Free Time

Flying Without Wings

Expecting to be nothing more than a passenger in what was his first ever helicopter flight, Stuart Barker was stunned into action when handed full control of a £230,000 Robinson R44 just seconds after take-off.

Less than a minute ago I had never even sat in a helicopter. Now I’m flying one. Instructions are coming at me steadily through a communications headset as I bank the Robinson R44 to the right while trying to keep the nose of the aircraft pitched downwards just enough to keep us moving forward instead of inexorably upwards into the yawning blue. I’m also trying to maintain enough airspeed to prevent myself, my two passengers, and a very expensive piece of machinery, from dropping out of the sky.

My brain hasn’t had time to process the enormity of what I’m doing: it’s all happened far too quickly. Even when you’re learning to ride a motorcycle you have to master the basics in a controlled environment before your instructor lets you loose on the Queen’s highway. Yet here I am, one hand on the cyclic stick that controls pitch, altitude and direction, the other on the collective which controls torque. At least the latter feels vaguely familiar, given its likeness to the handbrake in a car. Apart from this small comfort, I couldn’t be in a more alien environment.

Of course I knew that I was going to be taken up in a helicopter, and I had hoped that, at one point, when it was straight and level, that I might be able to hold the controls for a few seconds just to be able to say that I had ‘flown’ a helicopter. But I’ve got much, much more than I had bargained for.

No sooner had the rotors of the Robinson R44 started turning than Mike Horrell’s voice came through crisp and clear on my communications headset: ‘Okay, raise the collective.’

Was he talking to me? No, clearly not. Must be some sort of aviation code-speak between him and the control tower at Conington airfield where we’re sat on the grass, the rotor blades whooping rhythmically, a familiar soundtrack from watching too many Vietnam war movies. I ignore Mike – convinced that he can’t possibly be speaking to me – and wait for my pleasure flight to begin. Then he says it again.

‘Pull the collective lever up in your left hand steadily.’

This time he looks over towards me.

Shit, he really is talking to me.

Like an automaton, I do as I’m bid. I pull up gently on the hand brake thingy and we lift off the ground and, simple as that, we’re flying.

No runway required, no building up to speed and getting used to the idea that we’re about to take off: one second we’re sitting on the grass and the next we’re in the air and climbing lazily to around 500 feet where we level out.

Up to this point, Horrell had been controlling everything else; pitch, yaw, roll, and direction, but it had been by my hand that we actually left the ground and the thrill had been sensational. But I don’t have time to reflect on the marvel of what I’ve just achieved: Horrell has other plans for me. As soon as he’s got the helicopter levelled off he tells me to take control of the cyclic stick as well as the collective, and he relinquishes full control of the £230,000 Robinson R44 to me. ‘Remember, brute force and ignorance doesn’t work when you’re flying helicopters’ he says through the headset. ‘You need the most delicate touch. Hold the stick as if you’re holding a fragile little sparrow. Push it left towards me and follow that stretch of water.’

He indicates the meandering curves of the New Dyke that cuts through the flat fenland which surrounds Conington, just south east of Peterborough.

I realise that, had I actually been holding a sparrow, it would have been crushed to death by now.

‘You’re holding on too tight’ Mike says, ‘I can see the whites of your knuckles. Relax.’

I’m not the first person to grip the controls too tight…

I try, but it’s not easy when someone has just handed you the controls of a real life helicopter and told you to get on with it. This isn’t a Playstation game. It isn’t a flight simulator (I’ve never even tried one of those). It’s a real helicopter. In the real sky. With the very real, and very hard, ground just 500 feet below us. Until now, the closest I’d ever come to flying a helicopter was repeatedly crashing a little £17.99, remote-controlled Pico Z round my living room. I’m undergoing the most surreal experience of my life here; of course I’m holding on too tight.

But getting pupils onto the controls as soon as possible is all part of Mike Horrell’s operating procedure. ‘When I do instructor courses I always emphasise the need for the instructors to get off the controls as soon as possible’ he says. ‘You have to let people learn by their mistakes, otherwise it takes so much longer. There’s dual controls so I can always recover a problem should one arise.’

I’m not the first person to grip the controls too tightly – as if I could physically force the R44 upwards or downwards, left or right, by brute strength. What’s actually needed is a feather-light touch, a musician’s gentle dexterity. ‘Helicopters are far harder to fly than fixed-wing aircraft, at least to begin with’ Horrell explains. ‘And the hardest thing for pupils to get their heads around initially is their grip on the controls – they always grab the controls too tightly and try to over-control the helicopter. The best people in the initial stages are those who have worked on hydraulic diggers and suchlike, because they’re naturally gentle on the controls. Motorbike people tend to be good too. The people you think are going to be wonderful aren’t always wonderful. And age is not the barrier. You might think that a 17-year-old would pick it up quicker than a 50-year-old but that’s not always the case. People also tend to spend too much time looking at the instruments in the early stages instead of looking out. As soon as they learn to look out towards the horizon it’s a different world and their flying instantly improves by about 500%!’

