Saturday, August 12, 2006

Up in the air

Scott's brother is an aircraft mechanic. A year or so ago, he graduated from maintaining and flying airplanes to maintaining and flying helicopters. Today he arranged to take us up in one.

The helicopter is a Vietnam-era Bell UH-1B Super Huey. Our pilot, Tim, took us up and hovered over the ranches and farms around the small airstrip near where they were working today, before he flew home, as a short "maintenance flight". Tim is accustomed to flying utility and long-line work, including tasks like setting one skid on top of a utility pole so that workers can disembark and precisely controlling the location of a large bucket of concrete hanging hundreds of feet below the craft on a cable. He is a very talented and experienced pilot.

Flying in a helicopter is quite unlike flying in an airplane. There is no need to pick up speed before takeoff. Once strapped into seat of canvas and tubing, with headset on (for communications and noise surpression), the pilot puts more power to the main rotor, increases the speed of the tail rotor to correct the spin, and there you are, hovering. The power with which the rotor beats through the air is palpable from the cabin, and the craft may be motionless, except for a little bobbing and wobbling.

We flew out over a grassy hillside and Tim, who is also an experienced flight instructor, handed over the controls to Scott, one at a time. The cyclic, a stick in the center, controls the attitude of the main rotor, left, right, front, and back, joystick-style. The pedals control the tail rotor to adjust the craft's heading and counter the torque from the main rotor (which varies with speed and thrust). The collective, a lever alongside the seat, changes the main rotor blade pitch, basically increasing or decreasing the thrust.

Once he handed over the controls entirely, Tim asked Scott to hover the craft, describing it as being "like standing on a basketball". The cyclic is a very sensitive control. Scott also got to fly forward a while and ascend and descend. Both Tim and Scott's brother agreed that Scott did an excellent job of hovering, for his first time, and it felt pretty smooth from the back seat. Scott credits his success in part to a long history of learning to control video games, though he has not attempted helicopter simulations before.

Then Tim took over again and showed off for us a little, banking abruptly and descending so sharply at one point so that we were all looking straight down at the ground in front of us. We weren't very far up! For all that, probably the scariest part was merging back into the general traffic pattern at the small airstrip, an uncontrolled series of ultralights and other small planes that Tim regarded with some disdain. I suppose such a reaction to hobbiest airplane pilots is reasonable from a professional helicopter pilot with credentials like his.

About 20 minutes later, we were back on the ground, where we shook hands, disembarked. After a couple more photos from the ground, Scott now has the bragging rights to having flown a helicopter.


Post a Comment

<< Home