When I took up amateur flying a decade ago, cross-country piloting was still something of an adventure, like automobile touring in the '20s. Since then, there has been a boom in the use of small planes for business travel, and luxurious, complicated, high-performance machines have just about taken over the market. William Piper, for example, still keeps ladies in the back room stitching wing fabric for new Cubs, but he does a far brisker trade in his $50,000 twin-engine models, which use cloth only in the window curtains.
This is progress, and I have trailed along behind it as best I could, learning to operate some of the knobs on some of the black boxes, and even going so far as to get myself licensed to fly by instruments in the foggy dew. The most fun I have in the air, however, and the kind I can best afford, is still fair-weather flying in small planes, low and slow, where I can see the trees in the forest and little, white faces in the back window of a powerful station wagon, goggling up at me as Daddy, oblivious of the fact that we are both bucking a ferocious headwind, pulls ahead of me on the turnpike below.
From time to time I've thought about helicopters. Who hasn't? The whirlybird is the ultimate in flexibility, the secret of its success being, of course, that it can move along at walking speed or less, stopping or backing up at will. The law, very strict about minimum altitudes and obstacle clearance for airplanes, allows helicopters almost total freedom. It is the ideal vehicle for the traveler who needn't go too far too fast (most choppers cruise in the 70-to-100-mph range) and wants to enjoy the motorist's prerogative of pulling over and parking anytime as well as the pilot's ability to hop traffic jams and straighten out curved routes.
What outdoorsman hasn't watched his favorite creek or campsite fill to overflowing with fallout from the population explosion, and mused about some lost valley, accessible only to angels, balloonists and others capable of vertical flight? What commuter hasn't toyed with the fantasy that if he wished hard enough, pulled back the wheel with sufficient faith and tromped on the gas pedal, he would rise and soar right over the traffic mess ahead? (Some people actually try this.)
Mechanical levitation has been a pet dream of mankind for centuries. The ancients, however, didn't have the frustration of actually seeing the contraptions work and not being able to play with them because they cost too much. For a long time now, just about the only establishments able to afford helicopters have been the military services, Arthur Godfrey and heavy industry. Until recently, a typical two-to-three-place job with a top cruise of 85 mph and the rate of climb of a sick turkey might cost as much as $65,000 and require three or four hours in the shop for every hour in the air. As a result, private helicopter training has been prohibitive and almost nonexistent.
Happily, though, as the price of airplanes has gone up, some of the smaller choppers seem to have been letting down for a landing. Two new makes, the Brantly and the Hughes, at around $22,000 each, actually cost less than some of the most popular single-engine light planes. Twenty grand is still a hefty bag of gold for a two-place conveyance, but when you think of it in terms of what helicopters have been costing, it is a significant drop and a healthy hint that they might get cheaper. It has been said that Chevrolets would cost 20 times as much if produced at the same rate as whirlybirds.
Possibly the greatest effect of these new "compacts" will be the opening of helicopter schools at more realistic prices. In a recent issue of Air Facts, my favorite vest-pocket magazine, I noted two items about this. First, the FAA had reduced the minimum training time for adding a helicopter rating to a fixed-wing license from 25 to 15 hours. Second, a school called Rotairport, which uses the Hughes and teaches nothing but helicopter flying, had already opened for business near Lexington, Ky. According to the item, any pilot with a valid license and $750 for tuition, plus the price of a Lexington motel room, could spend a week or two in the heart of the beautiful Bluegrass country and come away with a rating. I sent for literature.
"This is what I've been waiting for," I told my wife, when the return mail brought a pile of school brochures and a training manual for the Hughes 269A, which cruises above 80, covers 200 miles on 25 gallons of gas and looks like the kind of cute toy a kid would take to bed with him.
"I've been waiting for something like this, too," she said. "Ever since you quit smoking the last time you've been looking for something wild and extravagant to reward yourself—something really big that will be a fitting monument to your great sacrifice."
"I only want to learn to fly it, not buy it," I said.
"Fifteen hours for $750 is $50 an hour," she pointed out. "That's the price of 100 baby sitters. Can't you see them all sitting there, watching TV at once?"
"It's a bargain," I insisted. "It used to cost twice that."
"I'll remember that line of reasoning for future shopping."
I showed her page 32 of the manual, which had a section headed: VISUALLY CLEAR THE AREA BEFORE COMMENCING A BACKWARD TAKEOFF.
"Do you realize how long it took man to come to this?" I demanded. "Da Vinci's inspiration came true. Imagine being able to take off backward, like a hummingbird."