It’s only when Mike takes back the controls temporarily that I really get the chance to evaluate my situation and realise fully where I am and what the hell I’m doing. My brain has had so much to cope with in the last ten minutes – and so much of it completely unexpected – that I was almost stunned. No, that’s the wrong word; I didn’t even have time to be stunned. It was like being thrown into the sea with no armbands as a kid in order to learn how to swim (or was that just my dad?). You don’t have time to wonder if your father’s trying to commit infanticide or if there are any great white sharks off the West coast of Scotland, you’ve just got to, well, learn to swim. And so it was when Horrell handed me control of the helicopter just seconds after we’d taken off. If that doesn’t mess with your mind, very few things will.

But now I can bask in the sheer joy of flying in a helicopter without worrying about controlling it. And it soon becomes apparent that Mike Horrell knows his way around the sky. He’s got more than 20,000 hours logged in helicopters and it shows with every subtle, nonchalant adjustment he makes on the cyclic. He controls his aircraft like it’s an extension of his very self, effortlessly guiding it around the big blue like he’d been born with the gift of flight.

Horrell has logged over 20,000 hours in seats like these. I’ve logged none.

Horrell has taught literally hundreds of people how to fly over the last 20 years and typically has between 15 and 20 students under his expert guidance at any one time. I mean, this guy is qualified to instruct instructors. Mike Horrell really could teach his granny how to suck eggs.

Having flown helicopters for almost 40 years, Horrell was an early convert from fixed wing to rotor. Aeroplanes, he believes, simply don’t offer the same freedom, flexibility, and sheer fun, as their rotor-driven rivals. ‘I went on a course at Oxford in 1973 to get my fixed wing licence, had a go in a helicopter, and decided on the spot to learn to fly a helicopter instead of an aeroplane. And I’ve been on them ever since. They’re just more fun. It’s a completely different kind of flying too; the only comparison with flying a fixed wing aircraft is that you’re off the ground. That’s where the similarity ends.’

And in a helicopter, sometimes that means not very far off the ground. Not very fat at all. At one point we startle a deer and watch it bounding off over the flat fenland landscape. But it’s only when I see a rabbit running hell-for-leather over the same patch of land that I realise I could probably jump out and land without injury. This is low level flying at its lowest. Which is why I’m relatively shocked when Mike gains just a little more height, levels off, and announces he’s going to kill the engine and let us auto-rotate (ie ‘fall’) out of the sky.

I do a mental double-take. Excuse me?

‘Everybody says helicopters are dangerous but I can assure you it’s usually pilot error that causes accidents’ Mike says as I begin to wonder about the state of his mental health and wonder if it would be safer to jump. Maybe that rabbit knew something. ‘Helicopters themselves are actually really reliable. I’d rather be flying one of these than be driving down the motorway, all boxed in by speeding traffic. These things are miles safer. Even if you suffer engine failure you can auto-rotate safely to the ground. Watch, I’ll show you.’

And with that, he kills the engine. Gulp.

What Horrell is about to demonstrate is that helicopters can still land safely in the event of an engine failure – that they don’t just drop out of the sky like a 660kg (the R44’s ‘dry’ weight) stone.

But it’s still rather disconcerting when he kills the perfectly good engine and all we can hear are the rotor blades whooping like an overhead lasso as we drop downwards. I’d have thought he needed more height for this; we seem to be awfully close to the ground. Er, can we have some power now Mike. Please.

The procedure is called auto-rotation and it works because the rotors are kept in motion by our downward progress. The wind rushes through them and causes them to turn, just like a windmill. It’s so effective that, apart from the lack of engine noise, you’d be hard pushed to tell that we’re not under power. Horrell allows us to drop within a few feet of the ground before turning the engine back on and launching us gracefully skywards again.

He’s clearly done this countless times and executes the manoeuvre beautifully, but he must have had some hairy moments in almost forty years of flying, right? Apparently not. ‘The only real problem I’ve encountered was with military jets when we were doing some agricultural spraying in Scotland. You don’t get any warning that they’re in the area, so you have to just crawl over the tops of hills, have a quick look around the sky, and carry on your way. It’s incredible how low they fly: I was once spraying a forest in Wales – I was working on the side of a valley – and two military jets actually came underneath me, flying through the valley!’

Banking hard in the R44 was a total rush – like riding a motorcycle in the sky.

In Horrell’s hands, the Robinson R44 is a graceful beast, responding instantly to his slightest bidding and ferrying us around the sky effortlessly; a giant dragonfly, frolicking in the summer sun (excepting the fact that it’s freezing outside of our little cocoon). I suddenly spare a thought for our photographer, Bob Laughton, who’s sitting behind me and has gone very quiet. He seemed slightly anxious about his first flight in a helicopter and a considerable amount more so when Mike announced he was going to remove one of the doors so Bob could get better air-to-ground photographs. But Bob’s a trooper and just gets on with the job. It’s only later that I learn he had called The Moment’s publisher and asked if ‘Stuart was really going to be flying the helicopter?’

