Transitioning from American to European helicopters… or vice versa

Many moons ago when I was a wee private helicopter pilot – ok, not all that long ago – I used to stress over my eventual transition from American helicopters to European ones. If that doesn’t immediately make sense to you, it’s because of the main rotor rotational direction. If you know exactly why, skip to the next paragraph. Pretty much all American-made helicopters have counter-clockwise rotating main rotors (when looking down on them) so the natural torque on the helicopter fuselage is nose-right, requiring left pedal when you apply power. Most European models are the opposite – at least of the Eurocopter/Airbus variety.

Sage advice about fancy footwork

When I was a kid in Southern California, I grew up around a helicopter operator that flew a fleet of AS350 Astars. Since these were the helicopters that solidified my affinity for the machines it was a natural aspiration of mine to one day fly them. By a turn of events and the course of my non-flying life, I still have yet to fly for that operator. But one year when I was working on my commercial helicopter pilot certificate, my girlfriend (now wife) and I took a ride to Catalina Island in one of those Astars. Before I jumped out I had to ask the pilot, Gary, a quick question.

Me: “I’m assuming you trained in Robinsons, right?”
Gary: “Yep.” (or something equivalent).
Me: “Was it a tough transition for you to make, going from Robbies to Astars [since the torque is in the opposite direction]?”
Gary: “Nope, not really. Just keep your eyes looking outside and just push the pedal you need. Try not to get too much into muscle memory with your feet.” (Paraphrasing).

To me his advice – though simple – was golden. I figured he was dead-on, but I wouldn’t know for certain until about eight years later. I tucked that nugget in my pocket for the someday and carried on with my flight training.

He was absolutely right.

Not only was he right about the transition from counter-clockwise rotor systems to clockwise, but his advice also helped me in general to fly by visuals and feel rather than muscle memory. Even new helicopters with the same rotating direction have their own feel. Each helicopter, for instance, will get light on the skids at a different spot in the collective pitch pull as well as at different gross weights. Some helicopters have mechanisms to add tail rotor pitch with the application of power, others don’t. Some helicopters have wheels. Some helicopters I have flown have yarn on the windscreen for trim while others just rely on the turn coordinator ball. Every new type is going to feel and fly a little bit differently than the last, but it would serve me well not to assume that any particular muscle “memorized” input would be applicable to all aircraft.

Putting the advice to the test

Around a year ago I finally got to fly a Eurocopter (we now have to start calling them “Airbus”, no matter how ugly a name it is) AS355N Twin Star. I first received some fairly informal stick time in the ship and eventually was put through a formal checkout this summer. Gary’s words from 2005 rang true: look outside and push the pedal you need (and don’t assume which or how much you’ll need, just be ready).

Helicopter WYSIWYG

What I seem to automatically do each time I hop in is say to myself something like “Right power, left auto”. Perhaps it’s a practice to calibrate myself for the footwork in general. Afterall, if you need to enter an autorotation, the pedal input is going to need to be somewhat quick and assertive. Outside of that it’s pretty much what-you-see-is-what-you-get, or rather, -you-need.

If you’re making the transition – or hope to – don’t sweat it. A helicopter is a helicopter. Many a pilot have made the transition and it’s really no big deal. If you’re going to be a well-rounded professional, you’ll eventually get to fly all kinds of stuff.