Was it really that bad?
Last week, I wrote a blog post in my series about becoming a helicopter pilot. In it, I make an often-repeated statement:
They say that if you can fly an R22, you can fly any helicopter.
I’d heard the same thing said recently in the Rotorspace helicopter site I haunt regularly. And I agree with it. But it also got me thinking…was flying an R22 more difficult than flying the R44 I’ve been flying since January 2005?
So I decided to find out. I’d planned a trip to Seattle for this week anyway. I used the opportunity to book an hour or two of flight time with a CFI named Matt at Helicopters Northwest at Boeing Field.
Matt is a great guy. With 800 hours of flight time under his belt — including a few good, long cross-country flights — he has a good, positive attitude and likes to teach. He’s the kind of flight instructor the industry really needs: friendly, level-headed, sincerely interested in teaching and learning, not in any hurry to build his first 1,000 hours and move on. He showed amazing patience with me. Oddly enough, when I came out to the helicopter and sat inside it, I actually had some fear.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We went out to the helicopter and I was immediately reminded of how tiny R22s are. I owned one — N7139L — from October 2000 to October 2004 and built my first 1,000 hours on it (or R22s very much like it). I remember now how huge the R44 seemed to me when I first started flying it. But now, the R22 is just tiny.
We did a preflight, splitting the chore. I looked under the hood and checked the tail rotor and warning lights. He climbed up (one step!) and checked the rotor hub. Then we rolled the helicopter out from parking to the flight line on its tiny ground handling wheels. (To be fair, I use oversize wheels on my R44, making the stock R22 wheels seem even smaller than they really were.)
We climbed on board and buckled up. My hips are definitely wider than they were when I was 20 pounds lighter in my R22 days and I almost had trouble getting my hand between the seats to the collective. Sheesh. I used the checklist to start up and was so surprised at how quickly it started that I forgot to engage the clutch. That’s when I started wondering if I was making a mistake.
The helicopter’s cyclic friction did not work. I had to hold the stick as we warmed up.
They were doing taxiway construction about 100 feet from the flight line. Trucks and men were moving around. I started getting worried about picking up the helicopter. About what might happen if I screwed up. I realized — and this is hard to admit — that I was afraid to try.
So when the time came, I let Matt make the radio call, pick up, and take off. I felt like a first time student. It was a humbling experience.
But I took the controls as we climbed out, heading south toward Auburn. I immediately felt the stick push hard to the right. I remembered the trim knob and pulled it. That helped a little. But I knew my shoulder would be aching by the end of the flight. No hydraulics. I would be fighting the stick pressure the whole time.
When I released the collective, the manifold pressure immediately dropped from 20 inches to 15. Auto-land mode, one of the other instructors joked later.
Had my R22 been this much of a chore to fly? I don’t remember, but I don’t think so.
We came in for a landing on the taxiway at Auburn airport. I made a nice landing and set down. And a nice pickup. I was working hard to do it, though.
We did a few maneuvers. Standard takeoff, standard landing, steep approach, a few autos, two quick stops.
The autos weren’t anything like I remembered them and, after thinking about it for a while, I know why. When I learned back in the late 1990s, we’d start an autorotation by cutting the throttle first. We then had about 2 seconds to dump the collective. You could feel the drop in your gut. Nowadays, they start an autorotation by lowering the collective first and then rolling off the throttle. It’s a non-event — and not very realistic. I did the first one okay but set up for the second one badly and let airspeed drop too low for success. Got a low rotor horn on the power recovery. No big deal, but not very good, either. Sure wouldn’t pass a check ride.
The first quick stop sucked, but the second one was okay.
We climbed out and headed to my friend Don’s house. He lives on the outskirts of Auburn and has a helipad at his house. He’d suggested that morning, half joking, that we should try landing there. I knew we could land, but wasn’t convinced that we could take off. The place is surrounded by tall trees — a true confined space. I showed it to Matt. He was game to give it a try.
I’d landed there several times in my R44, so I knew the preferred approach. There was just about no wind. I came in low over the trees — even Matt didn’t see the LZ until I was ready to start my final descent. I lowered us into the area and hovered there for a moment. It hadn’t been difficult at all. But the real trick was to get out. I made a 180° pedal turn and pulled pitch, easing the cyclic forward to gain airspeed. (I hope I didn’t scare Matt with my soft chant: “Airspeed, airspeed, airspeed.”) We slipped through ETL when we were about 50-75 feet up, level with the tops of the trees quickly approaching. Then we were up and out.
I told Matt that I’d tell Don we’d managed it with full tanks of fuel. (A lie, of course; I really don’t think that would be possible.)
We headed back to Boeing field. I’d had enough. My shoulder was aching and I was tired of supporting the collective. I landed at the flight line. After shutting down and rolling the helicopter back to parking, I took a moment to whine a little to the owner/mechanic about the collective droop, cyclic friction, cyclic trim, and intercom static.
I really think my old R22 was in much better shape.
So yes, I can still fly an R22. But now I realize that I really don’t want to.