In recent months, I’ve been spending my simulation time outside of my normal review commitment flight time, learning to fly helicopters (virtual). I will say that it hasn’t been easy, but I have finally reached the point where I can comfortably fly either of the default choppers and so far I haven’t found any of the 3rd party add-on helicopters to be that difficult either. This edition of Bear's Cave is being presented here in a slightly different format and it is my intent on offering a tutorial for those of you that have found learning to fly a virtual helicopter (in Flight Simulator) nearly impossible or at the very least highly frustrating. So, read through this material, learn to fly these unique aircraft and maybe a whole new world of aviation will become available to you.
A novice’s tutorial for flying helicopters in FS2004!
Microsoft’s Flight Simulator is and has been a favorite platform for those wishing to experience the wonder of flight and despite the simple fact that Flight Simulator is still considered a “game” by those not generally familiar with the program, those of us that have made it our primary hobby of choice do feel quite strongly in some cases that Flight Simulator is something far beyond just another run of the mill gaming software program.
The vast majority of individuals (80% according to the last AVSIM poll) that roam the flight sim websites, have indicated that flying the multi-engine medium to heavy turboprop or jetliner to be their preferred form of flight simming. I too find myself interested in flying the heavy iron on occasions. Despite my closet interest in flying the heavies, my proclaimed interest is still with those aircraft associated with either general aviation or aircraft of historical significance and you can reference my aircraft reviews or feature articles (here at AVSIM) to note that. More recently, over the last 3 or 4 months, 80% of my flying (when I’m not flight testing for a review) has been centered on learning to fly those aircraft with the moving wings or in other words; Helicopters!
My aviation experience (real-world) has been limited to strictly fixed wing aircraft, with my first ride in an airplane occurring in the early 1960s and then in 1966 I began working toward my PPL (private pilot license) and earning that rating in 1967. I went on to receive my multi-engine land and single-engine sea rating, but my career interests moved on in another direction and my life’s work as been in the automotive industry. Regardless though, my interest in aviation has never waned and it has been Microsoft’s Flight Simulator that has been surprisingly sufficient to provide a continuation of my connection to the world of aviation.
When it comes to helicopters, my real-world experience and knowledge of them has been limited to my having been a passenger on rare occasion and my total helicopter passenger flight time is probably somewhere between 3 and 4 hours, tops! I would speculate that the majority of flight simmers, that read our pages here at AVSIM, are those that have little or no experience at flying real-world aircraft and I would further speculate that an even higher percentage have never even ridden in a helicopter, let alone have a rotary-wing rating.
Besides AVSIM there are other websites that have helicopter related add-ons available for FS2004, but I would recommend (in addition to AVSIM’s library and rotary-winged forums) that you also check-out “Hovercontrol”, as this site is dedicated to helicopters only and there you can receive a lot of assistance at learning to fly helicopters, though I say that with some reservations on my part. By reservations, I do mean that at most sites, that offer helicopter flight tutorials, they seem to all be directed toward learning to fly a helo with the thought of realism being the primary basis of the tutorials.
Learning to fly a helicopter in the real-world is expensive and very time consuming, often requiring 15 or more hours to learn just the beginning stages of the hover. In Flight Simulator, the hover can be mastered in much less time, but even then I found it very difficult and frustrating until I decided to change my view of how to fly these uniquely unstable contraptions.
Despite having been a rated (fixed-wing) pilot for nearly 40 years (my total flight time as pilot in the real world is unknown to me, though I would guess its somewhere between 1,200 and 1,500 hours or so) and having thousands and thousands of hours flying aircraft in the virtual world of flight simulation, none of this experience relates to or could have prepared me to fly a helicopter. Helicopters are simply different than a fixed wing aircraft and very little of what you have learned from flying fixed wing aircraft transfers over. After reviewing the material supplied with my copy of FS2004 (Microsoft’s Flight Learning Center) and also from the tutorials available (specifically those located at hovercontrol), I began a serious attempt at learning to fly the helicopters included with FS9 (the Bell 206B Jet Ranger and Robinson R22).
