• How To Fly Helicopters

    How To Fly Helicopters

    Flying helicopters opens a new door for you, but as anyone who's tried will tell you, the learning process can be frustrating. With that in mind I'd like to offer a guide which should help you make the transition from fixed wing. This is written specifically for the FS2002 Bell JetRanger but the principles apply equally well to FS98 and FS2000. If you already have experience with helicopters in Flight Simulator you certainly won't need all of this...the headings are laid out so you can pick and choose the areas you'd like information on.

    This will help you with the basics. To get proficient you really need to train with a virtual flight school like Hoversafe Academy. "Been There, Done That!" It taught me alot and I've passed some of that on here. This year I've also started to get hands-on with the flight controls of a real 206B (not nearly as often as I'd like...)

    The Microsoft helicopter model is a very accurate simulation of the real thing. I've tried to keep the emphasis on realism but you may want to leave some sensitivities turned down until you're a bit more comfortable. As with all flying, you can only get better with practice. The one piece of personal advice I'll offer is this: you'll make mistakes and things won't go perfectly....when it stops being fun, turn the simulator off and take a break.

    Hopefully you'll use this as a supplement to the FS2002 Aircraft Book for the JetRanger, which covers all phases of flight. It's a must-read. What I'm offering is not to teach you how to fly the helicopter from scratch, but some settings and tips based on experience and real flight practices. As a virtual helicopter pilot you'll fly in some pretty rugged terrain, and the techniques described here can make your job a little easier. This guide was developed as an aid for pilots flying for Timberwolf Airways and focuses more on bush operations than airport to airport flights, although much of the instruction applies anywhere.


    A helicopter creates lift in a different way. Where a fixed wing aircraft has to be moving to produce lift, a helicopter achieves it by manipulating the main rotor blades, changing the angle they meet the air at. It can be in a fixed position while doing it. The drawback with this setup is the need for torque control with a tail rotor, which bleeds power from the engine every time it's used. That becomes a factor when you start getting into advanced maneuvers.

    Let's agree on some terms: The collective control is the lever to the left of your seat mounted on the cabin floor. Moving the collective up or down is what creates pitch change in the rotor blades, causing you to climb or descend. Microsoft suggests using the throttle wheel or lever on your joystick to do this, but that doesn't give you the level of control you get using the keyboard keys (F1, F2 etc..) If you prefer a joystick control for power that's fine too, although it'll make my suggested setup harder to use.

    The cyclic control is the actual "stick." It tilts the main rotor assembly through 360 degrees, allowing forward, backward and sideways flight. When the cyclic is centered I'll refer to that as the neutral position.

    If you don't already use the following method of speed and altitude control, you may want to in order to get the most out of this - it's how things are done in real flight.

    AIRSPEED - Controlled with pitch - While maintaining altitude, move the cyclic to change the airspeed. This requires a little coordination, similar to the throttle and yoke in a fixed wing. In level flight you increase collective/move the cyclic forward to speed up, reduce collective/pull the cyclic back to slow down. As you approach your desired speed, you have to adjust the collective to maintain it. It's a good idea to practice since you'll do this every time you take off or land.

    ALTITUDE - Controlled with power - Pull the collective up to increase climb rate, lower it to increase descent rate. This is combined with cyclic movements to produce constant speed climbs and descents or level flight. While at cruise altitude and power, any minor altitude adjustments can be made with the cyclic only.

    Any flight attitude in a helicopter is a combination of pitch (cyclic) and power (collective), just like the fixed wing aircraft you're already used to.


    Helicopters are highly maneuverable and responsive. The key to flying them is to keep control movements and power changes smooth and gradual. A JetRanger is not a Cessna and there's never a need to haul back on the stick. I know a real 206 pilot with over 10,000 hours and he flies by this simple rule: once you leave the ground, finger pressure only (meaning pressure to move the cyclic). A helicopter needs to be finessed, and that'll be one of your biggest challenges.

    One major handling difference with the JetRanger is that it doesn't try to return to a level flight attitude after you make a pitch change. It doesn't have any form of adjustable trim (not true for all helicopters). For example, if you pitch down when levelling off from a climb, the aircraft will continue descending unless you make an opposite cyclic input from the neutral position. Once you've levelled out, you need another input to take out that correction. This characteristic applies to forward, backward and sideways flight, and on a smaller scale in a hover.