"I read in National Geographic that it's a common failing among the gooney birds on Midway Island," she said. "But you go ahead. You haven't had a vacation in two whole months."
So I left my four sons practicing backward takeoffs from the living room furniture and headed for Kentucky. Not without a certain sense of guilt, though. I had always been able to more or less justify my other flying ventures on the grounds that they were legitimate and often practical transportation for my family and for me. This new project was going to take some stretching of the rationale.
The helicopter school is on a farm on the Paris Pike, just north of Lexington, in a classic Kentucky landscape of rolling fields, dazzling white fences and well-kept old mansions. The farm has 300 acres or so of open pasture and fields and a couple of big, black tobacco barns, alongside one of which are a pair of shiny new buildings: the hangar and the schoolhouse. There are a wind sock and a black asphalt pad with a white H in a triangle. What probably makes Rotairport unique among flying schools is that the nearest conventional airport is 10 miles away, on the other side of Lexington. "We think helicopter students have enough problems without worrying about airplane traffic," explains the owner and operator, Marion L.L. Short. After my first five minutes as a student, I came to agree with him.
Short is a former American Airlines captain who flew DC-2s and DC-3s in the '30s with Ernest K. (The High and the Mighty) Gann, served a hitch in MATS and gave up professional flying for tobacco farming after the war. He has kept it up as a sideline. He and his wife Judy own a twin-engine Apache, belong to the Sportsman Pilots Association and are both expert helicopter pilots. "We couldn't resist getting into the school business, because we think the Hughes and the Brantly are going to open up a long-overdue market," Short said. "The backyard aircraft has finally arrived."
"Do you think there will ever be a 5:30 rush on Victor Airway 97?" I asked.
"I sincerely hope so," he replied automatically. Then I noticed that he shuddered slightly as the vision sank in.
The Shorts do not teach. Their chief instructor is a lanky young ex-marine from Ohio named Roger Burlew, a child of the technological age who has logged some 1,200 hours in military helicopters and regards airplanes as rather interesting relics of a bygone age. He rides in the front seat of the Shorts' Apache sometimes and marvels at what keeps it aloft.
"Your airplane time isn't going to be much help in learning at first," Roger told me as we walked to the hangar for my first lesson. "Fixed-wing experience isn't a handicap, exactly; it's just that this is a different skill.
"Incidentally," he added as we pushed the Hughes out on its little lawn-mower wheels, "in whirlybird circles we refer to everything connected with conventional aircraft as 'fixed-wing.' "
"I see what you mean," I said, tentatively wiggling one of the thin little rotor blades as Roger led me through the preflight inspection. The blade flexed and sagged in a disconcertingly spineless manner, like a piece of soggy spaghetti. "What do you do if one of them comes off?" I asked.
"Why, the same thing you do when your fixed wing comes off," Roger answered rhetoric with rhetoric. He had the patient air of a man who had explained it many times. "Actually, it happens just about that rarely, and for about the same reasons. The first screw has to come loose up front, in the pilot's head."
"And what about that little tail rotor? If you lost that wouldn't you start spinning wildly around?"
"You would be reduced to the status of an ordinary fixed-wing aircraft, that's all. See the little vane back there by the rotor? If you kept your airspeed up, that would hold you straight till you got down." He paused and looked at me. "Are you sure you want to go through with this?"
"To tell the truth, I find I'm scared to death of the damned thing, now that I'm face to face with it," I admitted. "It looks like a mosquito trying to carry a flashlight bulb, not like a flying machine."
Think what the horseless carriage must have looked like to an old mule skinner," he said. He helped me into my seat and adjusted the safety belt with a certain solicitude. The engine, a 180-hp Lycoming, started with a shake and idled roughly but, after the clutch was engaged and the rotor blades were singing, things got amazingly smooth—not at all what I had expected.
"This is called air-taxiing," Roger said, lifting us into a hover, with the skids about three feet off the ground. Then we began moving slowly across the grass. "It's how you move helicopters around on the ground, because it would be pretty hard to push them on those skids. You'll notice that we're in a cushion of air compressed between the blades and the ground, and the engine doesn't have to work so hard." He speeded up so that we moved off the cushion, and we promptly settled almost to the ground.
I noticed something else, too. According to the windsock on the schoolhouse there was a 10-to-15-mph breeze from the southeast, and from the way the sock was snapping there were gusts. Why didn't we feel them? It finally occurred to me that the answer was in those limber rotor blades about which I had been so dubious. They soaked up turbulence like an innerspring mattress. I am an airplane pilot who will climb to any altitude and face any penalty of headwinds to avoid rough air, and for me this was the best news yet about helicopters.