‘I shouldn’t think so’ the publisher lied. ‘Maybe just straight and level for a few seconds while we get a photograph.’

I’d love to have seen Bob’s face when Horrell handed me full control just seconds after take off! Sorry Bob, but I didn’t know either.

‘We wouldn’t normally do this on an introductory flight’ Horrell says over the headset, ‘but it’s just to show you what the Robinson’s capable of.’

With that we bank hard to the left, the helicopter feeling as if it’s almost on its side. It’s a total rush, like riding a motorcycle in the sky, with 360 degrees to play with. Mike spins the whole aircraft round so we come back on ourselves then picks up speed and performs a series of funky aerobatics. The R44 responds like a race horse on the final furlong; thrilled to be once more in capable hands and eager to show off its full capabilities to its impressionable passengers.

I’ve wanted to do this since I was a kid. Low level flying is so utterly different to being up above the clouds in a commercial airliner where there’s no frame of reference as to how fast you’re travelling. But this – skimming over hedges and trees and rivers and farm houses – makes me feel like I’m in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or on a witch’s broomstick. High enough to be technically flying, but low enough to still be in touch with everything on the ground. I’m a bird. I’m Superman. I’m on a magic carpet ride. I’m Harry Potter on a Nimbus 2000 racing broom….

I’m getting carried away.

Horrell tells me to get back on the controls and invites me to try the hardest manoeuvre of all: hovering. Sounds simple really, just hold the helicopter in the sky – like you would balance a car at the top of a hill with the clutch and accelerator – and make minute, ongoing adjustments to keep it stationary. But it’s nowhere near as easy as it sounds. ‘Look at the horizon – don’t look down. Keep moving ever so slightly forward, it’s the only way to do it’ Horrell says. ‘You have to have a tiny bit of forward momentum.’

The helicopter wants to pull to the right. I correct it and it veers off to the left. Too heavy on the controls again. A bit more throttle. Too much. Rest my feet more lightly on the anti-torque pedals which adjust the sideslip angle and control yaw. Push the cyclic stick forwards a fraction to dip the nose down. Shit, too much. Pull it back towards me – just millimetres – and try to keep her steady. It’s an extremely fine balancing act that, like riding a bicycle, would probably take ages to learn, but once you’ve found that balance point, I get the impression that you would never forget it and it’d be a piece of cake afterwards.

We need to get ground-to-air shots so decide to drop Bob the photographer off. Horrell allows me to control the collective lever as we land. ‘Bit more. Bit less. Okay, okay, hold her steady. Good, good.’

And we’re down. Simple as that. None of the drama and two-mile runway taxiing that makes landing an aeroplane such an event. This is more like plonking your backside into your favourite sofa.

I sit, half stupefied, as I watch the grass dancing in the downwash of the slowing rotor blades. I’ve just flown a helicopter. I remove my headset as the blades finally come to rest and the R44 exhales a final sigh before closing all systems down. I may be back on terra firma but it will be hours before my mind comes down from the incredible high that flying a helicopter provides.

It’s been said that if God had meant for man to fly He would have given us wings. I disagree. I think He would have at least have given us the option of rotor blades.

Applauding my own efforts. Well, I was quite chuffed with myself…

Getting your licence

‘I reckon the average time someone takes to get their private pilot’s licence for a helicopter is about 55-60 hours and people tend to spread that over a year, two years, or even longer’ Mike Horrell says. ‘The longer you leave between lessons though, the more hours you’re likely to need because you’re having to re-familiarise yourself with everything. There are seven or eight written exams ranging from air law to meteorology and you also have to do a practical radio test. Then there’s one flying test at the end of it all which determines whether or not you get your PPL. If you do everything in the specified time (45 hours), which some people do, it costs around £13,500, so it’s not half as expensive as people tend to think. It’s commercial licences which cost big money (more like £50,000), not private licences, and most people go for a private licence. The hours required to gain a commercial licence are much higher and the ground subjects are exactly the same as if you were training to fly a commercial airliner, so that’s why it’s so expensive. Once you have your private licence, you only have to fly two hours a year to keep it, which I think is a bit ridiculous, although you do need to pass a quick proficiency test each year too.’

Give It a Try

You can fly a helicopter for as little as £160 if you book an introductory flying lesson. The price includes a 30 minute pre-flight brief and a 30-minute flight, during which you will actually fly the helicopter by yourself under Mike’s instruction. A one-hour flight costs £299. Mike Horrell’s Robinson R22 or R44 helicopters are also available for private hire at the following rates:

R22: £250+VAT per hour for instruction/£190+VAT per hour for private hire

R44: £385+VAT per hour for instruction/£330+VAT per hour for private hire

Call 01487-834488 or 07779-086911, email or visit for further details.

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