A Project of the Coast Guard Aviation Association

I Learned To Fly the Helicopter

By LTJG Sam A. Constantino, USCG July 1944

I had been flying the little Kingfisher scout observation plane and the Mariner patrol bomber. Those are airplanes with wings. Then I heard about the chance to learn to fly helicopters. Those are airplanes without wings. So I figured anything for a laugh, put in my bid and a few days later found myself in the first grade of a six week training course. The first day I gave the innocent little craft a close inspection. On the ground, duck soup, I drooled. All I do is grab the control stick, give it the throttle, pull up on this gadget, flick that gadget, take a deep breath, — and away. When I want to land all I do is pull back on this gadget, — why, I’ll bet I could solo right now without even one instruction hop.

That was the first day. Since then I have had some thirty hours of helicopter flying. My, how I’ve grown.

The first ride was a familiarization hop. I really got a bang out of that. Think it was more thrilling than my first ride in a fixed-wing conventional airplane. It wasn’t because of the speed and height that are generally the thrilling factors of flying but because of the amazing maneuverability of the wingless thingamajig, — this eggbeater with ambition. I had heard tall tales about the seemingly impossible – well anyway, stunts that a helicopter can do. And it can. It takes off straight up from a motionless position on the ground just exactly like a darned bird. And it lands the same way. Slowly, gracefully, boastfully, on a graham cracker.

But there’s one little item to be inserted at this point: When one wishes to fly the helicopter, one must learn how first.

Remember when you first learned to ride a bicycle? You kept wiggling the front wheel in radical motions from left to right to keep your balance. And remember when you first learned to ice skate? — your ankles wiggled, you were afraid to take long strides, your arms waved wildly about and occasionally you’d get a little confidence – too much – and fall on your fanny. And the first time you tried to park the car on a steep hill – well – what I’m getting at is that there’s a striking similarity between learning how too fly a helicopter and learning how to ride a bicycle, to ice skate and to park a car on a steep hill all at the same time. And you might throw in a fancy rumba with that too.

Now don’t get me wrong. It isn’t impossible to master one of these things. Nor is it impossible. It’s just difficult. It takes time, perseverance, patience etc., and of course, an understanding instructor. My instructor was a nice fellow. At times he would become somewhat excited. And at times he would shout and there would be white stuff around his mouth but I was polite and pretended not to notice and just go flying on.

You’ve probably seen movies or heard tell of the helicopter’s ability to “hover.” You know – “Hover.” That’s where you look like you’re standing still in the air about fifteen feet off the ground. And you are. Well now, to actually hover in a helicopter, and to learn how to hover in a helicopter are two different things. One is where you are perfectly still and the other is where you are not perfectly still. You feel as though you are moving to the right but you’re not really sure you are moving to the right. But you think you are. Then you make a correction for this by pushing the control stick to the left. Then you try to correct for this by quickly shoving the stick back to the right but you will invariably do this too suddenly, too brusquely. Then you’re sure you’re going to the right. Which you are.

And in the meantime you’re going up and down too. This is incorrect. It is not hovering. Because when you hover you are supposed to be still as a stack of cement, only in the air about fifteen feet off the ground. So the instructor takes over the controls, steadies the ship and tells you to try again. You grip the stick with clenched fist, only tense with determination, and shoulders hunched over with a hovering desire to hover.

The instructor immediately takes the stick away from you, and tells you to relax and watch him. Complacently, and with shoulders sagging, he places three fingers on the control stick and, — yes, and hovers. It looks so childishly simple. And it is for him. “jest takes patience and a lotta practice,” he tells me. “You gotta anticipate its movements. If you think it’s going to the right, make a small correction to the left. But jest a small correction. See?” I shake my head yes, infuriated that he thinks I’m that stupid. Which I am.

Another lesson finds me learning about the miraculous straight up takeoff. It must be done judiciously. You’re not supposed to over-rev the engine. But then, don’t under-rev either. My instructor says it’s much better to over-rev, even though you’re not supposed to, than to under-rev which you are positively not supposed to. So most of the time I over-revved. My instructor didn’t seem to mind though. Oh he did seem a little irritated about it the first nineteen or twenty times, but I figured he’d get used t it eventually. He did. My instructor was a very understanding fellow. But sometimes he would get a strange look in his eye. Most of this happened around the time I was learning how to land the helicopter. Most people know that conventional fixed-wing aircraft land at high speeds, usually about eighty-five knots. I had the most difficult time trying to understand that the helicopter comes into and down to the landing “mat” at about five knots. “This is not what you think it is, my friend.” My instructor once bawled, reaching frantically for the controls. “Take your time, ease it down slowly. Think of your grandmother driving a horse. You can go down fast when you’re up at 3,000 feet flying straight and level. But down here, go slow! Don’t speed up like a twelve-toe’d idiot!” Mentally I counted my toes.

Then my instructor said quietly, “Jest takes time and patience. Lotta patience.” And he eased it down to the mat very lightly, very gently. My instructor was a very understanding chap.

I didn’t have much trouble with quick stops when I got to that stage. Quick stops; that’s when you stop in the air suddenly, when you want to. You might be flying low over the ground looking for a landing mat and suddenly seeing one directly under you. Then you’d make a quick stop. It’s like jamming on the brakes in automobiles like you do at intersections. But as I say, I didn’t have too much trouble learning quick stops in the helicopter. Well of course it’s a pretty simple process. Yes, I guess it is a very simple process. It’s even stupid. I got onto it rather well. My instructor remarked about it.

Then there’s the autorotation. That’s where the engine gets out of order and the rotor blades continue to rotate anyway and you glide safely down to safety. It’s a rather rapid glide. Something like Radio City’s elevators. Only out of the helicopter you see where you are dropping which is rather disconcerting until the last 100 feet or so when you operate certain controls which change the situation to a much more comfortable perspective.

And there were lots of other things to learn. Turns on the spot, precision landings, taxiing on the ground, sideward takeoffs, backward takeoffs (Boy, was that something.).

I’ll never forget the day I flew my solo check flight. That’s where another instructor flies with you and decides whether or not you are safe for solo. If your own instructor had to make this decision, flying would have been suspended years ago. Well, this check-man they gave me was a pleasant chap with that I-love-life gleam in his eye. I gave him a pretty good ride, although on several occasions he was inclined to disagree with my tactics and remonstrated by taking over the controls in a rather somewhat frenzied manner. After we landed and he’d sat there for some time deliberating over this thing that confronted him, — and after the green had faded from his face, he finally spoke: “Well, how do you feel about it?” “Oh I feel fine.” I replied. “That’s what I thought,” he muttered. But finally after a firm-toned lecture he consented to let me solo. I soloed. It was a gala experience. I practiced various maneuvers at my own choosing. I did turns on the spot and precision landings. I did sideward skids, I autorotated, I hovered, I made sideward takeoffs and backward takeoffs. I flew the helicopter by myself.

My technique was far from perfect, however. I over-revved, I landed too fast, I was careless about my airspeed and my takeoffs were jumpy. But experience would iron these things out. I hoped. Well, my instructor had said “it jest takes time and patience.”

So it was time and patience and that meant practice, practice, practice. I concentrated on precision and accuracy. I learned a few more tricks such as landing on the rolling pitching simulating deck of a ship, and how to make water landings with float-type landing gear.

And now, with some thirty hours of helicopter time under my belt I feel better than I did in the beginning. But I’m far from feeling expert about it. It’s a feeling that one might have in – let’s say, driving an automobile alone for the tenth time. But it’s something that seemed impossible at first – just as learning to ride a bicycle or ice skate or to park a car on a steep hill.