Last week I watched a military helicopter startup and then sit running for a good 40 minutes before taking off, yet I have seen a MedEvac helicopter liftoff in under 2 minutes! So why does it take so much longer for the military helicopter to get airborne? In this article, we are going to look at how long it takes a helicopter to get airborne and what needs to be done before liftoff.
The average helicopter takes around 2-5 minutes to start the engines, get the instruments & systems working and tested before the helicopter is ready for takeoff. The colder the helicopter is, the longer it takes for the oil & hydraulic fluids to get to optimum temperature before liftoff.
Each helicopter has its own manufacturer-approved startup checklist and depending on how the individual company has modified that checklist can dictate how long it takes to get a helicopter started and flying.
The type, complexity, and the number of engines on the helicopter and the operation it is about to fly in can dramatically alter the time it takes to get it ready for lift off. Let’s have a look at what needs to be done and how long it takes
Before we start there are really two questions here:
- How long to get started
- How long to get airborne once started
How Long Does It Take a Helicopter To Get Started?
Helicopters can be very simple or complex machines and the larger and newer the helicopters are, the more things need to be turned on before flight.
A simple piston-powered helicopter like a Robinson R22 or Cabri Guimbal has very few systems, which a pilot with experience on those helicopters can be up and running in a matter of minutes.
Basic helicopters like the two mentioned above are just a case of turning on the electrical system, opening the fuel valve, and starting the engine with the turn of a key or press of a button.
Once started, a check of the ignition system, the main rotor rpm governor, setting radio frequencies and gauges is all that is needed while waiting for the engine oil temperature to reach the correct threshold. Once reached, the helicopter is ready for lift-off.
If the helicopter has just flown or is already warm from the summer heat, then the pilot can be lifting off 1-2 minutes after starting the engine.
Now as the helicopters become more complex, the number of systems, radios, navigations systems, and instrumentation begin to dramatically increase. When you begin moving into the twin-engined helicopters then a lot of the systems are doubled for redundancy, this adds time to get them online and complete any required systems checks.
The Pre-Start & Engine Start checklist for the Robinson R22 contains:
- 18 Steps once sat in the pilots’ seat before engine start
- 6 Steps to start the engine
- 19 steps to check the aircraft systems after engines are started
- 2 steps before lifting off
45 Steps from Climbing into the helicopter, to lifting off
The Pre-Start & Engine Start checklist for the Leonardo AW139 contains:
- 45 Steps once sat in the pilots’ seat before engine start
- 24 Steps to start both engines
- 30 steps to check the aircraft systems after engines are started
- 7 steps before lifting off
106 Steps from Climbing into the helicopter to lifting off
As you can easily see, the more steps an aircraft has in its checklist, the longer it will take. Complex helicopters like the Leonardo AW139 have a quick start checklist that allows the majority of the system tests to be completed first thing in the morning while in the hanger, then they do not need to be completed again that day.
This dramatically reduces the time it takes to get the helicopter started and flying and is used extensively for MedEvac operations. By doing this, the pilot/s can go from taking 5-10 minutes to 3-5 minutes to get airborne. It may not sound a lot but can make a huge difference when trying to get to a patient quickly.
Here is a checklist for an AS350 Astar helicopter to give you some idea of what is involved with getting a helicopter alive and airborne:
Starting a Helicopter By Memory
When a pilot has been flying a helicopter for a good amount of time the checklist used to start the helicopter turns into a ‘Flow’ of movements by the hands around the cockpit and instrument panel.
When a pilot is not company mandated to use the aircraft checklist then they can get a helicopter started and airborne in very little time at all. The AS350 checklist for example would take a pilot around 3-5 minutes to go through, read, do, then move onto the next step.
For a seasoned Astar pilot, the checklist can be done from memory and if the helicopter is already set up from a flight before, ie no setting radio frequencies, adjusting the GPS etc, they can have the helicopter lifting off in around 2 minutes without rushing.
On complex machines like the AW139 and the like, the use of checklists is usually mandatory because of the number of steps required to configure the aircraft safely. Some steps may require two pilot ‘Challenge & Response’ checks, whereas some may be just completed by a single pilot.
Even though a checklist is used, the flow also becomes natural which helps speed up the completion of the checklist.
How Long Does It Take a Helicopter Get Airborne Once Started?
Getting the helicopter started does not take long. Once you have electrical power and fuel you are ready to go. The part that starts to delay the liftoff is after the helicopter has started and there can be many factors that dictate how long it takes before the helicopter can fly:
Type of Flight
There are two sets of rules an aircraft can fly under:
- VFR – Visual Flight Rules – Used for everyday flying of small aircraft – Pilot looks out of the window to see
- IFR – Instrument Flight Rules – Used for flying in poor weather, clouds and night – Pilot flies looking at instrumentation
When flying VFR there is very little the pilot needs to do to get the aircraft ready to lift-off, however, when flying IFR a lot more systems (GPS, Radios etc) have to be tested, and configured, then the pilot must wait for ATC (Air Traffic Control) to fit them into a takeoff slot. This could take anywhere from 10 – 20 minutes.
Air Traffic Control
I have been sat waiting to lift off many a time because I have not been given clearance to depart from air traffic control. If an airport is busy, or another pilot is having an issue ATC may need you to ‘Hold Your Position‘ until they can safely get you going.
It’s not too often this happens because helicopters do not need a runway to take off, but if you need to cross the active runway then you can guarantee a small delay for traffic.
When any pilot is new to an aircraft it takes quite a bit of time to get used to where every switch, button, and dial is in the cockpit. Going through the checklists can be painfully slow and this is one of the reasons why the military helicopter took so long to take off.
If able, most pilots to a new aircraft will spend time in a simulator or a device known as a Cockpit Procedure Trainer (CPT) which is a touch screen simulator without the flight controls. The screens give an identical layout of the helicopter cockpit and work as they should when you press them.
For those training facilities not lucky enough to have a CPT the only way to get faster at checklists is in the aircraft itself. A new pilot to a complex helicopter can take over an hour going through the checklist, especially if they have to configure it for an IFR training flight!
The first time I sat in the AW139 simulator it seemed to take forever to find the right buttons in an instrument panel full of stuff!
This one may sound simple but can easily add 5 minutes to a takeoff! I am writing this at a time where it’s very cold here and as soon as you get a few passengers on board they soon begin to fog up the windows during engine start.
It can take a few minutes for the windows to defog, and when it’s really cold they just freeze up and don’t defog at all – well the side windows anyways! If you check out this video of one of my flights you will get to see exactly what I mean:
The average time it takes a helicopter to get airborne can be from 2-10 minutes. The amount of systems check and configuration needed before the flight extends the period before liftoff. Add to that a pilot that is new to the helicopter and the take it takes can really go up.
By following checklists and using a flow a pilot can soon begin to shave time off the start without compromising safety or forgetting to turn something on. There is a fine line between being efficient and rushing and if it takes a few minutes longer to ensure it’s done correctly I know my passengers would appreciate it!
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