If It Was Easy…

Everyone would do it.

Last spring, I took a man — we’ll call him Doug — on a scenic helicopter flight. He was interested in learning to fly and although I’m not a flight instructor and could not put the dual controls in for him, he seemed satisfied enough to fly around with me for an hour. During that time, I suppose we chatted a bit about flying and how the controls worked. I really can’t remember. I fly hundreds of people every year and most flights simply don’t stand out in my mind these days.

At the end of the flight, I passed along the business card for another helicopter pilot in the area, Ryan, who flies a Hiller and does mostly agricultural work. I figured that since Ryan’s card mentioned he was a certified flight instructor (CFI), he’d be able to give Doug some hands-on experience.

I didn’t hear anything from Doug or Ryan after that.

Until October. Doug emailed me to remind me that we’d flown together and that I’d given him Ryan’s card. He then went on to say:

I did fly for an hour with Ryan in his Hiller hb12c. I did not like it. I felt stressed the entire time trying to manage the copter. As such I have not flown again. So….my question to you is what would you recommend I do now?

I admit that I didn’t understand what he was getting at. I assumed he simply didn’t like the Hiller — which really wouldn’t surprise me. The Hiller is an older aircraft and lacks some of the pilot workload-reducing features that my Robinson has, such as hydraulic controls and an electronic governor. I’ve never flown one, but I have to assume that it’s a bit tougher to fly, especially if you have to manage the throttle to control rotor RPM all the time.

These are Hillers.

I advised him to sign up with a flight school and suggested he check Moses Lake or Seattle.

He replied with the following:

My real question is “do you think I should fly another helicopter other than the Hiller before I give up on flying a heilicopter?

And that’s when I realized that it wasn’t necessarily the Hiller that was giving him a problem. He’d gone into his first lesson thinking it was going to be easy to fly a helicopter. Then, when he discovered he couldn’t do it, he began wondering if it was the Hiller that was a problem.

I replied:

I really can’t say. I have a friend who swears by Hillers. Robinson R22s are notoriously squirrelly, but that’s what most pilots learn on. If that was your first experience flying a helicopter you should not be surprised that you couldn’t do it. It usually takes 5 to 10 hours just to learn how to hover.

And that’s the truth. The hardest thing to learn is how to hover and it usually takes 5 to 10 hours to be able to do it. I learned to fly part-time with several days between each hour-long lesson and it took me 7 hours of total flight time to be able to hover. At the time, my flight instructor told me that a good percentage of student pilots give up before they get that far, assuming that they’d never be able to do it.

(If you’re reading this and feel that way, don’t give up! One day it will just “click” and you’ll be able to do it. Really.)

His response reminded me how a lot of people must think about flying helicopters:

Thank you! I just expected it to be a lot more fun I guess……?

It can be fun — once you know how to do it. But think about each of the fun things you’ve learned to do: drive, ride a motorcycle, ski, etc. Were they fun from the moment you began learning? I doubt it.

I replied

If it was easy, everyone would do it.

21 thoughts on “If It Was Easy…

  1. oh yeah… flashback to when I was doing a prep flight for my stage 3 checkride… we passed over another R22 and as I looked down, i could tell it was their first hover lesson… later we met at the fueling station and I just went up to the other student and said “You will get it eventually, I promise”

    • Very good of you! The poor guy (or girl!) was probably full of doubts. I don’t think I ever got close to quitting, but I was definitely unhappy during the first five hours, especially when I started getting bothered with motion sickness. (Glad I cleared that problem up!) I like to tell people that if I can do it, anyone can — but that doesn’t mean they can do it after just one or two lessons.

      Fly safe!

  2. I took fiddle lessons for a year before I realized that if I hadn’t learned by then, I may as well give it up, which I did. Flying is a learned experience as you stated. But it should be fun while you are learning. A lot depends on the instructor, (not commenting on the one in question). Of course I had a fixed wing ticket when I started flying helicopters. I have about 1100 hours in a Hiller UH-12E and I believe that it is the easiest helicopter to fly. I loved flying it and missed it after moving on to a JetRanger. I got my instrument rating in a Robinson R22 and if I never fly another one, it will be too soon. A lot has to do with what you learned on. I hope Doug gives it a little more time, because it can be a lot of fun.

    • I think his expectations were part of what made it less fun for him. I think he thought it would be easy and then, when it wasn’t, I think he thought the problem was with the aircraft. But we both know that those first 5-10 hours is about getting “the feel” for the aircraft and learning how to stop overcontrolling it. I’m not sure if the instructor was part of the problem — he doesn’t do instruction on a regular basis and may have been handling it as a sort of demo flight.

      Hiller easy? Maybe I’ll have to give it a try this summer. A friend is always trying to give me stick time in his. I guess it’s time to say yes.

      As for an R22, that’s what I learned in and I had no real trouble with it. But a few years ago, I went to a flight school and got an hour in one after flying my R44 for at least 5 years. I can’t believe I actually enjoyed flying an R22 when I had one. It’s true in this case: you can’t go back.

  3. I flight instructed in helicopters for years (R-22s and Schweizer 300s), and the truth is that there’s no easy answer to “Daves” question. I guess it just depends on how badly you want to learn it. I’ve had students who were “naturals” and picked up the basics fairly quickly, but never went on to finish their PPL. I’ve also had students who were uncoordinated and frankly terrible, but who persevered and eventually got it done. One thing for sure, if you go into it expecting it to be easy, you’re in for a disappointment. Perhaps it reflects a generational change about expectations and attitudes, it does seem to me that people generally have less patience these days, and expect instant gratification whether it’s warranted or not. Not gonna happen in helicopters, no matter how “entitled” you think you are.

