Getting Spoiled in an AStar

A new flying experience left me wanting more.



Once again, a new flying bug has bit me. This time the bite came from a bug-like aircraft – a helicopter. I had a chance to fly a Eurocopter AS350B3, also known as an AStar, the same type of helicopter that landed on top of Mt. Everest a few years ago and set an unbeatable record for the highest altitude landing and takeoff.

But while the AStar is capable of reaching more than 29,000 feet (while only certified to 23,000 feet), I wasn't looking for altitude. I flew at 1,000 feet along the beautiful beaches south of Santa Barbara, California and then over the mountains to Lake Castaic before bringing the chopper back to Camarillo for lunch.

I had touched the controls of a Hughes 500 several years ago, but essentially this was my first attempt at controlling this type of flying machine. With Steve Stafford (a helicopter instructor with thousands of hours flying helicopters in extreme environments, such as movie stunt flights and offshore oil platforms) in the right seat beside me, I felt very comfortable taking the controls.

While they are significantly different, helicopters share some features with their fixed-wing brethren. Just as in an airplane, the rudder pedals (called anti torque pedals in a helicopter) yaw the helicopter left and right in the horizontal plane and you use the pedals to maintain coordinated flight. Also, as long as you're in forward flight,the center stick, which is called the cyclic, moves the helicopter up, down, left and right, in the same way a stick would pitch and bank an airplane. But instead of moving control surfaces such as the ailerons and elevator, control inputs on the cyclic tilt the main rotor blades left, right, forward and aft moving the aircraft in three dimensional space. And while control pressure forward and aft on the cyclic moves the helicopter up and down in forward flight, the inputs make the helicopter move forward and backward when you hover. That's when helicopter flying becomes a dance we didn't get into during this inaugural flight.

The greatest difference between flying a helicopter and an airplane is that there is no such thing as trimming and leaning back to relax and watch the gauges. You always have to keep your hand on the cyclic in the helicopter or it will begin to rotate uncontrollably. Another difference is that the pilot-in-command in a helicopter generally sits in the right seat, as Stafford did. The reason is because the collective, which the pilot can let go of, is located on the left side of the seat and the pilot needs to be able to reach for the radios with the left hand while holding the cyclic in the right hand.

The collective is a flight control unit that can't be related to fixed wing flying. It is a large lever that is attached to the floor and, at first glance, looks like a throttle control handle in a boat. Pulling on the collective collectively increases the pitch of the three main rotor blades, making the helicopter climb. Lowering the collective makes the helicopter descend. Around the collective is a large grip that rotates and, not unlike a boat or motorcycle, provides more or less power. But helicopter producers didn’t make it easy for boaters and two-wheel chopper riders. The handle rotates opposite of the control handles in boats or on motorcycles. However, I didn't have to worry about the throttle during my flight because in a turbine helicopter like the AStar B3, which is blessed with a dual channel FADEC Turbomeca Aerial 2B1 engine, the throttle is only really placed in two positions. When the engine is started, the throttle is set in idle mode. When you're ready to fly, you simply roll the throttle to the flight position and the rotor RPMs are kept constant at around 390 RPM.

From the little helicopter experience I had before jumping into the AStar, I knew these types of aircraft require very little control input. Still, I was amazed at how small the movements on the cyclic were. I literally felt that all I had to do was think “left,” “right,” “up” or “down” and the helicopter would move in the desired direction. I was also amazed at how relaxing the flight was. I simply rested my arm on my thigh and kept a fingertip-light touch on the cyclic.

Since my mother Ulla and my friend Keith were sitting in two of the four comfortable rear seats, we didn’t get into any complex maneuvers such as hovering or autorotation (emergency procedures in a heli), but I hope to get back behind the controls soon to give these maneuvers a try. Since I already have my fixed-wing pilot’s rating, I would need at least 20 hours in a helicopter to qualify for my private helicopter pilot checkride (only 19 to go!), with some sub-requirements such as 10 hours of solo flight and three hours each of cross-country training, solo cross-country, night flight and test prep.

If you’ve never touched the controls of a helicopter, I would highly recommend that you try it. The precise inputs may even make you a better fixed-wing pilot. And I promise you that you’ll love the view.