I have a private license for single engine land and I want to transition to helicopters. I have been told by some that learning helicopters is more of a challenge after learning fixed wing. However I have yet to see any good sources or explanation for this. Is this generally true and if so why?
Rotary flying is much harder than fixed wing to learn, however learning after you get a fixed wing license is easier in some ways because you already know:
- Radio procedures
- How to set up and use instruments
- Navigation and flight in controlled airspace
- Air law and regulations
- The "gestalt" of flying
This means all you need to do is learn to fly the helicopter, which is tricky because helicopters are much less stable than fixed wing airplanes. If you take your hands off the controls of fixed wing airplane it will generally stay pointed where you put it, especially if it's trimmed properly. If you take your hands off of a helicopter's controls in hover things will go very, very badly in a real hurry so you have to be making constant control inputs. The controls of a helicopter are also very sensitive, it is a very different (and more challenging) type of flying.
I think as a fixed wing pilot you will will have gained fixed wing "habits" that are not transferable to helicopters.
The main one I can think of is if your engine fails on a fixed wing, you may pull to reduce the speed to best glide and gain a few hundred feet of height. This would be a disaster in an helicopter.
No doubt an helicopter pilot (of which I am not) would tell us that possibly in high speed cruise it might be possible to lose some forward speed and translate this into height, but what I am saying is that the primary consideration in an helicopter is not to lose rotor speed because the blades once stalled cannot be un-stalled (they are at the back side of the drag curve), even assuming they are undamaged at that point. So in an helicopter you drop the collective immediately to preserve rotor speed.
I once heard somebody say that you needed 500 hours in helicopters if you were experienced in fixed wing, before that guy would let his grandchildren fly with you.
There is a negative transfer of learning from airplanes
All my aviation experience prior to flying helicopters involved a sort of building-blocks approach. Each new skill was based more or less on the previous skill. Additional class ratings simply came down to differences training. Such is not the case with helicopters. In some cases, fixed-wing knowledge is a hindrance. This is especially true with low-G mast bumping in the Robinson. Most poignant for me was when I was maneuvering for a steep approach and I saw the airspeed bleed off fairly quickly. My first thought was "stall!" when I was actually right where I needed to be.
But if you read the whole series, he does mention transferable skills like radio work, regulations, navigation etc. that are still useful, so while maneuvering the helicopter may be more difficult for a fixed-wing pilot at first, that isn't the only consideration in learning to fly one.
There are lots of opinions out there about transferring from fixed-wing to helicopters, but there doesn't seem to have been any systematic analysis or investigation about it. As far as I could see, the FAA's Helicopter Flying Handbook doesn't say anything about transitioning from fixed-wing aircraft so either they didn't consider it at all or they did but decided that it wasn't a significant issue.
As a fixed-wing pilot who transitioned to rotary, I would agree that the actual "stick and ruder" -- or "cyclic, collective, and directional pedals" -- part of flying rotary wing is harder than flying an airplane.
First and foremost, there are actually three different kinds of flight in helis:
- hovering flight
- forward flight
and each of these three types of flight needs to be learned individually, has its own muscle memory, and its own set of gotchas.
Secondly, helicopters are unstable, meaning they must be flown hands-on at all times, and helicopter trainers (e.g., Robinson, Engstrom, Schweitzer), in particular, don't have stability augmentation systems, precisely so that the pilot learns to control the helicopter with the controls.
Third, and this is more intuitive than evidentiary, helicopter aerodynamics are much more complicated than airplanes. Trainer nose-wheel airplanes can be flown quite lazily, without much rudder input, and with unsubtle control input, and not have too much an effect on the flightpath or safety of the aircraft. In a helicopter, every single input on one control (cyclic, collective, throttle, pedals) must be fully compensated for on every other control, to keep the aircraft from deviating from its flight path.
Fourth, the controls on a helicopter are much more sensitive than on an airplane, and must be handled with the utmost of care. The operative phrase for handling the controls is to "milk the mouse," meaning to use very small control control inputs. (My own instructor, when I was unsubtle on the cyclic would joke "Hey Bob, are you making salad?")
Those are the flight control issues, but there are a few other operational issues with helicopters that make them more difficult: