10 January 2006


Two things I hear a lot that surprise me:

"I could never do what you do........I'm afraid of heights."

"When the engine quits, doesn't the helicopter fall like a rock?"

No one is more "afraid of heights" than Greybeard.
Put me above the third rung on a ladder, and my knees are audibly knocking!
The whole idea of being afraid of high places is wrong anyway......
We're not really "afraid of heights".........we're afraid of falling.
When I'm securely strapped into the machine I have no fear of falling out, so I'm perfectly comfortable flying at any altitude.

Similarly, would I risk my ample derriere in a helicopter if I thought it would assume the aerodynamic characteristics of a brick when the engine quit?
As we've discussed before, a powerplant failure in a helicopter is much less dangerous than the same event in an airplane, because the helicopter floats down like a Maple seed until it gets close to the ground, then the helicopter pilot can slow both the forward and vertical speeds to nearly zero.

In today's information age, why do these misconceptions continue to exist?



In your entire civilian career, how many times have you had to auto-rotate? I'm sure it's few, if any.

Greybeard said...


Why would you ask such a question?
You just had to embarrass me, didn't you TWD?

In 1978 I was giving rides in a Hiller UH-12D at our local fair. To save on fuel, I was living at the landing site in an RV.

My magneto check was unsatisfactory, so I called my mechanic out to work on the machine. I missed most of one nights work because of the problem.
At 9 P.M. or so, we finally gave up on the problem and decided to continue in the light of day.
I refueled the aircraft before going to bed.

Next day, the mechanic was back and we tinkered some more. This can be frustrating work.....mechanic adjusts mags, I start the machine...
warm it up to operating temperature, then do the mag check.
Time and time again, it was unsatisfactory.
I honestly cannot remember how many times we went through this routine.
When we finally got it right, by chance, a couple walked up and wanted to take a ride. The machine was still running when the mechanic came up and asked if I could take these folks up.

Long story short......I was in the middle of the ride when the sucker went blup, blup, and then got deafeningly quiet. I did a perfect autorotation into a soybean field, and got out of the aircraft to pats on the back from my passengers.

I was out of fuel.
To this day, I'd like to say someone syphoned fuel out of that bird while I was sleeping. But one thing is sure.....I was in a hurry to get back airborne, and I should have shut the machine down and checked my fuel......the fuel gauges on these machines were notoriously inaccurate!

So there you have it.
Greybeard did something stupid.

And learned a great lesson.


Even the smartest people make mistakes. I can't recall doing anything dumb around aircraft, but I do remember two very smart people making near fatal mistakes.

One was my jumpmaster who was putting some students out of a Cess 182 for 30 sec delays. Not only was he a JM, he was an instructor, rigger, and a Navy fighter pilot.

Whenever he put students out, he always took his front-mounted reserve off and stowed it under the pilot's seat, that way he didn't have to worry about it deploying out the door accidently. A very nasty situation. Part of the last student's lesson was to approach another skydiver in freefall, so when he went out, the JM followed right behind, minus his reserve. When the pilot landed, he relished being able to walk the reserve over in front of everyone.

The other incident was our pilot. Thousands of hours in all types of aircraft. He was making an approach in the 182, and just over the threshold he encounters a bit of turbulence. A CH-47 was hovering on the tarmac just off the runway. The rotor blast threw the plane around like a toy, almost putting it upside down. He almost put his hand through the dash going to full power. He later admitted that dropping jumpers and landing the aircraft over and over all day long became too routine. He also wondered if anyone was at home in the tower.

Purple Tabby said...

Peugeot! That was the BEST car I ever owned. Solid, quiet, dependable, and classy. I'd bet my birthday that car is still humming along wherever it is.

I was in Spain and it was 30 years ago. If I wanted to bring it back, I would have had to bring it up to US emission standards. It seemed like too much money at the time.
Dang, I miss that car!

Oshawapilot said...

Your comments made me laugh, because I'm exactly the same way. Trying to put Christmas lights up on the gutters, and I'm a total mess, barely able to climb the ladder. Strap me into a plane, and I'm good.

On one of my first few training flights my door popped open at about 500AGL. Instead of freaking out about my height, the first thing that came to mind was "Wow, that's a much better view with the door open!".

Aviatrix said...

This post inspired me to show your readers how to autorotate their own helicopters, on my blog,

Anonymous said...

I as well have always had this fear of falling. And as you said, solidly strapped into the seat I have not often been nervous (almost putting the plane into a spin while practicing stalls shook me up a little, but that's another subject). I do have to admit having this misconception about the aerodynamic qualities of an engine out chopper as well as having the impression that the autorotation maneuver is not easy. Is there much control available to you to pick a landing spot while you're decending or is it all up to the winds?

Greybeard said...

Kit, the helicopter maneuvers in autorotation just as it does in normal flight, only it is trading altitude for energy as it descends......the rotor braking the rate of descent.
You can still turn, speed up/slow down, and vary the rotor speed by the amount of "collective pitch" you apply.
You can even fly backwards!
It seems odd, but the helicopter is most stable in autorotative flight.

If you start the autorotation from 2000' A.G.L., most helicopters would take a minute and a half or more to reach the ground, giving you plenty of time to select a good forced landing area.

Practice autorotations are a hoot!

Flyinkiwi said...

In a given helicopter, say a training model or even the bird you fly, what is the rate of descent like during an autorotation?

Greybeard said...

Gosh Euan, you almost got buried by blog history here!

Most helicopters descend at around 1500' per minute in stable autorotation. That's at 60-65 knots indicated.
At about 40 feet AGL you lift the nose and decelerate, slowing forward speed to almost nothing, and vertical speed is diminished dramatically.
Just before touchdown, collective pitch (angle of attack of the main rotor) is increased to further slow the vertical speed and cushion the landing.
Done properly, it's a thing of beauty.
I'm still practicin'!

Thanks for the question, and for stoppin' by!