Five years after her one and only visit to AERO Friedrichshafen, Rachel was delighted to find herself back in the ever-exciting Heli Hall with the FLYER team at GA’s top European show…
31 May 2023
There wasn’t anything new from the GA rotary world at this year’s show (and the only helicopters I hadn’t seen before were actually over in the ultralight hangar) but that didn’t stop me making a beeline for Hangar B5.
As if it were needed, I had an extra incentive for hanging out in the Heli Hall thanks to an invitation I’d received from one of my Instagram followers, Robby Jansch. An instructor with Heli NRW, Robby was over on the Loft Dynamics stand helping to run an H125 simulator.
The H125 is better known as the Single Squirrel – or the AStar, if you’re Stateside. It’s a popular machine for news and other aerial filming activities, as well as for law enforcement and charter.
Tom Cruise has one, and they have one at Heliflight at Gloucestershire Airport, where I’ve been flying recently. As I can barely afford the R44 hourly rate, I’ve so far avoided the temptation of booking any time in it.
I was excited then to get the chance to have a go at flying one in a virtual environment – and in a full motion simulator no less. The only sim I’d ever flown before was a 747 at Coventry, which didn’t move, so I was intrigued to find out how realistic a sim could be at replicating the rather more subtle and sensitive movements of a helicopter. This one, Robby told me, is apparently so realistic that pilots can do their check flights on it.
When I arrived at the stand, I was surprised to find my eyes needed to be measured up. It turned out that rather than the wraparound screens you might imagine for a sim, this one works with virtual reality goggles. They need to know the distance between your eyes to make sure they’re correctly adjusted for your vision.
Eyes duly measured, I climbed into the seat and donned both the VR goggles and a set of Bose A20s, through which I could talk to Robby, who was sitting, not in the seat next to me, but at a control panel opposite with screens that replicated what I could see through the goggles.
At first there was just darkness – and then all of a sudden, I was sitting in a helicopter on an airfield in the Swiss Alps on a beautiful sunny day. It was pretty surreal!
What felt especially strange was that I could look all around me, up at the sky, down at ‘my’ feet on the pedals and hands on the controls, just as if it were real life. It’s a much more immersive experience than a wraparound screen could have provided.
Counting down three, two, one, Robby lifted the helicopter into the hover and I followed through on the controls so that I could start to get a feel for the control inputs required. It really did feel as though I was flying! He handed me control of the cyclic on climb out asking me to try out the pitch before doing some turns.
When he gave me all three controls, I could immediately sense the ‘power’ available by how quickly I found myself too high. I had to lower the collective almost right down to start losing altitude approaching back into the airfield and I missed the threshold by some margin.
Once in the hover, things got really tricky. For the first few minutes, I felt as though I’d relapsed to the early days of being a student pilot, wobbling around and finding that every input I made shot everything else out of kilter. I was glad that they’d elected not to turn the wind up!
Within a few minutes I was just about managing a stable enough hover to have a go at a landing – not my finest effort, but safe enough – and then I attempted a take-off. This was made more challenging by the fact that the pedals are the other way around from a Robinson, meaning that the pedal work felt counterintuitive.
Once I’d climbed out, Robby demonstrated how the sim can be used to do night training. Nightfall came very quickly, the mountains disappearing and the runway lights and surrounding villages providing the only illumination in an otherwise black landscape.
It was incredibly realistic and I could see immediately how useful it would be for becoming accustomed to the specific demands of flying at night.
It was similarly realistic when, night having become day again, I was put through the experience of inadvertent flight into IMC on the downwind leg. At the touch of a button, the sim will replicate all sorts of weather, and the immediately disorientating sensation of entering cloud was just as powerful in a sim as it would have been in real life. I lowered the collective and felt a sense of relief when the cloud dissipated!
As my session came to an end I was on a nicely stable approach, which was abruptly cut off at short final, relieving me of the stress of coming back into the hover and landing.
From the sunny Swiss Alps, I was suddenly back in a small room in a busy hangar at AERO Friedrichshafen. Feeling ever so slightly queasy, it was back to reality and a hectic schedule, with a new-found appreciation for virtual reality helicopter simulators.