Category Archives: General

Purchasing Your First Helicopter

Deciding to invest in a helicopter of your own is a big step for anyone, and especially if you’re a new pilot. But if you’ve got the means to do so, it also means freedom. No longer will you be subject to flight school schedules or rental schedules in order to fly-you’ll be able to lift off any time you want! Of course, there are a few factors you’ll need to take into account first, which are covered below.

First, you’ll need to decide on the model of helicopter you want. A common beginner’s helicopter is a Robinson R-22 (2 seater) or R-44 (4 seater), both of which can be bought for less than $500,000. These are piston engine helicopters; Robinson also makes a turbine, the R-66, which starts at $895,000. Another common aircraft is the Eurocopter EC-135, a four seater, or the McDonnell Douglas MD530, both turbine powered and relatively ($1.2m) inexpensive beginner-friendly aircraft.

You’ll need to register your helicopter with the FAA, and receive a ‘N’ number. Helicopter registration fees are different than fixed wing aircraft registration fees, and they change year to year and are based on the helicopter’s characteristics. Visit www.faa.gov/registration for more information and to fill out the application. In order to register, you’ll need the serial number of the aircraft and transponder information- all of this is found on your purchase forms.

You’ll also need insurance. Would you drive a $500,000 car without insurance? Neither should you fly a half million dollar, or more, helicopter without insurance. Common brokers include Lloyds, Farmers, and AFAS, though other carriers exist. You should ensure that your policy is valid in all situations that you intend to fly in, and in all locations you intend to fly to.

You’ll need somewhere to park your helicopter when not in use. Most commercial airports have hangers available for rent, or ground tethers, which are cheaper than covered hanger space. Not all commercial airports rent space for helicopters though, so check with your airport authority for details and prices.

Finally, you’ll need a helicopter license from the FAA. A Helicopter Pilots License (Rotorcraft) is just that- a license to fly a helicopter. There are whole blogs written on getting your license, so I won’t go into details here, but more information can be found at www.faa.gov/licensure. You should keep a copy of this on your person at all times while operating your helicopter.

Congratulations, purchasing your own helicopter is a big step, and I wish you the very best of luck with your new aircraft. Just remember, don’t try and cut costs at the expense of safety. Parking your helicopter at the local grocery store park lot, instead of a hanger, might land you in jail!

Engine Types in Commercial Helicopters

In all commercial helicopters, and by and large all helicopters period, there are two main engine types. There are piston engine, and turbo shaft engines. You’ll often see either type mentioned in literature, but what’s the difference?

In a piston engine, the engine inside the helicopter is similar to one that is in your car. These use a reciprocating set of pistons to drive a drive shaft, which is turn is connected to the gearbox and the rotor head. Many training helicopters use reciprocating engines because they are fairly inexpensive to operate, and relatively simple compared to turbines. However, they produce much less power than turbine engines, and thus, are unsuitable for most heavy applications.

In a turbo shaft, or turbine, engine, the gay turbine is made up of a compressor, a combustion chamber, the turbine itself, and an accessory gearbox. The compressor draws filtered air into the combustion chamber, and compresses it. This air is directed into the main combustion chamber through discharge tubes, where atomizes jet fuel is injected into it. The fuel air mixture is ignited, and allowed to expand. This combustion gay is then forced through a series of wheels, like a windmill’s’s blades, which forces them to turn.

The spinning of these wheels provides power to both the engine’s shaft, which turns the main rotor head(s), and an accessory gearbox, which is often used to generate electrical power for the aircraft in flight. Power is provided to the two rotor systems though the accessory gearbox power output shaft, which sticks out of the turbine unit and connects to the main rotor shaft, which sticks out of the turbine unit and connects to the main rotors gear assembly. The turbine’s turbine wheels also provide power to the compressor on the engine itself, thus allowing the process to continue operating.