To be completely open and frank, the first month of my quest was painful and very frustrating and the idea of giving up had occurred to me on several occasions, which was until I realized something very essential to flying rotary-winged aircraft in FS2004. What those that provided the tutorials failed to remember was that it is not real, as I was trying to fly a virtual version of a helicopter in FS2004 and not trying to learn how to fly for the reason of getting my rotary-wing rating. It wasn’t until I decided to learn to fly virtual helos on my own and by setting up my system the way I wanted that I began to progress to where I can now fly anything rotor-winged related, land it smoothly, softly, and exactly where I want to, that I now truly enjoy the world of virtual helicopters.
It has been this experience that I wish to share with those of you that were or are in the same position I was in. I offer up the following tutorial to you helo novices from another novice. I’m sure there will be a lot of criticism directed towards me from you real-world helicopter pilots or those of you that are accomplished virtual helo pilots, but all I can say is I do appreciate the difficulty and the effort required to fly a real helicopter and I fully appreciate those who wish to instruct those flying the virtual versions in as realistic way as possible. It is my intent, here, to offer a tutorial that is intended for the 90%+ that only wish to learn how to fly a helicopter in FS2004, so that you can start downloading and installing the many outstanding helicopters or related scenery add-ons and begin to fly them as quickly as possible. In the end, it is only a software program (I bet you thought I was going to say “game”, didn’t you) designed to simulate the world of aviation and I only want to offer an alternative to those that don’t have the time to learn how to fly a rotary-winged aircraft in its most realistic fashion, considering that in the real world it is far more difficult than a fixed wing aircraft and from everything I’ve seen the difficulty remains in FS9.
Before you helicopter pros begin writing letters to me or AVSIM, please understand I am not going to nor do I intend on this tutorial to teach the wrong way to fly a helicopter, but to offer up a way for the novice to get up to speed so they can learn to comfortably and successfully fly a virtual helicopter and those that wish to expand their experience may do so. It is my hope that after 3 or 4 hours of honest practice, following along with my tutorial here, the novice virtual helo pilot should be sufficiently accomplished enough to fly anywhere and land exactly where they wish with reasonable confidence. For those that wish to improve on their helicopter skills, of which I most certainly encourage you to do, can do so and you even may wish to, one day, apply for your virtual helicopter rating (hovercontrol). Just remember, this tutorial is only intended to get you up and going quickly and easily so you can begin enjoying the world of the rotorwing aircraft for the sheer joy of it, but it also should provide a good foundation for those wishing to continue on with their flight training and maybe even one day get their virtual helicopter pilot’s license.
Here’s where I’m sure to get the most critical feedback, but after hours of frustration and considerable amounts of virtual helicopter destruction, I finally settled on the following system settings, at least the settings that worked best for me which should work for most fellow virtual helo novices as well. You’ll notice that I’m recommending setting up your realism settings to medium rather than the suggested settings of “hard” or 100%.
Many of the experienced (real-world) helicopter pilots have suggested setting the FS9 realism at or near 100% to gain their idea of how a real helicopter handles, though despite that these settings may be the most realistic, the majority of us are combining our lack of experience with a twist grip joystick. Even in the Microsoft provided learning center, in the sections concerning helicopters, recommends a set of floor mounted rudder pedals over their own twist-grip flight yoke, but I would guess that few of us have gone this far with our systems. In my particular case I’m using a Saitek Cyborg 3D Gold joystick with throttle and a twist-grip for rudder control. In addition to the realism settings, I also highly suggest you stay away from any real-time or on-line weather for now and stick with normal temperatures, a near sea-level base airport, and a no wind condition. It is hard enough, in the beginning, to fly one of these birds without adding in weather conditions that will increase the difficulty of your climbing the learning curve at being an accomplished helicopter pilot
The basic flight hardware you use is important, but I would gather that most of you have at least a joystick with a twist handle. I’m using a Saitek Cyborg 3D Gold joystick (available at most computer outlet stores) of which I paid $39.95 and it includes a twist grip with separate throttle control. One of the features of the Saitek is that the controls are fully reversible for left or right hand use. In my situation I have two (2) Saitek joysticks, one set for left hand use (fixed wing aircraft) and the other setup for right hand operation (rotary-winged aircraft). In both cases the throttle is also switched from the right side to the left side and being as the Saitek is connected to my system by a USB plug, switching joysticks is easy and quick. If you happen to have floor mounted rudder pedals, so much the better, and even the FS9 Learning Center suggests these for flying the default helicopters, but my tutorial is based on the majority of you not having these add-ons (floor mounted rudder pedals). Attempting to learn to fly helicopters using just the keyboard is just not possible, I’m sorry to say, so this is as good as excuse as any to put out 40 bucks or so for a joystick. If you can afford more, then I say go for it.