"Watch the rpm needle," Roger said. "Always keep it in the back of your mind and the corner of your eye. The Hughes operates most of the time at 2,700, although we'd go to 2,900 for climbing out and landing."
We came to a fence and hopped over it, in what seemed to me a rather frisky manner. I soon learned that it is hard to repress your sense of humor in one of these things. Roger sidled us up to another fence, backed off like a nervous horse refusing a jump, then rushed it, twisting at the last second and leaping over sideways. Then he twisted us back to face the way we were going.
"Don't ever touch down while you're moving sideways like that," Roger warned, "or you'll carry your rotor blades home in your pocket. Watch the way they do it on those TV shows, and that's the way not to fly one.
"Here," he said, "take the rudder pedals." Ah. I quickly noted that you must hold a touch of left rudder in a hover. This would be torque: the big rotor blades turn counterclockwise; the helicopter wants to turn in the opposite direction. In an airplane you would hold right rudder—a little something to unlearn.
"It seems easy enough," I said, pointing the nose this way and that with a certain firmness. I don't believe I made that remark again for several days.
"Now take hold of the 'collective,' " Roger said, nodding at the control stick angling up under my left hand. "They call it the collective because it changes the pitch of all the rotor blades simultaneously. It's our up-and-down control. Don't twist the grip suddenly," he cautioned. "That's the throttle, like on a motorcycle. By the way, are you a Harley-Davidson man or an Indian man?"
I replied that I was neither; you couldn't pay me enough money to get on one of those things.
"Me, neither," Roger said. "Anyway, some motorcycle types have a hard time at first with helicopter throttles, because here you twist left for power."
As it turned out, I had a pretty hard time with it myself. I am one of those simple souls who depend upon little homilies and tricks of free association to remember things in flying. In navigation, adding westerly variation becomes "West is best; east is least." Port wine is red, so starboard lights must be green. (If I could only remember whether starboard is left or right!) In an airplane, throttle forward is strength—avanti! Backward is weakness.
But what do you do with a throttle that twists left for power? Left makes might? Gosh, no. Counterclockwise is gain? Certainly not. In my early hours of training I made Roger swallow his gum more than once by chopping the throttle when he cried for more. Finally, I hit upon a formula: "It's warmer in the south." Southpaw. Left makes the engine hot. Well, it worked, anyway.
Now, as we sat in a hover, Roger explained the collective I held gingerly in my left hand. "Some people think of the rotor system as a big propeller lying on its side and cranking you up into the air," he said. "Others think of it as a rotary wing. Actually, it is neither and both. Work out the theories on your own time, but if you should decide that the helicopter can't really fly at all, as some engineers once discovered about the bumblebee, keep it to yourself, please. It is enough for now to know that our rotor blades are pulling air downward, which pulls us upward, and the collective controls the bite of the blades. Pull up, big bite, you rise. Pull too hard, bigger bite, blade stalls, you drop. Try it. I'll take the rudders."
I hauled up on the stick and we blasted off like a rocket.
"I didn't expect such abrupt control movements from a pilot," Roger clucked reproachfully as he checked our wild ascent. "We'll enter that in your log as a demonstration of a maximum-performance takeoff—the kind you would use to escape from a silo. Now let us back down, gently, please."
Ever so lightly, I eased the collective down, and ever so sedately we descended.
"The objective is pressure on the controls," my mentor said. "If you can see a whirlybird pilot's hand moving around he's not flying right. Now take the rudders and collective together."
I did, and the situation began to deteriorate again. The helicopter swung right. I jumped on the left rudder, and we began sinking mysteriously. Right rudder and we rose. This was eerie. I hadn't moved collective or throttle so much as a hair. Roger sat there and let me figure it out. Of course! the rudders aren't really rudders: they control the pitch of the tail rotor, which exerts constant push against the tail's tendency to swing left from torque. To turn yourself left you increase the little rotor's pitch so it will push harder to the right, and this takes some power from the main blades, which are holding you up. After all, there is only one engine. So you must compensate by adding collective. This calls for more throttle. Now you have to push even harder on the left rudder.
"When you change one thing you've got to adjust everything," I complained.
"You have stumbled onto the secret of how to fly helicopters," Roger smiled. "Now all you need to be an expert is a little practice. Take the cyclic control and hold us in a hover over this spot."
The cyclic? Oh, Lord, the most conspicuous and basic control of all, the one that tilts the plane of the main blades and makes the helicopter go where you want—there it was, sticking up out of the floor like an old-fashioned joy stick, and I hadn't even touched it yet!
