Which Helicopter Should I train In?

Once again, like the “How Much Will It Cost?” question, the answer is not straightforward as there are so many factors that are personal to an individual student pilot. For example, if you weigh 17st (108Kg) or more you’re unlikely to be able to fly the R22 as you’ll need a racing snake for an instructor and would be over the max seat weight should you put on a bit more weight.

Conversely, if you’re young, slim & talented and training to become a commercial pilot with an aim to fly large helicopters in the oil industry, then you should learn on the cheapest machine you can find (probably the Robinson R22) as it will have little bearing on your future career.

Perhaps you aspire to fly / own an Airbus helicopter. In this case the Cabri G2 might be the best fit. Or the local airfield may have some Robinson R44s available for self fly hire, in which case this could be the best choice.

It’s not a simple answer, but maybe a bigger consideration is which models of helicopter are available at the training school(s) that are within travelling distance of your home. There’s little point wanting to fly the Cabri if you live 3 hours drive from the nearest training school with one.

With these factors in mind, let’s look at the helicopters typically available to ab-initio (first time) student pilots and their typical cost per hour. [Costs are based on the wet rate inclusive of VAT from a survey of helicopter training schools in the South and Central England Oct 2014 and do not include airport fees and other costs.]

Robinson R22

The R22 is the most popular training helicopter in use in UK schools because of its low cost per flight hour, typically around £330. However, the R22 was never designed by Frank Robinson as a basic trainer and has a number of flight characteristics that can take a while to master. The primary of these is its low inertia rotor head.

Loss of rotor RPM is a major safety risk in helicopter flight and the cause of many accidents. Having a low inertia rotor system is no problem in powered flight as long as the governor / throttle is managed properly, however, it makes the R22 harder to fly in autorotation where management of the rotor RPM is crucial for a safe outcome. Learning this skill takes time and can take a fair amount longer in an R22 compared to other aircraft.

Another key consideration with the R22 is you, the student. If you’re over 6ft 4 tall or wide in the shoulders you may not find the helicopter that great a learning environment. You may well feel crammed in and as a result take longer to pick up the subtle control inputs required to fly this highly responsive machine. If you’re over 240lbs (17st 2lbs or 109kg) then you’re above the seat weight limit and would be breaking the law by operating the machine as such. [This seat limit also includes anything you’ve put under the seat, so if you weight 230lbs (16st 6lbs or 104kg) and you’ve put your flight bag, some oil and a bottle of water under the seat – you’re still probably operating the machine outside the limitations set in the Pilot’s Operating Handbook and, therefore, illegally.]

Some people don’t like the “shared” T-Bar cyclic control and claim that it’s not like flying a “proper” helicopter with a traditional between the legs cyclic. However, most of these people have already learned in a traditional helicopter and then don’t like the Robinson design as much. For those starting out (I feel) it makes little difference to the overall learning experience.

The R22 (like the R44) has a governor which controls the engine and rotor rpm (unless overridden). This means that little time is spent practicing manual throttle control when flying these types. Is this a problem and should everyone learn with a manual throttle? Given the number of governor failures reported across all types of helicopter, I think not. Whilst it is paramount that the pilot is able to manually control the throttle in the event of a governor failure, it is much more important that they conduct so many other areas of a flight correctly as these are where accidents and incident occur.

Robinson R22
Cheap, widely available and introduces the student to the Robinson way of doing things. [If you’re going to self fly hire a machine once you’ve got your licence Robinsons are the world’s most available machines.]
Low inertia head can make rotor RPM and autorotations hard to master. Individual’s size and weight can cause issues. Lively handling takes longer to master.

Guimbal Cabri G2

When introduced in 2008 Cabri G2 was the first 2 seat helicopter introduced for 30 years. Its state of the art design is reflected in many areas of the helicopter, from the high inertial three bladed rotor head, to the Fenestron tail rotor and glass cockpit.

Built to the latest European safety standards the G2 is more modern than the R22 and has been designed with a clockwise main rotor like the Airbus helicopters. Those who have flown the R22 welcome the extra space provided by the G2, it’s high inertia rotor head and easier handling characteristics. The sleek composite fuselage and advanced rotor system allows the G2 to reach a maximum speed of 130 knots, matching that of the larger and much more powerful Robinson R44.

Designed with flight training in mind, the G2 offers precise and responsive handling characteristics with no apparent vices and (importantly for students) is also forgiving. It will happily let you get away with doing things that you wouldn’t dream of attempting in other aircraft, low-g manoeuvres included.

Because the rotor system spins in a different direction from the R22 & R44 switching between machines during training would not be advised.

Cost per flying hour is around £410.

Guimbal Cabri G2
Modern construction to latest safety standards. Superb learning environment, particularly for those looking to fly Airbus Helicopters. Practical machine to fly once you have your licence.
Cost (but you are flying a modern state of the art machine). Check availability at your local training schools.

Robinson R44

The only 4 seat machine in this list, many may consider the R44 to be a machine that you get a type rating for once you have a licence. However, this overlooks the excellent training environment provided by the R44 and some other basic realities for those only wanting to gain a PPL(H) and go no further.

For those with a rating on the R22, the R44 will feel immediately familiar as it shares many of the design concepts, layout and procedures of the smaller machine. Fortunately, what it doesn’t share it are a low inertial rotor head, confined cockpit environment and “lively” handling. For many the increased stability, increased power capacity, roomy cockpit and better autorotation characteristics make the R44 a very capable machine to achieve a PPL(H) on.

Another consideration is the student’s long term ambitions. If they want to become a CPL(H) then learn in the cheapest machine, but if your local airfield has a couple of R44s available for Self Fly Hire then it may be the machine to learn in. Once you have a licence most pilots want to take others flying. This is often impractical in 2 seat machines so they get a rating in a larger machine. Then, with only a few hours experience in the machine, they fill it full of loved ones and take to the sky.

It could be argued that they would have been better learning from scratch in that machine and having a considerably larger amount of hours experience before they took the responsibility of other lives upon themselves. The cockpit is a lonely place when things are not going to plan, the weather is not what was predicted and those around you are scared. That extra £10k at the outset may suddenly feel money well spent!

There is still a seat weight limit of 300lbs in the Robinson R44, but this should not trouble too many. There is under seat stowage for overnight “squashy” bags (up to 50lbs) and a range of around 2hrs 20 at around 105kts, which is as much flying as most would want without a break!

Some consider the R44 to be too much of a “budget” helicopter with all that implies. However, operated within its limits, it is a very reliable machine and a pleasure to fly. Expect to pay around £530 per hour. [Note: Some organisations charge on the Datcon (a clock that runs when the R44’s collective is raised), others also charge for the time taken to start up and shut down. This adds around 0.1hrs to the cost per flight. Check which your proposed school will charge as those 0.1s quickly add up!]

Robinson R44
Available widely. High inertia rotor head and predictable handling. Perfect machine for the weekend aviator.
If you plan to transition straight into turbines once you have a licence then a 2 seater would prove more cost effective.

Turbine Helicopters

With most ab-initio helicopter training taking place in piston engine helicopters of 4 seats or less, turbine helicopters will not be considered here. It is possible to learn in a turbine helicopter (for example a Robinson R66) at some establishments, but approval is often needed from the CAA and costs hourly running costs are high.

What are the medical requirements?
How much does it cost?
Which training helicopter is the best?