGI, IGI.

After my second ATP (SEL), I had run out of practical ideas. I fooled around with the notion of a Multi-engine Seaplane rating, but it didn’t excite me since I almost never have the opportunity to fly seaplanes, let alone twin engine seaplanes. I was introduced to the Master CFI program administered by Sandy and JoAnne Hill with the National Association of Flight Instructors (NAFI). I realized that I qualified to achieve this prestigious award, and I submitted my paperwork and was approved in 2005. I had been working as a part-time CFI since 1986 and progressed to the point that I was flying Beechcraft Bonanzas and Barons almost exclusively. I started administering initial and recurrent training in the wonderful Beechcraft machines for the Beechcraft Pilot Proficiency Program (BPPP).

I was the proprietor of my own non-aviation business since 1978 and was getting ready to sell the business in the spring of 2008. I was considering flying full time as a flight instructor. My life was about to change radically. I couldn’t afford to retire, but I would continue on in my business as a part time employee while exploring the idea of flying full time. I was ready for a challenge. During that time, I had made a new friend, Mr. David Acker. David was a student pilot taking helicopter lessons. David and his wife Maureen had become fascinated with rotary wing flight after a vacation in Africa where they traveled almost exclusively by helicopter. Upon return to the states, they immediately began their journey to earn helicopter ratings.

David piqued my interest in rotary wing flight. I knew nothing about helicopters. To me, helicopter flight was always mysterious and mystical. In my fixed wing world, helicopters were unstable, unreliable, impractical, and dangerous. In 1982, when I was first learning to fly, I had the pleasure of briefly meeting a gentleman named Bob Smyth. Bob was a former Naval fighter pilot, test pilot for Grumman Aerospace, and at that time, working for Gulfstream. I asked him a few na├»ve questions about learning to fly and flying airplanes. I also asked him if he ever flew helicopters. I still remember his answer: “I will never get into a helicopter unless the place that I am standing is more dangerous than the helicopter.” He was referring to his experience in Viet Nam in the 1960’s. Well, that sealed the deal for me. Helicopters would forever be a no-no.

In the late 1990’s, I was hiking in the Catskill Mountains in New York State. A 20-year-old girl had fallen off a cliff and the police were called. The New York State Troopers showed up in a magnificent helicopter, complete with EMT rescuers. The rescue was unbelievably dramatic! The helicopter was hovering in a canyon and rescuers slid down ropes to attach the injured girl to a stretcher and off they went to a hospital. I was very moved by this experience. I started to think that perhaps helicopters weren’t all that bad.

In early 2008, I still subscribed to the idea that rotary wing flight was too dangerous for anything except military or police missions. But my life was about to change and I needed a challenge. My new friend David was an intelligent, successful, conservative person and his enthusiasm toward rotary winged flight was getting contagious.

I decided to walk over to the helicopter school at my home field (ISP) and see what I could learn. I was immediately greeted by 3 young CFI’s who were filled with ambition and the love of helicopters. We talked for a while, and I decided to schedule a lesson. I had discussed this with my wife and she was supportive. The training would take place in Robinson R-22 helicopters. I had no idea whatsoever how a helicopter flies. Terms like collective, cyclic, hover, and autorotation were familiar but without meaning to me.

Someone had once told me that the most difficult part of flying helicopters was learning to hover. I would make a plan. I decided to commit to ten hours of lessons and if I couldn’t hover by that time, I would discontinue my lessons. If I were able to hover, I would continue on for my private pilot helicopter rating. In retrospect, I see that there was no scientific basis at all to this plan.

To be honest, my first ten hours of helicopter flight were terrifying. The little Robinson scared me. My CFI, Landon Nield was attentive, caring, and talented, but fairly inexperienced. As a 7000 hour CFI myself, I had a pretty good idea regarding what Landon didn’t know.

Hovering is the art of keeping a helicopter about 5 feet off the ground and not moving forward or side-to-side. This is accomplished by the delicate use of collective, cyclic, and anti-torque pedals. The way it is taught is to allow the student to control one item at a time. For instance, the CFI holds collective and cyclic while the student attempts to control the anti-torque pedals to maintain a hover. This procedure is varied until the student can control the helicopter while using all the controls without input from the instructor.

