Get your rotors running: learn to fly a helicopter

Learning to fly a helicopter is easy, says Tony Newton. To get a licence, all you need is the touch of Roger Federer, a computer for a brain and £10,000 or so in loose change
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The Independent Travel

Learning to fly a helicopter is an itch that has needed scratching for years, but the key element for me has always been time. My experience of learning to fly fixed-wing aircraft was that an hour or two a week resulted in "two steps forwards, one step back", a rate of progress that translated into more time taken and more money spent.

Mastering a helicopter requires a combination of skills. One is a lightness of touch, another is co-ordination akin to patting your head with one hand, rubbing your tummy with the other, while tap dancing and singing the national anthem at the same time.

Although some might say this view is an exaggeration fostered by helicopter pilots themselves, I took it seriously enough to feel that I needed to train somewhere that would allow me to progress as quickly as my brain could manage.

A second consideration was that trying to fit in flying with work is counterproductive. An hour's flying slot easily eats up half a day, and I know that trying to learn something in the air when you have work on your mind is a waste of money.

The US and South Africa were in the running as locations which could offer both quality training and a holiday I could enjoy with my wife, Jill, but a visit to the HeliFlight stand at the London Air Show in April last year convinced me that New Zealand, the Landof the Long White Cloud, was the place. With a little help from Britain's Civil Aviation Authority, it is possible to convert training time in New Zealand towards a UK Private Pilot's Licence (PPL).

Our trip does not start auspiciously, though; as we arrive in Auckland, the X-ray machine reveals a forgotten apple at the bottom of Jill's bag. An instant NZ$200 (£70) fine, no appeal. The fact that it is probably a New Zealand apple coming home cuts no ice.

Tired and considerably poorer, we arrive at Pleasington Homestay, a B&B in semi-rural Whitford, to the south of Auckland and within easy driving distance of Ardmore airfield, the venue for my debut flight behind the wheel, or joystick to be more precise. The hospitality of our hosts, Nancy and Roger, is superb and, after a day to recover from our long-haul flight, it is off to the airfield.

Within minutes of being introduced, my instructor, Anthony Carino, is showing me how to preflight (make the preparations and checks required before takeoff) the Hughes/Schweizer 300 CBi helicopter we will be flying. It is worth pointing out that I have deliberately chosen a school that does not teach on the cheaper and more widely available Robinson R22. Without getting into a debate about the pros and cons of each, the 300 has more elbow room and is reportedly less twitchy than the much-loved "Robbie".

Once at a safe height, my broad grin at the vertical takeoff disappears as my brain focuses on the controls. Anthony presents them one by one: first, the pedals, which control where the helicopter's nose points - which is not necessarily the same direction as the one in which it is travelling. Next comes the collective, a lever by my left arm. Lift it and the helicopter rises; lower it and the machine sinks. Fine, except that on the end of the collective is a twist-grip that controls engine and rotor speed, so you have to twist backwards and forwards as well as lifting up and down.

To complicate things further, moving the collective makes the nose swing; correcting this requires a change in pedal pressure.

Still, so far, so good, but my brain is already complaining. The last control to be introduced is the cyclic, the joystick which controls the helicopter's speed as well as moving it forward and back, left and right.

By the end of this first flight I'm quite prepared to believe that I will never be able to control one of these things, but I'm told I've made a promising start. Subsequent flights see me making good progress, and the intensity of the training is punctuated by some hands-on experience of how versatile a helicopter can be. On Valentine's Day, we are delivered by air to the Stony Ridge winery on Waiheke Island. There is no doubt that helicopter, as any A-lister will testify, is the way to arrive, and we are led to the best table, on a terrace overlooking a hillside full of vines.

Four days later it is Jill's birthday, and this time we land on a helipad in a huge olive grove. As we descend we spot a waiter with a towel over one arm and a tray with champagne and two glasses. The restaurant we are visiting is Bracu, which has only been open three days, and the food, location and atmosphere are all superb.

Next day the good life reverts to reality, with me back in the 300 and trying to master the hover. Helicopters don't like staying in one place, so hands and feet become engaged in trying to anticipate the machine.

Hovering at a height that will probably damage both the machine and ourselves if I lose control, I ask Anthony how he knows when to take control. "I listen to the student's breathing," he says. "When they start holding their breath, they're getting overloaded."

As my hovering skills improve, the 8 sq m landing boxes marked on the airfield grass take on a fiendish role. I learn to hover around the edges of each box, moving slowly forwards along one side to a corner, turning left to the next side, and so on until I end up back where I started.

