Are there any drawbacks if someone who is a fixed-wing pilot, learns to fly a helicopter, or vice-versa? Specifically, are there instinct actions in one category that are dangerous in the other?

Does this differ if someone is experienced in one category (e.g. 1000+ hours), versus a student learning both within a short period of time (e.g. less than 6 months in between)?

  • 6
    $\begingroup$ I imagine it's hard to use both sets of controls simultaneously. Also, you're physically straddling an airborne aircraft and an airborne helicopter. $\endgroup$
    – Sycorax
    Jan 17 '15 at 19:36
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Cost seems like a major drawback :-) $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    Jan 17 '15 at 20:16

My experience transitioning from airplanes to helicopters and then to gliders is that I never forget what I'm flying.

I know that sounds obvious, but its no different than the difference between driving a car with automatic transmission and manual, riding a motorcycle which has all the controls in a different place than a car and countersteers, and flying an airplane.

I don't reach for the throttle when I want to slow down in a car, and I don't turn the wheel in the direction of the turn when I'm riding a motorcycle. Similarly, when taking off in an airplane, I know I have to add power and pull back a bit to get it off the ground, and in a helicopter I inch the nose forward to gain ETL.

The reason I don't act/react improperly when flying different aircraft is that it's all been trained into my muscle memory to do the right thing depending on the circumstances. I don't think of the horn in a helicopter as a stall horn, just like the buzzer in my alarm clock and smoke alarm are not stall horns. The horn in the heli is a low-rpm horn, and I ease the stick back not forward.

Another complication is instrument flight. Although I am an instrument rated airplane pilot, I have a little hood time in a helicopter. I'm so used to flying pitch and power against the AI that all my instincts under the hood in the heli were completely wrong. Nevertheless, I don't think I'll ultimately have any trouble flying instruments well in a heli.

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ You've never stepped on a clutch that wasn't there in an automatic car? I guess that's one good reason I'm not a pilot. $\endgroup$ Aug 4 '15 at 13:32
  • $\begingroup$ I've felt the urge to pull back on the steering wheel in a car sometimes to slow down when braking (aerodynamic braking in a plane on the runway)... $\endgroup$
    – CJBS
    Apr 10 '19 at 22:06

In case of an engine failure, the fixed wing pilots natural reaction is to push forward to lower the nose, then look for the correct glide airspeed. A helicopter pilot in most engine failures should pull back (although not agressively) to load the disc and restore, or increase rotor RPM. Maintaining rotor RPM is the only way to get to the ground safely so flaring is an instinctive reaction trained in. You don't look for airspeed or rotor RPM. You dump the collective and flare, then have a look at airspeed and RPM. Pushing forward will reduce rotor RPM which in some flight phases and some helicopters might not kill you but in many helicopters at altitude may well kill you. In addition, a stall buzzer will prompt the fixed wing pilot to push the stick forward and increase power, which in a helicopter means pulling the collective. In a helicopter the low rotor RPM buzzer sounds just like a stall warning but pushing the stick forward and pulling the collective will almost certainly kill you.

Another action that has to be instinctive is to stick in a boot full of right pedal (counter clockwise rotor) which is totally alien to a single engine fixed wing pilot in an engine failure and completely the opposite of what a twin engined fixed wing pilot might do, who will naturally "step on the failed engine". In a helicopter, that can get you into a very bad attitude rapidly from which it might be impossible to recover.

Negative G in an aircraft is not a problem. In a 2 bladed helicopter, you must gently pull back to reload the disc. Pushing forward has a real risk of a blade chopping off the tail or hitting the canopy. It might also cause "mast bumping" which can cause the rotor to separate from the aircraft. Too many helicopter pilots have been killed this way. Most helicopter pilots avoid -ve G. The main point here is that you do not push the stick forward to level out from a climb. The instinctive reaction for a helicopter pilot is to to pullback as soon as they feel the slightest hint of rising out of their seat.

In a helicopter, to accelerate, you push the stick forward then increase power to maintain altitude or climb. In an aircraft, you increase power, then push the stick forward to maintain altitude.

A running landing, and not a hover landing, requires you to push the stick forward to level the skids. A fixed wing tricycle gear pilot wants to pull the stick back to flare which again, might chop off the tail.

Keeping trim (balance) is a function of power and not direction of turn. It is perfectly possible to make a properly executed balanced turn in a helicopter with the opposite pedal pushed in.

Helicopters can slow down with a nose down attitude and you take off by pushing the stick forward to accelerate.

I'm sure there are others which I've forgotten but I think these are the main things and, most importantly, as I've shown, trying to fly a helicopter like a fixed wing can be deadly.

In summary, flying helicopters is very different to flying fixed wing and you need different responses which need to be intuitive, especially in emergencies.

My gut reaction response is that it is easier to transition from helicopter to fixed wing and that the lower time pilots will find it easier because the years of experience and muscle memory are not there.

  • $\begingroup$ "boot full of left pedal" I don't agree. there are CW and CCW rotor systems, and either engine can fail on a multi. people can and do learn to do the right thing. $\endgroup$
    – rbp
    Jan 18 '15 at 15:11
  • $\begingroup$ negative Gs are only a problem with 2-bladed systems, like robbies and bell 206. $\endgroup$
    – rbp
    Jan 18 '15 at 15:13
  • $\begingroup$ wheel landings in an taildragger require you to push the stick forward on landing, not back $\endgroup$
    – rbp
    Jan 18 '15 at 15:14
  • $\begingroup$ re: coordinated turns. in mid to steep turns in airplanes, overbanking tendency requires stick opposite the turn and rudder into the turn. i just fly by keeping the yaw string centered, no matter what aircraft/regime $\endgroup$
    – rbp
    Jan 18 '15 at 15:17
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I agree completely that there are too many "fixed wing" answers to helicopter questions, and your answer does a great job of pointing out the diffs. I would also say that there are too many "fixed-wing" votes on "fixed-wing" answers, which is even more unfortunate. $\endgroup$
    – rbp
    Jan 18 '15 at 16:21

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.