The Building Blocks To Helicopter Aerobatics
At its pinnacle, 3D flight is a series of complex maneuvers tied together in a well-choreographed sequence, flown with precision, fast action and moves that seem to defy gravity. For onlookers, watching a top-notch flight is captivating and thrilling. For pilots, developing the skills necessary to master 3D flight is not only exciting but also a rewarding experience as they progress along the learning curve.
There are no shortcuts, learning to fly like a pro takes dedication. And, while burning lots of fuel will help, the key to success lies in a focused practice regimen that builds a solid foundation.
In this article well cover the foundational steps in the learning curve, from what you need to get started to what skills youll need to develop to become a 3D pilot. In future issues, well take a look at some of the more advanced maneuvers that are built on this foundation to form a dynamic 3D flight.
This article is not about stick movements, as I believe that learning a move requires that you think about what is occurring and figure out what correction is necessary and then practice it enough so it becomes unconscious. It is far more important for you, the pilot, to understand why you stir your cyclic clockwise to do a piro-flip with a left-hand or counter-clockwise rotation than it is to know the stick movements. If you didnt know that, well, look at your helicopter and radio, think about the helicopters rotation and what is happening during a piro-flip, then figure out what command on the radio is needed to make it flip. Youll soon see it is easy to figure out the stick movements, but youll learn more by going through the visualization process by doing it yourself.
If your flying has hit a plateau and youre just not getting better, take a look at your foundation. You might find, as I often have, that you took a short cut along the learning curve. So, whether youre already wowing the crowd with your mad skills or still learning to hover, Ill bet youll find a few things you can still work on in this article.
GET A SIMULATOR
First, youre going to need a learning platform, one that is lightning fast to fix and comes with an unlimited supply of free parts. Face it, if you want to learn 3D youre going to crash; thats why I learn most of my tricks on a simulator before I try them for real on my helicopters.
Simulators allow you to make mistakes and they are all painless. However, no-pain crashes can make you lazy; so, to really benefit from your time on the simulator, each practice session must have a goal.
Dont just fly around, allowing the helicopter to go wherever it wants; be focused and diligent in your efforts. If you are working on forward flips, work on doing them in the same place and at the same altitude. If youre working on forward flight figure eights, work on maintaining your speed and altitude and be sure you are centering the maneuvers on the field. Apply this precision to each move as you learn it. Though more difficult, this level of precision will help you learn faster and ensure the skills you learn on the simulator carry over to the field. Being able to correct for position is a critically important skill to master for each maneuver and orientation.
A 3D HELICOPTER
It may sound simple, but you will need a heli that is capable of 3D flight and properly set-up to do so. Not every heli can fly 3D, it is important to do your research and ensure the heli you choose will perform the way you want. I am a firm believer in quality over quantity here. Get the best helicopter and electronics you can afford.
A good learning 3D helicopter should be agile, with quick cyclic and collective response, but it should also hover well, fly smoothly and the tail should be rock solid whether you are in a hover or falling like a rock in a tail slide.
When youre making your choice, dont be fooled by the box: collective-pitch helicopters that have motor-driven tails are not 3D trainers. Can they 3D? Of course, but they never do it as well as a helicopter with a driven tail. So, buy a proven 3D design with good cyclic servos and a great gyro coupled with a top-shelf tail servo.
I know many people that have spent hundreds if not thousands of dollars and countless hours trying to make their marginal helicopters fly well. Instead of learning while flying, they waste their time fixing and tinkering. Suddenly, that inexpensive knock-off isnt such a killer deal. You are not going to learn anything from a touchy and unstable platform. Instead, youll work too hard learning or worse yet, youll get frustrated and quit.
LEARN HOW TO SET UP
A HELICOPTER FOR 3D
If you arent sure about setup, seek out help and do your research. Locate a club near you, and meet their heli pilots and spend some time with them. Consider investing in a video series such as Rays HeliTech (page 112 in this issue). If you cant find local pilots, there is still plenty of information readily available. You can read online bulletin boards, or watch build and setup videos, and you can read magazine articles, websites and blog posts.
Understanding what makes a helicopter fly well is critically important to your success. If you find flying 3D on the simulator easy but when you try it at the field its an epic fail, your setup may be to blame. By design, simulators are set up correctly before and after a crash. In real life, this is definitely not always the case.