Another point to consider is when setting up your joystick, you should have your right hand on the handle and your left hand on the throttle. I would suggest arranging your joystick so that you can have your forearms or elbow braced against something, like the armrest of your chair. This is to assist at reducing the fatigue that will set in after a few minutes of flight, plus it also helps you maintain better control over your joystick (steadier). Helicopters require that you “fly” them every second, no trimming them out, letting go of the controls, and then spend a few moments relaxing, the helicopter must be controlled by the pilot at all times. It can be said that with a fixed wing aircraft the aircraft flies the pilot, but the reverse is true with a helicopter, as a helo pilot most definitely flies the aircraft and if the helo pilot should release the controls, the helicopter will simply fall out of the sky.
Once you get your system setup correctly and you have yourself sitting with your joystick properly installed, its time to begin learning about the world of the rotary winged aircraft!
The basics of helicopter operation:
Before getting started, you next need to choose a helicopter to begin your training with and it is important you choose well, as for a while you’ll find it necessary to stay with this aircraft until you’re ready to fly other models. At addition to practicing your training flights with the same helo, you should also maintain the same conditions for each session. I strongly suggest you choose one of the two default helicopters and between the two I started with the Bell 206B Jetranger. The default Robinson 22 is also a good choice, but because the Robinson is lighter than the Bell, it is noticeably more sensitive on the controls and this will increase your time during the beginning phases of your learning curve.
As we begin to familiarize ourselves with the helicopter’s cockpit, we will note a number of differences between it and the cockpit of the average fixed wing aircraft. First of all, and unlike the fixed wing aircraft, a helicopter is capable of moving forward, vertically up & down, sideways, and even backwards. This demands that the flight controls be significantly different and we will start by learning their names and then learn their function as well.
The main flight control stick or yoke is called the “cyclic” and this controls the helo’s pitch and roll attitude, but it is also the control we use to move about in the horizontal plane. To our left we have another stick or handle that we can raise or lower (appearing much like an emergency brake handle in our car) that is called a “collective” and this control will increase or decrease the pitch of our rotor blades, so the helo will rise or descend within the vertical plane. On the end of the collective handle is a twist grip for throttle control, which is very similar to the throttle control on a motorcycle. Our last set of controls are the familiar floor mounted rudder pedals, but on a helicopter we call these the “anti-torque pedals”!
Collective & Throttle:
The left side mounted collective & throttle are used in combination to increase rotor blade lift and rotor speed. In Flight Simulator, the collective and throttle are combined into the separate throttle control on my joystick, rather than being two separate controls. In a real helicopter, lifting the handle will increase the angle of attack or pitch of all the rotor blades collectively, hence its name. Increasing the pitch of the rotor blades will increase the lift, but because of the increased drag the rotor itself will slow, so we had a bit of power (throttle) to compensate.
|The area the rotor blades spin in is called the rotor disk.||Shown here are where the controls are located. The collective, by way of a set of links, will cause the blades to collectively twist at the hub. The cyclic will also cause the blades to twist at the hub, but only when the blade moves through a specific section of the rotor disk, depending upon your input.||Other details you’ll note are the counterbalance rod (mounted at a 90º angle to the main rotor blades) and in this screenshot you can clearly see the drive shaft, which drives the tail rotor.|
Your beginning flight lesson and practice is to master the fine art of the helicopter “hover”! Once you’ve successfully developed the skill to perform this basic helo flight maneuver, everything else should be easier.
