Helicopter - Eyes on target

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As we where flying back to the helipad, we stopped in the middle of a field and looked around at all this nothingness. Then we pressed on.

The training helicopter is equipped with a double set of commands. Which means that my instructor also has the stick and the collective at hand and the anti-torque pedals at his feet.

I guess you understand that, at this point, I was somewhat frazzled. During the preceding exercise, I felt the most violent shot of adrenaline in my blood stream in years; the last one was courtesy of a bomb in Baghdad. I'd had to control the cyclic for nearly a full hour. My hands felt like claws, my neck muscles were tense and my back was stiff. I understood only a bit of what had been happening in real time, and my brain was now barely beginning to compute the rest of what had just transpired.

Then I had to immediately press on to another exercise involving my feet and the rotation of the helo. No rest for the wicked.

The mechanics behind the tail rotor of an helicopter is that its main rotor blades spins in a certain way (clockwise or counter-clockwise) and the tail rotor keeps the helicopter in line by compensating for the main rotor's torque. Hence the anti-torque rotor pedal. So if you slow down the tail rotor, the helo's main rotor's torque will make it turn on itself and if you accelerate it by pushing down the other pedal, you'll over-counter the torque effect which will have the helo spinning the other way. There is a danger associated with that : if you do it too fast or don't compensate for the main rotor's torque you will simply fall from the sky. Exactly like in the movies minus the mid-air explosion.

This exercise was somewhat straightforward. I would fix a reference point. (like it's easy to find in the middle of a snow covered field under a grey sky) and keep the nose aligned with it by using the anti-torque pedals. The exercise was easy in theory but in practice it's a different ball game altogether.

You push down gently and the helicopter start to spin, slowly at first, but then it starts spinning faster all by itself. It's hard to explain because you have to “feel” your way through this. To spin at a constant speed you have to step on the pedal harder at first and release it slowly. This is tough; I mean really tough. That's why the exercise is done at a hovering altitude of about 3 meters from the ground.

If you push down 25% of the way on the left anti-torque pedal, the right pedal will come up 25%. So you have to constantly juggle with those. The fun part is that I just have to deal with the pedals nothing else. My instructor is doing all the rest. It's essential to get this right before beginning a proper hovering exercise.

So I'm out here in the middle of nowhere, aiming at a bush and juggling the controls to keep the helo in line. A bit to the left, a bit to the right... I overcompensate and almost lose it. Relax! I tell myself. It's alright. Its your first time.

Now the instructor says it's time to go back to base.

Whew!