Want to Learn How to Hover?


Sheesh. This is the kind of email I get:

Maria, I just recently found you when I was researching the R44.
I am a new helicopter student, roughly three hours, and hovering or the cyclic in general, is kicking my butt! I have a good grasp of the movements and how you push in the opposite direction and so on, but I tend to move it too much or over-compensate. Would you have any pearls of wisdom you could pass on about how you were able to lick this difficulty? Was there anything you practiced on at home or did you try visualization techniques? Anything would help.
Thanks a lot in advance.

Okay, so this guy thinks that any 3-hour student pilot should be able to hover. That’s there’s some magic trick I can teach him that will make him a whiz at this. Or that he can “visualize” something and it’ll just work.


The answer is easy: practice.

Seriously: practice makes perfect. Ever hear that one? It’s true.

Learn to Fly HereIt takes, on average, 5 to 10 hours for a student pilot to learn how to hover. To hover, you need a feel for the controls. You can’t get a feel for the controls without actually manipulating the controls. The more you manipulate the controls, the better you learn how they feel.

In other words, practice makes perfect.

This guy is new and naive and somehow thinks he’s dropping the ball on this. He’s not. He’s floundering the way every single one of us did.

I blame his CFI for not explaining to him that hovering isn’t easy. I’m wondering if his CFI is one of those cocky know-it-alls who is just doing time as a CFI, hating every minute of it and taking it out on his students. The kind of CFI who’ll likely die in an accident on his first or second job — if he isn’t lucky enough to get fired first — because his crappy attitude causes him to cut corners or let complacency take him by surprise. Or he attempts one too many “watch this” moments.

We all know the type. You can read about some of them in the NTSB reports.

In fact, hovering is probably the hardest thing a helicopter pilot learns to do — and we have to learn to do it first. You can’t fly a helicopter unless you know how to hover.

So my answer to him and any other new helicopter pilot who is struggling to learn this basic skill is simple: practice.

And one day soon, you’ll just be able to do it. It’s as simple as that.

13 thoughts on “Want to Learn How to Hover?

  1. One of the first things that I was taught about hovering was not to focus on an the area immediately surrounding the helicopter, as it is very easy to over control when you are trying to correct for every movement relative to something 20 feet away. Instead, try focusing on a general area in the distance, not necessarily on a specific object but out there quite a ways. Trial & error. Good luck. You’ll get it. :-)

    • Do you remember how many hours it took before you could hover reasonably well, Mike? I mean being able to reliably hover for at least a minute straight without needing a rescue? I’m curious.

    • 50 years is a long time. I think it took me about 7 hours to reach the “I can pretty much hover” stage. I was only flying 2-4 hours a week back then and that’s not the best way to learn.

  2. Hi Maria. Well said….I mean written! I’ve know a couple of those “CFI – care” types you speak of but, thankfully, only a couple. Most are better.
    3000 hrs now all in Robbie’s and I can remember it was about 12/14 hrs before I felt comfortable (R22 Mariner).
    I make sure I tell all demo pilots and potential students up front it’s going to be 10- 15hrs before they will be competent and confident enough to hover near the ground.
    Had a studentjust this month who is a maintence texh on an EC130 full motion simulator in Poland – now he could hover pretty early on……but only because he flies the sim more than the EMS pilots it is intended for do!! Haha. Gavin Cresswell Str8 Up Aviation

    • I hate coming across as harsh, but sometimes I really can’t believe the questions I get in email. This guy’s CFI is doing him a disservice if he’s got him thinking he should be able to hover at 3 hours.

      One thing though: do you remember the surprise and pleasure when you realized that you finally could do it? He’s got that to look forward to. It was a great feeling of achievement for me and I assume others feel pretty much the same way.

  3. One other suggestion would be to not “Straight-arm” the cyclic stick. It is very hard to hover unless your forearm is resting on your right leg. You may have to use a cushion to sit on or adjust your pedals to bring your knees up or down or adjust your seat so that you can rest your right forearm on your leg. It is not a natural thing to do and takes practice, but it will be well worth it. Soon you will be flying with your arm like that as well. Adds stability.

    • I didn’t do the arm on the leg thing regularly for the first 100+ hours I flew. I don’t know why; I certainly fly like that almost all the time now, even with the precision hovering I do for cherry drying work.

      Good advice!

  4. I did my helicopter training shortly after I got my fixed wing licence.
    I trained on an R22B. The over-control that marked my first few fixed wing hours came back when in the little Robinson. I found a technique which helped in the hover and that was to keep a light grip and simulate the sort of mild intention tremor that a person with Parkinson’s disease might have. My instructor did not like me doing this (he could feel me doing it if he followed through on his side of the dual bar) but it helped reduce the grosser movements and constant need for corrections.
    My training was at the weekend (1 hour on Saturday, the other on Sunday, weather permitting). That is a slow and very costly way to learn. Total immersion is far better but I had to work all week to pay for my flying.
    On my second hour of hovering we picked up a plastic carrier bag which actually managed to hook itself on a blade tip. The bag did not shred but clung on regardless. The vibration was horrible. After that my instructor also suffered from the shakes for a few hours.
    I did learn to hover reasonably after about 14 hours (according to my log book) but I never got my helicopter licence as the cost was escalating and my rate of improvement painfully slow. But it was great fun.

  5. Another technique that is taught by some instructors but considered “Old School” is to make a small concentric circular motion with the cyclic when in a hover. Like you are stirring a cup of coffee but with smaller circles. If you want to hover to the right, just keep making the small circles and move your hand to the right. Discuss it with your instructor first. Some instructors will relieve you of the pedals and collective and have you just concentrate on the cyclic control. Sometimes that will help.

  6. As I am “the guy” with this question I am grateful for the feedback, which is exactly what I wanted. I am 54 years old and learned in junior high school to just buck it up and look stupid, but ask questions anyway, otherwise learning anything is difficult if I don’t ask.
    I do plant my arm on my leg, but I like the idea of continuous, small circles or stirring motion. I simply make large movements and sometimes it feels like I’m moving the stick maybe a mm or less and still move around like a drunk sailor on shore-leave. I am also VERY glad to hear that it will take several hours to get this down, I felt like I was failing terribly.
    Regarding my instructor, he is young, mid twenties, and a very good pilot, he just hasn’t mentioned to me how long to expect for each step. It could be his small number of teaching years where he would learn the needs of many students.
    Anyway, thanks so much for the help.

  7. I tell my students when learning to hover in an r22 to make a circle the size of a dime and to not give larger inputs then that. I have them rest their arm on their leg. I tell them to keep their eyes at least 200′ out in front of them and use peripheral vision to sense small motions of the helicopter and just think about making corrections. Everyone over controls at first. I only give them the cyclic at first then work in the other controls .
    I have a very good success rate of most of my students being fairly competent hovering within around 3 hours some better some worse.

What do you think?