I started my helicopter instrument training in December. As I already have my Instrument Airplane rating, the requirements were pretty minimal. I needed 15 hours of dual time, and certain amount of cross country time, and a few specific cross countries. However, between my work schedule and rough winter weather, progress was slow. It took December through March to get my 15 hours. It then took another two months and EIGHT cancelations for weather before I was able to finally knock out the checkride.
I don’t have any real pictures of instrument training, nor am I going to recount the experience in detail. I will briefly note my observations of the differences flying a helicopter vs an airplane by instruments. First off, the aircraft you are likely to train in – Robinson R-22s and R-44 etc can’t fly instruments even when they have all the avionics to do so. Helicopters have some unique requirements to fly instrument. Helicopter manufacturers will use a combination of trim systems, stability augmentations systems (SAS), auto pilots, flight directors and or aerodynamic surfaces. Put simply, the aircraft you’re going to rent or train on, even with all the attitude indicators and GPS WAAS approach capabilities will not be certified for IFR operations. As a helicopter pilot, you’re unlikely to be in an aircraft capable of IFR flight until you get to major turbine aircraft with multi-pilot crews, advanced flight directors, and perhaps multiple engines. All this is to say, that the Private Pilot Instrument Helicopter rating has to be one of the most useless ratings there is. If you can afford a helicopter capable of IFR flight – you can afford a pilot!
Regardless, I got the rating, because, well basically because its a rating, and I’d like to collect them all, like POGs, or Pokemons (is that a thing?). So how about the actual flying? I’ve heard a few airplane pilots say “Oh, instrument in a helicopter must be so much easier.” Followed by one of the following statements, “You can just slow to a hover on the approach” “If you’re off the ILS you can just go straight left or right” “It is so much slower everything must be easier!” Wrong. And wrong some more. Hand flying the helicopter under the visor is more difficult than your standard GA aircraft. The relationship between the cyclic and collective, and performance – while similar – is not precisely the same. Further, the R-22 is FAR less stable than anything you will fly in a typical GA flight school. So, hand flying is harder. Cockpit management is both harder, and easier. In an airplane, its easy to trim the plane and take your hands off the controls to flip switches and dial frequencies. Most general aviation aircraft are so stable if you have it trimmed well, you can take your hands off the controls for a very long time indeed. I’ve demonstrated this stability to students. Trim the airplane. Take your hands off. A little rudder input can help to maintain heading, and as your nose dips, speed increases you start to climb – the reciprocal happens. GA airplanes just want to fly straight and level. Well, in a helicopter, particularly a Robinson R-22, trust me, you are never taking your hands off the cyclic. To do so would be, well suicidal. You can take your left hand off the collective periodically, but this should be avoided at high power settings and for any extended period of time. There isn’t an autopilot, and the high instability combined with hands always on the controls makes managing frequencies, switches, GPS etc very difficult. Luckily, for the practical exam, you have an out – of sorts. Since helicopters that are certified for actual IFR flight all include some combination of autopilots, flight directors and multi-pilot crews, you are allowed to simulate autopilot by having the examiner act as an autopilot while you do some button-logy. In this sense, the helicopter instrument rating becomes easier. While the airplane can be flown hands off for a period of time, you are expected to manage the cockpit as a solo pilot. The expectation is not the same in helicopters. Flying approaches, and holds, and the like really are the same as an airplane. If you’re off the ILS you don’t just stop and go left or right. You have forward airspeed and you fly a correction just like an airplane. Anyways, thats a quick down and dirty on the differences from a newbie helo pilot’s point of view.
Did I enjoy the instrument training? Honestly, not really. While there was a novelty in doing it in a helicopter early on – for the most part it was more of the same. The most enjoyable parts of flying a helicopter, are its amazing visibility, its ultimate STOL and its off airport capabilities. These are all pretty much lost under the visor. Further, as I have no real intention of ever being a professional helicopter pilot (beyond perhaps a CFI as a hobby / part time gig) it does not serve much use. I’m glad I got the rating though, as I’m sure I’m an incrementally better pilot as a result. Next up, commercial add-on, and CFI-H add-on. Then I’m done. Except maybe a seaplane rating. I’d really like to get one of those at some point!