The exhaust gas is then, finally, expelled through an exhaust outlets. The temperature of the gas is measured at different locations throughout the process, depending on the manufacturer. But a few common terms are the inter-turbine temperature (ITT). which measures the temperature inside the spinning turbines; the Exhaust Gas Temperature (EGT), which measures temperature inside the exhaust pipe; and the Turbine Outlet Temperature (TOT), which measures temperature at exactly the point where the exhaust gas exits the turbine arrays.

Most helicopters have a single turbine; however, many are twin-turbine aircraft, especially in high-reliability situations and where more power is needed. Turbines, unlike the piston engines in training and personal aircraft, require Aviation grade kerosene, also known as JET-A fuel, to operate properly, whereas most piston engines for aviation use operate on 100LL fuel, a type of AVGAS that has a low lead content. Neither is suitable to operate on automotive petroleum or diesel, although JET-A and Diesel Fuel have many similarities. Regardless of the type of engine your helicopter uses, make sure you match it up with the proper fuel in order to avoid catastrophic failures and potential fires.

Common Emergency Equipment in Helicopters

Every pilots should be prepared for emergencies, and helicopter pilots are no exception. Emergencies often happen when we least expect it-hence the nature of the word-and as such, you should prepare for one to occur every time you get on board your aircraft!

When preparing for an emergency, every pilot should keep a minimum of emergency supplies on board at all times during flight- after all, you’re better off having it and not needing it, then needing it and not having it. That’s not to say that its wise or necessary to carry around the whole kitchen sink, but a basic assortment of supplies is something you should never leave home without.

To remember what to bring, I like to use the acronym <b>OH SHIT</b>!

O- Optics. This include some sort of signaling mirror, a flashlight, and spare batteries, as well as signaling flares.

H- Heat. You should carry matches, as well as some king of stove or means of providing heat for cooking, such as a chemical heater. Bet you should also carry a sleeping bag for each passenger and an emergency blanket when temperatures are below 40 degrees. Include a tent if flying in wilderness areas.

S- Sharp Object- This includes a flexible saw, an axe with at least a 28′ long handle, and a fixed blade knife of good quality.

H- Hope. This should come in the form of a portable electronic emergency locator transmitter, with spare batteries.

I – Idiot Proof Items – Compass, prepacked meals, and sealed water bottles.

T- Thermals. This one is simple- a pair of long underwear can go a great distance when you’re stranded in the wilderness.

As you can no doubt tell, this is by no means a comprehensive list. However, these basic supplies will handle the vast majority of emergency landing situations that a helicopter pilot will find him or herself in, and allow them to survive-along with their crew and/or passengers, long enough for a rescue teams to encounter them and bring them in safely. Also, the most important thing to do is NOT PANIC. As long as you keep your head on your shoulders, and have remembered your OH SHIT! List, you’ll be just find long enough for authorities to come rescue you! Emergencies happen to the best and worst of us; the only thing you can do about them is to prepare to survive one!

What Type of Helicopter is Right for Me?

This is a lot like asking, “What type of food with I like?” That is because, the answer is the same-there is no one right answer. Each application is generally suited to a specific type of aircraft however, given as Helicopters are incredibly versatile platforms, a helicopter may prove to be ‘good’ at handling a wide variety of tasks that it wasn’t necessarily engineered to do.

There are a few basic guidelines that you might use to select a helicopter, which include ease of flying, utility features, costs, and type. By far, the most common starter helicopter for new pilots and owner is either the Robinson R22 (2 seater) or r44 (4 seater), which is a piston-engined, single rotor helicopter that looks a little funky but is fairly easy to fly. One the other end of the spectrum, a common VIP transport aircraft for corporations is the Sikorsky S-72; fully optioned out, it can bring a price tag of nearly $20m USD, whereas the Robinsons cost less than $450,000.

Another factor to consider is what your intended use of the helicopter is. A helicopter design to, say, do sightseeing may not need the capabilities of a helicopter designed to sling logs underneath it for helilogging operations. Eurocopter, Boeing, Sikorsky, Robinson, Augusta-Westland, and Bell are common manufacturers that offer aircraft to fit a wide variety of applications and budgets. But a simple chart below, to show you-generally-what aircrafts are available in your price range.

