Hovering a Helicopter. Teaching it and Learning it.

HA_521Recently I have been teaching my students how to hover as a breakup activity to other tasks they are learning. Hovering can be mentally taxing on new students so full, hour-long lessons on hovering are not always the most appropriate use of a student’s flight block. This however is not a hard and fast rule. I thought I could give some insight to our readers of the student and instructor perspectives related to the concept of hovering.

The Student.

Nerves. As with any type of performance (stage actors, singers, etc) the lead up to climbing into a helicopter with the goal of completing a stable hover can be fraught with some level of doubt or the possibility of some negative self-talk such as, "Can I really do this?" or "I am feeling unsure and a little scared". The prevalence of these feelings are somewhat based on the personality of the student. We learn as instructors that these feelings can be somewhat beneficial to the performer because they can serve to keep that person alert and ‘in the moment’ which is necessary when practicing hovering.

Mental Focus. As we said before, some nerves can increase the focus, attention and proactive nature that are useful during hovering practice. Sometimes our brains can disconnect from tasks that we realize are quite challenging because the ascent to proficiency, in the moment, may seem impossible. Staying ‘in the pocket’, optimistic and motivated are massively important traits to keep a grasp on when controlling a helicopter. These are tasks we have all learned to do and something you can learn also.

Proactive Movements. Spending time in the classroom, or ‘ground room’ as some call it, is important prior to real hovering practice because that time and instruction gives the student helpful insight into the forces at play on a helicopter and how the aircraft wants to move in light of those forces coupled with the control inputs from the pilot. Such understanding aids the pilot in anticipating these movements and proactively controlling the machine instead of being more reactive or ‘behind the helicopter’.

Peripheral Vision. Focusing our eyes outside (not on any single gauge or instrument) on a reference point on the ground and using the full arc of our vision is best for accomplishing a stable hover. This keeps us mostly centered on our distance from the object of our focus and allows us to use our visual periphery to make those small controlled corrections necessary for stability of the aircraft. Moving our head around quickly deprives us of the visual reference needed for the baseline stability we need. Keep your head mostly still and use your eyes only. Afterwards you could find your eye muscles are tired because in normal life we are more prone to just turn our head to look at something!

A Light Touch. All new students over-control the helicopter. We are all surprised at how sensitive the controls are. There really is no getting around it, we start off with movements we think are suitable to move around but soon realize that we only need perhaps 5-10% of the input pressure on any given control surface to maintain the stability we are seeking. I remember being so surprised at how effortless it was to fly the machine! What a marvel of human ingenuity.

The Instructor.

Nerves. As the CFI, we obviously have much more experience behind the controls and are feeling light-years more comfortable than a new student learning how to hover. Often we think back to our own initial training and try to remember all that went into our training so long ago. The role here is now different though, we are the teacher and the only way a student can learn is to try it for themselves. We know the role of the CFI is to ‘prevent an accident’ and to ‘provide useful feedback and instruction’ but it is an odd feeling to give the control of the aircraft to someone else and this puts the instructor in an interesting position of working very closely with the student to achieve their goal. The student and CFI quickly become a crew and use effective communication to maintain safety and help the student experience first-hand how the helicopter flies. This stage, which is within the first few minutes of the first lesson usually, forms a unique teamwork-based orientation that is maintained throughout the course of training and is a fun and enjoyable aspect to the learning process.

Accurate Description. CFIs must prep beforehand to fully understand the topic or maneuver to be flown or discussed so their words of explanation can be clearly stated to the student. CFIs must also be aware of any common student errors and be ready to make control inputs if necessary, to maintain aircraft control. At the conclusion of any maneuver there is always time to discuss what went right or wrong during whatever preceded.

Comfortable Riding the Bull. Learning how to hover from the CFI's perspective can be compared to being at sea or possibly riding a bull or a horse and the instructor should be comfortable with all the tipping and lateral movements that come with this sort of job! Complacency has no place, however, as some tipping is part of the learning process but the CFI should regularly limit the amount of movement to maintain appropriate safety. Most instructors parse out each control (Pedals, Collective and Cyclic) and train their student separately to build general proficiency then combine controls as part of a building block method of teaching.

I have to say that hovering a helicopter over the ground is still, after many years, one of the things I enjoy most about helicoptering. The struggle to learn how to do it was tough but so very worth it. I always feel a sense of freedom that non-pilots and even non-RW (rotor wing) pilots may never experience in their lives. If my passion is the same as your passion or even an interest or curiosity, reach out to Hillsboro Heli Academy to talk to someone about how to become a helicopter pilot.