Richard Hammond

Richard Hammond

Richard’s big chopper

The twinge was a small one, but it was a twinge nonetheless. At a time when the armed forces are crying out for more and better helicopters to save lives, here was I fiddling about with the controls of the one I am learning to fly in another training flight across the Cotswolds.

It was only a small twinge, though, because the helicopter in question is just that: small. Like a blender with a matchbox slung underneath, it's more Moulinex than Military. But learning to fly it has rather given me an appreciation of what the guys are being asked to do in their bigger, far more serious machines, because the essential processes of flying a helicopter, whether huge and armoured or better suited to life on a kitchen work surface, are pretty similar.

There are all those old tales of flying a helicopter being akin to patting your stomach and rubbing your head and, yes, it sort of is a bit like that. Only if you get that wrong, you don't end up in a helicopter crash which is, as we have seen only too recently and tragically, a bad thing.

There is, as it turns out, more science going on around you when you lift, hover and fly a helicopter than at just about any other time. The headphones take care of the racket from the engine, but they can't isolate your senses from the assault of a million huge great lumps of physics being thrown at you all at once. The rotors operate just like an aeroplane's wings, only they are spinning round. That puts torque through the whole machine and makes it want to turn in the opposite direction to the rotors.

To counterbalance this, the pilot pushes a rudder pedal to operate the rotor. If you want to go higher, you lift the collective lever to change the pitch of the rotor blades to be more aggressive. But that means you're asking it to do more work, so you must pour in more power from the engine. Which introduces more torque, which means more rudder pedal. Which can induce a roll, which will need correcting with the cyclic. Introduce the faintest breath of wind, and it can cause the whole system to become variously more efficient, hideously compromised or rendered entirely ineffective - basically, you never, ever seem to stop doing stuff.

"Flying a helicopter is deeply frustrating, gives me a headache and I’m hopelessly addicted to it"

It's by far the most complicated thing I've ever tried to get the hang of - I'm still pretty useless at it - it's deeply, deeply frustrating, gives me a hideous headache and I am hopelessly addicted to it.

As a young man delivering antique furniture, I would pretend that the van I was driving - a Renault Trafic, if you're interested - was a helicopter and ‘fly' it to whatever posh house was awaiting its dining table or wardrobe by using the seatbelt mounting as a collective lever in my left and the steering wheel as the cyclic stick in my right hand. When I first took the controls of a real helicopter on a trial lesson, I figured that this early training would mean that getting my licence was a formality.

In the event, the pilot invited me to take the controls and told me to tell him when I was ready for him to take them back. I laughed derisively and announced that I don't scare easily. I gripped the collective in my left, confused at first not to find my finger resting on the familiar ‘Push' button for the seatbelt release, gripped the cyclic stick in my right and rested my feet on the rudder pedals; the pilot told me I had control, and we scythed across the airfield sideways in what were, quite clearly, the opening stages of a crash whilst I screamed at him to take bloody control back before we were both killed.

Some months later, I can, occasionally, hover, fly about a bit and land again. If the wind changes even fractionally, what I thought were the necessary control inputs required to fly a helicopter become as relevant as loading a dishwasher, and I once again find myself howling at the pilot to take control and make it all stop.

I'm very lucky; I know this. I have been able to realise a childhood dream and learn to operate a machine of fearsome complexity and capability. But perhaps most importantly, I have been able to learn to operate this tricky, twitchy, seemingly capricious creature without anyone firing rockets at me or demanding that I fly through smoke and bomb blasts as the only chance of survival for wounded soldiers lying on the scorched ground and praying for home.

The military don't send them out to pick people up because it beats the traffic jams getting out of a race circuit. By definition, the war pilots only go where it is already hitting the fan in a big, bad way. And whilst I, for one, am very far from being a warmonger, if we're going to send them out there, then I can quite understand why they would ask to be sent out with the tools needed to do the job. And get home.


Richard Hammond, Column

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