    Performance is different in slow flight. The fixed wing aircraft controls you're probably used to become sluggish, but a helicopter stays responsive. That's important to remember because many beginners have a tendancy to over-control the stick (cyclic) in a hover, or while transitioning to forward flight.

    Power reductions require some attention. The main rotor blades are your only means of creating lift, so if you drop the collective completely there's nothing holding you up, even though the throttle is wide open. They can glide reasonably well but helicopters fall short of the abilities of fixed wing aircraft.

    The JetRanger is less able to cope with winds. In FS2002, maintaining a ground track in strong winds can mean flying in a constant turn...not just having the nose pointed sideways into the wind but having the aircraft banked a few degrees. Generally with a fixed wing like the Beaver, you find your correction angle then fly it wings-level. Crosswind landings are a handful. Try to avoid them if you're just starting. Unless obstacles make it impossible, you really should be taking off and landing directly into the wind anyway. A good rule no matter what your experience and it's more important in the 206.

    Uncoordinated flight - when the ball is not centered on the turn coordinator - creates huge amounts of drag in the JetRanger. You lose more lift and airspeed, faster than you would in something like a Cessna or an Otter. Sometimes it's necessary, and that performance penalty is worth remembering when crossing high terrain and on takeoff or landing. In either case a sudden loss of altitude could mean trouble.

    There are two important similarities between helicopters and fixed wings. You'll lose a lot of lift in steep turns, so be prepared to add quite a bit of back stick pressure. Altitude and airspeed loss can be much more sudden in the 206 (the exception to this is a translational turn, but let's stick to the basics!) You'll also tend to climb suddenly out of steep turns if you level off without nudging the nose back down.


    These settings will work for you. Some of them are examples of the tips you can get from a good virtual flight school. They're not the only way to go but with practice they'll make things easier.

    JOYSTICK - When flying the helicopter, disable the force feedback on your joystick if it has that feature. A helicopter doesn't have the stick forces that a fixed wing aircraft does and they shouldn't be enabled. On my joystick - a Sidewinder Force Feedback Pro - a good solution is to unplug the servo cord from the front of the joystick base. Just make sure you're not actually disconnecting the joystick from the computer.

    This increases your level of control tremendously. Some people actually remove the springs inside the joystick, although I don't go quite that far. What's left when you disable feedback forces is a fairly good simulation of real stick sensitivity. Two problems you can't overcome are the mechanical friction left in the joystick, and its unsupported weight. This can make some of your flying seem "jerky," but after all this is a simulator. A computer joystick can't duplicate the smooth hydraulics of the real thing but with these adjustments, it's close.

    RUDDER (TAIL ROTOR) - A set of rudder pedals is the best control method, but if you can't afford that here's a good substitute. Try using the twist function on the joystick for rudder control during initial takeoff, landing or hover, but also have rudder control assigned to some handy keys. This lets you make more subtle tail rotor inputs once you're established in forward flight. If your joystick doesn't have a twist function you're probably already using some keys.

    I use the numbers keys below the "F" keys: 8 for left rudder, 0 for right rudder and 9 to center things. You can assign these yourself and they don't have any important default function in Flight Simulator. Obviously you could assign any keys if these don't work out for you. Using these suggested keys with ATC enabled could cause a problem, and you may want to try some other assignments if you prefer to fly in that environment.

    CONTROL SENSITIVITIES - These sensitivity and realism settings are adjusted for FS2002 based on what I've seen in the real 206. Set the joystick aileron, elevator and throttle to full sensitivy / zero null zone. Set rudder sensitivity to 95% of the slider scale, zero null zone. FS2002 will leave these where you set them when you shut it down. If you decide to use the rudder keyboard assignments mentioned above, remember to make a corresponding adjustment to rudder sensitivity under the "Keyboard" tab in FS too, after you set the "Joystick" sensitivity.

    AIRCRAFT REALISM SETTINGS - You've probably seen this debated in some of the Flight Simulator forums. With FS2002, moving the realism sliders to just under 100% ("Hard") seems to be the most accurate simulation, considering the limitations of the controllers we use. In the Flight Model box under Aircraft Realism, I push the sliders all the way up, then back them off by two mouse clicks. For die-hard realism fans it has to be said that 100% is a tiny bit closer to real performance, but I haven't seen a joystick that can handle it correctly.