You should pick a practice area that is flat and open, probably near your favorite airport where you base your normal operations from. Working from a concrete ramp is good, as you can use the concrete expansion lines for visual reference. Once you’ve got your helo in position, I would highly suggest you save your flight so that each time you have a practice session, your starting point (wide open flat area with no wind or unusual weather conditions) is always the same. This is not the time to throw in any monkey wrenches, by having any outside influences disturbing your lessons, and it will only be by practice, practice, and a bit more practice that you will learn the technique of the “hover”. Once you’ve mastered the hover, then you can begin adding wind and other weather conditions, but you need to start with everything calm at first.
I know that some prefer the 2D panel over the DVC (dynamic virtual cockpit), but for those that do prefer the 2D panels, you will need to get past this and begin using the 3D virtual panel exclusively, because with a virtual helicopter the DVC is almost mandatory. My personal preference of zoom settings, while in the DVC, is 0.60 zoom, but you may wish to modify this to your liking. The main advantage of using the DVC, with a virtual helo, is that you can use your hat button to swing your view to a downward angle, providing for a much better look at the ground while you begin your first practice sessions.
Flying a fixed wing aircraft generally only requires one hand on the stick or yoke and your feet on the rudder pedals, but a helicopter requires both feet and both hands, where your left hand is controlling the collective-throttle, your right hand is on the cyclic, and your feet are on the anti-torque pedals. Because the helicopter is essentially unstable, the pilot must constantly provide input to the cyclic and anti-torque pedals to keep the aircraft balanced. You will soon understand that to maintain control, you need to practice and learn the movements of your bird and you need to learn to use very small movements of your cyclic to counter those movements. Large or quick control movements don’t work in a helicopter and the sooner you realize this the sooner you’ll become efficient at flying a rotor-winged aircraft.
Once you’re settled in the cockpit, with the engine at idle, you’ll first note the “Torque Percent” gauge (default Bell 206B), which should be reading about 22% torque. By slowly increasing your collective (throttle) and as you reach about 57% to 62% (depending on your load and altitude), the default Bell should begin to feel very light and if you gently move the cyclic, the chopper should move slowly across the tarmac in the direction of your inputs. At this point, gently ease the collective or throttle back to idle and allow the chopper to settle back on the ground.
Practice this a few times, bringing the throttle up to 57% to 62%, allowing the chopper to get light on the skids, while you learn to get a feel for it and learn to maintain a steady position by using gentle and very small movements of your cyclic & anti-torque pedals. After practicing this procedure 3 or 4 times, try bringing up the throttle gently to about 67% to 70%, with your cyclic held in a steady neutral position. As you bring up the throttle to the higher torque percent settings, the chopper will go from light on the skids to a hover, and once you have the chopper about 2 or 3 feet off the ground, leave the collective in that position. As soon as the skids became light, you should be gently increasing your throttle (collective) until you established your hover and this is where the fun begins.
Once you’ve established a low altitude (2 or 3 feet AGL) hover, the chopper will invariably drift one direction or another (side motion or fore-aft motion) and this is where most, including myself, has had the most trouble. If the chopper began moving sidewise, I usually attempted to correct the movement with the cyclic, but I overcorrected in an attempt to get the aircraft back to its original position. Don’t do this, at least at first! If the chopper begins to move sidewise, only input enough corrective cyclic to stop the motion and return the aircraft to a steady hover, even though your hover position has changed. In my first hours of hover practice, I found that the actual position of the hover, initially, was all over the place, but this is okay, just learn to keep the aircraft at a constant altitude (by very incremental changes in the throttle or collective) and only apply enough cyclic to correct or check any sidewise or fore-aft motion. Having the aircraft realism at 50% or less and your display settings set for maximum fps, your first experience at hover attempts should be much easier to establish. After practice, you should be able to react much quicker to the aircraft’s motion and eventually you’ll find yourself correcting any motion the chopper will make, almost without thinking and without overcorrecting.
|At idle, the Bell’s “torque percent” gauge should read about 22%.||With a throttle increase up to 57% to 62% the chopper will become very light on its skids.||Between 67% and 70%, the Bell 206B should attain a hover at about 2 to 3 feet above the ramp surface.|
|At idle, the default Robinson’s manifold pressure gauge reads about 11” of vacuum.||Slowly increasing the throttle/collective to 13” manifold pressure, the Robinson gets very light on the skids.||With only an incremental increase to 15” of manifold pressure, the Robinson is in hover.|
Because a helicopter hovers by checks and balances, constant control input is required of the pilot. When the anti-torque pedals & cyclic are being held (by the pilot) so that the attitude of the aircraft is neutral and the throttle/collective thrust or lift is equal to the total weight of the chopper, your helo will be in the hover mode.
