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Learning To Fly Helicopters – Is it really that hard?


When you first take the controls of a helicopter the aircraft will seem to be all over the place due to your lack of training and skill. This is normal for a new student helicopter pilot because learning to fly a helicopter is very difficult and challenging. With time and practice, the student will begin to get a feel of the aircraft and go from chasing it around the sky to placing it where they wish.

Learning to fly a helicopter is difficult, but becomes easier with practice. It requires hand and feet coordination, looking where to go, talking to air traffic control, and planning ahead. The average student takes between 50 – 80 hours and costs between $15,000 – $25,000.

If you have ever looked into learning to fly a helicopter you may have heard many people say that it is very difficult, and while it is difficult and challenging, I would say it is no more difficult than first learning to drive a car, learning how to surf, or learning to play the drums. Anything new to us can be picked up easily by one person, while the person next to them struggles. Learning to fly a helicopter is no different!

Having been a student pilot myself, a flying instructor, and now a full-time helicopter pilot I can share some great insights into what it is really like to learn how to fly one of these remarkable machines. If this is something that interests you then read on…

How Hard is it to Learn How to Fly a Helicopter?

During your first few lessons you will be sweating, tense, and absolutely exhausted by the end of each lesson – Why, because you will be trying to control something that is like nothing you have ever done before, and you are in the air which adds some terrifying factor to it. The fact is you are always safe providing you do your training with an experienced helicopter instructor in the seat next to you!

I used to love teaching people their first few hours in the helicopter as it reminded me of when I was in the exact same position and wrestling with this flying thing. It’s tough! Your first lesson will have the instructor take off and get you up into the air and show you how all the controls affect the flight of the helicopter. One by one they will let you have a go on each control and before long you will find yourself controlling all of them.

Both hands and feet are needed to control a helicopter:

Right Hand – Controls the Cyclic. This makes the helicopter pitch up and down and bank left and right
Left Hand – Controls the Collective. This makes the helicopter go up or down
Both Feet – Controls which way the helicopters nose points

When you move any of those controls it affects ALL the others and because of this, it makes the helicopter very difficult to fly when you first start. It is a coordination game between your hands, feet, and brain. Until you master what you need to do with the other hand and both feet when you make a control input you will feel all over the place!

Then when you just start to get this coordination thing figured out you will find that you are constantly chasing the helicopter around the sky, rather than telling it what to do – This is down to two things:

  1. Over Controlling
  2. The Pendulum Effect

Let’s take a look at each of these…

Over Controlling

Every student will climb into the helicopter and move the flight controls waaaay too much. Everyone is the same because they do not realize just how little the controls of a helicopter need to be moved to achieve a reaction. Each control is not moved with your body, but more of a pressure is applied to the control. If you go onto YouTube and watch a video of a good pilot, you should hardly see their hands and feet moving. This is because they are applying pressure to the flight controls rather than a movement.

When a student is in the helicopter they will make a movement on a flight control which will be too much. There is a slight delay in the helicopter reacting so they put in more movement, then the helicopter moves and it goes way past where they wanted it to, so they try to compensate and move the control in the opposite direction. The helicopter then swings back and before you know it the helicopter is swinging all over the sky!

The trick to moving the controls of a helicopter is to apply a small pressure on the flight control and then wait. Let the helicopter catch up and then adjust again. Until the student learns to do this they will be over controlling and sending the machine all over the place. This is why watching a student learn to hover is a great pastime!

The Pendulum Effect

If you look closely at a helicopter you will notice that the main weight of the helicopter (cabin, engine, transmission, passengers, crew, cargo & fuel) hangs below the main rotorhead. This creates a pendulum, and what happens to a pendulum when you give it a push – it begins swinging back and forth. The more you push it, the further it swings.

A Helicopter is a Pendulum

This pendulum effect is what contributes to the overcontrolling of the student and makes their inputs worse the longer they chase the helicopter.


I still remember on my third flight lesson when my instructor let me have a go at hover-taxiing back towards the hanger. The helicopter started to go one way, I put in a control input to go the opposite, the helicopter swung back and I moved the control to compensate. Before I knew it we were 20 feet off the ground with the two of us pointing straight down at it.

My instructor was laughing his head off as I told him to take control. His words were “Nope, you got us into this, you get us out of it!”. Well, now I really started sweating. He finally took control and brought the machine under control within approx. 2 seconds! This was my first experience of the Pendulum Effect, and to be honest it scared the crap out of me!


Why is Hovering One of the First Helicopter Lessons?

The most unique feature of a helicopter is its ability to hover. Every flight begins and ends in a hover, even a helicopter with wheels and because of this, it is one of the fundamental maneuvers to master. The problem is that it is one of the hardest maneuvers to master because of overcontrolling and the pendulum effect.

I found that most of my students took on average around 10 hours of flying practice to begin to figure out the hover. With time, the student begins to make smaller control movements and starts to anticipate how much the helicopter will move with the amount of control input they have just made.

By the 10 hour mark, most students can keep the helicopter within a space the size of a ball diamond without too much trouble. The more practice they get, the smaller that space becomes until they can keep it in one spot – Oh, then the wind has something to say about that!

