I’ve been doing conventional aircraft flight simming for 30 years (that’s a scary thought) but it’s only in the fall of 2019 that I started on the challenge of flying virtual helicopters. This flight journal isn’t so much about a specific aircraft journey as it is about a journey of learning helicopters and slowly gaining an appreciation for flying them in a simulator. Veteran helicopter pilots will find much of this article obvious while newcomers to helicopter flying will hopefully be inspired to learn more themselves.
From Mi-8 right back to Mi-8
On advice of a few friends, I ended up purchasing the DCS: Mi-8MTV2. This workhorse of a Russian helicopter feels like you’re flying a big bus and it reinforces that feeling with three crew seated next to each other in a greenhouse canopy complete with rear view mirrors on the sides to give you a view of what’s happening on the sides and back of the helicopter.
The Mi-8 has been pressed into service doing just about everything that a helicopter can do. From troop transport and medivac services to light attack duties. Modern versions of the Mi-8 and derived Mi-17 even come with glass cockpits and precision air to ground missiles for tank busting duties. It’s the world’s most produced helicopter at 17,000 produced so far and it’s still in production despite it’s first flight taking place in July of 1961.
The MTV2 variant that we have in DCS World doesn’t have some of these more modern features although an add-on modification lets you place a Garmin NS430 GPS unit into the aircraft. Without it, navigation is done by beacon, compass and dead reckoning.
I started out attempting to fly this helicopter a long time ago and have since gone off to fly other things before returning to the Mi-8. Now armed with pedals, I think I’m finally starting to get the hang of it. In the meantime I’ve also flown the Cabri G2 in X-Plane 11, flown the UH-1 briefly and have the Ka-50 waiting in the wings too. 2021 might be the year of the helicopter for me!
Some helicopter terms
If you’ve never flown a helicopter before and are looking at some of the upcoming DCS World helicopter releases (or any of the new helicopters coming to X-Plane and even MSFS now), there may be a few points of terminology that you’ll want to know about.
Helicopters don’t have a stick but they have something that functions almost the same. In a helicopter its called a cyclic. It does many of the same functions as a stick does on an aircraft but the way in which it interacts with the flying surfaces of the helicopter (in this case the blades) are very different.
Helicopters have a throttle but this is closely connected to something called a collective. The collective adjusts the pitch on the helicopters blades essentially causing the helicopter to rise or descend. Many turbine engine helicopters, like the Mi-8, use governors to keep the engine in the correct RPM band freeing the pilot of having to make many adjustments to the throttle.
Finally you have pedals. These are functionally similar to having a rudder on an aircraft, however, instead of controlling a moving surface, you’re controlling the tail rotor. This lets you point your nose of the helicopter as you would with an aircraft.
It’s interesting learning both the terminology and the basics of helicopter flight. In essence, it’s just like a conventional airplane… except different. Makes sense right?!
Flying, hovering, crashing
Taking off in a helicopter isn’t too hard. Appropriate levels of pedal management and a gradual rising of the collective make the helicopter lift off from its wheels or skids and take to the air. These still a lot of finesse needed to make it lift of smoothly but the basics are pretty straight forward.
Hovering is a skill and talent all to its own, however, and that takes some time to build muscle memory. Helicopter pilots must make constant adjustments to the stick to keep a helicopter steady. Some helicopters have dampened and autopilot based controls which make the process much easier but at the base level, holding a helicopter in hover, requires a lot of attention.
Increasing the collective to gain altitude and pointing the nose slightly forward with your cyclic gets you moving forward and you’ll always be dancing on the pedals until you’ve got your nose pointed in the direction you want to go in.
The cyclic (stick) operates much in the same way that a fixed wing aircraft would. Move the stick left and the helicopter rolls left. Push the stick forward and the nose goes forward. Pedals adjust the nose left and right. Coordinated turns also work essentially the same way.
Each helicopter is different but the Mi-8 has a trim button that let you trim the controls to the current state. That makes it easier to manage the type as you get up to speed. Other helicopters have trim controls which I think makes them easier to manage overall and then you have more digital types like the Ka-50 which has an augmentation system that helps keep the helicopter flying straight.
Just like with a conventional aircraft, mismanage the controls a bit too much and you’ll find yourself out of control and crashing into the ground. I’ve done this. A lot. It takes time to understand how to coordinate everything and all of it is different in feeling than with a conventional aircraft so all of your instincts are just a bit off.
Avoiding the dreaded VRS
VRS or vortex ring state is a situation in which your helicopter is descending into its own turbulent air circulating around the helicopter’s blades. It means that you’re descending too quickly and not allowing the air to catch up.
It took me a long time to understand why it was happening and how to get out of it.
Normally when VRS happens, the helicopter starts dropping more rapidly and my natural inclination in this situation is to want to go back up. This is wrong because you’re already in your own disturbed air so adding more power just exacerbates the situation. Instead you want to nose forward and get out of the situation altogether. Sometimes, however, you don’t have the time.
For now I’ve been focusing on descending into my landing area much more gently rather than something more dramatic. Slow and steady wins the race or, alternatively, doesn’t spread helicopter parts across the next half acre!
I’ve started flying missions too
It’s taken a while but now that I can actually fly the Mi-8 including landing it with some degree of success, I’ve started to play some of the single player missions including one of two that were recently added to the DCS: Mi-8 after the release of the DCS: Syria map.
This map is ideal for helicopter pilots thanks to the incredible levels of detail lavished over nearly every area of the map save for some of the more desolate desert areas.
In one mission, you’re tasked with locating a downed Russian pilot crew. The pilots have their beacon on and you’re to fly in and rescue them before local rebel groups capture them. Its a tense mission and it involves landing on a field, packing the two crew in and taking off while under fire. Nearby, AI Mi-24 helicopters are providing fire support and keeping the enemy off your back.
Despite that, on my mission I managed to get away but not before taking quite a few hits. The helicopter flew all the way back to base only to suffer from a complete engine failure just moments from touch down. The crash was not one you could walk away from sadly.
Next time I’ll do better!
Getting Hind ready
It’s taken a long time but I’m finally starting to appreciate this helicopter. It isn’t a good looking aircraft but it looks the role that it was intended to play. The Mi-8 may not be my favourite aircraft of all time but I am growing to respect it quite a bit more than I had previously. I’ve even had some fun flying it now! I suspect, however, that it will take a back seat very soon to the new DCS: Mi-24P Hind.
With their shared design lineage and the enhanced attack capabilities of the Mi-24P, I’m very excited to be able to fly that one around and take it into battle. Flying the Mi-8 has helped me prepare to fly other helicopters including the Mi-24 and I’m now better prepared to fly, test, and give some thoughts on the newest of modules to arrive to DCS World.
I’m ready as I’ll ever be, now, bring on the Hind!