John Peltier

Helicopter flight is fairly mysterious, isn’t it? How do all of those moving parts work in concert to make the helicopter move in just about any direction you can imagine? It reminds me of a diagram I saw as a helicopter student. It showed a helicopter, surrounded by four arrows going up, down, left, and right. Instead of the arrows labeled “lift”, “weight”, “thrust”, and “drag”, they were all labeled “magic”.

Actually, helicopter flying isn’t all that difficult. It just requires a lot of coordination, and that coordination comes with practice. Lots of it. So let’s go ahead and look at some of the basics of how you fly a helicopter.

How Do You Fly a Helicopter – Positioning

Left hand. The left hand always stays on what’s called the Collective. The collective earns its name from the fact that raising and lowering this lever will “collectively” change the pitch of the blades. Raise it and the pitch of all blades increases at the same time, increasing lift. Lower it and all blades decrease in pitch, decreasing lift.

The collective lever also has a handle that twists, controlling the throttle much like a motorcycle handle.

Right hand. The right hand always stays on what’s called the Cyclic. Like the collective, the cyclic gets its name from what it does. It changes the pitch of the blades “cyclically”, that is to say giving the blades different pitch angles depending on their position around the rotation. Move the cyclic to the left and pitch is increased on one side only, increasing lift generated on the right side so that the helicopter will go left.

Feet. The feet always stay on the pedals, and they control the amount of thrust generated by the tail rotor. The pitch of the tail rotor blades is always adjusted collectively. The reason for the tail rotor, and the importance of controlling it is to counter the torque produced by the engine and main rotor.

Helicopter Controls Diagram - How Do You Fly a Helicopter?
How Do You Fly a Helicopter – Control Diagram, courtesy of Fox 52

Imagine standing on a sheet of ice, facing your friend. You push your friend. What will happen? Both of you will actually slide backwards, away from each other. The same happens to a helicopter in the air. The rotors spin in a counter-clockwise direction on American-style helicopters. This makes the fuselage want to spin clockwise, in the opposite direction.

The tail rotor produces thrust to counteract this torque and keep the fuselage aligned. It will always produce some amount of thrust to the right. You need to fine-tune the amount of thrust that it generates in response to small changes in engine power output.

How Do You Fly a Helicopter – Putting It All Together

Your hands and feet need to be connected at all times. If one of them is doing something, the others better be doing something as well. Just about every maneuver, from the most simple to the complex, requires synchronous movement between both hands and feet. And unlike an airplane, you never take your hand off of the cyclic and only off of the collective for just a quick moment!

For example, picking up a helicopter from the ground to a hover at two feet above ground.

  • You need to raise your left hand to increase the collective pitch of all the blades.
  • If the helicopter is not equipped with a governor, you need to twist your left hand to add throttle as you’re raising the lever (increasing the pitch also increases the drag of the blades, which requires more power to overcome).
  • The increase in torque will make the helicopter want to spin to the right, so you need to increase pressure with your left foot (counter-clockwise blades).
  • The increase in collective pitch of the blades will also want to make the helicopter nose want to come up, so you need to move your right hand slightly forward to pitch back down.
  • All of these things happen more or less at the same time.

Another example. To decelerate in level flight, you need to do the following all at once:

  • Pull back slightly with your right hand to slow the helicopter down.
  • Pulling back will bring the nose up and climb, so you need to lower the collective pitch with your left hand to prevent the climb.
  • If the helicopter does not have a governor, you’ll need to twist your left hand to reduce the throttle as the collective pitch, thus drag, is reduced.
  • As the collective pitch is reduced, the torque will decrease and you’ll need to ease up on the amount of left pedal you’re using or else the helicopter will yaw to the left.

There’s a fun little maneuver called a “quick-stop”, where you practice stopping the helicopter from a high speed to nothing in a very short distance. You get really good at the simultaneous movement of “right hand back, left hand down, push right foot!”

How Do You Fly a Helicopter – Practice, Practice, Practice

These are all things that you can practice at home. You don’t even need a simulator! It’s called “chair-flying” and you can do it on the couch or at the dinner table – as long as you don’t mind weird looks from everyone else.

Just go through the maneuvers in your head. Say, “I’m going to pick the helicopter up off the ground and hover.” Then raise your left hand while pushing slightly forward with your right hand and pushing forward with your left foot. It’s that easy! Every maneuver in a helicopter has similar relationships.

And those are the basics of how you fly a helicopter! Don’t be intimidated by what other people say, or the perceived complexity of the machines. I’ve seen some students learn to hover during their first flight – this is the hardest thing to do in a helicopter! The analogy is that it’s like trying to balance a greasy ping-pong ball on the head of a pin.

But with an understanding of what the controls do, the maneuver, like all others in a helicopter, isn’t all that difficult.

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