    For helicopters in Flight Simulator, you have to make subtle control allowances. The fact is you're not using hands and feet and vision together as closely as you can in the real thing. Your joystick is an electric control and doesn't have the balanced stability of a real hydraulic cyclic. So although FS2002 is an excellent piece of software, the helicopter control responses aren't exact, they're "a very close simulation."

    For some people realism just isn't a big deal, and there's nothing wrong with having things turned down if that's how you like to fly.

    One thing worth noting is that I've seen FS2002 check "Auto Rudder" under "Aircraft Realism" when selecting the JetRanger. If that happens you can just uncheck the box. Even if you prefer easy control settings everywhere else, having manual tail rotor control is important.

    DEFAULT COCKPIT VIEW OR VIRTUAL COCKPIT? - The virtual cockpit view is fun to fly with but affects how well you can control things. Using it in a hover or on approach is harder than the default view. Basically, you don't get a good forward view and easy visual access to the important flight instruments at the same time. In level flight at cruise it'll suit your purpose well enough, and a zoom factor of 80-90% gives you a fairly good pilot's perspective. You always have the option of switching back and forth if you like the added the eye candy...I do that quite a bit.

    In virtual view you'll have to pan from the horizon to the instruments and back again, or set things up to try and cover both, which distorts your forward view. Using it in anything other than level flight will hamper your ability to fly with precision, even at low speeds. You can resize and reposition the default panel to get a placement and perspective similar to the virtual cockpit, but with a better field of view. It's a compromise, but works pretty well.


    TAKEOFF - Let's focus on two important areas:

    1) Adding power. Ease the collective up to 50% torque using the F3 key, then shift your focus from the panel to the horizon. From this point it's a good idea to keep your view outside until you're established in forward flight. Now you can continue adding power slowly until the skids leave the ground. The more gradually you lift off, the more time you'll have to react to drift, and that's half the battle. Some people think watching objects close to the helicopter instead of the horizon degrades your ability to control a hover. Unfortunately though, FS doesn't give you a constant 360 degree field of view so detecting drift can be tough. Try to divide your attention between close objects and the horizon, so you get indications (movement cues) for both drift and attitude. From a low hover here you normally just apply some forward pressure to the cyclic and start to accelerate.

    That's fine in open spaces like an airport but isn't always practical in the bush. A safe way out of confined spaces is a climbing hover: Begin to hover in the same way as above but add some forward momentum if obstacles allow - 20 knots is ideal. If things are too tight straight up works too, it just presents more of a risk if the engine cuts out or you've got dangerous wind conditions. Increase power to 85% torque to climb sharply until any obstacles pass below the nose. As that happens, use the tail rotor to slowly turn into the wind and push the nose down to start forward flight. If you turn quickly you'll need more collective - the tail rotor is bleeding power from the main blades when you do this. Taking off from any unimproved surface will affect the helicopter's performance, and sometimes you have to do a little planning first.

    The attitude indicator in FS2002 matches what the real one looks like in a hover - level and centered. If a good visual reference isn't handy, that can help you keep things stable. Remember though that if you're fighting surface winds in a hover, that picture will look different. You'll be slightly nose down, or up, or tilted slightly to one side to compensate.

    2) Over controlling. That means making control movements that are out of proportion to the corrections required. It's common in the beginning and keeping corrections small but immediate is important. Cyclic and tail rotor movements affect each other and precision is impossible if you're heavy-handed. So before adding collective, the cyclic should be in the neutral position. Otherwise you'll start moving the second you leave the ground. If you lift off with things centered you can devote more attention to heading and drift. You're less likely to have to make big corrections. The FS Aircraft Book touches on this and it's an excellent habit to get into.

    CLIMBS & DESCENTS - Over airports and flat ground you won't go wrong using the numbers in the FS Aircraft Book. Climbs and descents over rough terrain generally don't work with those speeds - out of necessity they tend to be slower, and climbs tend to be steeper. There are a few things to watch in a steep climb. Try to maintain at least 20 knots indicated airspeed. Depending on the altitude, slowing to zero in a climb can result in an unplanned descent, and below 20 knots speed bleeds off quickly. Add collective carefully and don't exceed the limit of the yellow "max continuous power" range on the torque gauge. Exceeding safe power settings can actually twist the tail boom structure and crumple body panels. (This one's really only a factor if you've got aircraft stress enabled in the realism settings, but I know some people do use it...)

