Took my first flight today. I'm not counting the trial I did fifteen years back - that's been long forgotten.
I should say flights, because I took two trial lessons, back to back. First I went out for half an hour in a Robinson R22, followed straight after by another half an hour in a Guimbal Cabri G2.
The most fascinating thing, from a personal perspective, is how much I've forgotten the mental effort it takes to learn a new skill. It's been over 25 years since I learned to drive, so these days it's an activity that comes easily. Trying to do anything new takes a lot of conscious effort, which is much harder than letting experience and subconscious govern (read the excellent Bounce by Matthew Syed if you want to understand what a process he calls 'chunking' means for experienced people).
We spent about half an hour in the classroom before going out to the helis, just to go over some fundamentals and talk about how one should use the controls (luckily I did remember some of this from the trial flight years back; plus I've owned Wagtendonk's Principles of Helicopter Flight for some time) in summary, gently with small movements. Then it was out to the airfield.
As I alluded to in the previous post my gut feeling has been telling me the Cabri is going to be the one to learn in, but I needed to experience it and the R22 to be sure. So, first up, the Robinson.
Wow is it tiny! The cockpit is best described as 'cozy' - you're very close to your instructor - and it's warm. There's not a great deal of ventilation in there, and the big bubble of glass means you feel like you're sitting in a goldfish bowl. Apparently you can fly with the doors off - although I'm not entirely sure if that's something I'd want to experience! Anyway, up in the air and the instructor gave me control with the cyclic only. The cyclic in an R22 can be best described as 'active' - in that it gently vibrates around on its own. You know you're 'attached' to a mechanical object - and possibly a slightly crude one at that. Nevertheless, it's fairly trivial to keep the heli on an even flight path. We circled around a bit, then experimented with the collective and anti-torque pedals. Eventually I had all three controls, and we took the heli back towards the airfield, with me responsible for the descent.
It's slightly surreal controlling the whole heli like this - part of my mind kept thinking 'am I really doing this?', and without even saying anything my instructor would suddenly say 'this is you flying, not me' and promptly [alarmingly] move his hands away from the controls! Trusting fellow.
Back on the ground, or rather I should say about 10 feet off of it, and I got to try another task - hovering. This is well known to be very hard, even with the instructor on the collective and pedals I could only keep the R22 pointing at a given target for a handful of seconds at a time. As in the air though, my instructor gradually brought in each of the controls for me until I was hovering the heli on my own. For about three seconds! It's not long before the Robinson would 'do its own thing' and my instructor would take control again, seemingly without effort placing the little R22 perfectly back to our practice hover spot (his control of the heli was nothing short of astonishing to this newbie).
The Robinson was put back on its spot, and we transferred to the Guimbal. The first nod to modernity is the most surreal in this context - wandering towards the aircraft my instructor takes out a car-like keyfob and presses a button, which unlocks the Cabri. Yes, it has central locking! Whilst my instructor carried out the safety checks I walked around the Cabri with him, and we discussed all the modern elements designed for safety - I'll write another post about this, but for now take it that the Cabri G2 makes you feel a lot safer than the R22 even before you've got in it.
Although the Cabri is still a two seater, like the R22, there is far more space in the cockpt - which also has a 'proper' cyclic like most other helicopters. There are neat vents in the doors to push good airflow inside, and the lower front portion of the cockpit is glass - which gives you a great view outside under the nose.
Much the same as the R22 flight before, we got into the air and my instructor gave me control with the cyclic only initially. Immediately one notices the difference to the R22 - the cyclic is steady, there's not that constant kicking feedback. Amazingly there is also a trim - you can set the 'hold position' of the cyclic, which makes flying the Cabri quite a relaxed affair. For starters I thought I was being as busy on the cyclic as in the R22, but then my instructor pointed out all the movement of the Cabri was simply me - I just needed to realise the Cabri was more sensitive to inputs and, basically, relax. I did, and immediately I noticed how much calmer flying the G2 is.
Having all three controls in the air is similarly relaxed - relatively. Don't misunderstand me and think this is like flying an aeroplane, it's far from it. That trim certainly helps, but you can't leave the controls untouched for long. Within seconds the Cabri will want to drift off and do its own thing, so you're still having to work to fly it.
The icing on the cake for my decision making came with the hover practice. With the cyclic I could hold the Cabri in place for a lot longer, working up to around 25 seconds with all three controls.
My instructor took back control for the final couple of minutes, and demonstrated the agility of a helicopter with aplomb - flying sideways down the airfield and flicking it backwards at one point. All delivered with the calmness of a man taking a drink from a glass of water. Very impressive.
Not that I think there was ever going to be any doubt, but my mind is set - I shall learn in the Guimbal Cabri G2. I've got a holiday coming up soon, but on my return I shall be booking my first lessons.