The next exercise is worse, as I try to follow the same lines, but this time keeping the helicopter facing the same direction all the way round: forwards to one corner, sideways to the next, backwards to the third, then right.

There is only so much that the human brain can take in one go, so the gap between flights provides crucial recovery time as well as some sightseeing opportunities. Our choice is to visit wineries, walk in the national parks, fish and sit in coffee shops overlooking the sea. The Howick historical village stands out in my mind as a "must see", but adrenalin junkies could just as easily surf, bungee jump from Auckland Harbour Bridge or base jump by wire from Sky City.

Back in the air, I tackle transitions (moving from the hover into forward flight) and circuits (the routing used to arrive at or leave an airfield). It is all coming together nicely; just as well, as it's time for a change of venue and we head for HeliFlight's second site, near Wellington, to continue my instruction.

We take the one-hour scheduled flight and homestay at Westwood, a lovely property in Greytown, a small town 20 minutes from HeliFlight's Masterton base. The number of antique shops suggests that this is a favourite destination for Wellington residents, and it is a great base for exploring the Wairarapa region, the Martinborough wine trail and the Cape Palliser seal colony and lighthouse. We even manage to take in an open-air production of The Taming of the Shrew at the Gladstone winery.

Flying from Masterton, my new instructor, James Foward, and I climb to Baldy Peak in the Tararua Mountains at over 5,100ft, then practise fast, low-level flight along the Waingawa River. The fun over, it's time to learn about autorotation, or what to do in the case of engine failure.

Contrary to myth, a helicopter doesn't necessarily fall out of the sky when the engine, affectionately known among pilots as the "donkey", stops. The machine can glide to a survivable landing (albeit a brick-like one), much as a sycamore seed rotates to the ground, but only if the pilot makes the right moves, and quickly.

That means dropping the collective lever smoothly but speedily to the floor. As the engine is not producing power, you must also add a lot of right pedal to prevent the nose yawing to the left. The nose wants to drop, so you need to add back-pressure on the stick into the mix. Bearing in mind you are about to crash, it's a lot to think about.

As you travel downwards at a worryingly fast speed with the ground rushing up to meet you, it is crucial to slow the machine down and recover into something that constitutes a landing rather than a semi-controlled crash.

After rounding off our time in Wellington at the Te Papa museum, it is back to Auckland and a different homestay, a property just outside Clevedon boasting a self-contained chalet with privacy and living space in abundance. There doesn't appear to be much going on in Clevedon, apart from the excellent local café, but the presence of the many wineries and stud farms visible from the area suggests there is plenty of money around.

At HeliFlight, the chief instructor, Andy Mackay, asks to fly with me. The ensuing flight is tiring and taxes me almost to the limit, and I'm quite ready to quit for the evening as we land for what I hope is the last time. But it's not. Andy tells me to do one good circuit, and hops out.

Strangely, I'm more worried about bending their helicopter than I am about damaging myself as I lift into the hover. A clearing turn and I make the transition into forward flight. Raising the collective, I climb and repeat the circuit I've rehearsed so often.

Within six minutes, it's all over. I've flown my first solo within the allotted timescale and budget, and had a great three-week holiday with Jill into the bargain, for not much more than flying training alone would cost in the UK.

Learn how to hover at home and abroad

Tony Newton flew with HeliFlight NZ (00 64 9 299 1104, heliflight.co.nz). Gaining a full private pilot's licence (PPL) in New Zealand takes about 12 weeks or 52 hours' flying time in a Hughes/ Schweizer 300 CBi. The overall cost is around £8,000, plus travel and accommodation. January to March offers the best chance of good flying weather. Fourteen hours of dual instruction with HeliFlight on a Hughes/ Schweizer 300 CBi costs around £2,100; 14 hours is the minimum flying time accepted by Britain's Civil Aviation Authority for those wishing to transfer their training to a British school. The CAA will, at their discretion, permit those hours to count towards a UK PPL, subject to your training being on the same type of helicopter, at a recognised training establishment and with a det-ailed training record. The cost of 14 hours' equivalent training in the UK is around £3,500, with the overall cost of a licence (based on 40-60 hours' flying time) between £12,000 and £16,000. For more details of UK instruction: 020 7379 7311, caa.co.uk. If you complete your helicopter PPL in New Zealand, conversion to a UK licence requires a flight test and passing the UK air law exam.

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