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?

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    $\begingroup$ This is not opinion based. Although I can't find authoritative sources, it is widely accepted that fixed wing to rotary is harder than the other way around and there are a couple of potential killers if fixed wing pilots handle helicopters like they would a fixed wing. Any instructor rated on both will tell you that, I only have about 10 hours total in fixed wing so nowhere near enough to answer but this is a valid question. $\endgroup$ – Simon Aug 4 '15 at 5:20
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    $\begingroup$ ...and please, no answers or comments about "they are both the same except when hovering" or any such nonsense. $\endgroup$ – Simon Aug 4 '15 at 5:37
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    $\begingroup$ Related: What are the drawbacks of being a helicopter and fixed-wing pilot at the same time? $\endgroup$ – mins Aug 4 '15 at 6:56
  • $\begingroup$ @Simon, I think you basically answered the question already with the comments and your answer to the question linked by mins. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Aug 4 '15 at 7:23

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.

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    $\begingroup$ This is contrary to the industry opinion that fixed wing->rotary is harder than rotary->fixed wing. I am still looking for some good reference but in essence, fixed wing pilots have some ingrained habits that can be really bad in a helicopter. It seems that rotary pilots don't have them during ab-initio training and don't seem to pick them up in the transition. the points you make are valid, and would reduce the number of hours needed (indeed, are credited, at least in the UK where the minimum hours is reduced by 5) but not how to safely fly. $\endgroup$ – Simon Aug 4 '15 at 11:21
  • $\begingroup$ In the UK having a fixed wing also means you don't have to do a qualifying cross-country as part of your rotary license. $\endgroup$ – GdD Aug 4 '15 at 13:31
  • $\begingroup$ It's an entirely different kind of flying, altogether! $\endgroup$ – Robert Columbia Nov 21 '17 at 13:05
  • $\begingroup$ I am serious, and stop calling me Shirley. $\endgroup$ – GdD Nov 21 '17 at 13:24

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.

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    $\begingroup$ HI Phil. Helicopter pilot here. Even at cruise speed, trying to trade speed for height will kill you. If you leave cruise pitch where it is, you have about 2 seconds at most to get the collective down. Pull and the rotor speed will be unrecoverable in less time than you could change your mind. What most people don't realise is that it truly is unrecoverable. Even if you could get the engine going again, it could not overcome the drag of the stalled blades but even if it could, they would have folded up, "clapping hands at the top" and will be flopping around uselessly. $\endgroup$ – Simon Aug 4 '15 at 18:02
  • $\begingroup$ Hi Simon The reason why I added that comment was that I'd heard of a turbine helicopter running out of fuel at low level at about 150 knots and nosing in so I just wondered - maybe its lower the collective to keep the rotor speed but use the cyclic to keep the nose up???? As related in my post I have never even sat inside a helicopter, all my experience is fixed wing. If I was going to fly a helicopter I would want one with heavy blades which would make it even more expensive I guess. Regards Phil $\endgroup$ – Philip Johnson Aug 4 '15 at 18:18
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    $\begingroup$ Without knowing the details, impossible to say, especially without knowing the height. 150 feet or higher and it should have been survivable. Take a look at the height velocity "dead mans curve" for different helicopters. $\endgroup$ – Simon Aug 4 '15 at 19:42

AOPA has a series of articles where a fixed-wing pilot learned to fly a helicopter. One of his lessons learned supports the idea that it's harder to go from fixed-wing to rotary:

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
  • autorotation

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:

  • helis often operate off-airport, including confined area and pinnacle operations, operating on slopes, operating on unimproved (or even unlandable) surfaces, all of which require specialized skills

  • helis often carry external loads, which adds an additional handling complexity

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    $\begingroup$ nice answer. I can see learning heli is much harder than fixed wing. But the OP ask for learning heli after the fixed wing. Your answer is great but also true whether learning fixed wing first or heli first. $\endgroup$ – vasin1987 Aug 4 '15 at 18:37

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