Price Intended use Available Models
$5m + Corporate/Executive Sikorky S-75, s72, Ag/West K2/K3
$1-5m Utility/Touring/Med AW k2, EC145, Bell LongRanger
$500k-1m Sport/Sightseeing EC135, Robinson r66, Bell Jet Ranger
Under 500k Training/Personal Robinson r22, r44, and Schweitzer Helicopters
$100 Fun R/C Helicopter sold at the Kiosk at the mall

By no means is this chart comprehensive. There are hundreds of models available, from specialty (think Sikorsky Skycranes) to build-it-yourself (Rotorway Kit Models) and even NOTAR and double main rotor aircraft. A visit to your local dealer will tell you more, but the bottom line is this- only you know what helicopter is right for your intended application, so plot this out before you buy!

What makes a helicopter fly?

A helicopter has no wings. It has no propellers or jet turbines. Yet it manages to get off the ground with ease, thanks to its big rotor blades. But these are point up, you might say, so how do they propel it forward? The basic concept is this: As the blades spin, each blade acts like a mini airplane wing as it cuts through the air. Just like an airplane wing, it had a trailing edge, a leading edge, and a camber line. The camber line splits the rotor blade between its top and bottom edges (if the rotor blade was a hamburger, the camber line would be the meat). When an object, such as a helicopter, and the atmosphere move relative to on another, and the object (in this case the helicopter) cause the atmosphere to flow is a direction perpendicular to that flow, the force require to do this work causes and equal and opposite force that is lift.

In a helicopter, there are four factors that affect the amount of lift generated. These include density of the air, the speed of the airflow, the total area of each rotor blade, and the angle at which the rotor blade meets the air.

But how does this work? Well, the airflow meeting the leading edge of the rotor blade is forced to split over and under the object. The sudden change in direction of airflow over the rotor blade as it chops through the air causes an area of low pressure to form behind the leading edge, on the upper surface of the blade. In turn, due to the pressure gradient and the density of the airflow, the flow over the blade is accelerated down along the top of the blade. At the same time, however, the airflow forced under the blade is rapidly slowed, which causes an area of high pressure.

Since the two sections of airflow leave the trailing edge of the rotor blade with a downward momentum, this causes lift, as the downward momentum must have an equal and opposite reaction, or in simpler terms, upward momentum.

Additional lift is provided pursuant to Newton’s Third law or Motion, which states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. You’ll note this is applied above, but it’s equally important here. When air that strikes the lower surface is directed immediately downward, it too, helps generate lift, and this allows the helicopter to remain airborne.

Although it may seem complicated, the basics of why a helicopter flies are fairly simple. Without lift, you’d simply have the world’s most expensive box fan on the ground, or the worlds most expensive hedge trimmer is you managed to roll the aircraft close to some hedges! Thankfully, you’ve got lift, and you can leave the ground safely and efficiently to continue on to your destination.

Hovering in a Helicopter

Helicopters, unlike fixed wing aircraft, can hover; that is to say, they can remain in one position without moving forward of backward, or side to side. In order to do this, the helicopter pilot has to make sure that four factors are considered: the lift, the weight, the thrust, and the drag. Many pilots believe hovering is the most challenging part of flying a helicopter, and yet the basics are simple.

The helicopter has a weight. For out purposes, lets say that this is 8,000 pounds. In order to counter the effects of gravity, the amount of lift that the rotor and aircraft generates has to be almost equal to 8,000. A pound or two isn’t going to make a noticeable difference, but several hundred pounds will. Additionally, the helicopter generates its own wind (from the rotating blades) while in a hover, and the pilot has to counter these as well to successfully hover.

The pilot must provide enough trust (forward motion) to counter any wind currents and drag that are acting on the helicopter, and they must be able to counter any tail rotor thrust that the aircraft generates itself. The power has to be enough to turn the tail and main rotors, and overcome the inherent drag that the aircraft produces.

While in a hover, the amount of thrust that the main rotor generates can be changed to maintain or alter the hovering altitude. In order to do this, you change the pitch of the blades themselves, which changes the drag on the rotors, and simultaneously the engine power must increase to keep the main rotor speed constant (more power is needed to overcome the drag created by the steeper blade angle).

The ability of a helicopter to successfully hover is generally linked to its pilots abilities; although all helicopters are capable of hovering, not all pilots are capable of executing a successful hover. This is the difference between helicopter pilots and plane pilots. Hovering is among the unique capabilities of a helicopter that sets it apart from fixed wing airplanes. All pilots should aspire to being able to execute a successful hover.

And don’t forget, the only time a fixed wing aircraft matches a helicopter ability to remain stationary on the horizontal and vertical axis , is on the ground! If a fixed wing plane attempts this in the air, I certainly wouldn’t want to be in it!

Effective Translational Lift

When students first learn to fly helicopters, one of the first things they often notice is a slight shudder that occurs when the helicopter is flying at about 15 knots. This vibration is followed by a change in flight characteristics. The nose rises and the aircraft rolls slightly right as the efficiency of the air flowing through the rotors increases.

Effective translation lift is the term for the phenomenon. At slower speeds, the air flowing into the rotors is dirty (or recycled). It is pulled into the rotor system, hits the ground, and is then pulled back in by the rotors. This leave the helicopter operating in a messy wind environment. However, as airflow becomes more streamlined with speed, the helicopter passes through effective translational lift. It will effectively outrun the dirty air and instead start receiving a stream of fresh clean airflow from the air in front of the flight path.

When pilots passes through ETL, they must add forward and left cyclic pressure. This helps the rotor to maintain a constant attitude and level flight path.

Is Weight and Balance Important in Helicopters?

The reality of helicopter flying is that most missions are local, VFR, and low altitude leading many pilots to shortcut through the pre-flight planning stage. Unlike most fixed wing flights, helicopters pilots rarely do a proper weight and balance unless they work for an operation that requires it, but does the weight and balance really matter?

The short answer is: Yes! Helicopter performance is affected by aircraft gross weight as well as the location of that weight. The center of gravity should be placed so that the aircraft fuselage could remain horizontal without any pilot inputs (think of it like two people of exact weight on a see-saw) except to correct for wind. If the center of gravity is to far forward, the nose will pitch down requiring back cyclic pressure to keep the aircraft level. Likewise, if the weigh is to far aft, forward pressure will be required. If the weight exceeds certain limits, the cyclic may not be able to compensate rendering the helicopter uncontrollable.

Pilots would be wise to remember that as the aircraft runs, and fuel is used, the center of gravity will shift. This is why you should always do a proper weight and balance before the flight to insure safe handling throughout.

What is Autoroation?

Autoraotion occurs when the relative wind is used to turn the rotor blades. Under normal flight conditions, the rotor system is powered by the engine. If the engine fails, a special clutch will disconnect the rotor system from the engine in order to allow the rotors to continue spinning. The helicopter blades will use the upward flow of the relative wind to glide to the ground.

Students must practice autorotations in order to gain certification. The purpose of practicing this procedure is to learn how to safely land the helicopter incase of engine failure.

Helicopter Tail Rotors

First time students often wonder why helicopters have tail rotors. The tail rotor system seems an unusual feature especially for fixed-wing pilots, but it serves a critically important function. The tail rotor creates a thrust to counter the torque which is created by the main rotor system, or blades, of the craft. This helps to stabilize the fuselage/cabin of the helicopter which would otherwise spin out of control.

The tail rotor is not the only type of antitorque system available. The fenstron (popularly known as “fan-in-tail”) is popular on Eurocopters and works in a similar way through the use of a fan rather than blades. Another option is the NOTAR system which eliminates the need for fans or blades on the tail through a jet engine which expels low pressure high volume air through slots in the tail.

Most pilots pay little or no attention to the antitorque system until it fails. Failure of this system is a leading cause of accidents in helicopters. This is why it is so important to not only understand how the system works, but what to do when it stops working.