Learning to physically control a helicopter is only a small part of the process of gaining your private pilot certificate and becoming a pilot. There is so much more you will need to learn before you finally get your wings!

What Is Involved In Learning to Fly a Helicopter?

This is the part that many people underestimate and knowing exactly what is involved allows you to make the decision to commit to becoming a helicopter pilot. Learning to control the aircraft is one thing, but many people will find hurdles along the path to their wings outside of the aircraft. Here is just a brief summary of the other things you will have to learn to pass your written exam, oral exam, and flight test with the examiner:-

Learning to Fly the Flight Maneuvers 

There are many, many maneuvers that are used in both normal flight and emergency situations with a helicopter. They all must be practiced until the student is able to meet the required standard for each maneuver.
The maneuvers consist of:

  • Level Flight
  • Hovering
  • Turns
  • Take offs
  • Approaches
  • Confined Area Landings
  • Engine Failures
  • Tail Rotor Failures
  • Vortex Ring State
  • and many, many more.
My Student & I During a Takeoff Maneuver

The average helicopter flight maneuver syllabus can contain upward of 50 maneuvers that must be shown, practiced, and be able to be flown by the student.

Learning the Helicopter and it’s Documentation

The aircraft comes with a flight manual published by its manufacturer. It contains all the limitations, procedures, performance data, and legal notices that the pilot must learn and know where to find in the manual. There will also be the aircraft logbook that the student must learn how to fill out and complete. Any Airworthiness Directives that are issued by the FAA or manufacturer that are applicable during the daily inspection of the helicopter and its flights must also be understood by the student.

Learning to Communicate

Learning to talk ‘Aviation’ is a whole new language and one that can terrify new students. This was one of my own stumbling blocks when I began my training. Learning how to talk to and not be afraid of air traffic control can be a huge challenge to many students. The art of forming a mental 3D picture in your head of where other aircraft are in relation to you takes time to master. Even though it is a big sky, aircraft seem to attract one another like magnets!

Learning how to talk, listen and understand radio communications can be the one task that slows a student’s training. To overcome my barrier I went on a course run by an Air Traffic Instructor and I used a software-based training tool to help.

This was before the advent of online learning but now, one of the training tools I highly recommend is PlaneEnglish. It’s an online and App based tool that will really help you master aviation communications.

You can find out more about it HERE and use the coupon code Pilotteach for 10% off.

Learning To Navigate & Flight Plan

Getting from Point A to Point B in a helicopter may seem pretty easy but when you have only seen the world from street level it’s a very different sight from 1000ft above it. There are no street signs, and places you thought were miles apart are actually right next to one another! It can be very disorientating!

Learning how to fly the aircraft while reading charts (aviation maps), looking for landmarks, and using navigation beacons are all part of your training. Being able to understand your position at all times and know where you are is paramount to flight safety and developing the skill of navigation takes time, all while flying the helicopter and talking on the radio.

Leaning the Helicopter Theory

As you are trying to master the physical art of flying the helicopter you will have to be learning the theoretical knowledge of aviation, helicopters, and the environment. This in itself is a huge undertaking, especially for those of you that have not been in a learning environment for years or even decades.

Some of the areas of knowledge you must learn are:

  • Air law
  • Aerodynamics
  • Weather
  • Human Physiology & Psychology
  • Aircraft Weight & Balance
  • Helicopter Flight Theory
  • Navigation Principles
  • Aircraft Management
  • and many, many more…

All of these subjects will have to be learned to pass the written examination as well as training stage checks and the final oral examination as part of your final flight test. Books and online training tools will help guide you through the material, give you practice exams and give you the knowledge you will need to gain your wings, but it is alot of work.

You Will Soon Become Familiar With These Terms!

There will be some math, both mental and on paper, science, especially physics, and the conceptualization of aerodynamics can be really tough. I had an engineering background and like physics and it took me a while to be able to visualize how it all worked.

But, like anything, it will begin to all make sense the more you study and with all the different forms of training material available to you it is now easier than ever to learn!

To help steer you to some of the best products, tools, and training aids you will need in flight school I have put together the ultimate guide for student pilots to help you pick the right gear you will need when you begin your flight training. You can find that guide here:

Starting Flight School? Essential Gear For Every Pilot

Do Helicopter Flight Simulators Help To Learn How To Fly?

Absolutely, but only so far! There are many different kinds of flight simulators from desktop-based devices to full motion aircraft replicas. Each can be used to aid in learning to fly, but each type does have its limitations.

Simulators are a great tool when learning to fly and to remain current. By allowing the user to develop muscle memory, cockpit scans, and procedural familiarity they allow the pilot to have more cognitive ability in the aircraft as less time is spent dealing with items memorized on the simulator.

A Simple Home-Based Simulator is a Great Training Tool

For the student pilot, a small desk-based simulator is a great tool for practicing checklists, procedures, and learning to fly instruments. By having a simulator at home a student can return home from their flying lesson and jump onto the simulator to further practice the days’ lesson. The more they practice, the better their skills become.

I saw a noticeable difference in students that had a home simulator compared to those that didn’t. The students would learn at a faster rate and be more confident in the cockpit.

If you would like more information regarding flight simulators you can set up and use to further your training please check out my article here:

Computer Flight Simulators: Can You Really Learn To Fly On Them?

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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