BFR Blues

I go for my R22 and R44 biennial flight reviews and come away feeling as if I should have done better.

If you’re a pilot, you know that in order to stay current (that is, legal to fly), you must take a flight review with a flight instructor every two years. This review is referred to as a biennial flight review (not bi-annual flight review, as many pilots call it), or simply BFR.

I took two BFRs yesterday down at Scottdale. I flew with George McNeil, one of the owners of Universal Helicopters. Universal has four locations: Scottsdale, Provo UT, Long Beach CA, and somewhere else in the southwest. (Heck, I can’t know everything.) Universal’s Scottsdale students often come up to Wickenburg for their cross-country flights. Their blue and yellow helicopters are easily recognized, and easy to spot in the air.

I had to take two BFRs because I currently fly two kinds of helicopters: the Robinson R22 Beta II I currently own (which is for sale) and the Robinson R44 Raven II I will soon own (which should be emerging from the factory in mid-December). These two helicopters are so similar that if you can fly one, you can pretty much fly the other. The only differences are size (the R44 is bigger), hydraulic flight controls (the R44 has them; the R22 does not), and fuel injection (the R44 Raven II has it; the R22 does not). So starting the two helicopters is a bit different because of the fuel injection and they feel a tiny bit different in flight because of the hydraulics. Frankly, flying an R44 is a lot like flying a Bell 206L Long Ranger; they have very much the same feel.

I didn’t have to take a BFR for Bell Long Rangers, which I can also fly because 1) I don’t foresee myself flying one in the near future and 2) the Part 135 check ride I took back in April or May covers me for that type of helicopter until April or May of 2006. That’s a good thing, because getting an hour of flight time in the R44 was expensive enough. I can’t imagine what it would have cost in a Long Ranger.

A BFR consists of an hour of ground review followed by an hour of flight time. I was able to do the R22 and R44 ground review together, saving time and money, but the flight time had to be done in each ship. I brought my R22 to save me some money and it did.

The ground part of the review went well. As with any good BFR, the pilot should learn something new from the instructor. I did. George gave me a good rule of thumb for operating at high density altitudes. It requires you to compare two power settings, get the difference, and use that difference to decide whether the landing can be to a hover, straight to the ground, or run-on. We also reviewed the usual things I always forget: light signals at airports (in case the radio goes out), weather minimums (the weather in AZ seldom goes below minimums), etc. I also proved that I knew a few of the weird little things R22 pilots know; for example, the minimum rotor RPM for flight: 80% + 1% for each 1,000 feet of density altitude.

The ground part done, we went out to fly. We flew one of Universal’s R44s first (see photo; no, that’s not me flying). I did a complete preflight. I needed George to remind me where few things were, since it had been about 6 months since I’d flown an R44. I used a ladder for the preflight; Universal doesn’t like students climbing on the helicopters. Of course, I don’t like climbing ladders. Doing this preflight reminded me just how much bigger an R44 is. I’d better get used to heights, since the main rotor hub is about 12 feet off the ground.

PhotoI’d had trouble starting the last Raven II I’d flown (about 14 months ago, in St. George, UT), so I was very surprised when this one started right up for me. We went through all the checks and I brought it into a hover without really thinking much about it. It did feel a lot like the Long Ranger and it had been less than a month since I’d flown one of those. We went out to Deer Valley where I did some maneuvers; steep approach, normal approach, maximum performance takeoff, normal takeoff, hovering autorotation, straight in autorotation. Along the way, I got a throttle chop (simulated engine failure), which I handled pretty well. (I have pretty good reaction time.) But I did have a bit of trouble with the steep approach when the governor was disabled — kept chasing the RPM with the throttle. And my autorotations, although “survivable,” were not very pretty. Afterward, we went over to the Cave Creek Dam (the earth dam) for a pinnacle/confined space landing. Although I did a perfectly fine landing, George said he wanted to hear more from me as I did my reconnaissance. That’s a problem I have, though. I don’t vocalize what I’m thinking and seeing when I fly. Unfortunately, flight instructors expect to hear their students vocalize. So although I’d seen and considered most of the things he listed, I hadn’t vocalized them, leading him to believe I hadn’t even thought about them. Interesting, I think, that someone who talks and writes as much as I do would keep quiet when expected to talk.

We went back to Scottsdale, shut down, and climbed into my R22. Then we did most of the same things in my helicopter back at Deer Valley. I was absolutely horrible when it came to doing a steep approach with the governor off. It was really pissing me off that I couldn’t get it right, too. George said it was because the R22 was so much more sensitive than the R44. But I’ve put close to 1,000 hours on that R22 and should be able to get it to do anything I want. My autos weren’t pretty either. I think that had something to do with coming from an R44, which is easy to do an autorotation in, and going into an R22, which is not. We did some 180 autorotations, too, and I just wasn’t making my turns the way George wanted. But I know the reason for that. There was a big airplane parked on one end of the practice area we were using and I kept trying to go around its front end when George expected me to go around the back. When he made that clear, I did much better.

I did a fine demonstration of settling with power, which I really hate doing. To demonstrate this maneuver, you climb to about 1500 to 2000 feet above the ground, point the helicopter into the wind, and bring it into a hover. It’s the hover part I have trouble with. In flight, the helicopter sort of leans forward as it moves through the air. To bring it into a high hover, you have to pull the cyclic back, thus putting the nose up. Trouble is, when you get to the zero airspeed you’re looking for, it feels as if you’re leaning (and moving and falling) backward. I don’t like the sensation. So I got the maneuver over with as quickly as possible. The idea is to lower the collective and establish a descent rate in which you’re descending into your own rotorwash. The controls get mushy and pulling up the collective does not stop the descent. The only thing that will stop the descent is lowering the collective and moving in some direction — forward is always a nice idea. Because you need to get good 500-800 foot per minute straight down descent rate going, you always practice this maneuver well above the ground. After all, you don’t want to run out of space before you recover. And in case you’re wondering, the purpose of this exercise is not to learn how to enter settling with power. The idea is to learn how to get out of it if you stumble in. They also teach us how to avoid it and that’s what I normally do.

Anyway, when we finished playing around with the R22, we went back to Scottsdale where I ordered some fuel and settled my bill with Universal. Flying the R44 had been extremely expensive. I’m glad I’m buying one so I don’t have to pay to rent one ever again. By the time I fired Three-Niner-Lima back up for the return flight to Wickenburg, the sun was setting. It was technically night when I landed.

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