I believe "oscillation" is official helicopterese for the maneuver that now began. I would call it blind staggers. Even though Roger kindly relieved me of the other controls when I first took hold of the cyclic, life on the farm got pretty wild for a while. Finally I realized that it was something like the first lesson in instrument flying—the tyro does everything too late and too much. With a little prudent anticipation here and there, I got things damped down a bit.
Now Roger handed over the whole can of worms at once: cyclic, collective, throttle and both feet full of rudders. I became a man trying to walk a tightrope while rubbing his stomach with one hand and patting his head with the other. To complicate matters further, my nose began to itch. If you don't believe in the Chinese concept of personal demons, wait till you see what horrible itches can develop when you have a death grip on a helicopter and dare not turn loose.
"Isn't there something I could do with my teeth?" I mumbled through the sweat and the tears. "It seems a shame not to use them, too."
"Why, that's how you tune the radio," Roger said, cheerfully, "but we won't go into that during your first hour."
Now I knew why fixed-wing is no real help in learning at first. An airplane is a civilized contraption that is designed to fly, wants to fly and asks only that you more or less keep your hands to yourself and let it fly. Disturb its flight path and it tries to return to it, like a horse headed for the barn. The helicopter never heard about this sort of stability. Aside from the fact that it would rather hang under its rotor blades than, say, run alongside them—an attribute for which gravity deserves most of the credit—it doesn't care where it goes.
If this sounds a little frightening, so is learning to ride a bicycle. Of all things, I think that's what helicopter training most resembles. I was 8 or 9 when I took up bicycling, and the combination of pedaling, balancing and steering seemed more than I could ever handle at once. If only somebody would take over a couple of things so I could concentrate on the third! I kept skinning up my ears and elbows, and things seemed to get worse instead of better—and then, finally, one day I couldn't ride it and the next day I could.
By the middle of the week (I had started on a Sunday) I was hovering fairly steadily and even undertaking some fancy work, such as figure eights, sashaying sideward along furrows and fences, and squaring off corners like a West Point plebe. We often had Bing, the Shorts' black-and-white Lhasa Apso terrier, scurrying along underneath. His nickname is I.F.R., since he operates most of the time on instrument flight rules, and it is generally accepted theory around the farm that he likes to stay under the helicopter because it blows the hair out of his eyes.
Most of the Shorts' livestock seemed pretty blasé about the big iron insect, but one cow—a dry one, as far as I could tell—took a dim view of the proceedings in her pasture one afternoon and presented her horns. Olé! We became a living pinwheel, bossy turning slowly at the hub while I circled completely around her at an altitude of three feet, always keeping my nose pointed at hers. We were eyeball to eyeball, and she blinked first.
The resident horses love the machine. This is Thoroughbred country, and even the broomtails are full of fun and vitamins and looking for an excuse to whinny, flare their nostrils and cavort. It takes stern self-control for the student whirly-bird pilot not to jump the fences and run with them. But Marion Short seems a well-liked man in his community, and I can't imagine anything that would strain his status so badly as having word get around Calumet and some of the other nearby farms that his helicopter was a horse chaser.
Left to my own devices, I would have been happy to spend all my flying time investigating the local scenery. But Roger was still riding with me. He said the Kentucky landscape was old stuff to him. He didn't want to hear music I could already play; he wanted to find fault with me. For example, he soon sniffed out the fact that it wasn't just my affinity for nature that kept me hovering low among the cows and clover. The embarrassing truth was that I was developing an allergy to altitude in the helicopter. I think it was mostly the goldfish-bowl visibility that got me. In an airplane you don't sense height so much because you're looking out at an angle, and objects on the ground seem merely to shrink as you climb. Sitting in the Hughes wraparound plastic bubble, I found it disturbing to look down between the toes of my shoes at tobacco barns the size of penny matchboxes. Also, the higher I got, the more I missed some visible means of support. An airplane wing is tangible; a whirling blur of rotor blades merely reminds you that you are being supported by a theory.
"Well, well," Roger said when I finally admitted all this. "You're in about the same fix as a swimming student with hydrophobia."
As a therapeutic measure, he put me hard at work practicing autorotations.
"That's how you get down in case of engine trouble," he explained. "You'd get down anyway, of course, but I want you to learn the graceful way.
