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How do helicopter pilots practice auto rotation, and specifically, the landing phase?

Timing the flare as ground is approaching seems critical to a successful auto rotation landing. Yet I can't figure out how this can be practiced safely.

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  • $\begingroup$ In my airfield, it's frequent to see police helicopters, some of them big ones, in practice flights. They often do autorotations, reporting that over the radio, but I've never seen them landing that way. They give power and resume normal flying after gliding 2-3 km in autorotation... $\endgroup$ – xxavier May 12 '17 at 16:27
  • $\begingroup$ If you put "auto rotation" into a YouTube search, you can see how it's done: the instructor without warning just yanks the throttle backwards and down you go. Either you stick the landing, or the instructor takes over before you crash. The same way you practice any emergency in any kind of airplane: you do it "for realz", but with a guy who knows what he's doing beside you. $\endgroup$ – Jörg W Mittag May 13 '17 at 0:33
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    $\begingroup$ Training wise: Big helicopters, use sims to do full-down autos. During initial training, they usualy recover to a hover a few feet above the ground. Once you're working on your CFI, then you start taking them to the ground. This is what I've observed watching helicopters training. $\endgroup$ – slookabill May 13 '17 at 2:07
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    $\begingroup$ Are you asking specifically about the flare? If you are asking how in general, then it's a duplicate $\endgroup$ – Simon May 13 '17 at 5:48
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    $\begingroup$ @JörgWMittag You do not close the throttle without warning. $\endgroup$ – Simon May 13 '17 at 5:52
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You just fly your profile. Initially its with an instructor, but eventually you move on to training by yourself/copilot.

You can practice full autos (to a landing), but some airframes practice to a hover or in early stages. In the TH-57B (Bell 206), you can take it a full power-off landing during training since it is light enough. However, moving up to the TH-57C you do power-on recoveries, where you run the twistgrip back up to full open while you're in the flare. You then initiate the recovery to arrive at a standard 5-foot hover. The C model has significantly more weight, which is the main reason.

In the MH-60S its all power-on, recovery to a hover. Except we do not go to idle like in the 57s, we just rapidly lower the collective to get the needle split. Same process in practicing your scan, initiating the flare, and then pulling in power at the appropriate height once you've leveled. Finish at 10 feet with some forward speed. (Rumor is that Army does full practice autos in their 60s, but never confirmed that). Navy prohibits it in the MH-60S and almost certainly in the MH-60R as well. The explanation I received is that the airframe is meant to absorb the impact similar to your car during a full auto, and thus full practices can structurally compromise the bird.

Source: MH-60S driver

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  • $\begingroup$ Tom, we didn't do full autos in the SH-2F either, and most of the SH-60B community came from there. (No full autos in the 60B either when I was an FRS instructor, early 90's). The CH-60S/MH-60S were informed by the previous experience. The general reason we didn't do that, and didn't do night autos to a field either, was that the Wing (and higher) had done a risk assessment back in the late 80's (before I got out into 60's) and due to the simulator being "good enough" chose not to hazard the inevitable prang that practice autos to touch down eventually have happen when someone has a bad day. $\endgroup$ – KorvinStarmast May 18 '17 at 20:46
  • $\begingroup$ I may be able to find an Army Black Hawk guy who can confirm the "not to a touch down" point, I did a bunch of full autos in a Black Hawk sim ... may take a day or two to find the right old comrade on that one. $\endgroup$ – KorvinStarmast May 18 '17 at 20:51
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It seems that you already understand what an autorotation is but for the benefit of other readers, I'll recap what the flare is all about.

There are two really critical parts of an autorotation. The entry and the flare. If you get the entry wrong, then there is no autorotation. You become a passenger all the way to the scene of the crash.

If you get the flare very wrong (not enough speed when you flare or flaring far too high), you become a passenger all the way to the scene of the crash.

If you make a mess of the flare, perhaps plenty of speed but too early, or too late, or not enough speed but flaring at a good height, then you will survive. You might not get to use the helicopter again and you might spend some time in hospital but you're not going to hit the ground with enough energy to ruin all your mushy internal parts.

The reality is that most GA and low hour pilots faced with a real autorotation have a high chance of messing up the flare, and the subsequent touch down, damaging themselves and the machine but surviving. The accident statistics and reports confirm this. Chopping off the tail and rolling over are common outcomes of real autos.

In training and practice, the idea is that you walk away and get to use the helicopter again.

So, what height is the "right" height for the flare?

The POH emergency procedures section will also detail the height but, it will use slightly vague words such as "about 50 feet". This is because most practice autorotations end with you at 50 feet with around 60kts airspeed and the nose straight - "the ideal autorotation". The are many factors which affect this, mainly weight and wind (ideal ones always finish into wind).

Take a look at the "height velocity" diagram for a typical GA/sport helicopter.

Source Rotorwandwing.com

(Source Rotorwandwing.com)

The shaded areas show the combinations of height and velocity from which a successful safe landing cannot be accomplished in autorotation. When you flare, you are going to be close to the ground. You have no choice in that! When you start the flare, you want to be well away from the shaded areas of the diagram. A normal autorotation aims for an entry into the flare with 55-65 kts airspeed. Look at the diagram again and note that being at around 40-50 feet at that speed is well away from the shaded areas - bang in the middle of the "safe corridor". This is the area you are aiming for. At this point, you have enough energy, both kinetic and potential, to land safely.

You can see why flaring too high, too low or with not enough speed can lead to a bad weekend if you make a mess of it or, a permanent removal of flying privileges if you get it really wrong.

Hopefully this gives you a good idea of what the "right height" means.

When doing ab-initio training, you are gently led into autorotations. Your instructor will demonstrate one to you very early. If you are clearly confident and not nervous, maybe on the first lesson which my instructor did. Indeed, at my school, every single dual flight included at least one demonstrated or practice autorotation so you get a feel for the height early on.

You will also, perhaps every time (I think this is true in the US) finish an autorotation with a power recovery.

I chose that video because there's a good illustration in it of how to judge the height - and given that "about" is as good as the POH gives you, it's all about judgement. In this video, you can see everything. Watch it and look straight ahead. Do not look at the ground, let your peripheral vision do the work. Notice how as you get closer to the ground, it seems to be coming towards you at a constant rate then suddenly, it seems to rush towards you - the "ground rush"? That's when you start the flare. You already know from the power recoveries you've practiced and the demonstrations what the correct height looks like so you know roughly when to flare but that sudden ground rush is the sure sign that now is the time to start slowing down.

What you are aiming for is to arrive at 0 rate of descent at or just above the ground so that a little bit of collective can be used to cushion the touch down. With some wind on the nose and good airspeed, it is possible to bleed off most of the descent rate and ground speed with the flare. A skilled pilot might not even use collective until the last couple of feet for a really gentle 0-0 touchdown.

There are a lot of different kinds of autorotations and some advanced ones don't use flare at all - or very little flare from low speed. Really skilled pilots in light helicopters can go more or less vertically down with just enough airspeed to keep translational lift.

In summary, good judgement which is arrived at from the POH reinforced with demonstrations and practice.

Note to other rotary pilots: I know that using the HV diagram is not how it's trained but it's useful in my opinion to understand what the correct height is.

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