    • I think you zeroed in on the key to this:

      If you go into it expecting it to be easy, you’re in for a disappointment.

      It’s not easy but it’s not hard. It just takes perseverance, practice, and the ability to learn from mistakes. Most of what we do in training is building muscle memory. When you have enough experience, you don’t even think of what you’re doing when you fly. Your arms and legs do it all automatically.

      Reminds me of a flight I had a year or two ago with a client who was also learning to fly. I didn’t realize it, but he was closely watching my control inputs as I came in for a landing. He questioned me on the timing of my power increase and I honestly couldn’t explain why I’d added power at that exact moment — other than the simple fact that a smooth descent and landing required it right then. Once you develop that feel for the controls where you don’t even have to think about every single control input — well, that’s when I think you really become a pilot.

    • Very true. When you stop having to think about it, you’ve finally started to internalize all that repetition from practice and are on your way towards developing proficiency. The so-called “normal” approach is perhaps the best example; despite being a maneuver that you use all the time, it’s one of the hardest things both to teach and to learn. No matter how many you’ve done, each new approach is different since there are so many variables.

  4. I couldn’t agree more with the sentiments of the post and the comments as well. In fact, I think Sean really hit on something in the last comment. For me the first five to ten hours of flying came relatively easy. For whatever reason I worked out the hover fast enough, but then things really got hard!!

    I’ve just passed the 100 hour mark on my way to my commercial and CFI certificates and I feel like I am finally getting my approaches where I want them. Granted I can be a bit of a perfectionist, but my point is that the challenges last a long time. Even after a student learns to hover, even once they become a pilot by earning their private, they have just taken the first steps down a long road of learning.

    I want to be a helicopter pilot because I know it will be fun…sometimes…one day! While training has it’s fun moments I would hesitate to call the overall experience fun. Humbling and rewarding are the two words that come to my mind. I know that the automation will come, that sense of just feeling it instead of trying to read it on the horizon or on the instruments. But as you have all said already it takes a long time, a lot of patience, and even more persistence.

    • Humbling and rewarding are the two words that come to my mind.

      Agreed! I remember what my brother said after taking a test flight for his birthday years ago. He thought that all he had to do to hover was put the cyclic stick in a “neutral” position. Ah, if it was only that easy!

      The more experience you get, the better your flying skills will become. One of the best things I did to hone my skills is get a tour pilot job. With 10-13 takeoffs and landings a day, I made a conscious effort to make each pick up and set down as smooth as I possibly could. I’d even rate myself mentally after each one. That silly little thing really made a difference in that skill set. I guess my point is, your skills will also get better if you objectively rate them and strive to improve.

      Best of luck to you!

    • Thanks for the advice Maria. I look forward to my first job out in the industry, granted it is still a little ways off. Thinking of your comment about smooth picks ups and set downs, one of my instructors told me something I like a lot. He said, “Try to make each flight one fluid motion from the time you pick up until you set down.” Of course I don’t have the skill for that yet, but it’s something to strive for. And I think you make an excellent point about being aware of performance in a tangible way with a rating. That’s a great idea!

    • If you follow that wonderful advice you’ll go far! That and knowing your limitations and never crossing those lines. Best of luck, Orin!

    • I’ve flown a number of times and each one was totally pleasant and professionally done.

    • Good technique, keeps you improving even when it would be easy to just “coast” instead. If you ever get a chance to log some time in an AS350, you’ll find that every landing on a hard surface is a challenge regardless of your intent. They’re much less predictable than the Bells, and harder to consistently “grease” the landings. The French didn’t name the series the “squirrel” for nothing!

    • I’d love to fly something a little more challenging than my R44 — just to see how well I could do it. You can’t improve skills beyond a certain point without new challenges. After 1800 hours in R44s, I’m pretty solid in them. It would be nice to start fresh with something different. An AS350 would certainly fit the bill.

    • I think you’ve mentioned the idea of working for someone else in the aviation business Maria, particularly in ENG, are you actively looking these days? I can imagine the temptation to fly some different machines is pretty strong sometimes. What were you flying when you worked the Grand Canyon?

    • No, I’m not actively looking for a job. I’m only available seasonally, October or November through February or March. No one is looking for a pilot with my experience during just that period. And I’m definitely not going to give up my summer gig! I flew Long Ranger (Bell 206L) helicopters at the Grand Canyon for Papillon. It flies remarkably like an R44.

    • One of these days I’m going to have to get some time in an R-44. I used to instruct in R-22s, but I suspect that it’s not quite the same, if only from an inertia standpoint.

    • They are completely different. When I say that an R44 flies remarkably like a LongRanger, I’m not kidding. It’s not the size but the controls. Hydraulics makes huge difference in the way the aircraft handles and responds. The R44 is a much smoother ship than the R22.

    • I look forward to trying it some day. When I first started flying R-22s I was surprised at how smooth they were in most flight conditions, especially considering how tiny they are. But then again, at the time I was used to the teeth-rattling high-speed cruise of the big 2-bladed Bells (AH-1, UH-1) so I guess it’s all relative.

What do you think?