How To Hover in a Helicopter

Photos by Jon Davison.

“Did you find the hover button yet?”

It’s a question asked in jest of some new students, but learning the fine art of hovering can challenge even the most determined aviator. After all, a stable hover is where helicopter flights begin and end, so it’s a maneuver you’ll need to master early on.

You should know that once you achieve a feel for the aircraft, hovering will eventually become second nature, something you won’t even think about as you progress as a pilot. It’s important to keep this in mind because, in the very beginning, hovering seems all but impossible, likened by many to trying to stand on top of a beach ball. But you’ll get there.

Assume you are parked in the aircraft with plenty of space around you, the engine is at normal operating RPM, and your instructor is with you on the controls. As you gently pull up on the collective, you’ll start to feel the aircraft get light on the skids. You’ll have to add in a little pedal as you pull more collective to counter the torque being created by the main rotor.

Which pedal? Well, with American helicopters such as the Robinson R-22, you’ll need to add left pedal. The rotor blades of European helicopters, such as the A-Star, turn in the opposite direction, so in those aircraft you’ll need to add right pedal.

How far do you push the pedal? Just enough to maintain your heading. The correct amount of pedal varies depending on how much power you are pulling. Early on, your instructor will continually remind you to add pedal because new pilots have a tendency to fly the aircraft out of trim.

As you continue to increase collective pitch, your helo will get very light on the skids. Making certain the cyclic control is centered; continue with upward pressure on the collective. As the aircraft lifts into the air, apply appropriate cyclic to maintain even pitch and roll, and pedal to keep yourself from yawing away from your chosen heading.

Nine out of ten (or perhaps 99 out of 100) students tend to over control the aircraft in the beginning. This is a natural tendency because control inputs are not immediately noticeable…it takes time for that big rotor disk to change its angle and finally move the helicopter. So most new pilots assume they didn’t move the cyclic far enough and push it a bit further. When the helicopter eventually reacts, the motion is now exaggerated because of the additional control input. The trick to a steady hover is to anticipate when the aircraft is starting to drift and to smoothly apply gentle inputs in the opposite direction.

In a normal hover, the skids of your R-22 should be between three and five feet off the ground. From this mid air position, you’ll eventually learn pedals turns and how to hover taxi the aircraft.

To set the helicopter down, gently reverse the inputs you used to lift it into the air. Gently lower the collective and remember to reduce pressure on the left pedal as the main rotor is now producing less torque. Many pilots have a habit of looking directly down at the skids to determine when they’ll touch the ground. Don’t do it. Focus on a spot about fifty feet in front of the aircraft and you’ll better be able to place the helicopter gently on the ground without a lot of dramatic movements.

If hovering sounds hard, that’s because it is, in the beginning. With a little practice and a patient instructor, you’ll soon wonder why hovering challenged you at all.

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