    For enroute descents from cruise 100 knots balances speed and safety nicely. One maneuver that needs close attention is descending turns, especially steep ones. Airspeed and altitude will change fast if you let the helicopter get away from you.

    APPROACHES - One of the keys to a good approach is maintaining visual contact with your landing area. It's impossible to adjust your descent rate correctly if you lose sight of it. Sometimes this means turning the nose slightly with the tail rotor to keep things in view.

    If you have trouble with landing on a precise spot, try using the top right corner of the instrument panel as a reference point. Fly your approach so the corner stays aligned with and centered on your landing area. If the corner sinks below the landing area you're descending quickly and you'll undershoot the landing. If the corner rises above the landing area you're descending slowly or not at all; you'll either overshoot or be too high as you drift in for a hover, with a poor field of view.

    That puts you on a glideslope similar to a fixed wing approach. In the bush where obstacles have a habit of getting in the way this won't always work. In many cases you'll have to come in low over trees or rocks, possibly climbing at the last second to avoid obstacles right next to the landing area. It takes some practice, and you'll probably put a few treetops through the cabin before you get it right. Using the virtual cockpit view can help a little in this situation, depending on how well you fly. This type of flat approach requires some specific power and speed numbers which are outlined in the landing sequence.

    LANDING SEQUENCE - The FS Aircraft Book does a great job of walking you through landings from the pattern ("circuit" here in Canada). Once you've got a handle on that you're equipped with the skills to land anywhere. The difference in bush flying is that you have to pick your own reference points, and those Microsoft trees all look the same. You've got the added problem of gauging where to reduce speed and start on final.

    Approaches in the bush are the opposite of airport landings. Maintaining target speeds becomes the most important factor. The type of terrain is also important, but secondary. Below is a sequence and some general rules of thumb to make things easier and keep you within a safe performance envelope. There are some corresponding images you can refer to. Every approach is a little different and you may have to alter things accordingly.

    Landing 1
    Landing 1
    1) Plan on being at about 100' above ground or obstacles 1/4 mile from the landing area. Simple enough if you pick a point and use the panel as a reference. If you reach this target altitude early, hold it until you reach 1/8th of a mile from the landing area. Coming in too fast is pretty common in the beginning, so try to maintain 60 knots during this initial approach. (See image "Landing 1.")
    Landing 2
    Landing 2
    2) Slow to 40 knots at about 1/8th of a mile from landing and begin to slowly descend. Things will start to happen fast. Check your descent rate. It's very important that you don't let your vertical speed get past 300' per minute - adjust power as required. Obstacles permitting, you want to be roughly as high above ground as the width of the rotor blades when you arrive at the edge of the landing area. As you get closer and closer to the edge, gradually slow to 30, then 20. Whether you're descending or not while doing this, you'll still have to carefully coordinate pitch and power. Next to hovering, that's probably the biggest challenge of the approach. If things happen too quickly and you're coming in fast or high, it's better to go around than to try and salvage a bad approach - good advice whatever you fly! (See image "Landing 2")

    3) As you cross the edge of the landing area, you should be levelling off and continuing to slow below 10 knots. You may have to reduce power slightly and bring the nose up to do that. Watch the ground to ensure you remain moving forward as you drift into position. When the exact spot you want to land on appears to slide beneath the nose, you'll be centered over it. Don't give up all of your forward momentum until you get that sight picture - it's important to a good landing, and safer too. (See Image "Landing 3" and "Landing 3a")

    Landing 3
    Landing 3
    Landing 3a
    Landing 3a

    4) Ease the cyclic back to bleed off any remaining momentum, then ease it forward again to level the attitude indicator when all forward movement stops - this sequence only takes a second or two so you want to be prepared and keep things smooth. Simultaneously add some collective to maintain altitude and establish a hover. Now it's just a matter of keeping an eye on drift and getting the skids to make contact with the ground. Keep your rate of descent as low as possible. If you drop the collective quickly now, the helicopter will settle with power and you'll drop like a rock. (See image "Landing 4" and "Landing 4a")

    Landing 4
    Landing 4
    Landing 4a
    Landing 4a

    By now you're probably thinking this whole business of flying helicopters seems like work, and you're right. But consider all the steps you follow when landing a fixed wing. That's probably second nature to you because you've done it so often, and this is no different. It's just a matter of repetition until you've got it down. Once that happens all of this will come together and result in smooth flights, and controlled landings that are on target every time.

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