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How Fast Can You Fly Backward? Or Why Helicopter Pilots are Superior
This has been a serious debate for quite some time with battle lines well drawn and the debate field hot, furious, and emotional. Obviously, the heat of the debate and the surety of the participants are directly proportional to the amount of liquid intelligence that has been consumed. Nevertheless, this humble observer will present the evidence that clearly proves helicopter pilots are, as a matter of fact, the most superior pilots in the aviation community.
First, let's talk about the numbers. Airplanes have a lot of numbers, V1, V2, VTOSS, MMO, the figures many civilian helicopter operations emulate. However, while helicopter pilots try to operate "by the numbers", the operating environment often precludes such a luxury. The 757 pilot is, "going to come over the fence at Vref+15k" or some other such number like that. Meanwhile, the helicopter lands on a rig, perhaps with a 30 knot head wind, a 15 knot crosswind, or maybe he has to land in a remote area with no wind... and he will LAND AT 0 KNOTS GROUNDSPEED! If you know anything about aerodynamics, I shouldn't have to say anything else - the safety of the numbers does not always grace the helicopter pilot therefore, they need special skill to compensate when the numbers are not even applicable. The rotorhead may be landing at 40 knots IAS or 0 knots... airplane safety margins are all off!
Not convinced, let's talk operating environment. It would be nice to be able to land on a flat piece of paved real estate that was 200 feet wide and 8000 feet long, for every landing; but for helicopter pilots, that's the exception rather than the rule (We are even told to "avoid the flow" of the starch wingers lest we upset their "numbers.")
Helicopter pilots are called to land on small offshore platforms, smaller shipboard platforms (that can be bobbing and weaving like Mike Tyson), rooftops, forests, jungles, and next to highways at night to pick up the injured. This is a VFR (Visual Flight Rules) operation that would make most airplane pilots cringe. This goes beyond those fixed wingers who call themselves "bush pilots." Helicopter pilots are the true Bush Pilots - they land and takeoff in the midst of the bushes!
To this, the helicopter pilot adds all the stuff the corporate or 121 operator does. They operate in dense airspace, fly instrument approaches, operate at busy airports, and fly in severe weather - often without the help of a four-axis autopilot with "autotrim." (In fact, the only autopilot may be control friction... and any objective dual-rated pilots will confess the helicopter is quite a bit more difficult to fly on the gauges!)
At this point I have to interject for the prima Donna part 91 operators in their Citation X's, Gulfstreams, and Falcon 50's. Yes Veronica, there are a lot of helicopters with color radar, multiple MFDs, EFIS, digital fuel controls, 4 axis autopilots, and all the other goodies, so don't go there! We can operate your fancy equipment as well!
I'm not done - what about workload? The helicopter pilot is normally the "company man" on the job. Therefore, they must not only be able to fly the aircraft, they have to be the local PR man with the customer, often solving the customer's problems so the aircraft is used the most efficiently. The helicopter pilot might have to arrange for his own fuel and even refuel his own aircraft. He checks the landing sites, trains people how to work around helicopters without getting injured, and makes sure the aircraft does not disturb Grandma Bessie's chickens!
But wait, like the Ginsu knife, "there's more!" The rotor-head does it all. He does all the pre-flight planning, submits the flight plan, prepares all the paperwork including the weight and balance, loads and briefs the passengers, loads cargo, and after landing takes care of the unloading and finally arranges for their own transportation and room. This is often interspersed by telephone calls to some company weenie that changes plans and expectations every hour.
Finally, the all important question, "What about control touch?" I want to shut up all the hotshot fighter pilots. I've been in their aircraft and they have been in mine... I could fly theirs but they were all over the sky in mine! So then, Mr Starch Winger; when you see a Hughes 500 or Bell 206 pilot hold one skid on a 5000' knife edge ridge that is only two feet wide so passengers can step out onto the ridge, while the other skid is suspended in space... when you watch a Skycrane, Vertol, S61, 212, or 214B pilot place a hook, that's on a cable 200 feet below the aircraft, in the hand of a ground crewman... when you see a Lama, AStar, or Bell 206L land in a space in the trees that's scarcely bigger than the helicopter... and if you ever watch a BK 117, 105, or A109 pilot land in a vacant lot next to a busy freeway surrounded by power lines -at night... Well then, you'll have some idea who is the master manipulator of aviation equipment.
The bottom line is; if all you want is to get into the air, find a Cessna, Beech, F-16, or 757. However, if you want to truly fly, to be an artisan in aviation and develop a bird-like control touch; then, you want to be a helicopter pilot. After all, a rock would probably fly if you made it go 180 knots. The real question for our fixed wing brethren should be, "How fast can you fly backward?"
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