When first learning to hover, all pilots over-control. A fellow Beechcraft instructor, who is also a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter pilot, offered me some advice. He told me that the control inputs during hover are so gentle, that all I needed to do was think about the input on the cyclic, collective and anti-torque pedals. The minute movements on the controls that are applied just by thought were enough to control the aircraft during this maneuver. I understood the lesson and took his advice.

At about the 10-hour mark, Landon took me out and had me practice hover taxiing. A hover taxi is keeping the helicopter at 5 feet AGL with the nose pointed forward, while moving the helicopter in a forward motion. It resembles an airplane taxi, but 5 feet in the air. It was amazing that I was actually able to accomplish this. With some new confidence, I hovered the Robinson that day! I drove home from the airport that same day committed to getting my private pilot rotorcraft helicopter certificate.

Being that my helicopter rating would be an add-on to my current certificate, I was not required to take a written test. This fact did not help me because I became a little lazy in my ground school studying. As I progressed in my training, I was severely lacking in rotary wing knowledge. Aerodynamics were a particular treat! I was exposed to new terms like “the law of conservation of angular momentum” (I love saying that), “translating tendency”, “translational lift”, “transverse flow effect”, and “dissymmetry of lift.”

I decided that I would need to go back to basics if I was going to learn about rotary wing flight. I went out and bought a pack of index cards and I started writing out all my helicopter information and aerodynamics on these cards. I also started to study with my friends, David and Maureen on a weekly basis. Wherever I traveled, I brought my index cards. Within a month or two, I was feeling more confident about my ground school knowledge.

As I progressed with my training, I learned that the art of hovering was not the most difficult part of helicopter flight. EVERYTHING was difficult. The practical test consists of maneuvers much different than fixed-wing flight. Some of these maneuvers consist of:

• auto rotations—straight-in and with 180 degree turns
• slope landings
• hover auto rotations
• quick stops
• confined area approaches and departures
• settling with power demonstrations (also called vortex ring state)

At 60 years of age and with over 7000 hours of fixed-wing experience, mastering rotary wing flight did not come easy to me. I struggled with each task, but I was making progress, albeit slowly. I completed my 10 hours of solo flight and actually saw a completion date for my practical test somewhere in my future.

When I was about ¾’s through my training, my friend David offered his 2008 Robinson R-44 for me to finish my training. Although I had to re-learn a number of things due to the different, larger ship, it was an absolute pleasure. The R-44 has hydraulic controls, a fuel injected engine with much more power than the R-22, and is quite a bit more stable. David’s R-44 had better instrumentation, a Garmin 530 w, and air conditioning. I died and went to helicopter heaven.

At that time, it was necessary for me to change flight instructors because David’s instructor was the only CFI approved on the insurance policy. Timing was perfect because my instructor Landon was just hired to fly Astar helicopters in Las Vegas for sightseers. Landon moved out to Las Vegas, and I had a new helicopter and a new CFI.

Eighteen months after I started helicopter lessons, I flew to Trenton NJ (TTN) and took my practical test with Phil Norton, a DPE authorized to administer checkrides in Robinson helicopters. I flew home that evening with Chris my instructor, and a new rating in my wallet. I now had an ATP (ASEL &AMEL), a Commercial (ASES), and a Private Pilot certificate (rotary-helicopter). As an instructor myself, I know that you never want to have interruptions in your training. Unfortunately, I broke that rule. I had four interruptions that all lasted between 4 and 6 weeks each. The price I paid was that it took me a year and a half to complete my training.

It has been an interesting and enlightening journey. I am now a licensed helicopter pilot and extremely proud of my accomplishment. I thank my friends, David and Maureen for their encouragement and support. I thank my two helicopter instructors: Landon Nield and Christoph Reitz for their expertise and patience. I have had the opportunity to meet with and talk to other helicopter pilots and have learned more about the rotary wing mindset. I have a new found respect and admiration for all rotary wing pilots and their missions. My suggestion for anyone remotely interested in helicopters is to take a few hours of helicopter lessons, and experience for yourself what rotary wing flight is all about. The mechanics of flight require two hands and two feet on the controls 95% of the time. However, the thrill of being capable of hovering and maneuvering into and out of confined areas more than makes up for the extra concentration needed to fly a helicopter. Fly safe, have fun!

Paul Gretschel ATP MCFI CFII ME
12.10.2009

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