You might wonder, What on earth does hovering have to do with an article about 3D? The truth is the importance of hover practice is often overlooked. Shortcuts that pilots take when learning to hover will surely impact future successes.
Failure to learn this foundational step can easily be the difference between saving your helicopter from a crash and carrying home a pile of broken parts. Spend time hovering and do it often. Practice tail in, side on and nose in. Once you have mastered these positions upright you can move on to forward flight, but before you start flying inverted, you should also return to hovering and learn to hover inverted in all orientations as well.
FLYING FORWARD FLIGHT CIRCUITS
Now that youve mastered hovering, the next step on the 3D learning curve is to fly circuits. A circuit can be any shape you wish to fly so long as you are focus on flying the shape and maintaining forward speed and altitude throughout the maneuver. When learning to fly in forward flight, I started first by flying around myself doing circle circuits to the left and right. This allowed me to get used to flying the helicopter with some forward speed and to view the helicopter from the side.
Next, fly figure-8s; first fly eights that turn away from you (a left turn following a pass from the left to right) and once you have mastered these, then fly figure eights with the turns that turn toward you (a right turn following a left to right pass). Work hard to be sure that the turns are round, equal in size, and be sure that the helicopter crosses its path in the same place every time.
Once youve mastered figure-8s, fly circles in both directions with the center of the circle centered directly in front of you. It is critically important that you practice flying circles in both directions, at different speeds and of different diameters.
While fast is often more fun, be sure to practice your circuits in slow forward-flight as well. You will likely find it more difficult to maintain consistent altitude and speed when you are flying slow circuits, as it demands far more corrections and errors are more obvious as they have more time to occur.
LOOPS, ROLLS AND FLIPS
Youve mastered forward flight and upright hovering in all orientations. Youve learned to correct your helicopter and are confidently flying in fast, medium and slow forward flight. Your helicopter is properly set-up for 3D and you are ready to do your first loops, rolls and flips. Congratulations! You are well on your way.
The first trick I recommend is a loop, not a backward stationary flip, but a loop from fastforward flight. The reason for this is because the helicopter is moving quickly, which will help you maintain orientation and the forward speed will help ensure that the tail tracks through the loop so the gyro wont have to work hard at all. Finally, the rotor disk will provide more lift so even if you simply maintained your collective stick position in fast forward flight and just pulled back, you would probably loop without crashing.
The key to doing a loop is to fly straight and level in fast forward-flight, then pull back on the cyclic stick and hold it back, as the helicopter comes over the top of the loop move the collective stick down to keep the helicopter from pulling itself toward the ground. For your first loops, go ahead and drop the collective pitch well below center stick so the helicopter climbs a little bit when it is inverted on the top of the loop. This will provide you with more time for the second half of the loop and gets you in the habit of changing your collective input during the loop. As you progress, youll find that you can adjust the size and speed of the loop by adjusting the amount of pitch you carry through the loop. Be sure to practice loops flying from left to right and right to left.
Rolls are similar to the loop. Start your roll from fast forward flight, add cyclic and hold it to the side (right or left cyclic), when the helicopter approaches inverted, feed in at least enough negative pitch to maintain altitude. As you progress with rolls youll learn to move the collective stick to zero pitch when the helicopter is on its side, youll add a bit of negative when it is inverted, back to zero pitch when it is on its side again and a bit of positive when you make it back to upright. With practice, youll soon be able to do beautiful axial rolls. Be sure to practice flying rolls from left to right and right to left, and also be sure to practice rolling to the left and to the right.
Flips are just like loops and rolls, only you start and finish in a stationary position. They are not difficult, but you will likely need to move the collective stick more to avoid losing altitude during the flip. Practice doing these in all orientations just as you did for hovering maneuvers: tail in, nose in and side on both left and right. When you can maintain position and altitude through a series of flips in all orientations and in all directions (right, left, forward and backward), youve mastered flips.
INVERTED FLIGHT HOVERING AND CIRCUITS
At this point, youve developed a solid foundation. Youve already spent brief periods of time inverted doing your rolls, flips and loops. Youve developed the muscle memory required to save your helicopter. If you must, you have the skills to quickly bail out of any position, to get right side up and back under control.
