So we're in this chopper, just about to take off, and the instructor, wisely I think, seized this very moment to introduce me to the controls.
That's where he showed his long experience as a flight instructor, introducing me to the controls like that since it's, like, my first flying exercise behind the stick EVER and I'm expected to fly this thing right NOW. I haven't even had a chance to read the bleedin' manual yet!
I guess by now you understand that I was a bit discombobulated by the way this was going.
As I watch and listen carefully, my instructor is proceeding through the checklist. I watch and listen carefully, not because I understand what he's doing, but because I desperately want to understand what I'll be doing.
In my present state of excitement mixed with utter dread, I suffered through this dude going through all the thirty-some checklist items.
Highlights are items such as :
Seat belts and shoulder harness : CHECK
Glove box door closed and latched : CHECK
No interference with collective mechanism including seat belt stowed : CHECK
Control Friction locks : RELEASED
Altimeter : SET... this list went on until the radio crackled and the control tower gave us the go to follow a corridor out of the controlled zone.
They've now made my flying this thing, this heap of technologies, this invention, this contraption OFFICIAL!
NOW I'm really stuck!
I know there is a consummate professional sitting next to me who's ready to take over control of this aircraft at a split second's notice. He's on the alert and watches every move I make, ready to kill my joystick and take over piloting this damn glorified flying blender before I make his wife, and mine, a widow. His demeanour remains calm.
I'm totally rushing now. I can feel the blood running through my veins and hear my pulse in my ears, in sync with the rotor as it spins faster and faster until we're airborne. This rotor noise is getting really loud even inside the special headset equipped with microphones that have some kind of noise cancellation, so that we can talk to each other in closed circuit inside this tornado we"ve just made.
As we proceed to our exercise area, the instructor instructs me in the basics of controlling the cyclic. This is a stick directly connected to all the avionics and it doesn't use any hydraulics. When you let go of the stick the helicopter dives quickly, as the weight is mostly at the front. Kaboom! So, basically, you can't let go of anything. I will learn later on that this is also true for the collective. You have to keep both hands on the commands at all times, and all the helicopter's controls are built around this principle.
The cyclic has a couple of buttons and triggers to compensate for the fact that you can't let go. One of the triggers doesn't launch missiles or counter-measures or anything that exotic, but enables the closed circuit radio to communicate with the outside world. The other trigger is called the trim and is mainly used to compensate for side winds and other environment variables, most of which I'm not yet aware of.
We are now approaching my new 'playground' zone. I'm told to grab the stick with a relaxed hand. Relaxed hand, he says. Sheesh! I'm so pumped I have to concentrate just to unclench my hand, and I don't know if I'm anywhere nearly relaxed enough for flying a chopper. I sure as hell don't feel relaxed...
I achieved a somewhat generic relaxed grip on the stick and my instructor seemed to be happy with my initial contact with it. He was right! There is a genuine video game feel to it.
The exercise starts with a brief but concise explanation of airspeed versus landspeed and the use of knots (kt) as the speed reference for air navigation. He points to the second indicator on the top left of the dashboard.
"This is the airspeed indicator. Don't trust it. It's not very accurate as it's only based on the airflow coming trough a tube located up front.” Unlike driving a car, you don't have fixed references that you can trust. You just can't trust your own friggin' instruments!
What an helicopter pilot does is simply to establish the position of the rotor in relation to the horizon. It took me a while to see it, but he was right. The rotor is visible. While you don't really see the blades you see the shaded trailbleed, that shadow the blades leave while spinning, in contrast with the background.
My first exercise was to maintain airspeed at 70kts (70 knots. A knot is roughly equivalent to 1.15 mph) using the rotor blades as reference. As the pilot, I'm now responsible for validating all the variables of our flight by checking the instruments. It's my bird now...
Three inches. This is the distance between the horizon line and the rotor blade shade when you're going at an airspeed of approximately 70 kts. The stick is smoothly responding to my commands and I've begun to really enjoy every second of this experience. After proving airspeed consistency we start working the turns. We are coming close to an highway (motorway for our UK friends). Ground references are often used to help air navigation and highways are the main ones. My instructor asks the tower if any air traffic is close by before we start practising turns. This is SO cool! I'm thinking "I'm a damn PILOT!"
Turning is simple, but turning steadily while maintaining altitude and speed is something else altogether. I'm manoeuvring the aircraft alright, no sweat, but the other commands are still in my instructor's vigilant control. As I realize this, it pops my bubble. I'm not a pilot. I only control part of this contraption. The easy part.
It's now time to go back to base. Is it? Is it?
"Since your doing so well, I'll introduce you to another control"
Tail rotor pedals. I'll quickly find out what they're for.
And I won't ride the dragon this time.
No. I'll pilot the damn dragon!