Nice picture, eh? Nothing wrong there, just a shot of the instrument panel of a Bell 206B helicopter flying along in straight and level flight. I’m on my way home. Nice flight on a beautiful day.
A closer look at the GPS atop the dash (you might have to click on the picture and open it up bigger) reveals that I have 120 miles to go and I am making a groundspeed of 117 knots. On the instrument panel we see that I am at 4,500 feet, heading 190 degrees – basically southbound. My torque (power setting) is 80% and it’s giving me an indicated airspeed of 100 knots (about 109 knots “true” – meaning, corrected for altitude and temperature). If we subtract that 109 knot true airspeed from the 117 knot groundspeed, we get a tailwind component of 8 knots. So much for the fancy pilot stuff.
Oh, and from the picture we know one other thing: The Boss is not onboard. He hates flying that high in a helicopter. I understand that. All that plexiglass, and not a lot of structure around you...it can be disconcerting - like sitting on a stool on top of a *tall* flagpole.
Now I’m just the opposite: I like to fly up high. It’s cooler up there. Smoother too, usually. And sometimes you can find a ripping tailwind - although not this day.
When I worked for Petroleum Helicopters, flying out in the Gulf of Mexico I very quickly came to realize that most helicopter pilots fly low. Of the “small” helicopters (e.g. single-engine and smaller twins), nearly everyone stayed down at 1,000 feet or so. There were exceptions (like me) but they were few.
Me, I’d go up. Even on relatively short flights (e.g. 15 or 20 miles) I’d go up to 2,500 feet or higher. Like I said, it’s cooler up there. And there were far fewer helicopters to run into. In 1998, my friend Andy Bell was the miraculous survivor of a mid-air collision with another helicopter. Sadly, the other pilot was killed. It happened at 1,000 feet. Believe me, I did not fly at 1,000 feet. Ever.
I’d talk to other helicopter pilots about the merits of flying high, and they would generally agree with me. But in practice, I’d always see them slogging along, down low, even on long flights! If I brought the subject up again, they would get an uncomfortable look on their face and say something like, “Yeah, but I just prefer flying low.” They couldn’t explain it, it’s just how it was.
Over the years, I’ve come to believe that many helicopter pilots are subconsciously…I don’t want to say “afraid of,” but let’s say “worried about” a catastrophic failure of some sort. The possibility of such a thing is always on their mind – maybe not consciously, but it’s there. There could be an in-flight fire…or a problem with the main transmission or tail rotor. And if such a thing were to occur they would want to be able to put the helicopter on the ground (or water) in as little time as possible. And so it makes them uncomfortable to fly up high. In certain emergencies, time is of the essence.
Situations like these are what give pilots nightmares. The thought of being “up there” while the helicopter is coming apart is horrifying. And so they fly low, thinking that they’ll just dump the damn thing on the ground at the first sign of trouble.
Personally, I could not ever get into an aircraft unless I had confidence that it would stay together for me. If I really thought that there was a strong probability or even just a possibility of a catastrophic failure, I would not be able to fly. And in the case of the Bell 206, it especially is a proven, reliable design. Maintained properly (and ours is), the pilot and passengers should not ever have to think about catastrophic failures.
With this in mind, I decided to see what it was like up a little higher. So I climbed up to 6,500 feet.
In this picture, you can see on the GPS that I have 104 miles to go. My groundspeed has dropped a bit to 115 knots. But! I had left the power alone for the climb. You can see that my torque gauge is now showing only 75%. The reason it dropped is because the air is thinner at 6,500 and the blades have less “bite.” So the engine isn’t working as hard. I could pull more power, putting more pitch into the blades, up to a maximum torque of 85%. But notice that my indicated airspeed has also dropped to 95 knots (107 knots “true”). Subtract this from the 115 knot groundspeed as we get a tailwind of 8 knots –exactly the same as down at 4,500.
So I just left the power alone and stayed at 6,500 as long as possible until I got close to Home Base. Then I reduced power and glided on down. Well, helicopters don’t really glide, and you don’t pick up much speed in a descent – not like you would in a “slippery” Learjet, say. But you do get some.
Let me show you three final pictures, which display why I like flying high.
Here’s the temperature at 1,000 feet, where my Boss likes to fly: 85 degrees. The problem is the humidity, which makes that 85 degrees feel much hotter.
Here’s the temperature at 4,500 feet: 70 degrees, which is better.
And finally, here’s the temperature at 6,500 feet: 60 degrees! Now that’s cool.
The flight home was 150 miles in length. It usually takes pretty close to 90 minutes, give or take. This particular day it took 1:25, even with all my climbing (which we do at a much slower airspeed than cruise). Had the Boss been onboard, we would have spent that entire time in an uncomfortable, humid, 85 degree cockpit.
Thanks, but no! I like flying high whenever possible.