"Fixed-wing pilots are funny," he mused a little later, as we climbed to 500 feet over the farm. "You'll see one patiently explaining to a nervous passenger that if the plane's engine quits it won't just fall out of the sky. It will become a glider in a controlled descent, looking hopefully for a flat piece of real estate. Well, we don't even need a field to land in, but that same airplane driver will look at a helicopter and say, 'Geez, I'd hate to be in that thing if the engine quit!' Remember, we don't fall, either. A brick falls. A leaf descends. Push down briskly on that collective—all the way, now—and let's descend like a leaf."
It got awfully quiet. The throttle linkage in the collective had backed off the power. Then I noticed a strange tugging at my lap. It was the seat belt. The helicopter was starting down and wanted me to come along. I remember wondering what kind of leaves they grow in Roger's end of Ohio. I suppose a brick would have beaten us to the ground, but I would call the ensuing ride exhilarating, to say the least. The rotor blades set up a high-pitched howl, and when I was able to take my eyes off the details of the fast-growing landscape below, I saw that Roger was pointing at the tachometer.
"Very good," he said. "You split the needles nicely." He was referring to the clocklike hands on the dial: a long one for engine rpm and a short one for the rotor. Bringing them together when engaging the clutch before flight is charmingly called "marrying the needles." They do not stick together in adversity, however. Any sudden reduction of power causes the clutch to automatically throw the rotor system into freewheeling, so it won't be pulling against the presumably ailing engine.
"The idea is to keep the blades spinning plenty fast, so they'll store up kinetic energy," Roger said, taking the controls. Holding an airspeed of 65 to 70 mph until we were less than 100 feet high, he began coming smoothly back on the cyclic, putting us into a nose-high altitude, like an airplane flaring out for a full-stall landing.
"We're an autogiro now," he said, "in case you've ever wondered about the difference. A helicopter pulls air down through its rotor, and an autogiro rides on an upward-flowing relative wind." I thought it was a pretty esoteric point to be making at the moment. The song of the blades rose in a crescendo as our airspeed dropped off. If it was kinetic energy Roger wanted, he had plenty of it now. My only worry was that centrifugal force would spread the works all over Kentucky.
Forward cyclic again, and suddenly we were about eight feet, in a level attitude, at zero airspeed, and the whole maneuver made sense. The key was the collective—it was still full down. We were practically home free and we hadn't even begun to tap the energy in the whirling rotor. Now, and only now, Roger eased the control upward, changing the pitch of the blades to make them bite more air, and we settled the last few feet as gently as, well, say a feather.
"The idea is not to get anxious and pull the collective too soon," Roger said. "If you used all that stored-up lift 50 feet high you would be faced with an uncushioned descent."
"Is that a euphemism for a busted tail?"
"Well, you might walk away from it, but you would probably be limping, and you would need another helicopter."
He explained the "dead man's curve," a line on a graph in every helicopter's operating manual. It is based on the familiar old fixed-wing adage that when an engine goes dead, speed is money in the pocket and altitude is money in the bank. You can exchange either for the other, but if you run out of both you're broke. For the first time I realized why helicopters usually take off at an angle, when they're capable of going straight up. If your engine should quit under 10 feet, there is enough inertia in the rotor blades at normal speed to let you auto-rotate safely to the ground. As your altitude goes up, so should your speed.
There is no compelling reason for climbing like a fakir up a rope. The graph for a certain helicopter will show that at, say, 40 feet it will take a forward speed of 50 mph to get enough wind through the blades to make them spin properly for an autorotation. At 100 feet it might take 60 mph. About 150 feet or so, the curve swings back and you can start slowing down. At 400 feet most helicopters can hover without a qualm.
Getting into this stuff cured my fear of altitude. Now I was afraid of auto-rotations. I didn't really mind once I had started down—it was even fun, in a hair-raising sort of way, like being committed to a ski jump—but it took a great deal of will power to first shove that collective down and feel my seat belt tighten.
On Sunday, exactly a week after my first lesson, Roger and I were flying cross-country over some fairly rough terrain south of Lexington, and he suddenly said, "If you had engine trouble right now, what would you do?"
There was only one decent spot within range. It was a tiny clearing, smaller than a suburban backyard, in some high growth at the edge of a ravine. I pointed at it. (By. this time I had learned to use friction locks on the various controls during cruising flight, so my hands were comparatively free for such things as pointing. Naturally, all the mysterious itches had disappeared as soon as I had discovered the friction locks.)
"Go ahead," Roger said.
"Go ahead and what?" I said, stalling desperately for time.
"Shoot an autorotation for it." It was the first time Roger had really snapped at me.
"Should I put on carburetor heat first?" This was really outrageous of me, but it was the best I could think up on such short notice.