Practicing your hover is something you need to do on a very regular basis and the more practice you have the better you will become, just remember, the hover is the most important part of learning to fly a helicopter. In reality, practicing your hover for hours on end is not very much fun, so I always start with a few minutes at hover practice and then transit into taxi practice.
Once you’ve got yourself in a stable hover, pushing ahead (very gently) with your cyclic will begin your forward movement. As you increase your forward speed, the aircraft will naturally begin to climb slightly, so a very moderate reduction in power (throttle-collective) may be necessary. Your flight lesson plan is to taxi along at 2 or 3 feet above the ground while maintaining a very moderate speed (15 to 20 knots maximum). Remember, your cyclic will determine your forward speed (the more you push forward the faster your speed will be) and your throttle-collective will determine your altitude above the ground. As you are gently easing the helo into a forward movement, you will constantly be providing very minute inputs to maintain your altitude and speed, while at the same time you will control your direction of movement with your anti-torque pedals. Flying a helicopter requires good eye-hand coordination and you will find that you will need both hands, if you are using a joystick like I’m using, or both hands and feet if you have floor mounted rudder/anti-torque pedals.
When you’ve reached the point where you wish to stop the taxi and re-enter the hover, you will gently pull your cyclic aft (back towards yourself) and you may have to increase or decrease your throttle-collective settings. There are three points to keep your eyes scanning: out forward to maintain a visual of your movement, your torque-percent gauge, and your VSI (Vertical Speed Indicator) gauge. You may have to pull your cyclic back so that your helo achieves a slight flare to stop your forward motion, but you will very quickly level out into a stable hover and use to throttle collective to ease gently back onto the ground. Don’t forget to increase your throttle-collective to assist your cyclic at slowing the forward motion as well as having your torque-percent back up to the necessary 68% to 70% to maintain the hover before settling back down on the ground.
|Here I’m maintaining a stable hover, note my torque-% gauge reading of 69%.||By gently easing forward on my cyclic, I’ve reached about 15 knots of forward speed. My torque-% gauge shows I’ve eased off about 1% (from 69% down to 68%) and VSI shows not altitude gain or loss.||As my speed has increased slightly (18 knots), I’ve had to ease off the throttle-collective slightly (down to 59%) to maintain my altitude.||After easing back on the cyclic, I stopped my forward motion and with a very moderate increase in throttle-collective I returned back to a hover and used the collective to settle gently back onto the ground.|
So far we’ve talked about the “hover” plus the “taxi” and I’m sure you’ve practice these maneuvers and are feeling comfortable, maybe even somewhat confident, so now we’ll try the normal take-off with a 180º turn back to a landing onto our take-off point.
Taking off is simply a matter of bringing our throttle-collective gradually up to 68-69 percent, on our torque percent gauge, and once our aircraft has risen off the ground, we begin pushing forward (gently) on our cyclic. As we rise, we continue to push forward and the helo will quickly gain speed, with our VSI indicating 300 to 400 fpm of vertical speed. At 500 or so feet above the ground, we level off and begin our turn back to our take-off point.
The key to all maneuvers in a helicopter is to apply all your control inputs gently and in small increments. The more you fly and practice, the more you will learn the fine art of minimum inputs which will lead to you always having full control over the helicopter you’re flying. Sudden changes in anything will have negative results, so always practice at applying the very minimum to maintain your control over your aircraft.