This is also a great time to head back to your simulator for practice. As when you first started, the simulator will allow you to practice the maneuver with out the pain of a crash. But, to really learn, youll need to focus. Dont just meander around upside down, identify what you want to do inverted and force the helicopter to do it; whether its nose-in hovering, figure-8s or circles, dont let the helicopter fly inverted, fly the helicopter inverted.
After some simulator time and when youre spiritually and emotionally prepared, go try it at the field. For your first attempts at inverted flight, simply begin by either doing a half loop or a half roll. If you loop, fly for a period of time in a straight line, and then complete the second half of the loop. For rolls, do a half roll, hesitate for a while inverted and then complete the roll. For hovering practice, do a half flip forward, backward or sideways and stop when your helicopter is inverted. Begin by practicing a couple of mistakes high and practice your escape move. Learn to flip back to upright without losing altitude. In the beginning, being able to get upright and under control quickly is as important as learning to fly upside down.
At first, youll find yourself giving the control inputs a lot of thought such as What control do I need to give to correct the tail through a left hand turn? and Which way do I move the collective stick to adjust my speed and altitude? In each different orientation, things change, the corrections change and youll need to learn them. With repetition, your mind will learn these corrections, youll internalize the moves and the unconscious mind will take over. Soon, youll find inverted flight is no different than upright flight; sure the corrections are different, but its not harder, its just newer.
Now work to build your inverted foundation; learn to hover in all orientations, learn to manipulate the tail, cyclic and collective and learn to fly inverted circuits just as you did for forward flight.
BACKWARD FLIGHT UPRIGHT AND UPSIDE-DOWN
In marketing, a great ad delivers the key message in an unexpected way. If you have a big burger, you dont pound your audience with ours is bigger, you have an old lady do it for you by holding up a big bun with a tiny little burger shouting, Wheres the beef?
In 3D flight, it is all about the unexpected. If you want to wow the crowd, do something they dont expect. Sure its cool to dive straight at the ground while rolling and recover just feet above the ground, but do this tail first or sideways and recover inverted and half of the crowd will already be calculating the cost of the crash damage. In their mind, youve already crashed and there is no way you will ever recover. The fact that youre still flying: unexpected!
Backward flight is certainly unexpected, but with todays equipment, it is not difficult, its just different. Like inverted flight, some of the controls work differently. For example, in upright flight, a coordinated turn requires a cross-control, meaning the aileron/cyclic stick will move in one direction while the tail is corrected in the other direction. Whereas backward inverted flight is a coordinated turn, both sticks move together in unison and the elevator works in the same direction as it does in upright turns; the only real difference is you have to turn left to make a right turn and vice versa. Because its coordinated and the elevator/ cyclic operates the same, many fliers find that flying backward inverted feels more natural than inverted forward flight.
The key is to visualize the maneuver. Understand what youll need to do to perform it. Practice it on the simulator until it is at least somewhat natural. Then try it in the real world.
Once you have mastered these building blocks, you will have built a solid foundation, but I am sure that, like me, if you look hard at your flying, you have plenty of work still to do. I realize that some may have to look harder than others, but there are always places and techniques that you can improve.
Symmetry is one place where we can all improve. If you watch any of the top 3D pilots, youll see preferences in turning direction. It wont be obvious in upright flight, but if you watch the direction they do their funnels, high-speed hurricanes and pirouetting flips, you soon see their preference. Its not a bad thing, but learning to do the basics in both directions is critically important. Sure youll fly more tricks in one direction than the other but it will be out of preference rather than necessity.
My biggest challenge is doing tricks that require pushing the sticks to the center of the radio. As a result, I am more comfortable doing a right-hand turning (clockwise) backwards inverted hurricane, than I am doing a left-hand turning hurricane. My upright backward hurricane of choice is therefore a left-hand turning hurricane. The problem is that this makes it harder to create a symmetrical flight and limits my abilities.
So this summer, I plan to focus on working on my weaknesses and to spend more time flying these uncomfortable maneuvers, so that I can improve my foundation and my skills as a 3D pilot.
Take a hard look at your flying, look for the missing pieces in your 3D flight foundation and go to work on them. Sometimes all it takes is a few steps backwards to start moving forward again or backwards and inverted for that matter.