By now, you've probably realized that we're genuinely doing it all here at Super Spy Me. And of all the real life adventures this writer has undertaken so far, making an helicopter hover is one of the toughest.
There's a lot to deal with and compute at the same time, if you want to stay in the air.
And you really, really want to stay in the air.
At this stage you control the yaw pedals, the stick and the collective. Every single, minuscule twitch of the stick requires immediate interaction with all of the other controls.
In retrospect, it wasn't all that tough to handle altitude, speed and turns. These lessons were pretty straightforward.
At an altitude of two thousand feet, a ten foot drop is not all that bad. Stressful, but not that bad. But a ten foot drop is a whole new shooting match at an altitude of ten feet.
If you lose it while you're hovering at 10 feet, you could damage or destroy an expensive helicopter and still have enough havoc left over to kill yourself and your instructor.
Thanks to my instructor's sterling character and determination, I managed to overcome my stress and retain control.
The first hovering exercise happened last winter at Saint Hubert airport. It was snowing lightly, the air was thick and you could feel your breath freezing almost before it left your body. Since I'd just traveled back from the Middle-East, the cold had extra bite.
The plan for the day was to practice hovering and translations. One of the key abilities of a helicopter is to be able to stay still, so that you can reach places and provide logistic support to remote camps and sites otherwise unavailable to planes or sometimes cars and trucks.
Hovering is an important milestone in learning to pilot an helicopter. It represents the pinnacle of control over the machine. If you can hover, that says "I tamed the beast!" in big flashy letters on your pedigree. From then on, just like levels in a video game, it unlocks a bunch of possibilities and options.
Everything requires the ability to hover. I guess you get the point : piloting a helicopter is to hovering what standing up is to walking.
A soon as the blades started spinning the snow flew up from the helipad and enveloped us in a tornado of white. We could barely see. It's scary at first, but the effect tapers off as you gain some altitude.
Now, like a Sioux boy facing the rites of passage of his tribe, I was about to tame the beast and become a man, or at least a pilot. This was my moment of truth and I was very excited. Everything else I'd learned at Flight School had brought me to this point. I knew there was another 90 hours of flying time required for the full licence, but that didn't matter. This was the first important milestone.
I got the approach fairly well, right on target. Then the fun started... My instructor held the craft it in place as he gave me instructions. "Keep it about ten feet high and try to keep the nose pointing at those hangars in front of you". There was a very strong wind coming from that direction. I could feel it buffeting the helicopter. I'm thinking: "Wow, it really had to be today, hadn't it?"
I got into position and he went on : "Right, remember to use the pedals to keep your nose pointing in that direction. Stay at hovering altitude and focus"
The truth is that I'm a bit quirky. My pride can't let me accept failure easily. I fought hard, very hard.
My instructor was equally hard on me, but now I'm grateful for this.
"You're losing it!" he shouted.
"Watch you altitude, we're too low!"
"Don't jerk the stick!"
At first it was building tension and I got even more stressed and was overcompensating really bad. The helo would move forward and start ditching, rattled by a sudden side wind. I reacted the best I could but pulled the stick back, way too much. The tail rotor nearly grinded up the tarmac.
I thought : “That's it. Game over.”
Instead of taking the control back and stabilizing the aircraft into position, he said authoritatively :
"YOU bring it back NOW!"
This is when you realize you've got to get a grip, focus, and breathe if you want to have a chance of doing that. I was upset with myself for losing it.
"Stop using your thumbs, you don't need them here. Keep it smooth. You don't need to push and pull like that."
As I folded my thumbs out of the way I understood what he means. By pulling just slightly, the aircraft stopped swinging around, stabilizing itself. I still had a bit of an issue with the collective but I was getting there. After 10 minutes that felt like forever, I was more confident.
I wasn't thinking about using my feet anymore. I didn't have to think about the collective too much either. Except for a couple minor reflexive hiccups I manage to stay put.
That's what I meant about the fun beginning : I completely lost track of time. I was so totally absorbed by the here and now that I couldn't say how long that last part of the class went on.
I remember a drill about moving sideways 15 feet sideways, then right. Back and forth.
I remember spinning the chopper slowly both ways, then an exercise that had me following a line on the ground.
After a while, mission accomplished! Back to base.