Dell Dimension 8300P 4 3.2Ghz
|Taking off is simply a matter of gently increasing your throttle-collective, entering a hover, and then pushing forward on your cyclic.||Note that my torque percent gauge shows the same as a hover (69%), I’m pushing forward on the cyclic and we’ve already reached 20 knots with a vertical speed of 350 fpm.||At 400 or so feet of altitude (AGL), I begin a shallow bank back to our takeoff field.||Landing is accomplished by pulling back on the cyclic to reduce speed and by incrementally reducing throttle-collective to lose altitude. To check our decent and forward speed, we will pull back further on the cyclic and add throttle-collective, enter the hover, than gently set our aircraft on the ground.|
Turning or circling in a helo is something that also needs to be practiced, on a regular basis, as this is another maneuver that is far more difficult to perform smoothly than you may realize. First realized by Wilbur and Orville Wright in the late 1890s, the best way to turn in a fixed wing aircraft is by banking into the direction you wish to go and that procedure is the same for a rotor-winged aircraft as well. Unlike a fixed wing aircraft, the helicopter is a bit tougher to maintain your turn attitude, as the helo demands constant input from the pilot to complete a turn smoothly. You need to practice the 360º turn each time you go up for a spin in your favorite helo and your flight lesson here should be to complete a full turn while maintaining a constant forward speed, no increase or decrease in altitude, and maintaining your ball between the lines (ball & needle instrument). Sounds easy, but I assure you it is not!
|As I begin my turn, my torque-percent gauge reads 72%, with my ASI at 73 knots, and my altitude is 115 feet.||At 180º in to my turn, I’m still at 72% torque, my speed is off slightly at 67 knots, and I’ve gained 8 feet of altitude (which I am now correcting, as you can see by my VSI reading).||360º later, I am still a bit high at 120 feet, my speed is down slightly at 63 knots, but things are looking good.||Just like everything else, practice may not make you perfect, but it sure helps.|
Your approach to landing and the landing itself is another obviously important skill to learn and frankly, if you’ve practiced all the previous maneuvers, the landing is simply a combination of a controlled descent and hover. As you approach your landing point, you first reduce your throttle-collective to lose altitude, pull you cyclic back toward yourself to reduce forward speed, and keep the aircraft pointed directly at you landing pad or point. In the 4 screenshots shown below, I’ve approached my landing point with a bit of speed, so I use the flare (aft motion of the cyclic) while I increased the throttle-collective (which checks my descent and the additional thrust also assists at reducing my forward speed). Once I’m directly over my landing spot (3rd screenshot from the left), I still do what I need to stop my forward motion and I enter a hover at 2 or 3 feet over my selected landing area. Then I gently reduce my throttle-collective until I settle down on the tarmac. Like all maneuvers in a helicopter, you must practice, practice, and practice your landings, but once you begin to gain confidence you’ll find yourself looking for those difficult places to fly into.
To those of us that have grown up flying the fixed wing aircraft, generally looked at helicopters as a bit of an oddity, and I’m sure that everyone at one time or another has given the default helo/s, included with our copy of Flight Simulator, a go or two. Usually the session ends when we either have crashed the thing or have run into the nearest building or tree, then switched over to our favorite fixed wing aircraft. Early on, I would slew the Bell up to a good altitude then I would fly around as best I could, but rarely was able to land anywhere near where I intended.
When I tried using the various tutorials that are available, the author was normally an accomplished helicopter pilot (real-world and virtual) and their suggested system settings may have made for a more realistic flight, but the helicopter (virtual) was all but uncontrollable for me. Our intent here was to provide a much gentler approach to flying a virtual helicopter and hopefully more of you that have not given flying the default helos a second chance, may now wish to do so.
This tutorial may not show you the most realistic method of virtual rotor-wings, but it certainly is an approach to learning how to fly this type of aircraft so that you can add something else to your enjoyment of Flight Simulator, at least that’s my hope. Once you gain confidence, where you are able to take-off and land where you wish, you can start downloading and installing some of the really terrific helicopter related add-ons, rather that be additional helicopters or helicopter related scenery. The bottom-line is to have fun and enjoy your Flight Simulator software as it was intended.
---- Steve (Bear) Cartwright
For additional information, please refer to: Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004’s “Learning Center”, AVSIM’s rotor-wing forum, or Hovercontrol
To compliment the tutorial, Steve has compiled an extensive gallery of screenshots to show the many helicopters already available for Fs2004. You can find the picture supplement here
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