Do You Need to Learn to Fly a Plane Before a Helicopter?

Are you considering learning to fly a helicopter? As with any new interest, you’re probably wondering if there are any prerequisites to learning how to fly a helicopter. A common question I get asked is “Is it necessary to learn to fly a plane before taking helicopter flying lessons?

Learning to fly an airplane before a helicopter is not required or mandatory. Airplanes and helicopters handle very differently and learning to control the aircraft is all part of the training. Time spent learning to fly an airplane will not help in learning how to control a helicopter.

There are some areas where learning to fly an airplane first will help speed up the progression of training while learning to fly a helicopter but think of this as a similar situation: 

Learning to ride a motorbike before learning to drive a car. While both vehicles follow the same rules of the road, they have very different styles for controlling and maneuvering them. 

Airplanes and helicopters are just the same. If you want to find out more about why it is my personal recommendation that pilots do not need to fly an airplane before a helicopter, please read on…

Why To Not Learn an Airplane Before a Helicopter?

For those of you looking to become a pilot the choice may already be made that you want to learn to fly a helicopter, but just how do you go about learning to become a helicopter pilot? Do you go to a flight school and do a few hours in an airplane first or do you go straight into a helicopter?

Airplanes and helicopters are controlled very differently, take off and land differently, fly differently, and have very differing piloting skills. The time and money spent learning to master the skills required for an airplane could be better spent learning to fly a helicopter.

Airplanes Can’t Land Like This!

Learning to master a helicopter is a very difficult task compared to an airplane due to the flying and stability characteristics of the helicopter. Learning to hover a helicopter usually takes upwards of 10 hours alone and this is a maneuver that every student must master in the beginning portion of their helicopter training as every flight starts and ends with the hover.

Learning to fly an airplane first does not give you the hands-on control of learning to hover. This is the main reason why learning to fly an airplane first is not a recommendation I would give to a prospective student.

The second reason is that the flight maneuvers and emergency procedures needed to fly a helicopter are also very different from the maneuvers a student would learn flying an airplane. Take offs, approaches, landing, turning, climbing, descending, engine failures and rotor RPM conservancy are all very different in a helicopter. It is these that can only be mastered by physically manipulating the controls of a helicopter.

There are however a lot of similarities that can be used in a helicopter if the pilot already has some flying experience in an airplane:

1. The knowledge of air law, weather, airmanship, situational awareness, and navigation is common to all aircraft.

2. The experience of talking with other pilots and air traffic control over the radio is common to all aircraft.

3. Flight preparation and planning is common to all aircraft.

By having these skills, attributes, and experiences already mastered it will allow a person to progress through learning to fly a helicopter much faster. Controlling the helicopter itself is just a small portion of becoming a pilot.

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All the things listed above are what mold a person from just a machine operator into a pilot and all aspects must be mastered and demonstrated to a flight test examiner and successfully completed in theory examinations.

If you have no flying experience then I personally recommend you spend your time and money going straight into a helicopter flight training program. I have taught pilots who have both some flying experience and no flying experience and I can tell you that it usually took both types of pilots the same amount of time to master controlling a helicopter.

The students with previous flying experience did progress faster towards the end of the training when it is all about navigation, air law, and general flying, but their time spent mastering the controls of an airplane provided no bonus in learning to control the helicopter.

Does Learning an Airplane Before a Helicopter Save Money?

Airplanes are cheaper to fly compared to a helicopter. The cost spent learning to master the controls of an airplane does not transfer over to mastering the controls of a helicopter. The cost spent learning air law, navigation, communications etc can be used to speed up the latter parts of helicopter training

It typically takes a student pilot with minimal flying experience around 60 hours and $23,000 to gain their helicopter private pilot certificate.

Of those 60 hours the last 15-20 or so will be spent on navigation exercises and general flying. For pilots who have at least 20 hours of fixed-wing experience the time spent learning how to read navigation charts and understand flight using navigation beacons can be slightly reduced.

The money spent on those 20 hours learning to fly an airplane first will not amount to any savings in a helicopter program. Yes, an airplane is cheaper per hour to fly, but the first 20 hours will be spent mastering the controls of the airplane.

The only time airplane experience helps reduce the cost of learning to fly a helicopter is if the pilot is already a licensed airplane certificate holder and is transitioning to a helicopter.

Learn More
Try These Articles:
* Becoming a Helicopter Pilot: The Complete Cost Breakdown
* How Long Does It Take To Become A Helicopter Pilot? – Your Guide

Why Is It Hard To Learn To Fly A Helicopter? 

Helicopters are aerodynamically unstable meaning they need constant pilot input to maintain control. Because a helicopter hangs under its rotor system it acts like a pendulum and pilot-induced oscillations become worse due to the pendulum effect. This must be mastered to control a helicopter in a hover.

As mentioned earlier, every helicopter pilot has to master ‘The Hover‘ before they can be sent loose on their first solo trips around the airport training pattern. This hover is unique to helicopters and has two major barriers attached to it that need to be learned and mastered by the pilot.

This mastering can only come from hands and feet on the controls and fighting with the beast until the necessary skills and muscle memory develop to predict and control the helicopter.

These two major barriers are:

  1. The Pendulum Effect
  2. Overcontrolling

1. Because the helicopter hangs like a weight below its main rotor system it acts like a giant pendulum. As the pilot is trying to stop the helicopter from swinging from side to side the pendulum effect makes the helicopter swing farther with each pass. This makes it harder for the pilot to remain in control.

2. To try and stop this swinging the pilot will place control inputs in the opposite direction. The problem with most helicopters is that there is a delay between when the pilot makes the input and the input takes effect. This lag adds to the pendulum effect and causes overcontrolling.

Until the pilot develops the feel of predicting the movement, placing in a control input, and then waiting for the effect to occur, they will be all over the place. Airplane students do not get this challenge to master.

If you would like to know more about controlling a helicopter I highly recommend these articles of mine for you to read:

Helicopter or Airplane: Which is Easier To Fly?
Learning To Fly Helicopters – Is it really that hard?

Rick James

I am an aviation nut! I'm an ATP-rated helicopter pilot & former flight instructor with over 3500 hours spanning 3 countries and many different flying jobs. I love aviation and everything about it. I use these articles to pass on cool facts and information to you whether you are a pilot or just love aviation too! If you want to know more about me, just click on my picture!

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